from Sunset Magazine
Do You Still Believe in Fairies?
by Ellis Parker Butler
From the best information I have been able to gather it seems that youth is in revolt and up on its hind legs and snorting fire. Everything is going to be different from what it was. We old boys who have reached the tottering age of anywhere from thirty to one hundred years are to be pulled up by the roots and tossed on to the refuse pile, or sprinkled with weed-killer and allowed to shrivel up and blow away. It seems, if we are to believe the sad tidings, that as soon as a man loses the aroma of the cradle he becomes an old fossil and ought to be chloroformed.
Youth, the big black headlines say, has at last awakened to its high merits and has grabbed the reins from our palsied hands. Youth intends to drive the applecart on and after this day and date we ancient and infirm old wrecks will have to stand back from the edge of the sidewalk or be splashed. If we utter a peep some virile infant is liable to leap out of the cradle and hit us with a deadly nursing bottle.
According to some of the best and youngest believers in the Revolt of Youth -- and also according to some of their most eminent wet nurses -- the Big War did this mean thing to us and handed the world over to those who had but recently traded the rattle for the cigarette holder and the antiseptic panty for the safety razor. If this is so I am a pacifist from now on -- I don't want any more wars that do such things.
Durability and Pep
It seems that for several centuries the young had not been realizing that they had all the brains worth agitating. Then along came the Big War -- a mighty big one -- and jarred the young folks. I gather that when the young folks looked us over they decided we were all withered prunes and they could not contain their disgust. They immediately put on long pants and shoved a flask into each hip pocket, and the girls bobbed their hair and shortened their skirts, and everybody dug up the smut stuff that was snappy and fresh when Rabelais first used it five hundred years ago, and the revolt was on. The only word that could adequately express their derision of us old derelicts was "poof!" So they all poofed.
I admit that I do not like to have a young generation come up behind me on tiptoe and poof at me all of a sudden that way. It startles me so severely that my nose-glasses are liable to drop off and fall in the inkwell. But even more do I hate to be told it is time for me to climb on to a top shelf and paste a label on my boot sole reading: "Trend softly, please; the poor old geezer is defunct."
I do not claim that I am entitled to consideration merely for the reason that I have lasted quite a while. Durability has its merits, but I am not standing up for mere durability. In a mummy or a shoe durability is a merit, but long life alone does not always make a man worth his feed. A man is different from a shoe. A cheap shoe goes to pieces, but a well-made shoe, built of good materials, can hang on the human foot for years and be soled and half-soled again and again, and then continue its life at the bottom of a pond for many more years, giving a good imitation of a large-mouth bass. But, after all, durability is not the main thing; Shelley died when he was scantly thirty and Keats never did reach twenty-six. No, I do not claim that a man is necessarily worthwhile because he can hang on to life until his great grandchildren get the notion that he must have helped Cheops lay the cornerstone of the pyramid. Mere durability puts no man in the gold medal class.
And neither does "pep." I do not know whether I am "peppy" or not, but if I am, I do not ask any consideration on that account. A man, young or old, can be so full of "pep" that it snaps from the end of every hair in his head, and be nothing but a restless nuisance. Do not think that I wish to be admired for my resemblance to the brisk and "peppy" flea. The flea has tremendous vitality and zip, seldom wasting more than an eighth of a second on any given spot and never admitting that it is dead or even seriously indisposed, but I question whether the flea ever benefited the world as greatly as Abraham Lincoln did, who was somewhat slow and steady. I can appreciate the flea as well as any one; I know that many a man has killed a flea quite dead only to find it as full of eager life and youthful spirits and "pep" as it ever was, and I know that when we are depressed we may well leave off considering the ant and the lilies of the field for a few minutes and consider the flea instead, and benefit by doing so. But "pep," in old or young, is all well enough if we take it for what it is worth and don't overestimate its value.
My present opinion is that an old man is not worthwhile merely because he is old, and that a "peppy" man is not worthwhile merely because he is "peppy," and that it is equally true that a young man is not worthwhile merely because he is young in years. And I furthermore observe that a man is not young merely because he has recently chipped his shell and uttered his first chirp. The men who are worthwhile are those who have a sort of eternal youthfulness, and some of the men and women who have pulled the most leaves off the calendar are the youngest in spirit and eagerness and soul. Contrariwise, some of the youths and maidens who have just come in contact with safety razors and corsets, respectively, seem to me fully qualified to sit on the shelf with Methuselah, Old Parr and the Oldest Inhabitant, none of whom ever set any very wet rivers afire. The young folks I mean have put away all childish things and are ashamed of them and are proud of being sophisticated and "wise to things." You could not, for a million dollars, hire them to believe in any fairy; they chucked that foolishness when they closed the nursery door with one hand and lighted a cigarette with the other.
If I felt an urge to boost something, and happened to be very young in years, I would not boost the Society For Excluding All Over Thirty From Remaining On Earth. It seems to me a mistake. It might happen that just as I completed my fence round the earth and was painting the last letter of the warning sign "This World For Adolescents Only" I might find I was old enough to vote and I would have to begin thinking about kicking myself off the premises, for the best available statistics seem to show that the twenty-year-old boy, if he lives a year, is almost sure to be twenty-one, and there are even indications that in time he will be forty and even sixty years of age.
The Two "Ages" of Man
The organization I would rather boom is the Society for Increasing the Belief in Fairies. The world is more in need of that at this moment. The subtitle of the Society would be An Organization for the Propagation of Eternal Youth. Its object would be to increase the number of those who have utterly impossible beliefs, perfectly idiotic hopes and thoroughly insane aspirations. The world has not one-one hundredth enough such people today; it never did have. Such as it has are the only people who are worth much to it.
In bringing up this subject of youth and age I have to call attention to the fact that man has only two "ages." A brand-new baby is the oldest critter on the face of this earth. Before he was born he was still older, of course, and dated back among the protozoans of the Lower Silurian age of the Paleozoic time. He is born wrinkled and half-blind and weak in the joints and quite frequently bald. He has fewer teeth than his great grandfather and has such a weak stomach he can't get away with any solid food whatever. All he can do is lie on his back in bed and take a little nourishment and sleep. He can't even hobble round with a cane, he's so much older than his grandfather.
Almost immediately the aged infant begins to grow young. The first real sign of youth is when it becomes young enough to distinguish its mother from a hot-water bottle. Presently it is young enough to have a few milk teeth. Then it loses a few more years and is able to walk. Presently it is young enough to believe in Holy Angel Guard My Bed. In a little while it is so much younger it can believe in Santa Claus and the Great Big Bear and the Middle Sized Bear and the Little Wee Bear. Then it grows a little younger and believes in God and Tom Thumb and Jack-the-Giant Killer.
It is growing younger every day and now believes in Pirates and Dragons and Giants and Swords-of-Sharpness and Seven-League-Boots. Getting younger, I tell you! And now the young fellow is so young he believes in Great Deeds and Fine Life and Splendid Triumphs and Honor and Honesty and Living A Noble Life and all the fine impossible things -- all the fairies! The boy is young now!
He's young, the boy! He can speak the magic word and cause a golden palace to arise on the back lot where he and Swatty play One Old Cat. He walks in slashed doublet, crimson and gold, with a diamond-hilled sword hanging at his side. He kills a brace of dragons every morning before breakfast and slays a couple of dozen giants on the way to school. He lies on his stomach in the grass and the fairies play round him and tell him great secrets. He plucks a blade of grass and on a plantain leaf writes a greater play than Shakespeare ever dared to write; he closes his eyes and preaches God more eloquently than Peter the Hermit and Henry Ward Beecher rolled into one; he writes a better book than the world has ever read; he flies to the sun; he sends a thousand ships across the seven seas; he loves more truly than Dante or Abelard or Damon and Pythias. The boy knows he can be great and good and wonderful. The fairies are his friends and companions. He's young!
He's young and he has faith in the impossible. He believes that great deeds are worth doing and that he can do them. Presently he is fifteen years old, or sixteen, or seventeen, and his eyes are on the stars; he walks on the clouds; he is a king and an emperor and a demi-god. His heart is without fear and without reproach; the snub-nosed girl whose smile makes his heart beat faster is only the baker's daughter, but that does not matter -- presently he will pull down the sun and bend up its edges and give it to her as a crown. He will be the greatest novelist the world has ever known and the people will kiss the edge of her garment.
That's fine; that's youth! But a few years later ninety-nine out of every hundred of him will have grown so old they might as well be wearing white whiskers and be careful about their blood pressure. By the time they are twenty-one they might as well be forty or fifty or sixty. The splendid high belief that man can do anything a god can do is gone; the certainty that if a man wishes he can reach up and pull down a star is laid away in mothballs; the ninety and nine are through with fairies and fairy tales; they are "grown up."
Look at them! There they are -- somebody has whispered to them that it is foolish to believe in Santa Claus; somebody has whispered to them that it is foolish to believe in fairies; somebody has come right out and told them that "business is business" and that the splendid vague aspirations of youth butter no bread, and now they are "wise". If you tell them that Emerson said "There are geniuses in trade, as well as in war, or state, or letters --" you will get the answer: "Hunk! A man's got to have a stand-in or some sort of pull nowadays or he don't get anywhere." And then they will feel pleased because they can sell you twelve wormy peanuts for a nickel when you have a right to expect thirteen good ones. His opinion of himself is that he has become a wise and mature adult; my opinion is that he has become a dead fish.
"You Can Do It"
If one out of the hundred clings to his fairy and so retains his youth he may begin as a soda-fountain clerk in Podunk, but his absolutely ridiculous faith in Dick Whittington and the Ten Commandments and "do as you would be done by" -- and in himself -- will make the Emerson of his day say of him: "His immensely stretched trade, which makes the capes of the Southern Ocean his wharves, and the Atlantic Sea his familiar port, centers in his brain only; and nobody in the universe can make his place good ... I see, with the pride of art, and skill or masterly arithmetic and power of remote combinations, the consciousness of being an agent and playfellow of the original laws of the world." Fine for you, young fellow!
A merchant of that sort is no hack horse, standing in the gutter with its head hung down and its eyes shut and a row of flies perching on its spinal column. That man enjoys business; he is enthusiastic about it; when his ships cover all the seas he sees vast fleets of airships that will fill the skies.
If the young fellow is the one-in-a-hundred author he does not say to himself "I'm wise! All the great books have been written; people want to slush and the way to make money is to write slush; the wise fellows turn out what they can sell, and a lot of it." No, sir! There's that fairy of his whispering in his ear: "You can do it; you can write the great book; people do want great books; write one! Write one! Write one!" And he believes the fairy. He needs no Revolt of Youth; he is young and he keeps young and he dies young although he may be ninety when he dies. And, by golly! He may write a great book!
It does strike me that the Propaganda Bureau of the Revolt of Youth Association is booming the wrong thing when it booms mere fewness of years. The real revolt of youth -- as far as there is any revolt worthwhile -- is a revolt against the theory that every human being, when he reaches the long trouser age, must become a sugar-cured ham. The real revolution of youth is a backward turn toward a new belief in the fairies. And that is what we need. We need a lot of men and women who can believe that the impossible does exist and that the things that are too good to happen can be brought to pass. They are our real youth, and for that reason it seems to me that when the Youth-in-Revolt headquarters sends forth word that if a man is more than one flop from the cradle he is too old to be of any real value, the propagandists are trying to sell innocent infants a gold brick.
My observations all lead me to believe that the men and women who keep the world revolving are those who do believe in fairies, and who harbor one or more pet fairies of their own. They would rather part with a left leg than with the fairy in whom they have put their faith. These are the "ever young" people -- like Edison and John Burroughs and Oliver Wendell Holmes and St. Francis and Bernhardt and thousands more -- and they are the "youth" the world belongs to. They may be twenty or they may be eighty, they may be alive or they may be dead, but they are the greatest lot of kids you ever saw in your life. They have faith in impossible and illogical things that no mature adult ham would ever be childish enough to believe for a minute, and they live and die eagerly following their fairies.
The big reason why I believe in fairies, as you can see, is because there are none. They must be impossible and beyond our reach or they are not fairies. To be of any value to a man this fairy must be something he can never quite attain, and to be of any great value to the world a man must have the eager childishness that can believe in things your solid citizen would laugh at. And a man has to be a real man to be so thoroughly a boy.
A cow, even a common unpedigreed cow, can believe in cabbages. I never heard of a breed of dog so stupid that it was called a noodle-hound, but if there was a dog so stupid it was called a noodle-hound I am sure even it could be trained to believe in three square meals a day and a place to sleep. It might even be trained to believe that it is desirable to have enough money, more than enough money or too much money. But neither a cow nor a dog can believe in fairies; only children and the superior grades of men and women can do that.
You can understand now why thousands of us oldsters did not throw up our jobs and rush over to Weehawken where they sell one-way tickets to the Catskill glen where Rip Van Winkle snoozed peacefully for twenty years, when we heard that Youth had revolted and meant to grab the world. Up to the present I have not heard of even one man who believes in fairies throwing up his job and tottering away into the hills, there to live the forgotten existence of a hermit, subsisting on beechnuts and watercress while awaiting a painless release from his uselessness. Nearly every man I know who has been sawing wood for the fairies has kept right on sawing wood, and the net result of the Revolt of Youth, so far, is that some of us have moved our sawbucks over to one side a little to make room for the few youthful newcomers who are, as always, welcome. And who are, as always, mighty badly needed.
So it begins to look as if the Revolt of Youth Association has been doing some decidedly unreliable predicting, or else an unexpectedly large number of last living toes are doing a surprisingly large amount of swan-song wiggling. There are no reports from the Bureau of Statistics indicating that outgoing trains are jammed to suffocation with old boys hastening to perish meekly in the desert. Although the returns from the back counties are not all in hand the present tabulation shows that of 92,654 men and women who have been doing important things in the United States at least 92,654 are sticking to their jobs as usual, regardless of age.
There is a well-worn verse that goes something like this:
There was a young maid who said "Why
Can't I look in my ear with my eye?
If I gave my mind to it
I'm sure I could do it --
You never can tell till you try."
That young maid had a proper belief in fairies, and I have no doubt she remained ever young, continuously uplifted and ennobled by her aspiration for the unattainable eye-perfection that would permit her to look round the corner and see the sound waves impinge on her tympanic membrane. Even if she never was able to gaze into her inner ear the eye exercise probably gave her a pair of exceedingly flexible come-hither eyes which attracted a nice boy who married her and looked into her ear whenever it needed looking into. At any rate her ambition was noble; a sugar-cured ham would never even think of looking in its own ear.
In this age of machinery, when one million various-shaped slugs of metal can be jammed in at one end of a machine and come out at the other end as one million exactly similar steel balls or pocket-knives or coat-hooks -- and never be anything but steel balls or pocket-knives or coat-hooks -- we need more men and women who are not satisfied to be fed into one end of life in order to come out sugar-cured hams at the other end. Too many men and women already believe in machine-tooled incomes and standardized bread and butter. The bread-and-butter life gets a man nowhere except into the bread-and-butter line. Cynicism and sneers and cold common-sense are brakes and are useful at times, but the brake never rushes ahead of the cart to get the first glimpse of sunrise or leads the way to the day-after-tomorrow. The man who believes in fairies leads the procession. With his eye on perfection and his fairy always one lap ahead of him he cocks his hat on one side and goes chasing after her, and he doesn't care a cent whether the procession follows him or stops to overeat or is seven and a half miles ahead of him. But, oh boy! He does enjoy life! He may not find the route to India, but he discovers an America; he may not succeed in painting the sky a fairer blue, but he has a lot of fun with his paintbrush; he may not lead the world far toward perfection, but he tries.
So I say that what the world needs is not more young men and fewer old ones, but fewer sugar-cured hams and more men who believe in fairies.