In 1906, R. L. Duffus and his older brother William started attending Stanford University. Believe it or not, there was a time when tuition at Stanford was so cheap that a young man could work his way through school with the most meagerly-paid jobs. R. L. and his brother needed to work because there was no money in their family. They had come to California with their father to help him recuperate from years of crippling exposure to granite dust in a Vermont quarry.
Not long before starting their second year, they found out that Thorstein Veblen, a professor at Stanford and one of the most influential economists and social critics of the early 20th century, needed a student to keep house for him. His wife had left him, and he’d moved into a run-down cottage at Cedro, a mile or so from the campus. The fact that his wife had left in protest over his philandering was just one aspect of Veblen, who tended to be blunt, rude, vocal in his opinions and not the least interested in social mores, that led the school to show him the door the next year. William Duffus told Veblen that he’d have to accept R. L. and their father as part of the deal, the three working for one salary. Veblen, who clearly tolerated a good deal of mess and disorder in his life, accepted. “He could have managed with about two-fifths of a student,” R. L. reflects.
The Innocents at Cedro is R. L.’s memoir of the year they spent living and working at Veblen’s cottage. Despite the subtitle, though, the book is less about Veblen and more about how a couple of naive young men both learned a little of the ways of the world and managed to keep a sense of wonder about things.
What makes the book worth rediscovering, though, is not the story but Duffus’ way of telling it. Writing as World War Two was filling the papers with news of battles and casualties, Duffus appreciates the gentleness of the world and people he encountered nearly forty years earlier. But he also acknowledges that he remembers best the things that interested him at the time. Veblen was just some professor they worked for and who had some reputation for being a great thinker. And so, he admits, “most of what Veblen said to us is gone forever…. We were not Boswells.”
One thing R. L. did remember, however, from occasionally copying out Veblen’s lecture notes, was that his footnotes “sometimes ran to great lengths, and were very impressive.” “I have been fond of notes ever since. This is why there are so many of them in this book,” R. L. remarks in his own footnote to the first statement. The footnotes are, in many ways, the best part of the book. Duffus shares a little of Tristram Shandy in him. Throughout the book, he wanders off the narrative path to insert some observation into a wry and self-mocking footnote.
“Cedro Cottage also had an indefinite number of cats,” he recalls at one point, foot-noting this with the following:
My brother doubts the statement. He thinks the cats could easily have been counted and were therefore not indefinite in number. But it seems to me that they were numerous enough to be difficult to count, especially as some of them were always coming and going, and, the climate being mild, were not kept indoors at night. They had lives of their own, which intersected ours at only a few points. They were busy and preoccupied and, except for the yellow tom, didn’t give a damn about anything.
A couple of horses and a yard full of chickens also lived at the Cottage. This was also a time when most people got around by horse or bicycle, which kept the pace of life much slower than during the automobile age when R. L. wrote the book. Although, like many people at the time, R. L. and William had been raised around animals, in memory he recalls the animals as generally smarter and more practical than any of the people living there.
R. L. and William were both idealists. They were at an age and time when people–young men in particular–latched onto theories–sound, unproved and crackpot alike–and let them drive their lives. “William said he intended to devote his life to abolishing poverty,” R. L. writes, then notes at the bottom of the page, “He believes the idea was sound, and is sorry that the best he has been able to do to date is to keep himself and his family just above the hunger line.”
He also recalls a batch of his fellow students who adopted an early form of veganism:
I knew some young men who lived in Encina Hall, the men’s dormitory on the campus, subsisting for prolonged periods on nuts, dates, figs and other uncooked foods. These young men grew quite thin and would, I think, have disappeared entirely if they hadn’t occasionally been invited out to dinner. A few of them experimented with fasting for several days at a time. They grew soulful and some of them even broke into poetry. At Stanford in those days some people would try almost anything once.
“I wonder if this is the case today,” he muses.
In the course of the year at Cedro, R. L. and William’s father dies, passing quietly. Harry George, a consumptive self-taught radical and early member of the I. W. W., joins them at the cottage, and takes on the job of setting the boys straight about philosophy, capitalism and sex. An attractive young woman comes to the cottage, puts them in awe, and stays the night. When William later asks about Veblen about his niece, the Professor fixes him “with a cold and tranquil eye. ‘She is not my niece,’ he said.”
“And that was that,” R. L. concludes.
Although The Innocents at Cedro has been reissued as an economics classic, it is nothing more than a gentle and funny book that provides several hours of very pleasant and enjoyable reading. R. L. Duffus, who spent most of his life as a newspaper reporter before turning to writing novels in his fifties, made no great claims for what he was doing–which is probably why it turned out so well.
- “Duffus’ first and reluctant venture into autobiography held –for me — far greater quality than anything else he has written.”–Kirkus Reviews
- “The book is not as deep as a very deep well and is not intended to be, but it is quite as refreshing as a spring, clear and bubbly.”–Phil Stong, Saturday Review
- “What we were about to say of The Innocents at Cedro, by R. L. Duffus, is that it is not only delightful reading, by virtue of style and wit, but it will stand a lot of thinking over…. It is a genuine literary achievement to have made one rather irregular household, in a California small town, so fully representative of a period and a whole nation–like a view through a camera aperture.”–Isabel Paterson in her “Turns with a Bookworm” column in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review
- “A truly charming slide of autobiography of a year, 1907-1908, at Cedro Cottage, near Stanford University. Mr Duffus spent the year living in the household of Thorstein Veblen, of whom he has a great deal to say. But the book has value beyond that: it digs deeply into the heart of an idealistic youth of nineteen and into an era when America itself was going though adolescent pains.”–The American Mercury