By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
I return in my mind to New Canaan because the values of New Canaan’s commuter class of the fifties and sixties are stark indicators of much that went wrong in America. The striving for money and the respectability to be gained by it obliterated the sense of vocation and meaningful work that may have lain buried inside many of New Canaan’s men.
The loss of vocation and the abandonment of meaningful work clearly is a story that began long before New Canaan’s founding. It is a story that goes back to colonial America. Between 1732 and 1758, when he published yearly editions of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin encouraged his fellow citizens to practice frugality and to spare no effort in the acquisition of money and property. The almanacs were peppered with aphorisms, which Franklin chose because they “inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of promoting wealth, and thereby securing virtue . . . “ Wealth, then, he identified with virtue and poverty with vice. Franklin’s aphorisms were later excerpted from the almanacs and published as The Way to Wealth.
Invoking Franklin can help ease one’s conscience and justify one’s greed and desire for “getting on” and “making something of oneself.” So, too, can the Calvinist belief that wealth is a sign of God’s grace. Once one’s conscience is eased, the heart’s longing for vocation is smothered, unfelt, and easily denied.
Poor Richard's Almanac
Many years after I left New Canaan, mother told me that father had really wanted to teach. After graduating from Harvard Business School he had joined the faculty of the Tennessee Military Academy. He and mother stayed there one or two years before they left for Pittsburgh where father went to work for U.S. Steel and began his life in corporate America. In later years he laughed at himself for having gone off the track.
Father’s story is a common one. We Americans, and most people worldwide—thanks to American influence—have forgotten what it means to have a vocation. In the centuries before industrialization, when men and women earned their bread by the sweat of their brows, as husbandmen or weavers or blacksmiths, in short, as artisans and makers, people performed useful work producing goods and services that people really needed. Their work was honorable and satisfying and was necessary to maintaining their relatively simple economies.
In several of his books, Sherwood Anderson wrote about the transformation of American consciousness during his Ohio boyhood. The coming of machinery, Anderson wrote repeatedly, spurred that transformation. As farmers, for example, saw how much more land they could plant and harvest with the new machines, they hungered for more land and the money they could make with it.
As fewer farmers were needed on the land, they migrated to cities where people were needed to tend and repair machines. People were needed to package the goods the machines produced. More and more salesmen were needed to sell the machine-made products. Trades disappeared one by one as machines made them obsolete. Workers forgot their fathers’ crafts, they forgot how to work skillfully with their hands. Their hearts were no longer in their work, nor were their minds. They became machine tenders. Other men were needed to manage the machine tenders.
Then came the Great Depression in 1929. The men of my father’s generation, many of whom had come off farms and had lived through the Depression, were determined never again to experience want.
Adrift in New York
by Horatio Alger, Jr.
Horatio Alger’s absurdist novels about Dick the shoeblack or Sam the newsy who became millionaires fed their hunger and spirits. According to my father and countless others who misread these books, Dick and Sam acquired their fortunes through perseverance and hard work. The truth is, even Horatio Alger (who wrote during the age of the Robber Barons) knew better. The shoeblack in the days of labor strife would never have been able to rise above a factory worker.
Many of Alger’s heroes did become rich, but only because some millionaire admired their grit and stick-to-it-tiveness, their courage or honesty and gave them a job. The Alger hero was not an entrepreneur. He did not build an industrial or business empire. But the myth of the Alger hero was reiterated time and again by my father, who had little use for my ambition to write and, I suppose, considered it a definite sign of a romantic who was unable or unwilling to face the hard facts of life.
A variant of the Alger myth was expressed in a book I found in my father’s small collection—The Man Nobody Knew, by Bruce Barton. The man of the title is Jesus. In Barton’s account, Jesus was a dynamic businessman who was ruthless with himself—he slept on the ground and traveled on foot—in creating what was to become the world’s most influential corporation. Jesus, according to Barton, built his organization with twelve men “picked from the bottom ranks of business.” Yet Jesus not only inspired his twelve initial associates, but growing crowds. Eventually, long after his death, his dynamic message was accepted by millions and spread across the globe.
I do not remember God ever mentioned in Barton’s book. Perhaps it is, but Barton’s emphasis has nothing to do with spirit or spirituality. It has everything to do with making a success out of oneself. The Man Nobody Knew is a book for go-getters and small town boosters. It was a national best seller in the 1920s and continues to sell to this day.
In retrospect I realize that the drive for riches and security that possessed the men of the upper middle-class communities of America in the 1950s and 1960s also obliterated whatever sense of vocation that may have lurked in their hearts.
Many in the next two or three waves of New Canaan residents have had even less sense of something lost. Many years after I left New Canaan, I returned one weekday afternoon for a few hours to glimpse the surfaces. I saw a woman step out of her sports car wearing an exorbitantly expensive dress, looking as though she were headed for a cocktail party. Her children were with her, and I concluded that she was shopping. I noticed that all the cars surrounding hers were expensive, many were foreign.
This was what she and those like her in New Canaan had to drive and wear in order not to lose face. This is what her class believed in: this was what had value. A few minutes earlier I had visited the town library to speak to the director. She had written a glowing review of one of my books for a national journal, but I was told—by assistants who talked as though they were clerks at Tiffany’s and I was delivering morning coffee— that she was in a meeting.
I suddenly felt ashamed of my own very decent clothes. I was totally out of my element. There was no question that this large segment of New Canaan residents, who lived on surfaces, had no respect for anything outside their culture.
This newer generation of materialists spent their money. This is what “keeping up with the Joneses” had come to. My parents’ generation invested their money. A good house in a respected community, a membership in a golf club, an investment in their children’s college education—these were pretty much the extent of their big expenditures. The men of my parents’ generation did not earn the salaries that the later men did, nor did they collect stock options. The materialism of the upper middle-class of my parents’ generation had degenerated into the hyper-materialism that continues to throttle America to this day.
New Canaan was the first culture and society that I knew intimately and became the base line from which I have been able to distinguish other cultures and societies.