Original Document
Original Document
Owen Wister, "Shows what Monopolis did for herself," from Romney, circa 1912.

The ironic gods now looked down upon the City of Moderation, and forthwith planned their jest;--or so a pagan Greek would put it, and we Christians may let it stand so. The task for the ironic gods wars, How in a city that was bathed in a moderate climate and itself dedicated to religious moderation—how to bring about Excess? Plenty of good wine and good food were a temptation, and plenty of good citizens would fall in consequence; but this was not enough, this happened anywhere, the excess must be deeper and more subtle to satisfy the ironic gods.—Yes, and to teach a humbled city at last a vision higher than moderation! So the gods in their mills ground their jest slowly, taking well-nigh two centuries to it.
            They allowed it to lurk and germinate through colonial vicissitudes, and the convulsion that wrenched a young people free from their Mother Country.  In that most burning hour of her life, Monopolis shone many degrees brighter than moderation, a lustrous storm-centre for the spirits that in the name of liberty gathered from north and south within her gates.  Then, when the storm was over and the strangers gone, the City of Moderation settled down again with nothing but her usual light by which to pursue her usual path of ease and comfort.  Two wars we had in the next fifty years; these passed without visibly affecting the serenity of the town.  Then came the death-grapple of the Union, and once more Monopolis burned with wholesome excess of faith and fervor, until that war’s successful end let down the city’s spiritual fires again to a combustion harmonious with the normal moderate temperature of her soul.  Now followed the fat years of increase, filling many new purses—an era that quietly ripened the jest of the ironic gods.
            A sharp eye could have seen it already established in the faces of the citizens of Monopolis, of whom something should here be said.
            Remember three things: they lived in a climate seldom too hot or too cold, a soil gentle and generous.  From England the first earnest band of them had brought a religion of simplicity, a protest against worldly luxury, a faith as pure as crystal.  And lastly, into the farm country behind them had come a phlegmatic foreign race, whose ideal reached the height of a clean floor and a full larder, whose stolid political vote was still cast for General Jackson after he was long dead, and whose immoveable intelligence after a century-and-a-half had not yet chose to master English, but still tenaciously spoke its foreign dialect.  In the old country, wars and tyrannies had welded this race into heroes; in the new, no adversity ever came to strike sparks from this rustic brain; it lay like a lump of metal, ponderous and valuable, awaiting the white-heat, and the hammer, and the anvil.
            In circumstances such as these—moderation everywhere—certain virtues were sure to flourish.  The town was kind, the town gave liberally to the poor and the sick, neighbors took thought for neighbors who were in trouble; there was much sending about of home medicines and home delicacies.  Furthermore, the town was of sane judgment, well balanced, not a place to meet any form of public hysteria.  If no poet with a high song was generated in this temperature, neither was any tribal enthusiasm for oriental cults or free love.  The unusual fell under a proper suspicion; the town’s mind was something like the quiet buff and gray prescribed by its traditional religion.  A great seat of learning might hardly be expected in such a zone, but good doctors and lawyers ought to grow—and they did.  The traditional religion leavened many people and customs outside of its own creed, and lay at the bottom of the perfect courtesy and consideration that marked the good manners of a people whose particular and distinctive vision was religious toleration.  Where there is no vision, the people perish; with this one Monopolis began.
            It all did better for the women, they in those times being noncombatant.  In a few generations they had surpassed the men.  The simplicity of their crystal faith and their unworldliness made them into something spiritually so gentle and serene, that America has seen nothing lovelier in the shape of womankind.  When the breath of the cock-tail and the cigarette blew them away, Monopolis was not a gainer by this change of wind.  It was the men who suffered through their creed of non-resistance, their life without battle, their religion’s ban upon Arts and Letters.  Money-making was the single outlet for their energy, this return to the ironic jest, established visibly by mid-nineteenth century upon the face of these folk beneath their broad-brimmed hats, as they are seen discreetly entering the doors of their banks, demurely passing up and down the business streets of their city.  By mid-nineteenth century something is permanently written upon their faces—too many of them.
            "We keep on the Safe Side."
            Upon too many did it come to be written.  Caution, caution, and yet more caution; it was the version of a notable Frenchman’s remark, translated by unmitigated bankers.  In their voices it was to be heard.  They waked with it, they slept with it, they walked with it, sat with it, ate and drank with it.  To look at them, shrewdness was to be plainly observed, but where was imagination?  Hardness was there, but where was daring?
            “We keep on the Safe Side.”  The habit, in the end, becomes dangerous.
            And so, by mid-nineteenth century, toleration had degenerated into acquiescence; acquiescence, fold upon fold, had wrapped up virile independence.  It spread from the men of the broad-brimmed hats to the world’s people who did business with them, undoubtedly assisted by the climate; and the sluggish rustics in the farm country had it already.  Why complain if a senator was stealing a canal?  The larder was full.  The farm-house floor was clean; dinner could be eaten on it—so they said always, finding this enough answer to everything.  In town, all was well with the bank account.  Why complain if the water gave typhoid fever?  Why quarrel with the gas, or the paving, or the drainage? Why examine too closely into somebody’s profits in a municipal contract?  You might make enemies.  These might hurt your business.  Be moderate.
            Thus grew Monopolis from a village to a large city full of big buildings, good institutions and comfortable citizens; hospitable, agreeable, well mannered and well fed; some going to Meeting and some to dances; few of them large-spirited, most of them too careful with their purses—which might open readily to pay for green-turtle soup, but got lock-jaw in the presence of any enlightened public appeal; and all keeping on the Safe Side.  And thus was the jest consummated by the ironic gods.  During a hundred years the town had called itself the historic cradle of liberty—and liberty in her historic cradle had collapsed.  Revolutionary ardors had died down; in politics and business scarce a spark of liberty was left large enough to light a cigar.  Here then was the jest; out of moderation’s very heart excess had been created—too much moderation.

Credit: Owen Wister, Romney, And Other New Works About Philadelphia (circa 1912), edited by James A. Butler (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).
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