In the city, as I now recall it (having escaped), it seemed to be the instinctive purpose of every citizen I knew not to get into politics but to keep out. We sedulously avoided caucuses and school-meetings, our time was far too precious to be squandered in jury service, we forgot to register for elections, we neglected to vote. We observed a sort of aristocratic contempt for political activity and then fretted and fumed over the low estate to which our government had fallen—and never saw the humour of it all.
At one time I experienced a sort of political awakening: a “boss” we had was more than ordinarily piratical. I think he had a scheme to steal the city hall and sell the monuments in the park (something of that sort), and I, for one, was disturbed. For a time I really wanted to bear a man’s part in helping to correct the abuses, only I did not know how and could not find out.
In the city, when one would learn anything about public matters, he turns, not to life, but to books or newspapers. What we get in the city is not life, but what someone else tells us about life. So I acquired a really formidable row of works on Political Economy and Government (I admire the word “works” in that application) where I found Society laid out for me in the most perfect order—with pennies on its eyes. How often, looking back, I see myself as in those days, read my learned books with a sort of fury of interest!—
From the reading of books I acquired a sham comfort. Dwelling upon the excellent theory of our institutions, I was content to disregard the realities of daily practice. I acquired a mock assurance under which I proceeded complacently to the polls, and cast my vote without knowing a single man on the ticket, what he stood for, or what he really intended to do. The ceremony of the ballot bears to politics much the relationship that the sacrament bears to religion: how often, observing the formality, we yet depart wholly from the spirit of the institution.
It was good to escape that place of hurrying strangers. It was good to get one’s feet down into the soil. It was good to be in a place where things are because they grow, and politics, not less than corn! Oh, my friend, say what you please, argue how you like, this crowding together of men and women in unnatural surroundings, this haste to be rich in material things, this attempt to enjoy without production, this removal from first-hand life, is irrational, and the end of it is ruin. If our cities were not recruited constantly with the fresh, clean blood of the country, with boys who still retain some of the power and the vision drawn from the soil, where would they be!
“We’re a great people,” says Charles Baxter, “but we don’t always work at it.”
“But we talk about it,” says the Scotch Preacher.
“By the way,” says Charles Baxter, “have you seen George Warren? He’s up for supervisor.”