Roger M. Altenberg

March, 1950

     Most of us are destined to be failures. In our society, where personal progress is measured in terms of income and property, very few can actually succeed in the game. Our grandfathers, and perhaps our fathers, were fooled by the immensity of America's coal mines, forests, cotton and wheat fields. The vast economic potential gave voice to the lie that each citizen could gain his corner on the market. At this moment we, too, may be seeking in our own way, to grab a piece of the enormous pie. Others have partaken: Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie-- the American Wotan, Thor, and Loke, gods of the earth, of fire, and the open hearth process.

     We heard their names before we were able to read them. Our mothers sang a magic lullaby:

Some day you will be rich
Some day you will be great
Sleep my child
Dream of success

     And how will we obtain this wealth?

     By building the “better mouse trap”, one we have devised, one we have stolen, and built quickly. It doesn't matter which is the case, so long as we sell it hard and fast, with a mighty voice.

     We scramble up a ladder upon which others are already perched. Some fall off, screaming; others drop quietly. We cannot be concerned. Our place on the ladder is all that matters. This is wealth, this is greatness, this is success!

     But we were day dreaming. Some one else scrambled up the ladder. We couldn't gain a foothold. The ladder was too narrow, too crowded, too overburdened. We could only stand at the bottom gaping up at the grasping figures, anguished by our inability to climb.

     In our society the runs of that ladder make up the scale to measure man's attainment. Few mothers sing to the infants of our country that there are other places to climb. No strong voice praises non-success, the process by which, doomed as we are, we may still find some remaining crusts of value.

     Knowing that I will not succeed, I should like to develop friendships with every race in this country. I should like to be able to visit any of our ghettoes in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, -- and meet good friends who are orientals or negroes, or speakers of foreign languages -- and share feelings, impressions, customs. To enjoy the negro's fried chicken and blues song, Chinese tea and philosophy, Mexican enchiladas and the vibrant guitar.

     I should want to grow in love of the the enormous beauty of the ocean, the barren mountains of our coast, the pleading silence of the Mojave desert. I should want to increase every day the power of my senses, so that I may hear the composer's voice in his music, see more vividly with the painter's eye, catch the engineer's feeling for power in bridges and machinery. I would try to understand more of the inarticulate frustration of the child, the distorted feelings of the unloved adult, the half-world of the invalid, the deformed, the blind.

     I should want to work harder, for work's own sake, as the Hindu scripture admonishes, “without anxiety as to the results of my work.”

     If I could reside in this social order and believe in the philosophy of non-success, I might begin to live. For, like you, I am pretty well doomed to material mediocrity. Is it yet possible that you and I may be happy failures?

© Roger M. Altenberg 2005