His America by Susan Glaspell
He hated to see the reporter go. With the closing of that door it seemed certain that there was no putting it off any longer.
But even when the man's footsteps were at last sounding on the stairway, he still clung to him.
"Father," he asked, fretfully, "why do you always talk to those fellows?"
Herman Beckman turned in his chair and stared at his son. Then he laughed. "Now, that's a fine question to come from the honour man of a law school! I hope, Fritz, that your oration to-night is going to have a little more sense in it than that."
The calling up of his oration made him reach out another clutching hand to the vanished reporter. "But it's farcical, father, to be always interviewed by a paper nobody reads."
"Why, nobody cares anything about the Leader. It's dead."
Herman Beckman looked at his son sharply; something about him seemed strange. He decided that he was nervous about the commencement programme. Fritz had the one oration.
The boy had opened the drawer of his study table and was fingering some papers he had taken out.
"Sure you know it?" the man asked with affectionate parental anxiety.
"Oh, I know it all right," Fred answered grimly, and again the father decided that he was nervous about the thing. He wasn't just like himself.
The man walked to the window and stood looking across at the university buildings. Colleges had always meant much to Herman Beckman. The very day Fritz was born he determined that the boy was to go to college. It was good to witness the fulfilment of his dreams. He turned his glance to the comfortable room.
"Pretty decent comfortable sort of place, isn't it, father?" Fred asked, following his father's look and thought from the Morris chair to the student's lamp, and all those other things which nowadays seem an inevitable part of the acquirement of learning.
It made his father laugh. "Yes, my boy, I should call it decent--and comfortable." He grew thoughtful after that.
"Pretty different from the place you had, father?"
"Oh--me? My place to study was any place I could find. Sometimes on top of a load of hay, lots of times by the light of the logs. I've studied in some funny places, Fritz."
"Well, you got there, father!" the boy burst out with feeling. "By Jove, there aren't many of them know the things you know!"
"I know enough to know what I don't know," said the old man, a little sadly. "I know enough to know what I missed. I wanted to go to college. No one will ever know how I wanted to! I began to think I'd never feel right about it. But I have a notion that when I sit there to-night listening to you, Fritz, knowing that you're speaking for two hundred boys, half of whose fathers did go to college, I think I'm going to feel better about it then."
The boy turned away. Something in the kindly words seemed as the cut of a whip across his face.
"Well, Fritz," his father continued, getting into his coat, "I'll be going downtown. Leave you to put on an extra flourish or two." He laughed in proud parental fashion. "Anyway, I have some things to see about."
The boy stood up. "Father, I have something to tell you." He said it shortly and sharply.
The father stood there, puzzled.
"You won't like my oration to-night, father."
And still the man did not speak. The words would not have bothered him much--it was the boy's manner.
"In fact, father, you're going to be desperately disappointed in it."
The dull red was creeping into the man's cheeks. He was one to have little patience with that thing of not doing one's work. "Why am I going to be disappointed? This is no time to shirk! You should--"
"Oh, you'll not complain of the time and thought I've put on it," the boy broke in with a short, hard laugh. "But, you see, father--you see"--his armour had slipped from him--"it doesn't express--your views."
"Did I ever say I wanted you to express 'my views'? Did I bring you up to be a mouthpiece of mine? Haven't I told you to think?" But with a long, sharp glance at his boy anger gave way. "Come, boy"--going over and patting him on the back--"brace up now. You're acting like a seven-year-old girl afraid to speak her first piece," and his big laugh rang out, eager to reassure.
"You won't see it! You won't believe it! I don't suppose you'll believe it when you hear it!" He turned away, overwhelmed by a sudden realisation of just how difficult was the thing that lay before him.
The man started toward his son, but instead he walked over and sat down at the opposite side of the table, waiting. He was beginning to see that there was something in this which he did not understand.
At last the boy turned to him, fighting back some things, taking on other things. He gazed at the care-worn, rugged face--face of a worker and a dreamer, reading in those lines the story of that life, seeing more clearly than he had ever seen before the beauty and futility of it. Here was the idealist, the man who would give his whole lifetime to a dream he had dreamed. He loved his father very tenderly as he looked at him, read him, then.
"Father," he asked quietly, "are you satisfied with your life?"
The man simply stared--waiting, seeking his bearings.
"You came to this country when you were nineteen years old--didn't you, father?" The man nodded. "And now you're--it's sixty-one, isn't it?"
Again he nodded.
"You've been in America, then, forty-two years. Father, do you think as much of it now as you did forty-two years ago?"
"I don't know what you mean," the man said, searching his son's quiet, passionate face. "I can't make you out, Fritz."
"My favourite story as a kid," the boy went on, "was to hear you tell of how you felt when your boat came sailing into New York Harbour, and you saw the first outlines of a country you had dreamed about all through your boyhood, which you had saved pennies for, worked nights for, ever since you were old enough to know the meaning of America. I mean," he corrected, significantly, "the meaning of what you thought was America.
"It's a bully story, father," he continued, with a smile at once tender and hard; "the simple German boy, born a dreamer, standing there looking out at the dim shores of that land he had idealised. If ever a man came to America bringing it rich gifts, that man was you!"
"Fritz," his father's voice was rendered harsh by mystification and foreboding, "tell me what you're talking about. Come to the point. Clear this up."
"I'm talking about American politics--your party--having ruined your life! I'm talking about working like a slave all your days and having nothing but a mortgaged farm at sixty-one! I'm talking about playing a losing game! I'm saying, What's the use? Father, I'm telling you that I'm going to join the other party and make some money!"
The man just sat there, staring.
"Well," the boy took it up defiantly, "why not?"
And then he moved, laid a not quite steady hand out upon the table. "My boy, you're not well. You've studied too hard. Now brace yourself up for to-night, and then we'll go down home and fix you up. What you need, Fritz," he said, trying to laugh, "is the hayfield."
"You're not seeing it!" The boy pushed back his chair and began moving about the room. "The only way I can brace myself up for to-night is to get so mad--father, usually you see things so easily! Don't you understand? It was my chance, my one moment, my time to strike. It will be years before I get such a hearing again. You see, father, the thing will be printed, and the men I want to have hear it, the men who own this State, will be there. One of them is to preside. And the story of it, the worth of it, to them, is that I'm your son. You see, after all," he seized at this wildly, "I'm getting my start on the fact that I'm your son."
"Go on," said the man; the brown of his wind-beaten face had yielded to a tinge of grey. "Just what is it you are going to say?"
"I call it 'The New America,' a lot of this talk about doing things, the glory of industrial America, the true Americans the men of constructive genius, the patriotism of railroad and factory building, a eulogy of railroad officials and corporation presidents," he rushed on with a laugh. "Singing the song of Capital. Father, can't you see why?"
The old man had risen. "Tell me this," he said. "None of it matters much, if you just tell me this: You believe these things? You've thought it all out for yourself--and you feel that way? You're honest, aren't you, Fritz?" He put that last in a whisper.
The boy made no reply; after a minute the man sank back to his chair. The years seemed coming to him with the minutes.
Fred was leaning against the wall. "Father," he said at last, "I hope you'll let me be a little roundabout. It's only fair to me to let me ramble on a little. I've got to put it all right before you or--or--You know, dad,"--he came back to his place by the table, "the first thing I remember very clearly is those men, your party managers, coming down to the farm one time and asking you to run for Governor. How many times is it you've run for Governor, father?" He put the question slowly.
"Five," said the man heavily.
"I don't know which time this was; but you didn't want to. You were sorry when you saw them coming. I heard some of the talk. You talked about your farm, what you wanted to do that summer, how you couldn't afford the time or the money. They argued that you owed it to the party--they always got you there; how no other man could hold down majorities as you could--a man like you giving the best years of his life to holding down majorities! They said you were the one man against whom no personal attack could be made. And when there was so much to fight, anyway--oh, I know that speech by heart! They've made great capital of your honesty and your clean life. In fact, they've held that up as a curtain behind which a great many things could go on. Oh, you didn't know about them; you were out in front of the curtain, but I haven't lived in this town without finding out that they needed your integrity and your clean record pretty bad!
"That was out on the side porch. Mother had brought out some buttermilk, and they drank it while they talked. You put up a good fight. Your time was money to you at that time of year; a man shouldn't neglect his farm--but you never yet could hold out against that 'needing-you' kind of talk. They knew there was no chance for your election. You knew it. But it takes a man of just your grit to put any snap into a hopeless campaign.
"Mother cried when you went to drive them back to town. You see, I remember all those things. She told about how hard you would work, and how it would do no good--that the State belonged to the other party. She talked about the farm, too, and the addition she had wanted for the house, and how now she wouldn't have it. Mother felt pretty bad that night. She's gone through a lot of those times."
There was a silence.
"You were away a lot that summer, and all fall. You looked pretty well used up when you came home, but you said that you had held down majorities splendidly."
Again there was silence. It was the silences that seemed to be saying the most.
"You had one term in Congress--that's the only thing you ever had. Then you did so much that they concentrated in your district and saw to it that you never got back. Julius Caesar couldn't have been elected again," he laughed harshly.
"Father," the boy went on, after a pause, "you asked me if I were honest. There are two kinds of honesty. The primitive kind--like yours--and then the kind you develop for yourself. Do I believe the things I'm going to say to-night? No--not now. But I'll believe them more after I've heard the applause I'm sure to get. I'll believe them still more after I've had my first case thrown to me by our railroad friends who own this State. More and more after I've said them over in campaigning next fall, and pretty soon I'll be so sure I believe them that I really will believe them--and that," he concluded, flippantly, "is the new brand of American honesty. Why, any smart man can persuade himself he's not a hypocrite!"
"My God!" it wrenched from the man. "This? If you'd stolen money--killed a man--but hypocrisy, cant--the very thing I've fought hardest, hated most! You lived all your life with me to learn this?"
"I lived all my life with you to learn what pays, and what doesn't. I lived all my life with you to learn from failure the value of success."
"I never was sure I was a failure until this hour."
"Father! Can't you see--"
"Oh, don't talk to me!" cried the old man, rising, reaching out his fist as though he would strike him. "Son of mine sitting there telling me he is fixing up a brand of honesty for himself!"
The boy grew quieter as self-restraint left his father. "I mean that--just that," he said at last. "Let a man either give or get. If he gives, let it be to the real thing. There are two Americas. The America of you dreamers--and then the real America. Yours is an idea--an idea quite as much as an ideal. I don't think you have the slightest comprehension of how far apart it is from the real America. The people who dream of it over in Europe are a great deal nearer it than you people who work for it here. Father, the spirit of this country flows in a strong, swift, resistless current. You never got into it at all. Your kind of idealists influence it about as much--about as much as red lights burned on the banks of the great river would influence the current of that river. You're not of it. You came here, throbbing with the love for America; and with your ideal America you've fought the real, and you've worked and you've believed and you've sacrificed. Father, what's the use? In this State, anyway, it's hopeless. It has been so through your lifetime; it will be through mine."
The man sat looking at him. He felt that he should say something, but the words did not come--held back, perhaps, by a sense of their uselessness. It was not so much what Fred said as it was the look in his eyes as he said it. There was nothing impetuous or youthful about that look, nothing to be laughed at or argued away. He had always felt that Fred had a mind which saw things straight, saw them in their right relations, and at that moment he had no words to plead for what Fred called the America of the dreamers.
"I'm of the second generation, dad," the boy went on, at length, "and the second generation has an ideal of its own, and that ideal is Success. It took us these forty years to come to understand the spirit of America. You were a dreamer who loved America. I'm an American. We've translated democracy and brotherhood and equality into enterprise and opportunity and success--and that's getting Americanised. Now, father," he sought refuge in the tone of every-day things, "you'll get used to it--won't you? I don't expect you to feel very good about it, but you aren't going to be broken up about it--are you? After all, father," laughing and moving about as if to break the seriousness of things, "there's nothing criminal about being one of the other fellows--is there? Just remember that there are folks who even think it's respectable!" The father had risen and picked up his hat. "No, Fred," he said, with a sadness in which there was great dignity, "there is nothing criminal in it if a man's conviction sends him that way. But to me there is something--something too sad for words in a man's selling his own soul."
"Father! How extravagant! Why is it selling one's soul to sit down and figure out what's the best thing to do?" He hesitated, hating to add hurt to hurt, not wanting to say that his father's fight should have been with the revolutionists, that his life was ineffective because, seeing his dream from within a dream, his thinking had been muddled. He only said: "As I say, father, it's a question of giving or getting. I couldn't even give in your way. And I've seen enough of giving to want a taste of getting. I want to make things go--and I see my chance. Why father," he laughed, trying to turn it, "there's nothing so American as wanting to make things go."
He looked at him for a long minute. "My boy," he said, "I fear you are becoming so American that I am losing you."
"Father," the boy pleaded, affectionately, "now don't--"
The old man held up his hand. "You've tried to make me understand it," he said, "and succeeded. You can't complain of the way you've succeeded. I don't know why I don't argue with you--plead; there are things I could say--should say, perhaps--but something assures me it would be useless. I feel a good many years older than I did when I came into this room, but the reason for it is not that you're joining the other party. You know what I think of the men who control this State, the men with whom you desire to cast your lot, but I trust the years I've spent fighting them haven't made a bigot of me. It's not joining their party--it's using it--makes this the hardest thing I've been called upon to meet."
"Father, don't look like that! How do you think I am going to get up and speak tonight with that face before me?"
"You didn't think, did you," the man laughed bitterly, "that I would inspire you to your effort?"
The boy stood looking at his father, a strange new fire in his eyes.
"Yes," he said, quietly, tenderly, "you will inspire me. When I get up before those men tonight I'm going to see the picture of that boy straining for his first glimpse of New York Harbour. I'm going to think for just a minute of the things that boy brought with him--things he has never lost. And then I'll see you as you stand here now---it will be enough. What I need to do is to get mad. If I falter I'll just think of some of those times when you came home from your campaigns--how you looked--what you said. It will bring the inspiration. Father, I figure it out like this. We're going to get it back. We're going to get what's coming to us. There's another America than the America of you dreamers. To yours you have given; from mine I will get. And the irony of it--don't think I don't see the irony of it--is that I will be called the real American. Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to make the railroads of this State--oh, it sounds like schoolboy talk, but just give me a little time--I'm going to make the railroads of this State pay off every cent of that mortgage on your farm! Father," he finished, impetuously, in a last appeal, "you're broken up now, disappointed, but would you honestly want me to travel the road you've traveled?"
"My boy," answered the old man, and the tears came with it, "I wanted you to travel the road of an honest man."
Herman Beckman did not go to the commencement exercises that night. There was no train home until morning, so he had the night to spend in town. He was alone, for his friends assumed that he would be out at the university. But he preferred being alone.
He sat in his room at the hotel, reading. And he could read. Years of discipline stood him in good stead now. His life had taught him to read anywhere, at any time. He had never permitted himself the luxury of not being "in the mood." It was only the men who had gone to college who could do that. He had to read. He always carried some little book with him, for how did a man know that he might not have to wait an hour for a train somewhere? The man had a simple-minded veneration for knowledge. He wanted to know about things. And he had never learned to pretend that he didn't want to know. He quite lacked the modern art of flippancy. He believed in great books.
And so on the night that his son was being graduated from college he sat in his room at the hotel--cheap room in a mediocre hotel; he had never learned to feel at home in the rich ones--reading Marcus Aurelius. But his hand as he turned the pages trembled as the hand of a very old man. At midnight some reporters came in to ask him what he thought of his son's oration. They wanted a statement from him.
He told them that he had never believed the sins of a parent should be visited on a child, and that it was even so with the thought. He had always contended that a man should do his own thinking. The contention applied to his son.
"Gamey old brute!" was what one of the reporters said in the elevator.
He could not read Marcus Aurelius after that. He went to bed, but he did not sleep. Many things passed before him. His anticipations, his dreams for Fritz, had brought the warmest pleasure of his stern, unrelaxing life. There was a great emptiness tonight. What was a man to turn to, think about, when he seemed stripped, not only of the future, but of the past? He seemed called upon to readjust the whole of his life, giving up that which he had held dearest. What was left? Daylight found him turning it over and over.
In the morning he went home. He got away without seeing any of his friends.
He did not try to read this morning; somehow it seemed there was no use in trying to read any more. He watched the country through which they were passing, thinking of the hundreds of times he had ridden over it in campaigning. He wondered, vaguely, just how much money he had spent on railroad fare--he had never accepted mileage. Fred's "What's the use?" kept ringing in his ears. There was something about that phrase which made one feel very tired and old. It even seemed there was no use looking out to see how the crops were getting on. What's the use? What's the use? Was that a phrase one learned in college?
There had been two things to tell "mother" that night. The first was that he had stopped in town and told Claus Hansen he could have that south hundred and sixty he had been wanting for two years.
It was not easy to tell the woman who had worked shoulder to shoulder with him for thirty years, the woman who during those years had risen with him in the early morning and worked with him until darkness rescued the weary bodies, that in their old age they must surrender the fruit of their toil. They would have left just what they had started with. They had just held their own.
Coming down on the train he had made up his mind that if Hansen were in town he would tell him that he could have the land. He felt so very tired and old, so bowed down with Fred's "What's the use?" that he saw that he himself would never get the mortgage paid off. And Fred had said something about making the railroads pay it. He did not know just how the boy figured that out--indeed, he was getting a little dazed about the whole thing--but if Fritz had any idea of having the railroads pay off the mortgage on his farm--he couldn't forget how the boy looked when he said it, face white, eyes burning--he would see to it right now that there was no chance of that.
He tried not to look at the land as he drove past it on the way home. He wondered just how much campaign literature it had paid for. He wondered if he would ever get used to seeing Claus Hansen putting up his hay over there in that field.
He had felt so badly about telling mother that he told it very bluntly. And because he felt so sorry for her he said not one kind word, but just sat quiet, looking the other way.
She was clearing off the table. He heard her scraping out the potato dish with great care. Then she was coming over to him. She came awkwardly, hesitatingly--her life had not schooled her in meeting emotional moments beautifully--but she laid her hand upon him, patted him on the shoulder as one would a child. "Never mind, papa--never you mind. It will make it easier for us. There's enough left--and it will make it easier. We're getting on--we're--" There she broke off abruptly into a vigorous scolding of the dog, who was lifting covetous nostrils to a piece of meat.
That was all. And there was no woman in the country had worked harder. And Martha was ambitious; she liked land, and she did not like Claus Hansen's wife.
Yes, he had had a good wife.
Then there was that other thing to tell her--about Fritz. That was harder.
Mother had not gone up to the city to hear Fritz "speak" because her feet were bothering her, and she could not wear her shoes. He had had a vague idea of how disappointed she was, though she had said very little about it. Martha never had been one to say much about things. When he came back, of course she had wanted to know all about it, and he had put her off. Now he had to tell her.
It was much harder; and in the telling of it he broke down.
This time she did not come over and pat his shoulder. Perhaps Martha knew--likely she had never heard the word intuition, but, anyway, she knew--that it was beyond that.
It seemed difficult for her to comprehend. She was bewildered to find that Fritz could change parties all in a minute. She seemed to grasp, first of all, that it was disrespectful to his father. Some boys at school had been putting notions into his head.
But gradually she began to see it. Fritz wanted to make money. Fritz wanted to have it easier. And the other people did "have it easier."
It divided her feeling: sorry and indignant for the father, secretly glad and relieved for the boy. "He will have it easier than we had it, papa," she said at the last. "But it was not right of Fritz," she concluded, vaguely but severely.
As she washed the dishes Martha was thinking that likely Fritz's wife would have a hired girl.
Then Martha went up to bed. He said that he would come in a few minutes, but many minutes went by while he sat out on the side porch trying to think it out.
The moon was shining brightly down on that hundred and sixty which Claus Hansen was to have. And the moon, too, seemed to be saying: "What's the use?"
Well, what was the use? Perhaps, after all, the boy was right. What had it all amounted to? What was there left? What had he done?
Two Americas, Fred had said, and his but the America of the dreamers. He had always thought that he was fighting for the real. And now Fred said that he had never become an American at all.
From the time he was twelve years old he had wanted to be an American. A queer old man back in the German village--an old man, he recalled strangely now, who had never been in America--told him about it. He told how all men were brothers in America, how the poor and the rich loved each other--indeed, how there were no poor and rich at all, but the same chance for every man who would work. He told about the marvellous resources of that distant America--gold in the earth, which men were free to go and get, hundreds upon hundreds of miles of untouched forests and great rivers--all for men to use, great cities no older than the men who were in them, which men at that present moment were making--every man his equal chance. He told of rich land which a man could have for nothing, which would be his, if he would but go and work upon it. In the heart of the little German boy there was kindled then a fire which the years had never put out. His cheeks grew red, his eyes bright and very deep as he listened to the story. He went home that night and dreamed of going to America. And through the years of his boyhood, penny by penny, he saved his money for America. It was his dream. It was the passion of his life. More plainly than the events of yesterday, he remembered his first glimpse of those wonderful shores--the lump in his throat, the passionate excitement, the uplift. Leaning over the railing of his boat, staring, searching, penetrating, worshipping, he lifted up his heart and sent out his pledge of allegiance to the new land. How he would love America, work for it, be true to it!
He had three dollars and sixty cents in his pocket when he stepped upon American soil. He wondered if any man had ever felt richer. For had he not reached the land where there was an equal chance for every man who would work, where men loved each other as brothers, and where the earth itself was so rich and so gracious in its offerings?
The old man crossed one leg over the other--slowly, stiffly. It made him tired and stiff now just to think of the work he had done between that day and this.
But there was something which he had always had--that something was his America. That had never wavered, though he soon learned that between it and realities were many things which were wrong and unfortunate. With the whole force and passion of his nature, with all his single mindedness--would some call it simple mindedness?--he threw himself into the fight against those things which were blurring men's vision of his America. No work, no sacrifice was too great, for America had enemies who called themselves friends, men who were striking heavy blows at that equal chance for every man. When he failed, it was because he did not know enough; he must work, he must study, he must think, in order to make more real to other men the America which was in his heart. He must fight for it because it was his.
And now it seemed that the end had come; he was old, he was tired, he was not sure. Claus Hansen would have his land and his son would join hands with the things which he had spent his life in fighting. And far deeper and sadder and more bitter than that, he had not transmitted the America of his heart even to his own son. He was not leaving someone to fight for it in his stead, to win where he had failed. Fred saw in it but a place for gain. "I lived all my life with you to learn from failure the value of success." That was what he had given to his boy. Yes, that was what he had bequeathed to America. Could the failure, the futility of his life be more clearly revealed?
Twice Martha had called to him, but still he sat, smoking, thinking. There was much to think about to-night.
Finally, it was not thought, but visions. Too tired for conscious thinking, he gave himself up to what came--Fred's America, his America, the America of the dreamers--and the things which stood between. The America of the future---what would that America be?
At the last, taking form from many things which came and went, shaping itself slowly, form giving place to new form, he seemed to see it grow. Out beyond that land Claus Hansen was to have, a long way off, there rose the vision of the America of the future--an America of realities, and yet an America of dreams; for the dreamers had become the realists---or was it that the realists had become dreamers? In the manifold forms taken on and cast aside destroying dualism had made way for the strength and the dignity and harmony of unity. He watched it as breathlessly, as yearningly, as the nineteen-year-old boy had watched the other America taking shape in the distance some forty years before. "How did you come?" he whispered. "What are you?"
And the voice of that real America seemed to answer: "I came because for a long-enough time there were enough men who held me in their hearts. I came because there were men who never gave me up. I was won by men who believed that they had failed."
Again there was a lump in his throat--once more an exultation flooded all his being. For to the old man--tired, stiff, smitten though he had been, there came again that same uplift which long before had come to the boy. Was there not here an answer to "What's the use?" For he would leave America as he came to it--loving it, believing in it. What were the work and the failure of a lifetime when there was something in his heart which was his? Should he say that he had fought in vain when he had kept it for himself? It was as real, as wonderful--yes as inevitable, as it had been forty years before. Realities had taken his land, his career, his hopes for the boy. But realities had not stripped him of his dream. The futility of the years could not harm the things which were in his heart. Even in America he had not lost His America.
"Perhaps it is then that it is like that," he murmured, his vision carrying him back to the days of his broken English. "Perhaps it is that every man's America is in the inside of his own heart. Perhaps it is that it will come when it has grown big--big and very strong--in the hearts."