The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man  (1904) 
by Arthur Stanwood Pier

Extracted from Atlantic Monthly, June 1904, pp. 830-836.

The Quiet Man

Arthur Stanwood Pier

At college it was always easy to create a prepossession in favor of a man by recommending him as a "nice, quiet sort of fellow." In the case of the athlete who had demonstrated his vitality and manly qualities, the reason for this prepossession was clear; the declaration of his friends was an assurance that his head had not been turned by his achievements, and that he was modest and unassertive. But it always seemed to me singular that so negative a statement should so generally have guaranteed the worth of one of whom little else was known. Even in the larger world outside of college, the same guarantee holds good; let a stranger in a city have but one friend who makes it known that he is a "nice, quiet sort of fellow," and he will not lack for a welcome.

Yet many of the primary and obvious reasons for quietness in a man are not prepossessing. It may be that he is a weakling; bullied because of his lack of strength in the Spartan age of boyhood, he has had fixed upon him the habit of timidity and self-effacement. Or he may be stupid, yet with just enough intelligence to perceive his dullness and so to be dumb. Or he may by nature be one of those passionless, unenthusiastic, indifferent creatures who find sufficient occupation in buttoning on their clothes in the morning and unbuttoning them at night, eating their three meals, and going through the daily routine work or routine idleness to which necessity or circumstance has accustomed them. The classification is incomplete; there are quiet men who are not weaklings, who are not stupid, who are enthusiastic, men of firm will and steadfast purpose. But if we pass over these for the present, it will appear that the self-control practiced by quiet persons had oftentimes better give place to self-abandon, and that many a man is respected for his restraint when he should be pitied for his diffidence. There is, for instance, the case of one whose quiet ways have resulted from a sense of physical inferiority in boyhood.

No matter what victories may be attained in the development of character, the point of view and the manner that were fixed in the early formative years are never quite discarded. The boy who has less strength than his fellows, less athletic skill, and yet admires and longs for these possessions, invites only too often demonstrations upon himself of the vigor and prowess that he covets. A boy likes above all things to show his power over another boy; and the most instant method is by putting him down and sitting on him, or by seizing his wrist and twisting it till he howls, or by gripping the back of his neck and forcing him to march whither the tyrant wills. Once the unlucky weakling is discovered and his susceptibility to teasing exposed, he becomes the plaything of his stronger mates. The amusement is the greater if he resents it with spirit, the keener if he has a sensitiveness which is hurt by the abuse, the more frequently invited if he has the fatal admiration for deeds of strength, and haunts, in spite of its terrors, the society of those who can perform them. His spirit is not crushed, but it learns discretion; his sensitiveness grows into a shy and morbid pride; he likes to look on at better men, and to know them, but he finds it wise to be inconspicuous, inasmuch as to draw attention to himself usually means to suffer from a display of the very abilities which he admires.

And out of this what results? He acquires the habit of looking on and being socially inconspicuous. He may have energies that in the end win for him eminence, but he will probably be to the end a shy and quiet man. It is not necessary that a boy should be a weakling to arrive at this development; some trifling peculiarity, a curious quality of voice, or a nervous and easily mimicked laugh, or an alien accent may suffice to create in him an undue tendency to hold his tongue. I know one man who attributes his "cursed quietness" to an ailment of the throat that he had when a boy, and that made his speech husky and often liable to break down. Another thinks he is quiet because he never could sing; nearly always, in any gathering in which he found himself, there was singing, and he, utterly without the musical sense, sat and contributed nothing. This inability in expression extended even to his speech; he could not manage his voice to tell a story effectively, and though no one has a keener appreciation of the humorous or dramatic, no one is less able than he to realize it in his talk.

Then there are the humble-minded people who fancy themselves too dull or too uninformed to be interesting, and who cut themselves off from sharing freely with others their thoughts and opinions. Often they do themselves scant justice in their modesty, and win all the more on that account the regard of the few who come near enough to know them. But they are always understood of but few, and they are bottled-up people, a nervous, self-conscious, timorous folk, of pleasant dispositions and much sentiment, who seldom cut any large figure in the world.

The others, who really are dull and without being oppressed by the knowledge preserve a befitting retirement, constitute perhaps a majority of the quiet men. To be dull is certainly not to be disliked; and yet I question if any one of this numerous, agreeable, and necessary company quite fills out the original mental picture summoned by the recommendation,—"a nice, quiet sort of fellow." For the phrase suggests a man who has reserves of thought or knowledge or moral force. Indeed, we often follow up the designation, as thus: "A nice, quiet sort of fellow, with a lot to him." On closer acquaintance, we are likely to find that his quietness proceeds from lack of strong convictions rather than from moral force, or from mere empty-headedness rather than from thoughts too deep to share. We come to think him a man with a receptive habit but little assimilative power. He listens but does not learn. It seems to be a sort of mental and moral dyspepsia from which he suffers.

Let us suppose, however, that it is neither lack of ideas nor ill digestion of ideas which renders him a quiet man, but that he is indeed a person "with a lot to him." Then, usually, he is the man of one idea. It is rare that he has versatility. He is the small inventor or the mechanician, whose mind on being diverted from the study of wheels and cogs can in no other sense be diverted; it is cold alike to Shakespeare and to baseball. He is the young poet of good impulses and a little talent, toying with his lyric and indifferent to the science of the stars, of the green and growing things about him, and to the business and endeavors of his active fellow men. He is the lawyer who makes a career out of ingenuity in splitting hairs; he is the business man who carries his ledgers home with him at night; he is any man who, by his devotion to an abstract principle or problem, or to a material fact, neglects his relations with nature and with men. If the principle is important and appeals to a missionary and reforming conscience, and if the man has power, he is not admitted to fellowship among the quiet, but according to one's point of view is hailed as a hero or denounced as a crank, a nuisance, or a fool.

Of the many small people involved in their struggle with one idea, and abandoned to their solitary interest, Emerson has supplied a phrase that may be appropriated for definition. They are Mere Thinkers, as contrasted with Man Thinking. In them the human element is deficient. They may have an absorbed interest in their one pursuit, perhaps even a kind of dry and laudable enthusiasm; in their narrow range their souls may have conflicts with the devil and issue worthily; but they are not the men of rich and generous nature, whose ideas take form in action, and who in action strike out fresh ideas. Man Thinking is man alert, versatile, living,—which is to say, finding constantly new interest in the things and beings about him, and developing himself more and more by the contact. From the ranks of Man Thinking emerge most of the strong and virile, the men of burly laughter, observing and remembering eye, and careless, wide-ranging talk; the unhoarded, chance-flung anecdote, the unconsciously graphic phrase, the crisp expression of a truth shrewdly seen drop from the lips of Man Thinking, not from those of Mere Thinker. One Mere Thinker in a million may some time evolve by mathematical and intellectual processes a machine of more than mathematical, even of human value; yet even then it is Man Thinking who will perfect it, and manufacture it, and advertise it, and sell it, and secure to the world at large—and to Man Thinking in particular—its benefits. So Man Thinking is never quiet; he is bustling, urging, cajoling, threatening, flinging his arms about, or battering with heavy, hostile fists; and in his leisure moments pouring out prodigally, for whoever may pass, his amazed or delighted or pained impressions,—just like an earnest, excited child.

And meanwhile the quiet man,—Mere Thinker. Hear Emerson: "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books as such. … Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees."

The narrowness and inertia of the quiet man are frequently moral as well as mental. He is firm on the point of certain things which he will not do, but his virtue is too likely to be of this negative quality; and while his noisy and active brother is blundering about, learning what life is, perhaps heaping up sins and offenses, yet also building himself in his heedless, casual way monuments of good, Mere Thinker, with eyes upon the ground, treads the barren path of the dull precisian. Since he is quiet, he receives credit for virtues if he does not exhibit boldly their antithetic vices. Loyalty and steadfastness and a good domestic nature are the excellent qualities most often attributed to him. Yet as to the first of these, can any one doubt the truth of Stevenson's words: "A man may have sat in a room for hours and not opened his teeth, and yet come out of that room a disloyal friend or a vile calumniator"? The quiet friend may be as faithful as the vociferous, but there should be no presumption in his favor, for his very habit of life is insidious, and tends to breed the germs of doubt if not disloyalty. The looker-on is usually the man dissatisfied with idleness and critical of the activity of others. Because it might draw upon him comparison to his disadvantage, he does not utter freely his carping criticism of the active; but he bears in mind how much better he himself would do this or that if it were not for some forbidding circumstance. And this habit of comparing himself with others, which is one of the common recreations of the quiet man, sometimes, no doubt, begets the envy which makes it easy to betray.

Even his unquestioned domesticity may not be so comprehensive a virtue. To support some one besides himself in decency and honor is not all that a man should strive to do, though it is much. He should also feel the obligation to bring gayety into the lives of those whom he loves. It is possible for some men by sheer earning power to provide their families with opportunities for travel and amusement and adventure. But the earning power of the majority is limited in these matters; and all the more is it necessary then for the man to bring variety and a cheerful activity and liveliness into his house. The fact that the routine of the day has been dull does not excuse him for being glum and silent at his evening meal. And too much of the quietness in the world is but the habit of a listless and brooding selfishness.

It would be wanton to make these exposures and not offer a remedy. Here is a suggestion for the quiet man: "Learn to make a noise."

It is not enough that he should celebrate the Fourth of July each year in the customary manner,—though he may find even that barbarous observance beneficial. Taking an active part in the romps and play of children is a resource that if open to him he should embrace. Probably he has so schooled himself to inexpressiveness that he cannot at once emerge out of the secondary place into which he is relegated at social gatherings; but three or four times a year he should, at whatever cost of courage, insist upon being heard. The advice to make a noise need not be taken literally,—though such interpretation would lead few quiet men into serious error. It may serve the purpose if the man develops a strong outdoor enthusiasm, or a keen spirit of rivalry in games, for either of these will introduce into his existence that element of life that he most needs. If he can acquire some undignified accomplishment,—if he ran learn to sing a "coon song," or to play upon the mouth organ, or to dance a clog, or to recite "Casey at the Bat,"—he will have made an advance in the art of living such as none hut a constitutionally shy and quiet person can understand. Perhaps, with the best will in the world, he can attain to none of these things; he may then find a means of grace in the occasional revels and merry-makings that are not denied even the most quiet. Failing all else, and being quite out of conceit with himself, let him go tramping in search of adventure,—in the city by-streets at night, or through the countryside. But there, again, does the quiet man become aware of his misfortune; adventure evades him; and while his assertive, unappreciative brother, on going down town in the morning, may have a romantic encounter with a runaway automobile occupied by a beautiful lady, or with a tiger strayed from a circus, he may roam the world and meet with no runaway automobile, no tiger, and, alas and alack! no beautiful lady. Even so, let him persevere; preparing himself for adventure, he may almost attain the habit of mind of the adventurous.

But never, I fear, will he fully attain it. There will always be the horrid, harassing doubt—never shared by the truly adventurous—as to whether he would, indeed, bear himself heroically. To illustrate the point, I must make a confession; I am a quiet man. Although I have often prepared myself in mind, I have not yet set out upon my quest of adventure. But no longer ago than yesterday, one of my direct, unquestioning friends plunged into it; and ever since I have been miserably torn with inquiry as to whether in his place I should have been so prompt. Riding on his bicycle along a village street, he was aware that a wagon overtook and passed him at unusual speed, but he thought nothing of this. He had dismounted, and was entering a gateway when he heard a great hubhub behind him; and looking round he saw men running, with cries of "Stop him! Stop him!" and in front of them a man speeding along on a bicycle. My friend stepped out into the street and opposed a threatening front; still the fleeing rider came on. And then, just as he was about to whiz by, my friend hurled his bicycle into the rider's path; the two machines went down with a crash, and the hero flung himself valiantly upon the groaning wretch, who lay crumpled amid the wreckage. "I've got him!" cried the hero to the breathless, gathering throng. "Got him!" they answered, with here and there a sneering accent of profanity. "We yelled at you to stop the fellow in the wagon." "Yes, the fellow I was chasing," added the unfortunate captive. And, indeed, it appeared that the driver was the miscreant, having knocked down a woman and made off; and the bicyclist had merely been one of a humane and inquisitive mob.

Now, my agitating question has been, Should I, too, thus boldly, peremptorily, and efficiently have hurled my bicycle? For the life of me I cannot tell. So many reasons why I might have done so occur to me, and then again so many considerations which might have stayed my hand. A fleeing criminal—one's public duty—and yet on such uncertain grounds—to wreck him so utterly, to damage him perhaps so irreparably! All I am sure of is that I should have opposed a threatening front.

And this, I imagine, is the chief affliction, the shame of many a quiet man,—the dread of finding in some important moment that the reflective habit has produced paralysis. Even if he breaks through the net of qualifying considerations and acts efficiently, he has the humiliated feeling that he has made a great mental to-do over a matter that some one else would have gone about without debate. Moreover, he shrinks from using his faculties in unconventional ways; again I must serve as corpus vile for purposes of illustration. A man who had been my guest overnight decided the next morning, which happened to be Sunday, that he desired a cab. From the back window of my lodgings, which are on the fourth floor of the house, he descried a livery stable, and opening the window he shouted lustily in the Sabbath stillness the name of the proprietor. Now, although we have in our rear a livery stable, our neighborhood is prim and even fastidious; the houses in our block are occupied by families with highly conventional notions of propriety. In some dismay I pulled my guest's coat tails, whispering that I would send out for a cab; withdrawing his head for a moment, he replied, "This is quicker," and then again thrusting it forth, continued to bawl. At last a stable boy answered him; he gave his order, specifying the number of the house with painful distinctness; after which he turned to me and complimented me on the convenience of my situation and the needlessness of a jingling telephone. In my scheme of life, a cab is the last of all extravagances; yet even if it were not, or if I had found myself in the direst need of one, I am sure it would never have occurred to me to employ this simple, primitive method of securing it. Quietness tends to unfit one for the use of rudimentary instruments.

It is time, after these frank confessions, to rehearse some merits of the quiet man, and particularly to dwell upon the admirable qualities of some quiet men. It is hardly necessary to summon up here the kindly and perhaps not more than three-quarters fallacious banality about the constant need of good listeners. We must persuade ourselves of some less negative excuse for our existence. I dismiss from consideration also the splendid quiet hero of romance, the Imperturbable; whenever I have discovered an air of the imperturbable in a man, I have also discovered an offensive self-complacency, and I am unable to do justice to this particular flower of the species.

Perhaps the most worthy office that the quiet man performs is that of the comforter, or at least the sympathetic confidant of grief. He who is stricken in spirit, and must utter his sorrow, turns less readily to the exuberant than to the silent friend, whose speech is apter with eyes than with lips. It matters not very much if such a man has the weaknesses that must so often be imputed; let him be but a true friend and a quiet one, and the sore in heart will take some comfort in him. If he has not the weaknesses, but is stanch and strong, a walk with him in the open air, whether in the biting winds of March or over the sunlit fields of May, or a talk with him before the winter fire, may put vigor, as well as the first sense of peace, into the soul.

As such a friend is a resource in time of sadness, so, on happier occasions, he need never be a kill-joy. No merriment was ever stifled because one of those bidden to share it could contribute nothing but appreciation. That quality the quiet man must have. It is the noisy or the active one who, even while giving life to happy gatherings, is most dangerous. Some blurted truth, some reckless jest, some too searching inquiry, or too downright, blunt debate, may strike dead the gay laughter, and transform cheerful, openhearted contentment into a suffering desire to escape. Quiet men may rarely be charged with breaches of tact, careless and inconsiderate speech, the little slights that gall the sensitive, the little failures to be diplomatic where diplomacy were honest as well as kind. Quiet men are not the busybodies; quiet men were not, I am convinced, the comforters of Job.

And the best of them are deserving of nearly the best that we can say. Not quite the best; one can hardly believe that the great Elizabethans, for instance, were quiet men. But out of our own acquaintance let us pick the few who, without an impressive show of energy and activity, perform in the most truly workmanlike way work that they seem willing to let pass unnoticed. They do not spend a groat portion of their lives in efforts to attract attention to their achievements, to their skill; they do not despise popular appreciation, but they find the courting of it unimportant and unworthy; therefore they move upon the performance of their tasks, unfretful if they are neglected, keeping to themselves the trials and perplexities that they encounter, patiently overcoming and accomplishing. They may not win so many or so varied experiences and gifts from life as the reckless and ranging adventurer; theirs is not often the genius that builds the greatest and most enduring monuments; yet nearly all that has the charm of fine and perfect workmanship, nearly all that is subtly and beautifully conceived and exquisitely wrought, in manufactures, in machinery, in painting and music and literature, bears testimony to the serene vision, the unremitting toil of the quiet man.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.