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"The Idealist" from Bookman

by Ellis Parker Butler
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  • Bookman (March, 1925)   "The Idealist"   A story. Illustrations by Margaret Freeman. p 13-21.  [BEST, RGTPL]

from Bookman
The Idealist
by Ellis Parker Butler

'The Idealist' by Ellis Parker Butler

This is not my story, it is the story of a man who had far greater persistence in clinging to an ideal than I have or ever will have. For years I have kept his story in mind because I have hoped to use this man in a novel, but I see now I shall never write a novel in which he can be used. Someone may be interested in reading it here, this story of a man who lived an entire human lifespan for one thing, and died for it. The man's name was Adolph Pietz. A few of the older citizens of Muscatine, Iowa, may remember him, but not many. Not many knew he ever lived there.

I was born in Muscatine, which is a small town on the Mississippi River. The population, when I was a boy, was about 7,000; it is now probably 14,000, and this growth -- in forty-five years -- fairly indicates the conservative quality of the place in a state where villages of the days of my youth are now large, brisk cities.

Muscatine was a lumber town, rafts of pine logs coming down the river from the northern forests to be fed to the mills. For the handling of this lumber cheap labor was demanded and much "contract labor" was brought from Germany, mainly from the Platt-Deutsch districts. This labor was paid from eighty cents to a dollar a day and had work a part of the year. The sawmills were closed in the winter.

In addition to this considerable German population we had a great many citizens of an earlier immigration, refugees from the troubles following the German "revolution" of 1842. These had come up the river from St. Louis thinking the banks of the Mississippi might grow grapes as successfully as the banks of the Rhine, and many became farmers. Others took to shop-keeping. They were good citizens, thrifty, and staunch believers in education. Other Germans of the same type came, no doubt, direct to Muscatine because their friends were there. We had German grocers, butchers, watchmakers, cobblers, gunsmiths, founders and so on, as well as German physicians, lawyers and priests and preachers. I think there were four German churches when I was a boy; I know there were three. In the schoolroom attached to one of these Adolph Pietz, with sweat on his brow, labored to teach me German. He and I made a bad job of it.

The lumber and planing mills, the backbone of the town's existence, were owned not by Germans but by "Pennsylvania Dutch", and these good people built up considerable fortunes. However, when Adolph Pietz arrived in Muscatine the mill business was about through. The pine forests of the north were depleted and the Mississippi River lumber industry on its last legs; the pearl button industry which was to keep Muscatine alive had not arrived. When Adolph Pietz came to Muscatine everything was getting slack and even common labor was in little demand. We were as close to "hard times" as an Iowa town with a good agricultural back country ever can be.

The town itself was, and is, pretty; pleasant homes are set on the two hills and the trees are fine. There was one "main street", known as Second Street, a few stores encroached on two of the avenues running back from the river, and Front Street had a hotel, a few wholesale houses, a canning factory that was doing poorly, several other concerns, and a disproportionate number of saloons -- "beer saloons", they, were called. Second Street was narrow, the buildings were of two and three stories and for the most part as untidy as in other river towns of that day. The merchants put their goods on the sidewalk for display -- groceries, dry-goods, boxes of clodhopper shoes, tinware, stone crocks. As a boy one of my pleasures was to walk along Second Street with my "frog stabber" barlow knife open in my hand and "stab" the sacks of flour in front of the grocers', pretending they were bloodthirsty savages. As I stabbed them I would say, "Die, you villain!" but only under my breath.

The men of Muscatine all worked. We had one professional gambler who sat in the sun nursing his rheumatism or drove his horse at a smart clip, and we had a few "bums", but except for these everyone worked. The millionaire mill owners went to their mills every day, the shopkeepers were behind their counters; when a bookkeeper lost his job he tried for a week or so to get another -- then he went to work in the saw mills, sorting shingles, piling lumber. Every man had his business and every man was busy attending to his own.

It was to this Muscatine that Adolph Pietz came from Germany. He had been told that money was earned easily in America and that as a teacher of German he could make a living. As it happened, the Germans in Muscatine knew German; others rather looked down on "German" Germans; the German who remained so was dubbed a "greenhorn". There was nothing the average man in Muscatine was less willing to pay money for than lessons in German for himself or his children. He would as willingly have paid money to have his children taught to dance.

Adolph Pietz was above medium height, thin to boniness, but with a marked scholastic stoop to his shoulders. His wrists extended far beyond the sleeves of the coat of the only suit I ever knew him to have, and his hands were long and slender, with beautifully pink oval nails. They were always so clean and coldly damp that they reminded me of a corpse. I chilled whenever he shook hands with me. His hair was yellow and not curly; he had a good forehead, blue-grey eyes, and his complexion was a pallid white. I cannot remember that he ever smiled, although when I first knew him he had a sort of eager cheerfulness that was almost a smile. If it had not been for his clammy hands and his unpleasant breath I think I should have liked him far more than I did; but his teeth were bad and his breath was tainted by them; and it had in addition that odor I disliked on the breaths of so many of our town Germans -- a musty odor of stale beer. I imagine it was thought nothing of; beer was as common as water (and better, I expect, than our river water) and the beery breath was no disgrace. But it was distasteful to me; it always made me want to recoil; yet since I was a diffident boy and wanted to hurt no one's feelings, I did not recoil. I suppose that is why I came to hate it so.

When Adolph Pietz came to Muscatine I was living with my aunt, who had given me my education until I was ready to enter the sixth grade at school. She was a woman of refinement and culture, unmarried, and poor. Her great admiration of Goethe's works had led her to take up the study of the German language, and she was enthusiastic about it, although she was teaching herself with the aid of only a fat English-German dictionary and a grammar. She thought it would be fine if I took German lessons; we could study and translate together then.

How she found out that Adolph Pietz had come to Muscatine and wanted scholars I have no idea. I know that my father agreed to pay my tuition and that I began to study German under Adolph Pietz, in a class of about twenty, in the schoolroom of one of the German churches. We met there twice a week and the tuition was fifty cents a lesson. This meant that Adolph Pietz was earning twenty dollars a week, three or four times as much as a "squarehead" common laborer could earn.

He had a room, which I never saw, and his best friend was an elderly German watchmaker, a gentle old fellow named Giesenhaus, I believe. This watchmaker Giesenhaus had a narrow storeroom on Second Street, and he sat at the window with a glass in his eye, tinkering with the watches that were brought for repair. He had at one time, I suppose, hoped to build a jewelry trade; but except for a few clocks so fly-specked that no one wanted to buy them, and some remnants of cheap and dusty trinkets, his window had become a mere repository for sunburned papers and dead flies. He made, I imagine, enough to buy his food and his beer and to pay his rent, and no more. He wore a frock coat -- what has since been called a Prince Albert -- the lapels of which were so coated with beer drippings that they shone like polished black rubber. On his feet he wore carpet slippers -- pantoffeln I believe they were called -- and they flopped up and down at the heels as he scuffled along the sidewalk. He always seemed something that belonged in the dusty interior of his shop; he looked out of place when he emerged into the sunshine. By the time Adolph Pietz came to Muscatine the watchmaker had become, I believe, quite miserably poor. He was growing old and thin. He had a harassed expression, but when anyone spoke to him him he smiled: a grateful and touching smile. Now and then I heard him in excited controversy; I suppose, like so many Germans who seem failures, his life was in the books he read and not in his dusty shop. Or he may have played a flute.

I do not know whether Adolph Pietz knew of old Giesenhaus before he came to America or met him after his arrival in Muscatine, but it was not long before he was spending most of his spare time in the little shop. I often saw him entering or leaving the place,

At first Adolph Pietz was a well-dressed man. As I recall it, he wore light trousers and a dark cutaway coat; I know he had a rather fine pearl-grey hat -- "Fedora" it was called then -- which he treated with meticulous care. Before he laid it on a table or on the top of the little brown organ in the schoolroom he carefully brushed the spot. Of his clothes he was almost as careful; no doubt he had bought them in Germany when he decided to come to America; they were possibly the only "good" clothes he had owned in many years. You might think of him as a starving tutor wanting to look well in a new position, but knowing such fine garments might never come his way again.

I do not know who had done the "hustling" for Adolph Pietz, getting his goodly class together -- possibly the minister of the church which gave him the free use of the schoolroom. I know that when I entered the door of the schoolroom I found twenty children, some quite small, and nearly all Germans. Adolph Pietz was tremendously excited. He was dashing here and there, getting the boys and girls seated, trying to secure quiet. He received me enthusiastically, introduced me as "Eeelis Boodler", and began his first lesson. The course was to be a thorough one; it was to begin on page 1 of the grammar and end at the bottom of the last page in the book. This would take a year, two "terms" -- he found the middle of the book and showed us how far we would go the first "term". Therefore we would do three lessons a week. One and one-half lesson each day. Today we would begin, but we would not try to do one and one-half lesson -- we would learn the German letters, A, B, C.

I think perhaps four of us paid a little attention; I know the others did not. They never did pay him the least attention. Now and then one boy, wanting to lay hands on another boy, would push Adolph Pietz out of the way. For the rest they played, shouted, laughed, ate, and made a general racket. And always Adolph Pietz was gentle and polite. He besought them to be quiet, but he did not lose his temper. It may have been a mistake; perhaps he should have taken a club or a strap to them. Released from the public schools for the afternoon, with a half hour of boisterous play just before coming to Adolph Pietz's lessons, they were in no mood to settle down to study. They were also convinced, most of them, that they knew as much German as Adolph Pietz knew. Possibly they did. Certainly they mocked his pronunciation. He told me once that he spoke, and was teaching me, the purest Berlin German. Certainly, too, the scholars began to stop coming to the school. As the weeks passed they dropped out by twos and threes. Their parents said they were not learning anything. Nor were they. Presently I was the only scholar; twice a week I went to the schoolroom, Adolph Pietz taught me and, at the end of the lesson, I put fifty cents in his hand. For a year or more and until he "got sick" this was his income. He was still teaching me German when he was bent of back and had a hacking cough, was hollow eyed, a mere skeleton with bony hands.

I have not come to his story yet, and before I do I think I should say that I never learned German from Adolph Pietz. I hated the German language as I have hated every language that has "cases" and "genders" and "regular and irregular verbs, with exceptions". I did not learn the regular verbs, so I did not learn the exceptions. I learned nothing. I was densely ignorant of German; the little I might have learned by talking with my German-American chums was now impossible; I was in a dark, dank, beery-breathed German mire, every part of which I detested.

Adolph Pietz

Our lessons were now of three parts. The greater part of our hour was taken up by Adolph Pietz in a careful computation of the number of pages of grammar we had "accomplished" and an estimate of how many weeks more it would require to complete the book. He did this every time, twice a week. Then we spent the rest of the hour discovering how much I did not know of the lesson he had assigned me. The third part of the affair was mine. It began before I entered the room -- a dark and gloomy room -- and was a prolonged dread of the moment when I had to put the half dollar in his hand and feel its cold clamminess.

In this way we continued for many, many lessons, he and I alone, until my father decided even I was not learning any German from Adolph Pietz, I decided I was not learning any Latin in the high school, and I went to work. From then until his death I do not believe Adolph Pietz had any income whatever; I believe he was taken in by the old watchmaker and fed what the watchmaker himself ate -- almost nothing. It may be that he agreed to give the old watchmaker a share in his magnificent reward when the wonderful apparatus was completed and the prize won. I do not know. And now let's see what the life of this man with an ideal was. He told it to me. In fact, toward the end of our lessons, he talked of it most of the time and did not bother much with lessons. For which I was grateful.

In one of the rivers of Germany there is an island, and on the island there was a mill. The miller was the father of Adolph Pietz; he was the father of many children. Of these Adolph Pietz was the youngest. The father was the stingiest man in the world and as cross and harsh as he was stingy.

To reach school little Adolph had to cross a bridge, walk a tremendous distance. He was given, when he left in the morning, a crust of bread. He was expected to hurry home, do his share of the chores, eat his supper, and go to bed in the loft of the mill, sleeping under a thin and ragged blanket in winter. No light, no heat. The older boys, as soon as they could, ran away from home. It was a place of unutterable misery. The child was allowed no time for play whatever, and his father grumbled that he had to send him to school.

He gave the boy no paper on which to do his sums at school, although all the other scholars had paper. Occasionally Adolph could pick up a crumpled sheet some scholar had thrown away; then he could do his sums on the back of this. For the most part he hunted old newspapers in the street and did his sums on their white margins.

From the moment Adolph began to learn to add one and one together the science of mathematics fascinated him. He sped far ahead of his class in arithmetic, and when he discovered algebra he went mad with joy. He traded everything he had for a tattered algebra book, and every minute he could steal he spent on its problems. Again and again, filching the candle ends, he would burn them in his attic, working out the problems, eager to "do" the entire book and enter the paradise of geometry and logarithms. And again and again his father discovered him burning the candle ends and beat him with a stave -- beat him until he fell senseless. The next night the boy would light his candle ends again and lose himself in his computations until he heard his father's step on the stairs; then he would hide his book on a rafter and wait for his beating. He did not tell me all this as a boast; he gave it no literary quality; he told it to explain why he was so poor.

As soon as he was old enough he ran away. It was clear he could never become a great mathematician in the mill, and he took nothing but his hat and his book and a stub of a pencil. He went to Hamburg. In Hamburg, he knew, there were schools where he could learn the higher mathematics. He found a room for a few pence a week, in a quarter harboring thousands of poor. It was the vilest and sickliest slum in Europe at that time. It was notorious. The inhabitants often picked up scraps of wet bread from the gutters, if lucky enough to find any, and ate them.

In Hamburg, which was a great seaport, there were vast warehouses to which goods came from all parts of the world and from which goods were sent to every port. Adolph Pietz found work in a sugar warehouse. Here huge casks of sugar came and went, and big barrels of molasses, sugar in bags and in barrels. Ships unloaded cargoes and cargoes were loaded on ships. But Adolph was a puny, starved young fellow; he could not handle such heavy work. So he stood at a table in the great warehouse, day after day and month after month, making tiny brown paper cornucopias, into each of which he put one pfennig's worth of sugar to sell to the poor of the slums. A pfennig is, I believe -- or was then -- one fifth of a cent of our money. Adolph Pietz, intent on being the world's greatest mathematician, was doing up sugar in one-fifth cent parcels. His pay was in proportion. Of this he saved a good part.

When he was finally forced to see that this work would never give him time or money to go on with his education, he gave it up. He took his few belongings in his hand and walked to one of the university towns. He believed he could find a position tutoring in arithmetic while he attended the university, and he was right. He spent one evening with one backward child and another with another, and so on. The pay was small, but he had learned to live small. Now and then someone gave him an old coat or a cast off pair of shoes. Of the university life he had none; he heard his lectures, worked at his geometrical problems, ate little, and had a glorious ideal. Thus he completed his university course.

It was in his last year at the university, I believe -- although it may have been just afterward -- that he heard of the Great Prize. The Royal Society, in London, England, had offered a reward of five thousand pounds to the mathematician inventing and perfecting a mechanical apparatus that would automatically divide an ellipse into any number of equal parts, taking any point within the ellipse as the center.

I should like to make this as clear as I can, explaining it as Adolph Pietz explained it to me, or as I understood it. An ellipse is a sort of oval; we may call it an oval for my purpose. We will suppose we have an ordinary round pie; it is not much trouble to cut a round pie into four quite equal pieces. It is much harder to cut it into five absolutely equal pieces. Think then how hard it would be to cut an ordinary round pie into five hundred and thirteen equal pieces, the points of all the pieces to join at a spot one and seven eighths inches from the edge of the pie, the pie being one foot in diameter. What the Royal Society wanted was a machine that would divide an ellipse in this way -- an oval pie, let us say -- taking any possible point within the ellipse as a center. Societies interested in such things do offer prizes for them; this prize was actually offered. But anyone can see that to construct such a machine was a tremendous task; it called for innumerable and complex levers, delicate joints and universal joints. It was the work of a master mathematician to figure out every possible division of an ellipse; it was the work of a master workman to make such a machine. Adolph Pietz, living on bread and water, saw his life work in this. He set to work to create the machine.

For several years he gave every moment of his spare time to the work; he completed his computations, and began the construction of the machine. He was in a constant fever of eagerness. The winning of the prize meant not only fame of the sort he desired, but it meant money -- more money than he had ever dreamed of having. Unfortunately, he found that the construction of the machine took not only all his time but more money than he could find. The tutoring did not pay well enough to permit him to buy the materials he must have. It was then he decided to come to America, where teachers were well paid. He came in order that he might find money to go on with his great work.

I remember his telling me one day that he had completed the scale that was in effect a dial. The divisions of this scale had to be so minute that even a scratch was too large. He had spent his days and nights, since he no longer had scholars, in making this scale. It was so minute in its divisions that he had inlaid drawn hairs of gold and silver side by side to make it. The tiny hair of gold was one division, the tiny thread of silver was another, the meeting place between them was another. There were thousands of these. The old watchmaker had let him pick up the scrapings of gold and silver that fell when he engraved a watch or a spoon. At that time Adolph Pietz had no money left.

I remember, too, when he came to me with the fat and long legal envelope in which he was sending the details of his completed machine to the Royal Society, London, England, and by virtue of it claiming the prize. He coughed continually as he talked to me. He wished to know whether the address should be "London, England" or "London, Great Britain". I told him "London, England" was right.

I saw him from time to time in the next few weeks. The man was plainly dying of tuberculosis, but that was no one's business. He could not understand why he did not hear from the Royal Society. He showed me the faded page from an ancient German scientific journal containing the details of the prize offer. The society was properly given, it seemed to me, and London was the correct address. We decided that the delay might be caused by the time elapsing before the Royal Society met.

And then he came to me with the envelope. It had been sent back to him stamped "Returned for correction; insufficient address".

I suggested then that there might be several Royal Societies in London, which is the case. I advised him to go to Professor Witter of the high school, who might know the correct name of the proper society. From Professor Witter, Adolph Pietz secured not only the title -- I believe it was Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, or Royal Scientific Society, or something of the sort -- but also the street and number and the name of the honorary secretary.

The letter Adolph Pietz received in due time from the honorary secretary said that there had, indeed, been such a prize offered; but that the machine for dividing the ellipse was to have been shown the society within twenty years, and the offer had expired three years earlier.

A little later I heard that Adolph Pietz was dead, and I felt rather sorry for him.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:21am USA Central
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