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Margaret Halsey

  • The idea is that inside every human being, however unprepossessing, there is a glorious, talented, and overwhelmingly attractive personality. Nonsense. Inside each of us is a mess of unruly, primitive impulses, and these can sometimes, under the strenuous self-discipline and dedication of art, result in notable creativity.

    • Margaret Halsey,
    • in Newsweek ()
  • My knees could have been stirred with a spoon.

  • It is possible to eat English piecrust, whatever you may think at first. The English eat it, and when they stand up and walk away, they are hardly bent over at all.

  • ... the conversation whipped gaily around the table like rags in a high wind.

  • Englishwomen's shoes look as if they had been made by someone who had often heard shoes described, but had never seen any ...

  • The English never smash in a face. They merely refrain from asking it to dinner.

  • From a purely tourist standpoint, Oxford is overpowering, being so replete with architecture and history and anecdote that the visitor's mind feels dribbling and helpless, as with an over-large mouthful of nougat.

  • Humility is not my forte, and whenever I dwell for any length of time on my own shortcomings, they gradually begin to seem mild, harmless, rather engaging little things, not at all like the staring defects in other people's characters.

  • They ... talk simply because they think sound is more manageable than silence.

  • The soup, thin and dark and utterly savorless, tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.

  • I was well warned about English food, so it did not surprise me, but I do wonder, sometimes, how they ever manage to prise it up long enough to get a plate under it.

  • ... an omelet so light we had to lay our knives across it and even then it struggled.

  • Auntie walked with a cane and she wore a great many rings and rustled when she moved, but her handshake ought not to be used except as a tourniquet.

  • Listening to Britons dining out is like watching people play first-class tennis with imaginary balls.

  • ... it takes a great deal to produce ennui in an Englishman and if you do, he only takes it as convincing proof that you are well-bred.

  • The attitude of the English, as a matter of fact, toward English history, reminds one a good deal of the attitude of a Hollywood director toward love

  • English life is seventh-eighths below the surface, like an iceberg, and living in England for a year constitutes merely an introduction to an introduction to an introduction to it.

  • ... the English think of an opinion as something which a decent person, if he has the misfortune to have one, does all he can to hide.

  • ... she blushed like a well-trained sunrise.

  • Mr. Richards is a tall man with what must have been a magnificent build before his stomach went in for a career of its own.

  • He works so hard, Jeff, and I wish I could persuade him to take things a little more easily; but it would be like inducing a sledge hammer to loiter on the downward arc.

  • ... I was so embarrassed I could feel my nerves curling like bacon over a hot fire.

  • I suppose you can't have everything, though my instinctive response to this sentiment is always, 'Why not?'

  • ... Father's snoring grows to sound increasingly like a vacuum cleaner in heat.

  • That's the trouble with hitching your wagon to a star — nothing happens when you say, 'Giddyap!'

  • I'd like somebody to breed a male, genus homo, who could go and fetch a 12" x 8" black suède purse lying in the middle of a white bedspread and not come back looking baffled and saying he couldn't find it.

  • A lady getting a missing belt back from the cleaner couldn't have been more surprised and pleased ...

  • Infants, I note with envy, are receptive to enjoyment in a degree not attained by adults this side of the new Jerusalem.

  • When she gets excited, her voice rises to a pitch generally considered suitable only for hog-calling.

  • Deborah doesn't know yet that all you need to eat with is your mouth. She's under the impression that it requires the entire face ...

  • Americans (I, I'm afraid, among them) go around carelessly assuming they're tolerant the way they go around carelessly saying, 'You ought to be in pictures.' But in the clinches, they turn out to be tolerant about as often as they turn out to be Clark Gable.

  • ... you have to realize the white-supremacy boys are spoiled children. 'I want my way,' they scream, and like all spoiled children, they advance no justification for it except that it is their way.

  • There's nothing you can do about the race problem, Tom says, that's safe. We've let it go too long for that. The only choice we have left is between perilous courses that are democratic and perilous courses that aren't democratic.

  • The only way not to worry about the race problem is to be doing something about it yourself. When you are, natural human vanity makes you feel that now the thing is in good hands.

  • The word 'Communist' is like the word 'bastard.' It started out as a specific label for a definite thing, but it's grown into a term of general abuse. If I get into a fight with a taxi driver and he calls me a bastard, he doesn't mean I'm illegitimate. He doesn't know whether I am or not. He just means he thoroughly disapproves of me. ... Mrs. Sadler, like the taxi driver, hasn't got a very large vocabulary, so she has to get her epithets from the ready-to-wear department.

  • Tom, who always seems to be cheerful in the wrong places, says gaily that we're going down fighting. That, however, is one of those trick remarks men make to whip themselves up to a pitch of unwarranted optimism. Women, being more practical, do not fail to note that though it may be true that we're fighting, it's equally true that we're going down.

  • The only men who can turn my blood stream into a condition resembling heavy surf are good-looking heels with characters as intricately unpleasant as the sewers of Paris. With decent and honorable gents, I come all over Platonic. Was ever a woman so perverse and wrongheaded?

  • Equality is an unconscious assumption, and if you feel you are treating someone as an equal, then you are not doing it.

  • ... democracy produces both heroes and villains, but it differs from a fascist state in that it does not produce a hero who is a villain.

  • Example is better than precept.

  • The important thing about human beings is not what they do, but why they do it.

  • Passionately prejudiced people always turn out, under scrutiny, to be people who cannot get along on a footing of equality with anyone ...

  • Democracy makes many taxing demands on its practitioners, but suspension of the intelligence is not one of them.

  • Humorists are not humorous twenty-four hours a day. In fact, when you get to know them well, they are often not humorous at all. They tend to be hypersensitive, taut, neurotic creatures driven by God knows what obscure compulsion to earn their living the hard way.

  • One of the less dismaying aspects of race relations in the United States is that their improvement is not a matter of a few people having a great deal of courage. It is a matter of a great many people having just a little courage.

  • The modification of prejudice takes a long time, and occurs as the result of a thousand things that happen to the prejudiced person — things he sees and hears and reads, people he talks to, and places he visits. Any given reformer must be content to take a small and obscure place in a chain of cumulative pressures.

  • In practice, there is nothing especially dramatic in people getting along well together.

  • ... prejudice will always exist. So will sickness and disease, but that scarcely seems sufficient reason for telling our medical scientists to put on their hats, close up their laboratories, and give the spirochetes, bacilli and viruses a free hand.

  • ... in race relations, the single gesture and the single individual are more often than not doomed to failure. Only the group and the long-term, undeviating policy make much headway. ... if you want to make the world a better place, the first thing you must accept is the fact that you cannot transcend your limitations as an individual.

  • If you embark on a project as magnificent in concept as the brotherhood of man, it is foolish not to anticipate difficulties of proportionate magnificence.

  • The integration of the Negro into American society is one of the most exciting challenges to self-development and self-mastery that any nation of people ever faced.

  • A society struggles to fulfill its best instincts, even as an individual does, and generally makes just as hard going of it. The fight against prejudice is an inevitable process. Man has been warring against his own lower nature ever since he found out he had one, and the battle against intolerance is part of the same old struggle between good and evil that has preoccupied us ever since we gave up swinging from trees.

  • The people who are unprejudiced, but who ... feel it is so hopeless there is no use trying ... probably do just as much damage to the emotional atmosphere in which we are facing the problem as the fanatical Negrophobes.

  • The feelings, myths and prejudices about the Negro American which now seem so valid and real to some of our white contemporaries will take their place on the shelf along with the belief in witches and the notion that the earth is the center of the solar system.  Nobody knows as yet whether the future [of the race situation] is hopeless. All we know is that it can be made hopeless, if enough people choose to consider it so.

  • Working with children is the easiest part of education for democracy, because children are still undefeated and have no stake in being prejudiced.

  • ... it is a waste of time to ask more of people than they have to give.

  • If, as I suspected at the time, I was a one-book writer, I wanted to be the kind of one-book writer who writes only one book.

  • There are dozens of ways of failing to make money. It is one thing to fail to make money because your single talent happens to be a flair amounting to genius for translating the plays of Aristophanes. It is quite another thing to fail to make money because you are black, or a child, or a woman.

  • Folklore is a collection of ridiculous notions held by other people, but not by you and me.

  • The great disadvantage of being in a rat race is that it is humiliating. The competitors in a rat race are, by definition, rodents.

  • Money does not corrupt people. What corrupts people is lack of affection. ... Money is simply the bandage which wounded people put over their wounds.

  • ... the role of the Do-Gooder is not what actors call a fat part.

  • It is impossible to betray another man's child — for whatever reason — without also betraying one's own. To do less than justice to another man's child, no matter who that man is, is to impair by that much the chances one's own children have for a life of meaning and purpose.

  • ... the whole flavor and quality of the American representative government turns to ashes on the tongue, if one regards that government as simply an inferior and rather second-rate sort of corporation.

  • ... the real nature of an ethic is that it does not become an ethic unless and until it goes into action.

  • ... being in the middle class is a feeling as well as an income level.

  • What I know about money, I learned the hard way — by having had it.

  • We know of our own knowledge that we are human beings, and, as such, imperfect. But we are bathed by the communications industry in a ceaseless tide of inhuman, impossible perfection.

  • Our Republic is not a pastoral, not a military, not an agricultural, not a nomadic, not a clerical, but a business civilization. Nor is there anything random, casual or accidental about the United States as a business society. It is thoroughly well integrated — organized from top to bottom for the maximum efficiency of commerce and industry, for the maximum efficiency of making money.

  • There are ... other business societies — England, Holland, Belgium and France, for instance. But ours [the United States] is the only culture now extant in which business so completely dominates the national scene that sports, crime, sex, death, philanthropy and Easter Sunday are money-making propositions.

  • ... the psychological attitudes which are indispensable in the American market place are disastrous to family life. Family life ... requires yieldingness, generosity, sympathy, altruism, tenderness—all the qualities, in fact, which lead straight to bankruptcy. ... the American family is tragically out of gear with the profit structure which has mushroomed up around it.

  • ... the American family is failing in its job of turning out stable human beings. ... It is failing because Americans do not dare to cultivate in themselves those characteristics which would make family life creative and rewarding. To do so, would ruin them financially.

  • ... the crucial disadvantage of aggression, competitiveness and skepticism as national characteristics is that these qualities cannot be turned off at five o'clock.

  • ... the position of children as a group, in a commercial society, is not wholly advantageous. A commercial society urges its citizens to be responsible for things, but not for people. It is the unquestioned assumption of a mercantile culture that things need and deserve attention, but that people can take care of themselves ...

  • ... children are an embarrassment to a business civilization. A business society needs children for the same reason that a nomadic or a pastoral society needs them — to perpetuate itself. Unfortunately, however, children are of no use to a business society until they have almost reached physical maturity.

  • A business society, therefore, always has in its children a large group of individuals who cannot make money and who do not understand (or want to understand) the profit motive. In short, they are subversives ...

  • The business society is interested in training its citizens to make money, and, in this objective, it is often successful. Many of them do make money, and the ones who do not obligingly regard themselves as failures who have wasted the precious gift of life.

  • ... organized religion, in a dominating business society, can do only one of two things. It can either assure the communicant with uneasy bluster that God Himself likes money — a theory which convinces nobody — or it can give him an apologetic, halfhearted invitation to go out and get himself crucified.

  • In a business society, the emotional economy is an economy of scarcity.

  • ... in the comparatively short time between my childhood and my daughter's, the business society has ceased urging people to produce and is now exerting its very considerable influence to get them to consume.

  • In a business society, the role of sex can be summed up in five pitiful little words. There is money in it.

  • ... American business, while it does not frown on helping the human race, frowns on people who start right in helping the human race without first proving that they can sell things to it.

  • ... this year's blasphemy is next year's liberating truth ...

  • Dr. Aspirin's face wore the expression of one who has a soufflé in the oven when they start blasting down the street.

  • ... Harry is walking with a cane these days. ... What necessitated the cane was the fact of Young Cat scampering among Harry's ankles at a moment when Harry happened to be walking among them himself.

  • ... I am living with a rising generation which talks like people coming out of ether.

  • How close beneath the surface, even in the happiest family, is the chronic grievance! I sometimes think that tinderboxes are inert and powder kegs mere talcum compared to the explosive possibilities in the most commoplace domestic situation.

  • I would have felt more comfortable on a girder fifty floors above the street, catching white-hot rivets in a pail.

  • ... the adjuration to 'Be realistic' merely means 'Agree with me, and think the way I think.'

  • As one might expect in a society with mass communications and mass markets, the pseudo-ethic says that whatever is popular, is right. Where the traditional ethic derives its sanction from the superiority of a few, the pseudo-ethic derives its sanction from the inferiority of a great many. The pseudo-ethic is keyed, not to the spiritually gifted, but to the spiritually ungifted.

  • ... when I spoke of having a drink, it was a euphemism for having a whole flock of them.

  • Employed as I had been employing it, liquor is a fixative of old patterns ...

  • Bulldogs have been known to fall on their swords when confronted by my superior tenacity ...

  • ... people coming away from a session with Dr. S. usually looked as if they had had fifty minutes on the anvil with an apprentice blacksmith.

  • The little entourage of friends and relatives whom she completely dominated was fond of saying, 'Becky would give you the shirt off her back.' And it was true. The only trouble was that she neglected to take it off first, and what you found on your back was not only Becky's shirt but Becky too.

  • The people who say you are not facing reality actually mean that you are not facing their idea of reality. Reality is above all else a variable, and nobody is qualified to say that he or she knows exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, with a firm enough commitment, you can sometimes create a reality which did not exist before. Protestantism itself is proof of that.

  • A person may be totally unimaginative and have the social vision of a mole, and we still call him a decent man ...

  • Every time I think I've touched bottom as far as boredom is concerned, new vistas of ennui open up.

  • The stress laid on upward social mobility in the United States has tended to obscure the fact that there can be more than one kind of mobility and more than one direction in which it can go. There can be ethical mobility as well as financial, and it can go down as well as up.

  • Not being one to calculate or look ahead, I had not stopped to think, when boys started paying attention to me, that the cup might be dashed from my lips, though experience should have taught me that dashing cups from lips was the way Victorian parents got most of their exercise.

  • ... he went to work on my character with the unstoppable fury of Oliver Cromwell putting dents in the church plate.

  • You could, without arousing a storm of protest, have described us as rather a dull couple.

  • ... giving up alcohol or cigarettes is a lead-pipe cinch compared to the renunciation of complacence by a former (self-appointed) elite.

  • Life itself, however, flows and is sequential and punishes those who try to compartmentalize it. Thus if, for any reason whatsoever, moral standards are conspicuously and unprecedentedly breached in one area of society, such as the political, it will follow as the night the day that those standards will start collapsing all down the line—in sports, entertainment, education, the armed forces, business and government.

  • Success does not implant bad characteristics in people. It merely steps up the growth rate of the bad characteristics they already had.

  • ... in some circumstances, the refusal to be defeated is a refusal to be educated.

  • Identity is not found, the way Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the bulrushes. Identity is built.

    • Margaret Halsey,
    • on the search for identity, in Newsweek ()

Margaret Halsey, U.S. writer

(1910 - 1997)

Full name: Margaret Frances Halsey Stern

A brilliant woman whose books should still be read today.