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The Boy with the U.S. Census

June 4, 2010

I thought The Boy with the U.S. Census, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, was going to be kind of boring, but there’s so much going on with it that I’m not sure where to start.

I guess we can begin with Mr. Rolt-Wheeler himself. Back when I thought the book was going to be boring, I thought this post was going to be all about him. According to French Wikipedia, he was born in England and left home at the age of twelve, earning his passage to America as a deckhand on a sailing ship. He then became an Anglican minister (although the New York Times says he was Episcopalian) and also an expert on astrology and the occult.

Sadly, French Wikipedia has nothing to offer on what seems to have been the most sensational part of Rolt-Wheeler’s history. For that, we go to the New York Times Archives, which have plenty to say about the time in 1915 when Rolt-Wheeler’s wife sued him for divorce, accusing him of, among other things, trying to talk her into killing herself. My favorite part: “Here, take this $20; it’s the last you’ll ever get from me. Go to Seagate, hire a boat, and drown yourself. Remember, if I find you home when I return I will leave you forever.”  Later articles suggest that he went to jail rather than pay alimony.

So: not someone you would expect to find writing wholesome stories for children. And I suppose whether or not that is what he did depends on your definition of ‘wholesome.’

The Boy with the U.S. Census is part of a whole series of books about boys working for different bits of the government — the U.S. Fisheries, or the U.S. Weather-Men, or whatever. Our census boy is Hamilton Noble, who we meet just before he starts work as a special assistant in the Census of Manufactures. He’s vacationing in Kentucky, which gives Rolt-Wheeler an excuse to lecture us on a) blood feuds, b) the low mental capacity of poor white people, and c) superstition among the aforesaid poor whites. There’s also a bit on illiteracy, but the lecture there is mostly implied.

Next, he’s sent to New Haven, CT, where he learns about d) the manufacture of Winchester Rifles, e) child labor, and f) foreigners who think census-takers are government spies. The child labor bit is particularly interesting, because Rolt-Wheeler uses a young laborer in a bottle factory as a mouthpiece, has him spout a lot of figures and talk about the crusade he’s going to start, and then very effectively neutralizes him by giving him a fatal illness.

After a detour to Ellis Island to learn lots about g) what exactly happens when immigrants arrive there, Hamilton’s work on the population census takes him to Kentucky again. He has been given the district he requested, but I’m not quite sure why he requested it, as it’s a mostly black area, and Hamilton is massively racist. While enumerating the population we’re given more detail on h) the census itself, and Hamilton learns about i) peanut farming, j) the creation and operation of an all-black town, k) the mental and physical capabilities of black people, l) cotton farming, m) peonage, and n) the mental deficiencies of black people (according to one person Hamilton talks to, Booker T. Washington got his brains from his white father end his color from his black mother).

My favorite bit is when Hamilton arrives in the all-black town of Bullerton and is invited to stay with the preacher, who assures him that they have a spare room reserved specifically for white people. Hamilton, who has been wondering about this very thing, inwardly sighs with relief, but says, “Oh, that’s all right,—it wouldn’t have mattered.” The preacher calls him on it, which is cool, but I’m not sure exactly how much of a mouthpiece for the author he is. It’s interesting, the way Rolt-Wheeler maintains his distance from all the people he has lecture Hamilton over the course of the book. Sometimes, as with the black preacher and the white benefactor of the town, they contradict each other pretty directly. Mostly I think Rolt-Wheeler is almost as much of a racist as he is a xenophobe, but there are other times when I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, as when he makes the preacher’s son a professor of English at an all-black college, and has the preacher talk about how he thinks the standards at black colleges should be higher than at white ones. But then he turns around and starts talking about the benefits of Jim Crow laws, so I don’t know.

On the way back from enumerating his district, Hamilton runs into some hobos, who give him breakfast and talk about o) the uselessness of a classical education, p) how to acquire food without paying for it, and q) how Americans are being driven out of their jobs by immigrants. They don’t particularly want to be counted for the census until Hamilton explains to them that it’s their responsibility as white men to make a good showing against all the non-whites taking over the country. We get one more lecture — r) the high mental capacity ambition of Poles — and then Hamilton gets sent back to Washington, where he’s passed around to various different parts of the Census and taught about s) the inner working of several kinds of tabulation machines, t) the difficulty of travel in Alaska, u) the major exports of Porto Rico, and v) the pygmies of the Philippines.

I am about to run out of letters, I think.

Next Hamilton is sent to New York, his home town (and mine) to check up on other census-takers’ mistakes. We learn about w) New York City as a beacon of progress, x) sweatshops, y) rioting immigrants of various nationalities, and z) a lot of other things that I can’t tell you about because I have run out of letters. Mostly they involve foreign criminal organizations and their growing influence in the United States. Anyway, it’s all enormously xenophobic.

But not boring.

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5 comments

  1. How apt. And timely.


    • I know, right? I wonder if anyone is writing children’s books on the 2010 census.


  2. I don’t think I’d be able to face this one!

    (And aren’t Anglican and Episcopalian basically the same faith? I thought that the Episcopalian bishops are in a direct descent from Anglican ones, it’s just that Americans didn’t want to call themselves after the Church of England. The French of course wouldn’t be bothered by thsoe distinctions!)


    • Bits of it are really interesting, they’re just also totally unrelated to each other. I think probably there’s a subject for everyone in there, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone read the whole book. For example, I directed my brother towards the part about the tabulating machines, which he’ll find fascinating, but I don’t think he’d care at all about the Alaskan section, or the visit to the Winchester factory.

      It’s entirely possible that Anglicans and Episcopalians are basically the same thing. I like the idea of the distinctions between them being totally irrelevant to the French. :D


  3. [...] The Boy with the U.S. Census « Redeeming Qualities [...]



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