The Third Floor

The Easy Chair, Harper’s, March 1952

At intervals I receive a letter which I have never tried to answer for I am not sure I could tune in on its wave length.  I think of it as the same letter for it always says the same things, though various people who do not know each other write it.  It begins as a criticism of the Easy Chair but modulates into a complaint about Harper’s and ends as a lamentation about something entirely different, something for which there is no help.

But let me describe the house I bought a year or so before the war.  It is as big as, seemingly, houses still capable of being lived in can be big only in New England and ugly as they can be only in Cambridge.  It is an Old Cambridge house; it once belonged to a distinguished and celebrated man.  His widow lived in it for years after he died and her heirs sold it to me.  I could not have afforded to buy it except that real estate was badly depressed that year, and of course in Old Cambridge such an interloper as I would never have aspired to own property on Berkeley Street.  But Old Cambridge perished a long time ago.

When I bought the house the only twentieth-century bathroom was on the third floor.  It would be thought antiquated now but there had been some effort to make it convenient and comfortable and that was incongruous, for the rest of the floor was stark and dreary.  It had been finished only in part and that part parsimoniously.  There were only four windows and they were small; they gave little ventilation and admitted little light.  There was just one electric light, the one in the bathroom.  Though the flooring elsewhere in the house was fine oak, much of it parquetry, here it was cheap pine, jagged with splinters and in some places worn through.  The heating system had not been extended to the third floor.

In houses the age of mine throughout greater Boston you can see that same floor; usually, in fact, cheaper and dingier.  It was the servants’ floor.  In the spacious time nearly a century ago Boston’s servants were the surplus virgins of Ireland.  They were fortunate girls; by coming here they raised themselves above their station and were privileged to spend their lives among gentle, cultured people and exquisite possessions.  They went to work for four dollars a month.  It had increased to four dollars a week thirty-five or forty years later when the master, being on the board of trustees, got them a snug place in the Home for the Aged.  The mistress taught them neatness, orderliness, obedience, decorum, and virtuous living.  She supervised their diversions and their reading, to make sure that they were wholesome.  They were free to go to six o’clock Mass on Sunday morning and they had the afternoon hours off one Sunday a month and two Thursdays.  They were permitted to receive friends, of the same sex, on evenings when the family did not need their services and the mistress had approved.  They received them in the kitchen; they spent their free time in the kitchen after the dishes were washed, the table in the breakfast room set, and the beds on the second floor turned down.  They could read by candlelight in their own good warm beds but not for long; the candles were counted.  They must be up betimes and too much leisure, too many candles, too much comfort would encourage slackness.  That was why the steam pipes were not carried to the third floor; besides, the coal bill would have been bigger.  But all day long they could admire the family’s furniture and china, the pictures and the books, and could take pride in the carriages that came to the door and the elegant people who got out of them.

But for the last of these maids at 8 Berkeley Street it had been necessary, at some expense, to put in a bathroom.

The latest variant of my periodic letter begins by mentioning “the beautiful dignified English” that Mr. George William Curtis wrote in the Easy Chair.  The letter usually does begin with a reference to Mr. Curtis or to Mr. William Dean Howells, who also wrote beautiful dignified English in the Easy Chair as, my correspondent points out, as I do not.  He remembers the bound volumes of Harper’s in his father’s study and the boyhood hours he spent reading them.  He learned from Mr. Curtis or Mr. Howells the value of chaste prose, prose unmarred by the neologisms, the vulgarisms, the slang, “the crudities like ‘OK’ and ‘sure’ for ‘surely,’” the bad grammar that he finds everywhere today, even in this once dignified, once chastely written magazine.  The language he is forced to read is, in fact, no longer to be called English; it is a debased dialect.  He wishes that Harper’s had been willing to act as “an English Academy, like the French, to pass judgment on any change or addition of new words to our vocabulary.”  Instead it has basely surrendered to the vulgar.  I was therefore, he says, under a greater obligation to preserve in the Easy Chair the fine English that Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells wrote for it.  This, assuredly, I have not done; often the Easy Chair is more offensively written than the rest of Harper’s.  I write the debased dialect, I write vulgarly, I write, as the letter before the latest one put it, like a stable boy.

Yet my correspondent acknowledges that Harper’s and I are rather signs of our time than debauchers of it.  “The truth is,” he says, “there are so few cultured people left.”  I am presumably an “educated” man, nearly everyone is nowadays, nearly everyone has been “to a college of some sort” and has acquired a smattering of new ideas and inventions.  But we have no Latin and no Greek, no intellectual discipline, no history and therefore none of the wisdom that history imparts, no reverence for the true or the good, no reasoning power, no ability to perceive the falsity of vulgar errors or the speciousness of popular fallacies.  Indeed, though somehow the vulgarization of America is responsible for the disappearance of cultured people, it may also be that their disappearance, which the spread of college education explains, is responsible for the vulgarization.

Here the letter usually turns from the Easy Chair to some article elsewhere in Harper’s, an article which signalizes the downfall of Harper’s and of the United States.  In the latest variant it was an article that discussed Social Security.  This time the letter writer was a woman but her theme is the constant one, “the way we have drifted into socialism,” as Social Security shows we have done.  She cannot separate that drift from our vulgarity, and she remembers her shock on first perceiving how they were related.  That was when, shortly after Inauguration Day in 1933, she went to a reception for U. S. Senators at the Pan American Building, “of all the crude surroundings and crude people!”  She was the more shocked in that she had but recently returned from France, which, though a democracy, “gives her functions with dignity and elegance.”

Is postwar apathy responsible for our drift into socialism, she wonders, or has some subtler malady made us thoughtless and indifferent?  When she was young every county had its Poor House and Work House, “the latter for those lazy people who would not work to support themselves.”  So every county could enforce proper behavior on the poor, whereas now Washington just hands out the money without inquiring how it is spent.  “I always taught my servants to lay up part of their wages in a savings bank against a rainy day.”  But now women of the servant class scorn to be thrifty.  A waitress will not even save her tips; she regards security in the rainy days of old age as her due.

Since 1933 my correspondent has again traveled much, as she always did.  Egypt and Greece are fine places to spend the winter in, South Africa was intensely interesting, South America is always a delight, and the Orient is fascinating.  But she always feels a violent shock when she comes home: always we have sunk deeper into the morass.  The morass of vulgarity and socialism.  Social Security is, as Mr. Curtis might have put it, the payoff.  It has killed self-reliance and initiative.  It has poisoned us; the United States is “apparently so prosperous but is so rotten at the core.  The five-day week and forty-hour week will cause our downfall.  To become great we worked all day and six days, and laid by for our old age.”  But now everyone is recklessly spending money.  Everyone has an automobile.   Everyone has radio and television, which are turning us into morons.  And where, my correspondent asks, where will all this have taken us in another fifty years?  This scandalous, appalling idea that people should retire at sixty-five! — “the age should be extended to seventy years.”

I need hardly say that this depravity began when Roosevelt, of whom one does not care to speak as President Roosevelt or Mr. Roosevelt, “gave the green light to labor.”  The unions “have become so strong that they will take over the government unless someone with cold clear judgment and courage gets the Presidency or is put in a leading position.”  Those last seven words have what Mr. Howells might have called a dying fall and I have heard it before.  Not long before Inauguration Day of 1933 various trustees of servants’ savings accounts who had embezzled them to trade in the futures of gaseous equities were crying out, not coldly but perhaps courageously, to be saved by someone who might be put in a leading position.

Why, madam, in the Centennial Issue, the editor of  Harper’s and Mr. Elmer Davis and I all addressed ourselves to this matter.  All three of us were remembering those bound volumes of Harper’s.  They were in my father’s house too, though since he was a poor man the room they were kept in was not called a study.  I read Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells when I was a boy: I cannot plead ignorance of the tradition I have betrayed.  But though I wish I could write as well as Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells I would not care to write like them.  They were of their times and wrote for them; and, as you say, their times were not ours, which I must write for.  I like the crudities of today’s prose that strike your ears so harshly; they are from living speech.  I would hope to get some of the currency of that speech, some of its liveliness, some of its rhythm and accent, into the prose I offer to readers, who for all I know may be having Harper’s bound for their children.  I think that Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells would not want to act as an Academy for this generation’s idiom and would not want their prose to be a mold which their successor’s must fit.  They would ask him, I think, to write workmanlike prose, which they did.  They would ask him, I am certain, to keep the Easy Chair free of vulgarity — the vulgarity not of expressions like “OK” and “sure” but of idea.  Such vulgarity as the idea that the United States is rotten at the core because A will not gladly work six twelve-hour days a week so that B can find Egypt a pleasant place to winter in.

If I have betrayed their tradition it is not by writing the vernacular of my time but, conceivably, by failing to wade as deep into the morass as, if they had found themselves in that time, they might have done.  My correspondent has forgotten their biographies.  Mr. Howells championed uncultivated people, quite poor people in fact, and defended anarchists.  He was a professing socialist.  Though he had lived in Cambridge (just off Berkeley Street) when it was Old Cambridge, he wrote the Easy Chair in the service of the very drift that has acquainted my correspondent with despair.  No one ever respected culture more than he did but in an age when cultured people were much more numerous than they are now he saw some tendencies which, he said with the most violent emphasis, must be reversed.  By whatever means.

Mr. Curtis was reared a communist and once solemnly forswore allegiance to the United States on the ground that, though apparently so prosperous, it was rotten at the core.  Part of the rot was the educational system: it was turning out morons, especially economic and social morons.  Its philosophy was a puritanism very favorable to the cultured class: it taught some people that to labor from the rising up to the going down of the sun was virtuous, and it taught some that to possess the fruit of other people’s labor was righteous.  The United States of his time, he said, killed self-reliance and initiative, making the poor submissive while those who exploited their submission sold them for a pair of shoes.  Looking about him, he found vulgarity on all sides.  Uncultured people were vulgar in their willingness to accept so small a fraction of the wealth their labor created.  Cultured people were vulgar in exhorting sixty-five-year-old workers to stick it out another five years so that the tax for the Poor House and the Work House would not inconvenience their betters.  I do not know what he would have said about the idea that it is reckless to spend money you have earned but admirable to spend money someone else has earned, that a gentlewoman may properly tour the Orient on an inherited income but a waitress is bringing about our downfall if she buys a radio.  I do know that year by year in the Easy Chair he told the waitress that her birthright included a radio and much more.  Of the system that had her laying by money for someone else’s sunny days, he said that it must be changed.  By whatever means.

My radical predecessors meant just what they said: by whatever means.  If my correspondent will look again at her files of Harper’s, she will find reported and advocated there the process by which, happily, it was kept from being by whatever means.  In her girlhood the magazine was not speaking for the culture she laments as vanished but for another native culture that had self-reliance and initiative of a different kind.  For a hundred and two years it has spoken for those who thought American society able and obliged to achieve a very considerable portion of what Mr. Curtis and Mr. Howells desired, thought it could be achieved by implicit means, and foresaw no downfall.  That belief was natural to the people whom, like my predecessors, I have called the natural readers of Harper’s.

They believed that it was no more wrong of the waitress than of the gentlewoman to want a becoming coiffure and a good-looking dress.  They believed that leisure and the satisfactions of life were no less good, no less comely, for the unlettered than for the cultured.  The seventy-two-hour week, they believed, made leisure impossible and stunted one’s capacity to enjoy the satisfactions of life.  They believed that a shorter work week would increase the satisfactions open to people and their capacity to enjoy them, and that it would also increase the wealth which the hours of work produced.  If it did, they believed, not only crude persons but the gentle as well would be better off.  Would live in a better country, a United States less likely to rot at the core.  They believed that the rich natural endowment of the United States could be so managed that it would produce a more widespread affluence — and, yes, even a more widespread freedom to spend money.  If some people spent money for radios and automobiles, they would not think the expenditure sinful.  Perhaps others would take a trip to South America.

They did not profess to foresee how much of this vision could be achieved.  They were sure, however, that any part of it would be an improvement on the village Poor House and Work House.  If it meant that they must themselves throw in with the vulgar, OK.  If it meant disturbing the serenity of the cultured, sure.  If it meant the fading out of elegance, too bad but so be it.  They believed that what they knew was possible was more desirable than elegance.  So they committed themselves, and the United States, to their belief.  There was no need to tear the house down, they said, but remodeling was called for and we had better get about it.

It happened just about as they said it would and, madam, if you will look back through Harper’s you can see it happening.  Mr. Curtis was writing the Easy Chair when it began to happen, and his successor tells you that that beginning, which cannot perhaps be precisely dated but which has had much less celebration than it deserves, was one of the decisive turning points in the history of the world.  That a very great deal of it had happened by the time Mr. Howells took over the Easy Chair is attested by 8 Berkeley Street, where at just about that time a bathroom was installed for the servants.  Mr. Howells’ successor tells you that we now have the advantage of hindsight: looking back, we can see as they could not that it was certain to happen.  There was bound to come a time when a candle, a tin washbasin, and a chamberpot would not suffice for the third floor.