Sunday, December 19, 2021

According to Solomon

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)
From American Christmas Stories

Illustration for the December 1914 cover of Woman’s Home Companion (“One Thousand Christmas Ideas”) by artist Molly Sale Covey (1880–1917), who immigrated to the United States from New Zealand in 1909. Image from eBay.

Nine years after she moved to New York City from Pasadena, California, Charlotte Perkins Gilman established The Forerunner, a monthly 32-page magazine that she wrote, edited, and published entirely by herself. In addition to offering poetry, short fiction, essays, and book reviews, most issues of the magazine contained installments of a short novel and a book-length nonfiction work. The inaugural number, published in November 1909, included the first chapter of her latest novel, What Diantha Did, and the opening section of a series called Our Androcentric Culture, or the Man-Made World, both of which would appear subsequently as books published by the Charlton Company, the name under which she issued both the magazine and her books during this period.

The magazine attracted only half of the 3,000 subscribers needed to make a profit, but Gilman kept The Forerunner going through 1916. The writings from those seven years, including her utopian novels Herland and With Her in Ourland, are now widely regarded by scholars and critics as among her greatest achievements. “Gilman used humor, anger, irony, sentimentalism, and whimsy to speak to a variety of concerns,” writes Ann J. Lane in her biography of the author. “The overriding commitments reflected in the magazine were to the belief in the rights of women and to the superiority of a collective social order.”

Gilman filled the next issue, for December, with several Christmas items. She wrote a short piece questioning why we “teach children the Santa Claus myth,” which had been corrupted into “a mere comic supplement character; a bulbous benevolent goblin, red-nosed and gross, doing impossible tricks with reindeers and chimneys.” Instead, she proposed we focus more on the “the turn of the year” and “the growing light, the longer days,” as well as on “the story of beauty and wonder about the birth of Jesus.”

She also devoted a couple of articles to the importance and value of gift giving, including these sentiments in the essay “An Obvious Blessing”:
The instinct of giving is the pressure of the surplus; the natural outgo of humanity, its fruit. We are not mere receptacles, we are productive engines, of immense capacity; and, having produced, we must distribute the product. To give, naturally, is to shed, to bear fruit; a healthy and pleasurable process.

What has confused us so long on this subject? Why have we been so blind to this glaring truth that we have stultified our giving instinct and made of it an abnormal process called “Charity,” or a much-restricted pleasure only used in families or at Christmas time?
Later in the magazine, in the “Comment and Review” section, more thoughts on the question of gift giving followed a suggestion to make Christmas a holiday for and about children:
Christmas will have a rejuvenation when it is recognized in this sense as the Child’s Festival. . . .

And Gifts?

Yes, gifts. There could be no more appropriate testimony to Joy and Hope and Love than these visible fruits. Gifts to the happy child to make him happier. Gifts from the happy child—and the new joy of giving. Gifts everywhere—from each to each—as showing the rich overflow of Love and Joy.

And more than that—Gifts from Each to All! There is a custom worth initiating! Not charity nor anything of that sort. Not the mere visiting of the sick and the prisoner. But a yearly practice of giving something to the Community—to show you love it!
To introduce this theme to readers, the December issue opened with a new Christmas story, “According to Solomon,” in which a husband and wife engage in a battle of wits revolving around their annual gift giving—and in which there is no mention of Santa Claus. The story has been included in the new Library of America collection, American Christmas Stories, and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: One of the presents Mr. Bankside considers giving his wife is an electric runabout, a battery-powered automobile produced in the early years of the twentieth century. A partially restored 1903 Columbia Electric Runabout in nearly pristine condition was recently available for sale; you can see it here.

In the above introduction, some details concerning Gilman and The Forerunner are adapted from the Chronology in the forthcoming Library of America collection, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Novels, Stories, & Poems, edited by Alfred Bendixen (expected publication: August 2022).

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“‘He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favor than he that flattereth with his tongue,’” said Mr. Solomon Bankside to his wife Mary. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.