Contrariwise: The Best Column We’ve Ever Published

Even more than a century ago, Americans were saying the most absurd superlatives.

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—This article was published in The Saturday Evening Post on December 1, 1900

“The love of beauty,” wrote Emerson, “is mainly the love of measure or proportion. The person who screams or uses the superlative degree or converses with heat, puts whole drawing-rooms to flight.”

“The thing which impresses me most in my own country is the constant use of the superlative degree,” said a woman, recently returning from a long sojourn abroad. “I did not notice it in Great Britain nor on the Continent, but here I hear about the highest building, the best-selling novel, the paper with the largest circulation, the most eloquent preacher, the youngest college graduate, the oldest inhabitant, the fastest horse, and the most palatial yacht, till I feel like asking if there are no degrees but the superlative. The steamship which brought me over had to break the record for speed.”

“If I could find a place where people are simply good or bad, young or old, rich or poor, I would gladly spend my days there!”

I have been staying for a few days in the town where I was born and bred, and there I found the superlative degree rampant. The people voted a Morris chair to the most popular Sunday school superintendent, a ring to the prettiest girl, and a dictionary to the most popular school teacher. Perhaps by this time they are giving a silver cup to the child who has eaten the most food.

Recently I met a young man who had been the speaker in the legislature of a Western state. He was introduced to me as the youngest ex-speaker in the United States. I felt like asking what I was expected to do about it. I had never seen any work on etiquette telling one how to acknowledge an introduction to the youngest ex-speaker in the United States.

Within the last few months we have seen portraits of the youngest college president in the country. A friend told me that she had been looking up the history of the kindergarten in this country, and she had discovered that at least three women had been the first to import it from Germany.

Riding home on the train, I remarked to a friend, “If I could find a place where people are simply good or bad, young or old, rich or poor, I would gladly spend my days there!” But just at that moment, my friend put her hands over her ears, as a vendor came through the car shouting: “Blank’s chocolates are the best. Take no others.”

This article is featured in the May/June 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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