"One thousand dollars a day: Studies in practical economics."
By Adeline Knapp, 1860-1909.
Boston: The Arena Publishing Company, 1894.
Adeline Knapp's fundamental concern is the economics of modern society and labor. This collection of stories, however, is more imaginative than the title of the book might suggest, mixing utopian, scientific and evolutionary speculations with economic concerns to address the problems of individuals and societies. Although the title story is most often identified as a utopia, many of the other short stories explore similar ideas.
"One Thousand Dollars a Day" explores possible economics of Utopia, and their potential impact on society.
What would be the practical impact of economic reforms, and could they result in a positive transformation of society? "The Sick Man" and "The Earth Slept" are both biological analogies for societies and their functioning.
In "The Sick Man", a single individual represents the body of society. In "The Earth Slept", a parable of uplift, societies evolve along with species, ultimately aspiring to Utopian ideals.
It's interesting to see how scientific progress is related to a benevolent society. Many advances that we now take for granted were still new enough to spark wonder. "The Discontented Machine" includes a paeon to scientific endeavor:
"There is nothing more magnificent than a great machine or engine at work. The locomotive, pulling its long trains up grades and across levels, – the great ocean steamer, walking steadily across the expanse of seas, the mighty press, turning off a thousand complete newspapers a minute, – all these evidences of human power and ingenuity are enough to make one proud of the age in which he lives, and the race to which he belongs."
All is not easy in this mechanical paradise, however, for Knapp raises the question of what will happen if a sentient machine demands pay for its work.
"Really, upon my word," exclaimed Mr. Hyde, impatiently, indignation at the injustice of the charges preferred getting the better of his fear of the strange complainant. "It seems to me that you are a most unreasonable machine. Of course our fortunes depend upon you, to a great extent, though, as you know, the market is full of machines, all willing to do your work if you refuse. But do we not maintain you? What more would you have us do?"
"Getting Ahead" is the least imaginative of the stories, a bitter account of an emigrant's experience of life in the land of "plenty and freedom". Knapp leaves hanging the question of how women and children manage to survive in a society with rigid gender roles, when the breadwinner of a family is no longer available. Another sour note is the racism shown by the emigrant towards Asian workers, who are castigated as not living in San Francisco, and not helping to build up the country - a particularly ironic charge, given that the laws of the time prevented Asians from bringing their families to California, and created the conditions under which their labor, as well as others, was exploited.
Read and enjoy in 2015! Mary Mark Ockerbloom