Letters to Young Men



Say, shall my little bark attendant sail,
Pursue the triumph and partake the gale?


The primal duties shine aloft like stars;
The charities that soothe, and heel, and bless,
Are scatter’d at the feet of man like flowers.


I PROPOSE in this letter to talk to you concerning your relations to society. Many, and I may say most young men fail for many years to get hold of the idea that they are members of society. They seem to suppose that the social machinery of the world is self-operating. They cast their first ballot with an emotion of pride, perhaps, but are sure to pay their first tax with a groan. They see political organizations in active existence; the parish, and the church, and other important bodies that embrace in some form of society all men, are successfully operated; and yet these young men have no part nor lot in the matter. They do not think of giving a day’s time to society. They do not think of giving anything to society. They have an idea that the business of society is to look after them; that they are to be provided for, that seats are to be furnished to them in the churches gratis, that the Lyceum is to be kept up for their amusement — that all social movements whatsoever are to be organized and operated without their aid, and that they exist as legitimate objects of their criticism. This is the very stupidity of selfishness, Some of you haven’t known the fact until now, and are not very much to blame. It is one of the incidents of what Fanny Kemble once called your “age of detestability.”

One of the first things a young man should do is to see that he is acting his part in society. The earlier this is begun the better. I think that the opponents of secret societies in colleges have failed to estimate the benefit which it must be to every member to be obliged to contribute to the support of his particular organization, and to assume personal care and responsibility as a member. If these societies have a tendency to teach the lesson of which I speak, they are a blessed thing. Half the ills of society originate in the fact that its burdens are unequally borne, and that the duties of individuals to it are not discharged. Therefore I say to every young man, begin early to do for the social institutions in which you have your life. If you have intellect and accomplishments, give them to the elevation and delight of the circle in which you move. If you have none of these, show an accommodating disposition by attending the sewing circle and holding yarn for the girls. Do your part, and be a man among men. Assume your portion of social responsibility, and see that you discharge it well. If you do not do this, then you are mean, and society has the right to despise you just as much as it chooses. You are, to use a word more emphatic than agreeable, a sneak, and have not a claim upon your neighbors for a single polite word.

Young men have all noticed how easily some of their number get into society, and how others remain out of a good social circle always. They are very apt to think that society has not discharged its duties to them. Now all social duties are reciprocal. Society, as it is called, is far more apt to pay its dues to the individual than the individual to society. Have you, young man, who are at home whining over the fact that you cannot get into society, done anything to give you a claim to social recognition? Are you able to make any return for social recognition and social privileges? Do you know anything? What kind of coin do you propose to pay, in the discharge of the obligation which comes upon you with social recognition? In other words, as a return for what you wish to have society do for you, what can you do for society? This is a very important question — more important to you than to society. The question is, whether you will be a member of society by right, or by courtesy. If you have so mean a spirit as to be content to be a beneficiary of society — to receive favors and confer none — you have no business in the society to which you aspire. You are an exacting, conceited fellow.

You ask me what society would have of you. Anything that you possess which has value in society. Society is not particular on this point. Can you act in a charade? Can you dance? Can you tell a story well? Have you travelled, and have you a pleasant faculty of telling your adventures? Are you educated, and able to impart valuable ideas and general information? Have you vivacity in conversation? Can you sing? Can you play whist, and are you willing to assist those to a pleasant evening who are not able to stand through a party? Do you wear a good coat, and can you bring good dress into the ornamental department of society? Are you up to anything in the way of private theatricals? If you do not possess a decent degree of sense, can you talk decent nonsense? Are you a good beau, and are you willing to make yourself useful in waiting on the ladies on all occasions? Have you a good set of teeth, which you are willing to show whenever the wit of the company gets off a good thing? Are you a true, straight-forward, manly fellow, with whose healthful and uncorrupted nature it is good for society to come in contact? In short, do you possess anything of any social value? If you do, and are willing to impart it, society will yield itself to your touch. If you have nothing, then society, as such, owes you nothing. Christian philanthropy may put its arm round you, as a lonely young man, about to spoil for want of something, but it is very sad and humiliating for a young man to be brought to that. There are people who devote themselves to nursing young men, and doing them good. If they invite you to tea, go by all means, and try your hand. If, in the course of the evening, you can prove to them that your society is desirable, you have won a point. Don’t be patronized.

Young men are very apt to get into a morbid state of mind, which disinclines them to social intercourse. They become devoted to business with such exclusiveness, that all social intercourse is irksome. They go out to tea as if they were going to jail, and drag themselves to a party as to an execution. This disposition is thoroughly morbid, and to be overcome by going where you are invited, always, and at any sacrifice of feeling. Don’t shrink from contact with anything but bad morals. Men who affect your unhealthy minds with antipathy, will prove themselves very frequently to be your best friends and most delightful companions. Because a man seems uncongenial to you, who are equeamish and foolish, you have no right to shun him. We become charitable by knowing men. We learn to love those whom we have despised by rubbing against them. Do you not remember some instance of meeting a man or woman at a watering-place whom you have never previously known nor cared to know — an indivividual, perhaps, against whom you have entertained the strongest prejudices — but to whom you became bound by a life-long friendship through the influence of a three days’ intercourse? Yet if you had not thus met, you would have carried through life the idea that it would be impossible for you to give your fellowship to such an individual.

God has introduced into human character infinite variety, and for you to say that you do not love and will not associate with a man because he is unlike you, 1s not only foolish but wrong. You are to remember that in the precise manner and degree in which a man differs from you, do you differ from him ; and that from his standpoint you are naturally as repulsive to him as he, from your standpoint, is to you. So, leave all this talk of congeniality to silly girls and transcendental dreamers. Do your business in your own way, and concede to every man the privilege which you claim for yourself. The more you mix with men, the less you will be disposed to quarrel, and the more charitable and liberal will you become. The fact that you do not understand a man, is quite as likely to be your fault as his. There are a good many chances in favor of the conclusion that, if you fail to love an individual whose acquaintance you make, it is through your own ignorance and illiberality. So I say, meet every man honestly ; seek to know him; and you will find that in those points in which he differs from you rests his power to instruct you, enlarge you, and do you good. Keep your heart open for everybody, and be sure that you shall have your reward. You shall find a jewel under the most uncouth exterior; and associated with homeliest manners and the oddest ways and the ugliest faces, you will find rare virtues, fragrant little humanities, and inspiring heroisms.

Again: you can have no influence unless you are social. A strictly exclusive man is as devoid of influence as an ice-peak is of verdure, If you will take a peep at the Hudson river some bright morning, you will see, ploughing grandly along towards the great metropolis, a magnificent steamer, the silver wave peeling off from her cutwater, and a million jewels sparkling in her wake, passing all inferior barks in sublime indifference, and sending yacht and skiff dancing from her heel. Right behind her, you shall see a smaller steamer, the central motive power of a plateau of barges, loaded to their edges with the produce of thousands of well tilled acres, She has fastened herself to these barges by lines invisible to you. They may be homely things, but they contain the food oft he nation. Her own speed may be retarded by this association, but the work she does for commerce is ten fold greater than that accomplished by the grand craft that shuns abrasion as misfortune, and seeks to secure nothing but individual dignity and fast time. It is through social contact and absolute social value alone that you can accomplish any great social good. It is through the invisible lines which you are able to attach to the minds with which you are brought into association alone that you can tow society, with its deeply freighted interests, to the great haven of your hope. The revenge which society takes upon the man who isolates himself, is as terrible as it is inevitable. Tho pride which sits alone, and will do nothing for society, because society disgusts it, or because its possessor does not at once have accorded to him his position, will have the privilege of sitting alone in its sublime disgust till it drops into the grave. The world sweeps by the isolated man, carelessly, remorsely, contemptuously. He has no hold upon society, because he is not a part of it. The boat that refuses to pause in its passage, and throw a line to smaller craft, will bring no tow into port. So let me tell you, that if you have an honorable desire in your heart for influence, you must be a thoroughly social man. You cannot move men until you are one of them. They will not follow you until they have heard your voice, shaken your hand, and fully learned your principles and your sympathies. It makes no difference how much you know, or how much you are capable of doing. You may pile accomplishment upon acquisition mountain high ; but if you fail to be a social man, demonstrating to society that your lot is with the rest, a little child with a song in its mouth, and a kiss for all, and a pair of innocent hands to lay upon the knees, shall lead more hearts and change the direction of more lives than you.

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