September 25, 2017

Richard Cory and How the Other Half Lives

Does anybody else remember that early Simon & Garfunkel song “Richard Cory”? (I just heard somebody ask, “Who’s Simon & Garfunkel?” Somebody else is looking them up in Martindale. <Sigh> I feel old.) Check out this video: two guys in jackets and ties, one mic, one guitar… and that raw 60’s revolutionary edge. Here are the lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

Chorus:
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

Chorus

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

Chorus

The song was inspired by a poem of the same name, by Edwin Arlington Robinson, himself the son of a wealthy New England businessman:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

“How the other half lives.” My dad used to say that when he encountered someone who was, by his standards, rich. He would have said that if he had ever met Richard Cory.

The song and poem drip with irony. Irony is an educated, acquired taste — something someone like Miuccia Prada might appreciate — yes that Prada, the kind the Devil wears. My dad didn’t qualify for irony, I guess. If he had, he would have noticed the irony in how he used the phrase.

This is from Wikipedia:

“How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) was an early publication of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future “muckraking” journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle classes. This work inspired many reforms of working-class housing, both immediately after publication as well as making a lasting impact in today’s society.”

Yet another irony is that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel probably went on to become wealthier than Richard Cory was himself.

And here’s one last irony for us all:  After all those UVA and Gallup and United Nations surveys I’ve been writing about, plus all those opinions and analyses of eminent economists like Adam Smith, Richard Easterlin, and Angus Deaton, and all those quotes by rich and famous people about money and happiness… most of us would still side with the factory workers and townspeople — we would still trade places with Richard Cory, given half a chance.

What is up with that?

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