Everybody’s Big, Dramatic Question: How Much Should People Mean to Us?

Nellie_Bly_2In this paper, originally presented as part of an Aesthetic Realism Public Seminar, artist and consultant Marcia Rackow tells about how this crucial life question affected the life of 19th century journalist Nellie Bly.


I learned from Aesthetic Realism—and my life changed because of it—that there is no limit to the feeling we should have about people, because they represent the world we were born to know and like. Aesthetic Realism shows this great fact: the more we want to know and value other people and things, the more honest feeling we will have—and the more we will like ourselves. Eli Siegel explained too that there is also a fierce opposition in us to caring much for anything besides ourselves. This is contempt, the “feeling that if we couldn’t make things less, despise them, we should be nobody in a large, intricate, and dark world” (TRO 162).

I was in a big fight all my life between wanting to care for people and having contempt. In college I thought seriously of becoming a social worker, but my secret scorn made me incapable of having the feeling I hoped for. I wrote in my

Who are we kidding—immorality, suffering, cruelty will always be. The world will not change. People haven’t and people won’t.

I had a cynical, inaccurate, and mean way of seeing people. This, I learned, was the very thing that made me feel lonely and empty, and was the cause of my nervousness around people. It was criticized and changed when I began to study Aesthetic Realism, and I’m unboundedly grateful for the life I have now—so large and rich in feeling I once thought I would never have.

A way of seeing people which held up my life was in motion as I grew up in my grandparents’ house in Queens, with my parents, my older brother, and my uncles Louie and Mac Rumanoff. I was Louie’s “favorite niece” (in fact, he had no other nieces) and he was my “favorite uncle.” I enjoyed complaining to him in my girlish way about everything—how my friend Leslie’s house was nicer than ours; that she had a dog and I only had turtles, and how my brother could go places without me, and it went on and on. I remember secretly being glad Louie didn’t marry because I liked the importance he gave me. When my grandmother thought he should do something, like take an umbrella, she would say, “You tell him. He’ll listen to you.”

I thought that Louis Rumanoff couldn’t live without me: that without me he couldn’t select the right tie and shirt when he was going somewhere special. But I didn’t respect him for making so much of me: I thought he was stupid to let me have such power. Mr. Siegel said critically to me in an Aesthetic Realism class: “By the time you were three, you felt you were smarter than every man you knew.”

In 1973, when my uncle was ill, I felt very bad and I wrote to Mr. Siegel, asking how I could be most useful to him. And in a class Mr. Siegel said to me with such good will: “I would like Louie Rumanoff to feel Marcia Rackow is kind. Did you tease him—did you present yourself with some generosity and coyness? Has this been a tendency on your part in general?” “Yes,” I answered. “Is that kind?” he asked. “No,” I said.

Mr. Siegel explained: “Love has been seen as permission for unkindness. If you have motives without feelings, you are on the high road to villainy. Ambition, making one’s way, getting importance for oneself is never extinguished…Every person has motives, but they are not accompanied enough with magnanimous feelings. Could that make you feel bad?” “Yes, it has,” I answered. He continued: “So, would you like to have greater feelings?” “Yes, I would.”

Mr. Siegel asked: “What is the problem every person has? The problem of selfishness and unselfishness. …Selfishness is a disproportionate desire to please ourselves and forget what other things deserve. If you have good will, you should give the greatest thought and not be coy a bit in thinking about the family.”

I am infinitely grateful to Mr. Siegel for encouraging me to think honestly about Louis Rumanoff, a person I had felt I owned and contemptuously summed up. When I visited Louie during his recovery, we spoke about his life in a way we never had before. I learned about the building business his father started when he came to this country from Vilna, Russia, and the house they built in Jamaica in the early 1920’s when it was still farmland, and then the devastating effects of the Depression. As I learned about his life, I had more feeling for him and for what other people endured.

Changing how I saw him enabled me to be a critic of my purposes with other men: I began to see a man not as a possible conquest, someone who should praise and adore me, but as standing for the world. Real love for a man would have been impossible in my life—and Aesthetic Realism has made it a happy, proud reali¬ty in my marriage to Ken Kimmelman, whom I love and respect for his work as a filmmaker, for his deep, sweet, critical humor, and for his passionate desire to have Aesthetic Realism known so that people get justice—economically, socially, and as individual selves.

I. The Fight in a Woman of the 19th Century
A woman who had a large debate between caring for people, and wanting not to care for them, is Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, the 19th century journalist, known as Nellie Bly—named after the Stephen Foster song. She was noted all over America as an “audacious investigator of abuses,” admired for “her compassion and social conscience” and for trying to better the lives of people through her work. She had a true anger at the poverty and injustice she saw around her, writing, for example, about the inhuman conditions in the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum and the Cook County prison. She exposed fraudulent employment agencies as well as the illegal sale of infants. When other journalists disparaged unions, she wrote important interviews with Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs. “She targeted specific situations or individuals,” writes her biographer Brooke Kroeger, “in an effort to right wrongs.”

Yet, even as she tried to oppose injustices to people—she had another desire—to be superior and aloof. Born in 1864, in Pennsylvania, to Michael Cochran, a judge and mill owner, and Mary Jane Kennedy, Elizabeth was one of their 15 children. As a child she liked reading books from her father’s library, and also writing “love and fairy stories by the score…for her own delight or the gratification of the young companions to whom she would relate them.”

She was still very young when her father died, leaving no provision for the family. Their home was sold and her mother was given a widow’s dower and meager support. She remarried, but left her second husband because of his drinking, when Elizabeth was 14.
“It would not be long,” writes Brooke Kroeger,

before [Elizabeth] would begin to see herself as the one responsible for everyone else’s well-being, the one who could right this seeming injustice and every other one she ever encountered. Despite having two active and devoted older brothers, [she] took upon herself the role of [her mother’s] champion and protector.

II. A Beautiful Responsibility
“A responsibility for other people is in every person,” Eli Siegel writes.

No matter how cynical someone may be, if he hears a person groaning a few feet away, he becomes part of the groan. The tendency to become of other things is in the full meaning of the word responsibility. Responsibility is the power of responding to what is not ourselves. This responsibility has no limits. We can cry at any moment over an accident in Malaysia.

In 1884, at the age of 20, Elizabeth got her first job on the Pittsburgh Dispatch as a result of a letter she wrote, vehemently objecting to their article against the right of women to work. In her first articles, writes Kroeger, she boldly criticizes the rich,

for their lack of concern for the female poor, hard at work in low-paying or health-imperiling jobs: “They read of what your last pug dog cost and think of what that vast sum would have done for them—paid father’s doctor bill, bought shoes for the little ones.

Her series on the plight of the “factory girls of Pittsburgh” made people aware of these girls’ feelings, by telling not just of “the drudgery of the workday” but of “these women’s lives after work.”

In 1887, she got a job on the New York World. The editor challenged her to expose the inhumane conditions in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum by feigning insanity and getting herself admitted. She was there for ten days, and what she revealed shocked people throughout the country. Her articles, titled “Behind Asylum Bars” told of the brutality of the attendants, the lack of warm clothing, the wretched food, the lack of salt, the freezing cold baths. And she told of how foreign women were committed just because they couldn’t make themselves understood. She wrote these courageous, deeply felt sentences:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?…I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 AM to 8 PM on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during those hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane.

Shortly afterwards her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House came out. “I have one consolation for my work,” she wrote, “on the strength of my story the committee of appropriations provided $1 million dollars more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.”

In 1894, in the midst of the Pullman railroad strike in Chicago, Nellie Bly went there to interview the workers, wrongly assuming they were at fault, without knowing the facts. George Pullman had fired half his work-force and cut the wages of the remaining workers without lowering their rents in his “so-called model” company town. The union went on strike and he closed the plant, refusing to negotiate. President Cleveland sent in federal troops against the strikers, overriding the protests of Governor Altgeld who was on their side, and they open-fired on the workers, killing 30 men. Nellie Bly was enraged, and said in a speech at the American Railway Union after the strike:

I visited the town, intending in my articles to denounce the rioters and bloodthirsty strikers….Before I had been half a day at Pullman, I was the most bitter striker in town.

And she wrote about George Pullman and what she saw:

When I walked to the rear of the town and saw the miserable…tenements, I felt like tearing down the sham front and showing the filth and poverty behind it….[The strikers] are not firebrands; they are not murderers and rioters….They are quiet, peaceful men who have suffered beneath the heel of the most heartless coward it has ever been my misfortune to hear of.

This is beautiful. But as much as she was against the terrible conditions she reported on, she never questioned the economic system that was the cause of these injustices. That cause, Aesthetic Realism shows, is contempt, and contempt is at the very basis of a cruel and unjust economy that allows one person to use the lives of other people for profit. And this way of seeing people begins in the self of every one of us.

As her life went on, a sense of her own importance and superiority fought with her desire to have feeling for people, and made her colder. The beautiful fury she had had about injustice to other human beings diminished. Surprisingly, she became president of the Ironclad Manufacturing Co. during her marriage to the industrialist Robert Seaman, a marriage that was quite painful from the beginning. While she established better working conditions and wages, and also provided a library, recreational facilities, and a small hospital, it was she who had the power and made the profits. This description by her General Manager shows her contemptuous, patronizing attitude to people: “She maintains that it is the duty of every employer of labor to take care of his own, who have produced his wealth.”

That her own importance became a compelling motive is in her writing what she would do if she had a million dollars:

I would become the greatest benefactor in the world. I would become to suffering humanity what no human creature has ever been. I would immortalize my name with undying fame.

This use of the misfortunes of others as a means of one’s own glory hurt Nellie Bly very much; it made for a deep emptiness in her, and for the depressions she complained of. She later wrote in one of her columns:

[Do] not let the world know you…If the world knows you, you are prey. Your heart and soul are exposed and un-protected. If you are an open book to the world, you are doomed.

Mr. Siegel said to me in an Aesthetic Realism class: “You get a value out of thinking you are secret and immune.” And he asked me a question I value tremendously and which Nellie Bly needed to hear: “How much do you want to be in relation to things and the world?” Before her death in 1922 she wrote self-critically:

You may evade and fool an acquaintance or even those near and dear, but you cannot fool your own soul. It is your master and you cannot still its voice so long as you live. And the older you get, the louder gets that voice of your soul. You cannot evade, you cannot shake it off, you cannot kill that voice which will make you say in deepest misery: “If I only had—”

I believe the voice of Nellie Bly would say now—”If I only had had more feeling for people, been kinder. This is the deep desire in every person, including the woman I tell of now:

III. This Is What She Learned
Abbey Gray, a young woman from Dover, NJ, studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations teaches reading in an after-school program and has a part-time secretarial job. She told us that because her parents had divorced when she was three, she’d come to feel she couldn’t trust anyone and should keep her distance from people. She definitely had the big, dramatic question we’re speaking about tonight: how much should other people mean to us? One person crucial in this question was her mother, Estelle Gray, with whom she was very angry.

In a consultation we asked her if she would like to write about opposites she saw in her mother. She was hesitant, but in the next week, she did the assignment, and was surprised to see that the woman she thought was only against her, had many thoughts and feelings about things she hadn’t known before: that her mother was both sure and unsure, could be gentle and also severe; and that she was herself in a fight between wanting to care for things and people and wanting to care less for them. She wrote:

My mother is watching my cats [while I’m moving] and says she can’t wait to get rid of them. Meanwhile she buys them treats and toys and a special bowl and tells everyone what funny things they do. It seems she loves having them around even though she tells me she can’t wait until I take them.

We asked Ms. Gray did she think that her mother has an attitude to the whole world from which she could learn? “Do you think she has a hard time saying she likes something without getting embarrassed?”

AG: I never thought about it. But yes.
C: Have you?
AG: Yes, I do.
C: So are both you and your mother trying to make sense of being for the world and against it, caring more for people and caring less?
AG: Yes, we are.
C: Do you think seeing this has you less angry with her?
AG: I think so!
C: Do you think you can get excited by knowing people as such? Can your mother be a beginning point for this?
AG: Yes, she can!

Abby Gray is learning what Eli Siegel described in his lecture “Aesthetic Realism and People”:

There is not a person who has ever lived who can’t tell us something about ourselves….The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form.

The study of Aesthetic Realism shows that in knowing people, in finding meaning in them, a woman can be honestly proud. This is the glorious education everyone in the world deserves!

Comments are closed.

  • Copyright ©2017 by Leila Rosen