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Merry Christmas! Project: Project Gutenberg Knows No Holiday!

December 25, 2009

[Project:  Project Gutenberg–where I’m reading and reviewing public-domain fiction from Project Gutenberg from A to Z]

Happy Christmas, readers who celebrate.  Happy day, readers who don’t.  After all the festivities die down (we’re Christmas Eve people here at Ramshackle Hall), what better way to spend a winter holiday than reading a work of popular fiction by Amanda M[innie] Douglas?

I give you:  Hope Mills, or Between Friend and Sweetheart (1879).  Dedicated to Marcus Ward, the Governor of New Jersey.

From its title, I expected a typical romance–perhaps even a Sunday School novel.  Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Hope Mills is not a blushing maiden, but a textile mill, and the novel a sort of industrial love story about the value of cooperatively-organized factories in economic depression.

What makes Hope Mills worth reading is its frighteningly timely description of the Long Depression of 1873-79.

It begins with a bank failure:  “The second week in October there came an appalling crash. Yerbury Bank closed its doors one morning,—the old bank that had weathered many a gale; that was considered as safe and stanch as the rock of Gibraltar itself; that held in trust the savings of widows and orphans, the balance of smaller business-men who would be ruined: indeed, it would almost ruin Yerbury itself.

“There was the greatest consternation. People flew up the street, bank-book in hand; but the dumb doors seemed only to give back a pitiless glance to entreaties. What was it? What had happened? “Every penny I had in the world was in it,” groaned one; and the saddening refrain was repeated over and over, sometimes with tears, at others with curses.

“The old officers of Yerbury Bank had been men of the highest integrity. Some were dead; some had been pushed aside by the new, fast men who laughed at past methods, as if honor, honesty, and truth were virtues easily outgrown. Among these were the Eastmans. George was considered shrewd and far-sighted, and for two years had been one of the directors, as well as Horace. They paid the highest rate of interest, which attracted small savings from all around. There had been no whisper or fear about it, so solid was its olden reputation. There were people who would as soon have doubted the Bible.

“Two days after this, George Eastman sailed for Europe, on a sudden summons,—his wife’s illness. There had been a meeting called, and a short statement made. Owing to sudden and unexpected depreciation in railway-bonds and improvement-bonds, and what not, it was deemed best to suspend payment for the present. In a few weeks all would be straight again, with perhaps a trifling loss to depositors. Already the directors had been very magnanimous. Mr. Eastman and several others had turned over to the bank a large stock of mortgages: in fact, the virtue of these men was so lauded that the losses seemed to be quite thrown into the background.

“But the examination revealed a sickening mass of selfishness and cupidity; transactions that were culpably careless, others dishonorable to the last degree. If the larger depositors had not been warned, there was certainly a remarkable unanimity of thought, as, for the past fortnight, they had been steadily drawing out their thousands. Wild railroad-speculations, immense mortgages on real estate that now lay flat and dead: scanty available assets that would hardly pay twenty cents on a dollar.”

There’s an excellent portrait of a senior partner in the bank which would do nicely for, say, any Goldman-Sachs executive.

“What impression could he make upon this man? To appeal to conscience, justice, or any latent sense of right, would be a waste of words. With him success was right, and failure the blunder or sin. He was to “do well unto himself,” to gain the world’s verdict of approval. That solid flesh made by good eating and drinking, not debauchery or intemperance,—the man had few of these gross vices,—that complacent strength, that keen, concentrating force than could bend all energies in the one direction, never looking back when he had once set his mind to a thing, experiencing no remorse for those he crushed under his feet so long as he went to success over them, knowing no disinterestedness, trading simply upon the credulity, honor, and honesty of others: he had chosen him for some of these very qualities. Do men gather grapes of thistles?”

Later, the hero of the novel, Jack Darcy, travels the country in preparation for launching his own textile cooperative.

“It was a great and wonderful world. Little Yerbury had hardly any true idea what a mite she was, when one looked at the immense labor-fields of the West and apparently endless resources. Yet there was the same depression out here. Shops and mills closed, for sale, and to let; some running on three-quarter time, with half the number of workmen, others going on at ruinous competition; anxious, moody-eyed men walking the streets, or grouped on corners, their coats and hats shabby, their beards untrimmed, old boots and shoes with the heels tramped over at one side, or a bit of stocking showing through the leather. “No man hath hired us,” said their despondent faces plainer than any words. Young men and boys offering to do any kind of work for any kind of pay, sleeping in station-houses; relief-stores, church charities and soup-houses, homes for the friendless, and all such places, filled to overflowing, and new hordes crowding in every day.

“Yet there seemed to be no lack of money. It lay in banks, it went begging for good security. Where was there any good security? Every inch of ground, every building, stocks and furniture, were covered by mortgages. Stock companies trembled in the balance, and went down like card-houses. Everybody wanted to sell every thing, but there were no buyers. Everybody wanted to work, but there was nothing to do. Everybody was in a chronic state of grumbling; there was no profit to be made in farming, in manufacturing, in any thing. There had been too much over-production, for which every one blamed his neighbor. The great warehouses were full of grain, the mills loaded up with iron, the factories full of cloth and flannels and cottons; and yet people were going hungry and in rags. It was puzzling and painful. We had bought too much abroad, and sent the money out of the country, the balance of trade would make it all right again; there had been over-production, and now there must be a vigorous repression; there had been too much speculation in real estate; there had been too great an accumulation of capital in the business centres; we were fast verging to the state of older countries, where there were the few rich and the many poor: there was a surplus of labor, and was there not also a surplus of people?”

The description of Yerbury after a year of depression is terribly reminiscent of Flint, Michigan–or Potlatch, Idaho.

“Certainly it was quite different from the trim little town of Jack’s boyhood. The blight of poverty and thriftlessness had fallen upon it. There were piles of refuse in the streets, still half frozen; there were muddy stoops and shabby hall-doors, and broken area-palings, and now and then a window patched up with paper or rags. For though there may be much high theorizing and preaching on the two or three exceptional men who have lifted themselves out of dens of poverty, and come through great tribulation, there are thousands who work out nothing but blind destruction and utter shipwreck, and who in frantic efforts for salvation drag down those nearest and dearest, as a drowning man may clutch at his own brother.”

The local destruction is complete.  “Hope Mills was ruined beyond a peradventure, and the affairs of the bank were best wound up as speedily as possible. There could be no large stealings for a receiver, consequently no occasion for delay. The sooner the wrecks and débris were cleared away, the quicker the moral atmosphere would be purified. There are wounds for which the instant cautery means life, the careful hesitation death.
“And now every one looked at the exploded bubble in surprise, and cried angrily, “What has become of the money? Yesterday we were rich: where has it gone to? Six months ago we had twenty per cent dividend: why are these stocks worthless now? Why have railroads and shops and mills ceased to pay? What sudden blight has fallen over the world?”
Alas! There had been no money. Sanguine credit had traded on the honor and faith and nobleness of man toward man, and, behold, it had all been selfishness and falsehood and dishonor. Truth and virtue had been scorned and flouted in the highway, because forsooth there was a more brilliant semblance. Like a garment had men wrapped themselves in it, and now it was but rags and tatters.”

There is a love plot, of course; at first I was quite certain the novel was proto-slash, as well as economic romance:  Jack Darcy, the working-class hero, and Fred Minor, his wealthy friend, are inseparable in boyhood (Fred calls Jack his “King Arthur”) and the opening line of the novel is this:

“There is Fred again with his arm around Jack Darcy’s neck. I declare, they are worse than two romantic schoolgirls. I am so thankful Fred goes away to-morrow for a year! and I do hope by that time he will have outgrown that wretched, commonplace youth. Mother, it is very fortunate that Jack is the sole scion of the Darcy line; for, if there were a daughter, you would no doubt be called upon to receive her into the bosom of the family.”

Instead, after many misunderstandings, Jack marries Fred’s sister, and Fred marries Jack’s best girl friend, Sylvie.  The romance is insipid, though, compared to the thrills of organizing and running a co-op, triumphing over outside agitators, socialists, wealthy industrialists, and the depression itself.

You think I’m joking, but I’m not.  I highly recommend Hope Mills. I think I like it best of all my P: PG novels so far.

(Amanda M. Douglas was not a distinguished novelist of ideas–she’s best known for her juvenile series “A Little Girl of,”  early historical novels for girls which detailed colonial life in Old Philadelphia, Old New York, Old Boston, and so on.)

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