New York's disconcerting sky-scrapers are vastly picturesque, and even grandiose in certain lights. On winter afternoons, when the dusk comes early, their myriad lamps afford a spectacle which outclasses in brilliancy the grandest electric displays of the greatest world's fairs. Athwart the moonlit or starlit sky, their soaring masses stand forth black and ominous, like the donjon keeps of colossal castles; and, under these conditions, the lower end of Manhattan, where they most abound, might pass for the Mont St. Michel of the New World. In a night of rain, the ruddy reflections of their lights incarnadine the clouds till the entire city appears to be the prey of a monster conflagration. Under the slanting glow of the rising or the setting sun their tops take on the gorgeous iridescence of the peaks of Mont Blanc, the Rigi, or the Matterhorn, and one quite forgets, as in the Alps, to be critical of imperfect form. Finally, a fog softens their hard and crude lines into a close approach to cathedral lines, lending them thus a poetic charm, an air of mystery that becomes them well, and that puts them into harmony with one other and with the city as a whole.
Similarly the most sprawling and grotesque intellectual and moral manifestations of this big, inchoate city take on a species of grandeur and beauty under certain lights, and it may be that it is these lights which reveal them most truly. With the aid of a bit of propitious haze, for example, they assume their fitting place in a really impressive ensemble.
Materially, mentally, and morally, New York is growing helter-skelter, very much as the untouched forest grows,—big trees and little trees, straight trees and crooked trees, saplings, bushes, brakes, ferns, flowers, mushrooms, and toadstools in a bewildering tangle,—and it exhales a similar aroma of unjaded life, which cannot fail to thrill every man who has a drop of red blood in him.
It is not to be expected that a new civilization should be as coherent as an old civilization; and it would be surprising, indeed, if New York were either materially, intellectually, or morally as coherent as Paris, which is so thoroughly organic that it has not so much as a vermiform appendix, so to say, to spare. Formlessness is a reproach only when it is a finality, the end of a devolution instead of the first stage of an evolution. This glorious earth itself—both science and revelation are agreed—was once upon a time "without form and void;" but there was unexhausted energy, and the rest came in good time. New York, whatever its defects, is not lacking in energy, and here too, in good time, the rest must come. Confusion worse confounded may be the order of the hour, but sooner or later this seething chaos is bound to become splendidly articulate. Exaggerations may be rife,—the earth also, during a long time, dealt freely in exaggerations, going in for bigness rather than symmetry, very much as New York is going in for bigness rather than symmetry now. No one doubts that unity of language will one day supersede in New York the present diversity of tongues. Why, then, be skeptical regarding the ultimate triumph of unity in the other fields where diversity now prevails? It is not optimism, but simple good sense, to expect such a result.
New York may not plead its youthfulness forever in extenuation of its vagaries, of course; but it may plead its youthfulness legitimately for some time longer. It is still, whatever airs of manhood it may assume, in the awkward "high-water pants" age of its career, and it is folly to denominate such a callow youth as this an utter reprobate because he displays a tendency to sow wild oats. At his age it is his privilege, if not his function, to be "fresh."
New York can be appreciated only if it is viewed less as a city than as the force of nature which it really is; one of "those great blind forces which are so much more perspicacious than the petty, peering, partial eyesight of men,"—a sort of first cause, irrational, irresponsible, and reckless in outward seeming alone. In the presence of a phenomenon of this order dogmatic criticism is out of place. A force of nature cannot be put into cold type, nor be measured with a tape measure. Its present cannot be understood, nor its future divined, by a finite intelligence. Its equation cannot be computed from the height of a building, the cleanliness of a street, the makeup of a newspaper, the form of a popular novel; nor even from the curriculum of a university or the vigor of a campaign against graft. It is a problem, like that of the cubic contents of the eternities, only for the higher mathematics of the gods.
The horripilant spectacle afforded by the earth when it was still a cosmic welter "without form and void," before it had evolved so much as a sheet of crested notepaper, a silk hat, a cravat, or a trousers' crease, would have hopelessly shocked the delicate sensibilities of the raffiné, the dilettante, the snob, the critic whose ambition in life is to determine the difference betwixt tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum,—and yet this very cosmic welter was playing a part in the harmony of the spheres.
Only he who has been vouchsafed a revelation of "the glory of the imperfect" can find his account in such a spectacle as that which contemporary New York presents. Charles Lamb, who had received such a revelation (as his "Complaint on the Decay of Beggars" conclusively shows), tells somewhere of "standing in the motley Strand and weeping for fulness of joy at so much life." Lamb, we may be sure, would have loved and revered New York, because he loved and revered life. And he would have been right; for life, when all has been said, is an end in itself. What matter jarring notes, if jarring notes are vital throbs? Besides, who knows that the jarring notes are not part of a marvelous harmony whose secret is yet to be revealed ?
The tardy apotheoses of Richard Wagner, Walt Whitman, and Claude Monet have demonstrated that in music, poetry, and painting, the discords of one generation may be the harmonies of the next. What if it should be true of other things than music, poetry, and painting? What if it should be true all along the line? Why not take the broader view, when it is at least every whit as plausible as the narrower view?
But if to believe that the noisy, tumultuous New York of to-day is producing a harmony too subtle and complex for untrained ears to grasp puts too great a strain upon credulity, is it too much to believe that the present discord is a necessary preliminary to the harmony which is to ensue?
"Why rushed the discords in, but that harmmony should be prized?"
May it not be that the most wonderful orchestra the world has ever produced is tuning up its varied instruments for the richest and fullest symphony of all time?