My Dear Sir,
I am beginning to grasp the seriousness of your plight. Now you might not consider yourself to be in any sort of fix at all – it is only through the contrast afforded by a hundred-year leap that I recognize it. Thankfully, I am here and fully intend to see that you become informed.
I recall writing on some occasion that Americans seemed prone to ceding unwarranted power to government. The prevailing form of government at the time was the monarchy, and I saw signs every day that some force seemed to be drawing us back in that direction like the moths I used to see committing suicide by diving into the gaslights in Hartford. How tragic this would have been! We had become a great nation in large part because we had insisted – in the strongest possible way – that we be free to think and act independently. Our fathers and grandfathers had considered this so fundamental to human existence that they had been quite willing to give their lives if it would ensure liberty for their descendents. Yet, as each new blowhard charged onto the public stage, I watched in amazement as an adoring throng surrounded him, quite willing of a sudden to cast aside any notion of personal liberty for promises of health, safety, or prosperity.
From their high platforms these devils would hawk cure-all medicines, religions, military aggressions, political change, investments, or elaborate social campaigns, and the chattel gathered around them (for that is what they had allowed themselves to become) would cheer or shake their fists or faint to the floor in paroxysms of ecstasy. In one way or another, the plate would then be passed and return to the sender filled with bills and hopes and dreams and never-to-be-regained freedoms.
For all your sophistication and technology, you seem blind to the plate that has been passed so many times over the last century. On each of its circuits, it has brought back to the powerful one more sliver of ceded independence, an additional mote of exchanged liberty. Through political and economic sleight of hand, these magicians have pulled a switch on you. Instead of freedom, you now have safety. Instead of independence to innovate, you now have a license to achieve unlimited mediocrity. In place of peace, you now have unprecedented leisure. In case you are uncertain, this is not a winning position.
I recently found a place to visit through which I have learned a great deal about your world. It appears to be a classroom. I believe the place to be a university, but cannot say for certain because of the unnatural means of my coming and going – I am in the room and then I am not. (It is most disconcerting, but I am now nearly completely accustomed to it.) The teacher is a most pleasant and engaging woman. To enhance her teaching, she displays kinetoscopes to the class on a large TV surface. (You see that I have also learned how to spell what I had been calling a “teevee!”) These are amazing bits of work that analyze recent historical events and include commentary from lettered experts. To my mind they are a triumph of Man’s ability to analyze himself critically. I cannot seem to quench my appetite for them & so have spent many hours there, sitting undetected in the lap of one student or another, getting myself caught up on all the damage we have managed to do in a handful of decades.
Through these presentations I have seen your leaders preach safety through government intervention, as did Roosevelt in my day. I have watched amazed as they have sold war to line their own pockets & increase their own power, and I have fumed as I endured their shameless manipulation of fear to advance political parties and philosophies. I saw one particularly disturbing treatise on partiality in the judicial system. Now this is nothing new; it was already a well-worn tool in the political toolbox in my time. But my, my! Your judges are Rembrandts in comparison with the feeble efforts of my contemporaries. Out west, we knew such judges as “dealers in retail justice,” but they now stand ashamed in my mind as rank amateurs. Your judges artfully combine law with political persuasion and personal investment to deliver decisions that serve as precedents to be used by their peers to tighten the screws just a little tighter with each case they hear. It is impressive. May the greedy of the world rejoice! For Lady Justice was blind, and now she can see!
And, as in my day, this happens because you allow it to happen. You forget that it is you – not those flea-brained scoundrels in Washington, and certainly not those self-righteous vultures who perch on the bench and peck at the gavel – who are the government! The administration of liberty – and it must be carefully administered – can never go lax where every individual sees to it that it grows not lax in his own case, or in cases which fall under his eyes. To the passive go the leavings of the powerful, never the blessings of liberty.
My Dear Sir,
How sophisticated the American has become! Why, a century ago, even liars who had been lucky enough to apprentice with congressmen just wove their lies into normal conversation and hoped for the best. Those who were particularly astute might even reach the pinnacle of liardom and become lawyers or bankers. But conscience conspired against those of us who lacked the moral will to muzzle it, and we were left to endure the shame of not having been invited to the party.
But the American of the 21st century has so evolved that this sad state of affairs has been left far behind. It is a formidable achievement. In only one hundred years, we have learned to perfect the art of lying to such a degree that we are incapable of detecting even our own!
I was standing in an atrium of some sort, watching what I now know is a “news channel” on what I have also learned is called a “teevee.” The teevee was mounted high up on one of the atrium columns, and a small knot of people stood by me, heads tilted back, eyes fixed on the machine. My heart was bursting with joy and pride as I realized I was looking at the President of the United States, and that he is a Negro. Here, I marveled, is proof that man can overcome the evils that plague him, and that the mortal wounds the country inflicted upon itself in my time might actually have healed. Then a man in the crowd spoke.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” he said, shaking his head.
“Tell me about it,” a young woman replied. “Who does he think he is?”
“He thinks he’s King Obama, that’s who,” said a third. Several others nodded.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” the first man said again. “Did you see that picture of him meeting with that Chinese leader guy? He bowed to him!” He said bowed with a long, slow slide, derision dripping from it. “I don’t know about you people, but I’m an American. I don’t bow to anybody. As far as I’m concerned, it was a disgrace and a sign of submission.”
“Well what do you expect?” Another man said, his face reddening. “He got where he is today by doing exactly what he did right there. That’s how it works, you know.”
“Yeah, I heard he’s just paying us back for slavery and all that. Just tearing apart what we built up, just for spite. Just goes to show you. Be nice and loving and do the right thing and all, and they just take advantage.”
“Well,” said the young woman. “God bless him. I pray for him every day, that God will take away his pride and help him understand he’s just way out of his depth.”
“Amen to that,” said the first man, summing up. “A community organizer is just not cut out to be a president.”
How many times in my life I have heard men curse the “damned naygurs” and despaired! But how utterly devastating it is to see the fulfillment of the promise of equality, then in the same moment hear self-righteous asses lie to themselves to avoid acknowledging that the same epithet is still alive and well in their souls.
My Dear Sir,
What a different world it is that you have made! I had always thought myself the common man — and the advocate of the common man — but as I see this present life of the common American, I realize that I had become part of an implicit aristocracy. The conveniences you enjoy — and I think take for granted — I enjoyed only by virtue of a house full of servants who fetched water, cleaned clothes, prepared meals, and hauled us to and fro.
Having lived during what I believed to be a time of invention whose advances were never to be equaled, I had firmly believed that machines could free us from such manual labors, but as I observe what has been achieved, I am stunned (nearly) speechless. I am an English pauper standing, mouth agape, at the magic wrought by a whole world of Hank Morgans. Even those with meager incomes enjoy conveniences the wealthiest monarchs of my day could not have imagined.
But today I found myself standing on the bank of a salt marsh. I could not understand what I was seeing. The tide was low, vast expanses of mud flats exposed. But instead of the dull dark gray I remember, the flats were a glistening ebony streaked & mottled with lighter, chocolate brown areas. The lower half of all the sawgrass blades was stained this same brown-black. A few feet away, the carcass of a fish bobbed against the bank. It, too, was smeared with this thick, greasy mud. The flats were littered with tiny dead sand crabs, their claws thrusting up out of the slime, the last desperate reach of the drowning. Further away, a pair of unidentifiable seabirds, their feathers blackened and heavy, staggered drunkenly, their wings smacking weakly against the mire. One fell, sliding down the bank into the edge of the water, and did not move again.
I knelt down — as well as a spirit can — to take a closer look, & finally recognized the ooze for what it was: crude oil. I do not know whether history has remembered a Mr. Henry Huttleston Rogers, but he became a dear friend of mine in my later years. Indeed, his fiscal acumen pulled this old chuckle-head from the brink of catastrophe more than once. Rogers was an oil man & was fond of regaling me with speculation regarding the potential uses of it. It was a heady time of discovery & invention, & Rogers believed man would transform the world through inventions derived from oil.
What have we done? By what mechanism could Rogers’ dreams have become this nightmare? Was insanity the price we paid for the advances you enjoy? We can perform feats of magic but cannot avoid laying waste to the planet? Just as I was beginning to believe that the human race had finally reached its full stature, I see that it is the same old sham as always — that the only reasoning animal has once again reasoned in his own favor at the cost of any other creature unlucky enough to find itself in the blast zone.
I must understand what has happened. I suppose I shall be forced to sit and stare into one of those kinetoscope devices of yours long enough to put the story together for myself. I do hope that I shall not when done feel fortunate to have lived and died when I did. If I find that my kind has poisoned the seas in pursuit of its own convenience, I shall be forced to petition the Almighty for a divorce from the species.
My Dear Sir,
I was most pleased & delighted today to find that you still have newspapers. After many hours of craning my neck over your shoulder, I had made the brash assumption that crisp, real newsprint had been eschewed in favor of those glowing panels of moving, flashing type into which you constantly stare.
It seems to me that you are, all of you, chained to your desks by the allure of these tyrants, and it need not be so. In my day, a bright spring morning would bid me, and I, the master of my morning gazette, would tuck the bundle neatly under my arm & charge out into the light. An empty bench would wave me over, & I would spend hours enjoying delicious lie upon lie while the sun warmed me. If one is determined to consume rubbish it must be done in the full light of day where its deceits are evident.
The contraption in which I found myself this morning was some sort of engine-less train. I could just make out at the far end of the crowded cabin a businessman poring over a newspaper, golden sunlight streaming in through the cabin window and across the text as the car rattled along. I tell you, the sensation of nostalgia quite nearly overpowered me. I made my way over to his seat, sat down by him, rested my head on his shoulder (one of the privileges of the insubstantial), and shared the read. It was glorious, and I am gratified to report to you that the content was in every way equal to the finest papers of my day. Swindles, slanders, calamities, atrocities – all were there in plenty and splendidly adorned in the exact measure of anonymity that I required so as to remain blissfully free of any human response that might threaten to bring ruination to my entertainment. By the time the train stopped I felt full and satisfied, marveling at the power of an art form fully perfected.
The raw intellectual apathy the typical American could bring to bear against the threat of improving the world — after even just a few doses of this heady elixir — is surely beyond measure. Sometime later on I must find a means for you to explain to me why so many people of your time choose instead to be misinformed by a clicking, whirring, infernal machine. I did note, though, in watching you carry on with yours, that there are more pictures than one might encounter in newsprint, that many of them are printed in full color, and that some are even cinemascopic. I have always considered the human imagination to be far more alluring than someone else’s provided image, but am now willing, due to the preponderance of evidence, to concede that I may have been mistaken.
My Dear Sir,
I chuckle quietly as I write this – of late all my chuckles are of the quiet sort; you will understand what I mean presently – & imagine the expression on your face as you begin to understand whose letter it is that you are reading. Perhaps I shall be fortunate enough to be standing by and watching at that moment, but I appear to have no control over such things. I am here, then there, as though I were Dickens’ Ebenezer himself, yet no spirit transports me. I am hopeful that my circumstance will change, but thus far I have been alone, a companionless spectator of the marvelous, the horrifying, and the incomprehensible.
I know none of that makes any sense to you at all, and so I shall attempt to explain.
I am deceased – I know it to be true in spite of what you hold in your hands that might incline one towards skepticism. I remember my dear Jean’s death & every second of the days after – those days battered this old heart beyond any hope of recovery – & I remember the indescribably deep longing for an end until The Almighty finally gave in & granted me my wish. (No doubt he was tired of the incessant whining.) I remember Clara & her man Gabrilowitsch standing with Paine by the bed as I fell into sleep that last time. And I distinctly remember feeling the sleep move to a deeper place, my heart sighing as it began to relax for the first time in three quarters of a century. Could peace be mine at last? By this time I had convinced myself that I was luckless enough to manage to miss that train at every station. I was not a perfect man – not by a long shot – but I fully intended to have words with the Creator should I be able to manage an appointment from wherever I ended up. Not even the foulest of men should be sentenced to spend 74 years on this planet, so I was looking forward to lodging a formal complaint.
Imagine my disappointment when I opened my eyes to see neither pearly gate nor glowing brimstone! I had nodded off in my bed at Stormfield, but now I found myself sitting on the porch steps of Quarry Farm in Elmira. I had scarcely recognized my surroundings when a young girl of six or seven came running up the lawn towards me, and ran right through me! Now this is an experience the emotion of which one cannot really put into words, so I will not make the attempt. Besides, any misstep in the retelling might portray me in a less than noble light, and in spite of my deceased state I do feel it is important to manage my reputation.
Once I was able to stop screaming – it could not have been more than fifteen or twenty minutes – I stood up and began to try to make some sense of things. This was the house in Elmira, but it was different. The grounds had been changed. It felt overgrown, and the trees were odd somehow. But the real oddity was the throng of people milling around the grounds, all oddly and scantily dressed, and all gawking at their surroundings as if they were in an outdoor museum.
One day I will write more about those first few post-mortem hours, but to say more now would surely take me far afield of the point of this letter. I will pull the seam closed now by just saying that I eventually figured it out – the “what” if not the “how” or “why.” I had passed on in the spring of 1910, and without so much as a “what will be your pleasure, sir…” or a “would you mind very much…” the Almighty had moved my clock forward 100 years! It was the 21st of April, 2010.
For the moment I will say simply that I have been wandering. While the thought of being an itinerant specter might seem interesting to the uninitiated, I would caution them to consider the one-sided nature of the predicament. I can hear and see everything, but smell, taste, touch – they are lost to me. It is the loneliest of all possible lonelinesses.
Well, that was my estate until recently, when I discovered that, were I to feel the longing with sufficient depth of passion, I could conjure up pen and paper and put the former to the latter. You find in your hands the result. How this could come about I cannot say, but there is much I can say, and intend to do so. Why you are the recipient will, I hope, be clear to you soon.