A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


It was not easy to make sure of such innocence as prompted this inquiry of my Altrurian friend. The doubt whether he could really be in earnest was something that I had already felt; and it was destined to beset me, as it did now, again and again. My first thought was that, of course, he was trying a bit of cheap irony on me, a mixture of the feeble sarcasm and false sentiment that makes us smile when we find it in the philippics of the industrial agitators. For a moment I did not know but I had fallen victim to a walking delegate on his vacation, who was employing his summer leisure in going about the country in the guise of a traveler from Altruria, and foisting himself upon people who would have had nothing to do with him in his real character. But in another moment I perceived that this was impossible. I could not suppose that the friend who had introduced him to me would be capable of seconding so poor a joke, and, besides, I could not imagine why a walking delegate should wish to address his clumsy satire to me particularly. For the present, at least, there was nothing for it but to deal with this inquiry as if it were made in good faith and in the pursuit of useful information. It struck me as grotesque; but it would not have been decent to treat it as if it were so. I was obliged to regard it seriously, and so I decided to shirk it.

“Well,” I said, “that opens up rather a large field, which lies somewhat outside of the province of my own activities. You know, I am a writer of romantic fiction, and my time is so fully occupied in manipulating the destinies of the good old-fashioned hero and heroine, and trying always to make them end in a happy marriage, that I have hardly had a chance to look much into the lives of agriculturists or artisans; and, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what they do with their leisure. I’m pretty certain, though, you won’t meet any of them in this hotel; they couldn’t afford it, and I fancy they would find themselves out of their element among our guests. We respect them thoroughly; every American does, and we know that the prosperity of the country rests with them; we have a theory that they are politically sovereign, but we see very little of them, and we don’t associate with them. In fact, our cultivated people have so little interest in them socially that they don’t like to meet them, even in fiction; they prefer refined and polished ladies and gentlemen, whom they can have some sympathy with; and I always go to the upper classes for my types. It won’t do to suppose, though, that we are indifferent to the working classes in their place. Their condition is being studied a good deal just now, and there are several persons here who will be able to satisfy your curiosity on the points you have made, I think. I will introduce you to them.”

The Altrurian did not try to detain me this time. He said he should be very glad indeed to meet my friends, and I led the way toward a little group at the corner of the piazza. They were men whom I particularly liked, for one reason or another; they were intelligent and open-minded, and they were thoroughly American. One was a banker; another was a minister; there was a lawyer, and there was a doctor; there was a professor of political economy in one of our colleges; and there was a retired manufacturer — I do not know what he used to manufacture: cotton or iron, or something like that. They all rose politely as I came up with my Altrurian, and I fancied in them a sensation of expectancy created by the rumor of his eccentric behavior which must have spread through the hotel. But they controlled this if they had it, and I could see, as the light fell upon his face from a spray of electrics on the nearest pillar, that sort of liking kindle in theirs which I had felt myself at first sight of him.

I said, “Gentlemen, I wish to introduce my friend, Mr. Homos,” and then I presented them severally to him by name. We all sat down, and I explained: “Mr. Homos is from Altruria. He is visiting our country for the first time, and is greatly interested in the working of our institutions. He has been asking me some rather hard questions about certain phases of our civilization; and the fact is that I have launched him upon you because I don’t feel quite able to cope with him.”

They all laughed civilly at this sally of mine, but the professor asked, with a sarcasm that I thought I hardly merited, “What point in our polity can be obscure to the author of ‘Glove and Gauntlet’ and ‘Airs and Graces’?”

They all laughed again, not so civilly, I felt, and then the banker asked my friend: “Is it long since you left Altruria?”

“It seems a great while ago,” the Altrurian answered, “but it is really only a few weeks.”

“You came by way of England, I suppose?”

“Yes; there is no direct line to America,” said the Altrurian.

“That seems rather odd,” I ventured, with some patriotic grudge.

“Oh, the English have direct lines everywhere,” the banker instructed me.

“The tariff has killed our shipbuilding,” said the professor. No one took up this firebrand, and the professor added: “Your name is Greek, isn’t it, Mr. Homos?”

“Yes; we are of one of the early Hellenic families,” said the Altrurian.

“And do you think,” asked the lawyer, who, like most lawyers, was a lover of romance, and was well read in legendary lore especially, “that there is any reason for supposing that Altruria is identical with the fabled Atlantis’?”

“No, I can’t say that I do. We have no traditions of a submergence of the continent, and there are only the usual evidences of a glacial epoch which you find everywhere to support such a theory. Besides, our civilization is strictly Christian, and dates back to no earlier period than that of the first Christian commune after Christ. It is a matter of history with us that one of these communists, when they were dispersed, brought the Gospel to our continent; he was cast away on our eastern coast on his way to Britain.”

“Yes, we know that,” the minister intervened, “but it is perfectly astonishing that an island so large as Altruria should have been lost to the knowledge of the rest of the world ever since the beginning of our era. You would hardly think that there was a space of the ocean’s surface a mile square which had not been traversed by a thousand keels since Columbus sailed westward.”

“No, you wouldn’t. And I wish,” the doctor suggested in his turn, “that Mr. Homos would tell us something about his country, instead of asking us about ours.”

“Yes,” I coincided, “I’m sure we should all find it a good deal easier. At least I should; but I brought our friend up in the hope that the professor would like nothing better than to train a battery of hard facts upon a defenceless stranger.” Since the professor had given me that little stab, I was rather anxious to see how he would handle the desire for information in the Altrurian which I had found so prickly.

This turned the laugh on the professor, and he pretended to be as curious about Altruria as the rest, and said he would rather hear of it. But the Altrurian said: “I hope you will excuse me. Sometime I shall be glad to talk of Altruria as long as you like; or, if you will come to us, I shall be still happier to show you many things that I couldn’t make you understand at a distance. But I am in America to learn, not to teach, and I hope you will have patience with my ignorance. I begin to be afraid that it is so great as to seem a little incredible. I have fancied in my friend here,” he went on, with a smile toward me, “a suspicion that I was not entirely single in some of the inquiries I have made, but that I had some ulterior motive, some wish to censure or satirize.”

“Oh, not at all,” I protested, for it was not polite to admit a conjecture so accurate. “We are so well satisfied with our condition that we have nothing but pity for the darkened mind of the foreigner, though we believe in it fully: we are used to the English tourist.”

My friends laughed, and the Altrurian continued: “I am very glad to hear it, for I feel myself at a peculiar disadvantage among you. I am not only a foreigner, but I am so alien to you in all the traditions and habitudes that I find it very difficult to get upon common ground with you. Of course, I know theoretically what you are, but to realize it practically is another thing. I had read so much about America and understood so little that I could not rest without coming to see for myself. Some of the apparent contradictions were so colossal —”

“We have everything on a large scale here,” said the banker, breaking off the ash of his cigar with the end of his little finger, “and we rather pride ourselves on the size of our inconsistencies, even. I know something of the state of things in Altruria, and, to be frank with you, I will say that it seems to me preposterous. I should say it was impossible, if it were not an accomplished fact; but I always feel bound to recognize the thing done. You have hitched your wagon to a star, and you have made the star go; there is never any trouble with wagons, but stars are not easily broken to harness, and you have managed to get yours well in hand. As I said, I don’t believe in you, but I respect you.” I thought this charming, myself; perhaps because it stated my own mind about Altruria so exactly and in terms so just and generous.

“Pretty good,” said the doctor, in a murmur of satisfaction, at my ear, “for a bloated bond-holder.”

“Yes,” I whispered back, “I wish I had said it. What an American way of putting it! Emerson would have liked it himself. After all, he was our prophet.”

“He must have thought so from the way we kept stoning him,” said the doctor, with a soft laugh.

“Which of our contradictions,” asked the banker, in the same tone of gentle bonhomie, “has given you and our friend pause just now?”

The Altrurian answered, after a moment: “I am not sure that it is a contradiction, for as yet I have not ascertained the facts I was seeking. Our friend was telling me of the great change that had taken place in regard to work, and the increased leisure that your professional people are now allowing themselves; and I was asking him where your working-men spent their leisure.”

He went over the list of those he had specified, and I hung my head in shame and pity; it really had such an effect of mawkish sentimentality. But my friends received it in the best possible way. They did not laugh; they heard him out, and then they quietly deferred to the banker, who made answer for us all:

“Well, I can be almost as brief as the historian of Iceland in his chapter on snakes: those people have no leisure to spend.”

“Except when they go out on a strike,” said the manufacturer, with a certain grim humor of his own; I never heard anything more dramatic than the account he once gave of the way he broke up a labor union. “I have seen a good many of them at leisure then.”

“Yes,” the doctor chimed in, “and in my younger days, when I necessarily had a good deal of charity practice, I used to find them at leisure when they were ‘laid off.’ It always struck me as such a pretty euphemism. It seemed to minify the harm of the thing so. It seemed to take all the hunger and cold and sickness out of the fact. To be simply ‘laid off’ was so different from losing your work and having to face beggary or starvation.”

“Those people,” said the professor, “never put anything by. They are wasteful and improvident, almost to a man; and they learn nothing by experience, though they know as well as we do that it is simply a question of demand and supply, and that the day of overproduction is sure to come, when their work must stop unless the men that give them work are willing to lose money.”

“And I’ve seen them lose it, sometimes, rather than shut down,” the manufacturer remarked; “lose it hand over hand, to keep the men at work; and then as soon as the tide turned the men would strike for higher wages. You have no idea of the ingratitude of those people.” He said this toward the minister, as if he did not wish to be thought hard; and, in fact, he was a very kindly man.

“Yes,” replied the minister, “that is one of the most sinister features of the situation. They seem really to regard their employers as their enemies. I don’t know how it will end.”

“I know how it would end if I had my way,” said the professor. “There wouldn’t be any labor unions, and there wouldn’t be any strikes.”

“That is all very well,” said the lawyer, from that judicial mind which I always liked in him, “as far as the strikes are concerned, but I don’t understand that the abolition of the unions would affect the impersonal process of ‘laying off.’ The law of demand and supply I respect as much as any one — it’s something like the constitution; but, all the same, I should object extremely to have my income stopped by it every now and then. I’m probably not so wasteful as a working-man generally is; still, I haven’t laid by enough to make it a matter of indifference to me whether my income went on or not. Perhaps the professor has.” The professor did not say, and we all took leave to laugh. The lawyer concluded: “I don’t see how those fellows stand it.”

“They don’t, all of them,” said the doctor. “Or their wives and children don’t. Some of them die.”

“I wonder,” the lawyer pursued, “what has become of the good old American fact that there is always work for those who are willing to work? I notice that wherever five thousand men strike in the forenoon, there are five thousand men to take their places in the afternoon — and not men who are turning their hands to something new, but men who are used to doing the very thing the strikers have done.”

“That is one of the things that teach the futility of strikes,” the professor made haste to interpose, as if he had not quite liked to appear averse to the interests of the workman; no one likes to do that. “If there were anything at all to be hoped from them, it would be another matter.”

“Yes, but that isn’t the point, quite,” said the lawyer.

“By-the-way, what is the point?” I asked, with my humorous lightness.

“Why, I supposed,” said the banker, “it was the question how the working classes amused their elegant leisure. But it seems to be almost anything else.”

We all applauded the neat touch, but the Altrurian eagerly entreated: “No, no; never mind that now. That is a matter of comparatively little interest. I would so much rather know something about the status of the working-man among you.”

“Do you mean his political status? It’s that of every other citizen.”

“I don’t mean that. I suppose that in America you have learned, as we have in Altruria, that equal political rights are only means to an end, and as an end have no value or reality. I meant the economic status of the working-man, and his social status.”

I do not know why we were so long girding up our loins to meet this simple question. I myself could not have hopefully undertaken to answer it; but the others were each in their way men of affairs, and practically acquainted with the facts, except perhaps the professor; but he had devoted a great deal of thought to them, and ought to have been qualified to make some sort of response. But even he was silent; and I had a vague feeling that they were all somehow reluctant to formulate their knowledge, as if it were uncomfortable or discreditable. The banker continued to smoke quietly on for a moment; then he suddenly threw his cigar away.

“I like to free my mind of cant,” he said, with a short laugh, “when I can afford it, and I propose to cast all sorts of American cant out of it in answering your question. The economic status of the working-man among us is essentially the same as that of the working-man all over the civilized world. You will find plenty of people here, especially about election time, to tell you differently, but they will not be telling you the truth, though a great many of them think they are. In fact, I suppose most Americans honestly believe because we have a republican form of government, and manhood suffrage, and so on, that our economic conditions are peculiar, and that our working-man has a status higher and better than that of the working-man anywhere else. But he has nothing of the kind. His circumstances are better, and provisionally his wages are higher, but it is only a question of years or decades when his circumstances will be the same and his wages the same as the European working-man’s. There is nothing in our conditions to prevent this.”

“Yes, I understood from our friend here,” said the Altrurian, nodding toward me, “that you had broken only with the political tradition of Europe in your Revolution; and he has explained to me that you do not hold all kinds of labor in equal esteem; but —”

“What kind of labor did he say we did hold in esteem?” asked the banker.

“Why, I understood him to say that if America meant anything at all it meant the honor of work, but that you distinguished and did not honor some kinds of work so much as others; for instance, domestic service, or personal attendance of any kind.”

The banker laughed again. “Oh, he drew the line there, did he? Well, we all have to draw the line somewhere. Our friend is a novelist, and I will tell you in strict confidence that the line he has drawn is imaginary. We don’t honor any kind of work any more than any other people. If a fellow gets up, the papers make a great ado over his having been a woodchopper or a bobbin-boy, or something of that kind, but I doubt if the fellow himself likes it; he doesn’t if he’s got any sense. The rest of us feel that it’s infra dig., and hope nobody will find out that we ever worked with our hands for a living. I’ll go further,” said the banker, with the effect of whistling prudence down the wind, “and I will challenge any of you to gainsay me from his own experience or observation. How does esteem usually express itself? When we wish, to honor a man, what do we do?”

“Ask him to dinner,” said the lawyer.

“Exactly. We offer him some sort of social recognition. Well, as soon as a fellow gets up, if he gets up high enough, we offer him some sort of social recognition; in fact, all sorts; but upon condition that he has left off working with his hands for a living. We forgive all you please to his past on account of the present. But there isn’t a working-man, I venture to say, in any city or town, or even large village, in the whole length and breadth of the United States who has any social recognition, if he is still working at his trade. I don’t mean, merely, that he is excluded from rich and fashionable society, but from the society of the average educated and cultivated people. I’m not saying he is fit for it; but I don’t care how intelligent and agreeable he might be-and some of them are astonishingly intelligent, and so agreeable in their tone of mind and their original way of looking at things that I like nothing better than to talk with them — all of our invisible fences are up against him.”

The minister said: “I wonder if that sort of exclusiveness is quite natural? Children seem to feel no sort of social difference among themselves.”

“We can hardly go to children for a type of social order,” the professor suggested.

“True,” the minister meekly admitted. “But somehow there is a protest in us somewhere against these arbitrary distinctions — something that questions whether they are altogether right. We know that they must be, and always have been, and always will be, and yet — well, I will confess it — I never feel at peace when I face them.”

“Oh,” said the banker, “if you come to the question of right and wrong, that is another matter. I don’t say it’s right. I’m not discussing that question; though I’m certainly not proposing to level the fences; I should be the last to take my own down. I say simply that you are no more likely to meet a working-man in American society than you are to meet a colored man. Now you can judge,” he ended, turning directly to the Altrurian, “how much we honor labor. And I hope I have indirectly satisfied your curiosity as to the social status of the working-man among us.”

We were all silent.

Perhaps the others were occupied like myself in trying to recall some instance of a working-man whom they had met in society, and perhaps we said nothing because we all failed.

The Altrurian spoke at last.

“You have been so very full and explicit that I feel as if it were almost unseemly to press any further inquiry; but I should very much like to know how your working-men bear this social exclusion.”

“I’m sure I can’t say,” returned the banker. “A man does not care much to get into society until he has something to eat, and how to get that is always the first question with the working-man.”

“But you wouldn’t like it yourself?”

“No, certainly, I shouldn’t like it myself. I shouldn’t complain of not being asked to people’s houses, and the working-men don’t; you can’t do that; but I should feel it an incalculable loss. We may laugh at the emptiness of society, or pretend to be sick of it, but there is no doubt that society is the flower of civilization, and to be shut out from it is to be denied the best privilege of a civilized man. There are society women — we have all met them — whose graciousness and refinement of presence are something of incomparable value; it is more than a liberal education to have been admitted to it, but it is as inaccessible to the working-man as — what shall I say? The thing is too grotesquely impossible for any sort of comparison. Merely to conceive of its possibility is something that passes a joke; it is a kind of offence.”

Again we were silent.

“I don’t know,” the banker continued, “how the notion of our social equality originated, but I think it has been fostered mainly by the expectation of foreigners, who argued it from our political equality. As a matter of fact, it never existed, except in our poorest and most primitive communities, in the pioneer days of the West and among the gold-hunters of California. It was not dreamed of in our colonial society, either in Virginia or Pennsylvania or New York or Massachusetts; and the fathers of the republic, who were mostly slave-holders, were practically as stiff-necked aristocrats as any people of their day. We have not a political aristocracy, that is all; but there is as absolute a division between the orders of men and as little love, in this country as in any country on the globe. The severance of the man who works for his living with his hands from the man who does not work for his living with his hands is so complete, and apparently so final, that nobody even imagines anything else, not even in fiction. Or, how is that?” he asked, turning to me. “Do you fellows still put the intelligent, high-spirited, handsome young artisan, who wins the millionaire’s daughter, into your books? I used sometimes to find him there.”

“You might still find him in the fiction of the weekly story-papers; but,” I was obliged to own, “he would not go down with my readers. Even in the story-paper fiction he would leave off working as soon as he married the millionaire’s daughter, and go to Europe, or he would stay here and become a social leader, but he would not receive working-men in his gilded halls.”

The others rewarded my humor with a smile, but the banker said: “Then I wonder you were not ashamed of filling our friend up with that stuff about our honoring some kinds of labor. It is true that we don’t go about openly and explicitly despising any kind of honest toil — people don’t do that anywhere now; but we contemn it in terms quite as unmistakable. The working-man acquiesces as completely as anybody else. He does not remain a working-man a moment longer that he can help; and after he gets up, if he is weak enough to be proud of having been one, it is because he feels that his low origin is a proof of his prowess in rising to the top against unusual odds. I don’t suppose there is a man in the whole civilized world — outside of Altruria, of course —— who is proud of working at a trade, except the shoemaker Tolstoy, and is a count, and he does not make very good shoes.”

We all laughed again: those shoes of Count Tolstoy’s are always such an infallible joke.

The Altrurian, however, was cocked and primed with another question; he instantly exploded it: “But are all the working-men in America eager to rise above their condition? Is there none willing to remain among the mass because the rest could not rise with him, and from the hope of yet bringing labor to honor?”

The banker answered: “I never heard of any. No, the American ideal is not to change the conditions for all, but for each to rise above the rest if he can.”

“Do you think it is really so bad as that?” asked the minister, timidly.

The banker answered: “Bad? Do you call that bad? I thought it was very good. But, good or bad, I don’t think you’ll find it deniable, if you look into the facts. There may be working-men willing to remain so for other working-men’s sake, but I have never met any — perhaps because the working-man never goes into society.”

The unfailing question of the Altrurian broke the silence which ensued: “Are there many of your working-men who are intelligent and agreeable — of the type you mentioned a moment since?”

“Perhaps,” said the banker, “I had better refer you to one of our friends here, who has had a great deal more to do with them than I have. He is a manufacturer, and he has had to do with all kinds of work-people.”

“Yes, for my sins,” the manufacturer assented; and he added: “They are often confoundedly intelligent, though I haven’t often found them very agreeable, either in their tone of mind or their original way of looking at things.”

The banker amiably acknowledged his thrust, and the Altrurian asked: “Ah, they are opposed to your own?”

“Well, we have the same trouble here that you must have heard of in England. As you know now that the conditions are the same here, you won’t be surprised at the fact.”

“But the conditions,” the Altrurian pursued —“do you expect them always to continue the same?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the manufacturer. “We can’t expect them to change of themselves, and I shouldn’t know how to change them. It was expected that the rise of the trusts and the syndicates would break the unions, but somehow they haven’t. The situation remains the same. The unions are not cutting one another’s throats now any more than we are. The war is on a larger scale — that’s all.”

“Then let me see,” said the Altrurian, “whether I clearly understand the situation as regards the working-man in America. He is dependent upon the employer for his chance to earn a living, and he is never sure of this. He may be thrown out of work by his employer’s disfavor or disaster, and his willingness to work goes for nothing; there is no public provision of work for him; there is nothing to keep him from want nor the prospect of anything.”

“We are all in the same boat,” said the professor.

“But some of us have provisioned ourselves rather better and can generally weather it through till we are picked up,” the lawyer put in.

“I am always saying the working-man is improvident,” returned the professor.

“There are the charities,” the minister suggested.

“But his economical status,” the Altrurian pursued, “is in a state of perpetual uncertainty, and to save himself in some measure he has organized, and so has constituted himself a danger to the public peace?”

“A very great danger,” said the professor.

“I guess we can manage him,” the manufacturer remarked.

“And socially he is non-existent?”

The Altrurian turned with this question to the banker, who said: “He is certainly not in society.”

“Then,” said my guest, “if the working-man’s wages are provisionally so much better here than in Europe, why should they be discontented? What is the real cause of their discontent?”

I have always been suspicious, in the company of practical men, of an atmosphere of condescension to men of my calling, if nothing worse. I fancy they commonly regard artists of all kinds as a sort of harmless eccentrics, and that literary people they look upon as something droll, as weak and soft, as not quite right. I believed that this particular group, indeed, was rather abler to conceive of me as a rational person than most others, but I knew that if even they had expected me to be as reasonable as themselves they would not have been greatly disappointed if I were not; and it seemed to me that I had put myself wrong with them in imparting to the Altrurian that romantic impression that we hold labor in honor here. I had really thought so, but I could not say so now, and I wished to retrieve myself somehow. I wished to show that I was a practical man, too, and so I made answer: “What is the cause of the working-man’s discontent? It is very simple: the walking delegate.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56