Friday, Nov. 1, 1996
I suppose nearly everyone knows “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short story–it used to be a high-school reading assignment, and maybe it still is. Along with Poe’s eeriest tales, it seems located in some shocking Elsewhere, not in the optimistic, plain-hearted territory of the American imagination. The plot is horrifically simple. The population of an ordinary town gathers annually for a lottery held for the good of the community; the one who has the winning ticket is stoned to death.
A second story comes to mind–Mark Twain’s masterpiece, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” It concerns a town that has always prided itself on its innocence, and trained its children to resist temptation. Then temptation enters: the promise of endless riches if a certain condition is fulfilled. Greed is suddenly ubiquitous; even the purest souls are despoiled by the lure of gold.
This very morning, both of these stories–until that moment they had seemed no more than moralizing metaphors of human nature–were all at once catapulted out of fiction and into the life of my own community.
A very rich man–a philanthropist who has endowed a chair in a prominent university–approached a small and impoverished society, a charitable association devoted to the public good, with a dazzling proposal. “I will immediately contribute $100,000 to your coffers,” he said, “on one condition: you must get rid of John Doe, one of your officers. I don’t like him; you don’t need to know why. It’s enough that I resent him. Understand this: I am glad to give you this very large amount of money, but John Doe is not to serve in any authoritative capacity in this organization during my lifetime. You will see that I am not unreasonable,” he continued, “nor do I intend to be harsh. I do not ask that you remove John Doe as a member of your community–only that he never be allowed to hold office or receive or distribute honors as long as I live. This will not be a detriment to your operation, as you will readily recognize. John Doe is not your chief officer; he is merely a subordinate. In practical terms his demotion will scarcely be noticed.”
Of course the philanthropist’s offer was received with laughter–how could it be anything but a joke? And the wags, especially those who themselves weren’t fond of John Doe, began to say, ever so playfully, that they would be delighted to sacrifice John Doe for so much gain–why, they would even burn him at the stake, or stone him behind the office, if that would bring in cash! But that was only teasing.
Then someone (it happened to be the chief officer) came forward and suggested, rather more seriously, that John Doe ought to be informed of the rich man’s proposal. After all, it was only fair that he know about it; it wasn’t right to keep him in the dark about something that so much touched on his own reputation. The organization was certainly in very great need, and wouldn’t the money do more good in the world than John Doe ever could? Undoubtedly John Doe would see this for himself, and, as the fine and responsible person he had always proved to be–a pillar of the organization, one of its most devoted workers–wouldn’t he volunteer to step down? It was a question of the greater good, wasn’t it, and surely John Doe would come through.
Another voice protested: No, no, this rich man is a tyrant who equates his money with his vindictive whim, and the power of philanthropy with fiefdom. Better to struggle on without him!
Well, and there it stands. The plot stops dead in its tracks, unresolved. Since this is not a story by Shirley Jackson or Mark Twain, I do not know the outcome. But I learned today that big money, even when it does not overtly corrupt, makes good people hesitate, rationalize, and hideously joke.