Edward Bok & The Simple Life

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Bok urged his readers to follow the Wilsons’ example. He called on them to contribute to the Belgian Relief Fund, organize Red Cross auxiliaries, engage in fuel and food conservation, buy Liberty Bonds, and participate in the Victory garden program. “Our dolls and playthings must be put aside,” he argued. “We have had our time for the dance and the dinner and the pretty frock. But that time is over. It is the hour for serious thought: for well-doing: for thoughts of others: for service.” To advise readers about the opportunities for patriotic simplicity, Bok instituted a regular column in the Journal entitled “The Woman and the War” that included specific suggestions for preparing meatless dishes and becoming more self-sufficient. He emphasized that the “time for wasteful housekeeping is over. … With less we can easily do. And how simply and better we can do without is a lesson that will be new to some and good for all.” By November 1917 Bok was overjoyed at the growing evidence of thrift, conservation, and voluntarism being practiced by American women and children. “We are getting into our minds at last that ideals are more important than we thought: that Life is more than meat and that body is more than raiment.”

BUT SUCH patriotic austerity was short-lived. No sooner was the war over than the mood of selfsacrifice and civic service quickly dissipated. “During the war we accustomed ourselves to doing without, to buying carefully, to using economically, ” a commentator noted in 1920. Another writer observed that when the war was over, “a veritable orgy of extravagant buying began.” Reckless spending replaced saving, and waste replaced efforts at conservation. The quick transition from public conservation to public prodigality was a stunning disappointment to Progressive idealists. The editors of The Nation maintained that “civilization certainly needs to be simplified” rather than made more complex by indiscriminate economic expansion. “We need to reduce our wants, to cut down our standard of living, to buy less, to make less, to work less, to consume less of our lives in the machinery of living. ” But alas, they recognized, the country was rushing in the other direction. Bok was equally disheartened by the postwar atmosphere. Now that the fighting was over, he sighed, people wanted to “let down” and resume their frivolous and luxurious habits.

The ideal of simple living did lose its appeal in the aftermath of the Great War. The electorate clamored for what Warren G. Harding called a return to “normalcy,” which apparently meant going back to the values of the Gilded Age—laissez-faire individualism, limited government, isolationism, and, above all, unrestricted economic expansion. “This is essentially a business country,” Harding reminded his critics. As President, he, along with his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, baldly shaped federal policies so as to promote a resurgence of corporate capitalism.

Edward Bok discovered the strength of such economic orthodoxy as he tried to carry his campaign for simpler living into the postwar era. Bok had resolved soon after taking control of the Journal in 1889 that he would retire from his post after twenty-five years. The outbreak of the Great War in Europe and eventual American involvement in the conflict had caused him to postpone his departure, but when the war was over, he announced—in January 1920—his retirement. Bok was fifty-six years old, wealthy, and in the full flush of intellectual and physical vigor. The magazine also was flourishing. Its October 1919 issue sold more than 2,000,000 copies. Nevertheless, Bok wanted out. It was time to leave the grind of business and devote his money to philanthropy and his time to social service and family.

As he began his new “play” period, as he called it, Bok wrote several articles promoting his gospel of retired activism and bemoaning the crass preoccupation with material pursuits that seemed to pervade Jazz Age America. “Money is King,” he maintained in 1924. “Business is our God. Commerce rules. ” After acknowledging the many benefits resulting from economic growth, he reminded readers that “years of unexampled industrial productivity and of the accumulation of great wealth are not bringing, and have not brought, happiness to mankind.” Poverty, crime, tension, anonymity, and despair remained prevalent in the midst of unparalleled prosperity. Bok warned businessmen that “bliss in possession does not last” and that the “fundamental things which really matter are outside the pale of the bankinghouse.” His advice for the well-to-do was to follow his own example. Those who had worked diligently enough to earn a comfortable income should “abandon the harness of business” and devote their energies to “higher” causes. “Where all a man’s thought has been centered on himself, now he turns and thinks of others.”

 

Although religious spokesmen and social activists praised Bok’s outlook, many among the business community were critical. His idea of early retirement coupled with public service struck Glenn Frank, editor of The Century Magazine , as a “dangerous and essentially anti-social doctrine” that threatened the “American tradition of sticking to business until one drops in the harness.” Bok, he claimed, was “advocating a new asceticism, which consists in running away from business in order to be useful to society.” Instead of being praised for such a stance, the successful editor should be “morally court-martialed for deserting his post in the midst of the battle.”