“What shall I do? We have many friends, and I am invited out perpetually. I am on a salary in a large business house in New York. I am obliged to arise in the morning at seven o’clock, but I cannot get home from those parties till one in the morning. The late supper and the excitement leave me sleepless. I must either give up society or give up business, which is my living. My wife is not willing that I should give up society, because she is very popular. My health is breaking down. What shall I do?”
It was not the idle class that wasted their nights at these parties; it was the business men dragged into the fashions and foibles of the idle, which made that strange and unique thing we call society in America.
I should have replied to that man that his wife was a fool. If she were willing to sacrifice his health, and with it her support, for the greeting and applause of these midnight functions, I pitied him. Let him lose his health, his business, and his home, and no one would want to invite him anywhere. All the diamond-backed terrapins at fifty dollars a dozen which he might be invited to enjoy after that would do him no harm. Society would drop him so suddenly that it would knock the breath out of him. The recipe for a man in this predicament, a man tired of life, and who desired to get out of it without the reputation of a suicide, was very simple. He only had to take chicken salad regularly at midnight, in large quantities, and to wash it down with bumpers of wine, reaching his pillow about 2 a.m. If the third winter of this did not bring his obituary, it would be because that man was proof against that which had slain a host larger than any other that fell on any battle-field of the ages. The Scandinavian warriors believed that in the next world they would sit in the Hall of Odin, and drink wine from the skulls of their enemies. But society, by its requirements of late hours and conviviality, demanded that a man should drink out of his own skull, having rendered it brainless first. I had great admiration for the suavities and graces of life, but it is beyond any human capacity to endure what society imposes upon many in America. Drinking other people’s health to the disadvantage of one’s own health is a poor courtesy at best. Our entertainments grew more and more extravagant, more and more demoralising. I wondered if our society was not swinging around to become akin to the worst days of Roman society. The princely banquet-rooms of the Romans had revolving ceilings representing the firmament; fictitious clouds rained perfumed essences upon the guests, who were seated on gold benches, at tables made of ivory and tortoise-shell. Each course of food, as it was brought into the banquet room, was preceded by flutes and trumpets. There was no wise man or woman to stand up from the elaborate banquet tables of American society at this time and cry “Halt!” It might have been done in Washington, or in New York, or in Brooklyn, but it was not.