Had I nothing but historical documents, I would have but a simplistic notion of who my great-great-grandfather was. A self-taught student who rose to be a college student, teacher and founding school administrator of Alfred Academy; Principal of Rushford Academy; Captain of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers in the Union Army; assistant geologist to Charles D. Walcott with the United States Geological Survey.
A son, brother, husband, father.
But I have letters. And poems. And journal articles. And more letters.
Clearly, Ira Sayles was a complicated man, with a rich interior life. His core identity was constructed from his intellectual activities, not his familial relationships. He harbored ambitions for his poetry, teaching methods, and scientific observations, and nursed grudges with a world that failed to recognize his brilliance.
In an undated letter to his friend, EB Hall, a druggest and amateur paleontologist in Wellsville, New York, Ira Sayles declares:
People may not be willing to accredit me with being their
Ideal Man. I have never striven to be their Ideal Man; but I do strive to be my own Ideal Man. I am no social puppet. The Ideal Man of Society is but a puppet. He must attitude, and bob, and bow, according to the notions of a silly mob, for whose good opinion I will not turn on my heel.
Apparently Ira and EB Hall had been discussing the notion of wealth, how the great entrepreneurs of the age–Vanderbilt, Cornell, Rothschild–had used their money to endow public institutions. Ira took issue with the social standing that these men accrued because of their riches and legacies.
I know the power of wealth. I acknowledge its good, and I deplore its evils. I can say, too, I have felt its evils. I do not care to rehearse my experiences; nor will I enter into any explanations why I have been so long a homeless wanderer over this beautiful Earth. The story shall remain untold.
No man can win through the ordinary course of business, a large fortune, but that every dollar is cursed with the tears of the hungry, the naked, the shelterless!
Ira’s disdain for capitalistic success was connected to his concern about the changing aspirations of women. In fact, in this letter, Ira predicted a total breakdown of the social order. Because of financial expectations men, the natural providers for women, would not be able to afford the trappings of success needed to be married. Wealth among the few would contribute to women not getting married and having children, and men frequenting houses of ill repute because they could not afford wives.
Ira’s legacy, however, would not be appraised in terms of the dollar.
Instead of making Wealth an object of Life—the object of Life—I will make, as I have long been making, complete fullness of manhood and womanhood, in all its richness, not the chief
but the only end of Life.
Perhaps you, like others, will call me a dreamer, indulging in an illusive (sic) fancy that will forever mock my hope. Be it so. I have the satisfaction and the joy of living that life myself; I will build myself a home where whoever will, may come and partake with me freely, on the same conditions as I impose on myself, viz. Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature. That and that only.
Living up to the Complete Laws of Human Nature.
Where the ideal man provided for the ideal woman who remained at home and became mothers. Where everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, and honorable work to complete.
Ira’s utopia. Did he ever discover the wealth inside his own ideal?
Letter from Ira Sayles to EB Hall of Wellsville, New York, ca. 1885; Hall Family Documents, privately held by Jay Woelfle [address for private use,] 2018. Transcribed by D. Kay Strickland, 2018.