Monday, May 12, 2008

The "Freeman" Essays I--O.Henry retells Cinderella.

Several years ago I wrote, and submitted, a number of essays to the Freeman magazine. They were, for the most part, essays on literary topics relating to economics. One of these, an essay on Jane Austen, was actually published, but the others were not. I finally got a note from Sheldon Richman, who was most generous. He said of the essay he was returning that it was "very good" but "not the sort of thing for the Freeman". So I will publish them here in my blog.

The first was written shortly after the Disney Co. redid "Cinderella" by Rogers and Hammerstein for a TV series they were doing. Because the production had a multiracial cast, e.g. even Cinderella's family consisted of different races, the production was much commented on.

Cinderella, O. Henry and Freedom--A Discussion of the Role of
Government in Achieving Happy Endings

Since the Walt Disney Co. recently produced a multi-racial version of Cinderella, there has been much discussion about what really makes for a happy ending, particularly in a girl's life. One commentator claimed that in spite of it all, "the prince is in charge of the happy ending." Such comments, it seems to me, show a complete missing of the point. Even worse, some feminists seem to imply that access to government grants and government jobs, indeed, any high paying, high profile job, will mean a "happy ending" and without the burden of a prince or a marriage.

Of course, it is true that Cinderella takes place in the middle ages. At that time, about the only way to get much money was to inherit it or steal it, or both. Indeed, those who inherited it had worked out an elaborate rationale that allowed them to use the government to steal it for them. This was the process referred to by Bastiat as 'plunder by government". In those days, to work, to earn, to save, to serve, were definitely not the ways to get ahead, not financially, at least. People who tried that route were very carefully and closely regulated. Politicians--and in those days politicians all inherited their positions--wanted to make sure that people born on the wrong side of the track stayed there. Of course, there were people who managed to change their inherited positions in life, as anyone who has visited a couple of Shakespeare festivals knows, but they did it with a knife or a bottle of poison.

So if you happened to be a meek, mild mannered young damsel who would not hurt a fly--or a mouse--it would certainly take someone's help to get you ahead--in a financial way, at least. So a prince who could enlist the assistance of many men not above using a little violence or the threat thereof would certainly be of assistance. And so too would a fairy god-mother, since she had the ability to turn rather ordinary, plentiful things, like rags, pumpkins, and mice, into valued, rarer things like beautiful dresses, carriages, and draft horses. Of course, people who work,earn, save and serve, do the same sort of thing, but fairy god-mothers have the advantage of being able to do it in such a manner that it is difficult for government bureaucrats to regulate very closely.

Of course, those who think--and apparently most of the commentators I read do so think--that princes and fairy god-mothers are necessary to true happiness, have missed the whole point of the story.

It is also true that for such people the original story is much maligned, as is much of our folk and traditional literature. For one thing, it is hard in this day of modern technology, to believe in fairy god-mothers. For that reason, my own favorite "Cinderella" story is a short story by O. Henry entitled "The Trimmed Lamp". O. Henry showed in this wonderful story that where people are truly free, there is absolutely no need for a fairy god-mother, or more accurately, I suppose, that freedom is a sort-of fairy god-mother.

The story is about two roommates who have come to New York City to earn a living and in other ways "make their way in life.". Times have gotten tough back home. And of course, therein lies the first lesson. In a truly free society, when things get tough at home you don't hang around waiting for your step-mother to force you to sit in the corner by the cinders or until your step-sisters rip up all your nice clothes, you simply take off. In a free society, the one thing that is always available is opportunity. Of course, the society of O. Henry's day, wasn't really free. In fact, one very careful observer, William Graham Sumner, said that it wasn't all that much better than medieval society in terms of the amount of government regulation. But apparently, it was enough better that people could, like the two girls in the story, leave home, and survive.

One girl, the heroine, named Nancy, has decided that she will only marry a millionaire--O. Henry's equivalent of a Prince. The other girl, Lou, will be happy with any half-decent prospect that comes along. For her, the whole marry-a-millionaire mentality is so much pie-in-the-sky idealism. She views herself as the practical realist.

O. Henry was known for his surprise endings, so the outcome of this situation will come as no surprise--especially, since Hollywood has done about a dozen movies with this theme and the same ending. Of course, you guessed it. Nancy marries the ordinary Joe (in this case, "Dan"), and Lou snags the millionaire. There is, however, at the end of the story, a little bit of a double twist that gives the story much of its meaning. Unlike the Hollywood versions I have seen, where the outcome is a matter of luck or deception, or both, O. Henry, in his story, makes it clear that Nancy probably could have snagged a millionaire. In fact, she does, on a couple of occasions, reject opportunities from men who turn out to be just under the requisite million, which, by today's standard would put them well into the millionaire category.

What gives this story a great deal of its charm, is the fact that O. Henry has foreseen modern skeptics. To counter their cynicism he has made his story into a miniature how-to-do-it manual. He has given us a step-by-step and dollar-for-dollar account of how Nancy did it. Of course, he does not include the exact pattern of the millionaire's wife--Mrs. Van Alstyne Fisher's--jacket or dress,which Nancy very carefully imitates with cheaper material, nor does he lay out in great detail the exact menu Nancy maintains-- that would have dated the story too much. But he does give us the exact prices and the income required to achieve the results. Of course, a person would have to make some allowance for inflation, Social Security deductions, sales and income taxes, and deductions for benefits, but other than that, it is all there. The exact steps necessary to marry a millionaire. In this marvelous manual, O. Henry has removed all of the guess-work out of becoming a "Cinderella".

And then we get the one-two punch at the end. The first punch tells us that it just isn't worth it. That was the message in the Hollywood movies. That's what all the commentators were saying that I read in commenting on Disney's new version. After all, it is the government that can do it for us if they really want to. Where did the Prince get his money but from the government? How Charming would he be without that money, anyway? And then O. Henry delivers that second punch. It is that punch that tells us that maybe, just maybe, it would be worth it after all. It is in the delivery of the second punch that the government is helpless. O. Henry knows exactly what he is doing, when at the end of the story, he has a policeman come to assist. After all, the policeman is the embodiment of the government. But he is a policeman, not a politician. He recognizes that there are inherent limitations to what the government can do. And he walks away knowing that in this case, he can not help. The government cannot really help a girl who has not "trimmed her lamp." It can, of course, furnish a prince, or transfer enough resources to a person to make them relatively wealthy, but it can never give the clear triumph of real happiness.

This fact is, in a way, acknowledged in the much-maligned Disney cartoon version of Cinderella. There is much of the O. Henry ethic in that film. It is an ethic, I believe that springs from the profound conviction that men and women are the makers of their own destinies. In a free society, this is a truth perceived by most people. In a tightly controlled society, it is an insight requiring incredible perception, and hence, perceived by very few.

My own favorite scene in that movie occurs when the ugly step-sisters are being given music lessons. While they warble away painfully, Cinderella begins singing. Her singing is, of course, as beautiful as she herself is. But the message of that version is that the sweetness of her character, like the sweetness of her voice, has been developed because of, rather than in spite of, her challenges. Her great love of the downtrodden springs from her own struggles.

Can anyone seriously believe that she lives "happily ever after" because of the Prince? She is remarkable because she is cheerful and productive in the face of great adversity and challenge and even injustice. I cannot help but believe that she would be happy only as she continued to do the same. The message of many of the detractors is that she can now be happy because she is greatly honored and little challenged.

Of course, that is what Nancy wanted for herself when she came to New York. She felt that by marrying a millionaire--a prince, so to speak--she could join the ranks of the fabled "happy" i.e. those who are greatly honored and little challenged. It is said that O. Henry loved to watch the people of New York. He could see that for four million people living together in comparative freedom, life was full of little surprises. It is in the surprises, and in the growth that comes from adjusting to them, that real happiness lies. O. Henry tells us in a single punch at the end of his story that to be ever and always and forever as graceful of manner, as light of heart, as charming of speech, as well-gowned and well-groomed as Cinderella--or even as Mrs. Alstyne Fisher--at the ball; and to do it all on $8 a week is real happiness--a happiness you may not want to exchange--even for a crown.

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