Sunday, May 1, 2016

It's A Different Time: Today's Disrespect of Intelligence

Concord Days is an interesting little book, if you're interested in the Alcott family, or the Transcendentalists, or about how an intellectual thought in New England circa 1870, and a little before. It was originally published in 1872. The one I read is a reprint of the original, and therefore a little hard on the eyes, since the original wasn't perfectly printed to begin with. It's got pages that were unnecessarily bolded and overinked, and other pages where the print is slim, and under-inked. Some pages were in the middle. Alcott was not as heavily published as were his popular daughters, and this shows. He was highly influential, especially in education, and highly respected by his Transcendentalist peers, but this does not necessarily translate into sales.

You would probably have to have an interest in one of the above things to get something out of this, but it's a quaint little hardcover book, and it's an honest writing of the thoughts of a smart, influential guy in Concord, MA and environs, including Harvard, southern to central NH, and...well, that's about it.

Amos Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott and her sisters. They had an interesting family and a curious dynamic. The family lived in poverty for a long time, until Louisa May started writing every single thing she could think of and the money started pouring in. (She wrote a lot more than Little Women. She wrote under many different names, fiction and nonfiction, and her first big successes were with novels of passion and of heaving bosoms, and the like. Picture a woman writing Harlequin Romances who one day wrote a classic about smart, independent young women and a quaint family life, and that's her.) Even after that, the family was more than happy to have their patriarch remain essentially unemployed, which allowed him to become a man of letters and thought, and to be respected as such. As I mentioned, this does not always translate to books sold, or to profitable lectures. But this was an altruistic family, and the mother and daughters were seriously happy to be the breadwinners as the father wrote letters in his study, and education tracts to pop-up education and lifestyle start-ups, all of which failed.

Maybe it was the time. In his journal you would see a lot of ideas about Pliny, Aristotle, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Goethe, Greeley, Plato and others. He writes about people you may not know, such as Phillips, Berkeley, Boehme, Carlyle, Landor, Pythagoras and Plutarch, and Swedenborg. He was known amongst his contemporaries, so his portrait of Hawthorne is correct. (He was as nervous and depressed as others say he was. Hawthorne would literally run away from a conversation.) He was spot on about Thoreau, who was apparently a bit of a respected drifter who didn't actually drift, but looked and acted like he did. Thoreau tested his friends, but he was not short of them. He seems to have been the type of guy who you respected for being so independent, so non-9 to 5, but whom you also wanted to tell to stop being such a bum and to get a damn job.

Alcott had the ability (and the time) to just read and write and think, without anyone telling him to get a damn job you bum, which makes me jealous as hell, though I wouldn't necessarily want to write about what he wrote about. He was amongst the last of the wave of privileged guys who would write about Ideas, with a capital I. He wrote about Morality, Virtue, Ideals, and the importance of one to be able to lecture well, and to be talented at smart conversation. This simply doesn't happen anymore, and it got me to wondering why.

I decided it was because my generation, and certainly the one after mine, has grown up with the idea that something is how it seems to me, but I understand it may not have the same seeming to someone else. In other words, we don't believe in universals anymore. (I know that's a universal, but let's accept the paradox and move on.) It also seems to me that nobody is renowned or respected for his intelligence anymore. Outside of luminaries like Hawking and Spielberg, who are extremely well-respected, if you are an extremely intelligent and intellectual person, but work 9-5, you'd better keep your mouth shut about it, lest people roll their eyes about you and say out loud that they don't have as much time to be smart as you do--the insinuation being that you're apparently smarter, but still somehow lesser, than they. Pointing out their latent insecurity does not help the matter any.

Sounds like personal, bitter experience, doesn't it?

Alcott was apparently one of those guys, but was well-respected, sought after, and appreciated for it. Such is simply not the case anymore. Period. He would not be so treated today; I guarantee it.

But I would also feel uncomfortable writing about Virtue and Morality these days. It is a different time. It's not the fault of political-correctness, exactly, as much as it is an ingrained understanding of the fallacy of universals. Morality for me, in suburban-hell New England, and Morality for the poverty-stricken of Ferguson, Missouri, for example, are probably two different things. Or, in other words, Yes, it's wrong to steal, but when you're starving and nobody's hiring you, you break a few universal rules every now and then. What's more Moral: to watch your children starve, or to steal some food for them?

And, yes, you have to be a man of leisure to have the time to contemplate Morality and Virtue and to write about it. I'd love to have that time, and I don't fault those who have it. For me, when I come home from work, I'm exhausted, mentally and psychologically, if not physically, and it's all I can do to write my short stories and novels and to send them out. I don't have a household of daughters supporting me financially and emotionally, and I'm not sure I'd let them if I did.

It's a different time.

Does it have to be? I don't know. I'm assuming I have more time (though it sure as hell doesn't seem it) to simply read as often as I do, and to write as many book reviews and blog entries as I do, and to write everything else that I do, and I've been told more than once (always with bitterness) that it's because I don't have a large family to support. I acknowledge this, as it's not wrong, though I could do without the tone that often comes with it. Not having a huge family is of course a choice as well.

And here we come back to Alcott. It's a different time. For the better, or not, I don't know.

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