I recently had to handle a bully on Facebook. I ended up blocking him. However, back in the 1860s, there was no Facebook. Heck, there was no electricity! Relationships played out face-to-face, and only face-to-face. There was no such thing as blocking someone. You could stop speaking to the other person, but chances were good that you would run into them while out and about.
As Editor-in-Chief of the Register, Eli sometimes does things that anger others. This may happen because he has had his staff do an investigative piece, or he may have written an editorial that is critical of a power-figure in the town.
In Seeing the Elephant, we are introduced to a wealthy industrialist by the name of Josiah Norton. Josiah owns several textile mills in and around Paterson. Paterson is, by the way, where many textile companies began in New Jersey. Now, Josiah has set his sites on western New Jersey. While Eli and family were sojourning in Pennsylvania, Josiah bought an old mill to the south of Blaineton, restored it, and launched a woolen mill as well as a factory that produces uniforms for Union soldiers.
Eli does not come without his prejudices. We all do. The editor is heavy-set and not the most dashing among men. So he feels a bit of jealousy toward good-looking, fit men. In addition, an incident that occurs in the first book, Saint Maggie, has made it necessary that Eli use a cane to walk around. While he exudes external confidence, inside he mourns the man he once was and has questions about his ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other men.
It is no wonder that, when he meets Josiah, he has a predisposition to dislike him.
However, Eli’s suspicion of the handsome, tall industrialist grows into dislike when he sees that Josiah also is egocentric, imperious, and money-hungry. Worse yet, Norton does not seem to care about his employees. Rather, he sees them as living cogs in his factories' wheels. (This was not unusual among many 19th-century industrialists, or even among the general population – the poor and the working poor were often seen as “not quite human.”)
It is obvious that sooner or later Eli and Josiah will have problems. Things get challenging when, after touring Josiah’s factory and mill, and then visiting other factories located in Trenton, Eli writes an editorial, criticizing industrialists for dangerous working conditions, extremely low wages, and poor employee housing (when they happen to provide it). Josiah takes the editorial personally, even though Eli neither mentions Josiah or other industrialists by name.
Later, when Josiah takes over the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane and proceeds to make it a money-making venture, Eli does his homework, finds out what is going on in the hospital, and contacts Dorothea Dix, a real-life crusader for better treatment of those with mental and emotional illnesses. In her response to Eli, Dorothea excoriates Josiah and he publishes her response in the Register.
Predictably, Josiah is enraged. He marches into Eli’s office ready to do battle and wants to force the editor to retract the statements about the hospital. But Eli is ready for him and has letters to the editor on hand to show the town’s growing disapproval Josiah's handling of the asylum.
Eli’s strategy of handling Josiah is to remain calm, stick to the facts, and be ready for blowback. He does not want to get involved in a physical fight. He abhors violence and also knows he could not prevail in a fist fight. So, he lets any and all name-calling slide off his back.
These techniques come in handy again when, in my work-in-progress, The Good Community Maggie becomes convinced that she, Emily, and her sister-in-law need to start a school for the black children of the town. This occurs when they are shocked at the school board’s refusal to admit black children to the better-equipped school, which has only white children. The older school, located on Water Street, is run down. Since a number of black families have left the town for more friendly territory in Canada, the few children that remain are being taught by a fourteen-year-old girl.
Josiah, who has found a way onto the town’s school board, is infuriated that Maggie would deign to meddle with the schools. He even tries to bully Eli so he will force Maggie to cease and desist.
Little Bob Smith may be able to address a bully by fighting back as a last resort, but his father Eli deals with Josiah’s bullying by maintaining keeping his composure, knowing the facts, and trying to get at the root of what is bothering Norton.
Note: the conclusion of their conversation is less than satisfactory, at least for most of us in this day and age. When Eli states that white children probably will not be attending the school, Norton is mollified. He tells Eli that Maggie can do what she wants under the “condition” that she does not solicit children from Blaineton School.
Of course, if we think for one second that Maggie would turn any child away from the new school, or that Eli ever would force his wife to accept Josiah’s conditions… well, we’d be wrong, wouldn’t we?
And so would Norton.
See you on Friday.