Brawn and Character
BRAWN AND CHARACTER
BY ARTHUR STANWOOD PIER
When Robert Louis Stevenson was asked what lack in life caused him the keenest pain, he answered, "The feeling that I'm not strong enough to resent an insult properly,—not strong enough to knock a man down."
With civilization at a point where the resort to elemental weapons is practically obsolete, it might seem that there was something antiquated and unreal, more imaginary than genuine, in this complaint of the frail-bodied Stevenson; probably in all his life, as in the lives of most gentlemen nowadays, he was never confronted with the alternative of knocking a man down or accepting a wound to his pride. If the occasion ever arose and he had to charge to the feebleness of his body his failure to sustain his dignity, the recollection might indeed tinge him with bitterness; but it is difficult to believe that the gentle and lovable Stevenson argued from an actual experience of humiliation.
Yet it is not alone the painful memories or the logical apprehensions of ill which awaken the most sensitive realization of defenselessness and fill the soul with the haunting dread of incompetence. From a clouded childhood such a distrust is usually derived, rather than from the isolated blunders or failures, however monumental, of later years. Stevenson, the petted and fragile child at home, went finally to school; and it hardly needs a biographer to tell us how the high-spirited, imaginative boy, who liked to shine, met with repression from the stalwart, obstinate young Scots. In their rough sports he was never a leader; that was mortification enough to one of his spirit; and it was not the full measure of his mortification. With his imperious outbursts, his flashing temper, his physical weakness, he afforded some of them rare sport. His school days were miserable to him, and miserable school days are likely to affect permanently a man's outlook. Perhaps not any one bullying episode of which he may have been an impotent victim, not any one instance where he stood solitary to one side, while the school acclaimed their champion, remained to give a special vengefulness to that longing of his mature years: "If I were only strong enough to knock a man down!" But the feeling of inferiority lingered in him after he had passed the period when inferiority of that particular kind ceases to be reckoned important; in this one respect his standard remained that of the immature boy.
Weaker than his fellows and high-spirited, he came to be reckless of such strength as he had; with bravado and imagination he recompensed himself for the niggardliness of nature. The weak who are poor-spirited and without bravado do not disguise that they are timorous or furtive, subservient or cringing; and weakness does very often impose poverty of spirit. In its attenuation there may be a sharpening of wits and hence a success in life—of a kind—achieved by craft or duplicity or deviousness, and guarded by a suspicious vigilance; the man of spirit scorns a success so won and so preserved. If, like Stevenson, he was born a weakling, his path is indeed laborious and must be hewn out of the very rock of adversity.
But the man of great bodily vigor, who in his boyhood was of conspicuous strength among his fellows,—how does he ever fail of leadership and eminence in whatever career he chooses? The early self-confidence that he has developed must be tremendous,—the discovery that in all the affairs of boyhood which are truly accounted of moment he is without a peer,—able to overthrow any one in wrestling, to swim longer, to run faster, to bat a ball farther than any of his comrades,—this gradual unfolding of his powers must cause such a youth to tread the earth with a conscious greatness. Why should he ever be afraid? and what is it but fear that withholds any of us from large achievement? His imagination does not implant in him doubt and distrust, his mediocre rank at school and his dullness at his books cause him no misgivings, for at his time of life excellence in these matters is esteemed parrotlike, and distinction in them is contemptuously awarded to the weak. It might be expected that the self-confidence acquired in early years through a mastery of all one's contemporaries could never quite forsake the most unlucky; that a man with such a history would rise from each overthrow stronger like Antæus for having touched the earth,—with courage undiminished and some gain in wisdom. Yet for every Antæus there is perhaps also a Goliath. Whence to these unhappy giants come their Davids?
Only part of the truth may be furnished by the most obvious reply,—that a man whose principal regard has been to maintain physical supremacy over his fellows finds himself less well equipped for the struggle as it becomes less and less manual. Accustomed to a rudimentary enforcement of his boyish personality, he often has no great readiness in adapting himself to the subtler methods employed by the aging world. The weaker and more studious among his contemporaries are able now to match craft and knowledge against his ignorance,—and he can no longer retaliate by a triumphant demonstration of his superior weight.
Such an attempt to account for the clenching of the humble clerical pen in the fist, discouraged at forty, that had been redoubtable at fifteen, for the languid dullness of the eye that once had overawed a little world, for the sluggish gait and the shabby dress of him who in days past had stepped alert with the champion's zest in life, will perhaps be rejected by the philosopher as inadequate—at least as comprehended in a larger cause. Nowadays lack of preparation does not sufficiently explain failure; the most ill-equipped business man or professional man, if he has a genial assertiveness and a willingness to represent shoddy wares and spurious talents as genuine, need not despair of attaining a meretricious success. Self-confidence is older brother to an easy conscience and a tendency to "bluff;" and these imply a facility in amassing riches. Yet almost daily I pass on the street a giant of sixteen stone who can still put the shot and throw the hammer, who in figure and bearing seems designed for one of life's larger destinies, and who would gladly embrace success, however ignoble, instead of posing for a pittance as an artist's model.
Young men and boys of great bodily strength are usually more intent on exercising their power than on accomplishing a purpose. In the habit of mind and action so engendered lies the great impediment which in after life may balk them of the fruits promised by their early victorious self-confidence. The easy display of their prowess wins them such admiring regard that achievement seems superfluous and unprofitable; they attain to eminence by methods which do not tax their effort and which are as ephemeral as play. Meanwhile, their more feebly constituted contemporaries, seeking for distinction, have to occupy themselves with less spectacular action; the office, the library, and the laboratory claim increasingly the interest of those who are ambitious; and already purpose is shaping itself in their minds,—purpose of accomplishment and not mere purpose of competition; books are germinating, steam engines and electric motors are being devised, law and medicine and architecture have begun to awaken some constructive thought. Yet building, however hopefully, for the future, they envy in their cloistered preparation the wanton vigor of the strong. They are learning to husband and concentrate their energy while their large-framed friends are living from day to day in a sort of opulent diffusion.
The tendency of the strong is not so much to work definitely towards some purpose as to keep constantly testing their strength in whatever competition offers; variety and excitement are what in their vitality they crave, and so long as they may be active they care little what monument they leave behind them. For a few brilliant exploits there is much waste and much triviality; they cast about continually to prevail over some new person or some new obstacle without regard for the intrinsic value of the struggle. Consistency and conviction are virtues on which they seldom make a stand; erratic liveliness often speeds them with warring impulses along a primrose path.
A classmate of mine at school excelled in strength nearly all his fellows. His strength indeed possessed him as it were a devil. He was as willing to exhibit it by hectoring the weak as by tussling with those who could put up a defense. It is fallacious to assert that the bully is always a coward. This boy was in many respects an egregious bully, but he was without fear. I think that in his roughness with the smaller boys he was also without malice, without any particularly cruel satisfaction in causing them humiliation and pain. It was merely, I believe, that he had an excess of animal energy which must always be expressing itself, and the added human desire for seeing some visible response to its expression.
There came into the school a "new boy,"—timorous, girlish, and pious,—one who, with a devoted mother and sisters, had probably led a too sequestered life. Young Hercules cut his finger one day and swore; and the new boy, who was close by, turned his back and crossed himself. Unfortunately Hercules detected him in this; thenceforth, whenever he saw the new boy he would emit the most unwarrantable and shocking oaths, and call others to witness the effect. Finally, this diversion became so entertaining to a number that boys who had never adopted profanity resorted to it for the sole purpose of annoying their new friend; and a favorite amusement was for half a dozen to surround him and then swear busily about the circle in order to see him turn and turn and make without concealment—as indeed he was courageous enough to do—his devotional, deprecating sign. The persecution of him did not, I am sorry to say, stop with this; and there was some abuse of strength on the part of Hercules which, if it was not very brutal, must measurably have saddened the newcomer's life.
But one night Hercules came up when another fellow—about as strong as himself—was endeavoring to put the "new kid" into a snowdrift. And then the rest of us were startled. "Stop that!" cried Hercules, and rushed to the rescue. "You let that boy alone!" He seized the jocular bully by the collar and swung him round; the intended victim wriggled free, and after a brief struggle the two strong boys fell into the snowdrift, with Hercules on top. The other was his friend, but there had been no playfulness in the assault. Neither, I suppose, had there been much chivalry. At least I cannot say that the new boy was thenceforth emancipated from the persecution of Hercules or could depend upon his championship; and I imagine it was simply the sudden raging need of exercising his strength against some one that had driven him to intervene.
Poor Hercules! He was of the kin of Goliath rather than of Antæus. He went about challenging the world in his restless energy of the moment; always he was demanding some fresh test for what was in him of the elemental man; always he was rebellious, irresponsible, and roaming. He met his death in an act of futile gallantry. His excess of physical strength and the challenging spirit with which it imbued him were surely his undoing.
Sam Parks, the labor leader and felon, is not yet forgotten. He came to America at the age of twenty, an illiterate Irishman, strong, domineering, and prone to use his fists. In the lumber camps of Canada and Minnesota he made a reputation as a "slugger." When he took up the trade of an iron worker, his methods of asserting himself continued as drastic as in the lumber camps. "He cleaned out champion after champion," says a newspaper biography of him. "He was a natural born tyrant. A man who would n't bend to his will got slugged."
In New York there were eleven different unions of iron-workers. "Parks joined as many of them as he could and then proceeded to consolidate them all. … With all the unions merged into one, Parks became a dictator. He encountered rival after rival, but thrust all aside. His favorite weapons were his fists. He surrounded himself with a gang of indolent ironworkers, the thugs of the trade. Opponents of Parks were simply slugged. Ironworkers who refused to strike at his order were waylaid and beaten. … He extorted money from employers, stopped work when and where he pleased, started it again as he liked, made men of wealth get down on their knees to him. … The idea that his power could be broken never occurred to Parks and his friends. Parks was warned, but, drunk with power, he ignored the warning. He knocked one adviser flat on his back for presuming to suggest that he go slow. He forced his way into the presence of employers, whether they wanted to see him or not, cursed them, laid down the law to them, and enforced his wishes."
And then, in the height of his power, this bully and "grafter" was haled away to prison. Brute strength and the overweening confidence that flowed from it and the lust for power need not have wrecked his career, though they might have made it unenviable. The incessant egotistical desire to prove himself always the better man, without the constraint of a moral issue or a worthy creative purpose, was that which overthrew Sam Parks, and it was a direct consequence of his strength. And there are many educated men who have the moral sense that he lacked, but who perhaps have no more definite object than he—no other aim than always to be powerful, as by reason of their strength in younger days they had been; and these men may go astray, not so deplorably as he, yet to an end of futility because of their eagerness always to match themselves against others, and their belief that competition vindicates itself and implies progress and productive achievement.
The competitive instinct is the strongest of all the instincts of a healthy boy. He wishes to test himself in relation to the other boys of his acquaintance; he must be forever pitting his strength and daring and endurance against theirs. This keenness to strive and to excel is the starting point for all useful masculine development; but it is a stage in development that must be outgrown. If it continues the ruling passion after manhood, it is to the man's detriment. For when the boy grows into the man, it is time that he should have erected in his mind his own standard and that henceforth he should measure himself in comparison with that alone, and not with the stature of other men. One need never outgrow the sense of satisfaction in getting the better of a difficulty; but the mere sighting of a difficulty on the horizon inflames none but the unsettled and drifting with the desire for conquest.
It is soaring into Utopian realms to assert that one should never have a sense of satisfaction in getting the better of another man; but it is no absurdly lofty or unpractical notion that he who finds in such achievement a sufficient end and cause for labor may strive to no purpose, even though his days are full of contest and victory. At the risk of seeming to hold a narrowly ascetic doctrine, would assail that common phrase, "the game of life." In its suggestion of emulation, lighthearted or grim according as one's game is tennis or football, it is misleading. All of us have our human adversaries who are to be thwarted; their defeat, however, is an incident, not our chief concern. Our affair is the discharge of the duties wherewith our involuntary entrance into life has burdened us, and the fulfillment of that purpose to which each of us in his imagination is kindled; and so far as we are animated only by the competitive spirit of the game we miss the point of living. Our legitimate pleasure in overcoming need be none the less because it is subordinated to the pleasure of achieving or creating. Our fiery zeal for conquest need not be extinguished simply because it is held under a more grave constraint.
The insatiate appetite for competition begets in a man a corroding egotism. In the prideful desire to display one's self at the expense of others, to win the plaudits and the prize, one grows impatient of all but the showy hours. From the repeated excursions to match one's strength gallantly in contest, one returns with reluctance to the intervals of obscurity in which most of the genuine and permanently productive work is done. The further testing and demonstration of one's powers before an audience becomes a more imperative desire; the impulse to perform patient creative labor languishes.
Those who have come victorious through the competitions of youth will naturally be those most ardent to pursue life as a game, for in the conduct of a game they are accustomed to success. And in them egotism will most dangerously thrive. It will not be morbid and introspective, like that of the invalid; it will not be so paralyzing to the energies; but it will lead to misdirected and scattered effort. It will be egotism of the sort that urges a man to compete with others in excesses, to earn a reputation for his ability to outstay his comrades in a carousal, and be fit and ready for work at the usual hour the next morning. He will become the egotist who squanders himself in unessential seeking and arrogant assertion, who seizes the office and ignores the duty, who is the bandit in business and the pillar in the church.
It would not be fair to predicate of all such egotists an athletic and victorious boyhood, any more than to doom all athletes to so degenerate a fate. At the same time the descent of the hero it easy,—especially of the premature and precocious hero. Temptation besets him insidiously, for the egotism of the youth who by reason of his physical powers lords it over his fellows is by no means an unattractive quality and subject to rebuke. It is very different from that into which it may lure him in later years. There are indeed few traits more charming than the unsophisticated egotism of the athlete; and here there need be no reservations,—the professional athlete of mature years may be included as well as the callow amateur boy.
By comparison, the egotism of the artist or the poet, which is commonly accepted as the most monstrous, is but a shrinking modesty. The poet or the artist is quite objective in valuing himself; it is indeed him.self only as a creator that compels his admiration and reverence. But the subjection of the athlete to his own person is absolute; he admires and reverences himself as a creature! The care with which he considers his diet, the attentiveness with which he grooms his body, the absorbed interest that he gives to all details of breathing and sleeping and exercising are, in comparison with his thoughtlessness about all that lies beyond, touching and ludicrous; the very simplicity of him in his engrossed self-study wins the smiling observer. And if he is a good-hearted boy or man, as one so healthy and so single-minded usually is, and is responsive to the admiration of others as well as of himself, he confers much happiness. No doubt innumerably more persons would choose to grasp the hand of John L. Sullivan than that of George Meredith; and the day of this opportunity would be to them a memorable one and innocently bright with bliss.
As an illustration of the pleasing and ample egotism of the athlete, I would quote from a newspaper account of a friendly visit once paid by a famous pugilist to the most famous of all pugilists in our generation. Robert Fitzsimmons had been informed that John L. Sullivan was ill; whereupon he donned "a neat fitting frock coat and a glittering tall hat," and drove in a carriage to see him. He found him in bed; "the once mighty gladiator had lost all of his old-time vim and vigor.
"The two great athletes were visibly affected. Sullivan raised himself on his elbow and looked steadily at Fitz for some few seconds. 'How are you, John?' said Fitz when the big fellow showed signs of relaxing his vice-like grip."
John was depressed. "'It's Baden Springs, Hot Springs, or some other sulphur bath for me. I never did believe much in medicine. This world is all a "con" any way. Why, they talk about religion and heaven and hell. What do they know about heaven and hell? I think when a guy croaks he just dies and that's all there is to him. They bury some of them, but they won't plant me. When I go,' the big fellow faltered, 'they'll burn me. Nothin' left but your ashes, and each of your friends can have some of you to remember you by. Let them burn you up when you're all in. It's the proper thing.'"
Fitzsimmons dissented from this view, and in his warm-hearted, optimistic way set about cheering up his dejected friend. He recalled their exploits and triumphs in the prize ring; and Sullivan was soon in a happier frame of mind. Oddly enough, in this friendly call upon a sick man, Fitzsimmons was accompanied by a newspaper reporter and a photographer,—one of those chance occurrences which enrich the world. "Sullivan noticed the camera which the photographer carried and asked what it was for." Unsuspicious and unworldly old man! "He was told that the newspaper hoped to get a photograph of him and Fitz as they met, but that as he was abed of course such a thing was impossible.
"'Impossible! No, I guess not, my boy. If there's any people I like to oblige, it's the newspaper fellows. They will do more good for a man than all the preachers in creation.'"
Fitzsimmons acquiesced. "And then the great John L. lifted himself to a sitting position and put his legs outside the bed.
"That was the most pathetic incident of the visit. With fatherly care Bob Fitzsimmons placed his great right arm behind Sullivan's broad back and held him comfortably while the latter arranged himself. When everything was apparently ready, Fitz glanced down and noticed that a part of Sullivan's legs were uncovered, and the picture-taking operation had to be postponed until the sympathetic Fitz had wrapped him carefully in the clothes. It was touching."
Of course it was. And if the ingenuous description fails to bring appropriate tears to the reader's eyes, it must at least reveal to him the simple charm of an egotism to which a reporter brings a more stimulating message than a preacher, and a venturesome photographer a more healing medicine than a physician. But transplant that egotism; let it inhabit the soul of a clergyman, and where would be its simple charm?
In Fistiana, a volume belonging to the last century, there is a chapter entitled, "Patriotic and Humane Character of The Boxing Fraternity." It is, no doubt, a tribute well deserved. "To the credit of the professors of boxing they were never 'backward in coming forward' to aid the work of charity, or to answer those appeals to public sympathy which the ravages of war, the visitations of Providence, the distresses of trade and commerce, or the afflictions of private calamity frequently excited." Among the objects of their generous assistance are mentioned "the starving Irish, the British prisoners in France, the Portuguese unfortunates, the suffering families of the heroes who had fallen and bled on the plains of Waterloo, the famishing weavers. … The generous spirit which warmed the heart of a true British boxer shone forth with its sterling brilliancy; all selfishness was set aside; and no sooner was the standard of charity unfurled than every man who could wield a fist, from the oldest veteran to the youngest practitioner, rushed forward, anxious and ardent to evince the feelings of his soul and to lend his hand in the work of benevolence."
The reader of such a panegyric may indulge a brief regret that they who in youth devote themselves with success to athletics ever turn their attention to other matters. Only by continuing in that simple and healthful occupation may they preserve untarnished the special charm which clings to heroes, the special egotism which is without offense. The President of our country is favorably known under an informal appellation; but even the most genial employment of that name diffuses no such affectionate intimacy and regard as are embraced in the variety of pet terms for a champion,—whether he is "old John," "John L.," and "Sully," or "Bob" and "Fitz." And had these champions taken into any other pursuit the characteristics which have endeared them to the world,—the same childlike and blatant egotism, the same sterile spirit of competition,—how little human kindliness and popularity would they have enjoyed!
It gratifies some of us to be pessimistic about brawn. The theory pleases us that to be conspicuously strong in youth is to be exposed to a temptation which lesser boys are spared,—a temptation to go through life competing instead of achieving. It is true that some of this competition will result in achievement; it is true that achievement never results except from competition; but it is not debatable that he will go farthest and achieve most whose eye is upon the work alone, who rejoices in the contest only as an incident of work, not as a matter memorable in itself. Only in that spirit does one come through undismayed, eager to press on, indifferent to the complacent backward look. Those men of brawn and sinew at whom we gazed spellbound in our earlier years,—perhaps it is harder for them to attain to this spirit than it was for Stevenson.