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Heroes for America

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Although it is the scientific fashion to regard history not as the product of great men, but as a complex of impersonal forces, modern psychology has brought a back-handed confirmation to Thomas Carlyle’s view of the importance of heroes and hero worship. Our heroes do not make us what we are, but what we are may be discovered by the heroes we make. Every, culture has its significant myths, which survive, whether in religious observance, in fairy-tale, or in sophisticated literature, because they represent the fundamental needs and satisfy the longings— often hidden from the consciousness—of the people. They betray the secrets of a nation or an age. And at the heart of every myth stands the hero. What happens to him is what we need to imagine happening to ourselves.

So runs the formula. Whatever may be granted as to its scientific exactitude, it appeals sufficiently to common sense to permit its use as a rough test of a prevailing thesis concerning the people of the United States and their culture since the War. We are, it is said, especially by our European critics, a materialistic nation, careless of the finer values passed on to us from older civilizations. In its cruder form this accusation pictures us as interested only in making money. More discriminating observers find our materialism revealed in preoccupation with inventions, mechanical devices, ways of producing and distributing goods, coupled with what is supposed to be our infertility, in art, statesmanship, and pure science. Even our distinctive contribution to philosophy—the pragmatism of William James or the in-strumentalism of John Dewey — is conceived as a sordid sort of thing, something practical, something which is merely a highbrow way of saying “nothing succeeds like success” or “business is business,” rather than as an excursion into the realms of essence or of value sanctified by metaphysical tradition. If something like this is true about us, it ought to be revealed by our prevailing myths and heroes. By looking at them, we ought to be able to see a spectroscopic image of the elements which compose us.

To whom, then, should we look as the embodiment of what is supposed to be the present American mood? Certainly not to any of the earlier heroes of our history. Not to Washington, with his rugged persistence in a public cause, maintained at sacrifice to his own fortune, or to Jefferson, with his excitement about the rights of the common man and his hostility toward the authority of the worldlings. Franklin, because he flew a kite to play with lightning, we should doubtless take to our hearts more warmly, but his interest in thrift ought to be quite out of fashion in a period of Gargantuan speculation and instalment buying. Lincoln we may perhaps be allowed to glorify because he was a poor boy who made good; what he made good at would not, according to the thesis under examination, be of concern to us. Roosevelt would be near to us because of his doctrine of extreme activity, but after all he was, like most of the others mentioned, a politician, and politics we are supposed to hold in contempt. Few boys alert enough to seize the spirit of the age should want to be President any more; public life is no longer a career but an accident.

Clearly, if our critics are right, our heroes ought to be rich men, successful industrialists, purveyors of the newer material essentials of our life. Who, in fact, should be more typical of our aspirations than our two richest citizens, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford? Both have more wealth than any other hero of history. Both “made” their own money. Both achieved it by building up great industries. One of these industries furnishes us with our most popular mechanical contraption, the other provides the fuel and the lubrication wherewith to run it. If we are what it is said we are, these men ought to be our prototypes; the myths surrounding them ought to be the life blood of our folk legend. By discovering what these heroes mean to us we can judge how materialistic we really are.

For the purposes of this examination we need make no rude intrusion into the actual personal histories and ideas of these fellow-citizens. What matters is not the inner truth but the outer appearance, not what really happened but what we choose to believe or to remember. It is an engaging pursuit to debunk important personages—historical or otherwise—but that is an amusement which does not reveal the clue we are after, which is the significance of what we imagine about the hero, not of what he is as a private person. The poets of Greece, the minnesingers of mediaeval Europe, the bards of the Arthurian legends, were, like the modern publicity man and the writer for popular journals, engaged, not in meticulous historical research with an eye to windward for H. L. Mencken, but in telling stories that their audiences would like and would demand to hear again and again.

What then, is the Rockefeller legend, and what sort of hero have we made of the man? Any every-day American taking a psychological test in association would probably respond to the sudden pronouncement of his name with words like oil, billions, dimes, golf, wig, indigestion, rebates, religion, foundations, Sherman anti-trust law. So far as we have a formula about him, it is curiously disintegrated and self-contradictory. On the annual occasion of his birthday, we see the small, dry figure, with its prune-like mask, making a final putt or giving a ten-cent piece to a newsboy. We view it perhaps with respect, perhaps merely with a sort of curiosity in which bewilderment and a touch of fear are mingled, but we view it without warmth. We should like to have his wealth, but we do not especially desire to follow his example, nor have discovered in his story any magic recipe for doing so.

Suppose, for a moment, a father should want to exhibit Mr. Rockefeller as a model for his son’s career. What story could he tell? A poor boy desired wealth. He went to church regularly, and never lost his interest in Sunday School, even after he was grown. He saved every penny and never took a chance. Though he was of military age when his country fought a great war, he did not join the army. The only extraordinary ability he showed was in keeping his accounts. He made a moderate success in the commission business.

So far, there is little to set either son or father on fire. Thousands of others must have done the same without becoming billionaires. We can see them about us in every community—pious, worthy, but for the most part undistinguished survivors of a generation we have forgotten. But by a curious act of intelligence, Mr. Rockefeller, after careful study, foresaw the great future of the oil refining industry. Thereupon his personality assumed an inexplicable Napoleonic turn. The daring, the unquenchable thirst for mastery, the ruthlessness, the talent for organization, which must have welled up in him to encompass the building of Standard Oil, are the very qualities requisite for a military epic. If militant business were our acknowledged battlefield of achievement, the wars which built the Rockefeller empire would be celebrated in every school history.

But these years of Mr. Rockefeller’s life not only, are uncelebrated; they are not understood. Their story has been told only by the advocates of the victims. Even Mr. Rockefeller and his spokesmen have not wanted him to go down to history as a conqueror. It is not merely that we have not wished him to remain a modern Attila, but we do not like to think of him as a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon, or even a Foch, The wounded and dead whom it was necessary to leave on the battlefield in order to win the world’s first great industrial dictatorship are now discreetly forgotten; the campaigns, carried on with disdain of civil law and custom, suppressing all opposition, are thought of, if they are now thought of at all, not as heroic and glorious adventures, but as conspiracies against the public in pursuit of venal and most inglorious gain. The national spirit first tried to undo what had been done; failing for the most part in that endeavor, it has accepted the ultimate result with some complacence, but without enthusiasm. Though it is frequently said that Standard Oil performs an inestimable public service by eliminating waste in distribution of petroleum products, and giving us the advantages of standardized quality and low price which result from large-scale processes, we have never yet digested the history of its formation. Spokesmen of industry themselves talk of the era in which it was built as one marked by unfortunate practices which are now, happily, unnecessary for the generating of big business. It may be questioned whether the same sort of thing does not still occur in a more refined way, but if so, we do not like to admit it.

It is the legend — whatever may be the fact — that the Rockefeller philanthropy was embarked upon, if not as an atonement for misdeeds, at least as a peace-offering to an enraged and hostile people. Yet if the history of his business career would, under sympathetic treatment, make an epic of the conquest of wealth, the history of his benefactions would equally well make an epic of its distribution in public service. Never before in the history of the world has so much money been devoted, with such conscientious zeal, to so many worthy projects. The University of Chicago, which has harbored, among other eminent scholars, Dewey and Michelson; the Rockefeller foundation, which has nourished great scientists and even heroes of medical research like Loeb and Noguchi; the more recent contributions to the social sciences, whose outcome, though not yet so conspicuous, is extraordinarily useful—these and other visible results of the use to which Standard Oil profits have been put are sufficiently obvious and have received much discriminating appreciation. But they can scarcely be said to have become material for hero-mythology, as far as the donor is concerned. Some suspicion, if not of “tainted money,” at least of hidden control for ulterior objects, still clings about them in the popular mind. These suspicions are as nearly without foundation as they well could be, under the circumstances, but the significant fact for this inquiry is, not that they are unfounded, but that they exist. In spite of the essential place large-scale philanthropy has made for itself in our social order, public opinion has not accepted the ability to dispense it as one of the prime goals of human endeavor. It is conceivable that a father might inspire his son to be a Noguchi, a Michelson, or even a Loeb or a Dewey, but it is well-nigh inconceivable that he would, or could, arouse in the boy a keen desire to become a billionaire, merely, in order that he might be a great patron of science, education, or philosophy. We do not aspire to pay others to be significant, but to be significant ourselves.

Thus, in his two magnificent fields of activity, we have failed to make Mr. Rockefeller the hero he might have been if our desire had been more apt to the accumulating and dispensing of wealth. Thus we think of him, not as an archetype of his age, to be revered in future as one of the chief of the national demigods, but as a shrewd old man who believes in thrift, a strict Baptist, a person whose pleasure is said to be playing mediocre golf and a simple-minded game of his own invention entitled “Numerica.” The strange dissonance between the emotional and mental poverty which we conceive to have been his in youth and his activities in mid-career we do not even wonder at, because we have not allowed our imaginations to play warmly about his achievements. Nor do we marvel that so energetic and large-scale a life should have left so strange a relic. In short, we scarcely have a Rockefeller myth; what there is of it gives faint support to the views of our critics.

In Henry Ford we find a symbol closer to us and easier to understand. The smart and undaunted Yankee, with a touch of Western naivete, tinkering in his machine shop with strange new inventions, is a type from the soil. From this beginning the story runs in a straight line. The shoemaker stuck to his last. His activity was dominated by a few simple but far-reaching ideas. While competitors played with frivolous vagaries to win the customer’s favor, amid the rapidly shifting fortunes of the early period of the motor industry, he strove to manufacture a car that would give service as cheaply as possible. The more cheaply he could make it, the more he could sell; the more he could sell, the more cheaply he could make it. Incidental to this aim was his avoidance of all financial entanglements. His profits consistently went back into the business, and kept him out of the hands of bankers, promoters, consolidators. No fixed charges went to swell his overhead. As other men used their business gains for personal extravagance, so did he, but his luxury consisted in more and bigger machinery and plants, more accurate gauges, more mines, forests, and railroads, more means to do things in new ways more cheaply— all to the end of more and cheaper Fords. And he rejected puritanically all compromises that would interfere with that enthusiasm. No money was allowed for foolish advertising. All you had to do to sell cars was to make them good enough at a low enough cost. “A man can buy a Ford car in any color he wants—so long as it is black.”

And they did. The ideas worked. A luxury became a necessity, while Mr. Ford played with his giant mechanical toys, his white-enamelled furnace rooms, his straight-line methods of production, his belt conveyors, his standardization, his vertical combination of resources. A rigidly communistic government official, producing a new invention for the sole benefit of the public, would have followed much the same course. Not the economy of scarcity, not calculating restriction of production in the interest of proprietary profits, but the economy of plenty, a powerful drive to enlarge production, established itself. The Ford formula} became a national myth, which is still reverberating throughout the world. Some of them, indeed, were probably afterthoughts, contributed by others to rationalize and unify the myth. Read any of the books signed with Mr. Ford’s name, or any of the authorized works about him, and you will find a triumphant and contagious sense of fascination in the job he was doing, which easily communicates itself to the modern spirit. This rapport with the Ford ideas is felt, not only in the United States, but everywhere modern industry has arisen or is desired—and, strangely enough, nowhere more strongly than in Russia.

That the myth is a genuine folk legend is attested by its power to absorb contradictory facts and hostile criticism. It is said that when Ford established his famous rule of a minimum five dollars a day for workers, he really needed the men which it would attract. It was not a genuine inauguration of the “economy, of high wages”—increased pay for increased productivity, enabling the workers to buy the things they were producing in ever larger quantities—but merely a shrewd application of the good old law of supply and demand. In recent years automobile wages have trailed further and further behind the sky-rocketing capacity of the industry to produce more cars per man. Likewise his adoption of the five-day week involved no increase of pay per day; it was said to be only an ordinary lay-off in a time of slack production. We hear much of the ill effects of speeding up and monotony among his employees. When production of the old model was suspended, no systematic provision had been made for insurance against the unemployment which resulted. When the new model made new hiring necessary, all the confusion of our antiquated system of job-finding ensued, instead of a less wasteful process such as Ford would surely have utilized for obtaining materials. But these facts do not prevent the world from accepting Ford as the great protagonist of highly paid and efficiently employed labor. Anything which seems inconsistent with the simple underlying ideas we ignore.

Mr. Ford bought a railroad. We chose to believe that he turned it from failure to success by modern management, not by diverting his own great traffic over its lines. We have now forgotten it. Caught in a depression with unsalable inventories, Mr. Ford made the dealers order his surplus stock and dig up the credit wherewith to carry it — or go bankrupt. We chose to think that he thereby demonstrated his independence of the wicked money-lenders of Wall Street. Mr. Ford finally, ran into a cul-de-sac of shrinking demand for his uniform black Lizzies, basically unchanged in engineering design for many years. He came out with new models in colors, and surrendered to the advertising brotherhood. He appealed to style and swank. Yet we choose to talk merely of the engineering triumph, the skilful manufacturing processes, behind the new Queen Elizabeth ; we do not notice the retreat from puritanical efficiency.

Our sense of humor contributed to the myth, too. The old Ford jokes were, we said, merely the best advertising in the world. We laughed indulgently at the peace ship; it was the vagary of a great man too simple to understand the war-making politicians. Who now remembers the ludicrous proposal which Mr. Ford and Mr. Edison, long before they were taken into camp by the rest of the big business world, made for a commodity money to supplant the gold standard? His attacks on the Jews were a more serious matter, but they were happily discontinued, palmed off on subordinates.

There is a profound significance in the contrast between the genuine and active Ford mythology and the limping Rockefeller legend. Clearly, we are not much impressed by wealth conceived as money, no matter for what the money is used, or how it is gained. We are fascinated by machinery, by industrial processes, by large-scale organization. But we need to believe it is used for the public good, and that it is built upon ideas, not that it arises from warfare and a desire for personal power; or that its products are of value only as possessions of the purchaser. It is not business in the old sense which fires our imagination, but productive industry. This faith is not a passing mood; it will endure. It means that if we are to achieve those more lasting values which it is said we lack, they must be built out of the new instrumentalities at our command, not be accepted as mere survivals of an earlier culture.

This is far from meaning that we shall continue to indulge a hero worship for everything the real Ford has done or may do, and for all existing industrial practices and products. We do notice something out of key when the man who has put cars on every road, and has been the prime mover behind the multiplication of concrete pavements, road houses, hot-dog stands, and filling stations, turns, for his own amusement, to Wayside Inns, stage coaches, antique furniture, and country, dances. In these pursuits he is by no means without an influential following, We wonder what of good there is in the old which we miss in the new. We compare the village blacksmith with the worker at the belt conveyor, the farmer of the self-sustaining country household with the routine factory producer, the orderly self-governing New England farm community with the reckless and largely ungoverned complex of modern industry. There is plenty of room for a new hero who shall add to Ford’s simple and far-reaching ideas other ideas, equally simple and equally far-reaching, but aimed at objectives beyond providing as many persons as possible with motor cars. There are even now prototypes of the organizer who will devise means whereby the worker may have more secure enjoyment of life and fuller possession of his own soul both in the production and in the use of the increased material resources of the modern world. Our present state of mind—or perhaps I should already say, our recent state of mind—is not really antipathetic to such a new hero-creation; it is merely preliminary to it.


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