The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 17, No. 103, May, 1866

by: Various

Language: English
Published: 1 month ago
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My brother Josiah I call a successful man,—very successful, though only an attorney in a manufacturing town. But he fixed his goal, and reached it. He belongs to the ruling class,—men with slow, measuring eyes and bull-dog jaws,—men who know their own capacity to an atom's weight, and who go through life with moderate, inflexible, unrepenting steps. He looks askance at me when I cross his path; he is in the great market making his way: I learned long ago that there was no place there for me. Yet I like to look in, out of the odd little corner into which I have been shoved,—to look in at the great play, never beginning and never ending, of bargain and sale, for which all the world's but a stage; to see how men like my brother have been busy, since God blessed all things he had made, in dragging them down to the trade level, and stamping price-marks on them. Josiah looks at me grimly, as I said. Jog as methodically as I will from desk to bed and back to desk again, he suspects some outlaw blood under the gray head of the fagged-out old clerk. He indulges in his pictures, his bronzes: I have my high office-stool, and bedroom in the fifth story of a cheap hotel. Yet he suspects me of having forced a way out of the actual common-sense world by sheer force of whims and vagaries, and to have pre-empted a homestead for myself in some dream-land, where neither he nor the tax-gatherer can enter.

"It won't do," he said to-day, when I was there (for I use his books now and then). "Old Père Bonhours, you're poring over? Put it down, and come take some clam soup. Much those fellows knew about life! Zachary! Zachary! you have kept company with shadows these forty years, until you have grown peaked and gaunt yourself. When will you go to work and be a live man?"

I knew we were going to have the daily drill which Josiah gave to his ideas; so I rolled the book up to take with me, while he rubbed his spectacles angrily, and went on.

"I tell you, the world's a great property-exchanging machine, where everything has its weight and value; a great, inexorable machine,—and whoever tries to shirk his work in it will be crushed! Crushed! Think of your old friend Knowles!"

I began to hurry on my old overcoat; I never had but two or three friends, and I could not hear their names from Josiah's mouth. But he was not quick to see when he had hurt people.

"Why, the poet,"—more sententious than before,—"the poet sells his song; he knows that the airiest visions must resolve into trade-laws. You cannot escape from them. I see your wrinkled old face, red as a boy's, over the newspapers sometimes. There was the daring of that Rebel Jackson, Frémont's proclamation, Shaw's death; you claimed those things as heroic, prophetic. They were mere facts tending to solve the great problem of Capital vs. Labor. There was one work for which the breath was put into our nostrils,—to grow, and make the world grow by giving and taking. Give and take; and the wisest man gives the least and gains the most."

I left him as soon as I could escape. I respect Josiah: his advice would be invaluable to any man; but I am content that we should live apart,—quite content. I went down to Yorke's for my solitary chop. The old prophet Solomon somewhere talks of the conies or ants as "a feeble folk who prepare their meat in the summer." I joke to myself about that sometimes, thinking I should claim kindred with them; for, looking back over the sixty years of Zack Humphreys's life, they seem to me to have pretty much gone in preparing the bread and meat from day to day. I see but little result of all the efforts of that time beyond that solitary chop; and a few facts and hopes, may be, gathered outside of the market, which, Josiah says, absorb all of the real world. All day, sitting here at my desk in Wirt's old counting-house, these notions of Josiah's have dogged me. These sums that I jotted down, the solid comforts they typified, the homes, the knowledge, the travel they would buy,—these were, then, the real gist of this thing we called life, were they? The great charities money had given to the world,—Christ's Gospel preached by it.—Did it cover all, then? Did it?

What a wholesome (or unwholesome) scorn of barter Knowles had! The old fellow never collected a debt; and, by the way, as seldom paid one. The "dirty dollar" came between him and very few people. Yet the heart in his great mass of flesh beat fiercely for an honor higher than that known to most men. I have sat here all the afternoon, staring out at the winter sky, scratching down a figure now and then, and idly going back to the time when I was a younger man than now, but even then with neither wife nor child, and no home beyond an eating-house; thinking how I caught old Knowles's zest for things which lay beyond trade-laws; how eager I grew in the search of them; how he inoculated me with Abolitionism, Communism, every other fever that threatened to destroy the commercial status of the world, and substitute a single-eyed regard for human rights. It occurred to me, too, that some of those odd, one-sided facts, which it used to please me to gather then,—queer bits of men's history, not to be judged by Josiah's rules,—it might please others to hear....