PLOT: Letter from John Graham, at the Union Stock
Yards in Chicago, to his son, Pierrepont, at the
Waldorf-Astoria, in New York. Mr. Pierrepont has
suggested the grand tour as a proper finish to his education..
June 25, 1890
Your request in the letter is as clichéd as a puppy chasing its tail; often then not, it does not know what to do with it once its caught. But I gather from it that you want to spend a couple of months in Europe before coming on here and getting your hands dirty. Of course, you are your own boss now and you ought to be able to judge better than any one else how much time you have to waste, but it seems to me, on general principles, that a young man of twenty-two, who is physically and mentally sound, and who hasn’t got a dollar and has never earned one, can’t be getting on somebody’s pay-roll too quick. And in this connection it is only fair to tell you that I have instructed the cashier to discontinue your allowance after July 15. That gives you two weeks for a vacation–enough to make a sick boy well, or a lazy one lazier.
I hear a good deal about men who won’t take vacations, and who kill themselves by overwork, but it’s usually worry or whiskey. It’s not what a man does during working-hours, but after them, that breaks down his health. A fellow and his business should be bosom friends in the office and sworn enemies out of it. A clear mind is one that is swept clean of business at six o’clock every night and isn’t opened up for it again until the next morning.
Some fellows leave the office at night and start drinking it up with the boys, and some go home to sit up with their troubles–they’re both in bad company. They’re the men who are always needing vacations, and never getting any good out of them. What every man does need once a year is a change of work–that is, if he has been curved up over a desk for fifty weeks, he ought to take to fishing for a living and try bacon and eggs, with a little spring water, for dinner. But coming from Harvard to the packing-house will give you change enough this year to keep you in good trim, even if you didn’t have a fortnight’s leeway to run loose.
You will always find it a safe rule to take a thing just as quick as it is offered–especially a job. It is never easy
to get one except when you don’t want it; but when you have to get work, and go after it with a gun, you’ll find
it as shy as an old crow that every farmer in the county has had a shot at.
When I was a young fellow and out of a place, I always made it a rule to take the first job that offered, and to use it for bait. You can catch a frog with a worm, and a big fish will take your frog. A good big fish will tempt a crocodile, and then you’ve got something worth skinning. Of course, there’s no danger of you not being able to get a job with the family business–in fact, there is no real way in which you can escape getting one; but I don’t like to see you shy off every time the old man gets close to you with the notion.
I want you to learn right at the outset not to leisure lavishly burning time before using the time wisely building the capacity to sustain a lavish leisure lifestyle. Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible. Procrastination is the thief of time.
Old Dick Stover, for whom I once clerked in Indiana, was the worst hand at procrastinating that I ever saw. Dick was a powerful hearty eater, and no one ever loved meal-time better, but he used to keep turning over in bed mornings for just another wink and putting off getting up in time, until finally his wife combined breakfast and dinner on him, and he only got two meals a day (provided he makes it to the dining table in time). He was a mighty religious man, too, but he got to putting off saying his prayers until after he was in bed, and then he would keep passing them along until his mind was clear of worldly things, and in the end he would drop off to sleep without saying them at all. What between
missing the Sunday morning service and never being seen on his knees, the first thing Dick knew he was turned out of the church. He had a pretty good business when I first went with him, but he would keep putting off firing his bad clerks until they had spent the petty cash dry; and he would keep putting off raising the salaries of his good ones until his competitor had hired them away. Finally, he got so that he wouldn’t reduce his bills, even when he had the money; and when they came due he would give notes so as to keep from paying out his cash a little longer. Running a business on those lines is, of course, equivalent to making a will in favour of the sheriff and committing suicide so that he can inherit. The last I heard of Dick he was ninety-three years old and just about to die. That was ten years ago, and I’ll bet he’s living yet. I simply mention Dick in passing as an instance of how habits rule a man’s life.
There is one excuse for every mistake a man can make, but only one. When a fellow makes the same mistake twice he’s got to throw up both hands and own up to carelessness or cussedness. Of course, I knew that you would make a fool of yourself pretty often when I sent you to college, and I haven’t been disappointed. But I expected you to narrow down the number of combinations possible by making a different sort of a fool of yourself every time. That is the important thing, unless a fellow has too lively an imagination, or has none at all. You are bound to try this European foolishness sooner or later, but if you will wait a few years, you will approach it in an entirely different spirit–and you will come back with a good deal of respect for the people who have sense enough to stay at home.
I don’t want to seem pessimistic, but I have seen hundreds of boys graduate from college and go over with the same idea, and they didn’t bring back a great deal except a few trunks of badly fitting clothes. Seeing the world is like charity–it covers a multitude of sins, and, like charity, it ought to begin at home. Culture is not a matter of a change of climate. You’ll hear more about Browning to the square foot in the Mississippi Valley than you will in England. And there’s as much Art talk on the Lake front as in the Latin Quarter. It may be a little different, but it’s there.
I went to Europe once myself. I was pretty raw when I left Chicago, and I was pretty sore when I got back. Coming and going I was simply sick. In London, for the first time in my life, I was taken for an easy thing. Every time I went into a store there was a bull movement. The clerks all knocked off their regular work and started in to mark up prices. They used to tell me that they didn’t have any goldsmiths over there. They deal in pictures (art) – old masters, they call them. I bought two–you know the ones–those hanging in the waiting-room at the stock yards; and when I got back I found out that they had been painted by a measly little fellow who went to Paris to study art, after Bill Harris had found out that he was no good as a settling clerk. I keep ’em to remind myself that there’s no fool like an old American fool when he gets this picture paresis.
The fellow who tried to fit me out with a ‘coat-of-arms’ didn’t find me so easy. I picked mine when I first went into business for myself–a charging steer–and it’s registered at Washington. It’s my trade-mark, of course,and that’s the only coat-of-arms an American merchant has any business with. It’s penetrated to every quarter of the globe in the last twenty years, and every soldier in the world has carried it–in his knapsack. I take just as much pride in it as the fellow who inherits his and can’t find any place to put it, except on his carriage door and his letter-head–and it’s a heap more profitable. It’s got so now that every entity in the trade knows that it stands for good quality, and that’s all any Englishman’s coat-of-arms can stand for. Of course, an American’s can’t stand for anything much–generally it’s the burned-in-the-skin brand of a snob.
After the way some of the descendants of the old New York Dutchmen with the hoe and the English general storekeepers have turned out, I sometimes feel a little uneasy about what my great-grandchildren may do, but we’ll just stick to the trade-mark and try to live up to it while the old man’s in the saddle. I simply mention these things in a general way. I have no fears for you after you’ve been at work for a few years, and have struck an average between the packing-house and Harvard; then if you want to venture into other industries and avenues it can’t hurt you. But for the present you will find yourself pretty busy trying to get into the winning class.
Your affectionate father, JOHN GRAHAM.