A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


I suppose I could not have fairly claimed any great originality for my notion that the walking delegate was the cause of the labor troubles: he is regularly assigned as the reason of a strike in the newspapers, and is reprobated for his evil agency by the editors, who do not fail to read the working-men many solemn lessons and fervently warn them against him, as soon as the strike begins to go wrong — as it nearly always does. I understand from them that the walking delegate is an irresponsible tyrant, who emerges from the mystery that habitually hides him and from time to time orders a strike in mere rancor of spirit and plenitude of power, and then leaves the working-men and their families to suffer the consequences, while he goes off somewhere and rolls in the lap of luxury, careless of the misery he has created. Between his debauches of vicious idleness and his accesses of baleful activity he is employed in poisoning the mind of the working-men against his real interests and real friends. This is perfectly easy, because the American working-man, though singularly shrewd and sensible in other respects, is the victim of an unaccountable obliquity of vision which keeps him from seeing his real interests and real friends — or, at least, from knowing them when he sees them.

There could be no doubt, I thought, in the mind of any reasonable person that the walking delegate was the source of the discontent among our proletariate, and I alleged him with a confidence which met the approval of the professor, apparently, for he nodded, as if to say that I had hit the nail on the head this time; and the minister seemed to be freshly impressed with a notion that could not be new to him. The lawyer and the doctor were silent, as if waiting for the banker to speak again; but he was silent, too. The manufacturer, to my chagrin, broke into a laugh. “I’m afraid,” he said, with a sardonic levity which surprised me, “you’ll have to go a good deal deeper than the walking delegate. He’s a symptom; he isn’t the disease. The thing keeps on and on, and it seems to be always about wages; but it isn’t about wages at the bottom. Some of those fellows know it and some of them don’t, but the real discontent is with the whole system, with the nature of things. I had a curious revelation on that point the last time I tried to deal with my men as a union. They were always bothering me about this and about that, and there was no end to the bickering. I yielded point after point, but it didn’t make any difference. It seemed as if the more I gave the more they asked. At last I made up my mind to try to get at the real inwardness of the matter, and I didn’t wait for their committee to come to me — I sent for their leading man, and said I wanted to have it out with him. He wasn’t a bad fellow, and when I got at him, man to man that way, I found he had sense, and he had ideas — it’s no use pretending those fellows are fools; he had thought about his side of the question, anyway. I said: ‘Now what does it all mean? Do you want the earth, or don’t you? When is it going to end?’ I offered him something to take, but he said he didn’t drink, and we compromised on cigars. ‘Now when is it going to end?’ said I, and I pressed it home, and wouldn’t let him fight off from the point. ‘Do you mean when is it all going to end?’ said he. ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘all. I’m sick of it. If there’s any way out I’d like to know it.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I’ll tell you, if you want to know. It’s all going to end when you get the same amount of money for the same amount of work as we do.’”

We all laughed uproariously. The thing was deliciously comical; and nothing, I thought, attested the Altrurian’s want of humor like his failure to appreciate this joke. He did not even smile in asking: “And what did you say?”

“Well,” returned the manufacturer, with cosey enjoyment, “I asked him if the men would take the concern and run it themselves.” We laughed again; this seemed even better than the other joke. “But he said, ‘No’; they would not like to do that. And then I asked him just what they would like, if they could have their own way, and he said they would like to have me run the business, and all share alike. I asked him what was the sense of that, and why, if I could do something that all of them put together couldn’t do, I shouldn’t be paid more than all of them put together; and he said that if a man did his best he ought to be paid as much as the best man. I asked him if that was the principle their union was founded on, and he said, ‘Yes,’ that the very meaning of their union was the protection of the weak by the strong and the equalization of earnings among all who do their best.”

We waited for the manufacturer to go on, but he made a dramatic pause at this point, as if to let it sink into our minds; and he did not speak until the Altrurian prompted him with the question, “And what did you finally do?”

“I saw there was only one way out for me, and I told the fellow I did not think I could do business on that principle. We parted friends, but the next Saturday I locked them out and smashed their union. They came back, most of them — they had to — but I’ve treated with them ever since ‘as individuals.’”

“And they’re much better off in your hands than they were in the union,” said the professor.

“I don’t know about that,” said the manufacturer, “but I’m sure I am.”

We laughed with him, all but the minister, whose mind seemed to have caught upon some other point, and who sat absently by.

“And is it your opinion, from what you know of the working-man generally, that they all have this twist in their heads?” the professor asked.

“They have, until they begin to rise. Then they get rid of it mighty soon. Let a man save something — enough to get a house of his own, and take a boarder or two, and perhaps have a little money at interest — and he sees the matter in another light.”

“Do you think he sees it more clearly?” asked the minister.

“He sees it differently.”

“What do you think?” the minister pursued, turning to the lawyer. “You are used to dealing with questions of justice —”

“Rather more with questions of law, I’m afraid,” the other returned, pleasantly, putting his feet together before him and looking down at them in a way he had. “But, still, I have a great interest in questions of justice, and I confess that I find a certain wild equity in this principle, which I see nobody could do business on. It strikes me as idyllic — it’s a touch of real poetry in the rough-and-tumble prose of our economic life.”

He referred this to me as something I might appreciate in my quality of literary man, and I responded in my quality of practical man: “There’s certainly more rhyme than reason in it.”

He turned again to the minister:

“I suppose the ideal of the Christian state is the family?”

“I hope so,” said the minister, with the gratitude that I have seen people of his cloth show when men of the world conceded premises which the world usually contests; it has seemed to me pathetic.

“And if that is the case, why, the logic of the postulate is that the prosperity of the weakest is the sacred charge and highest happiness of all the stronger. But the law has not recognized any such principle, in economics at least, and if the labor unions are based upon it they are outlaw, so far as any hope of enforcing it is concerned; and it is bad for men to feel themselves outlaw. How is it,” the lawyer continued, turning to the Altrurian, “in your country? We can see no issue here, if the first principle of organized labor antagonizes the first principle of business.”

“But I don’t understand precisely yet what the first principle of business is,” returned my guest.

“Ah, that raises another interesting question,” said the lawyer. “Of course, every business man solves the problem practically according to his temperament and education, and I suppose that on first thoughts every business man would answer you accordingly. But perhaps the personal equation is something you wish to eliminate from the definition.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Still, I would rather not venture upon it first,” said the lawyer. “Professor, what should you say was the first principle of business?”

“Buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest,” the professor promptly answered.

“We will pass the parson and the doctor and the novelist as witnesses of no value. They can’t possibly have any cognizance of the first principle of business; their affair is to look after the souls and bodies and fancies of other people. But what should you say it was?” he asked the banker.

“I should say it was an enlightened conception of one’s own interests.”

“And you?”

The manufacturer had no hesitation in answering: “The good of Number One, first, last, and all the time. There may be a difference of opinion about the best way to get at it; the long way may be the better, or the short way; the direct way or the oblique way, or the purely selfish way, or the partly selfish way; but if you ever lose sight of that end you might as well shut up shop. That seems to be the first law of nature, as well as the first law of business.”

“Ah, we mustn’t go to nature for our morality,” the minister protested.

“We were not talking of morality,” said the manufacturer; “we were talking of business.”

This brought the laugh on the minister, but the lawyer cut it short: “Well, then, I don’t really see why the trades-unions are not as business-like as the syndicates in their dealings with all those outside of themselves. Within themselves they practise an altruism of the highest order, but it is a tribal altruism; it is like that which prompts a Sioux to share his last mouthful with a starving Sioux, and to take the scalp of a starving Apache. How is it with your trades-unions in Altruria?” he asked my friend.

“We have no trades-unions in Altruria,” he began.

“Happy Altruria!” cried the professor.

“We had them formerly,” the Altrurian went on, “as you have them now. They claimed, as I suppose yours do, that they were forced into existence by the necessities of the case; that without union the working-man was unable to meet the capitalist on anything like equal terms, or to withstand his encroachments and oppressions. But to maintain themselves they had to extinguish industrial liberty among the working-men themselves, and they had to practise great cruelties against those who refused to join them or who rebelled against them.”

“They simply destroy them here,” said the professor.

“Well,” said the lawyer, from his judicial mind, “the great syndicates have no scruples in destroying a capitalist who won’t come into them or who tries to go out. They don’t club him or stone him, but they under-sell him and freeze him out; they don’t break his head, but they bankrupt him. The principle is the same.”

“Don’t interrupt Mr. Homos,” the banker entreated. “I am very curious to know just how they got rid of labor unions in Altruria.”

“We had syndicates, too, and finally we had the reductio ad absurdum — we had a federation of labor unions find a federation of syndicates, that divided the nation into two camps. The situation was not only impossible, but it was insupportably ridiculous.”

I ventured to say: “It hasn’t become quite so much of a joke with us yet.”

“Isn’t it in a fair way to become so?” asked the doctor; and he turned to the lawyer: “What should you say was the logic of events among us for the last ten or twenty years?”

“There’s nothing so capricious as the logic of events. It’s like a woman’s reasoning — you can’t tell what it’s aimed at, or where it’s going to fetch up; all that you can do is to keep out of the way if possible. We may come to some such condition of things as they have in Altruria, where the faith of the whole nation is pledged to secure every citizen in the pursuit of happiness; or we may revert to some former condition, and the master may again own the man; or we may hitch and joggle along indefinitely, as we are doing now.”

“But come, now,” said the banker, while he laid a caressing touch on the Altrurian’s shoulder, “you don’t mean to say honestly that everybody works with his hands in Altruria?”

“Yes, certainly. We are mindful, as a whole people, of the divine law —‘In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread.’”

“But the capitalists? I’m anxious about Number One, you see.”

“We have none.”

“I forgot, of course. But the lawyers, the doctors, the parsons, the novelists?”

“They all do their share of hand-work.”

The lawyer said: “That seems to dispose of the question of the working-man in society. But how about your minds? When do you cultivate your minds? When do the ladies of Altruria cultivate their minds, if they have to do their own work, as I suppose they do? Or is it only the men who work, if they happen to be the husbands and fathers of the upper classes?”

The Altrurian seemed to be sensible of the kindly scepticism which persisted in our reception of his statements, after all we had read of Altruria. He smiled indulgently, and said: “You mustn’t imagine that work in Altruria is the same as it is here. As we all work, the amount that each one need do is very little, a few hours each day at the most, so that every man and woman has abundant leisure and perfect spirits for the higher pleasures which the education of their whole youth has fitted them to enjoy. If you can understand a state of things where the sciences and arts and letters are cultivated for their own sake, and not as a means of livelihood —”

“No,” said the lawyer, smiling, “I’m afraid we can’t conceive of that. We consider the pinch of poverty the highest incentive that a man can have. If our gifted friend here,” he said, indicating me, “were not kept like a toad under the harrow, with his nose on the grindstone, and the poorhouse staring him in the face —”

“For Heaven’s sake,” I cried out, “don’t mix your metaphors so, anyway!”

“If it were not for that and all the other hardships that literary men undergo —

‘Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail’—

his novels probably wouldn’t be worth reading.”

“Ah!” said the Altrurian, as if he did not quite follow this joking; and, to tell the truth, I never find the personal thing in very good taste. “You will understand, then, how extremely difficult it is for me to imagine a condition of things like yours — although I have it under my very eyes — where the money consideration is the first consideration.”

“Oh, excuse me,” urged the minister; “I don’t think that’s quite the case.”

“I beg your pardon,” said the Altrurian, sweetly; “you can see how easily I go astray.”

“Why, I don’t know,” the banker interposed, “that you are so far out in what you say. If you had said that money was always the first motive, I should have been inclined to dispute you, too; but when you say that money is the first consideration, I think you are quite right. Unless a man secures his financial basis for his work, he can’t do his work. It’s nonsense to pretend otherwise. So the money consideration is the first consideration. People here have to live by their work, and to live they must have money. Of course, we all recognize a difference in the qualities, as well as in the kinds, of work. The work of the laborer may be roughly defined as the necessity of his life; the work of the business man as the means, and the work of the artist and scientist as the end. We might refine upon these definitions and make them closer, but they will serve for illustration as they are. I don’t think there can be any question as to which is the highest kind of work; some truths are self-evident. He is a fortunate man whose work is an end, and every business man sees this, and owns it to himself, at least when he meets some man of an aesthetic or scientific occupation. He knows that this luckier fellow has a joy in his work which he can never feel in business; that his success in it can never be embittered by the thought that it is the failure of another; that if he does it well, it is pure good; that there cannot be any competition in it — there can be only a noble emulation, as far as the work itself is concerned. He can always look up to his work, for it is something above him; and a business man often has to look down upon his business, for it is often beneath him, unless he is a pretty low fellow.”

I listened to all this in surprise; I knew that the banker was a cultivated man, a man of university training, and that he was a reader and a thinker; but he had always kept a certain reserve in his talk, which he now seemed to have thrown aside for the sake of the Altrurian, or because the subject had a charm that lured him out of himself. “Well, now,” he continued, “the question is of the money consideration, which is the first consideration with us all: does it, or doesn’t it degrade the work, which is the life, of those among us whose work is the highest? I understand that this is the misgiving which troubles you in view of our conditions?”

The Altrurian assented, and I thought it a proof of the banker’s innate delicacy that he did not refer the matter, so far as it concerned the aesthetic life and work, to me; I was afraid he was going to do so. But he courteously proposed to keep the question impersonal, and he went on to consider it himself: “Well, I don’t suppose any one can satisfy you fully. But I should say that it put such men under a double strain, and perhaps that is the reason why so many of them break down in a calling that is certainly far less exhausting than business. On one side, the artist is kept to the level of the working-man, of the animal, of the creature whose sole affair is to get something to eat and somewhere to sleep. This is through his necessity. On the other side, he is exalted to the height of beings who have no concern but with the excellence of their work, which they were born and divinely authorized to do. This is through his purpose. Between the two, I should say that he got mixed, and that his work shows it.”

None of the others said anything, and, since I had not been personally appealed to, I felt the freer to speak. “If you will suppose me to be speaking from observation rather than experience —” I began.

“By all means,” said the banker, “go on;” and the rest made haste in various forms to yield me the word.

“I should say that such a man certainly got mixed, but that his work kept itself pure from the money consideration, as it were, in spite of him. A painter or actor, or even a novelist, is glad to get all he can for his work, and, such is our fallen nature, he does get all he knows how to get: but, when he has once fairly passed into his work, he loses himself in it. He does not think whether it will pay or not, whether it will be popular or not, but whether he can make it good or not.”

“Well, that is conceivable,” said the banker. “But wouldn’t he rather do something he would get less for, if he could afford it, than the thing he knows he will get more for? Doesn’t the money consideration influence his choice of subject?”

“Oddly enough, I don’t believe it does,” I answered, after a moment’s reflection. “A man makes his choice once for all when he embraces the aesthetic life, or, rather, it is made for him; no other life seems possible. I know there is a general belief that an artist does the kind of thing he has made go because it pays; but this only shows the prevalence of business ideals. If he did not love to do the thing he does, he could not do it well, no matter how richly it paid.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said the banker, and he added to the Altrurian: “So, you see, we are not so bad as one would think. We are illogically better, in fact.”

“Yes,” the other assented. “I knew something of your literature as well as your conditions before I left home, and I perceived that by some anomaly the one was not tainted by the other. It is a miraculous proof of the divine mission of the poet.”

“And the popular novelist,” the lawyer whispered in my ear, but loud enough for the rest to hear, and they all testified their amusement at my cost.

The Altrurian, with his weak sense of humor, passed the joke. “It shows no signs of corruption from greed, but I can’t help thinking that, fine as it is, it might have been much finer if the authors who produced it had been absolutely freed to their work, and had never felt the spur of need.”

“Are they absolutely freed to it in Altruria?” asked the professor. “I understood you that everybody had to work for his living in Altruria.”

“That is a mistake. Nobody works for his living in Altruria; he works for others’ living.”

“Ah, that is precisely what our working-men object to doing here,” said the manufacturer. “In that last interview of mine with the walking delegate he had the impudence to ask me why my men should work for my living as well as their own.”

“He couldn’t imagine that you were giving them the work to do — the very means of life,” said the professor.

“Oh no, that’s the last thing those fellows want to think of.”

“Perhaps,” the Altrurian suggested, “they might not have found it such a hardship to work for your living if their own had been assured, as it is with us. If you will excuse my saying it, we should think it monstrous in Altruria for any man to have another’s means of life in his power; and in our condition it is hardly imaginable. Do you really have it in your power to take away a man’s opportunity to earn a living?”

The manufacturer laughed uneasily. “It is in my power to take away his life; but I don’t habitually shoot my fellow-men, and I never dismissed a man yet without good reason.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said the Altrurian. “I didn’t dream of accusing you of such inhumanity. But, you see, our whole system is so very different that, as I said, it is hard for me to conceive of yours, and I am very curious to understand its workings. If you shot your fellow-man, as you say, the law would punish you; but if, for some reason that you decided to be good, you took away his means of living, and he actually starved to death —”

“Then the law would have nothing to do with it,” the professor replied for the manufacturer, who did not seem ready to answer. “But that is not the way things fall out. The man would be supported in idleness, probably, till he got another job, by his union, which would take the matter up.”

“But I thought that our friend did not employ union labor,” returned the Altrurian.

I found all this very uncomfortable, and tried to turn the talk back to a point that I felt curious about: “But in Altruria, if the literary class is not exempt from the rule of manual labor, where do they find time and strength to write?”

“Why, you must realize that our manual labor is never engrossing or exhausting. It is no more than is necessary to keep the body in health. I do not see how you remain well here, you people of sedentary occupations.”

“Oh, we all take some sort of exercise. We walk several hours a day, or we row, or we ride a bicycle, or a horse, or we fence.”

“But to us,” returned the Altrurian, with a growing frankness which nothing but the sweetness of his manner would have excused, “exercise for exercise would appear stupid. The barren expenditure of force that began and ended in itself, and produced nothing, we should — if you will excuse my saying so — look upon as childish, if not insane or immoral.”


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38