As We Are was waiting in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul thrift store on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin, which claims to have one of the biggest used book collections anywhere in the country.
I found it amongst the tailored book shelves that march in strict rows like those you’d expect to find in a community college library, but not in the usually disheveled disorder of second hand stores, where no librarian is available to oversee their arrangement.
The dull black hardcover looked more like a reference guide and immediately signaled it was from a bygone era when book covers were more a design of protection then adorned with pictures of somber authors and graphic images that hope to grab the attention of coffee grind browsers.
It was small and stout, the size of a zine, the perfect size for a book, easily held in your hands on a bus seat or when you slide into your couch, something that could be stuck into your trench coat pocket while moving through the city.
The book I slid off the shelf was a first edition published in 1923 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc, printed by The Quinn and Boden Company of Rahway, NJ.
I immediately thought of how many grimy hands had turned these pages in the dirty streets of New York City and how it made its journey to the Midwest like so many immigrants coming through Ellis Island in the early twentieth century.
As We Are, a collection of short stories by Walter B. Pitkin, are stories about the way life was and the way people lived at that time, written expressly for the purpose of introducing realism into the conscience of our American nation and to avoid falling into the illusory pitfall of fiction.
As Walter B. Pitkin puts it, “They have not been written to entertain, still less to please the smug or the lazy-minded.”
They are real pictures of American life, based on real characters and true to the values of those characters.
All of the stories in As We Are except two were written expressly for this book and represent a first attempt by the authors to draw scenes from one particular passage of the American journey.
These stories include:
Shif’less by James Boyd
Railroad Tracks by Emanie N. Sachs
Natural Selection by Elizabeth Irons Folsom
Excelsior by Arthur Collard
Mirage by Elaine Sterne
Masters of Ourselves and Ours by Walter B. Pitkin
The Harp and the Triphammer by Paul Rand
“It’s Me, O Lord!” by Alma and Paul Ellerbe
Berghita and the Americans by Rolla Prideaux
“Colonel, Meet My Mother” by Alma and Paul Ellerbe
The Mask by Worth Tuttle
The Monument by Vara M. Jones
The Case of Doctor Ford by Clement Wood
Walter B. Pitkin also writes an introduction to the book that touches on literary realism and the state of the modern writer, which rings even truer today then it did it the early 1920s.
Here’s a passage from Railroad Tracks by Emanie N. Sachs:
He came forward, a trifle timidly. Linda laughed again, a note which caught and flatted. He followed as she turned back towards the railroad tracks. She glanced over her shoulder and her eyelids went through the motions of a long, slow smile. Her eyes had magic when she wanted to turn it on, and she would turn it on, frequently. She wouldn’t, couldn’t be always alone. He kept on following, as she had known he would. And Linda stumbled slightly on the tracks, so that he stepped up quickly and took hold of her arms. She had stumbled because she wasn’t looking ahead. She wasn’t and she never would again, for it didn’t pay to look ahead.
In a time when the idealized themes of the Victorian-era novelists and poets were still widely considered to be the canons of polite society, As We Are sought to tell the truth about who America was then, and with that historical clarity, succeeds at speaking the truth about who we are now.