Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post: “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes” – Part II

IMG_1804[1]Anyone familiar with Kenneth Roberts knows the reputation he had of being a crotchety man. In the forward to The Kenneth Roberts Reader, Ben Ames Williams recollects stories that highlight Roberts’ curmudgeony personality. If one were to think, however, that Roberts’ contemporaries misunderstood him or were perhaps a bit too sensitive, Roberts sets the record straight in the opening sentence of his June 27, 1936 article in the Saturday Evening Post titled “I Like Girls With Simple Tastes.”  With a penchant for getting straight to the point, Roberts begins by stating “As I grow older and more crotchety, I find myself becoming more and more intolerant of persons impossible of thinking straight, talking sensibly or behaving normally” (10). And with that opening salvo, Roberts provides his readers with a torrent of rapid-fire complaints about the day in which he lived.

Roberts’ dislikes ranges from over-paid actresses and under-paid authors to double-speaking politicians; from a public who idealized the founding fathers of America to “society columns which tend to glorify  the activities of young gentlemen and young ladies whose greatest contribution to the welfare of mankind seems to be a mild interest in motoring, cocktail drinking and divorce” (10).  Roberts’ dislikes include novices who view themselves as better writers than those of classical literature, and people who ignorantly champion a political ideal.

Yet, in 1936, nothing matched Roberts’ growing dislike of “the appearance and ideas of the annoyed-looking girls who sit behind the steering wheels of automobiles during the summer months and drive around the country with a contemptuous and careless air” (10). These girls, as Roberts understands it, portray an air of “sophistication,” and it is the desire for sophistication that “is at the bottom of much of the imbecility that is apparently permeating the United States of America and other nations with such rapidity” (10).

Roberts’ Encounter with Sophisticated Girls

"A group of sophisticated young things undertook to enlighten me." Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 10.

“A group of sophisticated young things undertook to enlighten me.” Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 10.

To illustrate his growing annoyance with sophisticated girls, Roberts recounts a visit he had with twelve sorority girls at a Mid-Western college in America. These ladies considered themselves “more sophisticated…and superior to” the undergraduates of surrounding colleges, and during this visit, they sought to enlighten Roberts about what it meant to be sophisticated.

Through his wit and sarcasm, Kenneth Roberts portrays his conversation with the sorority girls as a microcosm of the culture at large. Each girl prided themselves on being the “mental cream of the university,” with one being well-read in the New York Times, with another who mastered golf such that “she had achieved something which eludes many male mental giants–she played regularly in the low eighties” (10). Another sorority sister was an able poet, while another “held the undergraduate dating championship,” having had no less than four dates a day during her senior year (10).

When asked to define “sophistication,” the university’s cream of the crop provided rather empty, flimsy answers. For one, sophistication meant being well-dressed; that is, a sophisticated girl wears “gloves and a hat to classes, and carry a handbag. She must wear spectator sport clothes to football games in the autumn and active sport clothes in the spring” (10).

The poet defined sophistication as having the right social contacts. Yet, to obtain such contacts, one must dress and act in a sophisticated manner (11).

Baffled by what he had heard up, Roberts hypothesizes that the girls’ use of the word “sophisticated” and his own use of that same word were different. To help him understand what they meant by “sophisticated,” Roberts asked that they explain what they meant by “sophisticated men” (11).  The answers given were just as empty. A sophisticated man was one had “been places and done things” (11); one who knew “how to speak to a waiter so the waiter doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable” and “order a dinner without making you feel embarrassed” (11); he is one who is “seen everywhere” and is known by everyone, is mature, and is well-dressed (11). Further, a sophisticated man is one who can hold his liquor well.

One “fluffy blonde” stated that a sophisticated man was an “exhibitionist”; that is, one who didn’ t play chess or weird “things like that” (11). Finally, according to the poet, a sophisticated man “knows what to do and when to do it” (11).

The Real Definition of Sophistication

For Roberts, he didn’t have the heart to tell them what sophistication really meant. Citing the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, Roberts informs his readers that “sophistication” (and the verb “to sophisticate”) has five meanings, which include ideas such as fallacy, sophistry, to mislead, “to deprive of simplicity,” and to deceive (11). Based upon this more substantive definition, Roberts concludes that when the young sorority girls he met with–and all others like them–talk about sophisticated men, they are actually referring to “young men who mislead; who are specious–who are in a word, bogus” (11). To admire something that is sophisticated is to admire something that is not genuine and not worth having (11).

The Object of Roberts’ Ire

"The sophisticated admirer of rich men explained her system of winning over a reluctant male to her taste in foods and wine" Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 11

“The sophisticated admirer of rich men explained her system of winning over a reluctant male to her taste in foods and wine” Saturday Evening Post 208:52 (6/27/36), p. 11

The remainder of Roberts’ article is a response to an article written by a young, sophisticated lady (more on this in another post) who boldly claimed that she was interested only in men who had “the assurance, ease and arrogance that only money can give” (11).  Roberts’ questions such qualities, for it defines a “pretty poor specimen” (11).

Further, the young lady characterized the sophisticated man as one who was desired by other women, and one who “dares to break an engagement at the last moment if he is offered an opportunity to participate in something more interesting” (84). For Roberts, such characteristics fail to describe successful men, for they have not the time to be paraded around to be admired by other women, and they would not be successful if they made the habit of breaking commitments (84).

Much more can be said about Roberts summary of this young lady’s admiration of men with money–their affinity for first-class entertainment and an aversion to anything less; their knowledge of the finest wines–yet to do so would make an already long post longer.   He mentions, though, that her “philosophy of life” failed to “mention anything as stupid as books” (84 – classic Roberts’ sarcasm!). However, if she were to pine about books as she did food, wines, dress and money, Roberts was sure that she would prefer the “moment’s best seller to a cheap edition of one of Jane Austen’s novels” (84).

Sherry: A Case Study

According to Roberts, what the young sorority girls and the sophisticated author aimed for – a knowledge of the finer things of life – could not be attained by reading the latest social columns or best-sellers. Rather, it takes a lifetime to be an expert in something.

Roberts illustrates his point by sharing about his fondness of sherry. Yet, for a time, the amount of sherry he drank would not qualify him as an expert in the drink. This was driven home by a visit he made to a sherry-exporting firm in Spain. Here he was shown how sherry was made, stored, drawn, and packaged. The sampling room exposed Roberts to numerous kinds of sherry, whose consistency, color, and flavor varied based upon how they were made and how long they were stored (among other factors).

Despite everything he learned in his visit, Roberts acknowledges that he still lacks the extensive knowledge about sherry that would make him an expert. In fact, he confesses: “I still know very little about sherry” (86).

The sophisticated young girls of his day pretended to have extensive knowledge about wines, current events, etc. That which they portray (and I’m sure Roberts would say this of “sophisticated” men) is only a facade; they are misled into thinking they know more than they really do. For Roberts, he “can’t get along with girls whose tastes aren’t simple – chiefly because [he has] found their beliefs so irritatingly dishonest” (87).  He concludes

The reasoning of the ladies who like men with money is too intricate, too irritating, for me. I prefer girls who think more accurately; who are sufficiently unspoiled to understand the beauty and good taste of simplicity” (87).

***Updated 7/12/14 1:30 am – Corrected “Ben Ames” to “Ben Ames Williams”

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