The Future in America

by H.G. Wells


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Chapter X - State-Blindness


I

Sense of the State

In what I have written so far, I have tried to get the effect of the American outlook, the American task, the American problem as a whole, as it has presented itself to me. Clearly, as I see it, it is a mental and moral issue. There seems to me an economic process going on that tends to concentrate first wealth and then power in the hands of a small number of adventurous individuals of no very high intellectual type, a huge importation of alien and unassimilable workers, and a sustained disorder of local and political administration. Correlated with this is a great increase in personal luxury and need. In all these respects there is a strong parallelism between the present condition of the United States and the Roman Republic in the time of the early Cæsars; and arguing from these alone one might venture to forecast the steady development of an exploiting and devastating plutocracy, leading perhaps to Cæsarism, and a progressive decline in civilization and social[Pg 153] solidarity. But there are forces of recuperation and construction in America such as the earlier instance did not display. There is infinitely more original and originating thought in the state, there are the organized forces of science, a habit of progress, clearer and wider knowledge among the general mass of the people. These promise, and must, indeed, inevitably make, some synthetic effort of greater or less homogeneity and force. It is upon that synthetic effort that the distinctive destiny of America depends.

I propose to go on now to discuss the mental quality of America as I have been able to focus it. (Remember always that I am an undiplomatic tourist of no special knowledge or authority, who came, moreover, to America with certain prepossessions.) And first, and chiefly, I have to convey what seems to me the most significant and pregnant thing of all. It is a matter of something wanting, that the American shares with the great mass of prosperous middle-class people in England. I think it is best indicated by saying that the typical American has no "sense of the state." I do not mean that he is not passionately and vigorously patriotic. But I mean that he has no perception that his business activities, his private employments, are constituents in a large collective process; that they affect other people and the world forever, and cannot, as he imagines, begin and end with him. He sees the world in fragments; it is to him a multitudinous[Pg 154] collection of individual "stories"—as the newspapers put it. If one studies an American newspaper, one discovers it is all individuality, all a matter of personal doings, of what so and so said and how so and so felt. And all these individualities are unfused. Not a touch of abstraction or generalization, no thinnest atmosphere of reflection, mitigates these harsh, emphatic, isolated happenings. The American, it seems to me, has yet to achieve what is, after all, the product of education and thought, the conception of a whole to which all individual acts and happenings are subordinate and contributory.

When I say this much, I do not mean to insinuate that any other nation in the world has any superiority in this matter. But I do want to urge that the American problem is pre-eminently one that must be met by broad ways of thinking, by creative, synthetic, and merging ideas, and that a great number of Americans seem to lack these altogether.

II

A Sample American

Let me by way of illustration give a specimen American mind. It is not the mind of a writer or philosopher, it is just a plain successful business-man who exposes himself, and makes it clear that this want of any sense of the state of any large duty of constructive[Pg 155] loyalty, is not an idiosyncrasy, but the quality of all his circle, his friends, his religious teacher....

I found my specimen in a book called With John Bull and Jonathan. It contains the rather rambling reminiscences of Mr. J. Morgan Richards, the wealthy and successful London agent of a great number of well-advertised American proprietary articles, and I read it first, I will confess, chiefly in search of such delightful phrases as the one "mammoth in character" I have already quoted. But there were few to equal that first moment's bright discovery. What I got from it finally wasn't so much that sort of thing as this realization of Mr. Richards's peculiar quality, this acute sense of all that he hadn't got. Mr. Richards told of advertising enterprises, of contracts and journeyings, of his great friendship with the late Dr. Parker, of his domestic affairs, and all the changes in the world that had struck him, and of a remarkable dining club, called (paradoxically) the Sphinx, in which the giants (or are they the mammoths?) of the world of advertisement foregather. He gave his portrait, and the end-paper presented him playfully as the jolly president of the Sphinx Club, champagne-bottle crowned, but else an Egyptian monarch; and on the cover are two gilt hands clasped across a gilt ripple of sea ("hands across the sea"), under intertwining English and American flags. From the book one got an effect, garrulous perhaps, but on the whole not unpleasing, of an elderly but still active[Pg 156] business personality quite satisfied by his achievements, and representative of I know not what proportion, but at any rate a considerable proportion, of his fellow-countrymen. And one got an effect of a being not simply indifferent to the health and vigor and growth of the community of which he was a part, but unaware of its existence.

He displays this irresponsibility of the commercial mind so illuminatingly because he does in a way attempt to tell something more than his personal story. He notes the changes in the world about him, how this has improved and that progressed, which contrasts between England and America struck upon his mind. That he himself is responsible amid these changes never seems to dawn upon him. His freedom from any sense of duty to the world as a whole, of any subordination of trading to great ideas, is naïve and fundamental. He tells of how he arranged with the authorities in charge of the Independence Day celebrations on Boston Common to display "three large pieces" containing the name of a certain "bitters," which they did, and how this no doubt very desirable commodity was first largely advertised throughout the United States in the fall of 1861, and rapidly became the success of the day, because of the enormous amount of placarding given to the cabalistic characters 'S-T-1860-X.' Those strange letters and figures stared upon people from wall and fence and tree, in every leading town throughout the United States. They were painted[Pg 157] on the rocks of the Hudson River to such an extent that the attention of the Legislature was drawn to the fact, and a law was passed to prevent the further disfigurement of river scenery.

He calls this "cute." He tells, too, of his educational work upon the English press, how he won it over to "display" advertisements, and devised "the first sixteen-sheet double-demy poster ever seen in England in connection with a proprietary article." He introduced the smoking of cigarettes into England against great opposition. Mr. Richards finds no incongruity, but apparently a very delightful association, in the fact that this great victory for the adolescent's cigarette was won on the site of Strudwick's house, wherein John Bunyan died, and hard by the path of the Smithfield martyrs to their fiery sacrifice. Both they and Mr. Richards "lit such a candle in England—"

Well, my business is not to tell of the feats by which Mr. Richards grew wealthy and important as a tree may grow and flourish amid the masonry it helps to disintegrate. My business is purely with his insensibility to the state as an aspect of his personal life. It is insensibility—not disregard or hostility. One gets an impression from this book that if Mr. Richards had lived in a different culture, he would have been a generous giver of himself. In spite of his curious incapacity to appreciate any issues larger than large enterprises in selling, he is very evidently a religious man. He sat under the late Dr. Parker of the rich and prosperous City Temple, and that reverend gentleman's leonine visage adorns the book. Its really the light one gets on Dr. Parker and his teaching that appeals to me most in this volume. For this gentleman Mr. Richards seems to have entertained a feeling approaching reverence. He notes such details as:

"At the conclusion of an invocation or prayer, his habit always was to make a pause of a few seconds before pronouncing 'Amen.' This was most impressive....

"He spoke such words as 'God,' 'Jesus Christ,' 'No,' 'Yes,' 'Nothing,' in a way to give more value to each word than any speaker I have ever heard."

They became great friends, rarely a week passed without their meeting, and, says Mr. Richards, he "was pleased, in the course of time, to honor me with his confidence in a marked degree, as though he recognized in me some quality which satisfied his judgment, that I could be trusted in business questions quite apart from those relating to his church. He was not only a born preacher, but possessed a marvellous grasp of sound, practical knowledge upon the affairs of the day. I often consulted with him regarding my own affairs, always getting the most practical help."

When Dr. Parker came to America, the two friends corresponded warmly, and several of the letters are quoted. Even "£5000 a year easily[Pg 159] made" could not tempt him from London and the modest opulence of the City Temple....

But my business now is not to dwell on these characteristic details, but to point out that Mr. Richards does not stand alone in the entire detachment, not only of his worldly achievements, but of his spiritual life, from any creative solicitude for the state. If he was merely an isolated "character" I should have no concern with him. His association with Dr. Parker shows most luminously that he presents a whole cult of English and American rich traders, who in America "sat under" such men as the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, for example, who evidently stand for much more in America than in England, and who, so far as the state and political and social work go, are scarcely of more use, are probably more hindrance, than any organization of selfish voluptuaries of equal wealth and numbers. It is a cult, it has its teachers and its books. I have had a glimpse of one of its manuals. I find Mr. Richards quoting with approval Dr. Parker's "Ten General Commandments for Men of Business," commandments which strike me as not only State-blind, but utterly God-blind, which are, indeed, no more than shrewd counsels for "getting on." It is really quite horrible stuff morally. "Thou shalt not hobnob with idle persons," parodies Dr. Parker in commandment V., so glossing richly upon the teachings of Him who ate with publicans and sinners, and (no doubt to instil the advisability of keeping one's more[Pg 160] delicate business procedure in one's own hands), "Thou shalt not forget that a servant who can tell lies for thee, may one day tell lies to thee."...

I am not throwing any doubt upon the sincerity of Dr. Parker and Mr. Richards. I believe that nothing could exceed the transparent honesty that ends this record which tells of a certain bitters pushed at the sacrifice of beautiful scenery, of a successful propaganda of cigarette-smoking, and of all sorts of proprietary articles landed well home in their gastric target of a whole life lost, indeed, in commercial self-seeking, with "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits?"

"The Now is an atom of Sand,

And the Near is a perishing Clod,

But Afar is a fairyland,

And Beyond is the Bosom of God."

What I have to insist upon now is that this is a sample, and, so far as I can tell, a fair sample, of the quality and trend of the mind-stuff and the breadth and height of the tradition of a large and I know not how influential mass of prosperous middle-class English, and of a much more prosperous and influential and important section of Americans. They represent much energy, they represent much property, they are a factor to reckon with. They present a powerful opposing force to anything that will suppress their disgusting notice-boards or analyze their ambiguous "proprietary articles," or tax their[Pg 161] gettings for any decent public purpose. And here I find them selling poisons as pain-killers, and alcohol as tonics, and fighting ably and boldly to silence adverse discussion. In the face of the great needs that lie before America their active trivality of soul, their energy and often unscrupulous activity, and their quantitative importance become, to my mind, adverse and threatening, a stumbling-block for hope. For the impression I have got by going to and fro in America is that Mr. Richards is a fair sample of at least the older type of American. So far as I can learn, Mr. J.D. Rockefeller is just another product of the same cult. You meet these older types everywhere, they range from fervent piety and temperance to a hearty drinking, "story"-telling, poker-playing type, but they have in common a sharp, shrewd, narrow, business habit of mind that ignores the future and the state altogether. But I do not find the younger men are following in their lines. Some are. But just how many and to what extent, I do not know. It is very hard for a literary man to estimate the quantity and importance of ideas in a community. The people he meets naturally all entertain ideas, or they would not come in his way. The people who have new ideas talk; those who have not, go about their business. But I hazard an opinion that Young America now presents an altogether different type from the young men of enterprise and sound Baptist and business principles who were the backbone of the irresponsible commercial[Pg 162] America of yesterday, the America that rebuilt Chicago on "floating foundations," covered the world with advertisement boards, gave the great cities the elevated railroads, and organized the trusts.

III

Oneida

I spent a curious day amid the memories of that strangely interesting social experiment, the Oneida Community, and met a most significant contemporary, "live American" of the newer school, in the son of the founder and the present head of "Oneida Limited."

There are moments when that visit I paid to Oneida seems to me to stand for all America. The place, you know, was once the seat of a perfectionist community; the large red community buildings stand now among green lawns and ripening trees, and I dined in the communal dining-room, and visited the library, and saw the chain and trap factory, and the silk-spinning factory and something of all its industries. I talked to old and middle-aged people who told me all sorts of interesting things of "community days," looked through curious old-fashioned albums of photographs, showing the women in their bloomers and cropped hair, and the men in the ill-fitting frock-coats of the respectable mediocre per[Pg 163]son in early Victorian times. I think that some of the reminiscences I awakened had been voiceless for some time. At moments it was like hearing the story of a flattened, dry, and colorless flower between the pages of a book, of a verse written in faded ink, or of some daguerreotype spotted and faint beyond recognition. It was extraordinarily New England in its quality as I looked back at it all. They claimed a quiet perfection of soul, they searched one another marvellously for spiritual chastening, they defied custom and opinion, they followed their reasoning and their theology to the inmost amazing abnegations—and they kept themselves solvent by the manufacture of steel traps that catch the legs of beasts in their strong and pitiless jaws....

But this book is not about the things that concerned Oneida in community days, and I mention them here only because of the curious developments of the present time. Years ago, when the founder, John Humphrey Noyes, grew old and unable to control the new dissensions that arose out of the sceptical attitude of the younger generation towards his ingenious theology, and such-like stresses, communism was abandoned, the religious life and services discontinued, the concern turned into a joint-stock company, and the members made shareholders on strictly commercial lines. For some years its prosperity declined. Many of the members went away. But a nucleus remained as residents in the old buildings, and after a time there were returns.[Pg 164] I was told that in the early days of the new period there was a violent reaction against communistic methods, a jealous inexperienced insistence upon property. "It was difficult to borrow a hammer," said one of my informants.

Then, as the new generation began to feel its feet, came a fresh development of vitality. The Oneida company began to set up new machinery, to seek wider markets, to advertise and fight competitors.

This Mr. P.B. Noyes was the leader into the new paths. He possesses all the force of character, the constructive passion, the imaginative power of his progenitor, and it has all gone into business competition. I have heard much talk of the romance of business, chiefly from people I heartily despised, but in Mr. Noyes I found business indeed romantic. It had get hold of him, it possessed him like a passion. He has inspired all his half-brothers and cousins and younger fellow-members of the community with his own imaginative motive. They, too, are enthusiasts for business.

Mr. Noyes is a tall man, who looks down when he talks to one. He showed me over the associated factories, told me how the trap trade of all North America is in Oneida's hands, told me of how they fight and win against the British traps in South America and Burmah. He showed me photographs of panthers in traps, tigers in traps, bears snarling at death, unfortunate deer, foxes caught by the paws....

[Pg 165]

I did my best to forget those photographs at once in the interest of his admirable machinery, which busied itself with chain-making as though it had eyes and hands. I went beside him, full of that respect that a literary man must needs feel when a creative business controller displays his quality.

"But the old religion of Oneida?" I would interpolate.

"Each one of us is free to follow his own religion. Here is a new sort of chain we are making for hanging-lamps. Hitherto—"

Presently I would try again. "Are the workers here in any way members of the community?"

"Oh no! Many of them are Italian immigrants. We think of building a school for them.... No, we get no labor troubles. We pay always above the trade-union rates, and so we get the pick of the workmen. Our class of work can't be sweated."...

Yes, he was an astonishing personality, so immensely concentrated on these efficient manufacturing and trading developments, so evidently careless of theology, philosophy, social speculation, beauty.

"Your father was a philosopher," I said.

"I think in ten years' time I may give up the control here," he threw out, "and write something."

"I've thought of the publishing trade myself," I said, "when my wits are old and stiff."...

I never met a man before so firmly gripped by the romantic constructive and adventurous element of[Pg 166] business, so little concerned about personal riches or the accumulation of wealth. He illuminated much that had been dark to me in the American character. I think better of business by reason of him. And time after time I tried him upon politics. It came to nothing. Making a new world was, he thought, a rhetorical flourish about futile and troublesome activities, and politicians merely a disreputable sort of parasite upon honorable people who made chains and plated spoons. All his constructive instincts, all his devotion, were for Oneida and its enterprises. America was just the impartial space, the large liberty, in which Oneida grew, the Stars and Stripes a wide sanction akin to the impartial irresponsible harboring sky overhead. Sense of the State had never grown in him—can now, I felt convinced, never grow....

But some day, I like to imagine, the World State, and not Oneida corporations, and a nobler trade than traps, will command such services as his.

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