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.