The Future in America

by H.G. Wells

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Chapter XI - Two Studies in Disappointment


The Riddle of Intolerance

In considering the quality of the American mind (upon which, as I believe, the ultimate destiny of America entirely depends), it has been necessary to point out that, considered as one whole, it still seems lacking in any of that living sense of the state out of which constructive effort must arise, and that, consequently, enormous amounts of energy go to waste in anarchistic and chaotically competitive private enterprise. I believe there are powerful forces at work in the trend of modern thought, science, and method, in the direction of bringing order, control, and design into this confused gigantic conflict, and the discussion of these constructive forces must necessarily form the crown of my forecast of America's future. But before I come to that I must deal with certain American traits that puzzle me, that I cannot completely explain to myself, that dash my large expectations with an obstinate shadow of foreboding. Essentially these are disintegrating in[Pg 168]fluences, in the nature of a fierce intolerance, that lead to conflicts and destroy co-operation. One makes one's criticism with compunction. One moves through the American world, meeting constantly with kindness and hospitality, with a familiar helpfulness that is delightful, with sympathetic enterprise and energetic imagination, and then suddenly there flashes out a quality of harshness....

I will explain in a few minutes what I mean by this flash of harshness. Let me confess here that I cannot determine whether it is a necessary consequence of American conditions, the scar upon the soul of too strenuous business competition, or whether it is something deeper, some subtle, unavoidable infection perhaps in this soil that was once the Red Indian's battle-ground, some poison, it may be, mingled with this clear exhilarating air. And going with this harshness there seems also something else, a contempt for abstract justice that one does not find in any European intelligence—not even among the English. This contempt may be a correlative of the intense practicality begotten by a scruple-destroying commercial training. That, at any rate, is my own prepossession. Conceivably I am over-disposed to make that tall lady in New York Harbor stand as a symbol for the liberty of property, and to trace the indisputable hastiness of life here—it is haste sometimes rather than speed,—its scorn of æsthetic and abstract issues, this frequent quality of harshness, and a certain public disorder, whatever[Pg 169] indeed mars the splendid promise and youth of America, to that. I think it is an accident of the commercial phase that presses men beyond dignity, patience, and magnanimity. I am loath to believe it is something fundamentally American.

I have very clearly in my memory the figure of young MacQueen, in his gray prison clothes in Trenton jail, and how I talked with him. He and Mr. Booker T. Washington and Maxim Gorky stand for me as figures in the shadow—symbolical men. I think of America as pride and promise, as large growth and large courage, all set with beautiful fluttering bunting, and then my vision of these three men comes back to me; they return presences inseparable from my American effect, unlit and uncomplaining on the sunless side of her, implying rather than voicing certain accusations. America can be hasty, can be obstinately thoughtless and unjust....

Well, let me set down as shortly as I can how I saw them, and then go on again with my main thesis.



MacQueen is one of those young men England is now making by the thousand in her elementary schools—a man of that active, intelligent, mentally hungry, self-educating sort that is giving us our elementary teach[Pg 170]ers, our labor members, able journalists, authors, civil servants, and some of the most public-spirited and efficient of our municipal administrators. He is the sort of man an Englishman grows prouder of as he sees America and something of her politicians and labor leaders. After his board-school days MacQueen went to work as a painter and grainer, and gave his spare energy to self-education. He mastered German, and read widely and freely. He corresponded with William Morris, devoured Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw, followed the Clarion week by week, discussed social questions, wrote to the newspapers, debated, made speeches. The English reader will begin to recognize the type. Jail had worn him when I saw him, but I should think he was always physically delicate; he wears spectacles, he warms emotionally as he talks. And he decided, after much excogitation, that the ideal state is one of so fine a quality of moral training that people will not need coercion and repressive laws. He calls himself an anarchist—of the early Christian, Tolstoyan, non-resisting school. Such an anarchist was Emerson, among other dead Americans whose names are better treasured than their thoughts. That sort of anarchist has as much connection with embittered bomb-throwers and assassins as Miss Florence Nightingale has with the woman Hartmann, who put on a nurse's uniform to poison and rob....

Well, MacQueen led an active life in England, married, made a decent living, and took an honor[Pg 171]able part in the local affairs of Leeds until he was twenty-six. Then he conceived a desire for wider opportunity than England offers men of his class.

In January, 1902, he crossed the Atlantic, and, no doubt, he came very much aglow with the American idea. He felt that he was exchanging a decadent country of dwarfing social and political traditions for a land of limitless outlook. He became a proof-reader in New York, and began to seek around him for opportunities of speaking and forwarding social progress. He tried to float a newspaper. The New York labor-unions found him a useful speaker, and, among others, the German silk-workers of New York became aware of him. In June they asked him to go to Paterson to speak in German to the weavers in that place.

The silk-dyers were on strike in Paterson, but the weavers were weaving "scab-silk," dyed by dyers elsewhere, and it was believed that the dyers' strike would fail unless they struck also. They had to be called out. They were chiefly Italians, some Hungarians. It was felt by the New York German silk-workers that perhaps MacQueen's German learned in England might meet the linguistic difficulties of the case.

He went. I hope he will forgive me if I say that his was an extremely futile expedition. He did very little. He wrote an entirely harmless article or so in English for La Questione Sociale, and he declined with horror and publicity to appear upon the same[Pg 172] platform with a mischievous and violent lady anarchist called Emma Goldman. On June 17, 1902, he went to Paterson again, and spoke to his own undoing. There is no evidence that he said anything illegal or inflammatory, there is clear evidence that he bored his audience. They shouted him down, and called for a prominent local speaker named Galiano. MacQueen subsided into the background, and Galiano spoke for an hour in Italian. He aroused great enthusiasm, and the proceedings terminated with a destructive riot.

Eight witnesses testify to the ineffectual efforts on the part of MacQueen to combat the violence in progress....

That finishes the story of MacQueen's activities in America, for which he is now in durance at Trenton. He, in common with a large crowd and in common, too, with nearly all the witnesses against him, did commit one offence against the law—he did not go home when destruction began. He was arrested next day. From that time forth his fate was out of his hands, and in the control of a number of people who wanted to "make an example" of the Paterson strikers. The press took up MacQueen. They began to clothe the bare bones of this simple little history I have told in fluent, unmitigated lying. They blackened him, one might think, out of sheer artistic pleasure in the operation. They called this rather nervous, educated, nobly meaning if ill-advised young man a "notorious anarchist"; his[Pg 173] head-line title became "Anarchistic MacQueen"; they wrote his "story" in a vein of imaginative fervor; they invented "an unsavory police record" for him in England; and enlarged upon the marvellous secret organization for crime of which he was representative and leader. In a little while MacQueen had ceased to be a credible human being; he might have been invented by Mr. William le Queux. He was arrested—Galiano went scot-free—and released on bail. It was discovered that his pleasant, decent Yorkshire wife and three children were coming out to America to him, and she became "the woman Nellie Barton"—her maiden name—and "a socialist of the Emma Goldman stripe." This, one gathers, is the most horrible stripe known to American journalism. Had there been a worse one, Mrs. MacQueen would have been the ex officio. And now here is an extraordinary thing—public officials began to join in the process. This is what perplexes me most in this affair. I am told that Assistant-Secretary-of-the-Treasury H.A. Taylor, without a fact to go upon, subscribed to the "unsavory record" legend and Assistant-Secretary C.H. Keep fell in with it. They must have seen what it was they were indorsing. In a letter from Mr. Keep to the Reverend A.W. Wishart, of Trenton (who throughout has fought most gallantly for justice in this case), I find Mr. Keep distinguishes himself by the artistic device of putting "William MacQueen's" name in inverted commas. So, very delicately, he conveys out of the void the insinuation that the name is an alias. Meanwhile the Commissioner of Immigration prepared to take a hand in the game of breaking up MacQueen. He stopped Mrs. MacQueen at the threshold of liberty, imprisoned her in Ellis Island, and sent her back to Europe. MacQueen, still on bail, was not informed of this action, and waited on the pier for some hours before he understood. His wife had come second class to America, but she was returned first class, and the steamship company seized her goods for the return fare....

That was more than MacQueen could stand. He had been tried, convicted, sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and he was now out on bail pending an appeal. Anxiety about his wife and children was too much for him. He slipped off to England after them ("Escape of the Anarchist MacQueen"), made what provision and arrangements he could for them, and returned in time to save his bondsman's money ("Capture of the Escaped Anarchist MacQueen"). Several members of the Leeds City Council ("Criminal Associates in Europe") saw him off. That was in 1903. His appeal had been refused on a technical point. He went into Trenton jail, and there he is to this day. There I saw him. Trenton Jail did not impress me as an agreeable place. The building is fairly old, and there is no nonsense about the food. The cells hold, some of them, four criminals, some of them two, but latterly MacQueen has had spells in the infirmary, and has managed to get a cell to him[Pg 175]self. Many of the criminals are negroes and half-breeds, imprisoned for unspeakable offences. In the exercising-yard MacQueen likes to keep apart. "When I first came I used to get in a corner," he said....

Now this case of MacQueen has exercised my mind enormously. It was painful to go out of the gray jail again after I had talked to him—of Shaw and Morris, of the Fabian Society and the British labor members—into sunlight and freedom, and ever and again, as I went about New York having the best of times among the most agreeable people, the figure of him would come back to me quite vividly, in his gray dress, sitting on the edge of an unaccustomed chair, hands on his knees, speaking a little nervously and jerkily, and very glad indeed to see me. He is younger than myself, but much my sort of man, and we talked of books and education and his case like brothers. There can be no doubt to any sensible person who will look into the story of his conviction, who will even go and see him, that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice.

There has been a serious miscarriage of justice, such as (unhappily) might happen in any country. That is nothing distinctive of America. But what does impress me as remarkable and perplexing is the immense difficulty—the perhaps unsurmountable difficulty—of getting this man released. The Governor of the State of New Jersey knows he is innocent, the judges of the Court of Pardons know he is in[Pg 176]nocent. Three of them I was able to button-hole at Trenton, and hear their point of View. Two are of the minority and for release, one was doubtful in attitude but hostile in spirit. They hold, the man, he thinks, on the score of public policy. They put it that Paterson is a "hotbed" of crime and violence; that once MacQueen is released every anarchist in the country will be emboldened to crime, and so on and so on. I admit Paterson festers, but if we are to punish anybody instead of reforming the system, it's the masters who ought to be in jail for that.

"What will the property-owners in Paterson say to us if this man is released?" one of the judges admitted frankly.

"But he hadn't anything to do with the violence," I said, and argued the case over again—quite missing the point of that objection.

Whenever I had a chance in New York, in Boston, in Washington, even amid the conversation of a Washington dinner-table, I dragged up the case of MacQueen. Nobody seemed indignant. One lady admitted the sentence was heavy, "he might have been given six months to cool off in," she said. I protested he ought not to have been given a day. "Why did he go there?" said a Supreme Court judge in Washington, a lawyer in New York, and several other people. "Wasn't he making trouble?" I was asked.

At last that reached my sluggish intelligence.

Yet I still hesitate to accept the new interpreta[Pg 177]tions. Galiano, who preached blind violence and made the riot, got off scot-free; MacQueen, who wanted a legitimate strike on British lines, went to jail. So long as the social injustice, the sweated disorder of Paterson's industrialism, vents its cries in Italian in La Questione Sociale, so long as it remains an inaudible misery so far as the great public is concerned, making vehement yet impotent appeals to mere force, and so losing its last chances of popular sympathy, American property, I gather, is content. The masters and the immigrants can deal with one another on those lines. But to have outsiders coming in!

There is an active press campaign against the release of "the Anarchist MacQueen," and I do not believe that Mr. Wishart will succeed in his endeavors. I think MacQueen will serve out his five years.

The plain truth is that no one pretends he is in jail on his merits; he is in jail as an example and lesson to any one who proposes to come between master and immigrant worker in Paterson. He has attacked the system. The people who profit by the system, the people who think things are "all right as they are," have hit back in the most effectual way they can, according to their lights.

That, I think, accounts for the sustained quality of the lying in this case, and, indeed, for the whole situation. He is in jail on principle and without personal animus, just as they used to tar and feather[Pg 178] the stray abolitionist on principle in Carolina. The policy of stringent discouragement is a reasonable one—scoundrelly, no doubt, but understandable. And I think I can put myself sufficiently into the place of the Paterson masters, of the Trenton judges, of those journalists, of those subordinate officials at Washington even, to understand their motives and inducements. I indulge in no self-righteous pride. Simply, I thank Heaven I have not had their peculiar temptations.

But my riddle lies in the attitude of the public—of the American nation, which hasn't, it seems, a spark of moral indignation for this sort of thing, which indeed joins in quite cheerfully against the victim.

It is ill served by its press, no doubt, but surely it understands....


Maxim Gorky

Then I assisted at the coming of Maxim Gorky, and witnessed many intimate details of what Professor Giddings, that courageous publicist, has called his "lynching."

Here, again, is a case I fail altogether to understand. The surface values of that affair have a touch of the preposterous. I set them down in infinite perplexity.

My first week in New York was in the period of[Pg 179] Gorky's advent. Expectation was at a high pitch, and one might have foretold a stupendous, a history-making campaign. The American nation seemed concentrated upon one great and ennobling idea, the freedom of Russia, and upon Gorky as the embodiment of that idea. A protest was to be made against cruelty and violence and massacre. That great figure of Liberty with the torch was to make it flare visibly half-way round the world, reproving tyranny.

Gorky arrived, and the éclat was immense. We dined him, we lunched him, we were photographed in his company by flash-light. I very gladly shared that honor, for Gorky is not only a great master of the art I practise, but a splendid personality. He is one of those people to whom the camera does no justice, whose work, as I know it in an English translation, forceful as it is, fails very largely to convey his peculiar quality. His is a big, quiet figure; there is a curious power of appeal in his face, a large simplicity in his voice and gesture. He was dressed, when I met him, in peasant clothing, in a belted blue shirt, trousers of some shiny black material, and boots; and save for a few common greetings he has no other language than Russian. So it was necessary that he should bring with him some one he could trust to interpret him to the world. And having, too, much of the practical helplessness of his type of genius, he could not come without his right hand, that brave and honorable lady, Madame Andreieva, who has been now for years in every[Pg 180]thing but the severest legal sense his wife. Russia has no Dakota; and although his legal wife has long since found another companion, the Orthodox Church in Russia has no divorce facilities for men in the revolutionary camp. So Madame Andreieva stands to him as George Eliot stood to George Lewes, and I suppose the two of them had almost forgotten the technical illegality of their tie, until it burst upon them and the American public in a monstrous storm of exposure.

It was like a summer thunder-storm. At one moment Gorky was in an immense sunshine, a plenipotentiary from oppression to liberty, at the next he was being almost literally pelted through the streets.

I do not know what motive actuated a certain section of the American press to initiate this pelting of Maxim Gorky. A passion for moral purity may perhaps have prompted it, but certainly no passion for purity ever before begot so brazen and abundant a torrent of lies. It was precisely the sort of campaign that damned poor MacQueen, but this time on an altogether imperial scale. The irregularity of Madame Andreieva's position was a mere point of departure. The journalists went on to invent a deserted wife and children, they declared Madame Andreieva was an "actress," and loaded her with all the unpleasant implications of that unfortunate word; they spoke of her generally as "the woman Andreieva"; they called upon the Commissioner of Immigration to deport her as a "female of bad[Pg 181] character"; quite influential people wrote to him to that effect; they published the name of the hotel that sheltered her, and organized a boycott. Whoever dared to countenance the victims was denounced. Professor Dewar of Columbia had given them a reception; "Dewar must go," said the head-lines. Mark Twain, who had assisted in the great welcome, was invited to recant and contribute unfriendly comments. The Gorkys were pursued with insult from hotel to hotel. Hotel after hotel turned them out. They found themselves at last, after midnight, in the streets of New York city with every door closed against them. Infected persons could not have been treated more abominably in a town smitten with a panic of plague.

This change happened in the course of twenty-four hours. On one day Gorky was at the zenith, on the next he had been swept from the world. To me it was astounding—it was terrifying. I wanted to talk to Gorky about it, to find out the hidden springs of this amazing change. I spent a Sunday evening looking for him with an ever-deepening respect for the power of the American press. I had a quaint conversation with the clerk of the hotel in Fifth Avenue from which he had first been driven. Europeans can scarcely hope to imagine the moral altitudes at which American hotels are conducted.... I went thence to seek Mr. Abraham Cahan in the East Side, and thence to other people I knew, but in vain. Gorky was obliterated.

I thought this affair was a whirlwind of foolish misunderstanding, such as may happen in any capital, and that presently his entirely tolerable relationship would be explained. But for all the rest of my time in New York this insensate campaign went on. There was no attempt of any importance to stem the tide, and to this day large sections of the American public must be under the impression that this great writer is a depraved man of pleasure accompanied by a favorite cocotte. The writers of paragraphs racked their brains to invent new and smart ways of insulting Madame Andreieva. The chaste entertainers of the music-halls of the Tenderloin district introduced allusions. And amid this riot of personalities Russia was forgotten. The massacres, the chaos of cruelty and blundering, the tyranny, the women outraged, the children tortured and slain—all that was forgotten. In Boston, in Chicago, it was the same. At the bare suggestion of Gorky's coming the same outbreak occurred, the same display of imbecile gross lying, the same absolute disregard of the tragic cause he had come to plead.

One gleam of comedy in this remarkable outbreak I recall. Some one in ineffectual protest had asked what Americans would have said if Benjamin Franklin had encountered such ignominies on his similar mission of appeal to Paris before the War of Independence. "Benjamin Franklin," retorted one bright young Chicago journalist, "was a man of very different moral character from Gorky," and proceed[Pg 183]ed to explain how Chicago was prepared to defend the purity of her homes against the invader. Benjamin Franklin, it is true, was a person of very different morals from Gorky—but I don't think that bright young man in Chicago had a very sound idea of where the difference lay.

I spent my last evening on American soil in the hospitable home in Staten Island that sheltered Gorky and Madame Andreieva. After dinner we sat together in the deepening twilight upon a broad veranda that looks out upon one of the most beautiful views in the world, upon serene large spaces of land and sea, upon slopes of pleasant, window-lit, tree-set wooden houses, upon the glittering clusters of lights, and the black and luminous shipping that comes and goes about the Narrows and the Upper Bay. Half masked by a hill contour to the left was the light of the torch of Liberty.... Gorky's big form fell into shadow, Madame Andreieva sat at his feet, translating methodically, sentence by sentence, into clear French whatever he said, translating our speeches into Russian. He told us stories—of the soul of the Russian, of Russian religious sects, of kindnesses and cruelties, of his great despair.

Ever and again, in the pauses, my eyes would go to where New York far away glittered like a brighter and more numerous Pleiades.

I gauged something of the real magnitude of this one man's disappointment, the immense expectation of his arrival, the impossible dream of his mission.[Pg 184] He had come—the Russian peasant in person, out of a terrific confusion of bloodshed, squalor, injustice—to tell America, the land of light and achieved freedom, of all these evil things. She would receive him, help him, understand truly what he meant with his "Rossia." I could imagine how he had felt as he came in the big steamer to her, up that large converging display of space and teeming energy. There she glowed to-night across the water, a queen among cities, as if indeed she was the light of the world. Nothing, I think, can ever rob that splendid harbor approach of its invincible quality of promise.... And to him she had shown herself no more than the luminous hive of multitudes of base and busy, greedy and childish little men.

MacQueen in jail, Gorky with his reputation wantonly bludgeoned and flung aside; they are just two chance specimens of the myriads who have come up this great waterway bearing hope and gifts.


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