In the Archives: An Easy Chair in an Uneasy World (1920)

It may be heresy to admit on a website dedicated to American humor that I find great relief in the British variant. Since I first learned of knights who say Ni! I’ve thoroughly appreciated heady concepts wrapped in silly nonsense. I have even found principles to incorporate in my general code of conduct, for instance, in Douglas Adams’s lesser known Dirk Gently detective series, Adams introduces the concept of zen navigation.

“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” You’d be amazed the liberty one feels at discovering the correct destination when relieved of plotting the course. Such was the case for this week’s submission to the Archives.

Quite often we hear the careless expression “In the wake of…” and understand the causality of A on the outcome of B. But the idiom in this case homophonically reminds us of our vigil in a funeral while punning on the context of current events. When the broad scope of law enforcement pulled Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in a Watertown backyard, neither the boat, the backyard, nor the town were near water. But the wake cast by that young man in the boat capsized Boston for the better part of a week.

I was fortunate to be at a Dairy Queen with a small child twenty miles from the finish line when the bombs went off Patriots’ Day. I plan to stay near that child as close as I can when I see the pictures of children whose parents can’t hold them again. It sends the mind looking for answers. I thought I might find them in precedent.

That's me on the left...

That’s me on the left…

...Meanwhile ninety-two and a half years earlier.

…meanwhile ninety-two and a half years earlier…

America has suffered from intentional combustion before 9/11. This September we are seven years shy of a century from the Wall Street Bombing in New York City, when anarchists sent a horse-drawn carriage with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast iron to the front steps of J. P. Morgan bank. Thirty-nine people died, and hundreds more were wounded. I had hoped to find a published laugh to counterpoint the public cry of General William J. Nicholson: “Any person who would commit such a crime or connive in its commission should be put to death…He has no right to live in a civilized community. Such persons should be killed whenever they rear their heads, just as you would kill a snake!”

I turned to Harper’s Magazine, as their printer’s mark claims they’re “holding a light to be passed on to others” (ΛΑΜΠΑΔΙΑ ΕΧΟΝΤΕΣ ΔΙΑΔΩΣΟΥΣΙΝ ΑΛΛΗΛΟΙΣ, quoting Plato). Based on the time to prepare a periodical I turned to the October, 1920, publication (Vol. CXLI, No. DCCCXLV) and found an article by Brander Matthews on “Mark Twain and the Art of Writing” (pp. 635–643) reminiscent of my first piece on this website. Quoting Twain’s estimation for former Harper’s editor William Dean Howells as “concerns his humor…I do not think anyone else can play with humorous fancies so gracefully and delicately and deliciously as he does, nor has so many to play with, nor can come so near making them look as if they were doing the playing themselves and he was not aware they were at it. For they are unobtrusive and quiet in their ways and well conducted. His is a humor which flows softly all around about and over and through the mesh of the page, pervasive, refreshing, health-giving, and makes no more show and no more noise than does the circulation of the blood.”

Touching, and suitable for study in a later archive, but not therapeutic compared to present or past cataclysm. Was it possible that the high standards of past periodical journalists—professors, poets, and professionals of a certain social standing—did not consider writing about the immediate then and there? How far we’ve come, for better or worse.

Then at the back of the magazine I came upon a chair, recently occupied by Edward S. Martin. Born in upstate New York in 1856, Martin graduated from Harvard in 1877, like many men of import. Unlike his peers he began a little periodical called the Lampoon (or Cambridge Charivari) before he left, sort of a college Punch that later went National. His interest in starting funny literary magazines reached a professional level with Life magazine, which began publication in 1883 as a competitor to Puck and Judge before trading humor for photojournalism in 1936.

When aforementioned Harper’s Magazine editor William Dean Howells passed in May 1920, it was Martin who wrote the magazine’s eulogy for “The Dean of American Letters” in their July issue. When Martin resumed the “Editor’s Easy Chair,” previously occupied by Howells, in October of that year (pp. 677–680), he could’ve begun his tenure on any subject of his choosing. At sixty-four he had earned the right to write what he wanted. In discovering the following piece looking for a contextual laugh I realized that I did not end up where I was intending to go, but ended up somewhere that I needed to be.

Editor's Easy Chair
There is no use in objecting because people don’t do what you think they should, especially in public concerns. The affairs of this world and this life are very incompletely transacted by people who do as you think they should. Most things that happen happen largely as a result of the activities of persons who do what you think they shouldn’t or of the failure to function of persons on whom you had built hopes.

Take the war! It was pretty much all a consequence of mistakes—the great preliminary mistake, well-distributed, of starting it: von Kluck’s mistakes that led up to the battle of the Marne, the mistakes of Gallipoli, and so on through four years of it until in spite or in consequence of all mistakes, the end came.

Take the peace! Here we are, at this writing, in the earlier weeks of a political campaign, which aims chiefly to get the opinion of the country as to who made the worst mistakes after the war.

The great factor in history that is constant is the fallibility of man. The one thing we can count on in life is that people will blunder. One might just as well expect that in the first place and try to be reconciled to it. It is the way the world is run. Life is a hurdle race and mistakes are the hurdles, and yet people groan about them and complain of them as though they didn’t belong in the game. But of course they belong in it, and the winner is the contestant who best and soonest gets over them.

One of the most useful exercises is to attempt something you have never done and think you can’t do. To do it you have to amend, enlarge, extend yourself, and if you do that it may be a bigger thing than to accomplish what you undertook. For to amend ourselves, enlarge and extend ourselves and become more than we began, is precisely what we are in this world for. We are started in life with the admonition to make the most of our talents. Education and all influences supposed to be beneficial are directed to induce us to let out a tuck and try to amount to something. But most of us hate to do it. We hate to think; we hate exertion; we hate discipline and self-denial; we hate innovation.

All these phenomena can be observed on a large scale in our present world. For practical purposes it is a new-born world, invited to amend itself and to undertake much more than it finds ability to do. It must recontrive its life, and it does not want to. It has come through a terrific struggle to be born again, and is still- tired. It hates to think, it hates exertion and a large part of it hates innovation. Nothing can make it bestir itself sufficiently and submit itself to necessary changes, but the discomfort of things as they are and the fear of what they may be if they are not taken in hand. It is the old-fashioned fear of hell, prodding up a reluctant world to go after salvation. The whimperings and complaints of people who think life ought to go on again in the old way, and can if proper plans are furnished and competent hands guide it, and their efforts to supply such hands and plans, are amusing when they do not threaten dangerous misdirection and delay.

With a world in such a case and so uncertain about its prospects, Easy Chairs seem incongruous. Are there any left? Should any be preserved? When Mr. Curtis began, about 1854, to sit in the Easy Chair of this magazine, a big national job, the Civil War, was coming down the road. He had an active part in that great disturbance and earned a share in whatever distribution of repose came after it. Truth was he never got any very somnolent degree of repose but was active in political disturbance all his days. The house he lived in on Staten Island is still there and very much as he left it, a house saturated with his personality, with Civil War flavors, and pictures, books, and writings reminiscent of the ’sixties, the ’seventies and the ’eighties of the last century. A visitor who is old enough to remember, will feel himself back in the times of Lincoln, of Grant, of Blaine, of Cleveland. He may see reminders of still earlier times—notes from Thackeray written when he came here to lecture in the ’fifties; letters from Dickens; other letters, both earlier and later, and of a most particular literary interest. And maybe in the room where Mr. Curtis wrote and where his desk stands undisturbed, a chair will be pointed out to him and he will be told, “That was the Easy Chair.”

Shaker Rocking Chair

It was his Easy Chair, and so the one most identified with the department in the magazine, though not the “old red-backed Easy Chair” described in the October number, 1851, and from which the department, then begun, got its name. Mr. Curtis’ chair is not at all such a chair as one thinks of when he thinks, nowadays, of easy chairs. No springs, no stuffing, no arms! It is a simple, shaker rocking-chair; a chair that stood not so much for repose as for a change of thought; for contemplation, consideration, reflection,—things we have as much need of in these times as in any days that ever were. For thirty-eight years, until his death in the autumn of 1892, Mr. Curtis filled the Easy Chair. Then for eight years it was laid off, until in 1900 came Mr. Howells and sat in it.

Mr. Howells came to an Easy Chair still affectionately remembered and to times meet for it. The Spanish War had come and gone, and left the country bulging with peace. To be sure it had left the United States in a different relation to the world from that it found it in, but it had no violent after effects. Its results were premonitory but not convulsive, and the same can be said of the seven years of Roosevelt’s administration, which Mr. Howells sat through. They were immensely interesting and had in them the beginnings of change, but not in the whole course of them did easy chairs go out of fashion or to sit in them seem unbecoming. His essays in the back of this magazine were to Mr. Curtis a change of thought from politics. For Mr. Howells they were a change from creative literature. Mr. Curtis turned from writing leaders for Harper’s Weekly to write essays about society, letters, travel, the drama, and music. The change was not so marked for Mr. Howells, for he turned from writing books to writing about books—from making pictures of human life to writing comments on human life. Mr. Howells was a very diligent worker, who never sat down to rest until he had done his task, but the contemplative attitude was very agreeable to him and characteristic of him, and until the Great War came his Easy Chair state of mind was not much disturbed. Through the first fourteen years of this century the world was a pleasant place—rich, well ordered, full of beauties, very comfortable to go about in, highly agreeable and improving to inspect. Mr. Howells went about a great deal—duly inspected Europe, approved it for the most part, and wrote about it. He saw the era that he had lived in end, and grieved undoubtedly at the sight. He hated war and wrote no more about it than he could help, but in the Great War there never was any doubt where his heart was. Though he sat in the Easy Chair all through it, he never went to sleep. He saw the United States, after two years of looking on and discussion, finally bestir itself, slowly gather its strength, and go like a giant into the world conflict and do a giant’s work. For Mr. Howells, though he saw the end of the era he lived in and the beginning of the new one, the visible world at home was not dislocated. It became immensely picturesque—filled with new sights, with new emotions—but it did not dissolve. It never came to a place where an easy chair was impossible.

P02969 001

“Put up your dukes!”

Nor has it yet come quite to that. We have had action, no end. The world has passed the crisis of a terrific sickness and these are days of convalescence, but of a convalescence hardly less anxious than the illness it succeeds. It is a convalescence full of pains and distempers, threatened constantly with relapses, needing careful watching and nursing all the time if the patient is to be saved from loss of vital powers and from age-long invalidism. Certainly in such times people who can sit down and think, have need to do it. Chairs to sleep in, the world hardly needs, for there are beds for that, but for chairs that rest the body while the mind stays active, for places a little apart from the din, where the soul can be invited, there may well be demand.

For there are more world problems nowadays than can be settled even at the polls. Indeed, the most that will be done at the polls, or in conferences or councils, will be to record something thought out elsewhere by people sitting apart, watching events and taking such council as comes of solitude and meditation. We have had a great row and delay and disagreement about the details of a mechanism designed to give a broken world a chance to get well of its fractures and bruises. The delay has held back the organization of the remnants left by the war and is generally credited with having done immense harm. But, after all, the delay is only more of the same disease that made the war. The war did not cure the disease; it ran over into the making of the peace. What made the war? Vanity and fear; love of riches and love of power. What has delayed the peacemakers? The same—vanity and fear; love of riches and love of power. Those are the things that must be cured if the world is to get well and those are matters that can always be meditated in an easy chair. The cure of them is not political nor economic, though politics and economics have their places in it. It is spiritual. It will come, if it comes, when the leadership of the world—the controlling leadership—can find the political road humanity should travel, and when humanity is ready to travel it.

But it may be debated whether political leadership will ever find that road. Humanity may find it by mass instinct. The question as to whether leaders lead the herd, or the herd crowds them where they ought to go, is not altogether easy. People of great sobriety and judgment say that no leadership can control the world at this time; that the great forces that are working in it will work out whether they are opposed or not, breaking bonds and bans, their courses shaped by driving instincts behind them.

The mass feels, and produces thinkers, and presently a man of action. To feel and then to think is a better sequence than to think first and feel afterward, but neither order is infallible. Genius can divine the thoughts that are born of feeling, and stupidity may feel indefinitely without having a saving thought.

When the mass has produced a great leader, the thing is to get something valuable out of him while he is still good. That calls for promptness, because leaders spoil so fast. They swim in terrible twisting currents of adulation, solicitation, abuse, and condemnation. They are all black to one side, all white to the other. When they would stop and think, they are driven on; when they see the course and would pursue it they are thwarted. Fool friends practice to twist them away from their best conclusions by arguments of expediency. Fool enemies assail them with slanders. It is an awesome calling to be a world leader, and men do not seem to last long at it. World leaders especially have need of easy chairs wherein to sit apart, from time to time, and rest and look on at the world in continuous performance.

Clint Eastwood knows the importance of an easy chair...

Clint Eastwood knows the importance of an easy chair…

What sort of eggs is she hatching out, our Mother Earth, so unfamiliar and disquieting in her present gestations? What will come of all these vast upheavals, this general upset? How long will the Bolshevists last, and when they go how will they go? They will not make the world communist, but they may do something to it that will be more interesting to future historians than comfortable for present earth-dwellers. Is Lenin Tolstoi’s “strange figure from the North—a new Napoleon—in whose grip most of Europe will remain until 1925”? What Bolshevism aspires to do has very slight relation to what it may actually accomplish. It is a moving, destructive force and will get somewhere, though probably not where its artificers think to send it. It is an exceedingly ominous force, and powerful just now by its partial acquirement of organization. If there must be a collective effort to fight it back from Western Europe, the issue of that effort will leave Europe different from what it found her.

There is not a country in Europe, not a country in Asia, in which the present order rests on any firm basis. We think we know, if we know anything, that England will still be England twenty years from now; that France will still be France. And Germany will be Germany, though Austria, it would seem, may be a spot on the map where there once was a nation. British will still be British; French, French; Italians, Italian; Germans, German; but what sort of British will govern England and on what plan, and with what visible results we do not know, nor who will be on top in Italy or Germany or France. And as for all the new-born nations, no one can foresee how many of them will grow up, or who will run a nursery for them.


My! but there’s a lot to do in this world just now; a lot of plans to be made and worked out, and a lot of coal to be dug and passed around; and oil and gasoline to be collected and distributed, and so on, a thousand items, including food, and no visible superabundance of willing hands to do all these things. Even here, out to one side of the worst disturbed area, willing hands to do the chores of civilized life are somewhat to seek. Even here the strange restlessness that the war has left in the minds of men is a factor in all plans. Even here we are not insured against novelties of experience nor against catching contagions from Europe.


“…we do not know…who will be on top in Italy or Germany or France…”

The day’s work is exacting and one must think of it until it is done, but in the easy chair that follows it, these other novelties may be considered. The evening paper will have news and rumors about them, and the morning paper more of the same, which may or may not be information, and little by little, day by day, the scroll will unroll on which the destinies of mankind are recorded.

Optimism nowadays is based chiefly on religion. It looks with confidence for better times, and a truer spirit in men. It sees a lot of good in the world, both spiritual and material; it sees knowledge ever increasing, and, though it recognizes the danger-signals and sees how slowly response comes to them and what grave impediments delay it, it does not think a world so laboriously improved as this of ours is really going to pot. But even optimism, though it has faith in the future, hesitates about the present. It does not know how far it is to the turn in the road that leads in the direction of harmony and happiness, nor how the going will be until we reach it.

Martin Richard


2 responses

  1. […] ABE’s post from earlier this week highlighted the institution of the “editor’s chair,” which I have taken a seat in several times before to inform you, my dear readers, of the goings on for Humor in America and  in humor studies more generally.  Often, these postings have been inspired by the truest of all journalistic motives–a missed deadline. […]

  2. […] examined the past through Harper’s Monthly previously. The focus was on explosive chaos in 1920, but America was also dealing with its first go at […]

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