The Expectations Abyss

Icollect magazines. Not the brightly colored paper things that fall apart. My magazines are bound in large volumes of about 1,000 pages, six months at a time: The Century Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Scribner’s, and others, and they date from around 1875 to 1930. In those magazines, you will find articles of what would strike us now as staggering length, on any subject you can name.

Occasionally you will stumble upon interesting advertisements, like this one under “Help Wanted—Male”:

BOY, about 16, for general office work; excellent opportunity for advancement. Apply H. Black and Co., Superior and East 19th.

In the copy I have before me now, The Century from May through October 1882, 960 large pages, I find “An Aboriginal Pilgrimage,” an account of the author’s investigation of the Zuni Indians; a sailing travelogue called “Around Cape Horn”; the diary entries of Thomas Carlyle as he visited Ireland; “The Personal History of Garibaldi”; an appreciation of the elderly John Henry Newman; an article on woodcutting, metalworking, and the engraving of cameos in elementary schools; “Marble Mining in Carrara”; serialized novels by William Dean Howells (A Modern Instance) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (Through One Administration); articles on music, architecture, politics, painting, religion, anything.

I’ve come to believe that you can learn far more about the United States from browsing in just one of these volumes than you can in a half dozen college courses in American Studies.

Other than the impressive breadth of subjects in The Century, and the depth of general knowledge and literacy their authors assumed in their large and varied readership, what strikes me as I read these magazines is what a foreign land it is, this United States that used to be. Everywhere I turn, I find myself either ashamed for my national ancestors for not seeing what the moral law required of them, or, 20 times as often, ashamed for my fellows now, whose college professors would be hard put to read The Century, let alone to understand the high aesthetic, moral, and religious aspirations that animated their authors and readers.

You may say, by way of excuse, that people always put their fancy dress on when they know they will be seen in public. But the authors then were no more comfortable with the mores of their time than our authors are now with ours. And I am not talking, anyway, about what the people were conscious of saying about themselves. I find most telling what they did not have to bother to say about themselves; what they let drop, by the way.

Hence that advertisement above. It was not in The Century, which did not take advertising. Read that sentence again. It was in a newspaper clipping that someone cut out from The Cleveland News, in January 1908, and evidently kept inside his parents’ book. I often find things in my magazines that were not in the magazines: notes and cards and so on. Some child had cut out nine puzzles from the News and saved them. On the back of one of the puzzles, I find that “Help Wanted” ad.

It’s in English, sure, but it might as well be on the other side of a great abyss which no one is permitted to cross. On our side of the abyss, the 16-year-old boy is dying slowly of intellectual asphyxiation in school and online. On that side of the abyss, the biggest manufacturer of women’s clothing in Cleveland is advertising for a likely lad to come and do office work, with high hopes set forth for a well-remunerated career.

The company, H. Black, was at this time building a large and handsome factory, beautiful without and well-ventilated and pleasant within, with a free-standing water tower to provide pressure for the sprinkler system in case of fire. The Blacks, Jewish emigres, paid for the architect to tour the country to study designs for factories that combined beauty and practicality with a sense of the human needs of the laborers. The building, I am glad to say, still stands and is still in use.

Then, people did not waste their youth in pointlessness. I turn to another clipping and find an obituary for one Edward Alexander MacDowell, “the noted American composer,” who died at age 46. “MacDowell studied and taught abroad,” the piece says, “and when he returned to this country, in 1888, he was famous as a composer of orchestral, vocal, and piano music.” That means that he returned at age 26 or 27, about the age at which our college graduates rise to the status of assistant manager at McDonald’s. But then, it was assumed that young men would possess energy and the capacity to do things for themselves.

On the back of another clipping I find this advertisement from a home builder, W. N. Brewer:

 You Can Buy Fine Home in Lakewood If

You Have $300 to $500

BALANCE MONTHLY

SEE OUR NEW HOUSES

Built by day-labor, better than you could build yourself.

Note that last sentence. It made me sputter with laughter. What it assumes is that many men would build their homes with their own hands, with help from their brothers and cousins and friends. We are not talking about a log cabin in South Dakota in the days of Sitting Bull. We are talking about stone or brick or wood houses in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland to the northeast.

Above the Brewer advertisement, I find one for “The Deming Brothers Company,” selling houses. The three brothers had left their home in Sarnia, Ontario, when the youngest, Barton Deming, was 18 years old, and came to Cleveland, where they got jobs in industry and formed their own corporation in 1903, when Barton was 28. He became the president in 1908, the year of this advertisement, and went on to be one of the great builders of homes in the Cleveland area.

When adolescence does not really exist, but young people go from childhood to adulthood with speed and matter-of-fact confidence, they must have had some considerable self-discipline, which is to the soul what swimming or lifting weights would be for the body.

So I find a piece of an article on the back of a third clipping, under the headline, “Mothers Should Teach Children Good Manners.” I will quote what I have of it:

Good manners in a child are a great help in the battle of life of the future man or woman.

No child will be well mannered, however, unless he is taught to be so from infancy, and a mother cannot expect her son or daughter to behave well before strangers if he or she is not obliged to do so all the time.

For example, a small child who does not know better than to take the best seat in a room while the stranger stands or takes what is left shows lack of proper training. It reflects unpleasantly upon the mother, proving her to have been careless or ignorant of what good breeding demands.

Children should be taught early not to seat themselves while their elders stand, and little folk should always stand when greeting a grown person.

If only the author could see us now.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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