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Volume IV Number 2 Summer 1969 $1.00
THE OHIO FOLKLORE SOCIETY
BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY
BOWLING GREEN, OHIO 43402
Burton J. Greene
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio
JOSEPH C. LINCOLN AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE LITTLE MAN:
A DEFENSE OF POPULAR CULTURE
The novels of Joseph C. Lincoln can hardly be said to be great works of art. They are aimed at a popular audience that is peculiarly naive as to character, incident, plot development and machinations. Any sophisticated reader plows through Lincoln's books completely--and often painfully--aware of what strings are being pulled and where the action is leading. Surprize or ingenuity is something beyond Lincoln's meager talents. This is not to say, however, that his books have no worth, but is merely a recognition of his limitations for what they are, and a realistic avoidance of a trumped-up claim for worth where there is none. Lincoln may not be a Hawthorne, Melville, James, Howells, or even a Jewett; but at the same time he is not ready for the literary scrap heap either.
The value of Lincoln's novels lies primarily in their appeal to, involvement with, and reflection of the turn of the century popular culture in Amarica--its ideals, its values, its hopes, its assumptions, its limitations. In fact, his novels provide one of the strongest defenses/validations/ reaffirmations of the mores of the popular culture that one can imagine. Although Lincoln can laugh at his Cape Cod people in some of their practices, and often does so, in general he totally accepts the orientations of his audience and characters: he is fully immersed in their value system. He does not question their world, their presuppositions. His novels, in effect, show forth a life that is not only good and worth emulation, but the universal
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way to happiness: he fully expects his readers to solve their problems in much the same way as his fictional characters do. His people lead fairly uncomplicated lives that his readers can easily duplicate if they accept the protestant ethic, are good "Christians" (nominally, at least--Lincoln seems to expect no more), and are members of the common folk, or living in close proximity with them. Whether these mores are commonly held by the reader is not a question Lincoln admits of: he assumes they do; and in this I think we can most fully be aware of the author's involvement with the popular culture, for he too (like his characters and audience) is unaware of another way of life being as good as or preferable to the one he presents.
In considering this aspect of Joseph C. Lincoln, I have chosen three novels--Partners of the Tide (1905), The Postmaster (1912), and The Rise of Roscoe Paine (1912)--as being typical of his early work, and hope to demonstrate through them that Lincoln's work is truly a defense of popular culture.
In Lincoln's novels, hard work is seen as the natural way to live, as the way to a kind of secular salvation. ("Salvation" must be qualified in this way since the concept of a Christian God is present only by vague implication in Lincoln. It is a world dominated by a secular Christianity--possessing the ethics, but not the metaphysics. What might be traditionally termed the "favor of God" is evident in these books, but it seems to come about through the medium of "luck," rather than specific divinity--and as such, of course, is in line with American experience of the time and after.) In conjunction with this belief in hard work run two other concepts: (1) a mistrust of the intellectual, and (2) a mistrust of leisure in general and the leisure class in particular. Both the intellectual and leisurely pursuits are viewed as a "waste" of one's life and time, an avoidance of the real stuff of existence.
In The Postmaster, the retired Cap'n Zeb realizes after a few months of leisure that "ossification was settin' in and [he would have] to do
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"somethin'to keep [himself] interested. . . . (Postmaster, p. 5.) Work takes one out of the petty things of life, gives him a purpose. Again, in The Rise of Roscoe Paine, Roscoe is seen as wasting his life by loafing, being a gentleman of leisure. A friend says to him:
'Twould be a good thing for you if you did take that job, or some other one. Don't make much matter what it is, but you ought to do something. You're too clever a fellow to be hanging around, shooting and fishing. You're wasting your life. ... You ought to get interested in something that counts. (Paine, pp. 125-6)
After Roscoe does take a job, he finds that he really likes working (Paine, p. 234) and now the townspeople are happy with him: "Everybody's glad you're makin' good." (Paine, p. 236) How successful you are is measured by whether or not you work: inheriting money is not success. One has to make it by his own efforts.
To further emphasize the virtue of work, Roscoe later tells Mabel Colton: "My being what you termed ambitionless and a country loafer is not my condition from choice." (Paine, p. 254) Leisure was not a wanted commodity but a way of life forced on him as a result of the disgrace brought upon his mother and himself by his embezzler father. He recognizes that work is the right way to live (the post-Edemic situation).
Very closely connected with leisure is intellectual activity, and Lincoln's novels clearly reflect the common man's view that the more esoteric pursuits are not only something other than work, but also not to be trusted or chosen in preference to work. At best they are secondary "goods." The townsfolk of Denboro think Roscoe Paine reads too much, and because of his more "educated" interests they are unsure what to make of him until he begins regular work. Then they are more comfortable
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with him (although they still do not understand either him or his motives). In Partners of the Tide, Bradley's decision, in the face of his aunts' financial difficulties? to go to work rather than college is a sign of his moral responsibility. There is also a definite feeling expressed that hard work is better than going to college anyway.
Perhaps the most blatant expression of this out-look is found in The Postmaster. Cap't Zeb observes of Beanblossom that "he never did any real work except to putter in libraries and collect books and such." (Postmaster, p. 8) Cap'n Zeb can hardly be said to be narrow-minded or severe, because he is one of Lincoln's fullest characters, but the point of view is still here. If it is not malicious, his statement is backing up the protestant ethic.
Along with the protestant ethic, goes a belief in honesty and disinterestedness as the highest virtues, and, as might be expected, Lincoln fully accepts the validity of this viewpoint. His lead characters have an appalling sense of absolute honesty and benevolent disinterestedness--appalling because they are almost too good to be true. While his characters are certainly flesh and blood, their virtue is so great that they could be Christs (perhaps a reflection of the commonly held view that all men could become Christ-like--again, a secular Christianity).
Honesty is stressed most heavily in Partners of the Tide in the person of Bradley. Lincoln says of him:
His habit of scrupulous honesty . . . clung to him, and he did not evade or cover up. If he did a thing it was done because he thought it right, and other considerations counted little. (Partners, p. 112)
Bradley's honesty helps him to scent out and prevent the first attempted wrecking of the Thomas Doane, and he is so pure in his virtue that when
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Captain Titcomb asks him if he wouldn't have wrecked the ship if he had received orders from the owners to do so, he replies: "I'd have been honest, and said 'No'" (Partners, p. 145). Bradley's and captain Titcomb's later successes in their partnership prove that "honesty is the best policy" and that "virtue is the key to success." Somehow the honest man is endowed with superior common sense, luck, etc., so that things fall his way; and if he has temporary setbacks, success will be his in the long run.
In addition to being an honest man, Bradley is also disinterested, unselfish. He, like other Lincoln characters, acts out of his concern for others, not primarily out of his own interest. As indicated earlier, when he overhears that his aunts can't afford to send him to college, he secretly goes out and signs on Captain Titcomb's schooner. So, too, when Captain Titcomb talks to Bradley arout finding another ship to serve on, Bradley says of his own concern: "Oh, can't you see? It isn't myself I'm thinking about--it's you--you!" (Partners, p. 146). Again, when the Diving Belle is on fire, Bradley's disinterestedness and compassion is shown in his decision to try to save Sam Hammond from the locked cabin, rather than get to the dynamite in time. (Partners, pp. 357-60). As far as the reader knows at that point in the book, Bradley has sacrificed his business to save someone we know to be a degenerate (Sam is a passionate man, he drinks a great deal--intolerable traits in a Victorian society). Lincoln, of course, later shows this not to be the case--"Providence" was looking out for the partners--but this doesn't change the value of Bradley's actions at the time.
Cap'n Zeb is another of Lincoln's disinterested heros. Cap'n Zeb's whole entry into Beanblossom's store comes not of a desire to make money, but from a concern for Beanblossom's wrecked financial condition. He invests first in order to save Beanblossom, and only secondarily does he benefit financially from the venture. Cap'n Zeb is a very
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considerate man--especially in the case of Mary Blaisdell. He tries to get the postmaster's job for her, and when he gets it himself instead--and not through any deliberate efforts on his own part--he makes Mary his assistant and gives her 3/4 of the pay for the position. (Postmaster, pp. 74-78). He also goes ahead and cooks the meal at the Windmill restaurant when the owners and employees skip out just before a group of people are due. He ends up owning the restaurant later on in the book, and says he cooked the meal to get the money for his supplies back, but we all know he did it mainly because he didn't want that incoming motoring party disappointed.
Zebulon's strong moral character is also shown in his sense of conscience-- similar to Bradley's honesty. He is feeling bad about the situation with the billiard room when he tells us:
My conscience plagued me. I felt almost as if I was to blame somehow. I wa'n't, of course, but I felt that way. A feller's conscience is the most unreasonable part of his works; I've noticed it often. (Postmaster, p. 109)
There is an obvious echo from Huck Finn here, but, as with Huck, we recognize that it is the good man who suffers from conscience, even though it may be "unreasonable." Cap'n Zeb is always concerned with "morals and common honesty." (Postmaster, p. 94).
Roscoe Paine is a third in the line of Lincoln's morally upright characters. Roscoe's "rise" comes through his handling of a strip of land he owns, called Shore Lane. He refuses to sell it to "Big Jim" Colton because the town residents use it as a shortcut to get to the beach. The townspeople are convinced that Paine isn't selling the land because of money--the price isn't high enough. For them, morals or principle have nothing to do with the decision; whereas, for Paine they have everything to do with it. Captain Dean, a spokesman for the town, says to Roscoe:
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'Course you'll sell if you get money enough.'
'So Colton said, but I shan't'
... 'I shouldn't wonder if I could get you three hundred dollars for that strip.'
'It isn't a question of price.'
'Rubbish! Anything's a question of price.'
'This isn't. If it was I probably should have accepted Mr. Colton's offer of six hundred and fifty.' (Paine, pp. 104-5)
After his contunued refusal to sell the land strip through much of the novel, to be taken in by Colton's tricks and overly generous offers, he finally sells to help out a friend. George Taylor has "borrowed" bank securities to speculate in the stock market and faces disgrace if he can't come up with $3500 immediately. Roscoe disinterestedly then, and only then, sells the land to to Colton; but refuses to accept the $5000 that Colton previously offered, taking only the $3500 George needs. He, therefore, receives nothing himself for the land (although, again, Lincoln later works everything out so that Paine benefits financially for his selfless action.)
Roscoe's high principles are also shown in his absolute refusal to divulge to anyone why he had such a sudden change of mind in regard to the land. He is content to suffer the town's ill feelings in order to protect his friend. He is not afraid of powerful people, but prefers to be virtuous above all else.
Roscoe's disinterestedness and concern is again shown in his numerous rescuings of Miss Colton, and in his refusal to accept any pay for his actions. He is almost seen by Lincoln as an early twentieth centary equivalent of the chivalrous medieval knight. Paine is always extremely modest in regard to his chivalrous actions and in his involvement: in the land sale problem. He is almost too good to be true in holding himself above the common rabble, and yet also recognizing that the real life is to be lived in the midst of the common people; that the common town-folk in their way of life, their values, hold the key
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to happiness. In a way he seems to be Lincoln himself seeing both sides of the popular culture and accepting it in spite of itself.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the economic side of life is extremely prevalent in Lincoln's work. In fact, to say that Lincoln's novels are basically economic-centered would hardly be an exageration? There is a constant emphasis on economic problems, and financial difficulties provide the majority of crises in the novels. Each novel deals primarily with the economic rise (although there may be a concomitant moral rise as well) of the central character. Success is persistently measured in terms of relative financial prosperity, and with such prosperity comes self-discovery and ultimate happiness with the "right woman."
What is of primary importance is the revelation in Lincoln's novels that financial success is the result of (1) hard work, and (2) honesty and disinterested concern for others. This, then, becomes a formula for success; and in Lincoln's work the formula is failproof. Virtue and hard work are always rewarded. Set backs may occur, but ultimately all will be well. Such an outlook is a very positive, optimistic one, and must have been received during the hard times for the small businessman of the early twentieth century as a justification of the protestant ethic which had been believed in for so long. It also offered hope to the small businessman because it demonstrated to him that the social darwinism was not as inevitable as the theorist and big businessmen said: survival of the fittest did not mean biggest and strongest physically, but strongest morally. Virtue and effort were to be the ultimate determiners: anything was possible to the upright man. It was a world of justice after all.
To merely say that Lincoln's novels are economically centered, however, would be an understatement; for he goes beyond a simple focus to an actual belief that the meaning of life is found in business. Working hard may be the way to salvation and honesty and disinterested concern may be signs of the morally
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upright man; but it is also important that we recognize that the good life doesn't come in working hard for someone else, or conducting yourself morally in a position in someone else's firm. The essential way to true happiness is in owning and operating a business of your own, becoming an entrepreneur--often in partnership (a secular Christian Fellowship?). So, in both Partners of the Tide and The Postmaster we have the greater portion of each novel devoted to describing various business ventures, improvements, etc. Captain Titcomb in Partners of the Tide speaks of being tired of taking orders from someone else all his life.
'I've had a kink in my mainsheet for a consider'ble spell. I've been getting sicker and sicker of jumpin' when somebody else piped "All hands". I've had a notion that some day I was goin' to cut loose, and cruise on my own hook.' (Partners, p. 150)
Here is hope for the little man who yearns to be his own boss, to make a go of it against the big companies. And later on in the same book, the "unadulterated joys of proprietorship" (Partners, p. 289) are referred to. This is the way life was meant to be lived!
Further, the continued success that the small businessman has over the big city interests in all the novels is assurance that the little man can make it. Bradley and Titcomb in Partners of the Tide win out over the "Coal King," Mr. Cook, and gain his respect; Cap'n Zeb and Jacobs get the rich vacationers' business away from the big city concerns; and, although not a businessman, Roscoe Paine certainly is victorious over the rich Colton in forcing him to accept his own terms concerning the land sale. Power clearly isn't everything: success or failure depends more on tne moral strength of the man than on the big city moneyed structure he may have behind him.
Business is so important in Lincoln's world that it comes before everything else, even romance.
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In Partners of the Tide, Bradley constantly puts business before Gus, as in his unannounced trip to Boston; and Captain Titcomb agrees to this emphasis as he drags Bradley out of the dance to tell him about the new ship. "This ain't fooling it's business." (Partners, p. 272). The clear implication under all this is that business is a man's life--it is his fulfillment, his central concern. Although Lincoln handles romance with kid gloves and makes it a secondary matter, he is still careful to make his main characters realize at the end of each novel that business isn't everything, that success isn't the whole of life, that love is still needed. Bradley, for example, came to realize that the "firm's success didn't mean much to him." (Partners, p. 382) Such a recognition is half-hearted and of little worthy but it would have satisfied the feminine part of Lincoln's audience. Success, ultimately, has to be shared, and such is certainly the popular view.
Financial success is obviously important to Lincoln and his readers, but there is also a clear warning in the novels against too much success. Trying to get more than your share (however that is determined) is dangerous and seen as tempting fate or providence. One should be satisfied with the success he has, and not be greedy. This is largely why stock speculation is opposed so strongly. The opposition, however, also stems from the view that playing the market is getting rich the easy way--it takes shrewdness rather than hard work, and thus becomes immoral or at least distrusted. In both The Postmaster and The Rise of Roscoe Paine, too, those who speculate (Ike and George) have done so with other people's money and are, therefore, dishonest: and lacking disinterested concern for others. Roscoe Paine can play with the market and not be censured; however, the distinction lies in the fact that he is not doing it for himself, but for Colton (who is sick at the time) and he also, unknowingly, helps George through his actions. He only succeeds because he acts disinterestedly. If Colton had been making the decisions, Lincoln probably would
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have condemned him. Roscoe proves his high virtue also be refusing to accept Colton's offer to work with him on stock manipulation-- "I don't care for your business." (Paine, p. 449). He only played the market as a favor to a sick man and his daughter. Paine refuses to rise in the world by the wrong means.
I think that the constant opposition (as shown in the above instance) between the little man and outside big business and big businessmen in Lincoln's novels also endorses the small town closed society of the Cape. In all three novels, outsiders, especially rich ones or those seeking financial gain of some sort, are seen as dishonest, are resented and not welcome. They, like Colton, in Roscoe Paine, are depicted as being under the illusion that money and power can buy anything, including people. They are the closest thing to ogres that Lincoln has in his novels. The rich outsiders are never really given a chance by Lincoln, but are consistently presented in this stereotype. Colton becomes more human by the end of the book, but that is clearly because the good man--Roscoe---has had an impact on him, has shown him that the townspeople are worth something. It is clear, too, that Lincoln has no qualms about depicting the big city rich, or outsiders in general, as the bad guys. They are universally enemies to this comfortable, quiet world of the Cape. Captain Jed describes Colton as a "city shark buttin' into the feedin' grounds." (Paine, p. 238). The outsiders are trying to take what rightfully belongs to the natives. Along with this view goes the one displayed in The Postmaster that it is perfectly alright to "milk" the rich summer residents of the Cape for all they are worth--they are fair game since they are outsiders.
The Armenian/Indian/Jew problem in The Postmaster also reflects the closed society. The Armenians are outsiders and they have gotten the best of Cap'n Zeb and Jacobs by selling "imported" specialities. By countering the "foreigners" through "made in USA" goods, the partners are both keeping outsiders from getting a foothold (although this doesn't work) and
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"keepin' the coin in the United States instead of shippin' it to Armenia" (Postmaster, p. 156); thereby doing the country a service (or so they and Lincoln see it).
Although I do not wish to make too much of it, the obvious prejudice involved in this incident, and others, provides the capstone to the ethno-centricity of Lincoln and his Cape Cod society. Armenians are held in great contempt, and while Cap'n Zeb admires them for being able to turn the tables by masquerading as Indians, and Lincoln doesn't seem to take the whole matter too seriously, blatant prejudice is there. Jews are not people, but a stereotype; and there is no questioning of this stereotype when Jacobs discovers that the Armenians'/ Indians' name is not Rose but Rosenstein.
"James Henry Jacobs, doctor of sick business, beat by a couple of peddlers from Armenia!'
'Hold on again,' I says. 'I ain't told you their real name yet."
'Their name?' he says. 'I know it already. It's Rose.'
'Not accordin' to that West Ostable doctor, it ain't. The name they give him was Rosenstein.' He looked at me for a spell without speaking Then he smiled, heaved a long breath, and reached over and shook my hand.
'Whew!' says he. 'Skipper? I feel better ... To be beat in a business deal by Roses is one thing--but by Rosensteins is another. You can't beat the Rosensteins in business.' (Postmaster, p. 180)
In like manner, the aunts in Partners of the Tide express the belief that the Portuguese aren't fit to live next to (Partners, p. 90). The most insidious prejudice, however, is that found in casual phraseology referring to the Negro.
'The Lord helps them that helps themselves, as the darkey said when he found the hen-house door
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unlocked.' (Partners, p. 221)
'There's a nigger in the woodpile somewheres.' (Postmaster, p. 93)
I had enough clothes on to be presentable in white folks' society . . . . (Postmaster, p. 128)
Jim went sailin' on, about how now he could settle down and live like a white man in a home of his own. ... (Postmaster, p. 277)
Taken by themselves, these isolated references say very little and no one would claim much for them, but taken in context they intensify the closedness of Lincoln's world and his unquestioning acceptance of the values and way of life which he sees on Cape Cod. Just as the Armenian is seen as a "hook-nosed lace peddler" (Postmaster, p. 148), the Portuguese as some kind of pig, the Jew as a shrewd businessman, so the Negro is typed as a thief and something less-than-human. One who knows little about Lincoln might even be tempted to attribute these prejudices or stereotypes as inclusions on the realist's part to reproduce the society which he is describing accurately. The problem is, however, that Lincoln is neither a realist nor objective: he is a sentimentalist and such inclusions, taken in context, represent more than "local color." They demonstrate, as have other citations in this paper, that Lincoln completely and indiscriminately accepts the mores of the popular culture he is describing. For him, that way of life is the good way; his is a defense of the little man, the common man, with all his positive qualities and drawbacks.
The Journal of the Ohio Folklore Society was published from 1966 to 1978, and revived 1972-1978.
The photocopy from which this was scanned came from the Ohio Historical Society, Columbus OH.
There are a number of typos in the original text, which I've retained during proofreading after OCR, and I may have introduced a few more. I tried formatting this with Courier font, to reproduce the original type-written publication, but it's too hard to read. - DQ
posted September 2004