To the Parisian who sees New York for the first time, it must appear a wilderness of sprawling ugliness. He is shocked rather than dazzled by most of the things with which he is expected to be impressed; and his eyes, nose, and ears are constantly and cruelly assailed by sights, smells, and sounds to which New Yorkers through long familiarity are oblivious. “A big iron bazaar, and dirty beyond belief!” was the verdict of a Frenchman who fled from it in dismay and disgust at the end of twenty-four hours; and while not every Frenchman who arrives in New York takes to his heels in this inglorious fashion, the criticism is fairly typical of the way New York strikes the fastidious Gaul.
To the American returning to New York with a point of view gained by a long residence in Paris the New World metropolis must spell disillusion. The squalid, sagging, lurching wood-and-iron wharf line—the thing above all others he would most willingly have missed—confronts him on his arrival practically unaltered, except that it seems to him, in comparison with the trim and tidy banks of the Havre he has just left, more insufferable than his memory pictured it. Everything else has changed, and changed, it seems to him, for the worse.
Trinity spire and the Produce Exchange tower, which used to refresh his vision down town, are hidden by a score of nondescript sky-scrapers, and the beautiful lines of the Brooklyn Bridge are broken by these same intruders. The exquisite City Hall suffers likewise from their proximity, and will soon be perceived but dimly, like a jewel at the bottom of a well. The Bowery, which was erstwhile gay and piquant with glitter and gaud, has degenerated into sodden commonplaceness. Broadway (from City Hall to Fourteenth Street) has become completely Semitic, without having acquired thereby a scrap of Semitic charm.
The old-fashioned dignity of Washington Square has been irretrievably compromised by a modern corporation building which adds insult to injury by wearing on its façade the Latin motto perstando et prestando utilitati. Furthermore, this insolent structure so dwarfs the Washington Arch as to give it the artificial air of the frosted show-piece of a confectioner’s window. Union Square, which could never pretend to have gentility or beauty, but which had, notwithstanding, an agreeable little presence of its own, has been rendered positively uncanny by the erection of a number of lean, spectral horrors. The symmetry of somnolent, unpretentious Stuyvesant Square and the cosiness of Gramercy Park, where “The Players” live, have each been sadly marred. Madison Square, which was long, and with reason, the most loved spot in the city, is now (with its pagan temple bearing Christian symbols, its brown-stone church in a marble pen, and its far-famed Flat-Iron Building) a fit subject for colossal laughter.
Fifth Avenue (below the Park) has lost its restful, if sombre, brown-stone unity by its unconditional surrender to retail trade. The formerly compact “Tenderloin” has been harried into spreading its unsavoriness over an indefinite area. The ancient slovenliness of upper Broadway has been emphasized instead of relieved by the gorgeous caravansaries with which it is dotted.
The limitations of the narrow Park, which used to be rather successfully disguised, are now perpetually in evidence, by reason of the multiplication of soaring apartment houses along its sides.
Venerable Columbia, which forsook, perforce, its sleepy, artistic Madison Avenue quadrangle when it decided to become aggressive, appears callow and crude in the splendid isolation of its windswept hill, and must continue so to appear until it can contrive to conceal its pathetic, almost indecent nakedness by trees, or can persuade the city to move up around it.
The Hall of Fame, which has refused to open its doors to such world-glories as Whitman and Poe, is as unimpressive as this provincial attitude demands.
The Bronx, though happily saved from annihilation by the Park Department, is no longer the ideal and idyllic refuge it was of yore. Long stretches of the Palisades have been quarried out of existence. Brooklyn, always a desert, has expanded into a limitless desert.
In a word, this returned New Yorker finds few familiar landmarks; and the few he does find seem to have lost most of their original meaning. He is as much dazed and puzzled by his surroundings as Rip Van Winkle after his twenty years’ sleep. Nobody resides, does business, dines, or drinks in the same places as before. Nobody frequents the same pleasure resorts. Nobody saunters along the same walks. It is not safe for him to make a business or social call, or to set out for a restaurant, a chop-house, a theatre, or a club, without consulting the Directory in advance; and, even so, he risks having his trouble for his pains, inasmuch as there is more than a chance that a move has been made since the Directory was issued.
After he so far recovers from the shock of his initial disenchantment, however, as to be able to take note of details, he finds that there is some balm in Gilead, after all. At the end of a month he begins to catch the spirit of New York; and at the end of six months he has come completely under its spell, and loves it, as Montaigne loved the Paris of his day, “with all its moles and warts.” The radiant white city by the Seine still appears to him at intervals, like the memory of a favorite picture or poem; but it has lost the power to disquiet him with desire. Paris is no longer a perpetual obsession, — the absolute norm by which he judges everything he sees. Indeed, it has passed so far out of his life that he is in danger of being as over-lenient in his judgments as he was at the outset over-severe.
He has become callous to dirt, disorder, ugliness, and vandalism. He takes philosophically the wobbly and cavernous sidewalks which render hazardous, especially in wet weather, some of the most attractive promenades; the over-flowing garbage-boxes which pollute for the greater part of the day the approaches to even the most pretentious houses; and the tardy emptying of ash-barrels, with disastrous results to eyes, lungs, and raiment, — abuses which would not be tolerated for a week in the poorest working faubourg of Paris.
He accepts as a part of the divine order of things the presence of bent, battered, decapitated lamp-posts, of sagging hydrants and hitching-posts, of ragged, discolored awnings, of clogged gutters and leaking waterspouts; and the absence of vespasiennes.
It no longer occurs to him to compare the insistent shabbiness of the elevated roads with the sober massiveness of the elevated portions of the Paris Métropolitain and Ceinture; the gruesomeness of the subway stations with the cheeriness of their Parisian counterparts; or the misshapen, rusty, street-front fire-escapes with the graceful Parisian balconies. He is no longer scandalized at beholding a shanty and a palace, a flaming billboard and a public monument, a squat stable and a sky-scraper, side by side. He is no longer annoyed by un-named streets, barn-like ferry stations, rattling, reeking, unpainted horse-cars, and steam railway tracks where steam railway tracks do not belong. He no longer complains of being forced to choose, in the business sections, between a detour into the street and a running high jump over the bales, barrels, and boxes with which the sidewalks are encumbered during the unloading of trucks. And he forgets to be wrathful over the wanton mutilation and and slaughter of precious trees.
More than this. When he has got himself into tune with his surroundings, he discovers a thousand and one reasons for downright joy.
Trolleys have been pretty effectually kept out, except in Brooklyn; and, except in Brooklyn again, most of the telegraph and telephone wires have been put underground. Engineering schemes which reflect credit upon the imagination as well as the ingenuity of the age have been conceived and executed. The streets, however much they still leave to be desired, are, on the whole, better paved, better swept, and better lighted than they used to be; the night views up and down Broadway and Fifth Avenue are superb. Half-way refuges for pedestrians are being gradually introduced into the busiest thoroughfares, and the shape of the electric light mounts has been decidedly improved. A green square has here and there supplanted a slum. The wealth run wild of upper New York (“the new New York”) has achieved more than one architectural triumph. St. Patrick’s is finished; a colossal new cathedral is being built; and Grace Church, which closes the vista up Broadway from City Hall Square so effectively, has guaranteed itself for a long time to come against being engulfed, like Trinity, by purchasing the property adjacent. The atrocious painted-iron hotels and office-buildings erected a generation back are rapidly being replaced by structures of light-colored brick or stone. At the same time, artistic wrought-iron work is coming rapidly into vogue, particularly for the portals of the more luxurious private dwellings. A few of the newest sky-scrapers are designed to be seen from all four sides, which is certainly an improvement, if they are to be seen at all. Considerable attention has been paid to architectural effect in the more recent municipal buildings, several of which would do honor to any capital in the world.
The glory of Paris, architecturally considered, lies less in the multitude of its beautiful features—though it does undoubtedly possess this advantage—than in the intimate relation these features bear to the whole city and to one another, in the mutual consideration and deference, so to speak, that they display. It is by virtue of its unity and symmetry that Paris is supreme. The beautiful features of New York, on the contrary, turn their backs most impolitely on each other, paying no more attention to symmetry and unity than a woman’s watch pays to time. An arch that closes no vista for instance, however admirable an arch it may be, is, in such a position, little better than an architectural joke. A façade that might be grandiose if provided with a fitting approach is merely elephantine without it. A marble masterpiece in a setting of dilapidated tenements is anything but a vision of delight, since it is “matter out of place,” and matter out of place—we have the authority of Emerson for it—is but another name for dirt. A jewel in a pig’s snout ceases to serve a decorative end, even though it does not cease to be a jewel.
The truth is that New York is in the throes of creation. With infinite travail it is taking on a body adequate to its needs, — a feat Paris long ago accomplished. The operation necessarily involves disagreeable surprises, and the immediate result, viewed in its entirety, is, it must be confessed, much more grotesque than impressive. An orchestral performance in which each and every performer played a different tune could hardly be less prepossessing.
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.
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.
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?
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.