Books

The Mysterious Charm of Choosing Radical Poverty

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A cult-classic novel from the 1920s about a modern-day St. Francis continues to fascinate.

Living paycheck to paycheck is only romantic in the past tense—unless you are Mr. Blue. In that case, you don’t even have a paycheck. Instead, you beg for the honor of shoveling snow in the dead of winter in exchange for a bowl of soup. You give money away when you get it and trust in the goodness of friends (i.e., strangers) to survive.

Who is Mr. Blue? The brainchild of an Old Hollywood screenwriter, Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue (1927) reads like a mystery novel, but instead of a mystery about murder, this mystery novel pries into the mind of a man with brains, talent, and charm who mysteriously lives (by choice!) as a pauper—and he’s happy, almost insanely happy to be poor. The story continues to fascinate after almost a century in print.

Slowly, Mr. Blue’s motivation becomes clear: He wants to be poor because he wants to help the poor. But he doesn’t want to save them from poverty. He wants to save their souls.
While Mr. Blue realizes that each of us has a soul in need of saving, he is unsatisfied with the nameless street evangelist who approaches sinners on subways or preachers who sermonize from the pulpit. He envisions a more human encounter.

“They would not heed a street harangue,” Mr. Blue says of the impoverished. “They would suspect a minister or social worker on sight. But they would listen to him, their companion, their fellow, as they made their listless journeys or lay awake in their haphazard sleeping places.” Instead of a stranger, who has no knowledge of your story or your troubles, the person offering salvation ought to be a friend who had shared your burden and who could listen and speak to your concern — even if the price of this evangelization is to live with you on the streets.

Mr. Blue seeks followers to minister as he does, hoping to form “A Secret Service for God” or, as he later calls the group, “Spies of God” who would eventually permeate all fields of work, especially journalism and advertising.

The novel is a fictional biography, narrated by a friend who refuses to partake in Mr. Blue’s love of poverty, but who finds himself drawn to listen to Mr. Blue’s idiosyncratic ideas and follow his adventures. Mr. Blue spends hours flying kites, setting colorful balloons free, and making impassioned statements about everyday innocuous activities. He wants to abolish the wearing of hats, advocates for one meal a day, and abhors soft mattresses.

The friend watches as Mr. Blue slowly sheds more and more material comforts in order to live in the slums with the poor.

The novel could raise the question: Why does Mr. Blue see the poor as having such a great need of soul-saving? Does the manual laborer store up more sins than the rich executive? Are those on the margins of society less religious than the upper-middle class?

In the novel, the soul of the rich man is addressed only once, and only as an afterthought—a problem to be handled after the poor have been saved. Perhaps Connolly saw the impoverished as already closer to Heaven because they lacked material distractions, and therefore they were his initial concern. Mr. Blue, an ardent Catholic and frequent reader of the New Testament, was perhaps thinking of the quote of Christ, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The idealistic Mr. Blue always speaks of poverty as the ultimate way to live. He never endorses but instead opposes the narrator’s career as a solid and dependable businessman.  Love and service to Christ mean sacrifice, which is accomplished through renouncing material goods. St. Francis took up the challenge—and Mr. Blue in modern America is heeding the call.

Connolly years later conceded that Mr. Blue’s lifestyle and rigid adherence to poverty may have been unrealistic or even unworthy of imitation for most people. Connelly wrote in the novel’s silver-anniversary addition, “I feel that Mr. Blue, like Thoreau, failed to make the distinction that what is sauce for the bachelor may not be sauce for the married man or father at all.”

As a financially successful screenwriter living in Malibu with a wife and five children, Connolly must have realized that money can be a blessing, and not always a curse. He wrote Mr. Blue, after all, at the tender age of 27.

Still, the novel is more than a flight of the imagination to many readers. While most Americans aspire to a stable job that supports a family, they also sense that material wealth, however necessary, is never really the final goal. The meaning of life can’t be finite, according to our intangible souls—and, perhaps, we need a reality (even if that reality is found only in books) that clears away the clutter of the material world in order to make spiritual contemplation possible.

If Mr. Blue’s overarching message about poverty fails to hold water, the book does at least set the stage for Mr. Blue to wax eloquent about many philosophical and religious topics. This study of philosophy takes place far from the hustle of the daily grind and the noise of the city. He speaks with guests about God at his rent-free “apartment,” a crate on the top of a skyscraper.

Frank Capra, the legendary director of It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life, writes about his friendship with Connolly in The Name above the Title: An Autobiography. Capra mentions, almost in passing, that at many Hollywood parties Connolly would pitch Mr. Blue to filmmakers—but although Connolly was successful enough to win an Oscar nomination in screenwriting, he never fulfilled his dream of converting his little famous novel to the big screen.

Is the book’s too-rigid love of poverty the reason the cult classic never graduated into a pop-culture success? Whatever the reason, the book continues to draw in readers because whether we are rich or poor, we all want to set aside our money concerns and listen to the wisdom of Mr. Blue.

Clara Fox is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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