New York After Paris

"New York is trying to create for itself a new mind as well as a new body."

Paris also likes sensations,—but in its own peculiar, cheery, Parisian way. Paris, although quite capable on occasion, as history has shown, of transforming a "sensation" into a tragic revolution, does not as a rule take "sensations" too seriously. It has seen too many of them. A Paris "sensation" is usually launched in a highly artistic fashion (even Zola's J'accuse, for instance, was a little masterpiece of invective rhetoric), and is judged by Parisians as a form of art. Their mocking skepticism refuses to see anything more formidable therein than a jeu d'esprit. If it is artistically promulgated, it is a welcome break in the monotony of existence, a thing that provides a new topic of conversation, and so helps to pass the time agreeably; an event equally important with the apéritif, perhaps, but not nearly so important as the dinner. If it is not artistically promulgated, it is dismissed with a shrug, and that ends the matter.

In New York, on the contrary, sensation-mongering is not a fine art, but a trade; and a New York sensation is usually a mighty grave and ponderous affair,—to be taken angrily or apologetically, as the case may be, but never flippantly. Consequently, the first impression of the New Yorker who returns here now from abroad, even though he comes from sensation-loving Paris, must be that New York has gone sensation-mad. And it may be that it has.

Certain it is that New York has latterly taken to reckoning time by its sensations, like the village gossip. When one counts the number of murders, kidnappings, abductions, and marital scandals which have held the front of the stage in quick succession; the number of demagogues who have advertised themselves into office; the number of leaders, wearing the halo of reformers, who waited for the psychological moment to arrive before they espoused reform; the number of fortunes that have been piled up by the exploitation of "exposure;" the number of philanthropists who have used the Devil's own weapons in fighting the Devil; the number of terribly energetic women who "know so many things that ain't so," and make so many bad matters worse by acting accordingly; and the number of would-be exquisites who wax lyric over the "City Beautiful,"—shall we have violets beautiful, women beautiful, and babies beautiful next?—when a little more attention to their ash-barrels, and a little less tax-dodging on their part, would go far toward making New York a beautiful city; when one recalls the sorry, spasmodic efforts to establish a censorship of the stage and to compel Sunday observance; the society "revivals" from which sinners without invitation are excluded; the preponderant role of profanity in police reform, and of theology in maintaining race-track betting; the laughable spectacle of the enforcing of the anti-spitting ordinance by expectorating policemen; the rapid rise and spread of the Socialism of the boudoir and the Anarchism of the drawing-room; when one recalls, further, the ease with which the public has been stampeded for mutually antagonistic men and measures; for the most unrighteous and irrational as well as the most righteous and rational causes; for bonanza speculations and denunciations of speculation; for lavish generosity in providing campaign funds and for opposition to the use of money in elections: when one thinks of the frequency with which this same public has raised the savage cry "Crucify him! Crucify him!"—when one considers all this, and more to the same general effect, it is impossible not to be indulgent to the person who affirms that New York is suffering from one of the worst cases of extreme nervousness on record, and that, having formed the sensation habit, it can no more get along without its daily sensation than the dope-fiend can get along without his daily dope. Walt Whitman's memorable query, "But say, Tom, isn't it" (New York) "a sort of delirium tremens?" appears almost dismayingly pertinent at this time.

On the other hand, it is possible, and even probable, that this singular, turbulent city which is straining to take on an adequate body and acquire an adequate mentality is straining also to develop a moral personality. The bizarre spasms which appear to the superficial observer to be caused by disease may be incident not to the workings of toxins in the system, but to the expulsion of toxins from the system. The ethical upheavals, which are as graceless and unimpressive in their way as the most grotesque excrescences and eruptions of the material and intellectual city, may be the signs of an awakening to moral self-consciousness which will result eventually in a comprehensible and consistent moral code. The first flower to bloom in this latitude, when the winter frost loosens its grip upon the sod, is not the fragrant arbutus, nor the delicate hepatica, nor the waxen bloodroot, as the poets would have us think, but the gross, uncouth, and noisome skunk cabbage; and this same skunk cabbage is, for all its grossness and noisomeness and uncouthness, at once a product and a prophecy of the oncoming spring. If a great moral transformation is really going on in New York, it is only natural that it should be attended, as great moral transformations nearly always have been, with unlovely excesses.

The genuineness of this moral awakening would be less dubious, however, if it were marked by a general renunciation of the worship of the Golden Calf which lies at the root of the evils against which it claims to protest; if the public at large, instead of putting the cart before the horse, as they are doing now, were as eager to reform themselves as they are to reform the erring financial magnates and political bosses and grafters, of whose success they are unquestionably jealous. In every stratum of society a man wears a financial tag; he is a $500, a $1000, a $5000, a $10,000, a $30,000, a $100,000 man. So that he be strenuous (and strenuous in this connection is invariably given its lowest and narrowest, sordid, money-grubbing meaning), nothing else matters so very much. Even petty clerks and laboring men talk "finance." They are amusingly contemptuous of low figures, and compute in millions as glibly as if they possessed millions. The very youngsters lisp in millions. They will name you with gleaming eyes the whole list of money kings, and tell you more about them than these celebrities know about themselves.

Prosperity exhibited in Board of Trade tables is the only prosperity that is generally understood in New York. "That conception of social progress," to borrow a phrase of Herbert Spencer, "which presents as its aim increase of population, growth of wealth, spread of commerce," still holds the field against all comers. Money has not been displaced as the supreme object of desire. The Dollar has not been dethroned as the New York divinity. Life has not become more sane and equable. Quite the reverse.

To the hard, metallic accompaniment of the tramway gong, the telephone bell, and the clicking telegraph-machine and typewriter, the toiling for the dollar goes on, quite as if there had been no mention of such a thing as reform. The toilers themselves have taken on a metallic look, and seem to be moved by invisible wires rather than to move of their own volition. The set, blank faces and fixed gaze of the men and unsexed women, as they rush silent and smileless to and from their offices and workshops, justify the remark of the Frenchman who, contrasting these expressionless New York throngs with the laughing and chattering throngs of Paris, said that the streets of New York were full of "dead persons running and walking;" for dead indeed do they appear to sunshine, to beauty, to suffering, to sorrow, to everything human and divine except the immediate business on which they are bent. Their thoughts and their hearts are where their treasure is, and their treasure is where the money-changers most do congregate. They are flawless money-making machines,—their very aspect is machine-like,—and they merit the admiration that is accorded to any other ingenious and effective mechanical device; but if they possess any of the finer attributes of our common humanity they keep them carefully out of sight.

The typical New Yorker is always in such a hopeless hurry to make his fortune that he is impatient of small things in every relation of life. He has no time to eat and drink like a civilized being,—witness the barbarous noon-lunch counter and the still more barbarous bar. He has no time for the little courtesies which go to make up manners; for the reading and reflection conducive to culture; for edifying conversation in which no "promoting" is involved; for discrimination between comely splendor and vulgar display; for the whole-souled expansiveness which is the zest of good-fellowship; for the services and self-sacrifices which are the warp and woof of friendship; for the delicate attentions and tender ministrations indispensable to the rich and full emotionalism without which the family and the home are doomed.

The Londoner is said to take his pleasures sadly. The New Yorker takes his hurriedly, as if—rush is so much second-nature with him—he were anxious to get them off the docket as expeditiously as possible. In short, he has no time to live a well-rounded life. He uses up so much energy in getting together a heap of dollars that he has no energy left for living. And yet he looks down upon the Latin as an inferior, and pronounces him a decadent because he holds that "work is for life, not life for work."

The Parisian is as superior to the New Yorker in the ability to organize intelligently his individual existence as Paris is superior to New York in its ability to direct properly collective activities and growth. And the wonder and the glory of it are that this is quite as strikingly true of the Parisian laborer as of the Parisian man of means and culture. Whatever his station in life, the Parisian possesses a fine sense of proportion, grounded partly in a highly developed social instinct, and partly in a wholesome social philosophy. It is this sense of proportion, this appreciation of what the French call nuance, which the New Yorker almost utterly lacks (because he has allowed all his faculties but his money-making faculty to atrophy through disuse), that explains the Parisian's well-rounded manner of living, and that renders Paris so much more democratic than New York, in every sense of the word democratic but the narrow political one.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In