The Dead Level

I HAD been reading about the Pacific Railway and California, and I said, “ Certainly this is a wonderful age ! ” I looked up at my great-grandfather’s portrait. His eyes were fixed upon me with that irritating unmannerly stare some portraits have. “Nonsense,” it answered, “you are a chip of that old blockhead, your mother’s father, who thought the millennium at hand when he saw the first steamboat on the Hudson River. Your day compares to mine as a photographic likeness to a portrait in oils. It is machinemade and cheap, − hard, unidealized, monotonous; I congratulate myself that I lived when life had more color and variety.” “ Like all old gentlemen, you believe in the bright days of your youth ; but consider : you had neither railways nor electric telegraphs, to say nothing of popular education, cheap cottons, sewerage, universal suf-

frage, irredeemable legal-tender paper, and the general improvement of the masses − ” “There has been an advance, I confess, but in one direction only. The greatest good of the greatest number is sound doctrine, but are you sure you will obtain it by the material methods you have adopted ? I admit that the spread of democracy is as certain as sunrise to-morrow, but I can also see that the theories and practice of your modern society are going over mankind as your railway engineers go over country,−cutting down what is elevated, as well as levelling up what is low. Democracy, originally a struggle for the rights of the individual, is now swallowing him up. I might quote Saturn and his children, but you have probably heard that classical allusion before. No, my lad ! the law of compensation is inevitable. Share and share alike may be only fair, but the good things of this world are so scanty that an equal division gives only a pittance to each one. You can get nothing here below without paying for it ; and what you are sacrificing to the forward movement of the many is yourselves, your imagination, and independence of thought, your personal character and individuality.

“One ceases to think of locomotives and telegraphs after the nine days’ wonder, A machine becomes trivial as soon as we are accustomed to it. Size, speed, power, are merely comparative. There is nothing in a railway one thousand miles long essentially different from another of one hundred. The additional length furnishes no new idea or sensation. Nor is the mind long excited because the mails arrive daily instead of weekly and steamers run to Europe in eight days instead of sixteen. On the other hand, observe how steam has destroyed the romance of travel. When I mounted my horse for a journey I faced the weather, it is true, and spent both time and money on the road : but the air was pure, I saw the country I rode over, I made useful and amusing acquaintances, I had my little adventures, and I gathered a new stock of ideas and of health. To travel was a pleasure and an education. You buy your ticket for a trifle, and are shot in a few hours to your journey’s end, like a package of merchandise. You have exchanged your point of departure for your point of arrival, that is all. You see nothing but railway cuttings ; speak to no one but the ‘ conductor,’ and not even to him, unless you are a bold man ; are enveloped in an atmosphere of exhaled carbonic-acid gas, flavored by tobacco-juice, sponge-cake, green apples, peanuts, orange-peel, and popped corn ; and alight at your terminus a good deal the worse for foul air, din, and dust. Which of us had the best of it ?

“ A Cambridge professor has announced that the earth is turning more slowly on its axis. I am sure that it is fading as well. Go back a hundred years before my time, − what a gay and variegated world a Frenchman or an Italian of the seventeenth century looked upon ! Society divided into castes, like an army with its horse, foot, and artillery, − every regiment with a brilliant uniform and esprit de corps of its own. Each class, from kings to serfs, differing in thoughts and feelings, manners and dress, and even in dialect; each profession with its peculiar costume, and standard of behavior. Processions, pageants, progresses, passed before his eyes. The combination of colors in attire you attempt at fancy balls he found in the street.

“Although there were no common schools, he had some moral advantages. He accepted his position in life as he found it ; the church-bells rang conviction to his ear, and, childlike, he had his mind free to observe and enjoy the outward world. Even from superstition he derived an awful pleasure. The air was full of angels and of demons, the stars foretold his destiny, and omens and presages waited upon him until death. The news he heard, transmitted from mouth to mouth, received from each an embellishment that made it as sensational as any items in your morning papers. History dealt in miracles and myths, and science bore the stamp of the age ; not merely in the philosopher’sstone and the elixir vitæ, but in the calmer investigation of the men who laid the firm foundations you have built upon. Your new society is in direct antagonism with your old prejudices and feelings. Liberalism has cut at the root of dogma. Science has outrun judgment; wealth has grown faster than civilization ; popular government has left wisdom and experience far behind. Your mind is a jumble of past and present. You have no defined and fixed opinions on any subject but physical comfort and mechanics. You talk of the excitement of your modern city life. What is it but whiskey, money-making, and an occasional murder that will not out? My ancient had incessant war, pestilence, witchcraft, religious persecution, the cruelty of arbitrary judges, the tyranny of nobles, to keep his faculties on the stretch. You may be sure that hearts beat higher, and ‘brains high-blooded ticked ’faster, two centuries since.

“ Since the French Revolution and George Stephenson closed out the old world, society, like the universe of Heraclitus, has been in a continual flux. The different ingredients that composed it are fusing into one homogeneous mass. All the old relations of life are mixed together, all distinctions are disappearing. Costume is gone, customs are similar, everybody goes to school, and the newspapers, like Jupiter in the Iliad, furnish mankind with their daily provision of brains ; an intellectual manna, which becomes worthless soon after it has been gathered. In Europe a few great folks linger, — specimens of the era that has gone ; left over, as Hugh Miller tells us the Lepidotus ‘ has been spared, amid the wreck of genera and species,’ to show what big fish swam in tertiary waters. But it is in this country, where the spirit of the age has had tabula rasa to make its mark, that we can see what it has done, and best judge of what it will do. We lead Europe in such matters about fifty years, and she follows as fast as her old limbs, stiffened by the laws, customs, and prejudices of twenty centuries, will permit her.

“ Dr. Young once sang, in a medicopoetic strain : −

‘ All the distinctions of this little life
Are quite cutaneous.’

With you they are no longer skin-deep. This is the era of Tom, Dick, and Harry. Rank there is none, and equality is social as well as political. You have, to be sure, merchant-princes, and merchant-chevaliers − d'industrie; but it is growing as difficult to distinguish between these two orders of nobility as it is for Professor Huxley to mark the difference between Homo and Pithecus. In money transactions collaterals have taken the place of character. The gentleman, as we called the educated man incapable of anything low in feelings, actions, manners, or dress, is pretty nearly extinct since the title has been granted to every male biped who has the right to vote. His successor, the gent, is either flashy or a sloven. He is knowing, I admit, but uneducated and arrogant. He struts and swaggers,

'Pride in his port, defiance in his eye ’ ;

swallows cocktails, mouths cigars, and takes to swearing as naturally as a beaver to building dams. Your wealth, I repeat it, has increased much faster than your culture or even good feeling. You have little respect for the wishes of others, and assert your own rights by ignoring those of your neighbors. I recommend you to add a House of Correction for ill-mannered people to your other institutions. I need hardly tell you that in my day the first men administered the government. We divided democrats into those who went on four legs and those who had attained to the power of going on two. Now the quadruped has scrambled to the top, and political position has become a bad eminence. The condition of the official of the period is happily described by a line of a well-known hymn : −

' Temptation without, and corruption within.’ ‘Public man ’ is almost as disreputable an epithet as ‘public woman.’ At the porch of your legislative halls and courts of justice,

‘ Briareus stands,
Showing bribes in all his hands.’

The men who are ‘seen’ by him no longer think it becoming to look away and put their greedy palms behind them. In politics they know no distinction between virtue and vice, except in the profits. Hypocrisy can be dispensed with, — for hypocrisy, as Whately said, is the tribute vice pays to public opinion, and public opinion with you has long ceased to loathe or to pity that kind of vice, and, if not yet quite prepared to embrace it, smiles forgivingly on knaves in office when they have filled their pockets.

“ Respect for age has gone with respect for character and position. ‘Fogy’ is the most amiable title you bestow upon those who are a little older than yourself. Fathers are looked upon by the young men who go to their houses to dance with their daughters as the pursers or butlers of the establishment, — beneath notice. My son, to the day of my death, addressed me in his letters as ‘Honored Sir’: you called your father ' Governor,’ or ‘ Pop.’ I may add that there is little respect left for parents. You have adopted Swift’s view, that a man is under no obligation to his father or mother for bringing him into the world. On the contrary, you feel that they are only a bank established by Providence to accept your drafts. Relationship is considered an accident, and, when it reaches to cousins, an accident to be insured against. Marriage is too expensive, and I hear from some reverend gentlemen that there is a growing aversion to children. It is not surprising then that the system of family life which has lasted so many centuries is passing away. The age of service, the cheap resource of housekeepers, is gone, as the age of chivalry. You will soon have no more servants. Those you have are ‘ a hindrance rather than a help.’ The Devil not only sends cooks, but seems to keep a general ‘ Intelligence Office.’ The faithful black is an extinct species, like the dodo or the cave-bear. The Ethiopian has changed his skin, or at all events has put on the lion’s skin of the legislator and of the ambassador. Our colored fellow-citizen knows his rights, and, knowing, dares−be impudent and lazy. With his successful rival and substitute, the Celt, the case is even worse. Before he leaves home, he receives the same instructions the prior of an Italian convent used to give his mendicant monks: ‘Fa tosto, e tutta è tua.' Have cheek enough, and all shall be thine.’ The poor exile of Erin lands hungry and penniless ; but instead of ‘learning to labor and to wait,’ as Mr. Longfellow so judiciously advises, looks upon politics as his career, and feels that he is born for government, and to have a finger in rings. His is the future, and he knows it. Meanwhile he bides his time below stairs. As Mr. Bryant heard the hum of the coming myriads rising from the prairies of the great West, you may hear coming up from your kitchens the voices of your rulers that will be.

“You still believe in money: you say, Money makes the man ; will make any man. Like Macbeth, you can buy golden opinions from all sorts of people ; but I notice that even money is losing its distinction. Your civil war made it so easy to get rich, fortune has lately hurled men with frightful suddenness into a sphere of society different from the one in which they were born, and sent them among wellbred and well-educated people, ‘unwashed, untaught, unmannered, untailored,’ with all their disagreeable peculiarities on their heads. The social standard of the plutocracy is lowered in consequence, and discredit thrown upon the order. When you meet millionnaires at every corner, you cease to be dazzled and to touch your hat. And then, Fortune waves her wand ! Presto ! her wheel turns : the rich and poor change places again. In too many cases the only difference between the master and the footman who stands behind him is the difference of capital. Another shortcoming of your rich is, that they make so little use of their money, except to add it to the existing heap and ‘ smile at its increase.’ They make their fine houses, pictures, and horses the principal objects of existence, instead of the pleasant accessories to power and position they are with great people in Europe. Your Midases seem satisfied with the position of President of a Club, Director in a Bank, or Governor of a Lying-in Asylum. It seems to me that when you consider how little they get for their money except envy, trouble, begging-letters, and assessments, that they are a suffering class, and that a society for the amelioration of the condition of the rich might be a real charity, more useful than many of the sentimental objects to which these contribute− most liberally, I must say ; but I could wish they would not let the newspapers know the exact when and how much. Sometimes one is tempted to repeat Lord Ward’s cynical speech : ‘ I hate charity, it is such an ostentatious vice.’

“You pride yourselves upon the general spread of information. The spread is indeed general, but the information is thin, − a mere varnish. There is plenty of superficial cramming in your many schools; with little of that thorough training that produces wisdom, − the wisdom which in Job’s time was held to be more precious than, rubies. I grant that since then there has been a great change in the relative price of the two articles.

“Mechanical triumphs and material prosperity have turned your heads. You believe that for the American sovereign there is a royal road to learning without labor, as to wealth without industry, and to good government without honesty and respect for law. Sound learning is thought not ‘to pay.’ I fear that you are mostly a nation of smatterers. The celebrated Thompson defines an American as a man with half an education and a double dose of self-confidence. A most unfortunate compound ! There is this difference

‘ Between the span
Of clown unread and half-read gentleman,’

that the clown probably knows his own ignorance, and can be taught ; but self-satisfaction is vulgarizing and hopeless. The greatest evidence of folly is the conviction that one is always right. The more we eat of the genuine fruit of the tree of knowledge, the more we see how naked we are. You boast of your quick wits ; but take care : people who understand too soon never learn much, and quickness is often only quickness of misapprehension. You are intelligent enough to like new ideas, but not enough to know whether the novelty is good for anything,− or even whether it is a novelty at all, or only some fossil fallacy re-dug-up for the twentieth time, dusted, and made presentable. You are beset by a crowd of long-haired, half-crazed epicenes, who try with the heated energy of dyspepsia or hysteria to force upon you their pet little 'falsism,’ − moral, financial, economical, − something generally as new and as practicable as squaring the circle or the perpetual motion. On the whole, you listen to them more kindly than to sounder teachers; and so you go, in all good faith, the rounds of plausible error ; like a French contemporary of mine, and, may I add, a rather famous contemporary of your own : −

‘ Autrefois communiste,
Ensuite philanthropiste,
Puis “ old-clo’ " prediste,
Après mesmeriste,
A présent économiste
En attendant qu’un autre iste
Enfle bientôt sa liste.’

“Reading, with us, was a serious matter. We used books to cultivate our minds, or to acquire correct opinions on important subjects. You read to kill time. I do not object to novels ; but novels, like sweet things, should be taken for dessert, not made the sole article of diet. The man who invented newspapers and magazines was the greatest benefactor of the idle. They are the crystal magic globe of the Castle of Indolence.

‘ One great amusement of our household was,
In a huge crystal magic globe to spy ;
Still as you turned it, all things that do pass
Upon this ant-hill earth − ’

By and by you will become too lazy even to read them, and you will derive your mental nourishment from the woodcuts in the illustrated journals. Already, satisfied with the slovenly work of your 'mob of gentlemen who write with ease,’ you are losing a correct taste. Your standard in literature is sinking, as in the theatre, where a grimace or a kick is more successful than a point of wit or of character. You no longer enjoy the beauty of style, −after all, the main thing in literature; you do not appreciate the correct and skilful use of words, − yet without it authors are artisans, not artists. Even 'artisan ’ is a little beyond their merits when they offer us nothing but the old ideas in the old threadbare garb ; and make language, as Coleridge said, 'like a barrel-organ, furnish them both instrument and tune.’ The Republic of Letters is no longer a phrase, but a fact. The aristocracy of genius has been put aside with the other aristocracies, and an average middle-class respectability rules over the mind of your times.

“ What a change in opinions and feelings since I lived and moved about! People are flocking to the large cities to lose themselves in the great aggregate of humanity; and the country I loved so much is, in their eyes, a place of business for market-gardeners, or a retreat for broken fortunes. I see no more honest, hard work done, except by foreigners. The farmer’s and the mechanic’s son aspires to keep a demogroggery, or to peddle, or to hold office. Wealth without labor is the longing of all of them,−Rem, guocunque modo, rem ; in other words, a desire to steal, limited only by the fear of prison. Your women think housekeeping too great an exertion and children too much of a trouble ; they prefer clamoring for rights and trousers. I looked upon this world as a place of probation, where duty was to come before self-indulgence : you look upon it as a hotel ; you expect a good room, attentive service, and no trouble, and for every-day wear you prefer an easy, comfortable vice to a tight, pinching virtue. Religion is no longer a living faith. What do you know or care about the dogmas of the sect you belong to ? It has become a mere sentiment, often only a habit. Many of you New England people have Sunday for religious observances as you have Monday for washing, or Friday for a dinner of codfish. Don’t tell me about ritualism, and the conversion of a few foolish women, who love excitement and millinery, to Romanism ! Do you suppose they ever took the trouble to understand the real difference between the two churches ? It is the triumph of form, ceremony, show, which the many can indulge in without individual thought, over the bracing Protestant doctrine that taught every man to rely upon himself and made the Anglo-Saxons the foremost people of the earth. “ Matthew Arnold, borrowing from Heine, is fond of a dainty fling at the middle class, the bourgeoisie, the Philistines, who turn all they touch into commonplace ; whose lives are weary, flat, stale, though not unprofitable, − for they devote them to money-making and to orthodox charities, − but torpid to art, literature, and music, except for ostentation or for excitement. In America you are pretty much all middle-class ; although you are not crushed between aristocracy and pauperism into quite so humdrum an existence as the English. Your artists paint nothing but furnishing-pictures ; the novels you read are made up of causes célèbres and crim. con. cases; and you caper to the lascivious pleasings of Offenbach’s music. The stage is pink-fire, tinsel, bare legs, and the player no longer holds the mirror up to nature, but to puris naturalibus.

“ The mind of your time devotes itself to the material, the practical, to what will sell. Your ambition is to make money and to be amused. You are very ingenious in mechanics and in engineering; but thinking on other subjects you consider an idle waste of thought. It is not ‘more life and fuller that you want,’ but more convenient houses, cheaper gas, stoves that save fuel. Everything is mechanized and vulgarized for the million, like chromolithography, mock jewelry, and paper collars. Even science is popularized or ‘ plebificated ’ into science-and-water. Show is taking the place of substance : it is the age of pinchbeck. In the end you will become a superior order of bees, building your hives on the most scientific and economical plan, and storing them with cheap and abundant comforts. Like the bee, you will visit the flowers of life, not for their fragrance or for their color, but for the profit you can derive from them ; and you will all buzz in the same drowsymonotone.

“ You think that I am a dotard prophet ! Survey this country from Maine to the Rio Grande ; − what a remarkable likeness in the inhabitants ! They look alike, dress alike, think alike, and talk alike. They buy their clothes at a slop-shop, and get their ready-made ideas from the morning paper. There are only one or two types of character to be found ; to these all belong. American society reminds me of the Chinese alphabet; two hundred and twelve characters are pronounced 'che,’ one hundred and thirteen ching,’ and eleven hundred and sixty-five ‘fee.’ No one cares or dares to differ from his neighbors. It would be at the risk of abuse or social persecution ; for, with all your professions of liberality, there is no real toleration among you. Talkers repeat what they hear, and scribblers write with their pens hobbled. There is a melancholy unwillingness to speak the truth when distasteful to powerful interests, − cowardly in the private person and criminal in the public man ; and the People’s Choice is forced to square his own sense, experience, and honesty by the average sense, experience, and honesty of his constituents. The Emperor Nicholas alluded to this infirmity when he said that representative government had something in it essentially degrading to the character of public men. This abnegation of one’s own belief and feelings, this sinking of one’s self in the mass, you appear to consider a peculiar advantage and excellence of your period. Your pennya-liners complain of Anglo-Saxon individuality. Not long since, a clever Yankee boasted, in his jargon, of the ’spontaneous concurrent formation and utterance of a united public opinion ’ in this land ; ' the greatest thing about our country ; makes it the wonder of nations, the marvel of history,’ etc., etc.

“A gifted bell-wether might exclaim, of his kind : 'How wonderful, to see our whole flock jump over the fence in the same place ! It makes us the wonder of animals, the marvel of natural history : what unity of our species in ideas and purpose ! what simultaneous and similar currents of thought!’ Minds levelled in desires are levelled in power, said Dr. Johnson ; and I add that if you all wish alike you will eventually be as much alike as sheep. Your public opinion is too often already the impulse of the flock. A shepherd editor shouts, and the sheep follow his cry. Some error that would be rejected at once if presented to each individual is taken up enthusiastically by the mob; for in a mob 'one’s usual good sense and good feeling are divided by the total number of persons collected together.’

“ Life has been often compared to a play. Once it was like an Italian opera. The primos and primas, graceful with gorgeous attire and grandiose manner, got off their solos and brought down the house. Then the shabby, ungainly chorus chanted the average thoughts and feelings of the piece, until the great ones were ready to sing again. But now primos and primas have retired to that green-room whence there is no return. The stage is without scenery, the actors without costumes. We are all chorus and commonplace. There may be a certain kind of dull harmony and lazy comfort in the new order of things ; but, for the pleasure of life and the welfare of the individual, give me a Dutch concert, where every man plays his own tune. Really, I begin to look with respect upon the poor people whose little lives are sweetened by a fancied resemblance to some great personage ; who for years have brushed a Napoleonic lock over their foreheads, or worn the beard like Shakespeare’s, twined small curls à la Sévigné, or dressed their front hair in the severely classic style, to carry out a comforting likeness to Rachel. These, at least, aspire to be something different from their neighbors.

“ You can imagine what society will be when your descendants shall have colonized the rest of the earth, as you have California, Australia, New Zealand, in these last few years: what was predicted will come to pass: ‘ Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low ; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.’ Railroads will be built everywhere, English universally spoken, and the whole globe, surveyed, graded, mapped out, and settled, will be ‘a land where all things alway seem the same.' Hotels will take the place of households ; a wife will be considered a monopoly, and family life too exclusive and aristocratic. Children will be brought up in crèches at the public expense. Your family names will go out of use, and you will be known by numbers, like prisoners or policemen. Your quality of human beings seems already to be slipping away from you. Over the south door of Mr, Cooper’s edifice in New York stands, ‘ Reading-Room for Males and Females ;' − a subdivision which is applicable to all of the animals and to some of the plants. When these things come to pass, what will there be lett for the imagination ? 'Fancy loves

about the world to stray.' How can she stray when the whole world is ruled in parallel iron lines ? Science will destroy all our illusions, and the pleasant old fallacies, 'the painted clouds that beautify our day,’ will vanish into the invisible air. Even love, as a sentiment, will expire when you have succeeded in making woman an inferior kind of man. Knowing everything, we shall lose the pleasure of speculating on the grand unknown. There will be no wit; for commonplace is the antipode of wit. It will be one universal blank of comfort and of twaddle ; vulgarity will prevail. The ticks of the clock will be all the events in man’s history. And the human race will be like the business gent who has retired from his shop into the country, when he discovers that his little place is finished, and that no resource is left him to keep off ennui—icy, mortal, hopeless ennui− but to drink. There were two tops to Parnassus, − one sacred to Apollo, the other to Bacchus. When modern engineering shall have levelled the Apollonian peak, humanity will take refuge on the other to escape this cataclysm of sameness. Otherwise, the simultaneous suicide once suggested by Novalis would be accepted by the race. They would shoot themselves for the same reason as Prince Boothby,−tired to death of this daily buttoning and unbuttoning. Many persons already find the monotony of civilization intolerable, and break away to explore the sources of the Nile or to hunt with savages. Others, with less physical and mental energy, take refuge in semi-lunatic vagaries like spiritualism. But then there will be no escape but one. In spite of Mr. Parton, the Coming Man will drink. He must have some excitement: there can be no other.

“To this condition this wonderful age is to bring you at last: a hive of bees ; a flock of sheep ; atoms, corpuscles, vibratiuncles of humanity ; units composing Comte’s Grand Etre,

− the human race. Spinoza’s doctrine will become the law of society,−

' All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.’

And as Virgil says of the bees,−

'Esse apibus partem divinæ mentis,’

− you will be little bits of the divine mind, all as precisely alike as the works of Waltham watches. Any soul will fit any body ; there will be no sort of trouble in putting them together.

“There is a passage in Plutarch’s Medley, predicting that a time will come when the surface of the earth shall be levelled, and all men shall live alike under the same government, and speak one language. They will live without eating, and cast no shadow. No man will have enough individuality to possess a shadow of his own. The community, like a grove of trees, will cast a collective one.”

Here he paused. I hastened to turn his face to the wall, and left the room.