Adventures in Discontentment:

David Grayson and Women Readers 

Robert C. Bannister

Swarthmore College

Published in Roots and Renewals, eds Mark Shackleton and Maarika Toivonen (Renvall Institute: University of Helsinki, 2001), pp. 127-137. Copyright University of Helsinki.


"Tell me David Grayson, how can a woman find the road to contentment?" This question was posed in 1907 to the muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker(1870-1946), widely known as "America's #1 reporter." A year earlier Baker had published the first of nine volumes of "adventures in contentment" under the pen name David Grayson, eventually attracting several million readers world-wide. When he launched Grayson in the American Magazine, Baker had no thought of refiguring American manhood. Nor did he imagine that women might respond differently than men. But the Grayson stories, and the responses of male and female readers, shed light on the attempts of middle-class Americans to rethink gender norms during the progressive era.[1]

By the 1890s, young men like Ray Baker were finding earlier ideals of the "self-made" businessman and the pioneering frontiersman anachronistic in an age of increasing urbanization and social organization. The professions promised autonomy and material success: Baker considered law before turning to journalism. But the new order also threatened traditional male values of independence and self-discipline. Corporatism generated pressures to conform and cooperate in modern office settings. A consumer revolution, fueled by advertising, promised self-fulfillment through acquisition and display rather than self-denial and obedience to duty.

As often told, these developments produced a "crisis of masculinity" and atavistic attempts to recover a lost virility, typically through strenuous outdoor activity. [2] Since the mid-1980s, however, historians have identified a more complicated set of responses: a rigorous professionalism, fraternalism, Muscular Christianity, and a "masculine domesticity" that fused the Victorian cult of domesticity with a suburban ideal. Even the manly ideals of Theodore Roosevelt, upon closer inspection, combined Victorian male values of public service with the womanly virtues of social compassion and reform zeal.[3]

"Crisis" interpretations, moreover, misrepresent the active role men played in the process. From 1900 to mid-century, America's popular magazines hosted extensive discussion of masculinity, much of it by men for men. McClure's and the American Magazine, in the years Baker was associated with them (1898-1915), defended Victorian notions of manly "character," ironically, since they were themselves major sites of consumerist values that by the 1920s shaped a "modern masculinity" based on appearance, self-realization, sexuality, youthfulness, and leisure. Nor was the outcome a tragic loss, as often pictured. Modern masculinity, no longer rooted exclusively in property ownership or tied strictly to class and race, expanded standards of success to include non-economic criteria and cultural pursuits.[4]

Baker defended Victorian masculinity despite growing doubts regarding its rigid moralism and its equation of "character" with property ownership. Grayson dissented, however, being Baker's response not only to the pressures of urban, professional life, but to gender conflicts that were an important subtext of his career. The Grayson books endorsed neither hypermasculinity nor modern masculinity, but rather replaced Victorian Man with an apostle of bachelor freedom, the simple life, and mild rebellion in an attenuated version of Emerson and Thoreau.

Grayson, moreover, is only half of this story since readers--especially women readers--brought to his pages their own experiences of gain and loss. For women in these years the gains were substantial, as economic and social opportunities undermined confining stereotypes of "true womanhood." But emancipation came at a price. Women lost power that had adhered in the "homosocial" world of female networks. Divorce rates soared and the "new woman" found herself removed from the pedestal only to become a sexually-charged symbol of a new leisure order.[5]Although David Grayson offered an apparently gender neutral vision of the good life, a number of women, facing their own problems, finally judged it wanting.

A Victorian Boyhood

Baker's parents were textbook models of Victorian gender norms. His father, James Stannard--stern, stoical, and occasionally pompous--was known in his home town of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin as "Major," a tribute to his military service during the Civil War. A man's man, he welcomed the challenge of the frontier. Baker's mother, in contrast, hated the crudeness of frontier life, broke down crying the day the family arrived, and spent much of Ray's childhood deploring the blood-and-thunder adventure stories her husband read to his sons. College educated, refined and sensitive, she died in 1883 at age thirty-nine, never reconciled to life in frontier Wisconsin.[6]

Although Baker loved his mother, he worshipped his father. At age seventeen, he noted in his diary that he had "new energy and hope--more desire to make myself an honor to my father and home, " adding: "I am very sorry for a boy who hasn't a good father." Despite a gruff exterior, the senior Baker provided a steady stream of caring advice to his son.[7]

Ray nonetheless felt he was not living up to his father's ideals. "I want to get my education as quickly as I can, and get to business" he wrote while at college, in one of many such resolutions."[8] But after an unsatisfactory term in law school at the University of Michigan, he moved into newspaper work in Chicago. After temporarily giving up his job at the ]Chicago News-Record to help in the family business, he refused a second request to come home-- challenging his father for possibly the first time. Half a century later, a vestigial guilt surfaced as he appealed to readers of his autobiography to understand why he made this decision.[9]

The choice was not easy. "I had not learned what I was good for," Baker later wrote, confessing that he was "torn between what I wanted to do, and what I thought it my duty to do." His early years in Chicago were "exciting" and "adventurous," but also "hopeless" and full of "doubt."[10] The dreariness of bachelor boarding houses and eateries confirmed his instinctive dislike of cities. "[One] of the chief, if little recognized evils of city life," he wrote his father on the eve of the publication of the first Grayson story, " is that it leaves men unconnected, unacquainted, and, after all, unknown to one another."[11]

By the end of the 1890s, Baker was searching for alternate models of manhood. Inspired by the poetry of Kipling, thrilled by the triumph of the Spanish American War, he turned to newly-popular symbols of masculine power and activity: the banker J.P Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt whose cause he embraced until an emotional break in 1906. "I just wish I'd joined Mr. Roosevelt and gone down to the front," he wrote his wife at the height of the Spanish-American War.[12]

Baker's quest for a manly profession shaped the style as well as the substance of his journalism. A hard-nosed pursuit of "facts" dispelled doubts that writing was for sissies while a reform agenda dissolved uneasiness over the fact that the aim of mass-circulation magazines like ]McClure's was to attract large audiences and make money. The celebration of factuality masked a complex drama that unfolded between reporters who desired to tell a colorful story (whether because they aspired to great art or simply to establish reputations) and editors who reined in their imagination in the interest of accuracy and to avoid libel suits. Although the conflict between interpretation and facts was inherent in the reporter's role, Baker experienced it as an ongoing struggle with editors Samuel S. McClure and John Phillips, who repeatedly red-pencilled his flights of fancy. To embrace factuality ("facts, piled to the point of dry certitude"), as Baker did reluctantly, acknowledged that the father-editor was right after all. Style, quite literally, was the man.[13]

Enter David Grayson

Despite Kipling, the worship of T.R, and the embrace of factuality, there was always another Baker. Like the bespectacled Roosevelt, he never quite looked the part of the strenuous-lifer. A slight curvature of the spine caused him to hold one shoulder lower than the other and to walk with a distinctive gait. Mild-mannered, and of medium build, he resembled a Caspar Milquetoast rather than a Rough Rider. Behind his early ambition to write the Great American Novel lay a desire to interpret, rather than to report in the detached manner required by ]McClure's. When his plans for a novel foundered in the years 1902-1905, he first entered in his notebooks the impressions he would publish in the Grayson stories

These stories differed from his reporting in both style and substance. After jettisoning the high-pressure life of the city, Grayson settles with his sister Harriet on a farm located fictionally somewhere between the upper Midwest and his soon-to-be-home in Amherst, Massachusetts. There he discovers the pleasures of the simple life and humanity's essential goodness. Rejecting Victorian moralism, Grayson preaches openness to experience and toleration of difference ("The only sure conclusion we can reach is this: Life changes").[14]

Grayson's predecessors included Charles Wagner's ]The Simple Life (1901), Martha McCulloch William's Next to the Ground (1902), and a host of essays in popular magazines.[15] In earlier literature, he stood in a tradition of wandering, "transcendent" males who sought to escape city and civilization, society and its institutions, while continuing to enjoy some if not all of their satisfactions, echoing the more tough-minded Thoreau and the still-popular Ralph Waldo Emerson. The "curly haired" illustrations of Grayson also recalled the pastoral idealism of author "Ik Marvel," as poet Vachel Lindsay noted. But the Grayson stories succeeded precisely because they aimed higher than "the laddie brand of curly haired literature." "By this device, " Lindsay added, "the tired man at last grasps the caricature of the dream, and becomes in theory a bucolic, tho he does not leave the office or the automobile yet."[16]

Readers hailed Grayson as a welcome answer to the strenuous life. "Grayson has his largest significance," Lindsay continued, "when he is viewed as a reaction from strenuosity, the prophecy of a balanced American mood." "The strenuous life is beyond the strength of many of us," added another reader. "Perhaps the sufficient life [as Grayson preaches] is the happy mean." Still another expressed a desire to trade the "strenuous" for the "simple" life. "[17]

Grayson's sister Harriet, one of the few women in the stories, is the traditional helpmate--baking biscuits, cooking meals, darning socks, and feeding the chickens, while not once complaining when her brother arrives home late. As the "Personified Customs, Morals and Institution of the Ages," she embodies the "civilization" David seeks to escape, playing Aunt Sally to an aging, domesticated Huck Finn. David's minor transgressions of his sister's norms affirm his manliness while leaving the moral order pretty well intact.

Grayson half-heartedly challenged older conceptions of true womanhood in only two stories, one published in 1908, and the other six years later when Baker was edging cautiously toward support of woman's suffrage.[18] "Anna" tells of an unwed mother who keeps her child despite community pressures to have it adopted. Here Baker characteristically ducked the moral issue (as many readers would see it) of sex out of wedlock to underline the "prime secret of the Open Road"--"that you are to pass nothing, reject nothing, despise nothing on this earth." He tells the story "not because it carries any moral" but simply because it was part of his life with Harriet. [19]

The second story concerns a woman newspaper editor named Anthy, so called because her parents had wanted an Anthony. "She . . .looked at me directly--like a man," David exclaims of their first meeting. Brought to the brink of bankruptcy by outmoded business methods, the ]Hempfield Star faces an even worse fate at the hands of Ed Smith, a journalism school graduate bent on applying "modern" methods (echoing developments that, in Baker's view, were then ruining the American Magazine). When a dissolute youth appears in the person of Nort Carr ("groping for reality") Anthy finds herself the object of affection of Ed and Nort, to the distress of Fergus MacGregor, office handyman and defender of rural virtue. In the end, virtue triumphs as Anthy marries a reformed Nort Carr, Ed Smith is fired, and the Star survives. [20]

Even though Baker's editors referred irreverently to the "farmer stuff," David Grayson meant a great deal to him. For almost a decade he kept his authorship secret until forced to go public by fraudulent David Graysons offering lectures under his name. Although regard for his professional reputation partly dictated this strategy, his concern went deeper. Appearing when they did, the Grayson stories were a visible symbol of the break with T.R. (who alienated Baker completely when he attacked the "muckrakers" in the spring of 1906) and with S.S. McClure, both surrogate father-figures for the better part of a decade. Telling his own father, still a force in his life, was equally traumatic. "I yielded to a fearful temptation," Ray wrote Jessie several months after the first "adventure" appeared, "and told father about Grayson." [21]

Baker versus Grayson

Grayson's world mirrored the reality of Baker's life imperfectly at best. On the eve of his marriage to Jessie Beal, the daughter of his college botany professor, Baker looked, not for a farm, but a house in suburban Oak Park, before setting for a walkup apartment in Chicago. In 1898, the year of Grayson's fictional move to his farm, the Bakers settled in Bronxville a rapidly suburbanizing part of Westchester county. "It is an exceedingly picturesque place," he wrote his father, "in many respects reminding me of St. Croix Falls." To Jessie he confided: "I have had to revise my notions of suburbs a good deal since I came here." Like many middle-class men, he viewed home, not in terms of shared duties, but as a haven after work. "[When] the day's work is done and I'm tired out," he wrote Jessie a month before their marriage, " I always long for a ]home to go to where there is someone who will be glad to see me."[22]

Grayson and Baker held equally conventional views of woman. "It has not the flashy nor the very rich girls as a rule," Baker wrote his fiancée regarding an Ann Arbor Sorority during his brief stay at the University of Michigan; "but they have that rarer quality of good breeding--to use a homely expression." And to his father, speaking of his wife-to- be: "I know you will like Miss Beal. She is not pretty nor very brilliant . . .She is simply a sweet womanly girl and a man can love and trust her with his whole heart." [23]

Baker's letters to Jessie also shed light on Grayson's and Harriet's brother-sister relationship, an arrangement that preserved the benefits of domesticity without the messiness of marriage. Although he and Jessie were roughly the same age, Ray sometimes played little boy, sometimes older man, making Jessie alternately mother and " little girl." He apologized for his "true confessions," he wrote in one early letter, adding that it made him feel better "the same way that I did when as a boy, I went to my mother the first thing when I had jammed my toes." At another time, he referred to himself as "your uncle." "Very often since I have known you I have thought of you as just a child and so I liked to call you "my little girl,'" he explained. Here Grayson had the final word. "I wonder if any one will understand me," he asked upon first meeting Anthy in Hempfield, "when I say that that there has always seemed to me something not quite proper in talking to a woman directly, seriously, without reservation, as to a man?"[24]

Professionally, Baker had limited contact with women journalists. "She is a plucky little thing and her work is much prized for its vivacity and wit," he wrote of a female reporter who covered the Pullman strike with him in 1894, adding that it was " rather humiliating" that she was paid more than he was. He remained on good terms with "Miss Tarbell" (as he usually called McClure's colleague Ida Tarbell) by focusing on her charm and lady-like qualities. "I want you to know Miss Tarbell," he wrote Jessie soon after he had joined McClure's. "She is a very charming woman; you can just see it in her eyes." After attending Tarbell's 80th birthday celebration, he jotted in his journal: "She is beautiful with virtue." [25]

If Grayson's Harriet resembled Baker's Jessie, so Grayson had roots in Baker's youthful conception of manliness. It "made a man proud. . .to see the men turned out--all good substantial fellows who were doing their best . . . to make themselves and the world better," he wrote of fraternity brothers during a visit to Michigan State. "Many are not brilliant, but they had that rarer quality of hard-headed sense and capacity for work which counts for more in the long-run." In the character sketches of prominent men he published in McClure's and the American Magazine he praised these same qualities. [26]

Baker and Jessie also lived somewhat differently than Grayson and his sister. As a reporter during the 1890s, Baker was often away from home, not to wander the countryside but to toil in editorial offices. During the McClure's years, he sought the solitude of Michigan or elsewhere to find uninterrupted time for his writing. "Write me about yourself and the children," he wrote Jessie after seven years at McClure's. "I don't want to forget that I have a family." In these years, Jessie was often lonely, their youngest daughter recalled. When they at last settled down, it was not on a farm, but in the comfortable college town of Amherst where they built an imposing Tudor-style home in the latest suburban style.[27]

Readers Respond

Although most readers took Grayson's celebration of country living at face value, some saw David as a new model for manliness. One male reader criticized the "dreamy effeminacy" of the illustrations, arguing that Grayson's face should display more of shrewdness, kindness , and rigor. David's "adventures" and "wisdom" demonstrated that strength need not be physical. His closest associates recalled Baker's father: Horace the farmer, gruff, practical, and sometime charmingly intolerant; the Scotch Preacher, not at all one of the "flighty" ministers Baker once condemned, but a pillar of strength and common-sense. [28]

Women readers also welcomed the Grayson stories as escape from the pressures of modern living, although often with a feminine twist. Five years earlier one correspondent had suddenly realized that she wished "to be happy without the stimulus of a cocktail or the nearness of some man. " At first she managed give up "the cocktails and cigarettes," then meat and "heavy foods, " all with the help of "a daily shower." Finally she discovered Adventures in Contentment. "Never shall I forget the grateful relaxation its quiet philosophy brought me."[29]

From New Jersey, a desperate, but appreciative woman reader hoped that the Grayson philosophy might help her own miserable situation. Her husband, a lawyer of 34, had come to New York at age 21, "a country boy, unshaped, eager, weak, light, frivolous [and] peculiarly handicapped by birth and family connection." In the ensuring thirteen years, everything went wrong: "He became an absinthe user and a cigarette fiend. Today, his whole nature seems perverted, and his nerves are wrecked and his mind seems [to be] going." As a result, the family was thousands of dollars in debt while the husband's business was "crooked" from top to bottom. To make things worse, their nine-year old son was "lazy, stubborn, a liar, and slovenly." But, thanks to Grayson, the remedy seemed clear: "We need to get out of this pretentious suburb. . . I want to go West--way out west." [30]

Another described the price women paid for divorce, increasingly common during the progressive era. [31] From a rooming house ("not well heated") she described how her husband, whom she once thought the "perfect man," had suddenly turned to "stone and become . . .depraved," leaving her homeless and penniless. "After cruel abusive treatment of three years, deprived of my home and usual comforts. . .and not enough to eat three meals a day at present without forcing my rights in court can you be sure a 'God' intends to interfere?". "[In] surroundings [such as mine], " she asked, " can contentment be realized in your opinion?"[32]

Other women noted that Grayson enjoyed freedoms simply not available to their sex. An Ithaca, New York correspondent wrote: "I want more of your 'experience' --I want to know what to do next--I want to get out of 'the bog of indecision'. . . David found a way, but he had the advantage of being a man." Although she had "been situated much the same as David," she had "no farm and no Harriet." Another confessed that, although "a very commonplace old maid," she too longed for a "'nice rest' in the country." But, "I fear the loneliness."[33]

Others criticized Grayson's portrait of Harriet. "You are very wise David Grayson," wrote the reader who had asked Grayson how a woman could find contentment, "but you are a man and I don't believe you can tell her--perhaps you had better ask Harriet." Two others asked Baker to imagine the "adventures" as Harriet would experience them. "Sorrow, loss and pain have probably come to her," one commented, noting that she was preparing an article on the joys of suburbia for ]Good Housekeeping. "David Grayson found a literary harvest in his farm," she added sarcastically; " Harriet would say that dishwashing in the golden road to literature." A second reader cataloged the many household chores that would keep Harriet from enjoying the wonders of the open air. [34]

Even stronger criticism came from women who knew country-living at first hand. From a ranch in New Mexico, one told how she and her husband, a banker in failing health, moved from the city, inspired in part by Grayson. "Much sorrow and regret and loneliness has followed in the footsteps of that rash act," she wrote. From Shreveport, Louisiana, a stenographer extolled the advantages of town over country life. "You seem to enjoy country life very much, but what about Harriet?" she asked. "You say that Harriet 'does use an immense quantity of kindling wood', but don't you think, as a sensible woman, Harriet had much rather be in town, where she could cook with gas?" [35]

Reader response to the story of "Anna," the single mother, was alternately conventional and sentimental. A Congregational clergyman preached a heavy-handed sermon on sexual immorality, concluding that the "seducer" deserved even greater disgrace. A woman, although more sympathetic, adopted Grayson's strategy of dissolving troublesome moral issues in a gush of sentimentality. Although she was too "rosy and robust to be sentimental with any degree of appropriateness," she confessed, she "recklessly polka-dots her best silk waist with tear drops and promises herself softly to be generous and 'understanding' to all the Annas who may cross her path." [36]

The story of "Anthy, " however, brought an extended exchange that captured Grayson's mixed message for women. [37] A physician's wife and aspiring author began her first letter with a question that had become her personal mantra: "What would Anthy do?" Since the details of her own married life were too painful to detail directly, she presented a graphic account of a marriage gone wrong, using the fictional "Anthy" as surrogate. Her husband was previously divorced from a wife he pictured as "vindictive, narrow, nagging, horribly jealous without cause. " "Anthy" believed him, gave up her career and served his every need, for which she was rewarded with "neglect," "repression," "selfishness," and "gross infidelities." Her own three babies had died: the first from her overwork, the second by her physician husband's mishandling of a simple medical procedure, the third by abortion done by him. "What would Anthy do?" And, more directly: "David Grayson. Will you please tell me what I ought to do?" Although Grayson's reply is not known, he apparently said merely that he "sympathized."

From this response (which pleased her immensely) this correspondent drew conclusions that graphically suggest how a message of liberation for men translated into quite the opposite for women. "David, I have come to a resolution. I am going to be happy!" she wrote. But what constituted happiness? "Books and food and summer rain. Not to mention housework and flowers and friends and clothes." So what that her husband was a bully. "So he is, but whose fault was it that I was bully-able?" The answer lay in buying more things. "There is no need--no sense in my submitting to drudgery," she continued. "I love housework and I can and will keep it within reasonable bounds." To this end she had already sent the laundry out and bought a vacuum cleaner. "Yes and a pink dress. I can't be depressed in a pink gown, now can I?"

In a final letter, she again reversed course, now appealing to Baker rather than Grayson. She had earlier sensed "that David Grayson was rather a man's ideal of a man than a 'really person.'" But she had recently (May 1917) learned that he was actually Baker. She would still not leave her "ugly surroundings." But she wondered if Baker would look over a manuscript she had written in an attempt to return to her earlier career in journalism. The prospect frightened her. "It is very hard to write when I am haunted by the fear that it is foolish." If Baker would tell her it was no good, she could of course "try something else--more gardening or more cookery (though I have had enough of the latter) or the 'innocuous desuetude' of 'losing myself in other men's minds.'" But she hoped for more, appealing again to the professional writer, rather than to the country philosopher.


In the move from Victorian to modern gender norms, the progressive era was a time of transition and experiment. The career of Ray Stannard Baker reveals that traditional and newer conceptions of manhood coexisted: a Victorian masculinity rooted in moral rectitude; a physicalized, more aggressive "strenuous life;" and a bachelor vision of freedom through country living. Although each of these competing conceptions find an echo in our own time, the continuing popularity of the Grayson books suggests that his vision of a kinder, gentler, more tolerant male should be included among the legacies of progressivism. At the same time, as this essay has argued, Grayson was, in the words of one reader, " a man's ideal of a man," not a "really person "--a male fantasy of escape from the bonds of feminized Victorian culture and morality.

This fact did not preclude female admirers. Women no less than men wrote enthusiastic fan letters, joined "David Grayson Clubs," and even sought solace in country living. Almost a century later, the woman's magazine Victoria, commends Grayson to its readers, offers reprints of several Grayson books, and at least women reader writes (in a recent email to me) that she finds Grayson " most appealing." Yet, the often-poignant letters here cited also tell another story regarding choices women faced in the early 20th century. Would country living reform an alcoholic, faithless spouse? Was moving to the suburbs the answer? Or buying a vacuum cleaner and pretty clothes? Or a career in journalism? "Tell me David Grayson, how can a woman find the road to contentment?" In this question, there is evidence again that where gender norms are concerned, one size rarely fits all.


Written in HTML by Robert Bannister, Swarthmore College (emeritus). May 25, 2002