THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
FOUR of us sat beside a lovely and secluded little lake amid the Berkshire Hills, and debated the vexed question, Is Broadway beautiful? The summer wind ruffled the lake, and brought to our nostrils that delicious odor of fresh water lapping pine roots, to our ears its delicious murmur. Broadway seemed far distant, almost as a dream.
We were evenly divided on the question at issue. The landscape-gardener and horticultural expert, a gentle soul and lover of flowers left to grow in their own sweet way, was passionate on the subject. The incandescent picture-gallery and fireworks display high above the street (of course, we were discussing Broadway at night, no one contending it has any beauty by day) to him was vulgar, hideous, and even socially criminal, since it represented on the most lavish scale our national custom of wasteful competitive advertising. He was, somewhat less passionately, backed up by the doctor and hospital organizer. On the other side, were the electrical engineer (perhaps quite naturally!) and myself.
Like most arguments, this one ended with each contestant even more firmly fixed in his original conviction. Indeed, as we left at last the piney grove by the lake-side, and walked home past a particularly charming natural border of sumach, I noted that the landscapegardener stifled his impulse to share my enthusiasm. He had a doubt now whether anything I admired could be beautiful.
We were, of course, arguing the unarguable, a mistake not infrequently made. Keats is authority for the statement that it is sufficient to know that beauty is truth, truth beauty — a statement which upon consideration gets you nowhere, particularly in the case of Broadway. What has truth got to do with advertising? The landscapegardener, in his own field, would say that truth is nature’s way of planting; follow that, and you achieve beauty. Yet nature never sowed patchworkquilted fields, which, seen from a hilltop, are unquestionably beautiful; nor endless even rows of gladioli, like great striped carpets.
There is, certainly, nothing natural about Broadway at night, in the sense that it is in any way an imitation of nature. But there is nothing natural, for the matter of that, about an incandescent bulb. Its nearest approach in nature is a Bartlett pear. On the other hand, Broadway at night is profoundly natural. If the evolution of signboards lining American railroads and highways from coast to coast, of placards adorning all our steam and trolley cars, of advertising pages supporting all our newspapers and magazines, is an expression of national development and character; and if the invention of the electric light and the development of electric power are signs of the national resourcefulness and instinct to make the most of physical forces (as we are assured is the case); then what is more natural, more an honest and inevitable race-expression, than Broadway at night? It is evolution blazing its reality from the housetops. It is racial truth. Therefore it is beauty — vide Keats.
Saying this, I was accused of sophistry; so I fell back upon the impressionist method (the application of the impressionist method to argumentation has yet to be worked scientifically), and declared that Broadway was beautiful for me, and that was enough. I considered the adventure of my soul among the masterpieces of electric draughtsmanship, and found them good. My reactions were such as things beautiful inspire. It was at this point that somebody looked at his watch and suggested that it was time to start for home.
Barbaric is the adjective some people apply to Broadway. But it is at least a jolly barbarity. I stood the other night looking northward from Forty-second Street, into a narrowing cañon of illumination. Against the sky huge electric kittens pursued an endless thread; six gnome-like figures underneath a canopy of colored lights practised calisthenics, grinning amiably the while; a gentleman forty feet tall stood unashamed against the subordinated stars, clad in an electric union suit; a vast toothbrush was pyrotechnically prophylactic; at last, walling in the vista where Broadway turned, a giant blood-red bull reared his golden horns. And these signs were but a few amid the myriad, some pictorial, vast, and static, some restlessly appearing and disappearing, some merely the blazing names of this or that theatre and play or player.
Keats said that his name was writ in water, but the name of the Broadway star is writ in fire. He obeys the ancient stellar injunction to twinkle. Out of all this welter of illumination, from curbline to sky, beneath and between which the endless black stream of cabs and cars and sidewalk throngs moves like a slow river, the eye, after all, picks out far less the individual sign than the general radiance and lacy pattern of gold. When the individual sign does hold the attention, it is less to remind us of its artistic limitations of design than of its quaint relation, through the thing it advertises, to our national life. It makes us smile — at least, it makes me smile. Why, for instance, when so many jaws in the thousands of faces streaming past on the curb below are busily at work upon a piece of gum, should not the six gum-sprites overhead dance with joy? It is highly fitting. It is, indeed, symbolic. Why, again, when so many thousand motorcars are passing in endless streams on the asphalt below; when the possession of a motor-car is so essential to the happiness of the average man; when the discussion of motor-cars is the one topic upon which you can start a safe conversation with any stranger in the Pullman smoker — why, then, should not a vast motor-car revolve its incandescent wheels aloft, advertising not so much any particular make of car, as the absorbing national passion?
We glorify folk-music, folk-dancing, all such spontaneous expressions in art of the soul of a people. The Broadway signs are our folk-art writ in fire on the sky. They are quite as worthy of attention, perhaps, as the songs of the Cumberland mountaineers, or the square dances of the seventeenth-century British peasant.
I was tramping the streets of Newark once, with an artist, each of us looking for his particular kind of ‘copy.’ Suddenly the artist stopped and pulled out his sketch-book. I looked in vain for the picturesque view which intrigued him, seeing only a bit of the Free Public Library, and that half hidden by a pole laden with wires. He flashed his scorn in reply to my question.
‘Why,’ said he, Took at all those criss-crossed lines of wires, and the fine, dark upright made by the pole itself! Get in your bit of semi-classic architecture through that fascinating foreground, and you have something!’ Whereupon his pencil flew to work.
I had later to admit the beauty of his woodcut, though I am still opposed to overhead wires. But Broadway at night shows nothing so harsh as poles and wires. Its criss-crossed designs are formed by living lights, designs which are deepened by the dark sky behind them, softened by the haze of their own radiance, made living and lively with color and motion. A wet night on Broadway! How the asphalt glistens with a thousand golden reflections! How the great signs up aloft stab into the mist till, like King Arthur’s helmet, they make all the night a stream of fire! How they dim and flash and dim again when the mist is low, or the thick snow is driving past, swirled through the cañoned street! How they seem to lift their radiance to the low roof of the sky above, turning it a dully glowing red! How they call to the spirit, proclaiming crowds, proclaiming mirth and the escape from care into the joyous world of make-believe, of dance and song!
Thunder against Broadway never so hard, call it crude and callous, reckless and extravagant, thoughtless and dissipated; brand its blazing bulls and dancing gum-sprites as the last word in economic idiocy; play the Puritan and the prude, or play the æsthete and the recluse — it is little I care. When I turn into Broadway by night and am bathed in its Babylonic radiance, I want to shout with joy, it is so gay and beautiful. I melt into the river of pleasureseekers; slowly I flow along to my chosen theatre; before I have even entered the portal, I am in the mood for a play. If I had to reach it through a pine grove or a gallery of Rembrandts, I should never get there, or want to enter if I did. No, Broadway is profoundly right — and therefore beautiful!