Father’s attitude toward anybody who wasn’t his kind used to puzzle me. It was so dictatorial. There was no live and let live about it. And to make it worse he had no compunctions about any wounds he inflicted; on the contrary, he felt that people should be grateful to him for teaching them better.
This was only one side of him, of course, as I realized better later, for I saw even more of him after I grew up than I had in my childhood. He was one of the jolliest and most companionable men I ever knew. He always seemed to have a good time when he went to the club. He liked most of the men whom he met there, and they felt that same way toward him. One or another of them walked home with him, usually, and stood talking with him by the front stoop. And when he rode with his friends in the Park or went for a sail on some yacht, or when he and his fellow-directors of some little railroad spent a week on a tour of inspection, they came back full of fun.
It was only with men of his own sort that he did this, however. They understood him and he them. They all had an air and a feeling, in those days, of enormous authority. When they disagreed, it was often quite violently, but that didn’t matter. At bottom they thoroughly approved of and respected each other.
Toward people with whom he didn’t get on well, though, he was imperious, and when they displeased or annoyed him, it made him snort like a bull.
I disapproved of this strongly when I was a boy. It seemed natural to me that any father should snort, more or less, about the behaviour of his wife, or his children, or his relatives generally. It seemed natural, too, for a man to make his employees live exactly as he decreed. That sort of thing was so much in the air that I, for one, didn’t question it. But Father didn’t stop there; he expected everyone else to conform, even people he read about in the newspapers. Even historical characters. He never failed to denounce them indignantly when he found that they hadn’t.
He felt the same way about persons he passed in the street. And sometimes in a horse-car he looked around at his fellow-passengers like a colonel distastefully reviewing a slatternly regiment. They didn’t all have to be bankers or lawyers or clubmen–though if they were, all the better–but they did have to be neat and decent. And self-respecting. Like him. He would glare at men whose vests were unbuttoned, or whose neckties were loose, or whose general appearance was sloppy, as though they deserved hanging. He said he hated slovenly people. He said that they were “offensive.”
“What difference does it make to you, Father?” I’d ask him. He didn’t explain. I could have understood his quietly disliking them, for a sense of the fitness of things was strong in him; but why did he feel so much heat?
One day I came upon a magazine article which discussed this very matter. No ego ought to feel entirely separate, the writer explained. It should think of others as its own alter egos–differing forms of itself. This wasn’t at all the way I looked at others. I expected nearly all of them to be different and I was surprised when they weren’t. This magazine writer said that only unsocial persons felt that way. Well, at least this idea made Father’s attitude understandable to me. If he was simply thinking of others as his own other selves, that might be why, when they didn’t behave as such, he got in a passion about it.
Every morning Father sat in the big armchair in the dining-room window to look over his newspaper and see just what his alter egos had been up to since yesterday. If they hadn’t been up to anything, he turned to the financial page or read one or two editorials–one or two being all he could stand, because he said they were wishy-washy. If, however, the Mayor had been faithless again to Father’s ideals, or if Tammany Hall had done anything at all, good or bad, Father ringingly denounced these atrocities to us little boys and to Mother.
For a long time none of the rest of us joined in these political talks. This suited Father exactly. He didn’t wish to be hindered, or even helped, when he was letting off steam. After a while, though, Mother began attending a class in current events, which an enterprising young woman, a Miss Edna Gulick, conducted on Tuesdays. Social, musical, and literary matters took up most of Miss Gulick’s mind. But though she didn’t go deeply into politics or industrial problems, merely darting about on the surface in a bright, sprightly way, she did this so skilfully, and made everything seem so clear to Mother, that the most baffling and intricate issues became childishly simple.
The day after one of these classes, just when Father was whole-heartedly bombarding President Benjamin Harrison and somebody named William McKinley for putting through a new tariff and trying their best to ruin the country, Mother boldly chimed in. She said she was sure that the President’s idea was all right; he had only been a little unfortunate in the way he had put it.
Father laid down his paper in high displeasure. “What do you know about it?” he demanded.
“Miss Gulick says she has it on the best authority,” Mother firmly declared. “She says the President prays to God for guidance, and that he is a very good-hearted man.”
“The President,” said Father, “is a nincompoop, and I strongly suspect he’s a scallawag, and I wish to God you wouldn’t talk on matters you don’t know a damned thing about.”
“I do too know about them,” Mother exclaimed. “Miss Gulick says every intelligent woman should have some opinion–about this tariff thing, and capital and labour, and everything else.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Father said in amazement. “Who, may I ask, is Miss Gulick?”
“Why, she’s that current-events person I told you about, and the tickets are a dollar each Tuesday,” said Mother.
“Do you mean to tell me that a pack of idle-minded females pay a dollar apiece to hear another female gabble about the events of the day?” Father asked. “Listen to me if you want to know anything about the events of the day.”
“But you get so excited, Clare dear, and you always talk so long and so loud that I never can see what you’re getting at. About tariffs. And strikes.”
“It is a citizen’s duty,” Father began, getting angrily into his overcoat, but Mother wouldn’t be interrupted.
“Another reason that we all like Miss Gulick so much,” she went on, “is that she says kindness is much more important than arguments. And she says that it makes her feel very sad when she reads about strikes, because capital and labour could easily learn to be nice to each other.”
Father burst out of the house, banging the door, and finished buttoning his coat on the top step of our stoop. “I don’t know what the world is coming to anyhow,” I heard him exclaim to a few surprised passers-by on quiet Madison Avenue.