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The Contented Adventurer
Richard Platt

I made my first acquaintance with David Grayson in a dank corner of a bookshop basement. The bare light bulb just overhead had gone out, probably months before, leaving the corner in deep shadow. Ever the intrepid book hunter, I reached for my pocket torch and continued my browsing. There, on the shelf nearest the floor, scuffed and soiled, its frayed and faded spine almost illegible, was Adventures in Contentment (1907) by David Grayson. Well, who doesn’t like adventures or contentment? I reached for the volume, blew decades of dust from the top of the spine, and settled myself on the floor. Three pages later I had made a new friend. I was on my feet and up the narrow stairs, clutching my treasure, and wondering, as I have so often wondered on making a new literary discovery, why no one had ever mentioned this book to me.

‘David Grayson’ is the pseudonym of Ray Stannard Baker, who at the turn of the twentieth century was one of the most famous journalists and editors in America. With his large, round, rimless glasses, close-cropped white moustache and impeccably tailored suits, he was the personification of the urbane man of letters. Known internationally under his own name for his muckraking articles in the spirit of his colleagues Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, Baker was the confidant of Nobel Laureates and presidents. In the next decades he would accompany his close friend Woodrow Wilson to the peace negotiations at Versailles as an advisor, then write Wilson’s official biography in eight volumes, for which he would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

The David Grayson books are the memoirs of a man whose life is driven by ‘that vague Success which we Americans love to glorify’, until, struck down by illness and feeling like a man ‘thrown violently from a moving planet’, he reflects for the first time in his life on what it is he has been chasing. Having had it all, he has had enough. Rising at last from his sickbed, he rents a small farm, which he soon purchases, determined to slow his life to a walking pace.

The time before that I like to forget . . . if I loitered or paused by the wayside, as it seems natural for me to do, I soon heard the sharp crack of the lash . . . The only real thing I did was to hurry as though every moment were my last, as though the world, which now seems to me so rich in everything, held only one prize which might be seized before I arrived.

Baker’s accounts as Grayson of his life in the country are lightly fictionalized ‒ Grayson is a bachelor, Ray Stannard Baker was a married man with children ‒ but the tales he tells are true. They are gently romanticized, to be sure, but what man does not romanticize what he loves? Yet it is always the love which comes first, the romanticism later, and Baker was no stranger to the hardships of subsistence farming.

He was born in 1870 and his family moved when he was 5 to St Croix Falls, a forbidding wilderness in northern Wisconsin, just opposite the wooded hills of Minnesota in what is now the seamless patchwork of suburbs and farms of the American upper-middle west. It was the edge of civilization, a land of explorers, pioneers and lumbermen. Tribes of both the Sioux and the Chippewa camped within walking distance of town. The Bakers were a pioneering family. Ray’s father had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and commanded the soldiers who hunted down Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. In late middle age he still cut a dashing figure and could claim at least ten forebears in the previous two centuries who had been killed or carried off by Indians. As Ray writes in his autobiography, ‘it was a grand time for bold men’. It was indeed. When the Bakers built their new home, the massacre of General George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry on the Little Bighorn in nearby Dakota Territory was still two years away.

Like many a country lad before him, young Ray Baker was restless and yearned to see the great wide world beyond the trees. His ambition drove him to Chicago, where he was soon working as an underpaid, overworked journalist (is there another kind?), honing his craft and loving it, despite often being on the breadline. His reputation grew. His frontier shrewdness, resilience and knowledge of the ways of men stood him in good stead, for fools did not long survive in the city. Still, years later, he would look back and admit that he struggled always with ‘the difficult modern art of living in a crowded world’. He would never quite learn that art. When he grew weary of the dark underside of humanity, he turned always to the country, taking walks of Dickensian length to refresh his spirit and recover his perspective. Soon, he began jotting down notes of the people he met along the road, their foibles and their wisdom, their sad and happy lives, and the odd adventure of sleeping in a farmer’s hayloft or running from a mongrel dog. He was, after all, a journalist, and was never without the scribbling itch.

His career took him ultimately to Washington DC and New York, to the halls of the great and powerful, but despite the temptations and riches he found in the city, he yearned for the dirt roads and wooded paths of his boyhood. Having reached the height of his profession, and having destroyed much of his health and peace in the process, he bought a small farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. There, unpacking the many notebooks he had kept on his country walks, and meeting yet more friends on the local country roads whom he soon grew to know well, he turned again to writing. This time, he would write not for others but for himself. David Grayson was born.

David Grayson loves his fellow man, despite being in full possession of the facts. He observes with the urbanity and wry humour of Montaigne that ‘We are all tolerant enough of those who do not agree with us, provided only they are sufficiently miserable!’ He sees with the straightforward horse sense of Thoreau that ‘men perish from too much as from too little’, and he embraces with the gentle geniality of Lamb the ‘splendid, boundless, coloured mutability of life’.

Like his creator, Grayson believes that a good deal of the strife in this world could be remedied, and lasting social change effected, by helping people to understand one another: their motives, their loves and hatreds, their struggles and triumphs.

If only people would . . . not jump at conclusions, nor accept shibboleths and slogans, nor wind themselves up in organizations and parties . . . I have never belonged to any political party, nor, since my boyhood, to any church . . . What I have wished most, if it can be expressed in a phrase, was to be an introducer of human beings to one another, to be a maker of understandings – those deep understandings which must underlie any social change that is effective and permanent.

Everyone he meets on his travels is a new opportunity, a window to an experience and a life that he could not otherwise have. He peers through each window always looking for a new understanding, for something to like and something to learn, and usually he finds it.

Grayson’s fame was such that he inspired and helped launch, though unwittingly, the literary career of a young aspiring writer and journalist who was become even more well known. (More on this in due course!) By 1941, the David Grayson books had so outshone Ray Baker’s journalism and scholarship that the first volume of his autobiography appeared with both his own name and Grayson’s, just to be sure everyone knew who he was. By 1945, the Grayson books had sold more than two million copies in America and England. Yet in the twenty-five years since I first made David Grayson’s acquaintance I have never met a single reader who has heard of him; a testament to the mysterious caprice of literary fame. Those I have introduced are still thanking me.

Baker concludes the first volume of his autobiography with the words, ‘It is certain that a man is happiest when he has found his own place in the world, and is doing what he is best fitted to do.’ Surely David Grayson was best fitted to clasping the hand of his fellow man and making congenial friendships. I wish him many more friends.

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