The Most Materialistic Age

In this excerpt from Winesburg, Ohio, published almost a century ago in 1919, Sherwood Anderson predicts the future with a depressing degree of accuracy:

That is what Jesse hungered for and then also he hungered for something else. He had grown into maturity in America in the years after the Civil War and he, like all men of his time, had been touched by the deep influences that were at work in the country during those years when modern industrialism was being born. He began to buy machines that would permit him to do the work of the farms while employing fewer men and he sometimes thought that if he were a younger man he would give up farming altogether and start a factory in Winesburg for the making of machinery. Jesse formed the habit of reading newspapers and magazines. He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land. More than once he went into Winesburg to talk with his son-in-law John Hardy about it. “You are a banker and you will have chances I never had,” he said and his eyes shone. “I am thinking about it all the time. Big things are going to be done in the country and there will be more money to be made than I ever dreamed of. You get into it. I wish I were younger and had your chance.” Jesse Bentley walked up and down in the bank office and grew more and more excited as he talked. At one time in his life he had been threatened with paralysis and his left side remained somewhat weakened. As he talked his left eyelid twitched. Later when he drove back home and when night came on and the stars came out it was harder to get back the old feeling of a close and personal God who lived in the sky overhead and who might at any moment reach out his hand, touch him on the shoulder, and appoint for him some heroic task to be done. Jesse’s mind was fixed upon the things read in newspapers and magazines, on fortunes to be made almost without effort by shrewd men who bought and sold.

Winesburg, Ohio, and most other Sherwood Anderson works, are in the public domain and may be downloaded freely from Project Gutenberg, HERE.


Me and Sherwood and Billy Pilgrim

From Malcom Cowley’s introduction to the Penguin Classic’s edition of Sherwood Anderson’s Windesburg Ohio, © 1919:

One characteristic of the subconscious is a defective sense of time: in dreams the old man sees himself as a boy, and the events of thirty or forty years may be jumbled together. Time as a logical succession of events was Anderson’s greatest difficulty in writing novels or even long stories. He got his tenses confused and carried his heroes ten years forward or back in a single paragraph. His instinct was to present everything together, as in a dream.

I have the same problem.  Time just doesn’t seem linear to me.

I’ve had the experience more than once of finding a date on a ticket stub or an old letter which proves conclusively that the order of things as I remembered them could not be true.  It’s always a little disorienting.

I’ve thought of making an autobiographical blog, but it couldn’t possibly be chronological. The memories would be more like a series of colored panes that wouldn’t necessarily fit together to make a stained glass window.

Most of Sherwood Anderson’s novels and short stories are in the public domain, and can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, HERE.


I can’t be funny.

This is an excerpt of a letter Will Rogers wrote about the death and funeral of his sister Maude sometime in the early 1920s.  The sadness is compounded because the poor man felt he had to hide from his public persona.

From Will Rogers: His Story As Told By His Wife, by Betty Rogers, © 1941:

Today, as I write this, I am out in Oklahoma among my people, my Cherokee people, who don’t expect a laugh for everything I say.

That silent prayer that those three hundred ministers uttered didn’t save my sister. She has passed away. But she had lived such a life that it was a privilege to pass away. Death didn’t scare her. It was only an episode in her life. If you live right, death is a joke to you, so far as fear is concerned.

And on the day that I am supposed to write a humorous article, I am back home at the funeral of my sister. I can’t be funny. I don’t want to be funny. Even Mr. Ziegfeld don’t want me to be funny. I told him I wanted to go. He said, “I would hate you if you didn’t.” I told W.C. Fields, the principal comedian of the show. He said, “Go on. I will do something to fill in.” Brandon Tynan, my friend of years, said, “Go home where you want to be and where you ought to be.”

I have just today witnessed a funeral that, for real sorrow and real affection, I don’t think will ever be surpassed anywhere. They came in every mode of conveyance, on foot, in buggies, horseback, wagons, cars and trains, and there wasn’t a soul that came that she hadn’t helped or favored at one time or another…

Some uninformed newspapers printed: “Mrs. C.L. Lane, sister of the famous comedian, Will Rogers.” It’s the other way around. I am the brother of Mrs. C.L. Lane, the friend of humanity. And I want to tell you that, as I saw all those people who were there to pay tribute to her memory, it was the proudest moment of my life that I was her brother.

And all the honors that I could ever in my wildest dreams hope to reach would never equal the honor paid on a little Western prairie hilltop, among her people, to Maude Lane.

If they love me like that at my finish, my life will not have been in vain.

Preferred Not To Think About It

Excerpted from Will Rogers: His Story As Told By His Wife, by Betty Rogers, © 1941:

It was impossible, too, in spite of the ever increasing demands upon his time, to convince Will that he should plan ahead. His was a casual day-to-day existence. He hated to be tied down to prearranged plans and would not make an engagement two weeks ahead if he could possibly help it. He didn’t know where he would be in two weeks’ time and preferred not to think about it. If he wanted to do something, he wanted to do it immediately.

As a young man he found himself bankrupt in Argentina, bankrupt in South Africa, and bankrupt in Australia; as a married man with three children, he found himself bankrupt in California– and I’m only halfway through the book.

So, as appealing as an unplanned life may sound, there is a downside.

Might Become Friends

This made me smile.

Excerpted from The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, ©1943:

Ulysses Macauley was up very early, skipping through the morning’s first light to the yard of a man who owned a cow. When he reached the yard, Ulysses saw the cow. The small boy stood and watched the cow a long time. At last the man who owned the cow came out of the small house. He was carrying a bucket and a stool. The man went straight to the cow and began to milk. Ulysses moved in closer until finally he was directly behind the man. Still, he couldn’t see enough, so he knelt down, almost under the cow. The man saw the boy but did not say anything. He went right on milking. The cow, however, turned and looked at Ulysses. Ulysses looked back at the cow. It seemed perhaps that the cow did not like to have the boy so close. Ulysses got out from under the cow, walked away, and watched from near by. The cow, in turn, watched Ulysses, so that the small boy believed they might become friends.

Conversation Turned to Assertion

The words below were written by Edward R. Murrow in 1952, as a forward to his book This I Believe.  His words still ring true today:

There was a time in this and other countries when sermons by great preachers and editorials by distinguished editors were the subject of prolonged and considered discussion in social gatherings. There was also a time when the writing of letters was an art so well developed that some of the letters were worth keeping and later being published between covers. But the speed of modern communication has largely turned conversation into assertion, and letter-writing into telegrams. The reporter and the listener, or the reader, are overrun and smothered, trampled down by the newest event before they can gain perspective on the one that just passed by. It has become a cliché to say that the modern man has been debased and materialized by the circumstances of his daily life.

We do, it is true, live in a society that is materialistic and mechanistic, where most of the goods we use are mass produced. We employ the same phrases, buy nationally advertised products, wear nationally branded hats and suits; the majority of newspaper editors have abdicated to syndicated columns. The voice of one broadcaster is heard from one end of the country to the other. There exists a real danger that the right of dissent, the right to be wrong, may be swamped because the instruments of communication are too closely held. We face the risk of forgetting that today’s minority may become tomorrow’s majority, and that every majority in a free society today was not so long ago a minority.