The Leaky Bucket

I have spent many years reading, writing, and thinking about family life and what kinds of things are good and innocent, healthy and soul-building, in the day of a child. One of the responses I typically get is that I am “romanticizing” a way of life that was peculiar to white people in the United States shortly after the second World War, ignoring all the evils which were attached to that way of life, such as racism, the exploitation of workers, and so forth. The response is unjust, since my views on family life have come from looking at a broad range of human cultures spanning several millennia.

In fact, I have written about what it was like, for example, to play in the ice-covered streets of New York as the eyewitness and participant Jacob Riis described it, or to roam the shores of Cape Cod when the schoolmaster was feeling under the weather, as the boy Horatio Storer—later to become the father of gynecology in America—described it in his letters home to his parents. I cannot help but notice the practical liberty that the children enjoyed and the social bonds that made such liberty possible.

But the response, even if we concede the evils of the society I am supposedly praising all the time, draws exactly the wrong conclusion. Let me explain by describing what my own people faced when they came to America and the virtues they possessed that enabled them to thrive. It is not a Horatio Alger story. It is but a tale of ordinary people with a certain bedrock of beliefs, expectations, and habits that made it possible for them to avert failure and disintegration.

My maternal grandfather, born in Tiriolo, a mountaintop village in southern Italy, arrived in the United States in 1920. He was eighteen years old, alone, and unable to speak a word of English. He had followed his own father across the ocean; the rest of the family were to come later. They did not. His mother, once rid of her husband, a surly and selfish man, turned around and said that she was staying in Italy. My grandfather never saw her again, or his little brother, or one of his two sisters. He saw the other sister when she came to America to visit him in 1976.

You must not think that my grandfather had nothing. He did have family life, in a powerful and life-giving way. I had not understood it until I myself went to that same village in 1983, having learned Italian and being determined to tour the country by myself, eventually catching up with my cousins in Calabria, at the foot of the Italian peninsula. There I saw signs and met people with names I knew from my childhood: Paone, Rotelli, Torchia, and Mancuso. I should have suspected it, but it had never really been brought to my attention. When the Tiriolesi emigrated to the United States, they did so as families related to or neighbors with other families, so that the locus of their emigration was the same town in Pennsylvania where I grew up. This was not a mere statistical tendency. It had all the marks of deliberate intention. Just as you knew and were probably related to certain families in Tiriolo, so would you know them and live and work with them in Archbald. The same phenomenon occurred in Jessup, the town just southwest of us, but there, all the Italians came from Gubbio, several hundred miles north of Tiriolo, in a completely different part of the country.

My grandfather went to school for a year or two in Italy, and he spent the rest of his childhood and youth at work. He told me that he was part of a road crew and that the work was hot and dusty, and he didn’t like it. His real love was for farming. He once said that he could put a seed in the dirt and spit on it, and it would grow. Everybody in Tiriolo did a bit of farming at least—and this was still true in 1983—but how it was done, again, suggested a life of families and neighbors so strong and rooted in old tradition that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine. As I said, Tiriolo was perched on a mountaintop, so if you did farm, you were not living on the land you farmed; a mountaintop doesn’t leave much room. Nor was there a lot of rain. Calabria is quite dry. So the people had learned to farm on the mountainsides, but in a special way that required a great deal of cooperation and trust—the trust that is built up when everybody is somehow related to everybody else. The land had to be divided into long, narrow vertical strips and terraced so that everybody could get enough of the rainwater flowing downhill and of the water they collected in cisterns at the top. I saw my cousin opening a tap for his strip of land, with the water flowing in carefully ordered furrows; he kept a close eye on them, too, because he didn’t want to waste any of the water.

It should go without saying that you could not have that system unless you could trust that people would not poach on your strip of land and that they would use the water responsibly. But the system did work because there was that trust. Why, after all, would you want to steal from your own cousins?

Hence, when they did move to America, they moved not only by families but by networks of families—that is, neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village, town by town. That was necessary because, of course, they were not exactly welcome where they went. To give a typical example, the Irish pastor in Archbald told my grandmother that she should go to the “Italian” church in Jessup, a good two miles away on foot, rather than to his church, a five-minute walk away. The Irish, both men and older boys, worked in the anthracite coal mines and the collieries, and they resented the competition for wages. But the Italian men ended up down in the mines like everyone else. That is where my grandfather worked for sixteen years, until a nervous breakdown made it impossible for him to continue. At this point, things would have fallen apart, except that people took for granted that divorce was out of the question, so that everywhere you turned, there were intact families to help out, and it never occurred to either of my grandparents that they might break their own family and go their separate ways.

I claim for them no extraordinary virtue. My grandfather was a keenly intelligent man, but he had no education. My grandmother did not get beyond the eighth grade. I claim for the town no extraordinary virtue, either. The people I grew up with were often ornery, pig-headed, clannish, and—remember, we are talking about Irishmen here—prone to drink. We had no town library. The most exposure to high culture that I had as a boy was listening to Mario Lanza on a record. The coal, too, had largely run out, so Archbald, like the rest of Lackawanna County, slogged along for thirty years in economic depression. You could see signs of it everywhere: abandoned mines, heaps of coal waste several hundred feet high, defunct railroad tracks and trestles, shut-up shops with signs askew and rusting away, and hardly any sidewalks anywhere.

But it is precisely under such conditions that you need the strength of the family all the more, and that means that you need a common agreement that certain actions that hurt the family are simply wrong and that certain duties you have to the family must be fulfilled, regardless of whether you like them or they make you happy. It would be insane to say, “I shall not apply myself with diligence to any line of work until all labor laws are just.” The injustices and stupidities of the workplace make your own diligence all the more necessary. We cannot wait upon perfection before we strive for virtue; perfection is not to be had on earth, but instead it is virtue that helps to make up for injustice, misfortune, and folly, or at least prevents those things from destroying you.

By contrast, the vices—and here I am especially thinking of vices that corrupt family life or that thwart people in their hopes to raise a strong family with mother, father, and children—magnify the harm done by injustice, misfortune, and folly and extend their reach, both into the neighborhood and the town in the present time and into generations to come. The harm goes right to the core. It is a human thing, or rather a thing destructive of humanity, so it can no more be solved by extrinsic and impersonal means, such as a check in the mail, than can loneliness be solved by a visit from a census taker. If, then, racism in America is as bad as many of my interlocutors say it is, and if the economy is inhumane, and if injustice meets you every day, if for the sake of argument we grant that all this is true, then we must be more energetic in promoting virtue and condemning vice, and that means, at the very least, a rejection of the family-corroding and false principles of sexual libertarianism. In other words, if they are right in their assessment of the state of affairs, then all the more am I right in what must be done about it, or at least in what we must cease doing, to give the poor and the working class their best chance to scramble out of the pits.

I call it the Principle of the Leaky Bucket. If you do not have the family, your bucket has been punched full of holes. Not all the water in the world can fill it, because it leaks out as soon as you pour it in. The truly loving thing is not to keep pouring water into somebody’s Leaky Bucket, congratulating yourself as you do so, and acting as if you were a revolutionary after Che Guevara’s own heart. The truly loving thing is far more difficult than that. It is to throw away the Leaky Bucket and replace it with one that is sound. But that cannot be done without considerable sacrifice; to wit, we must give up our bucket-riddling ways. And that would be truly revolutionary in all regards: the political, the economic, the educational, and the personal. In its radicality, it would make Che look like an old Victorian lady in lace and organdy, sipping tea and chatting about the Corn Law. No party in America right now wants to go near it.

Yet it must be done.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Genealogy family history theme with old family photos and documents.

Notable Replies

  1. “…except that people took it for granted that divorce was out of the question…” How far we have “progressed” from that antiquated notion. My wife & I will (God willing) observe our 49th anniversary next month and, while we are of moderate financial means, we’ve annually enjoyed an anniversary dinner at a nicer (i.e. more expensive) restaurant than those means warrant. Usually, someone on the service staff will ask how long we’ve been married and usually express shock when we tell them. Something that was once common (50th wedding anniversaries, which
    will occur next year if we are both fortunate enough to survive) has become a rarity
    in this country and explains much of the societal decay you describe. Worse, the naysayers you reference in your opening paragraph, ignorantly or purposely, grease the slide even more with their hostility to reality (witness Harrison Butker). The marriage VOW (something else that has all but vanished) is not intended to signify romance (“There has NEVER been a love like OUR love!”), but is meant to emphasize that there are values in life that supersede one’s “happiness”
    (“…For better or for WORSE, in SICKNESS and in health…”). The tragic irony is that for many, if not most, that quest for “happiness” through divorce or cohabitation is never realized.

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