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CHAPTER III

A PLEASANT DISPOSITION

If I strike back to about 1914, when I was eight years old, I find the beginnings of material significant for recollection in this study. With this approximate time, memory becomes more generous and gives me reason to say that at the age of eight I was sufficiently aware of my stuttering to attempt deliberate adaptations in allowance of it. I was beginning to exercise self-restraint in situations bearing the least formality. Polite company had the faculty of making me feel inferior to a quite unwarranted degree, for my training had impressed upon me the apparent fact that in order to be polite certain rather rigid verbal conventions were to be observed. One was expected to say certain things at certain times; I couldn't do that without making myself ludicrously conspicuous, without blubbering and blushing and embarrassing myself and those others with whom I might be trying, with a futility almost rude, to converse. If I said nothing, I supposed that I was considered a dunce, and I did not relish that. Consequently, I came to make it a point

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Note: Horizontal lines indicate page breaks in the original, at which point bold indicates headers and footers. - NJ



A PLEASANT DISPOSITION

to avoid such circumstances as much as possible. When forced into them, I confined my speaking to the fewest words expediency would allow, and to the extent that it was necessary and possible I employed the indirect and awkward technique which I have referred to as substitution.

So it happened that I began the habit, which I have never entirely relinquished, of sitting by and listening and quietly observing while others talk among themselves. It is really a matter of skill, this withdrawing from conversation; it must be done in an inoffensive manner or it is taken to indicate aloofness, but when done well it is highly successful as a manner of human association. I have been invited repeatedly to homes where I have done nothing but lounge in comfortable chairs, say nothing, and give mute evidence that I was enjoying myself! Also, if done in a blundering manner, this silent attendance in the midst of conversation tends to brand one with the stigmata of stupidity, but if one keeps the right expression on the face and the right sparkle in the eye, no such dire consequence need occur. As a matter of fact, I know that on innumerable occasions, a real ignorance on my part has been mistaken for knowledge which, so it was presumed, I did not care to divulge. But I always feel shaky as I sit thus silently in the presence of

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others; I have gone through whole evenings with the constant dread that some one would address a question to me, and that I should stutter in my reply, and the dread has been justified so frequently that I have been rendered on the whole an unwilling guest. The late improvement of my speech has mitigated this condition, however.

At an early age, then, I discovered my preference for informal companions and informal social situations. In the midst of a boisterous company, I was able to produce an occasional remark with enough wit to win me respect, or even popularity. I learned that deliberate articulation, the forming of spoken sounds by consciously placing the articulatory mechanism (of which I shall say more in the final chapter), was less obvious when matters were diverting -- when I could begin a remark while the attention of the group was focused elsewhere than on myself. Moreover, I discovered that laughter itself was an aid in speaking; when suddenly blocked on a word, I could feign laughter -- all at once I could pretend to be reimpressed by the extreme funniness of the current antics. Thus I gave myself the opportunity to relax my tense body, to regain control of my speech mechanism and to go ahead with my remark without stuttering. In brief, it was an advantage to be at ease in order that my higher neural

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A PLEASANT DISPOSITION

centers might function with the least disturbance. Besides, brevity is the soul of wit, and I found it less difficult to speak briefly than at length.

It was advantageous, therefore, to encourage humor all about me. I consciously tried to make situations appear funny whether they were are not, and usually I succeeded. This, too, became a skill with me. Attempted with a wrong technique, it would have made me look silly; but attempted with the manner I developed, it converted me into a jolly good fellow. I laughed loud and long at my friends' attempts at wit, and they generally took my reaction to be complimentary, and were themselves convinced of their own brilliance. Or, again, I turned their remarks into humorous significance by my own wry comments, and provoked their laughter, which pleased them. Directing my friends' attention to incongruous or otherwise laughable aspects of the environment served to gain me the same end. It is significant that in my first literary efforts, I aspired to be a humorist, and that I read the writings of Ring Lardner, George Ade, and others of their bent, with a studious interest.

Furthermore, in a boisterous crowd, applause is to be won not infrequently by non-verbal antics. I made the most of this fact -- for a man will inflate his ego in one way or another! As Shakespeare took

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his cue from the loud guffaw of the pit, so I took my cue from the loud guffaw of my village companions. They came to observe that I was "quite a clown," and I certainly did not resent it. Not that I considered it a compliment either, but I simply realized the value of their opinion. I was talented in their eyes, and it was a pleasure to be thought of as talented.

I am convinced that there is an additional, and more subtle, explanation of this clowning, boisterous, humorous conduct on my part. It is true absolutely that it made speaking easier, and it was ostensibly for that very substantial reason that I cultivated it. But there was probably another reason, of which it appears I was unknowing at the time. It is said that Lincoln laughed sometimes when the circumstances did not seem to warrant it, and that he explained by saying that if he didn't laugh be would have to weep -- and he would rather laugh. Every psychologist is, of course, familiar with this device of rationalization and repression. I know that back there, when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, I did weep on occasion, and weep bitterly. I was sad sometimes and despairing. When you consider that my means of self-expression were functioning rather painfully under a handicap, that my speech was abnormally restrained; when you consider fur-

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A PLEASANT DISPOSITION

ther that speech is the capacity a man has to symbolize himself in sound and to translate himself into the understanding of others, perhaps you can appreciate that I had reason for moments of despondency. But the healthy child will not cherish despondent moods; he will do all that he can to repress them, although he may not be aware that he is repressing anything. I simply did quite the normal thing under the circumstances; and in my case, it took a considerable amount of effort, a good deal of laughter and clowning, to make me forget that I could weep and be sad. I know that at a later age I became aware that my deeper attitude was one of rebellion, a rather bitter rebellion against my stuttering and a society that did not, with any great understanding, take my stuttering into account. I have no good reason to doubt that when I was rather young I had a deep resentment. My hilarity was, for one purpose, a smoke-screen, behind which I concealed my more unpleasant qualities. That smoke-screen made it possible for me to move through those years with a minimum of social friction, and is to be explained, in part at least, as a device of repression.

At any rate, having found that I could be taken for a good fellow, I eagerly played the part. It was not enough to be a clown and a boisterous wit; that in itself, of course, constituted no mean achievement

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in the minds of my village friends, but it was necessary, also, to have an audience, to fondle that audience, and to keep it well-disposed toward me. The schoolboys -- more so than the girls -- and the men who frequented the stores, the barber shop, the creamery, made up the greater part of my public. I treated them always with deference, was considerate of their moods and wishes, gentle in my intimate contacts with them, and took a discreet and sincere personal interest in their not-too-private affairs. They could trust me with their secrets, and whether they trusted me or not, I never scandalized any of them. Now and then I worked a problem or parsed a sentence for a fellow pupil in distress. I was slow to take offense and cautious to avoid giving it; if apology was in order, I found it easy to render. Among the girls, my stuttering made me very shy; I could not be boisterous with them, and, more or less as a consequence, I treated them with respect.

It may seem that I have too good an opinion of myself! You will observe that, the teaching of parents and teacher aside, I was a young pragmatist, and with a vengeance. The plain fact is that experience taught me to be, in my associations with others, as unselfish as possible. I found it an extremely beneficial manner. No doubt, I was genuinely sincere; probably I had a real human interest

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in my friends, but it seems to me now that my motives were ulterior, though perfectly justifiable. Every man chooses his own way to get along in the world. In spite of Voltaire's jest, one must live; it is the nature of a healthy man to think that he must live -- he thrills with the epic song of the conqueror. I should have found conditions unbearably severe had I struck a bluntly selfish, resentful pose; I should only have added to the undeniable handicap of stuttering the further handicap of social maladjustment. I cannot disown the belief that I exercised more common sense than anything one could call innate benevolence. Experience and observation -- -allowing for the prejudice that experience has given me -- have taught me to think that the capacity which makes man moral or gentle is the same capacity that prompts him to came in out of the rain. It has been called intelligence, or rather intelligence is the name that has been given to that capacity. Such an assertion, attempting to stand without the aid of a dialectic, will elicit almost any sort of a reaction on the part of the reader -- depending more or less on the books he has read and the people he has known, as well as on the nature of his parents.

But I am not going to unwind a dialectic. It is not my purpose to write a treatise on the correlation

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between intelligence, trial-and-error experience, and one's degree of morality and gentleness. I simply offer the sincere explanation that my joviality, good nature, and whatever degree of unselfishness I revealed constituted a practical adaptation to a particular kind of situation. Subsequently, I was able to do what a great number of people do; I was able to rationalize to the effect that it is right and proper to be moral and considerate of one's fellows. Why not? Hadn't I found it advantageous? And didn't all the best people agree with me? -- notwithstanding that perhaps they offered a more abstract defense of morality and goodness.

At all events, my genial disposition remained for the most part intact and impartial for many years. For the sake of unity, the period beginning roughly with my nineteenth year is to be given over to a separate discussion, in later pages.


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