The Average Man As I See Him
By Joseph C. Lincoln
THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE
January, 1926. volume CI (1): 7-9, 118-122
A LETTER came in my mail the other day which was, in its way, unique. It is quite possible—yes, probable—that other people feel as the writer of this letter feels, but she at least put her feeling upon paper and sent the paper to me. She said:
"Why is it that the characters in your novels and stories are all—or practically all—of one class? Why do you never write of real ladies and gentlemen, but only of people, for the most part dwellers in country villages, who do the things that everyone else does? Even your city characters are just average men and women."
Well, she is right, I suppose. I might—and very likely should, if it seemed worth while—advance my side of the argument as to what qualities constitute the makeup of a "real" lady or gentleman; but it doesn't seem worth while, now, and in this article. I am going to admit, and cheerfully, that I do write of average men and women. And I do so because—well, let me tell a story.
Down in the Cape Cod section of this country, where I was born and where I have spent a large portion of my fifty-odd years of life, the section of which I have written so copiously—"copiously" is as good a word as I can think of at the moment—there used to live an old chap who was called by almost everybody "Uncle Eleazir." Uncle Eleazir was a specimen of what the city visitor loves to classify as a "character."
Now a "character," using the word in the sense in which it was applied to Uncle Eleazir, is a person with individual idiosyncrasies. We all have idiosyncrasies, of course, but no one of us would ever dream of placing his own portrait in the "Character" gallery. Our own peculiarities are merely little habits of thought or behavior; and if we have enough of them, we are rather proud of the fact. They prove that we have sufficient determination to do as we please, and not follow the crowd. We aren't "copy cats."
City people, most of them, go to the country to find "characters." The country people—but just let me cut in here with another story, a story in parentheses. We shall get back to Uncle Eleazir in a minute or two.
The old stage driver in a Cape Cod town five miles from a railway—this was in the old days—was carrying as passenger in his stage a young city fellow who, having spent his two weeks' vacation in the village where the stage driver lived, was returning to the metropolis. During the ride the young chap made an observation.
"Well," he proclaimed, with a laugh, "I'll say this for you Cape Codders: you certainly have some queer characters down here."
The stage driver pulled his beard. "Um-hum," he agreed, with decision, "you're right. This is the season for 'em. They come on about every train now.”
No, when we look for a "character" we never think of looking in the mirror.
NOW for Uncle Eleazir. His peculiarities were many. One was that it was practically impossible to pin him down to a positive yes or no. On one occasion, so they say, he happened to be in Ostable, a town about twenty miles from his abiding place. It was a rainy night, and rather cold; he had time to spare and he dropped in at a small hall where a traveling evangelist was holding a series of revival meetings. He sat down upon a settee at the rear of the hall and fell asleep.
He was awakened by a touch upon his shoulder to find the preacher standing in the aisle at his elbow.
" Brother," urged the evangelist persuasively, "do you love the Lord?"
Uncle Eleazir started, blinked, and gazed at the questioner.
"Eh?" he stammered. "What say?"
The preacher repeated his inquiry. Uncle Eleazir rubbed his chin.
"Well," he drawled, cautiously, "I— well, I—I don't know's I've got anything agin him."
This yarn has been spun a great many times, and I have an uneasy suspicion that I have told it before in print; but I shall let it stand, because it will do for a text for my sermon, the sermon which must serve as a reply to the lady—I take it for granted, of course, that she is a "real" lady—who wrote me the letter a portion of which I have quoted.
I haven't "got anything agin" the average man, nor the average woman. In fact, I am, as the boys put it, "for" them. Considering the shortcomings of the world they are obliged to live in, it
seems to me that they do remarkably well. And I think I am qualified to espouse the cause of the average man, because I have a strong suspicion that I am one of him.
Joseph C. Lincoln, one of the best known novelists of the present day, was born and grew up on the New England coast. Through his more than twenty books, millions of Americans have become acquainted with the Cape Cod country and its people. For years his novels have been among the best sellers. Among his works are "Shavings," "Queer Judson," "Cap'n Eri," "Rugged Water," "Cape Cod Ballads" (poems), "Our Village" (sketches), "Galusha the Magnificent," and "Fair Harbor." Mr. Lincoln is fifty-five years old. He lives at Merion, Pennsylvania, and Chatham, Massachusetts, the latter being his summer home.
I am not an optimist.
I give that statement a paragraph all to itself, because I wish to emphasize it. I have been more than once accused of being an incorrigible optimist, and each time I am tempted to refute the accusation with a shotgun. Because my novels and stories—most of them—end happily, because most of my fictional married couples live together and keep on doing so, because the men and women in my Cape Cod tales face the music, whether a jazz or a dirge, with at least the outward pretense of courage and a sense of humor, certain professors and pupils of the so-called "realistic" school—and it sometimes seems as if that institution must be a primary school because of the youth of its faculty and students—shake their heads contemptuously and say, "Bah! Sentimental optimism!"
Then I reach for the shotgun. I insist that a reasonably cheerful attitude toward life is not optimism, nor sentimental falderal. I maintain that it is the realest of realism, because it is the outlook of the average sane human being.
ACCORDING to Webster's Dictionary, optimism is the doctrine which maintains that everything is ordered for the best. An optimist, therefore, is one who believes that whatever is is right; just as it should be. I never met anyone who honestly believed that, although I have known a few who professed to believe it. And the fact that theirs was but a profession and not a sincere belief was proven by the eager persistence with which they advocated plans for improving . almost everything.
Years ago I happened to be riding in a railway train and my seatmate was a young clergyman. It was a fine morning in late spring, the hillsides were glorious with new green, the sun was shining, the sky was a cloudless blue. The train was slowly passing a little New England town, its houses white, its church spire rising above the tree tops. In a pond beside the track, sky and foliage and roofs and spire were reflected as in a clear glass. The minister drew a long, ecstatic breath.
"A beautiful world!" he exclaimed fervently. "Yes, it is a beautiful world!"
On the track next ours, on the side opposite from that upon which we were seated, was a cattle train, its cars filled with sheep and lambs on their way to a city slaughter-house. The poor creatures were jammed in those cars so tightly that they had scarce room to stand—to lie down was impossible. They had been there all night, in all probability much longer. They were weary and wretched and suffering, pictures of dumb misery. The end of their journey —although they were not aware of it—was to be more suffering, and death. They were destined to feed the human dwellers in this "beautiful world" which inspired my seatmate's rhapsody. And he chose to ignore them altogether. He looked only at his side of the track.
I WAS only a boy, but I resented the one-sidedness of his outlook. The world was certainly not beautiful for those sheep, and it seemed to me that they were as much a part of it as he and I were. To rejoice in the sunshine and ignore the shadow did not seem to me a fair deal nor an honest one. An honest outlook on life should take in both sides of the track.
That is what I thought then, and it is what I think now. But I think it would have been just as unfair to see only the sheep and refuse to look at the sun and the flowers. They also were a part of the picture. And just as real. If I cannot be an optimist, neither can I be a pessimist. A laugh is as real a part of life as a tear, a wedding as a funeral. And experience with my fellow average man has convinced me that that is his doctrine. He faces life as it is and, with an amazing amount of grit and cheerful determination, does his level best to make things better if he can, and to endure them if he cannot.
Somebody has defined a pessimist as a man who habitually wears both belt and suspenders. That is clever, but as a definition I am afraid it does not quite fill the bill. That man merely realizes that the worst may happen, and provides against it. If he were a real pessimist he would spend his life in bed. The average man does not do that. He puts by some for the rainy day that is sure to come some time or other, but he enjoys the sun shine while it lasts.
And when the storms do come he does not make much fuss about it. I referred to the amazing grit of the average man. It is, and has been, a source of admiring wonder to me.
TAKE the case of Captain Ben Blodgett. I knew him for many years, and if ever a human being had a first-class excuse for being a pessimist he was that human. He would have been a marvelous instance of "horrible example" for the agent of an accident insurance company, but a most unprofitable risk. As a matter of fact, no company would insure him during the latter half of his life. They became superstitious after a few disastrous experiments, and refused to have anything to do with him.
I have forgotten at least half of Captain Ben's mishaps, but I can remember a few: He went up to shingle his barn roof; the ladder broke and he fell to the ground. He attempted to blast a rock in his pasture, and the blast went off prematurely and Captain Ben went off a few minutes later—to the hospital. When he was and about again he attempted to dig a hole beside that rock, in order to let the latter slide into the hole, where he could cover it with earth. The rock, however, slid while he was digging, and they had to dig for him.
He went to work in the shipyard and, although a plank across the opening to the hold of the vessel had borne far heavier men, it refused to bear him. He fell to the keel. Another hospital session, of course. Then followed a succession of minor accidents, including a broken leg caused by a kick from a horse that had never before been known to kick.
ONE day he and his wife and daughters, and young masculine friends of the daughters, went to an old wharf on the rocky shore near his home for a picnic and fishing excursion. There was a rickety, abandoned fishhouse on that wharf, and against the piles beneath a fairly heavy surf was beating steadily. The rest of the party grew tired of fishing and went ashore to build a fire and prepare dinner. They left Captain Ben—who was anything but a quitter —still sitting on the stringpiece of the wharf "puttin" a clam to soak," as he called it, on the hook at the end of his line.
When dinner was ready one of the party strolled to the edge of the cliff to call the old man. This person declares he shall never forget the picture as he saw it then, and a moment later. There was Captain Ben, sitting just as they left him, patiently soaking the clam. There was the wharf with the old building upon it. Then came a change; the wharf began to tremble, to sway back and forth. The swaying became an alarming rocking.
Captain Ben noticed it and scrambled to his feet. Then wharf and fish shanty and captain went over together into the water with a tremendous splash.
The bay for yards was covered with broken wreckage. There was but one open space, a small one, in the midst of the floating lumber. In the middle of this space emerged Captain Ben's head, and they fished him out, damaged of course, but grimly cheerful. They asked him, after he had been taken home and put to bed, what his sensations were when he felt himself toppling. He grinned beneath his bandages.
"Just about the same as they was when I fell off the barn, or went up on that blast, or started for the hold of the 'J. W. Dexter'," he replied. "The start-off was easy, but the finish was tough. As the feller said, 'It's fun to fly, but it's the dickens to light.' "
He recovered and went to work again, still grinning and treating it all as a joke. He died in his bed, seventy-two years old, and he told his son-in-law, at the last, that he guessed they'd got him finally. "When you tumble into pneumony, at my age," he said, "even the doctor can't fish you out. There's precious little sound timber left to catch a-holt of."
THIS is an absolutely true story, and the only bits of fiction in it are those supplied by faulty memory. Captain Ben Blodgett's experience is an extreme case, I admit. The average man is not called on to undergo his vicissitudes; but he has trouble enough. And the manner in which he meets that trouble, gets up after each knockdown and tries again, is the reason why I find him the most interesting individual in the world, and why he inspires me with a reasonable amount of faith in human nature.
I could quote—as could anyone else—a hundred instances of this pluck and grimly humorous philosophy in the face of adversity. I will quote just one, because it occurs to me at the moment. A good old friend of mine, a retired sea captain, a man who has always led an active life, recently lost the sight of an eye, and is threatened with total blindness. I called on him soon after I heard of his hard luck, called to sympathize. He met me with a smile as broad and whole-hearted as his smiles had ever been.
"Yes," he admitted, "one deadlight's gone and they tell me the other is liable to shut up afore long. Well, I've been privileged to see a whole lot more than most folks, and maybe I've had my allowance. Anyhow, I ain't kickin' as things are now. I tell 'em there's times when I can see too much with one eye."
No complaint, no whining, you see. Just accepting the situation and maintaining—outwardly, at least—that there was nothing to make a fuss about. And don't get the idea that this friend of mine is a continuous "make-believer," a "Pollyanna." I have heard him fight in town meetings against a measure which he believed to be wrong, and there was no "make-believe" in the names he called the opposition. I knew what approaching blindness meant [p 118] to a man of his disposition and habits. He was not trying to deceive himself as to the appalling nature of the calamity which had befallen him. He knew, he realized; but he was true to his principles. He never had any use for a cry-baby.
The life of the average man in the average small town is not an eventful one. Neither is that of the average city dweller; but I prefer to take the small-town man as my example, because in such a town private life is much more public than in a metropolis. In the average town or village everyone has time to know what his neighbor is doing—as well as a lot which he has never dreamed of doing.
The average small-town man—mind, I say the average, not the exception—is, it seems to me, a pretty decent citizen, according to his lights. He is careless often, prejudiced when he should be fair-minded, lazy when he should be active; but so is the average city dweller. So are you and I, if we are honest enough to admit it. As I know him, he is, on the whole, a pretty good husband, a pretty good father, and a pretty good neighbor. He has a certain philosophy of his own and—I repeat it—an amazing amount of pluck.
Speaking of that philosophy—call it "make believe" if you prefer, whatever you call it does not alter the fact that the average man possesses it, that grim humor in the face of adversity and the tendency to make the best of a bad situation—let me tell two more stories. They are not brilliant stories, but they are true. The first one is of Captain Sam David and the ram.
Captain Sam lived in a Cape Cod village, and he owned a few sheep and one ancient and bad-tempered old ram. The ram was a pestiferous creature and anyone but Captain Sam would have handed him over to the butcher. He did not, because he said that when times were dull ashore and nothing else could stir up interest enough to keep him awake, he could 'most always depend on that.
ONE day Mrs. Sam came hurrying into the sitting-room to say that someone had left the pasture bars down and the sheep were loose.
"They'll eat up everything in the garden," she declared. "Samuel, you must go right out and shut 'em up again."
Her husband groaned, put down the "Cape Cod Item," in the columns of which he had found a satisfyingly vitriolic catalogue of the sins of the Democratic Party, and went out into the yard. The sheep were in the garden, where he expected to find them, and he succeeded in driving most of them back into the pasture again. The ram, however, eluded him, and dodged around behind the barn. After the captain had taken care of the rest of the flock and put up the bars, he went in search of the ram. The latter was nowhere in sight, but Captain Sam, peering around the corner of the barn, saw him eating a half-dozen turnips which he, the captain, had pulled that morning and had laid on a box by the barn door. Sam's wrathful shout and charge, club hand, interrupted the feast. The darted around the next corner of the barn. The captain, racing in pursuit, trip and fell. When he got up the animal disappeared.
Sam, who was out of breath already, decided that a chase around and around that barn was more exercise than cared for. He figured that the ram would return to the turnips after a while, that the most sensible procedure was hide and lie in wait. So, the barn door being partially open, he stepped inside building. But he did not look before entered. He still suspected that the object of his pursuit was near at hand, so he went into the barn backward, peeping out around the corner of the door as did so.
This was a mistake. The ram was inside the barn. And a moment later captain received a shock in the rear which shot him headlong out into the yard. His groans and the enthusiasm of his comments brought his wife and a neighbor who helped him up and into the house. He had a sprained wrist and a twisted ankle, which kept him in retirement for a month. It was his philosophic acceptance of the situation which furnishes the point of the story. Said Captain Sam:
"That's what I got by not lookin' aft I went in there. A feller that don't take the trouble to look for trouble generally backs right into it."
CAPTAIN ALPHEUS SIMPKINS—yes, he was a "captain," of course; in the old days every other male citizen on the Cape had commanded some craft or other—Captain Alpheus Simpkins was very ill. Friends, and he had a host them, came to see him during his illness; Mrs. Simpkins and the doctor did the best to prevent his seeing these callers, but, provided Alpheus knew of the presence in the house, he insisted on having them shown into the sick-room.
One man who called persistently was the village pest. As Simpkins himself said, this man could handle more words and pack less cargo into 'em than anyone else on earth. Mrs. Simpkins did her best to keep the pest away from her husband but on one occasion she was down-tow on an errand, and he got by the hired girl and into the sitting-room. Alpheus heard him there and summoned him to his bed side. He remained there nearly an hour, would have stayed longer had not Mrs Simpkins returned and ordered him out.
"You poor soul," she said to her husband; "I wonder he didn't talk you to death."
Alpheus's wan face was illumined with a feeble attempt at a grin.
"I was beginnin' to think he would,'' he whispered; "but I'll say this much for him, he done his best to make me die satisfied. He told me that all hands said if I never got over this spell of sickness I'd have a big funeral."
It took more than illness and misery to [p 120] shut Alpheus Simpkins's eyes to a joke, even as grim a joke as that. And I think his attitude is that of the average man. He may complain and whine over the minor troubles of life, but when the big ones come he, generally speaking, faces them bravely and good-humoredly. Sometimes he does not; but there are fewer exceptions than examples. And when we discuss the average man we must strike an average.
I am ready to maintain that the average marriage is happy, on the whole. Again the average, not the exception. The selection of a life-mate is, for the most of us, such a hit or miss chance, the wonder is that there are not more unhappy marriages. Nevertheless, the average man marries the average woman, has average children, and is—again on the average—happy. We read a pessimistic novel; we read the accounts of sensational divorce cases in the papers, and are sometimes inclined to feel that wedded bliss is, sooner or later, wedded misery. The antidote for this feeling is to run over the list of one's married friends and acquaintances, and see how few marriages in that long list have gone on the rocks. Almost every man we know in the great majority—the overwhelming majority—is living with the woman he married. To each, home is the most sacred, the happiest spot on earth. In every house there are petty faultfindings, misunderstandings, and squabbles, but they are the thorns on the roses, or the particles of salt in the ice cream; they are incidents, not the average.
I have heard it argued that more, infinitely more, marriages would end in the divorce court were it not for the conventionality which makes a man feel that he must continue to live with a woman whether he wishes to or not. We are Puritans underneath, so these arguers say, and have not the courage to tread upon the traditions of our Puritanical heredity. Perhaps so, but I doubt it. Solon Pierce used to live in a New England village. He and his wife had lived in it for many years, and when Mrs. Pierce died everyone thought the blow would crush her husband. An old friend called upon Solon the day after the funeral.
"Yes," observed Solon, meditating, "Marthy was a good woman. She was a good provider, always give me all I wanted to eat; she was a good housekeeper and a good mother. Take her by and large she was a good wife to me and she and I lived together pretty nigh forty year. But, honest." he added, in a burst of frankness, "honest, Jim, I can't honestly say as I ever really liked her."
THERE, says our pessimistic friend, is a fair example, an honest example. He never "really liked" his wife; but he lived with her forty years because he was afraid to face the publicity of a separation or a divorce.
I don't agree, of course. Knowing Solon, I very much doubt if he could have "really liked" anyone very long. And, because I knew him, I am ready to declare that he was anything but an average man. There are thousands of unhappy marriages, but hundreds of thousands of—on the average—happy ones.
So, I insist, the "happy ending" to a love story written about average people is [p 121] at least as true to life and as good art as the unhappy one. An author does not have to work harder, nor do better, truer work, to make his hero and heroine end in the garbage heap than in the flower garden. Most love stories in real life do end in marriage, and—on the average again—fairly happy marriages. Foolishly happy endings, of course, are silly. When Lord Eric marries the beautiful daughter of the washerwoman and takes her to his castle to be Lady Eric, he takes a tremendous chance along with her. She is not his kind and he is not hers. But when John Doe falls in love with Jane Smith, there is no reason why his love story and hers should not end in a reasonably happy marriage. In real life it usually does. And it is at least as bad art and "un-realism" to make it end the other way.
I HAVE said that the average man is a pretty decent citizen. I am sure he tries to be. In politics he is likely to be provoking and illogical. He is a fairly easy mark for the clever politician. He is inclined to be full of prejudice, to espouse a cause without knowing very much about it, and to make a spectacle of himself in consequence. But, like the Irishman who, digging clams for the first time, stunned each one with the hoe so that it could not run away, he means well, his intentions are good.
And, it seems to me, when a really great crisis comes he rises to the occasion and m cases where we could scarcely expect it.
When the Liberty Loan drives were on during the war I met with some instances of this self-sacrificing rising to the occasion which surprised me and, although they shrank my own self-conceit, strengthened my faith in the good intentions of the average man. Once, in company with other writers and a few actors and illustrators, I was taking subscriptions for Liberty Bonds in a New York department store. Just before the store closed an old woman came to the counter. She was poorly dressed and she had a scrub-bucket with a brush in it upon her arm. She was on her way to clean up in a nearby office building, she told me, and had stopped in to buy a fifty-dollar bond on instalments.
I filled in the blank and she paid her first deposit. Then I said, I could not help saying it:
"Paying those instalments must mean a good deal to you. It will be pretty hard work to keep up, won't it?"
It was none of my business, and if she had told me to mind my own affairs it would have served me right. She did not, however. Instead, she reddened, was a little confused and, I suppose, a bit afraid of being thought sentimental.
"Yes," she admitted, "I suppose it will be; but, you see—well, I wanted to do somethin."
That same year I was standing on the platform of the post office in the town where I spend my summers, and I fell into conversation with a man who, I knew, was a dealer in oysters and shellfish, a hard-working, respected citizen with a large family. We were speaking of a Liberty Loan Drive just completed. He rubbed his chin.
"Yes," he said, "I took some of them bonds. Fact is, I've tried to take some of [p 122] every lot that come out. 'Course, I've got five children to bring up and I ain't a rich man by a whole lot, I've took so far six thousand dollars' worth. Sometimes I think I'd ought to have took more, but it didn't seem hardly as if I'd better. I wanted to, though, I can tell you that!"
When I remembered the house he lived in, and his family, and the size of the business he did, I realized what subscribing to six thousand dollars' worth of those bonds must mean. What sacrifice, and forgoing of, not only luxuries, but necessities. And he was not boasting; he was apologizing. He made me ashamed of myself.
NOW, it is perfectly easy to think one's self into the attitude of the so-called "realist" and declare that these sacrifices of the scrubwoman and the lobsterman were prompted by a selfish impulse, by the consciousness that they were self-sacrificing, and therefore could pat themselves on the back. I can't see, however, why it is not quite as fair, and "real," to accept them as genuine.
I knew one cranky individual who fought with his next-door neighbor continually. Yet when that neighbor fell suddenly ill, this man turned out at one o'clock in the morning in the middle of a northeast snowstorm, and drove ten miles to fetch the doctor, who was, that night, in the next village. The doctor— with whom, by the way, he had had a quarrel—thanked him for his trouble. "Nothin' to thank me for," he said, gruffly. "You owe me for three cord of wood. The more trade I can work up for you, the better chance I'll have of collectin' my bill."
You may believe that was the real reason for his kind action if you care to. I don't.
I know perfectly well that for every good word I have said for the average man an opponent in debate could counter with a bad one. But what is the use? I know, too, that he might saunter up Main Street, and find meanness and selfishness and hypocrisy in every house. I know just as well that someone else could follow him, and in those same houses find self-sacrifice and love and decency. And one would be as real as the other. Neither, however, would be wholly real, because in order to get a true picture of Main Street you should see all there is there, the good as well as the bad.
I like my fellow average man, on the whole, and I like to have him like me. I am tolerant of his failings because they are my failings. I have faith in him because he continues—or I think he does— to have faith in himself. He—the average —works hard, maintains a home, educates his children, pays his bills and, according to the measure of light that is given him, does the best he can in this far from altogether beautiful world. He is not a Socrates, nor a George Washington, nor a Galahad. Neither is he a Pecksniff, nor even a Babbitt. Such as he is, he is without doubt the backbone of this nation and every other.
I respect him and sympathize with him, and I believe in him. He interests me and I like to write stories about him. That is why I do write them.
posted Feb 2004 at CapeCodHistory.us