There are many unmistakable signs that New York is trying to create for itself a new mind as well as a new body. It is plainly striving to attain to intellectual self-consciousness; to develop a richer, fuller, and more coherent intellectual life. It is rapidly regenerating its public school system, which was long justly held inferior; and its Board of Education, by founding neighborhood libraries and utilizing the school-buildings, evenings, as lecture-halls for adults, is showing a certain comprehension of the intellectual needs of the community, and a commendable desire to render culture popular.
By the fusion of the Lenox, Astor, and Tidlen foundations, it is in a fair way to wipe out its long-standing disgrace of having no library in any degree commensurate with its metropolitan rank, though it will be a far call, of course, from the New York Public Library, even with all its projects realized, to the Bibliothèque Nationale,—since libraries, like violins, wine, and good fellows must have age to be at their best. New York's principal university, while not to be mentioned in the same breath with the University of Paris, whose history is well-nigh identical with the intellectual history of France, seems destined to an honorable place ultimately among the institutions of learning of the world.
The scientific spirit, however, is a well-nigh meaningless phrase in New York. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is scarcely yet a dream. The bare mention of such quixotism evokes an incredulous, pitying smile. The splendid consecration of a Pasteur, a Roux, a Curie, a Duclaux, a Berthelot, a Paris, or a Bréal, would be considered insanity, even in scholarly circles. New York professors aspire to social prestige. They wish to be considered men of the world. They cannot put up with the simple, modest manner of living of French savants and scientists. Although better paid than the men in similar positions in Paris, they esteem their appointments inadequate, and count that year a bad year in which they do not make as much or more than their salaries "on the side." The very form of our language, if present indications are to be trusted, is at the mercy of the whim of a king of finance.
New York is a lodestone to the literary talent of the entire United States. As a centre for the printing and distribution of books and magazines it has no New World and few Old World rivals. Where publishers are gathered together, there authors likewise must reside, or at least possess what the French call a pied-à-terre. New York's literary activity, therefore, is tremendous;—shoals of new books greet the view on every hand;—but this activity does not induce a literary atmosphere such as exists in Paris, because it is not coherent. The authors are scattered, like the tasteful buildings of the material city. Hence they do not make themselves felt. They have no common meeting-ground geographically or intellectually. They are lost amid the environing hosts of Philistines who have no literary sense and no literary interest. They are scarcely conscious of the existence of one another, except as they see the wares of the most popular of their number boomed on the billboards alongside patent medicines, cigarettes, and complexion powders. They do not rub elbows. They exert no more influence on one another than the pebbles buried in a pudding stone.
New York has neither a literary press nor a literary stage, in the sense in which both the press and the stage are literary in Paris. It has nothing to correspond with the open-air bookstalls along the quays of the Seine, before which thousands of bibliophiles pass their lives browsing among the classics and turning the leaves of musty old folios,—nothing to correspond even to the arcades of the Odéon, whither every one who makes or loves a book in Paris saunters to sip the sweets from the freshest blooms of literature. It has no literary Bohemia, like Montmartre and the Latin quarter, where impecunious geniuses spur each other on to chase chimeras (New York littereurs sternly disapprove of chimeras) and to hearten each other when the chase fails; and no literary court quarter, like Courcelles, Ternes, and Passy, where the smug arrivés review together their early struggles against obscurity and poverty, and gloat together over their successes. Indeed, it is the spontaneous and splendid literary solidarity of the French capital, rather than the quantity or even the quality of its literary output, that makes it an almost ideal place of residence for a literary man.
In the absence of the sympathy and support of his fellows, the New York writer would be helpless, probably, against the city's insistent and omnipresent commercialism, if he tried to resist it; but there is very little evidence that he tries. He seems to prefer to make a part of it. It is not that the New York writer is avaricious. No genuine American is. In a way he sets less store by the dollar than his Paris confrère,—the dollar is so much harder to get in Paris; but he is possessed of an inordinate desire to display the dollar, for the simple reason that it is the dollar which determines his literary rank. Literature is its own best excuse in Paris. In New York the only excuse for literature is an income. Not what he has done or is doing in a literary way, but what he is earning, gives the New York writer his rating, even with the members of his craft. The literary career is adjudged a dismal failure, if it does not procure a man as good a living as a business or professional career; and when it does not (and it rarely does) he who has chosen it must make it appear that it does. Live in a garret he may, by cunningly disguising his address; but he must dress and act before the world as if he were drawing at least a beggarly five-thousand dollars,—the "minimum wage" which the New York conception of respectability tolerates,—under pain of being discredited utterly. While the New York writer strives thus to hide his penury as if it were a badge of shame, the Paris writer flaunts his as a badge of honor. The latter does his utmost to differentiate himself from the bourgeois; the former offers the bourgeois that sincerest of all forms of admiration, imitation. In New York the man of affairs "patronizes" the man of letters. In Paris the roles are reversed. There is the man of letters who patronizes the man of affairs. To tell a New York litterateur that he looks and acts like a business man is to pay him the highest possible compliment; to tell a Paris litterateur the same thing is grievously to insult him.
New York is a great picture mart, and it has attracted to itself, in consequence, a few remarkable, and a multitude of clever, sculptors and painters. Sculptures and mural paintings abound in the more luxurious of the new buildings. Statues of real artistic merit are being erected in the public squares and parks. Art exhibitions are numerous and meritorious. The Metropolitan Museum has become a collection of world-wide importance, and is keenly alive to its educational opportunities and responsibilities. The Municipal Art Society is doing much to elevate the taste of the public. Notwithstanding all this, New York is as far from having an art atmosphere as it is from having a literary atmosphere. There is no such diffused, fiery glow of artistic fervor as there is in Paris. Its art activities, like its literary activities, are fragmentary and discursive, and its artists, though more gregarious than its writers—through the compulsion of the studio building—are not more recalcitrant to commercialism. They, too, make it a point of honor to compete with money-makers on their own money-making ground.
The abundant and vigorous, but haphazard, intellectual activity of New York results, like the haphazard building of the city, in much that is grotesque. The big, sprawling ill-balanced New York Sunday paper, for instance (whose few excellences are buried under so much trash as to be like the proverbial two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff), is the most perfect conceivable expression and emblem of intellectual incoherence, at the same time that it is an admirable counterpart of the sky-scraper of the material city,—between which and it an ingenious psychologist would probably be able to establish a subtle vital connection.
Alongside the Sunday papers, and, in a way, consequent upon them, have sprung up a number of magazines which are likewise indifferent to literary form, and which have succeeded, incredible as it may seem, in outdoing the Sunday papers in scrappiness. Indeed, one of these bewildering publications advertises not only the number of pages, but the number of words—why not also the number of letters?—it contains. Now the man, woman, or child does not exist who can read week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out, such a motley array of totally unrelated facts as the Sunday papers and these magazines provide, without becoming afflicted ultimately with locomotor ataxia of the mind through the gradual loss of the power to coordinate ideas. Reading that thus disintegrates the reasoning faculties is several degrees worse than the no reading at all which the purveyors of this sort of literature would convince us is only alternative on the part of those to whom they cater. It is vastly better to be ignorant than to be imbecile.
As the scrappy, scatterbrain magazine has appeared on the scene to supplement the scrappy, scatterbrain newspaper, so the yellow weekly and the yellow magazine have appeared on the scene to supplement the yellow newspaper. Several weeklies and monthlies, flying, with a vast display of superior virtue, the audacious flags of "the new journalism" and "the fighting journalism," are taking it upon themselves to do the work of the courts and the police. The first duty of their editors and contributors is to provide sensations,—sensations at any cost. If they can write also, well and good. But if only they are expert detectives,—one is tempted to say "spotters,"—it matters very little whether they can write or not, since they have at their beck and call plenty of penny-a-liners who can be counted upon to lick their material into printable shape.