But this proportion must in every nation be regulated by two different circumstances; first, by the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied; and, secondly, by the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed. Whatever be the soil, climate, or extent of territory of any particular nation, the abundance or scantiness of its annual supply must, in that particular situation, depend upon those two circumstances.
The abundance or scantiness of this supply, too, seems to depend more upon the former of those two circumstances than upon the latter. Among the savage nations of hunters and fishers, every individual who is able to work, is more or less employed in useful labour, and endeavours to provide, as well as he can, the necessaries and conveniences of life, for himself, or such of his family or tribe as are either too old, or too young, or too infirm to go a hunting and fishing. Such nations, however, are so miserably poor that, from mere want, they are frequently reduced, or, at least, think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts. Among civilised and thriving nations, on the contrary, though a great number of people do not labour at all, many of whom consume the produce of ten times, frequently of a hundred times more labour than the greater part of those who work; yet the produce of the whole labour of the society is so great that all are often abundantly supplied, and a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire.
The causes of this improvement, in the productive powers of labour, and the order, according to which its produce is naturally distributed among the different ranks and conditions of men in the society, make the subject of the first book of this Inquiry.
Whatever be the actual state of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which labour is applied in any nation, the abundance or scantiness of its annual supply must depend, during the continuance of that state, upon the proportion between the number of those who are annually employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not so employed. The number of useful and productive labourers, it will hereafter appear, is everywhere in proportion to the quantity of capital stock which is employed in setting them to work, and to the particular way in which it is so employed. The second book, therefore, treats of the nature of capital stock, of the manner in which it is gradually accumulated, and of the different quantities of labour which it puts into motion, according to the different ways in which it is employed.
Nations tolerably well advanced as to skill, dexterity, and judgment, in the application of labour, have followed very different plans in the general conduct or direction of it; those plans have not all been equally favourable to the greatness of its produce. The policy of some nations has given extraordinary encouragement to the industry of the country; that of others to the industry of towns. Scarce any nation has dealt equally and impartially with every sort of industry. Since the downfall of the Roman empire, the policy of Europe has been more favourable to arts, manufactures, and commerce, the industry of towns, than to agriculture, the industry of the country. The circumstances which seem to have introduced and established this policy are explained in the third book.
Though those different plans were, perhaps, first introduced by the private interests and prejudices of particular orders of men, without any regard to, or foresight of, their consequences upon the general welfare of the society; yet they have given occasion to very different theories of political economy; of which some magnify the importance of that industry which is carried on in towns, others of that which is carried on in the country. Those theories have had a considerable influence, not only upon the opinions of men of learning, but upon the public conduct of princes and sovereign states. I have endeavoured, in the fourth book, to explain, as fully and distinctly as I can, those different theories, and the principal effects which they have produced in different ages and nations.
To explain in what has consisted the revenue of the great body of the people, or what has been the nature of those funds which, in different ages and nations, have supplied their annual consumption, is the object of these four first books. The fifth and last book treats of the revenue of the sovereign, or commonwealth. In this book I have endeavoured to show, first, what are the necessary expenses of the sovereign, or commonwealth; which of those expenses ought to be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society; and which of them by that of some particular part only, or of some particular members of it: secondly, what are the different methods in which the whole society may be made to contribute towards defraying the expenses incumbent on the whole society, and what are the principal advantages and inconveniences of each of those methods: and, thirdly and lastly, what are the reasons and causes which have induced almost all modern governments to mortgage some part of this revenue, or to contract debts, and what have been the effects of those debts upon the real wealth, the annual produce of the land and labour of the society….
The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
The effects of the division of labour, in the general business of society, will be more easily understood by considering in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures. It is commonly supposed to be carried furthest in some very trifling ones; not perhaps that it really is carried further in them than in others of more importance: but in those trifling manufactures which are destined to supply the small wants of but a small number of people, the whole number of workmen must necessarily be small; and those employed in every different branch of the work can often be collected into the same workhouse, and placed at once under the view of the spectator. In those great manufactures, on the contrary, which are destined to supply the great wants of the great body of the people, every different branch of the work employs so great a number of workmen that it is impossible to collect them all into the same workhouse. We can seldom see more, at one time, than those employed in one single branch. Though in such manufactures, therefore, the work may really be divided into a much greater number of parts than in those of a more trifling nature, the division is not near so obvious, and has accordingly been much less observed.
To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labour are similar to what they are in this very trifling one; though, in many of them, the labour can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour. The separation of different trades and employments from one another seems to have taken place in consequence of this advantage. This separation, too, is generally called furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer, nothing but a manufacturer. The labour, too, which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth! The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another, as manufactures. It is impossible to separate so entirely the business of the grazier from that of the corn-farmer as the trade of the carpenter is commonly separated from that of the smith. The spinner is almost always a distinct person from the weaver; but the ploughman, the harrower, the sower of the seed, and the reaper of the corn, are often the same. The occasions for those different sorts of labour returning with the different seasons of the year, it is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them. This impossibility of making so complete and entire a separation of all the different branches of labour employed in agriculture is perhaps the reason why the improvement of the productive powers of labour in this art does not always keep pace with their improvement in manufactures. The most opulent nations, indeed, generally excel all their neighbours in agriculture as well as in manufactures; but they are commonly more distinguished by their superiority in the latter than in the former. Their lands are in general better cultivated, and having more labour and expense bestowed upon them, produce more in proportion to the extent and natural fertility of the ground. But this superiority of produce is seldom much more than in proportion to the superiority of labour and expense. In agriculture, the labour of the rich country is not always much more productive than that of the poor; or, at least, it is never so much more productive as it commonly is in manufactures. The corn of the rich country, therefore, will not always, in the same degree of goodness, come cheaper to market than that of the poor. The corn of Poland, in the same degree of goodness, is as cheap as that of France, notwithstanding the superior opulence and improvement of the latter country. The corn of France is, in the corn provinces, fully as good, and in most years nearly about the same price with the corn of England, though, in opulence and improvement, France is perhaps inferior to England. The corn-lands of England, however, are better cultivated than those of France, and the corn-lands of France are said to be much better cultivated than those of Poland. But though the poor country, notwithstanding the inferiority of its cultivation, can, in some measure, rival the rich in the cheapness and goodness of its corn, it can pretend to no such competition in its manufactures; at least if those manufactures suit the soil, climate, and situation of the rich country. The silks of France are better and cheaper than those of England, because the silk manufacture, at least under the present high duties upon the importation of raw silk, does not so well suit the climate of England as that of France. But the hardware and the coarse woollens of England are beyond all comparison superior to those of France, and much cheaper too in the same degree of goodness. In Poland there are said to be scarce any manufactures of any kind, a few of those coarser household manufactures excepted, without which no country can well subsist.
This great increase of the quantity of work which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many.
First, the improvement of the dexterity of the workman necessarily increases the quantity of the work he can perform; and the division of labour, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increased very much dexterity of the workman. A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarce, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those too very bad ones. A smith who has been accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom with his utmost diligence make more than eight hundred or a thousand nails in a day. I have seen several boys under twenty years of age who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves, could make, each of them, upwards of two thousand three hundred nails in a day. The making of a nail, however, is by no means one of the simplest operations. The same person blows the bellows, stirs or mends the fire as there is occasion, heats the iron, and forges every part of the nail: in forging the head too he is obliged to change his tools. The different operations into which the making of a pin, or of a metal button, is subdivided, are all of them much more simple, and the dexterity of the person, of whose life it has been the sole business to perform them, is usually much greater. The rapidity with which some of the operations of those manufacturers are performed, exceeds what the human hand could, by those who had never seen them, be supposed capable of acquiring.
Secondly, the advantage which is gained by saving the time commonly lost in passing from one sort of work to another is much greater than we should at first view be apt to imagine it. It is impossible to pass very quickly from one kind of work to another that is carried on in a different place and with quite different tools. A country weaver, who cultivates a small farm, must lose a good deal of time in passing from his loom to the field, and from the field to his loom. When the two trades can be carried on in the same workhouse, the loss of time is no doubt much less. It is even in this case, however, very considerable. A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing.
Thirdly, and lastly, everybody must be sensible how much labour is facilitated and abridged by the application of proper machinery. It is unnecessary to give any example. I shall only observe, therefore, that the invention of all those machines by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged seems to have been originally owing to the division of labour. Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Whoever has been much accustomed to visit such manufactures must frequently have been shown very pretty machines, which were the inventions of such workmen in order to facilitate and quicken their particular part of the work. In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his playfellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.
All the improvements in machinery, however, have by no means been the inventions of those who had occasion to use the machines. Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a peculiar trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do anything, but to observe everything; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects. In the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens. Like every other employment too, it is subdivided into a great number of different branches, each of which affords occupation to a peculiar tribe or class of philosophers; and this subdivision of employment in philosophy, as well as in every other business, improves dexterity, and saves time. Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.
It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of the society.
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilised and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the seller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brickmaker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniences; if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that, without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilised country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages. …
In that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour, in which exchanges are seldom made, and in which every man provides everything for himself, it is not necessary that any stock should be accumulated or stored up beforehand in order to carry on the business of the society. Every man endeavours to supply by his own industry his own occasional wants as they occur. When he is hungry, he goes to the forest to hunt; when his coat is worn out, he clothes himself with the skin of the first large animal he kills: and when his hut begins to go to ruin, he repairs it, as well as he can, with the trees and the turf that are nearest it.
But when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man’s own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men’s labour, which he purchases with the produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of the produce of his own. But this purchase cannot be made till such time as the produce of his own labour has not only been completed, but sold. A stock of goods of different kinds, therefore, must be stored up somewhere sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work till such time, at least, as both these events can be brought about. A weaver cannot apply himself entirely to his peculiar business, unless there is beforehand stored up somewhere, either in his own possession or in that of some other person, a stock sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work, till he has not only completed, but sold his web. This accumulation must, evidently, be previous to his applying his industry for so long a time to such a peculiar business.
As the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour, so labour can be more and more subdivided in proportion only as stock is previously more and more accumulated. The quantity of materials which the same number of people can work up, increases in a great proportion as labour comes to be more and more subdivided; and as the operations of each workman are gradually reduced to a greater degree of simplicity, a variety of new machines come to be invented for facilitating and abridging those operations. As the division of labour advances, therefore, in order to give constant employment to an equal number of workmen, an equal stock of provisions, and a greater stock of materials and tools than what would have been necessary in a ruder state of things, must be accumulated beforehand. But the number of workmen in every branch of business generally increases with the division of labour in that branch, or rather it is the increase of their number which enables them to class and subdivide themselves in this manner.
As the accumulation of stock is previously necessary for carrying on this great improvement in the productive powers of labour, so that accumulation naturally leads to this improvement. The person who employs his stock in maintaining labour, necessarily wishes to employ it in such a manner as to produce as great a quantity of work as possible. He endeavours, therefore, both to make among his workmen the most proper distribution of employment, and to furnish them with the best machines which he can either invent or afford to purchase. His abilities in both these respects are generally in proportion to the extent of his stock, or to the number of people whom it can employ. The quantity of industry, therefore, not only increases in every country with the increase of the stock which employs it, but, in consequence of that increase, the same quantity of industry produces a much greater quantity of work.
Such are in general the effects of the increase of stock upon industry and its productive powers.
In the following book I have endeavoured to explain the nature of stock, the effects of its accumulation into capitals of different kinds, and the effects of the different employments of those capitals. This book is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, I have endeavoured to show what are the different parts or branches into which the stock, either of an individual, or of a great society, naturally divides itself. In the second, I have endeavoured to explain the nature and operation of money considered as a particular branch of the general stock of the society. The stock which is accumulated into a capital, may either be employed by the person to whom it belongs, or it may be lent to some other person. In the third and fourth chapters, I have endeavoured to examine the manner in which it operates in both these situations. The fifth and last chapter treats of the different effects which the different employments of capital immediately produce upon the quantity both of national industry, and of the annual produce of land and labour. …
The interest which occasioned the first settlement of the different European colonies in America and the West Indies was not altogether so plain and distinct as that which directed the establishment of those of ancient Greece and Rome.
All the different states of ancient Greece possessed, each of them, but a very small territory, and when the people in any one of them multiplied beyond what that territory could easily maintain, a part of them were sent in quest of a new habitation in some remote and distant part of the world; the warlike neighbours who surrounded them on all sides, rendering it difficult for any of them to enlarge very much its territory at home. The colonies of the Dorians resorted chiefly to Italy and Sicily, which, in the times preceding the foundation of Rome, were inhabited by barbarous and uncivilised nations: those of the Ionians and Aeolians, the two other great tribes of the Greeks, to Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean Sea, of which the inhabitants seem at that time to have been pretty much in the same state as those of Sicily and Italy. The mother city, though she considered the colony as a child, at all times entitled to great favour and assistance, and owing in return much gratitude and respect, yet considered it as an emancipated child over whom she pretended to claim no direct authority or jurisdiction. The colony settled its own form of government, enacted its own laws, elected its own magistrates, and made peace or war with its neighbours as an independent state, which had no occasion to wait for the approbation or consent of the mother city. Nothing can be more plain and distinct than the interest which directed every such establishment.
Rome, like most of the other ancient republics, was originally founded upon an Agrarian law which divided the public territory in a certain proportion among the different citizens who composed the state. The course of human affairs by marriage, by succession, and by alienation, necessarily deranged this original division, and frequently threw the lands, which had been allotted for the maintenance of many different families, into the possession of a single person. To remedy this disorder, for such it was supposed to be, a law was made restricting the quantity of land which any citizen could possess to five hundred jugera, about three hundred and fifty English acres. This law, however, though we read of its having been executed upon one or two occasions, was either neglected or evaded, and the inequality of fortunes went on continually increasing. The greater part of the citizens had no land, and without it the manners and customs of those times rendered it difficult for a freeman to maintain his independency. In the present time, though a poor man has no land of his own, if he has a little stock he may either farm the lands of another, or he may carry on some little retail trade; and if he has no stock, he may find employment either as a country labourer or as an artificer. But among the ancient Romans the lands of the rich were all cultivated by slaves, who wrought under an overseer who was likewise a slave; so that a poor freeman had little chance of being employed either as a farmer or as a labourer. All trades and manufactures too, even the retail trade, were carried on by the slaves of the rich for the benefit of their masters, whose wealth, authority, and protection made it difficult for a poor freeman to maintain the competition against them. The citizens, therefore, who had no land, had scarce any other means of subsistence but the bounties of the candidates at the annual elections. The tribunes, when they had a mind to animate the people against the rich and the great, put them in mind of the ancient division of lands, and represented that law which restricted this sort of private property as the fundamental law of the republic. The people became clamorous to get land, and the rich and the great, we may believe, were perfectly determined not to give them any part of theirs. To satisfy them in some measure therefore, they frequently proposed to send out a new colony. But conquering Rome was, even upon such occasions, under no necessity of turning out her citizens to seek their fortune, if one may say so, through the wide world, without knowing where they were to settle. She assigned them lands generally in the conquered provinces of Italy, where, being within the dominions of the republic, they could never form an independent state; but were at best but a sort of corporation, which, though it had the power of enacting bye-laws for its own government, was at all times subject to the correction, jurisdiction, and legislative authority of the mother city. The sending out a colony of this kind not only gave some satisfaction to the people, but often established a sort of garrison, too, in a newly conquered province, of which the obedience might otherwise have been doubtful. A Roman colony therefore, whether we consider the nature of the establishment itself or the motives for making it, was altogether different from a Greek one. The words accordingly, which in the original languages denote those different establishments, have very different meanings. The Latin word (Colonia) signifies simply a plantation. The Greek word apoikia, on the contrary, signifies a separation of dwelling, a departure from home, a going out of the house. But, though the Roman colonies were in many respects different from the Greek ones, the interest which prompted to establish them was equally plain and distinct. Both institutions derived their origin either from irresistible necessity, or from clear and evident utility.
The establishment of the European colonies in America and the West Indies arose from no necessity: and though the utility which has resulted from them has been very great, it is not altogether so clear and evident. It was not understood at their first establishment, and was not the motive either of that establishment or of the discoveries which gave occasion to it, and the nature, extent, and limits of that utility are not, perhaps, well understood at this day.
The Venetians, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, carried on a very advantageous commerce in spiceries, and other East India goods, which they distributed among the other nations of Europe. They purchased them chiefly in Egypt, at that time under the dominion of the Mamelukes, the enemies of the Turks, of whom the Venetians were the enemies; and this union of interest, assisted by the money of Venice, formed such a connection as gave the Venetians almost a monopoly of the trade.
The great profits of the Venetians tempted the avidity of the Portuguese. They had been endeavouring, during the course of the fifteenth century, to find out by sea a way to the countries from which the Moors brought them ivory and gold dust across the desert. They discovered the Madeiras, the Canaries, the Azores, the Cape de Verde Islands, the coast of Guinea, that of Loango, Congo, Angola, and Benguela, and, finally, the Cape of Good Hope. They had long wished to share in the profitable traffic of the Venetians, and this last discovery opened to them a probable prospect of doing so. In 1497, Vasco de Gama sailed from the port of Lisbon with a fleet of four ships, and after a navigation of eleven months arrived upon the coast of Indostan, and thus completed a course of discoveries which had been pursued with great steadiness, and with very little interruption, for nearly a century together.
Some years before this, while the expectations of Europe were in suspense about the projects of the Portuguese, of which the success appeared yet to be doubtful, a Genoese pilot formed the yet more daring project of sailing to the East Indies by the West. The situation of those countries was at that time very imperfectly known in Europe. The few European travellers who had been there had magnified the distance, perhaps through simplicity and ignorance, what was really very great appearing almost infinite to those who could not measure it; or, perhaps, in order to increase somewhat more the marvellous of their own adventures in visiting regions so immensely remote from Europe. The longer the way was by the East, Columbus very justly concluded, the shorter it would be by the West. He proposed, therefore, to take that way, as both the shortest and the surest, and he had the good fortune to convince Isabella of Castile of the probability of his project. He sailed from the port of Palos in August 1492, nearly five years before the expedition of Vasco de Gama set out from Portugal, and, after a voyage of between two and three months, discovered first some of the small Bahamas or Lucayan islands, and afterwards the great island of St. Domingo.
But the countries which Columbus discovered, either in this or in any of his subsequent voyages, had no resemblance to those which he had gone in quest of. Instead of the wealth, cultivation, and populousness of China and Indostan, he found, in St. Domingo, and in all the other parts of the new world which he ever visited, nothing but a country quite covered with wood, uncultivated, and inhabited only by some tribes of naked and miserable savages. He was not very willing, however, to believe that they were not the same with some of the countries described by Marco Polo, the first European who had visited, or at least had left behind him, any description of China or the East Indies; and a very slight resemblance, such as that which he found between the name of Cibao, a mountain in St. Domingo, and that of Cipango mentioned by Marco Polo, was frequently sufficient to make him return to this favourite prepossession, though contrary to the clearest evidence. In his letters to Ferdinand and Isabella he called the countries which he had discovered the Indies. He entertained no doubt but that they were the extremity of those which had been described by Marco Polo, and that they were not very distant from the Ganges, or from the countries which had been conquered by Alexander. Even when at last convinced that they were different, he still flattered himself that those rich countries were at no great distance, and, in a subsequent voyage, accordingly, went in quest of them along the coast of Terra Firma, and towards the Isthmus of Darien.
In consequence of this mistake of Columbus, the name of the Indies has stuck to those unfortunate countries ever since; and when it was at last clearly discovered that the new were altogether different from the old Indies, the former were called the West, in contradistinction to the latter, which were called the East Indies.
It was of importance to Columbus, however, that the countries which he had discovered, whatever they were, should be represented to the court of Spain as of very great consequence; and, in what constitutes the real riches of every country, the animal and vegetable productions of the soil, there was at that time nothing which could well justify such a representation of them.
The Cori, something between a rat and a rabbit, and supposed by Mr. Buffon to be the same with the Aperea of Brazil, was the largest viviparous quadruped in St. Domingo. This species seems never to have been very numerous, and the dogs and cats of the Spaniards are said to have long ago almost entirely extirpated it, as well as some other tribes of a still smaller size. These, however, together with a pretty large lizard, called the ivana, or iguana, constituted the principal part of the animal food which the land afforded.
The vegetable food of the inhabitants, though from their want of industry not very abundant, was not altogether so scanty. It consisted in Indian corn, yams, potatoes, bananas, etc., plants which were then altogether unknown in Europe, and which have never since been very much esteemed in it, or supposed to yield a sustenance equal to what is drawn from the common sorts of grain and pulse, which have been cultivated in this part of the world time out of mind.
The cotton plant, indeed, afforded the material of a very important manufacture, and was at that time to Europeans undoubtedly the most valuable of all the vegetable productions of those islands. But though in the end of the fifteenth century the muslins and other cotton goods of the East Indies were much esteemed in every part of Europe, the cotton manufacture itself was not cultivated in any part of it. Even this production, therefore, could not at that time appear in the eyes of Europeans to be of very great consequence.
Finding nothing either in the animals or vegetables of the newly discovered countries which could justify a very advantageous representation of them, Columbus turned his view towards their minerals; and in the richness of the productions of this third kingdom, he flattered himself he had found a full compensation for the insignificancy of those of the other two. The little bits of gold with which the inhabitants ornamented their dress, and which, he was informed, they frequently found in the rivulets and torrents that fell from the mountains, were sufficient to satisfy him that those mountains abounded with the richest gold mines. St. Domingo, therefore, was represented as a country abounding with gold, and, upon that account, (according to the prejudices not only of the present time, but of those times) an inexhaustible source of real wealth to the crown and kingdom of Spain. When Columbus, upon his return from his first voyage, was introduced with a sort of triumphal honours to the sovereigns of Castile and Arragon, the principal productions of the countries which he had discovered were carried in solemn procession before him. The only valuable part of them consisted in some little fillets, bracelets, and other ornaments of gold, and in some bales of cotton. The rest were mere objects of vulgar wonder and curiosity; some reeds of an extraordinary size, some birds of a very beautiful plumage, and some stuffed skins of the huge alligator and manati; all of which were preceded by six or seven of the wretched natives, whose singular colour and appearance added greatly to the novelty of the show.
In consequence of the representations of Columbus, the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project. But the hope of finding treasures of gold there was the sole motive which prompted him to undertake it; and to give this motive the greater weight, it was proposed by Columbus that the half of all the gold and silver that should be found there should belong to the crown. This proposal was approved of by the council.
As long as the whole or the far greater part of the gold, which the first adventurers imported into Europe, was got by so very easy a method as the plundering of the defenceless natives, it was not perhaps very difficult to pay even this heavy tax. But when the natives were once fairly stripped of all that they had, which, in St. Domingo, and in all the other countries discovered by Columbus, was done completely in six or eight years, and when in order to find more it had become necessary to dig for it in the mines, there was no longer any possibility of paying this tax. The rigorous exaction of it, accordingly, first occasioned, it is said, the total abandoning of the mines of St. Domingo, which have never been wrought since. It was soon reduced therefore to a third; then to a fifth; afterwards to a tenth; and at last to a twentieth part of the gross produce of the gold mines. The tax upon silver continued for a long time to be a fifth of the gross produce. It was reduced to a tenth only in the course of the present century. But the first adventurers do not appear to have been much interested about silver. Nothing less precious than gold seemed worthy of their attention.
All the other enterprises of the Spaniards in the new world, subsequent to those of Columbus, seem to have been prompted by the same motive. It was the sacred thirst of gold that carried Oieda, Nicuessa, and Vasco Nugnes de Balboa, to the Isthmus of Darien, that carried Cortez to Mexico, and Almagro and Pizzarro to Chili and Peru. When those adventurers arrived upon any unknown coast, their first inquiry was always if there was any gold to be found there; and according to the information which they received concerning this particular, they determined either to quit the country or to settle in it.
Of all those expensive and uncertain projects, however, which bring bankruptcy upon the greater part of the people who engage in them, there is none perhaps more ruinous than the search after new silver and gold mines. It is perhaps the most disadvantageous lottery in the world, or the one in which the gain of those who draw the prizes bears the least proportion to the loss of those who draw the blanks: for though the prizes are few and the blanks many, the common price of a ticket is the whole fortune of a very rich man. Projects of mining, instead of replacing the capital employed in them, together with the ordinary profits of stock, commonly absorb both capital and profit. They are the projects, therefore, to which of all others a prudent lawgiver, who desired to increase the capital of his nation, would least choose to give any extraordinary encouragement, or to turn towards them a greater share of that capital than that would go to them of its own accord. Such in reality is the absurd confidence which almost all men have in their own good fortune that, wherever there is the least probability of success, too great a share of it is apt to go to them of its own accord.
But though the judgment of sober reason and experience concerning such projects has always been extremely unfavourable, that of human avidity has commonly been quite otherwise. The same passion which has suggested to so many people the absurd idea of the philosopher’s stone, has suggested to others the equally absurd one of immense rich mines of gold and silver. They did not consider that the value of those metals has, in all ages and nations, arisen chiefly from their scarcity, and that their scarcity has arisen from the very small quantities of them which nature has anywhere deposited in one place, from the hard and intractable substances with which she has almost everywhere surrounded those small quantities, and consequently from the labour and expense which are everywhere necessary in order to penetrate to and get at them. They flattered themselves that veins of those metals might in many places be found as large and as abundant as those which are commonly found of lead, or copper, or tin, or iron. The dream of Sir Walter Raleigh concerning the golden city and country of Eldorado, may satisfy us that even wise men are not always exempt from such strange delusions. More than a hundred years after the death of that great man, the Jesuit Gumila was still convinced of the reality of that wonderful country, and expressed with great warmth, and I dare to say with great sincerity, how happy he should be to carry the light of the gospel to a people who could so well reward the pious labours of their missionary.
In the countries first discovered by the Spaniards, no gold or silver mines are at present known which are supposed to be worth the working. The quantities of those metals which the first adventurers are said to have found there had probably been very much magnified, as well as the fertility of the mines which were wrought immediately after the first discovery. What those adventurers were reported to have found, however, was sufficient to inflame the avidity of all their countrymen. Every Spaniard who sailed to America expected to find an Eldorado. Fortune, too, did upon this what she has done upon very few other occasions. She realized in some measure the extravagant hopes of her votaries, and in the discovery and conquest of Mexico and Peru (of which the one happened about thirty, the other about forty years after the first expedition of Columbus), she presented them with something not very unlike that profusion of the precious metals which they sought for.
A project of commerce to the East Indies, therefore, gave occasion to the first discovery of the West. A project of conquest gave occasion to all the establishments of the Spaniards in those newly discovered countries. The motive which excited them to this conquest was a project of gold and silver mines; and a course of accidents, which no human wisdom could foresee, rendered this project much more successful than the undertakers had any reasonable grounds for expecting.
The first adventurers of all the other nations of Europe who attempted to make settlements in America were animated by the like chimerical views; but they were not equally successful. It was more than a hundred years after the first settlement of the Brazils before any silver, gold, or diamond mines were discovered there. In the English, French, Dutch, and Danish colonies, none have ever yet been discovered; at least none that are at present supposed to be worth the working. The first English settlers in North America, however, offered a fifth of all the gold and silver which should be found there to the king, as a motive for granting them their patents. In the patents to Sir Walter Raleigh, to the London and Plymouth Companies, to the Council of Plymouth, etc., this fifth was accordingly reserved to the crown. To the expectation of finding gold and silver mines, those first settlers, too, joined that of discovering a northwest passage to the East Indies. They have hitherto been disappointed in both.” Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations; Introduction, “On the Division of Labor”, “On the Nature, Employment, & Distribution of Stock: Introduction,” & “On the Motives for Establishing New Colonies,”1776
His infantile countenance was livid with fury. His small body was writhing in the delivery of great, crimson oaths.
‘Run, Jimmie, run! Dey’ll get yehs,’ screamed a retreating Rum Alley child.
‘Naw,’ responded Jimmie with a valiant roar, ‘dese micks can’t make me run.’
Howls of renewed wrath went up from Devil’s Row throats. Tattered gamins on the right made a furious assault on the gravel heap. On their small, convulsed faces there shone the grins of true assassins. As they charged, they threw stones and cursed in shrill chorus.
The little champion of Rum Alley stumbled precipitately down the other side. His coat had been torn to shreds in a scuffle, and his hat was gone. He had bruises on twenty parts of his body, and blood was dripping from a cut in his head. His wan features wore a look of a tiny, insane demon.
On the ground, children from Devil’s Row closed in on their antagonist. He crooked his left arm defensively about his head and fought with cursing fury. The little boys ran to and fro, dodging, hurling stones and swearing in barbaric trebles.
From a window of an apartment house that upreared its form from amid squat, ignorant stables, there leaned a curious woman. Some laborers, unloading a scow at a dock at the river, paused for a moment and regarded the fight. The engineer of a passive tugboat hung lazily to a railing and watched. Over on the Island, a worm of yellow convicts came from the shadow of a building and crawled slowly along the river’s bank.
A stone had smashed into Jimmie’s mouth. Blood was bubbling over his chin and down upon his ragged shirt. Tears made furrows on his dirt-stained cheeks. His thin legs had begun to tremble and turn weak, causing his small body to reel. His roaring curses of the first part of the fight had changed to a blasphemous chatter.
In the yells of the whirling mob of Devil’s Row children there were notes of joy like songs of triumphant savagery. The little boys seemed to leer gloatingly at the blood upon the other child’s face.
Down the avenue came boastfully sauntering a lad of sixteen years, although the chronic sneer of an ideal manhood already sat upon his lips. His hat was tipped with an air of challenge over his eye. Between his teeth, a cigar stump was tilted at the angle of defiance. He walked with a certain swing of the shoulders which appalled the timid. He glanced over into the vacant lot in which the little raving boys from Devil’s Row seethed about the shrieking and tearful child from Rum Alley.
“Gee!” he murmured with interest. “A scrap. Gee!”
He strode over to the cursing circle, swinging his shoulders in a manner which denoted that he held victory in his fists. He approached at the back of one of the most deeply engaged of the Devil’s Row children.
“Ah, what deh hell,” he said, and smote the deeply-engaged one on the back of the head. The little boy fell to the ground and gave a hoarse, tremendous howl. He scrambled to his feet, and perceiving, evidently, the size of his assailant, ran quickly off, shouting alarms. The entire Devil’s Row party followed him. They came to a stand a short distance away and yelled taunting oaths at the boy with the chronic sneer. The latter, momentarily, paid no attention to them.
“What deh hell, Jimmie?” he asked of the small champion.
Jimmie wiped his blood-wet features with his sleeve.
“Well, it was dis way, Pete, see! I was goin’ teh lick dat Riley kid and dey all pitched on me.”
Some Rum Alley children now came forward. The party stood for a moment exchanging vainglorious remarks with Devil’s Row. A few stones were thrown at long distances, and words of challenge passed between small warriors. Then the Rum Alley contingent turned slowly in the direction of their home street. They began to give, each to each, distorted versions of the fight. Causes of retreat in particular cases were magnified. Blows dealt in the fight were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy. Valor grew strong again, and the little boys began to swear with great spirit.
“Ah, we blokies kin lick deh hull damn Row,” said a child, swaggering.
Little Jimmie was striving to stanch the flow of blood from his cut lips. Scowling, he turned upon the speaker.
“Ah, where deh hell was yeh when I was doin’ all deh fightin?” he demanded. “Youse kids makes me tired.”
“Ah, go ahn,” replied the other argumentatively.
Jimmie replied with heavy contempt. “Ah, youse can’t fight, Blue Billie! I kin lick yeh wid one han’.”
“Ah, go ahn,” replied Billie again.
“Ah,” said Jimmie threateningly.
“Ah,” said the other in the same tone.
They struck at each other, clinched, and rolled over on the cobble stones.
“Smash ‘im, Jimmie, kick deh damn guts out of ‘im,” yelled Pete, the lad with the chronic sneer, in tones of delight.
The small combatants pounded and kicked, scratched and tore. They began to weep and their curses struggled in their throats with sobs. The other little boys clasped their hands and wriggled their legs in excitement. They formed a bobbing circle about the pair.
A tiny spectator was suddenly agitated.
“Cheese it, Jimmie, cheese it! Here comes yer fader,” he yelled.
The circle of little boys instantly parted. They drew away and waited in ecstatic awe for that which was about to happen. The two little boys fighting in the modes of four thousand years ago, did not hear the warning.
Up the avenue there plodded slowly a man with sullen eyes. He was carrying a dinner pail and smoking an apple-wood pipe.
As he neared the spot where the little boys strove, he regarded them listlessly. But suddenly he roared an oath and advanced upon the rolling fighters.
“Here, you Jim, git up, now, while I belt yer life out, you damned disorderly brat.”
He began to kick into the chaotic mass on the ground. The boy Billie felt a heavy boot strike his head. He made a furious effort and disentangled himself from Jimmie. He tottered away, damning.
Jimmie arose painfully from the ground and confronting his father, began to curse him. His parent kicked him. “Come home, now,” he cried, “an’ stop yer jawin’, er I’ll lam the everlasting head off yehs.”
They departed. The man paced placidly along with the apple-wood emblem of serenity between his teeth. The boy followed a dozen feet in the rear. He swore luridly, for he felt that it was degradation for one who aimed to be some vague soldier, or a man of blood with a sort of sublime license, to be taken home by a father.
Eventually they entered into a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against an hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.
A small ragged girl dragged a red, bawling infant along the crowded ways. He was hanging back, baby-like, bracing his wrinkled, bare legs.
The little girl cried out: “Ah, Tommie, come ahn. Dere’s Jimmie and fader. Don’t be a-pullin’ me back.”
She jerked the baby’s arm impatiently. He fell on his face, roaring. With a second jerk she pulled him to his feet, and they went on. With the obstinacy of his order, he protested against being dragged in a chosen direction. He made heroic endeavors to keep on his legs, denounce his sister and consume a bit of orange peeling which he chewed between the times of his infantile orations.
As the sullen-eyed man, followed by the blood-covered boy, drew near, the little girl burst into reproachful cries. “Ah, Jimmie, youse bin fightin’ agin.”
The urchin swelled disdainfully.
“Ah, what deh hell, Mag. See?”
The little girl upbraided him, “Youse allus fightin’, Jimmie, an’ yeh knows it puts mudder out when yehs come home half dead, an’ it’s like we’ll all get a poundin’.”
She began to weep. The babe threw back his head and roared at his prospects.
“Ah, what deh hell!” cried Jimmie. “Shut up er I’ll smack yer mout’. See?”
As his sister continued her lamentations, he suddenly swore and struck her. The little girl reeled and, recovering herself, burst into tears and quaveringly cursed him. As she slowly retreated her brother advanced dealing her cuffs. The father heard and turned about.
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”
The urchin raised his voice in defiance to his parent and continued his attacks. The babe bawled tremendously, protesting with great violence. During his sister’s hasty manoeuvres, he was dragged by the arm.
Finally the procession plunged into one of the gruesome doorways. They crawled up dark stairways and along cold, gloomy halls. At last the father pushed open a door and they entered a lighted room in which a large woman was rampant.
She stopped in a career from a seething stove to a pan-covered table. As the father and children filed in she peered at them.
“Eh, what? Been fightin’ agin, by Gawd!” She threw herself upon Jimmie. The urchin tried to dart behind the others and in the scuffle the babe, Tommie, was knocked down. He protested with his usual vehemence, because they had bruised his tender shins against a table leg.
The mother’s massive shoulders heaved with anger. Grasping the urchin by the neck and shoulder she shook him until he rattled. She dragged him to an unholy sink, and, soaking a rag in water, began to scrub his lacerated face with it. Jimmie screamed in pain and tried to twist his shoulders out of the clasp of the huge arms.
The babe sat on the floor watching the scene, his face in contortions like that of a woman at a tragedy. The father, with a newly-ladened pipe in his mouth, crouched on a backless chair near the stove. Jimmie’s cries annoyed him. He turned about and bellowed at his wife:
“Let the damned kid alone for a minute, will yeh, Mary? Yer allus poundin’ ‘im. When I come nights I can’t git no rest ’cause yer allus poundin’ a kid. Let up, d’yeh hear? Don’t be allus poundin’ a kid.”
The woman’s operations on the urchin instantly increased in violence. At last she tossed him to a corner where he limply lay cursing and weeping.
The wife put her immense hands on her hips and with a chieftain-like stride approached her husband.
“Ho,” she said, with a great grunt of contempt. “An’ what in the devil are you stickin’ your nose for?”
The babe crawled under the table and, turning, peered out cautiously. The ragged girl retreated and the urchin in the corner drew his legs carefully beneath him.
The man puffed his pipe calmly and put his great mudded boots on the back part of the stove.
“Go teh hell,” he murmured, tranquilly.
The woman screamed and shook her fists before her husband’s eyes. The rough yellow of her face and neck flared suddenly crimson. She began to howl.
He puffed imperturbably at his pipe for a time, but finally arose and began to look out at the window into the darkening chaos of back yards.
“You’ve been drinkin’, Mary,” he said. “You’d better let up on the bot’, ol’ woman, or you’ll git done.”
“You’re a liar. I ain’t had a drop,” she roared in reply.
They had a lurid altercation, in which they damned each other’s souls with frequence.
The babe was staring out from under the table, his small face working in his excitement.
The ragged girl went stealthily over to the corner where the urchin lay.
“Are yehs hurted much, Jimmie?” she whispered timidly.
“Not a damn bit! See?” growled the little boy.
“Will I wash deh blood?”
“When I catch dat Riley kid I’ll break ‘is face! Dat’s right! See?”
He turned his face to the wall as if resolved to grimly bide his time.
In the quarrel between husband and wife, the woman was victor. The man grabbed his hat and rushed from the room, apparently determined upon a vengeful drunk. She followed to the door and thundered at him as he made his way down stairs.
She returned and stirred up the room until her children were bobbing about like bubbles.
“Git outa deh way,” she persistently bawled, waving feet with their dishevelled shoes near the heads of her children. She shrouded herself, puffing and snorting, in a cloud of steam at the stove, and eventually extracted a frying-pan full of potatoes that hissed.
She flourished it. “Come teh yer suppers, now,” she cried with sudden exasperation. “Hurry up, now, er I’ll help yeh!”
The children scrambled hastily. With prodigious clatter they arranged themselves at table. The babe sat with his feet dangling high from a precarious infant chair and gorged his small stomach. Jimmie forced, with feverish rapidity, the grease-enveloped pieces between his wounded lips. Maggie, with side glances of fear of interruption, ate like a small pursued tigress.
The mother sat blinking at them. She delivered reproaches, swallowed potatoes and drank from a yellow-brown bottle. After a time her mood changed and she wept as she carried little Tommie into another room and laid him to sleep with his fists doubled in an old quilt of faded red and green grandeur. Then she came and moaned by the stove. She rocked to and fro upon a chair, shedding tears and crooning miserably to the two children about their “poor mother” and “yer fader, damn ‘is soul.”
The little girl plodded between the table and the chair with a dish-pan on it. She tottered on her small legs beneath burdens of dishes.
Jimmie sat nursing his various wounds. He cast furtive glances at his mother. His practised eye perceived her gradually emerge from a muddled mist of sentiment until her brain burned in drunken heat. He sat breathless.
Maggie broke a plate.
The mother started to her feet as if propelled.
“Good Gawd,” she howled. Her eyes glittered on her child with sudden hatred. The fervent red of her face turned almost to purple. The little boy ran to the halls, shrieking like a monk in an earthquake.
He floundered about in darkness until he found the stairs. He stumbled, panic-stricken, to the next floor. An old woman opened a door. A light behind her threw a flare on the urchin’s quivering face.
“Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?”
Jimmie and the old woman listened long in the hall. Above the muffled roar of conversation, the dismal wailings of babies at night, the thumping of feet in unseen corridors and rooms, mingled with the sound of varied hoarse shoutings in the street and the rattling of wheels over cobbles, they heard the screams of the child and the roars of the mother die away to a feeble moaning and a subdued bass muttering.
The old woman was a gnarled and leathery personage who could don, at will, an expression of great virtue. She possessed a small music-box capable of one tune, and a collection of “God bless yehs” pitched in assorted keys of fervency. Each day she took a position upon the stones of Fifth Avenue, where she crooked her legs under her and crouched immovable and hideous, like an idol. She received daily a small sum in pennies. It was contributed, for the most part, by persons who did not make their homes in that vicinity.
Once, when a lady had dropped her purse on the sidewalk, the gnarled woman had grabbed it and smuggled it with great dexterity beneath her cloak. When she was arrested she had cursed the lady into a partial swoon, and with her aged limbs, twisted from rheumatism, had almost kicked the stomach out of a huge policeman whose conduct upon that occasion she referred to when she said: “The police, damn ’em.”
“Eh, Jimmie, it’s cursed shame,” she said. “Go, now, like a dear an’ buy me a can, an’ if yer mudder raises ‘ell all night yehs can sleep here.”
Jimmie took a tendered tin-pail and seven pennies and departed. He passed into the side door of a saloon and went to the bar. Straining up on his toes he raised the pail and pennies as high as his arms would let him. He saw two hands thrust down and take them. Directly the same hands let down the filled pail and he left.
In front of the gruesome doorway he met a lurching figure. It was his father, swaying about on uncertain legs.
“Give me deh can. See?” said the man, threateningly.
“Ah, come off! I got dis can fer dat ol’ woman an’ it ‘ud be dirt teh swipe it. See?” cried Jimmie.
The father wrenched the pail from the urchin. He grasped it in both hands and lifted it to his mouth. He glued his lips to the under edge and tilted his head. His hairy throat swelled until it seemed to grow near his chin. There was a tremendous gulping movement and the beer was gone.
The man caught his breath and laughed. He hit his son on the head with the empty pail. As it rolled clanging into the street, Jimmie began to scream and kicked repeatedly at his father’s shins.
“Look at deh dirt what yeh done me,” he yelled. “Deh ol’ woman ‘ill be raisin’ hell.”
He retreated to the middle of the street, but the man did not pursue. He staggered toward the door.
“I’ll club hell outa yeh when I ketch yeh,” he shouted, and disappeared.
During the evening he had been standing against a bar drinking whiskies and declaring to all comers, confidentially: “My home reg’lar livin’ hell! Damndes’ place! Reg’lar hell! Why do I come an’ drin’ whisk’ here thish way? ‘Cause home reg’lar livin’ hell!”
Jimmie waited a long time in the street and then crept warily up through the building. He passed with great caution the door of the gnarled woman, and finally stopped outside his home and listened.
He could hear his mother moving heavily about among the furniture of the room. She was chanting in a mournful voice, occasionally interjecting bursts of volcanic wrath at the father, who, Jimmie judged, had sunk down on the floor or in a corner.
“Why deh blazes don’ chere try teh keep Jim from fightin’? I’ll break her jaw,” she suddenly bellowed.
The man mumbled with drunken indifference. “Ah, wha’ deh hell. W’a’s odds? Wha’ makes kick?”
“Because he tears ‘is clothes, yeh damn fool,” cried the woman in supreme wrath.
The husband seemed to become aroused. “Go teh hell,” he thundered fiercely in reply. There was a crash against the door and something broke into clattering fragments. Jimmie partially suppressed a howl and darted down the stairway. Below he paused and listened. He heard howls and curses, groans and shrieks, confusingly in chorus as if a battle were raging. With all was the crash of splintering furniture. The eyes of the urchin glared in fear that one of them would discover him.
Curious faces appeared in doorways, and whispered comments passed to and fro. “Ol’ Johnson’s raisin’ hell agin.”
Jimmie stood until the noises ceased and the other inhabitants of the tenement had all yawned and shut their doors. Then he crawled upstairs with the caution of an invader of a panther den. Sounds of labored breathing came through the broken door-panels. He pushed the door open and entered, quaking.
A glow from the fire threw red hues over the bare floor, the cracked and soiled plastering, and the overturned and broken furniture.
In the middle of the floor lay his mother asleep. In one corner of the room his father’s limp body hung across the seat of a chair.
The urchin stole forward. He began to shiver in dread of awakening his parents. His mother’s great chest was heaving painfully. Jimmie paused and looked down at her. Her face was inflamed and swollen from drinking. Her yellow brows shaded eyelids that had brown blue. Her tangled hair tossed in waves over her forehead. Her mouth was set in the same lines of vindictive hatred that it had, perhaps, borne during the fight. Her bare, red arms were thrown out above her head in positions of exhaustion, something, mayhap, like those of a sated villain.
The urchin bended over his mother. He was fearful lest she should open her eyes, and the dread within him was so strong, that he could not forbear to stare, but hung as if fascinated over the woman’s grim face.
Suddenly her eyes opened. The urchin found himself looking straight into that expression, which, it would seem, had the power to change his blood to salt. He howled piercingly and fell backward.
The woman floundered for a moment, tossed her arms about her head as if in combat, and again began to snore.
Jimmie crawled back in the shadows and waited. A noise in the next room had followed his cry at the discovery that his mother was awake. He grovelled in the gloom, the eyes from out his drawn face riveted upon the intervening door.
He heard it creak, and then the sound of a small voice came to him. “Jimmie! Jimmie! Are yehs dere?” it whispered. The urchin started. The thin, white face of his sister looked at him from the door-way of the other room. She crept to him across the floor.
The father had not moved, but lay in the same death-like sleep. The mother writhed in uneasy slumber, her chest wheezing as if she were in the agonies of strangulation. Out at the window a florid moon was peering over dark roofs, and in the distance the waters of a river glimmered pallidly.
The small frame of the ragged girl was quivering. Her features were haggard from weeping, and her eyes gleamed from fear. She grasped the urchin’s arm in her little trembling hands and they huddled in a corner. The eyes of both were drawn, by some force, to stare at the woman’s face, for they thought she need only to awake and all fiends would come from below.
They crouched until the ghost-mists of dawn appeared at the window, drawing close to the panes, and looking in at the prostrate, heaving body of the mother.
The babe, Tommie, died. He went away in a white, insignificant coffin, his small waxen hand clutching a flower that the girl, Maggie, had stolen from an Italian.
She and Jimmie lived.
The inexperienced fibres of the boy’s eyes were hardened at an early age. He became a young man of leather. He lived some red years without laboring. During that time his sneer became chronic. He studied human nature in the gutter, and found it no worse than he thought he had reason to believe it. He never conceived a respect for the world, because he had begun with no idols that it had smashed.
He clad his soul in armor by means of happening hilariously in at a mission church where a man composed his sermons of “yous.” While they got warm at the stove, he told his hearers just where he calculated they stood with the Lord. Many of the sinners were impatient over the pictured depths of their degradation. They were waiting for soup-tickets.
A reader of words of wind-demons might have been able to see the portions of a dialogue pass to and fro between the exhorter and his hearers.
“You are damned,” said the preacher. And the reader of sounds might have seen the reply go forth from the ragged people: “Where’s our soup?”
Jimmie and a companion sat in a rear seat and commented upon the things that didn’t concern them, with all the freedom of English gentlemen. When they grew thirsty and went out their minds confused the speaker with Christ.
Momentarily, Jimmie was sullen with thoughts of a hopeless altitude where grew fruit. His companion said that if he should ever meet God he would ask for a million dollars and a bottle of beer.
Jimmie’s occupation for a long time was to stand on streetcorners and watch the world go by, dreaming blood-red dreams at the passing of pretty women. He menaced mankind at the intersections of streets.
On the corners he was in life and of life. The world was going on and he was there to perceive it.
He maintained a belligerent attitude toward all well-dressed men. To him fine raiment was allied to weakness, and all good coats covered faint hearts. He and his order were kings, to a certain extent, over the men of untarnished clothes, because these latter dreaded, perhaps, to be either killed or laughed at.
Above all things he despised obvious Christians and ciphers with the chrysanthemums of aristocracy in their button-holes. He considered himself above both of these classes. He was afraid of neither the devil nor the leader of society.
When he had a dollar in his pocket his satisfaction with existence was the greatest thing in the world. So, eventually, he felt obliged to work. His father died and his mother’s years were divided up into periods of thirty days.
He became a truck driver. He was given the charge of a painstaking pair of horses and a large rattling truck. He invaded the turmoil and tumble of the down-town streets and learned to breathe maledictory defiance at the police who occasionally used to climb up, drag him from his perch and beat him.
In the lower part of the city he daily involved himself in hideous tangles. If he and his team chanced to be in the rear he preserved a demeanor of serenity, crossing his legs and bursting forth into yells when foot passengers took dangerous dives beneath the noses of his champing horses. He smoked his pipe calmly for he knew that his pay was marching on.
If in the front and the key-truck of chaos, he entered terrifically into the quarrel that was raging to and fro among the drivers on their high seats, and sometimes roared oaths and violently got himself arrested.
After a time his sneer grew so that it turned its glare upon all things. He became so sharp that he believed in nothing. To him the police were always actuated by malignant impulses and the rest of the world was composed, for the most part, of despicable creatures who were all trying to take advantage of him and with whom, in defense, he was obliged to quarrel on all possible occasions. He himself occupied a down-trodden position that had a private but distinct element of grandeur in its isolation.
The most complete cases of aggravated idiocy were, to his mind, rampant upon the front platforms of all the street cars. At first his tongue strove with these beings, but he eventually was superior. He became immured like an African cow. In him grew a majestic contempt for those strings of street cars that followed him like intent bugs.
He fell into the habit, when starting on a long journey, of fixing his eye on a high and distant object, commanding his horses to begin, and then going into a sort of a trance of observation. Multitudes of drivers might howl in his rear, and passengers might load him with opprobrium, he would not awaken until some blue policeman turned red and began to frenziedly tear bridles and beat the soft noses of the responsible horses.
When he paused to contemplate the attitude of the police toward himself and his fellows, he believed that they were the only men in the city who had no rights. When driving about, he felt that he was held liable by the police for anything that might occur in the streets, and was the common prey of all energetic officials. In revenge, he resolved never to move out of the way of anything, until formidable circumstances, or a much larger man than himself forced him to it.
Foot-passengers were mere pestering flies with an insane disregard for their legs and his convenience. He could not conceive their maniacal desires to cross the streets. Their madness smote him with eternal amazement. He was continually storming at them from his throne. He sat aloft and denounced their frantic leaps, plunges, dives and straddles.
When they would thrust at, or parry, the noses of his champing horses, making them swing their heads and move their feet, disturbing a solid dreamy repose, he swore at the men as fools, for he himself could perceive that Providence had caused it clearly to be written, that he and his team had the unalienable right to stand in the proper path of the sun chariot, and if they so minded, obstruct its mission or take a wheel off.
And, perhaps, if the god-driver had an ungovernable desire to step down, put up his flame-colored fists and manfully dispute the right of way, he would have probably been immediately opposed by a scowling mortal with two sets of very hard knuckles.
It is possible, perhaps, that this young man would have derided, in an axle-wide alley, the approach of a flying ferry boat. Yet he achieved a respect for a fire engine. As one charged toward his truck, he would drive fearfully upon a sidewalk, threatening untold people with annihilation. When an engine would strike a mass of blocked trucks, splitting it into fragments, as a blow annihilates a cake of ice, Jimmie’s team could usually be observed high and safe, with whole wheels, on the sidewalk. The fearful coming of the engine could break up the most intricate muddle of heavy vehicles at which the police had been swearing for the half of an hour.
A fire engine was enshrined in his heart as an appalling thing that he loved with a distant dog-like devotion. They had been known to overturn street-cars. Those leaping horses, striking sparks from the cobbles in their forward lunge, were creatures to be ineffably admired. The clang of the gong pierced his breast like a noise of remembered war.
When Jimmie was a little boy, he began to be arrested. Before he reached a great age, he had a fair record.
He developed too great a tendency to climb down from his truck and fight with other drivers. He had been in quite a number of miscellaneous fights, and in some general barroom rows that had become known to the police. Once he had been arrested for assaulting a Chinaman. Two women in different parts of the city, and entirely unknown to each other, caused him considerable annoyance by breaking forth, simultaneously, at fateful intervals, into wailings about marriage and support and infants.
Nevertheless, he had, on a certain star-lit evening, said wonderingly and quite reverently: “Deh moon looks like hell, don’t it?”
The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.
None of the dirt of Rum Alley seemed to be in her veins. The philosophers up-stairs, down-stairs and on the same floor, puzzled over it.
When a child, playing and fighting with gamins in the street, dirt disguised her. Attired in tatters and grime, she went unseen.
There came a time, however, when the young men of the vicinity said: “Dat Johnson goil is a puty good looker.” About this period her brother remarked to her: “Mag, I’ll tell yeh dis! See? Yeh’ve edder got teh go teh hell or go teh work!” Whereupon she went to work, having the feminine aversion of going to hell.
By a chance, she got a position in an establishment where they made collars and cuffs. She received a stool and a machine in a room where sat twenty girls of various shades of yellow discontent. She perched on the stool and treadled at her machine all day, turning out collars, the name of whose brand could be noted for its irrelevancy to anything in connection with collars. At night she returned home to her mother.
Jimmie grew large enough to take the vague position of head of the family. As incumbent of that office, he stumbled up-stairs late at night, as his father had done before him. He reeled about the room, swearing at his relations, or went to sleep on the floor.
The mother had gradually arisen to that degree of fame that she could bandy words with her acquaintances among the police-justices. Court-officials called her by her first name. When she appeared they pursued a course which had been theirs for months. They invariably grinned and cried out: “Hello, Mary, you here again?” Her grey head wagged in many a court. She always besieged the bench with voluble excuses, explanations, apologies and prayers. Her flaming face and rolling eyes were a sort of familiar sight on the island. She measured time by means of sprees, and was eternally swollen and dishevelled.
One day the young man, Pete, who as a lad had smitten the Devil’s Row urchin in the back of the head and put to flight the antagonists of his friend, Jimmie, strutted upon the scene. He met Jimmie one day on the street, promised to take him to a boxing match in Williamsburg, and called for him in the evening.
Maggie observed Pete.
He sat on a table in the Johnson home and dangled his checked legs with an enticing nonchalance. His hair was curled down over his forehead in an oiled bang. His rather pugged nose seemed to revolt from contact with a bristling moustache of short, wire-like hairs. His blue double-breasted coat, edged with black braid, buttoned close to a red puff tie, and his patent-leather shoes looked like murder-fitted weapons.
His mannerisms stamped him as a man who had a correct sense of his personal superiority. There was valor and contempt for circumstances in the glance of his eye. He waved his hands like a man of the world, who dismisses religion and philosophy, and says “Fudge.” He had certainly seen everything and with each curl of his lip, he declared that it amounted to nothing. Maggie thought he must be a very elegant and graceful bartender.
He was telling tales to Jimmie.
Maggie watched him furtively, with half-closed eyes, lit with a vague interest.
“Hully gee! Dey makes me tired,” he said. “Mos’ e’ry day some farmer comes in an’ tries teh run deh shop. See? But dey gits t’rowed right out! I jolt dem right out in deh street before dey knows where dey is! See?”
“Sure,” said Jimmie.
“Dere was a mug come in deh place deh odder day wid an idear he wus goin’ teh own deh place! Hully gee, he wus goin’ teh own deh place! I see he had a still on an’ I didn’ wanna giv ‘im no stuff, so I says: ‘Git deh hell outa here an’ don’ make no trouble,’ I says like dat! See? ‘Git deh hell outa here an’ don’ make no trouble’; like dat. ‘Git deh hell outa here,’ I says. See?”
Jimmie nodded understandingly. Over his features played an eager desire to state the amount of his valor in a similar crisis, but the narrator proceeded.
“Well, deh blokie he says: ‘T’hell wid it! I ain’ lookin’ for no scrap,’ he says (See?), ‘but’ he says, ‘I’m ‘spectable cit’zen an’ I wanna drink an’ purtydamnsoon, too.’ See? ‘Deh hell,’ I says. Like dat! ‘Deh hell,’ I says. See? ‘Don’ make no trouble,’ I says. Like dat. ‘Don’ make no trouble.’ See? Den deh mug he squared off an’ said he was fine as silk wid his dukes (See?) an’ he wanned a drink damnquick. Dat’s what he said. See?”
‘Sure,’ repeated Jimmie.
Pete continued. ‘Say, I jes’ jumped deh bar an’ deh way I plunked dat blokie was great. See? Dat’s right! In deh jaw! See? Hully gee, he t’rowed a spittoon true deh front windee. Say, I taut I’d drop dead. But deh boss, he comes in after an’ he says, ‘Pete, yehs done jes’ right! Yeh’ve gota keep order an’ it’s all right.’ See? ‘It’s all right,’ he says. Dat’s what he said.’
The two held a technical discussion.
‘Dat bloke was a dandy,’ said Pete, in conclusion, ‘but he hadn’ oughta made no trouble. Dat’s what I says teh dem: ‘Don’ come in here an’ make no trouble,’ I says, like dat. ‘Don’ make no trouble.’ See?’
As Jimmie and his friend exchanged tales descriptive of their prowess, Maggie leaned back in the shadow. Her eyes dwelt wonderingly and rather wistfully upon Pete’s face. The broken furniture, grimey walls, and general disorder and dirt of her home of a sudden appeared before her and began to take a potential aspect. Pete’s aristocratic person looked as if it might soil. She looked keenly at him, occasionally, wondering if he was feeling contempt. But Pete seemed to be enveloped in reminiscence.
‘Hully gee,’ said he, ‘dose mugs can’t phase me. Dey knows I kin wipe up deh street wid any t’ree of dem.’
When he said, ‘Ah, what deh hell,’ his voice was burdened with disdain for the inevitable and contempt for anything that fate might compel him to endure.
Maggie perceived that here was the beau ideal of a man. Her dim thoughts were often searching for far away lands where, as God says, the little hills sing together in the morning. Under the trees of her dream-gardens there had always walked a lover.” Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets; 1893
The prevailing world depression, the enormous anomaly of unemployment in a world full of wants, the disastrous mistakes we have made, blind us to what is going on under the surface to the true interpretation. of the trend of things. For I predict that both of the two opposed errors of pessimism which now make so much noise in the world will be proved wrong in our own time – the pessimism of the revolutionaries who think that things are so bad that nothing can save us but violent change, and the pessimism of the reactionaries who consider the balance of our economic and social life so precarious that we must risk no experiments.
My purpose in this essay, however, is not to examine the present or the near future, but to disembarrass myself of short views and take wings into the future. What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?
From the earliest times of which we have record – back, say, to two thousand years before Christ – down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilised centres of the earth. Ups and downs certainly. Visitations of plague, famine, and war. Golden intervals. But no progressive, violent change. Some periods perhaps So per cent better than others at the utmost 1 00 per cent better – in the four thousand years which ended (say) in A. D. 1700.
This slow rate of progress, or lack of progress, was due to two reasons – to the remarkable absence of important technical improvements and to the failure of capital to accumulate.
The absence of important technical inventions between the prehistoric age and comparatively modern times is truly remarkable. Almost everything which really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire, the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead – and iron was added to the list before 1000 B.C. – banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. There is no record of when we first possessed these things.
At some epoch before the dawn of history perhaps even in one of the comfortable intervals before the last ice age – there must have been an era of progress and invention comparable to that in which we live to-day. But through the greater part of recorded history there was nothing of the kind.
The modern age opened; I think, with the accumulation of capital which began in the sixteenth century. I believe – for reasons with which I must not encumber the present argument – that this was initially due to the rise of prices, and the profits to which that led, which resulted from the treasure of gold and silver which Spain brought from the New World into the Old. From that time until to-day the power of accumulation by compound interest, which seems to have been sleeping for many generations, was re-born and renewed its strength. And the power of compound interest over two hundred years is such as to stagger the imagination.
Let me give in illustration of this a sum which I have worked out. The value of Great Britain’s foreign investments to-day is estimated at about £4,000,000,000. This yields us an income at the rate of about 6½ per cent. Half of this we bring home and enjoy; the other half, namely, 3¼ per cent, we leave to accumulate abroad at compound interest. Something of this sort has now been going on for about 250 years.
For I trace the beginnings of British foreign investment to the treasure which Drake stole from Spain in 1580. In that year he returned to England bringing with him the prodigious spoils of the Golden Hind. Queen Elizabeth was a considerable shareholder in the syndicate which had financed the expedition. Out of her share she paid off the whole of England’s foreign debt, balanced her Budget, and found herself with about £40,000 in hand. This she invested in the Levant Company – which prospered. Out of the profits of the Levant Company, the East India Company was founded; and the profits of this great enterprise were the foundation of England’s subsequent foreign investment. Now it happens that £40,000 accumulating at 3½ per cent compound interest approximately corresponds to the actual volume of England’s foreign investments at various dates, and would actually amount to-day to the total of £4,000,000,000 which I have already quoted as being what our foreign investments now are. Thus, every £1 which Drake brought home in 1580 has now become £100,000. Such is the power of compound interest!
From the sixteenth century, with a cumulative crescendo after the eighteenth, the great age of science and technical inventions began, which since the beginning of the nineteenth century has been in full flood – coal, steam, electricity, petrol, steel, rubber, cotton, the chemical industries, automatic machinery and the methods of mass production, wireless, printing, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, and thousands of other things and men too famous and familiar to catalogue.
What is the result? In spite of an enormous growth in the population of the world, which it has been necessary to equip with houses and machines, the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised, I think, about fourfold. The growth of capital has been on a scale which is far beyond a hundredfold of what any previous age had known. And from now on we need not expect so great an increase of population.
If capital increases, say, 2 per cent per annum, the capital equipment of the world will have increased by a half in twenty years, and seven and a half times in a hundred years. Think of this in terms of material things – houses, transport, and the like.
At the same time technical improvements in manufacture and transport have been proceeding at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in history. In the United States factory output per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by temporary obstacles, but even so it is safe to say that technical efficiency is increasing by more than 1 per cent per annum compound. There is evidence that the revolutionary technical changes, which have so far chiefly affected industry, may soon be attacking agriculture. We may be on the eve of improvements in the efficiency of food production as great as those which have already taken place in mining, manufacture, and transport. In quite a few years – in our own lifetimes I mean – we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed.
For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems to solve. Those countries are suffering relatively which are not in the vanguard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.
But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of afar greater progress still.
Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that a hundred years hence we are all of us, on the average, eight times better off in the economic sense than we are to-day. Assuredly there need be nothing here to surprise us.
Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes – those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs – a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.
Now for my conclusion, which you will find, I think, to become more and more startling to the imagination the longer you think about it.
I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race.
Why, you may ask, is this so startling? It is startling because – if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past – we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race – not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.
Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature – with all our impulses and deepest instincts – for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.
Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.
To use the language of to-day – must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown“? We already have a little experience of what I mean – a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations – who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.
To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet – until they get it.
There is the traditional epitaph written for herself by the old charwoman: –
Don’t mourn for me, friends, don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.
This was her heaven. Like others who look forward to leisure, she conceived how nice it would be to spend her time listening-in – for there was another couplet which occurred in her poem: –
With psalms and sweet music the heavens’ll be ringing,
But I shall have nothing to do with the singing.
Yet it will only be for those who have to do with the singing that life will be tolerable and how few of us can sing!
Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.
Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard – those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me – those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties – to solve the problem which has been set them.
I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.
For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!
There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.
Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.
Let me remind you of the Professor in Sylvie and Bruno :
“Only the tailor, sir, with your little bill,” said a meek voce outside the door.
“Ah, well, I can soon settle his business,” the Professor said to the children, “if you’ll just wait a minute. How much is it, this year, my man?” The tailor had come in while he was speaking.
“Well, it’s been a-doubling so many years, you see,” the tailor replied, a little gruffly, “and I think I’d like the money now. It’s two thousand pound, it is!”
“Oh, that’s nothing!” the Professor carelessly remarked, feeling in his pocket, as if he always carried at least that amount about with him. “But wouldn’t you like to wait just another year and make it four thousand? Just think how rich you’d be! Why, you might be a king, if you liked!”
“I don’t know as I’d care about being a king,” the man said thoughtfully. “But it dew sound a powerful sight o’ money! Well, I think I’ll wait – “
“Of course you will!” said the Professor. “There’s good sense in you, I see. Good-day to you, my man!”
“Will you ever have to pay him that four thousand pounds?” Sylvie asked as the door closed on the departing creditor.
“Never, my child!” the Professor replied emphatically. “He’ll go on doubling it till he dies. You see, it’s always worth while waiting another year to get twice as much money!”
Perhaps it is not an accident that the race which did most to bring the promise of immortality into the heart and essence of our religions has also done most for the principle of compound interest and particularly loves this most purposive of human institutions.
I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.
But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.
I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed. For it will remain reasonable to be economically purposive for others after it has ceased to be reasonable for oneself.
The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things – our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.
Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.
But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists–like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!” John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren;” 1930
In considering the requirements for the rehabilitation of Europe, the physical loss of life, the visible destruction of cities, factories, mines and railroads was correctly estimated but it has become obvious during recent months that this visible destruction was probably less serious than the dislocation of the entire fabric of European economy. For the past 10 years conditions have been highly abnormal. The feverish preparation for war and the more feverish maintenance of the war effort engulfed all aspects of national economies. Machinery has fallen into disrepair or is entirely obsolete. Under the arbitrary and destructive Nazi rule, virtually every possible enterprise was geared into the German war machine. Long-standing commercial ties, private institutions, banks, insurance companies, and shipping companies disappeared, through loss of capital, absorption through nationalization, or by simple destruction. In many countries, confidence in the local currency has been severely shaken. The breakdown of the business structure of Europe during the war was complete. Recovery has been seriously retarded by the fact that two years after the close of hostilities a peace settlement with Germany and Austria has not been agreed upon. But even given a more prompt solution of these difficult problems the rehabilitation of the economic structure of Europe quite evidently will require a much longer time and greater effort than had been foreseen.
There is a phase of this matter which is both interesting and serious. The farmer has always produced the foodstuffs to exchange with the city dweller for the other necessities of life. This division of labor is the basis of modern civilization. At the present time it is threatened with breakdown. The town and city industries are not producing adequate goods to exchange with the food producing farmer. Raw materials and fuel are in short supply. Machinery is lacking or worn out. The farmer or the peasant cannot find the goods for sale which he desires to purchase. So the sale of his farm produce for money which he cannot use seems to him an unprofitable transaction. He, therefore, has withdrawn many fields from crop cultivation and is using them for grazing. He feeds more grain to stock and finds for himself and his family an ample supply of food, however short he may be on clothing and the other ordinary gadgets of civilization. Meanwhile people in the cities are short of food and fuel. So the governments are forced to use their foreign money and credits to procure these necessities abroad. This process exhausts funds which are urgently needed for reconstruction. Thus a very serious situation is rapidly developing which bodes no good for the world. The modern system of the division of labor upon which the exchange of products is based is in danger of breaking down.
The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products – principally from America – are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.
The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole. The manufacturer and the farmer throughout wide areas must be able and willing to exchange their products for currencies the continuing value of which is not open to question.
Aside from the demoralizing effect on the world at large and the possibilities of disturbances arising as a result of the desperation of the people concerned, the consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all. It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full co-operation I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States.
It is already evident that, before the United States Government can proceed much further in its efforts to alleviate the situation and help start the European world on its way to recovery, there must be some agreement among the countries of Europe as to the requirements of the situation and the part those countries themselves will take in order to give proper effect to whatever action might be undertaken by this Government. It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this Government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. This is the business of the Europeans. The initiative, I think, must come from Europe. The role of this country should consist of friendly aid in the drafting of a European program and of later support of such a program so far as it may be practical for us to do so. The program should be a joint one, agreed to by a number, if not all European nations.
An essential part of any successful action on the part of the United States is an understanding on the part of the people of America of the character of the problem and the remedies to be applied. Political passion and prejudice should have no part. With foresight, and a willingness on the part of our people to face up to the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country, the difficulties I have outlined can and will be overcome.
I am sorry that on each occasion I have said something publicly in regard to our international situation, I’ve been forced by the necessities of the case to enter into rather technical discussions. But to my mind, it is of vast importance that our people reach some general understanding of what the complications really are, rather than react from a passion or a prejudice or an emotion of the moment. As I said more formally a moment ago, we are remote from the scene of these troubles. It is virtually impossible at this distance merely by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs or motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation. And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment. It hangs, I think, to a large extent on the realization of the American people, of just what are the various dominant factors. What are the reactions of the people? What are the justifications of those reactions? What are the sufferings? What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?
Thank you very much.” George Marshall, “The ‘Marshall Plan’ Speech at Harvard University; 1947
No, because I am very good at not answering them. I don’t much like being nagged about my private life because it involves others than myself, and I haven’t got a right to speak for them. But most people are very conscious of this and don’t nag. I don’t like placing other writers much and avoid the temptation to do so when asked, though I don’t mind admitting my immense admiration for Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow, and Doris Lessing.
I know you’ve done your share of interviewing. What is the first question you ask someone?
Oh dear. I never know how to begin. I find it to be a very difficult job, actually. I’m rather a bad interviewer because I never ask people things that they don’t want to be asked. As soon as they look annoyed or nervous, I never persist.
I read your interview with Doris Lessing and I thought that many of the things that came out of it could have been said about you as well. You quote her as saying, ‘In writing novels, we bring into being what we need to be.’ Can you comment on that?
In a sense, the fiction creates the reality, but it’s a very complicated relationship. I think if you imagine a certain kind of person, then that person comes into being. You become that person. Or at least this kind of person becomes a possibility. But you have to be careful what you imagine, because the act of imagining is the act of encouraging yourself to be a certain kind of person. The fact of going in a certain direction has something to do with what you imagine as good or proper for yourself.
But it also seems to me, that as far as you’re concerned, the kind of person you are has as much to do with fate or accident as it does with self-creation.
This is what is so interesting about life: choosing to be something and being struck down while you do it by a falling brick. The whole question of free will and choice and determinism is inevitably interesting to a novelist. Perhaps I go on about it more than some. Are your characters puppets in the hands of fate or are they really able to make free choices? I think we have a very small area of free choice.
And what is that area?
We can choose not to be selfish or as self-indulgent or as hard-working as we are by nature. We can choose to go against our nature, but only very slightly. You can’t completely alter what you were given without doing yourself a great violence, which means that you go mad or become an ineffective person. It also has to do with where you start from. You can’t ignore it or cut it out of yourself. I think families change over the generations, but the amount that each person changes is not as great as he thinks it’s going to be when he is young.
Was it an accident that you became a writer?
I wrote my first novel because I just got married and I was living in Stratford-upon-Avon and there was nothing else to do. I was very bored. I had no particular friends there. I’d been very busy up until then—at university, passing examinations—I very nearly took a job that summer and if I had taken a job, I probably wouldn’t have written the book. So in a sense it was accidental. Whether I would have written a novel later, I just don’t know.
What did you study at Cambridge?
English Literature. I got a very good degree. I got a husband, but he was an actor, and worked long hours. At the time, I very much wanted to be an actress and in fact I did act for a year, but by then I had my first novel accepted. I was still very keen on the stage but I was losing interest in it because of the children—I had one and was expecting another—and writing was such a convenient career to combine with having a family. Also I had quite a considerable success with my first novel, so I was encouraged to continue.
Where did the idea for your first novel come from?
I think it must have been related to my feelings at finding myself, at the age of twenty-one, free, unemployed, wondering where to go, watching my friends and contemporaries to see where they would go. Perhaps it was about the purpose of education for women and the choices it offers.
Did your training as an actress help in developing the characters for your novels?
I wasn’t trained as an actress in any way—I just did it instinctively. And I write in much the same way. I don’t think there’s much connection between the two. An actress can, and perhaps should, ignore the rest of the drama—she need only know her own role in it. This would be a fatal way to write.
At one point you were an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave. In at least three of your novels there does seem to be an understudy relationship between two characters: In A Summer Birdcage there were Louise and Sarah; in Jerusalem the Golden, Celia and Clara; in The Waterfall, Lucy and Jane: very tight pairs in which the narrator was looking up to and comparing herself constantly to another woman.
Yes. I think that is quite a natural process. Most people have a rival figure or model figure while some of us have lots of both. I suppose in my case this was either my older sister, or my best woman friend whom I’ve used again and again in my novels. The friend was very much a Celia figure to me in that she came from a more sophisticated background. I still find that fascinating: when two people who are very close have—it’s not really a rivalry—rather an imitative relationship. One wants to be like the other person.
Is that possible?
No. Not really. And as you get older you decide you don’t want to be, anyway. You’d rather be like yourself. But you realize that over a period of twenty years or so, you have in fact taken on certain aspects of your friends or your siblings. And they have probably taken on certain aspects of you, down to mannerisms and speech traits . . .
Have you put your Cambridge education to good use in your writing? Is there a certain kind of intelligence that makes for a better writer?
I don’t much care for dividing the mental faculties into compartments. I think intuition is a form of intelligence; I would only go as far as to say that too academic an education can inhibit the workings of the creative mind, though it certainly doesn’t always suffer—even in a university environment: witness Saul Bellow.
Do you think that grief can be a creative state of mind?
I’ve often worried about this—that if one got really very happy in life, one might not want to write at all. I think grief is creative. And, in some awful way, boredom is creative. When I’m really deeply bored (inevitably I’m rather miserable at the same time) I find this a creative phase because one’s got to get something. One’s got to rise out of it in some way. And the way that I’m most familiar with is by writing.
Many of your characters say that they’re most terrified of boredom.
Well, so am I. I don’t see why other people don’t worry about it more. I can’t remember who the poet was who said, “Life, my friends, is deeply boring, but of course we must not say so.” It’s not that life is always boring, it’s that it becomes boring terribly quickly. I’m rarely bored by myself. I get bored by other people or by being stuck in boring situations.
Jane Gray in The Waterfall describes the sensation that she feels when a poem is coming. She says that she can see the changes in the color of the air. Can you see the changes?
Actually that phrase came from my mother. She could tell when she was getting depressed because the air went black—or so she said. I think the air has a slightly different look about it when words are coming. Elation and depression have a similar effect on one.
Do you use any “gross and violent stimulants”?
Certainly I do. Not so many as some people. I drink alcohol. I don’t smoke. I drink very strong coffee and very weak tea. Scenery can be a violent stimulant. Wordsworth, I think, was thinking of that. I love it. But rather like Wordsworth, I think too much of it isn’t good for you. And I’m so susceptible to horror that reading the newspaper is enough for me; when I actually see the news on television it makes me feel terrible for days.
The newspaper was your primary source for The Ice Age wasn’t it?
Yes. In fact the whole idea came from reading papers. There was an enormous amount of economic analysis in the papers, but nothing on the subject of declining Britain in fiction at all.
Did you do any speculating in the stock market or real estate as research for the book?
Certainly not. I’ve never been foolish enough to do anything of that sort.
And how did you decide on a Balkan state?
I had to use a fictitious place because I didn’t want to deal with real politics. The visual memories were drawn from Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
You seemed to have trouble deciding where to end that novel. At one point you say, “No, I can’t end it this way. This would be a terrible ending.”
For quite a long time I thought I would have a reasonably happy or peaceful ending and then it just didn’t seem very plausible. The property market had quieted down but trouble had just broken out somewhere else instead. While I was writing it, I had a Lebanese friend staying with me who was a lecturer at the university at Beirut. He left Beirut because of the civil war. I thought his descriptions were very curious. He didn’t seem too alarmed by the violence and at the same time seemed so worried about his job and when he’d be able to go back. I see this is perfectly reasonable, but the job seemed such an irrelevant thing compared to the fact that he was lucky to be alive. It was talking to him that made me feel I ought to put England’s problems into some larger context.
Your first novels seem to be primarily character studies and the later books are more concerned with themes.
I think you’re right. You look at people and realize they’re all part of some theme whether they like it or not. And all you have to do is perceive the theme and you can fit all kinds of people into the pattern. I used to not be able to see so much at once. I think I had a very narrow vision. I had a very narrow life and so I began with character and with one particular situation: like having an illegitimate baby or having to go where your husband’s job is. Now that seems to me very restricting. Too particular. On the other hand, if you lose a sense of particularity, then your writing becomes very boring. It’s a struggle to keep the balance between the two now.
Tell me about your work habits.
I used to work in the evenings when the children were small, but now I work in the morning. I can’t write the whole day long. I have a room where I go because I can’t work at home—the telephone and other distractions. I start work about quarter to ten, work through till lunchtime. Sometimes I work in the afternoon. During the school holidays I don’t get very much done. I’ve only been able to put in the longer hours since the children have become more accommodating. Even then I feel a bit mean. I always have my head in somebody else’s book or my own.
Jane Gray who is a writer in The Waterfall says that there is nothing she can do to invoke the capricious muse. “One can really only stand around and wait. Perhaps that’s why I’m so unwilling to distract myself.” Do you feel this?
I don’t feel quite as helpless as that. There are certain ways of becoming attentive. Like walking. If I go for a long walk, I can think better because I don’t have to worry about what I’m doing. But sometimes you can walk for three hours and it’s only just as you’re putting the supper in the oven that you realize exactly what the answer is.
When you sit down at the typewriter do you sit there a while or do you begin to write immediately?
If a book is going reasonably well, I write terribly fast. And I don’t rewrite very much either. I really just rattle along. I think that this is because I’ve always been short of time. I’ve always been saving up the time to work so that by the time I actually get to the typewriter I usually have a very good idea of what I’ve got to get through. It’s all there waiting.
How do you feel when you are writing?
I tend to get very irritable when it’s going badly and I’m very cheerful and benevolent when it’s going well. I mean “going well” could mean describing the most gruesome and terrible scene. But if I’m stuck then I get cross.
Can you describe the process of transforming material into fiction?
Not sticking too closely to the accidental and circumstantial elements of the original material—but being able to recognize when some things—a name, a certain kind of face or voice, a nationality—are an essential part of the subject matter and therefore cannot be omitted or transformed. When I started The Realms of Gold I was trying to think of something really amusing and cheerful and I thought of the octopus I saw in the museum at Naples. I can’t remember what I was doing in this maritime museum. I can’t remember who took me. But suddenly there it was, a lot of imagery of nature: the natural world of species, the flora and fauna, the fact that Frances’s father studied newts. It all just seemed to fit very nicely. Once you’ve got a starting image, the thing just naturally goes on.
Did you know what Frances looked like?
Yes. I had a very clear picture of what she looked like. Again the character develops in a strange way. While I was writing the first section a friend of mine pointed out to me that none of the women in my previous novels had been able to drive a car and how odd this was. It’s not really odd, it’s because I can’t drive. So I thought, This woman is supposed to be a successful archeologist; she would clearly be able to drive a car. So I wrote that scene where she’s getting Karel’s car out of the mud and while I was describing her doing that, I suddenly had a very clear picture of a very good friend of mine who used to drive me around on holidays. She’s a tremendously strong woman and good at changing wheels and punctures and that kind of fused with the picture I already had of Frances.
Frances’s heroine was a woman named Boadicea who waged an unsuccessful battle against the Romans, but was “victorious in defeat.” Was she also a heroine of yours?
No, not really. I think she was probably a savage fool. I don’t know much about Boadicea really except that she was the Queen of the Iceni. As a child I admired that kind of warlike heroism. I don’t so much admire it now. I think Joan of Arc is a terrible bore, perhaps because I don’t like the plays about her.
Who are your heroines now?
Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot in a way. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has always enraptured me, though I don’t suppose I’d like to be like that. George Sand perhaps is the nearest to a heroine because she had such a full life and was so generous and spontaneous and cared nothing about petty things, only about true ones. She never cut herself off. She cared for people. She was inexhaustible and I admire that.
How did you amuse yourself as a child?
I read books about Boadicea and the Lady of Shalott. I started reading very early and read with passion for years. My sisters—I have an older sister and a younger sister—also enjoyed reading. We used to write plays and put on plays and have fairly elaborate games. Swimming and riding were the only sports I ever enjoyed. I was very fond of horses, as many little girls are.
Was there a ditch in your childhood?
I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by ditches and ponds and water beetles. I lived in Sheffield when I was a child. It’s a large northern industrial city but has very beautiful ponds and botanical gardens and countryside nearby. We used to collect fish and stickleback and newts and tadpoles and goodness knows what.
But the ditch and the house in The Realms of Gold is based partly on my grandmother’s house. There was a very nasty pond, which is now filled in. But that feeling about going back to one’s childhood was very much what I was writing about.
What do you think were the formative experiences of your childhood?
I was rather a lonely child when I was small. I made lots of friends when I was about thirteen or fourteen—when it became all right to be intellectual. But when I was a little child I was often ill. I had a bad chest and was always rather feeble—hated games. I make myself sound very pathetic, which I wasn’t, but I certainly didn’t feel I was part of the mainstream. I used to spend a lot of time alone, writing and reading and just being secretive. My sister was not very nice to me—my big sister. I used to tag along after her and she was always . . . well, she used to play with me a lot when we were little . . . I think this is what went wrong. I used to expect her to go on playing with me and of course she got bigger and didn’t want me around. That made me very sad and I always felt that I had been shut out, rejected by her.
It must have been a pretty important feeling to write your first novel about it.
Well, my sister and I are very similar. She’s a novelist and our lives have been parallel in many ways. She has been an important part of my life. One’s relationship with one’s siblings and parents is something that you’re going to write about again and again, in different forms.
Do your friends and family ever see themselves in your novels and does that make things difficult?
If they’re not pleased, then they don’t tell me. I’ve been slightly worried about one or two portraits but nobody has ever said anything. I don’t think I’ve ever hurt anybody’s feelings. It’s amazing how pleased some people are by some descriptions of themselves that I would have thought not necessarily very flattering.
Your characters, especially the protagonists, have very interesting names. Some of them seem to pay homage to other writers: Sarah Bennett, Emma Lawrence, Clara Maugham. How do you come up with them and what do they mean?
My early characters simply had names I like. I still tend to do this. The children in The Garrick Year are called Flora and Joseph and I called my own son Joseph after writing the book. Rosamund (and Rose) are faintly symbolic because both are very English (the English rose). Jane Gray is a victim; Frances Wingate, a winner; Simon, an apostle. But I don’t do this very consciously. The choice of name tends to affect the development of the character, even the plot. This may be so in real life also.
Do you find yourself getting involved with people in order to use them as characters?
No. The books always came long after I’ve been mixed up with people and there are some people whom I know very well that I would never use—out of a feeling of anxiety or embarrassment about using them. On the other hand there are some people I know who have haunted me as characters and as real living people and they just had to be used, again and again. In fact, there is one particular person that I’ve used both in a good light and in a bad light. In one book he looks a monster and in the next book he looks very nice. I’m not sure which he really is.
One thing I have never been very good at is creating “good” mothers. I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these “bad” mothers.
Did your mother notice?
If she did, she kept it to herself. She enjoys my books. She’s very good on them. The worst mother in my novels is the one in Jerusalem the Golden who was modeled on my grandmother who made my mother’s life a misery. My mother is what I call a “good-enough” mother. We have our problems, but then who doesn’t with her mother. We get on well, better than we used to. But it’s as though there’s an ancestral ghost haunting the family. I hear myself saying things that my grandmother used to say.
Is there much correlation between your life and the life of your characters?
There’s a certain amount. When I was writing The Needle’s Eye I was very keen that I shouldn’t buy any new clothes until I had finished the book: that Rose wouldn’t have done it. I was incredibly shabby by the end of the book. I’ve slightly rejected that now. I mean, I’m still shabby but that’s because I can’t be bothered to go and buy the clothes. It ceased to be a strong principle. But in a way I was testing out the principle by writing the book. That really is one of the reasons for writing: that you test out a certain lifestyle.
What do you like best about your novels?
I think what I’m most surprised about is the fact that they’re quite readable and, I think, quite amusing. Other people don’t agree, but I think they’re quite funny. Now this is something that I would never have expected of myself, because I was very keen on tragedy. But when I wrote my first novel and decided that it was going to have a funny ending (the beautiful older sister caught by her husband in the bathtub with her lover), I thought “I’m really going to be a different kind of person!” This is wonderful, I felt. Life is going to be good, not bad.
What makes you uneasy?
What a difficult question. Money makes me uneasy. The fact that some people have more of it than others. There’s an advert in the personal column of the Times in which a man says, “Will somebody please explain to me why some people are paid more than others. Does the fact that I get no replies mean that there is no answer?” I must write to him and say that I agree: There is no answer.
And other people’s misery makes me very uneasy. The injustices of life: that some people have such a terrible time—not necessarily even in material things, not even physically—but just psychologically, or in their personal lives.
What do you find most difficult in writing your novels?
I find it difficult to write about very stupid people. I’m aware that my characters tend to be not only intelligent, but intelligent about themselves. One of the things that I really admire is the ability to write with dignity and understanding about people who are not aware of themselves. I think most people are more intelligent than they are given credit for, but that they don’t express themselves in a way people find accessible. I look at some people and I don’t know what their minds contain. And that I find a problem.
And men. Writing about men. I used to find it difficult because I didn’t trust myself to know what they were like. I still feel uneasy when I describe men’s clothes and their offices. I have to do research, find out what they really look like, how they talk, and what kind of work pattern they have.
So you think there are major differences between men and women?
I don’t think they’re as major as I once did. But that’s partly because I know more men now. I realize I can have as personal a conversation with a man as with a woman.
What male authors do you think write particularly well about women?
I think many men have written well about women. But I would cite Arnold Bennett (The Old Wives’ Tale, Anna of Five Towns, Hilda Lessways) and Angus Wilson, whose novels Late Call and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot are very remarkable and full of insight.
Cars and men are closely associated in your novels.
That’s because I haven’t got one.
How deliberate is the symbolism one detects from time to time?
It’s nearly always unintentional. I look back at it and think, Oh, that relates to that. When you’re writing in a certain vein, everything grows out of the same source. Occasionally it’s more deliberate. I was very much aware when I got to the end of The Ice Age that it would be nice to have another bird. I had put a bird on the first page; it seemed obvious to put a bird on the last. And there were a lot of dead dogs in that book, but then there were just a lot of dead dogs around that year. It’s a natural associative process, really. It’s not exactly symbolism, it’s just how life is. You notice one thing and then you notice the same thing again tomorrow.
What would you say is the function of a novel?
I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?
I don’t know if that’s moral.
I think it is. Exploring—illuminating—is slightly moral. One wants to see better, clearer, more. But I read other people’s novels to find out what’s going on in the world and what other people are like. If I also recognize the same things in myself, then I feel all the more interested.
You’ve said that one can’t have art without morality. What does that mean?
To make a statement that is considered and thought-out is moral.
Your novels seem to have become more political and philosophical and even moral since your interview, in 1972, with Doris Lessing.
The problem in my early novels was that I simply hadn’t the ability to express the range of my feeling. I couldn’t technically do it. When I wrote my first novel I didn’t know how to write a novel at all. I only began to be aware that I could actually write a novel and include some of the things I deeply cared about when I reached The Needle’s Eye. I may have learned that from Doris Lessing. I started reading her around that period.
If you didn’t know how to write a novel until The Needle’s Eye, how did you write your first five?
My first novel I just wrote, day after day, like a very long letter, with no conscious sense of form or plot at all. In the second, I had a little more sense of shape. In the third, yet more. In the fourth, I tried to write (not very successfully) in the third person; in the fifth, I queried this method of narration and by The Needle’s Eye, I found I could do what I’d always wanted, which was to write a third-person novel with the point of view spread among various characters. I now have a much better sense of control. If I find something missing I know how to put it in. I can feel the rhythm of the plot much better than in the old days.
Which of your novels are you most fond of?
I think probably The Needle’s Eye. Partly because it is the longest. It was hard work and I felt proud of it. And partly because I was very fond of that period of my life. I like shabby houses and I like small children.
I like all my novels for different reasons, but I’ve gone off some of them. I’m slightly fed up with The Millstone, but I think that’s probably a reaction against everyone else always liking it best. It’s the most often translated into other languages. I get far more letters about it. I’m bored with it.
You must get a lot of letters.
Yes I do. From old friends long lost and interesting new people who write and tell me amazing things about themselves. I also hear from very tiresome people who do the same and for not very honorable reasons. As I can’t always tell the difference at first glance, I tend to waste a lot of precious time on people whose real interest in what I have to say is negligible and who have no conception of what other things I have to get through. What really annoys me are the ones who write to say, I am doing your book for my final examinations and could you please tell me what the meaning of it is. I find it just so staggering—that you’re supposed to explain the meaning of your book to some total stranger! If I knew what the meanings of my books were, I wouldn’t have bothered to write them.
Do you ever find critics useful?
Sometimes. I find what they call “constructive” criticism helpful. Occasionally you come across somebody who says, “Why didn’t she do so and so?” And you think, “God, why didn’t I?” And he says, “Why doesn’t she do so and so next time?” And you think, “Yes, why don’t I?”
In your review of Virginia Woolf’s collection of letters, you say that she must have found her critical powers comforting. Do you?
Yes. Because they enable me to defend myself from other critics. This is not very important, but it is useful. Some writers have no training in the jargon of literature—cannot explain or justify themselves—I can always hit back, or, more politely, provide explanations for what I have done. Also, I can intersperse novels with reviews etc. which makes for variety of work and is fun.
John Updike has accused you of being shamelessly dependent upon coincidence. And yet in your novels, it seems to serve as much more of a theory than a device.
What I’m perpetually trying to work out is the relationship between coincidence and plan. And in fact, I have this deep conviction that if you were to get high up enough over the world, you would see things that look like coincidence are, in fact, part of a pattern. This sounds very mystical and ridiculous, but I don’t think it is. I think that I, in particular, and maybe certain other people, have a need to perceive this pattern in coincidence. It may be that psychologically we’re so afraid of the unpredictable, of the idea of chaos and disorder, that we wish to see order.
Take the fact that you should bump into somebody after ten years on your birthday after having last seen them at your birthday party. This is a coincidence, but it appears to have a meaning. We know it’s superstitious, but so many times in my life I’ve had coincidences like this that I’m driven to look for another underlying meaning.
There’s an essay by Freud in which he discusses the uncanny feeling of being both familiar with and utterly surprised by something. I think this is one of the most distressing, but important feelings in life. The feeling that I knew this all along, but I never knew it before. Freud would argue we feel this about sex. The first time we find out what it actually is, we think “how absolutely astonishing and impossible,” but at the same time we know we knew.
I’m sure death feels a bit like that. In fact I’ve often had a dream in which I am just about to die and my last words are, “Oh, that was what it was like. I did know really, but now I know for real.” And then I wake up.
I remember you wrote about a dream in one of your books—a very frightening dream about a gigantic weaving and all the loose threads and trying to make a pattern fit together . . .
Are you sure that’s not Doris Lessing? It sounds like a Doris Lessing dream to me.
Are your dreams useful for your work?
I used to think not, because I get very bored when I’m reading other people’s novels and find them full of dreams. But in fact, I use my own dreams as tests for the way I feel about people, or things, or things going wrong. They’re relations of a sort. I have a lot of landscape dreams. One of my best dreams is that I’m in this wonderfully beautiful landscape that just goes on and on, through which I can almost make myself travel; it perpetuates itself. I’m aware that I’m dreaming because it’s so intensely beautiful.
But I don’t dream on purpose as people are supposed to in analysis.
Have you ever been in analysis?
Have you read Jung?
Only bits and pieces. I’ve read more Freud than Jung, actually.
Well, he’s got this theory called synchronicity, which is about coincidence not being coincidence at all.
Freud takes a harsher view. His view is that they are coincidences and the idea that our need to see them as not being so, like our need to avoid that death really is death, contorts the whole of human life: that the whole of human culture is distorted by our desperate need to avoid the truth.
I’m perpetually tossed between these two interpretations of life. It is a fact that if you have faith of a certain sort, then certain things will happen for you or for those that you love. But this is only in a way like watering a plant. One of the images I like best is the plant in The Waterfall that Jane keeps on watering long after she thinks that it’s dead. And then it begins to grow again.
And the same is true of people or personal relationships. You go on believing in them long after everything looks hopeless and that child or that relationship or that person, will in fact, revive.
One of the prisoners in The Ice Age was reading The Roots of Coincidence by Koestler. Did you read that?
I’ve never managed to finish it. It’s about, oh dear, what are those little things that are too small to be seen—quarks and things like that. It’s about randomness and that if you throw dice so many times, it isn’t random. A pattern will emerge.
When I was a child I used to think that mathematics and statistics were the most boring thing in the world. I find statistics increasingly fascinating: If you ask the right questions about enough things, you can spot things that nobody could discover in a lifetime of personal discovery.
But I suppose we just never know what the pattern is. I suppose it is perfectly possible that one will die without knowing what it was all about. But I have this deep faith that it will all be revealed to me one day. One day I shall just see into the heart of the whole thing. A lot of people give up. They realize that there isn’t an answer. Maybe that’s what will happen to me. Maybe when I’m ten years older I’ll decide that I was just deluding myself. But I haven’t yet got to that stage.” Barbara Milton, “Margaret Drabble, the Art of Fiction;” Paris Review, 1978