Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/What Our Boys are Reading

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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays  (1880)  by William Graham Sumner
What Our Boys are Reading
Written 1880.


WHAT OUR BOYS ARE READING

[1880]

Few gentlemen who have occasion to visit news offices can have failed to notice the periodical literature for boys, which has been growing up during the last few years. The increase in the number of these papers and magazines, and the appearance from time to time of new ones which, to judge by the pictures, are always worse than the old, seem to indicate that they find a wide market. Moreover, they appear not only among the idle and vicious boys in great cities, but also among schoolboys whose parents are careful about the influences brought to bear on their children. No student of social phenomena can pass with neglect facts of this kind — so practical and so important in their possible effects on society.

These periodicals contain stories, songs, mock speeches, and negro minstrel dialogues — and nothing else. The literary material is either intensely stupid, or spiced to the highest degree with sensation. The stories are about hunting, Indian warfare, California desperado life, pirates, wild sea adventure, highwaymen, crimes and horrible accidents, horrors (tortures and snake stories), gamblers, practical jokes, the life of vagabond boys, and the wild behavior of dissipated youths in great cities. This catalogue is exhaustive — there are no other stories. The dialogue is short, sharp, and continuous. It is broken by the minimum of description and by no preaching. It is almost entirely in slang of the most exaggerated kind, and of every variety — that of the sea, of California, and of the Bowery; of negroes, "Dutchmen," Yankees, Chinese, and Indians, to say nothing of that of a score of the most irregular and questionable occupations ever followed by men. When the stories even nominally treat of school-life they say nothing of school-life. There is simply a succession of practical jokes, mischief, outrages, heroic but impossible feats, fighting and horrors, but nothing about the business of school, any more than if the house in which the boys live were a summer boarding-house. The sensational incidents in these stories are introduced by forces apparently for the mere purpose of producing a highly spiced mixture.

One type of hero who figures largely in these stories is the vagabond boy in the streets of a great city, in the Rocky Mountains, or at sea. Sometimes he has some cleverness in singing, or dancing, or ventriloquism, or negro acting, and he gains a precarious living while roving about. This vagabond life of adventure is represented as interesting and enticing, and when the hero rises from vagabond life to flash life, that is represented as success. Respectable home life, on the other hand, is not depicted at all and is only referred to as stupid and below the ambition of a clever youth. Industry and economy in some regular pursuit, or in study, are never mentioned at all. Generosity does not consist in even luxurious expenditure, but in wasting money. The type seems to be that of the gambler, one day "flush" and wasteful, another day ruined and in misery.

There is another type of boy who sometimes furnishes the hero of a story, but who also figures more or less in all of them. That is the imp of mischief — the sort of boy who is an intolerable nuisance to the neighborhood. The stories are told from the standpoint of the boy, so that he seems to be a fine fellow, and all the world, which is against him, is unjust and overbearing. His father, the immediate representative of society, executes its judgments with the rod, which again is an insult to the high-spirited youth and produces on his side either open war or a dignified retreat to some distant region.

These stories are not markedly profane, and they are not obscene. They are indescribably vulgar. They represent boys as engaging all the time in the rowdy type of drinking. The heroes are either swaggering, vulgar swells of the rowdy style, or they are in the vagabond mass below the rowdy swell. They are continually associating with criminals, gamblers, and low people who live by their wits. The theater of the stories is always disreputable. The proceedings and methods of persons of the criminal and disreputable classes who appear in the stories, are all described in detail, so that the boy reader obtains a theoretical and literary acquaintance with methods of fraud and crime. Sometimes drunkenness is represented in its disgrace and misery but generally drinking is represented as jolly and entertaining, and there is no suggestion that boys who act as the boys in these stories do ever have to pay any penalty for it in after life. The persons who are held up to admiration are the heroes and heroines of bar rooms, concert saloons, variety theaters, and negro minstrel troupes.

A few illustrations may serve to bring out some of the foregoing statements. One of the school stories before us has a "local color" which is purely English, although the names are Americanized. The mixture is ridiculous in the extreme. The hero is the son of a "country gentleman" of Ohio, and comes to school with an old drunkard, "ex-butler" of the Ohio country gentleman, whom he allows to join him at the Grand Central Depot. This scandalous old rascal is kept in the story apparently because an old drunkard is either a good instrument or a good victim for practical jokes. The hero goes to dine with a gentleman whose place, near the school, is called the "Priory." While waiting for dinner he goes out for a stroll in the "Park." He rescues a girl from drowning, sends back to school for another suit of clothes, goes out again and takes a ride on a bison, is thrown off, strikes, in falling, a professor, who is fortunately fat enough to break his fall, goes to the "snake house" with the professor, is fascinated by the rattlesnake which gets loose, seizes the reptile and throws it away after it has bitten through the professor's trousers — all before dinner. All the teachers, of course, are sneaks and blackguards. In this same story, one of the assistant teachers (usher, he is called) gets drunk and insults the principal, whereupon the latter, while he directs some of the boys to work a garden pump, holds the nozzle and throws water on the assistant, who lies helplessly drunk on the grass — all of which is enforced by a picture. There is not a decent good boy in the story; there is not even the old type of sneaking good boy. The sneaks and bullies are all despicable in the extreme. The heroes are continually devising mischief which is mean and cruel, but which is here represented as smart and funny. They all have a daredevil character, and brave the principal's rod as one of the smallest dangers of life. There is a great deal of the traditional English brutality in exaggerated forms. The nearest approach to anything respectable is that after another boy has been whipped for mischief done by the hero, the latter tells an accomplice that they ought to have confessed, whereat the friend replies with the crushing rejoinder that then there would only have been three flogged instead of one.

A character very common in these stories is the city youth, son of a rich father who does not give his son as much pocket-money as the latter considers suitable. This constitutes stinginess on the father's part, although it might be considered pardonable, seeing that these young men drink champagne every day, treat the crowd generally when they drink, and play billiards for one hundred dollars a game. The father, in this class of stories, is represented as secretly vicious and hypocritically pious. In the specimen of this class before us the young man is "discovered" in the police court as a prisoner, whence he is remanded to the Tombs. He has been arrested for collaring a big policeman, to prevent him from overtaking a girl charged with pocket-picking. He interfered because he judged from the girl's face that she was innocent, and it is suggested, for future development in the story, that she was running away from insult and that the cry of "stop thief" was to get help from the police and others to seize her. The hero, who is in prison under an assumed name, now sends for his father's clerk and demands one thousand dollars, saying that otherwise he will declare his real name and disgrace his family. He gets the money. He then sends for a notorious Tombs lawyer, to whom he gives five hundred dollars, and with this sum his release is easily procured. He then starts with his cousin to initiate the latter into life in New York. They go to a thieves' college, where they see a young fellow graduated — his part consists in taking things from the pockets of a hanging figure, to the garments of which bells are attached, without causing the bells to ring. Of this a full-page illustration is given. The two young men then go up the Bowery to a beer saloon, where the hero sustains his character by his vulgar familiarity with the girl waiters. Next they hear a row in a side street; they find a crowd collected watching a woman who hangs from a third-story window, while her drunken husband beats and cuts her hands to make her fall. The hero solves this situation by drawing his revolver and shooting the man. As he and his companion withdraw unobserved, the former wards off the compliments of the latter by saying modestly that he could not bear to stand there and see such a crowd looking on and not knowing what to do, so he just did the proper thing. Next day the hero, meeting the thieves' college graduate in the corridor of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, agrees to receive and hold for him any booty he may seize in the bar room, which he does. At night he and his friend go to a disreputable masked ball, where the hero recognizes his father in disguise amongst the dancers. Securing a place in the same set, during a pause in the dance he snatches the mask from his own face and his father's at the same moment. This edifying incident is enforced by a full-page illustration. A friend suggests the question: what demon of truthfulness makes the artist put such brutal and vulgar faces on the men? In this class of stories, fathers and sons are represented as natural enemies, and the true position for the son is that of suspicion and armed peace.

Here, again, is a story of a boy who was left in charge of a country grocery store. To amuse his leisure he takes a lump of butter from the stock and greases the platform in front of the store. Several village characters, among them an old maid, the parson, and the squire, come to perform on this arena for the amusement of the youth and one or two of his friends. While the squire is trying to get up or get off the platform, the owner of the grocery returns and he and the squire have a fight on the grass-plot over the question whether the grocer greased his own platform or not. Next comes Nemesis in the shape of the boy's father. The conversation between these two, and the dénouement, may be worth quoting. In the soliloquy at the end there seems to be a reminiscence of Fisk.

"James," said he, "you are breaking my heart with your incorrigible conduct."

"Is dat a chowder-gag?" calmly inquired Jimmy.

"Slang — slang, always slang!" groaned his father. "James, will you never reform?"

"Don't wanter; I'm good enough now."

"Think of what you might be, a pattern boy, a — "

"Brass-bound angel, silver-plated cherub, little tin missionary on rollers," put in Jimmy, apparently in confidence to a fly on the ceiling.

"Actually sassing his protector," the deacon said. "Oh, James, you wicked son of Belial."

"Pop's name was Dennis, and he was a short-haired Cincinnati ham," indignantly corrected Jimmy. "I don't know anybody named Belial."

The deacon made a horrified mouth.

"Will you never hearken in quietude and meekness of spirit to words of reproval and advice?" said he.

"Darned sight ruther listen to funny stories," muttered Jimmy.

"You are hopeless," sighed the deacon, "and I shall have to chastise you."

"Dat means a week's soreness," Jimmy reflected; then he changed his tune. "Let me off this time, dad, and I'll be the best boy you ever saw after dis. Stay in nights, stop chewing tobacco, clean my teeth every morning, and welt the life out of anybody dat won't say their prayers regular and go to church every day in the week."

The deacon nodded his head the wrong way.

"You can't play that on the old man again," he said; "it's lost its varnish, it's played out. Step up, my son."

Unwillingly Jimmy stepped up.

In a moment he was stepping up more than ever, for the deacon was pelting him all over with a stout switch, which felt the reverse of agreeable.

But finally he was released and crawled dolefully up to bed.

There are things nicer than going to bed at four o'clock on a bright, breezy, fall day, and Jimmy knew so.

"This here is getting awful stale," he meditated, rolling and tossing in his cot, "and you can smother me with fish-cakes if I stand it. I'm going to run away, and come back to dis old one-hoss town when I'm a man, in a gold-band wagon with silver wheels and six Maltese mules a-drawing it. Probably the old man will be in the poorhouse then, swallerin' shadow soup with an iron spoon, and it will make him cranky to think dat he didn't used ter let me have my own way and boss things. Yes, by golly, I'll give him the sublime skip."

The songs and dialogues are almost all utterly stupid. The dialogues depend for any interest they have on the most vapid kind of negro minstrel buffoonery. The songs, without having any distinct character, seem often to be calculated to win applause from tramps and rioters. The verse, of all before us, which has the most point to it, is the following. What the point is requires no elucidation:

Boss Tweed is a man most talked about now,
His departure last winter caused a great row;
Of course we all knew it was not a square game,
But show me the man who would not do the same.

When Sweeney, Genet and Dick Connolly took flight,
He stood here alone and made a good fight;
He did wrong, but when poor men were greatly in need,
The first to assist them was William M. Tweed.

From the specimens which we have examined we may generalize the following in regard to the views of life which these stories inculcate and the code of morals and manners which they teach.

The first thing which a boy ought to acquire is physical strength for fighting purposes. The feats of strength performed by these youngsters in combat with men and animals are ridiculous in the extreme. In regard to details the supposed code of English brutality prevails, especially in the stories which have English local color, but it is always mixed with the code of the revolver, and in many of the stories the latter is taught in its fulness. These youngsters generally carry revolvers and use them at their good discretion; every youth who aspires to manliness ought to get and carry a revolver.

A boy ought to cheat the penurious father who does not give him as much money as he finds necessary, and ought to compel him to pay. A good way to force him to pay liberally, and at the same time to stop criticizing his son's habits, is to find out his own vices (he always has some) and then to levy blackmail on him. Every boy who does not want to be "green" and "soft," ought to "see the elephant." All fine manly young fellows are familiar with the actors and singers at variety theaters and the girl waiters at concert saloons. As to drinking, the bar room code is taught. The boys stop in at bar rooms all along the street, swallow drinks standing or leaning with rowdy grace on the bar, treat and are treated, and consider it insulting to refuse or to be refused. The good fellows meet every one on a footing of equality — above all in a bar room.

Quiet home life is stupid and unmanly; boys brought up in it never know the world or life. They have to work hard and to bow down to false doctrines which parsons and teachers in league with parents have invented against boys. To become a true man, a boy must break with respectability and join the vagabonds and the swell mob. No fine young fellow who knows life need mind the law, still less the police — the latter are all stupid louts. If a boy's father is rich and has money, he can easily find smart lawyers (advertisement gratis) who can get the boy out of prison and will dine with him at Delmonico's afterward. The sympathies of a manly young fellow are with criminals against the law, and he conceals crime when he can. Whatever good or ill happens to a young man he should always be gay; — the only ills in question are physical pain or lack of money and these should be borne with gaiety and indifference, but should not alter the philosophy of life.

As to the rod, it is not so easy to generalize. Teachers and parents in these stories act faithfully up to Solomon's precept. When a father flogs his son, the true doctrine seems to be that the son should run away and seek a life of adventure. When he does this he has no difficulty in finding friends, or in living by his wits, so that he makes money and comes back rich and glorious, to find his father in the poorhouse.

These periodicals seem to be intended for boys from twelve to sixteen years of age, although they often treat of older persons. Probably many boys outgrow them and come to see the folly and falsehood of them. It is impossible, however, that so much corruption should be afloat and not exert some influence. We say nothing of the great harm which is done to boys of that age, by the nervous excitement of reading harrowing and sensational stories, because the literature before us only participates in that harm with other literature of far higher pretensions. But what we have said suffices to show that these papers poison boys' minds with views of life which are so base and false as to destroy all manliness and all chances of true success. How far they are read by boys of good home influences we are, of course, unable to say. They certainly are within the reach of all; they can be easily obtained, and easily concealed, and it is a question for parents and teachers how far this is done. Persons under those responsibilities ought certainly to know what the character of this literature is.