“You write your own ticket!”
Allow me to write a bit on a passage from a book. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read it. It’s not critical reading (although I see it has just recently been reprinted). The book is Harold E. Stearns’ “The Street I Know”. He’s reminiscing about New York City before World War I and a time period he places between 1884 to 1914:
It was still the era of optimism and hope, that is hope in an orderly, democratic, peaceable progress towards a richer civilization… At bottom, too, we still believed that if a man went without anything- particularly the necessities of life- such as food and proper clothing- it was because he was perverse, simply because he didn’t want to work. There was a living wage for everybody, even the dullest; for those above that level of intelligence, there was- well, almost anything you wanted to make it. Economically, so to speak, it was the firm conviction of most Americans that you wrote your own ticket. Happy days! Happy days!
Stearns is writing in 1935, during the Depression and after years of personal poverty in Paris, so there’s no doubt some serious romanticizing going on, and yet what a fantastical image that is! It reads like something out of Utopian fiction or a corny 1940s Hollywood movie. The era he’s describing, the Gilded Age in America and contemporary with the Belle Époque in Europe, is one we tend to be more critical about today, along with our generally critical stance towards most periods before our own; we picture it as a time of great inequality, for instance, forgetting that, for average workers, real wages increased dramatically in this time, so what he’s describing likely was perceived as the norm. It was a time too of fairly rapid industrialization and Stearns is very critical of that elsewhere in the book, but let’s take him at somewhat face value.
My Grandfather used to say that America is a country where “you write your own ticket” and he was absolutely sincere. He lived a bit later: a child during the Depression, in the Navy for World War II and starting family life in the 1950s. And certainly, he did write his own ticket; even without a college education, he progressed from the Navy to government work and then started a real estate firm with his wife that did well enough that they both retired comfortably at 55.
They raised my sister and I as much as our parents did and I absorbed their ethos, which feels now like the language of a dream that has started to vanish from memory. It goes without saying that I’ve never heard someone my age say “You write your own ticket”. Usually, the career advice I get is more along the lines of “It’s all about who you know” or “you have to network, network, network” or even “it’s all just luck”. At the career center last week, the councilor suggested I should leave the PhD off my resume because “they’ll look at that and think they have to pay you more and throw it in the trash!”
None of this is exactly bad advice and certainly not anything new. But I never hear anything like, if you have moderate intelligence there is “-well, almost anything you want to make it.” Admittedly, I’m in Canada now, where aiming low is the national ethos. Do Americans still believe we can do whatever we set out to do? Should I come home?
And what to do with all of these memories? I often feel a kinship with past aesthetics and ideas that I can’t quite name. Shall I call it “conservative” if those things cannot be conserved? Is it “Romantic” to mourn what has slipped into the past? Is it culturally “nostalgic” to value some of the things that were lost while reviling others? Can we be “revivalists”? In a liberal society, must we reject all past ideas and aesthetics for the sake of social progress? Are we doing better?
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