“One good man in a hundred is a freak, a man lit up by a light from within. The other ninety-nine are just what the social order makes them”. – George Russell
This is another excerpt from an upcoming book of letters from Arnold Marsh 1890 to 1977, this one to his sister Sylvia.
It’s wartime (WWI) and Arnold speaks about England, America and the Social Order – strange comparisons can be made and social ethics and social conscience are still needing our ‘global’ attention, one hundred years later our problems have gotten far worse instead of far better.
Juneau | Alaska | June 27th 1917
My dear Sisterkin,
Doesn’t “little brotherkin” mean “little little brother”, and wouldn’t that be an instance of what a writer in the New Republic condemned recently as “blowsiness”? Woodrow Wilson is blowsy, and so is H.G. Wells.
I was thinking of lecturing you on blowsiness, but maybe I’d better not. I got your letter at noon today, and am able to reply to it instanter because the rain came on and stopped operations where I was working. My business nowadays is to mix plaster and I get fifty cents an hour for doing so, but I wish people couldn’t be so anxious to know what I work at, because I take no interest in the work and as I have to think about it a good deal during the week I like to forget it on Sunday, or whenever I’m writing letters.
Yes indeedy. I’m glad Mother didn’t get that letter in which I tried to explain why I was going to enlist, for what I said would have seemed very wicked to her. Only last week she gave me an earnest talking-to on the wiliness of Satan, and I could hardly avoid replying on Sunday, but what’s the use? What is the use? I used to argue a lot but nowadays I hardly ever do it, for I can’t see that it does any good unless both arguer and arguee are anxious to discover the truth. How many honest people do you know? I’m greatly troubled about the dishonesty of people’s minds, for I had conviction of sin rather badly a few months ago, after I had recovered from a state of unreasonable hatred for England. Of course I knew all the time that I was wrong, but when those poor fellows were executed in Dublin I couldn’t argue myself out of my bad temper. I tried to feel that England had merely committed another stupid blunder, with perfectly good intentions, but my feelings all the time were much more emphatic, and I couldn’t think of England without contempt and loathing, as Mr Nance would say. Since I got over that I’ve been trying very hard to be good, but I’ve lost confidence in myself. I know now that I’m not as reasonable as I’d like to be. What am I to do about it? And how am I to have confidence in other people when I know that my own much respected (as it used to be) mind is as unreliable as anybody’s? You ask me why I should love America so much. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of the idealism of its great men, and women, and maybe it’s because it’s so young and boyish and promising. You exaggerate most cruelly in your accusation of dishonesty in public life. There have been lots of very bad episodes, and there is still lots of dirty work, and I think probably the standard of business is lower here than in England, but things really are getting better. Political life provided a paradise for scoundrels as long as people were too busy or too comfortable to care about politics, and there was no ruling class with an instinct for chivalry as there was in England, and so abuses came in; but when once dishonesty becomes indecent I think it will come to an end. There is never a word breathed against the honour of the present government, except by people who take no interest in politics, or are dishonest themselves and think everyone else is the same.
Then again Americans are almost all adventurers or the descendants of adventurers. Mostly they came for money and opportunity for pushing themselves ahead. The descendants of the old Puritans are just a drop in the bucket compared with the hundred million inhabitants of today, and whatever their sense of honour may be it has very little influence on the minds of the others until the others learn by experience the social value of honour, for the others have come for independence and are not going to accept traditions or usages merely because they are preached by the old families. England has had the same experience. Honour is an innovation in English public life. Look at Walpole! He used all the methods of a Tammany crook, but if a man of the same character was in power in England today he would probably be honest. He could hardly get into power without being honest. I often think of George Russell’s saying, “One man in a hundred is a freak, a man lit up by a light from within, and the other ninety nine are just what the social order makes them”. The social order recently began to make English public men honest, and you can bet your little boots that the social order in America is undergoing a great change today. It may be that this will be the happiest country that the world has ever known, and the best governed and the friendliest and most beautiful, for here there is no real tradition of snobbery or of servitude. People try to invent one when they get rich, but the poor know too well that wealth does not make people better, and I doubt whether American aristocracy will ever be much more than a joke. Of course we’re just human animals, we Americans, scrambling through life all higgledy piggledy, all very cheerful and sinful and hopeful, but our habit of accepting each man as a man and not as a member of a class has made actual brotherhood easier to attain than it is in a European country where the ancient class tradition has to be fought before every step. Maybe you think it’s cowardly to like America because American problems may be solved more easily than yours, but really the memory of England almost makes me despair. I can’t picture the “New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”, but I can picture it in America. Still, I doubt whether I’ll settle here. I have no friends and see no likelihood of making any, and at home I have friends all over the place.
By the way, you ask about Dick Graham. He was given exemption on condition that he undertook work of national importance, and on looking through the F.A.U. list of such work, he found teaching included, and as he wanted to be a teacher he became one. On the recommendation of that famous divine, Dr Selbie, he got a place at Bishop’s Stortford (A nonconformist public school in Hants.), and at the end of his first of term he was promoted to the position of the man above him, who was dismissed for the purpose.
What on earth do you mean by abusing slackers and then admitting that you don’t really know what the Allies are fighting for? If even the learned You, with all your study of the matter, can’t see what is to be gained by fighting, how can you blame these other poor fellows for feeling the same? Probably they are thoughtless and ignorant, but they feel instinctively that they’ll be just as happy whether Britain wins or loses, and so why should they give up their lives for nothing? It may be that they are no more indifferent than Americans were a year ago, but as long as the old Czar government existed in Russia it seemed morally impossible for this country to take sides. Now that we have gone in the whole situation is clearer, for Wilson has made it the country’s object to improve a league of nations over nations now independent, and has given a much better reason for fighting than any of the Allies. Britain of course had a perfect excuse for fighting, and the morality of the Radicals was able to join with the jingoism of the Tories and make the country unanimous against Germany, but ever since the war started Britain seems to have been wobbling between liberalism and imperialism, and Heaven only knows what Britain is fighting for now, for certainly Britain doesn’t.
You do puzzle me. You say in one sentence that France was prepared and in almost the next that her war materials were disgracefully inadequate. What in thunder do you mean? As for its being rather good of Russia to enter the war, – oh great hat! I can’t argue for laffing.Please excuse this sort of a letter. I’d like to meet you face to face. It takes too much effort to write replies, and I’m tired. Honest I am. I’ve been working hard. I have lots of things I would tell about, but if I don’t finish now I don’t know when I will finish. You’d better write again, and maybe I’ll have more time to reply. Your letter was certainly interesting. Why shouldn’t Frank be mad seeing that we all are? Why didn’t you like Ann Veronica herself? I’d have liked her immensely I think. In what way is divorce too easy in America? What is there nauseating about the Old Wives Tale? I was so entranced I could barely leave the book to eat or sleep. How can you or anybody else endure reading a history of the war? Wouldn’t it be fearful supposing we did meet again and begin to argue?
With love from