New York After Paris
by W. C. Brownell
No American, not a commercial or otherwise hardened traveler, can have a soul so dead as to be incapable of emotion when, on his return from a long trip abroad, he catches sight of the low-lying and insignificant Long Island coast. One’s excitement begins, indeed, with the pilot-boat. The pilot-boat is the first concrete symbol of those native and normal relations with one’s fellow-men, which one has so long observed in infinitely varied manifestation abroad, but always as a spectator and a stranger, and which one is now on the eve of sharing himself. As she comes up swiftly, white and graceful, drops her pilot, crosses the steamer’s bows, tacks, and picks up her boat in the foaming wake, she presents a spectacle beside which the most picturesque Mediterranean craft, with colored sails and lazy evolutions, appear mistily in the memory as elements of a feeble and conventional ideal. The ununiformed pilot clambers on board, makes his way to the bridge, and takes command with an equal lack of French manner and of English affectation distinctly palpable to the sense, sharpened by long absence into observing native characteristics as closely as foreign ones. If the season be right the afternoon is bright, the range of vision apparently limitless, the sky nearly cloudless and, by contrast with the European firmament, almost colorless, the July sun such as no Parisian or Londoner ever saw. The French reproach us for having no word for “patrie” as distinct from “pays”; we have the thing at all events, and cherish it, and it needs only the proximity of the foreigner, from whom in general we are so widely separated, to give our patriotism a tinge of the veriest chauvinism that exists in France itself.
We fancy the feeling old-fashioned, and imagine ours to be the most cosmopolitan, the least prejudiced temperament in the world. It is reasonable that it should be. The extreme sensitiveness noticed in us by all foreign observers during the antebellum epoch, and ascribed by Tocqueville to our self-distrust, is naturally inconsistent with our position and circumstances to-day. A population greater than that of any of the great nations, isolated by the most enviable geographical felicity in the world from the narrowing influences of international jealousy apparent to every American who travels in Europe, is increasingly less concerned at criticism than a struggling provincial republic of half its size. And along with our self-confidence and our carelessness of “abroad,” it is only with the grosser element among us that national conceit has deepened; in general, we are apt to fancy we have become cosmopolitan in proportion as we have lost our provincialism. With us surely the individual has not withered, and if the world has become more and more to him, it is because it is the world at large and not the pent-up confines of his own country’s history and extent. “La patrie” in danger would be quickly enough rescued—there is no need to prove that over again, even to our own satisfaction; but in general “la patrie” not being in any danger, being on the contrary apparently on the very crest of the wave of the world, it is felt not to need much of one’s active consideration, and passively indeed is viewed by many people, probably, as a comfortable and gigantic contrivance for securing a free field in which the individual may expand and develop. “America,” says Emerson, “America is Opportunity.” After all, the average America of the present day says, a country stands or falls by the number of properly expanded and developed individuals it possesses. But the happening of any one of a dozen things unexpectedly betrays that all this cosmopolitanism is in great measure, and so far as sentiment is concerned, a veneer and a disguise. Such a happening is the very change from blue water to gray that announces to the returning American the nearness of that country which he sometimes thinks he prizes more for what it stands for than for itself. It is not, he then feels with a sudden flood of emotion, that America is home, but that home is America. America comes suddenly to mean what it never meant before.
Unhappily for this exaltation, ordinary life is not composed of emotional crises. It is ordinary life with a vengeance which one encounters in issuing from the steamer dock and facing again his native city. Paris never looked so lovely, so exquisite to the sense as it now appears in the memory. All that Parisian regularity, order, decorum, and beauty into which, although a stranger, your own activities fitted so perfectly that you were only half-conscious of its existence, was not, then, merely normal, wholly a matter of course. Emerging into West Street, amid the solicitations of hackmen, the tinkling jog-trot of the most ignoble horse-cars you have seen since leaving home, the dry dust blowing into your eyes, the gaping black holes of broken pavements, the unspeakable filth, the line of red brick buildings prematurely decrepit, the sagging multitude of telegraph wires, the clumsy electric lights depending before the beer saloon and the groggery, the curious confusion of spruceness and squalor in the aspect of these latter, which also seem legion—confronting all this for the first time in three years, say, you think with wonder of your disappointment at not finding the Tuileries Gardens a mass of flowers, and with a blush of the times you have told Frenchmen that New York was very much like Paris. New York is at this moment the most foreign-looking city you have ever seen; in going abroad the American discounts the unexpected; returning after the insensible orientation of Europe, the contrast with things recently familiar is prodigious, because one is so entirely unprepared for it. One thinks to be at home, and finds himself at the spectacle. New York is less like any European city than any European city is like any other. It is distinguished from them all—even from London—by the ignoble character of the res publicæ, and the refuge of taste, care, wealth, pride, self-respect even, in private and personal regions. A splendid carriage, liveried servants without and Paris dresses within, rattling over the scandalous paving, splashed by the neglected mud, catching the rusty drippings of the hideous elevated railway, wrenching its axle in the tram-track in avoiding a mountainous wagon load of commerce on this hand and a garbage cart on that, caught in a jam of horse-cars and a blockade of trucks, finally depositing its dainty freight to pick its way across a sidewalk eloquent of official neglect and private contumely, to a shop door or a residence stoop—such a contrast as this sets us off from Europe very definitely and in a very marked degree.
There is no palpable New York in the sense in which there is a Paris, a Vienna, a Milan. You can touch it at no point. It is not even ocular. There is instead a Fifth Avenue, a Broadway, a Central Park, a Chatham Square. How they have dwindled, by the way. Fifth Avenue might be any one of a dozen London streets in the first impression it makes on the retina and leaves on the mind. The opposite side of Madison Square is but a step away. The spacious hall of the Fifth Avenue Hotel has shrunk to stifling proportions. Thirty-fourth Street is a lane; the City Hall a bandbox; the Central Park a narrow strip of elegant landscape whose lateral limitations are constantly forced upon the sense by the Lenox Library on one side and a monster apartment house on the other. The American fondness for size—for pure bigness—needs explanation, it appears; we care for size, but inartistically; we care nothing for proportion, which is what makes size count. Everything is on the same scale; there is no play, no movement. An exception should be made in favor of the big business building and the apartment house which have arisen within a few years, and which have greatly accentuated the grotesqueness of the city’s sky-line as seen from either the New Jersey or the Long Island shore. They are perhaps rather high than big; many of them were built before the authorities noticed them and followed unequally in the steps of other civilized municipal governments, from that of ancient Rome down, in prohibiting the passing of a fixed limit. But bigness has also evidently been one of their architectonic motives, and it is to be remarked that they are so far out of scale with the surrounding buildings as to avoid the usual commonplace, only by creating a positively disagreeable effect. The aspect of Fifty-seventh Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, for example, is certainly that of the world upside down: a Gothic church utterly concealed, not to say crushed, by contiguous flats, and confronted by the overwhelming “Osborne,” which towers above anything in the neighborhood, and perhaps makes the most powerful impression that the returned traveler receives during his first week or two of strange sensations. Yet the “Osborne’s” dimensions are not very different from those of the Arc de l’Étoile. It is true it does not face an avenue of majestic buildings a mile and a half long and two hundred and thirty feet wide, but the association of these two structures, one a private enterprise and the other a public monument, together with the obvious suggestions of each, furnish a not misleading illustration of both the spectacular and the moral contrast between New York and Paris, as it appears unduly magnified no doubt to the sense surprised to notice it at all.
Still another reason for the foreign aspect of the New Yorker’s native city is the gradual withdrawing of the American element into certain quarters, its transformation or essential modification in others, and in the rest the presence of the lees of Europe. At every step you are forced to realize that New York is the second Irish and the third or fourth German city in the world. However great our success in drilling this foreign contingent of our social army into order and reason and self-respect—and it is not to be doubted that this success gives us a distinction wholly new in history—nevertheless our effect upon its members has been in the direction of development rather than of assimilation. We have given them our opportunity, permitted them the expansion denied them in their own several feudalities, made men of serfs, demonstrated the utility of self-government under the most trying conditions, proved the efficacy of our elastic institutions on a scale truly grandiose; but evidently, so far as New York is concerned, we have done this at the sacrifice of a distinct and obvious nationality. To an observant sense New York is nearly as little national as Port Said. It contrasts absolutely in this respect with Paris, whose assimilating power is prodigious; every foreigner in Paris eagerly seeks Parisianization.
Ocularly, therefore, the “note” of New York seems that of characterless individualism. The monotony of the chaotic composition and movement is, paradoxically, its most abiding impression. And as the whole is destitute of definiteness, of distinction, the parts are, correspondingly, individually insignificant. Where in the world are all the types? one asks one’s self in renewing his old walks and desultorywanderings. Where is the New York counterpart of that astonishing variety of types which makes Paris what it is morally and pictorially, the Paris of Balzac as well as the Paris of M. Jean Béraud. Of a sudden the lack of nationality in our familiar literature and art becomes luminously explicable. One perceives why Mr. Howells is so successful in confining himself to the simplest, broadest, most representative representatives, why Mr. James goes abroad invariably for his mise-en-scène, and often for his characters, why Mr. Reinhart lives in Paris, and Mr. Abbey in London. New York is this and that, it is incontestably unlike any other great city, but compared with Paris, its most impressive trait is its lack of that organic quality which results from variety of types. Thus compared, it seems to have only the variety of individuals which results in monotony. It is the difference between noise and music. Pictorially, the general aspect of New York is such that the mind speedily takes refuge in insensitiveness. Its expansiveness seeks exercise in other directions—business, dissipation, study, æstheticism, politics. The life of the senses is no longer possible. This is why one’s sense for art is so stimulated by going abroad, and one’s sense for art in its freest, frankest, most universal and least special, intense and enervated development, is especially exhilarated by going to Paris. It is why, too, on one’s return one can note the gradual decline of his sensitiveness, his severity—the progressive atrophy of a sense no longer called into exercise. “I had no conception before,” said a Chicago broker to me one day in Paris, with intelligent eloquence, “of a finished city!” Chicago undoubtedly presents a greater contrast to Paris than does New York, and so, perhaps, better prepares one to appreciate the Parisian quality, but the returned New Yorker cannot fail to be deeply impressed with the finish, the organic perfection, the elegance, and reserve of the Paris mirrored in his memory. Is it possible that the uniformity, the monotony of Paris architecture, the prose note in Parisian taste, should once have weighed upon his spirit? Riding once on the top of a Paris tramway, betraying an understanding of English by reading an American newspaper, that sub-consciousness of moral isolation which the foreigner feels in Paris as elsewhere, was suddenly and completely destroyed by my next neighbor, who remarked with contemptuous conviction and a Manhattan accent: “When you’ve seen one block of this infernal town you’ve seen it all!” He felt sure of sympathy in advance. Probably few New Yorkers would have differed with him. The universal light stone and brown paint, the wide sidewalks, the asphalt pavement, the indefinitely multipled kiosks, the prevalence of a few marked kinds of vehicles, the uniformed workmen and workwomen, the infinite reduplication, in a word, of easily recognized types, is at first mistaken by the New Yorker for that dead level of uniformity which is, of all things in the world, the most tiresome to him in his own city. After a time, however, he begins to realize three important facts: In the first place these phenomena, which so vividly force themselves on his notice that their reduplication strikes him more than their qualities, are nevertheless of a quality altogether unexampled in his experience for fitness and agreeableness; in the second place, they are details of a whole, members of an organism, and not they, but the city which they compose, the “finished city” of the acute Chicagoan, is the spectacle; in the third place they serve as a background for the finest group of monuments in the world. On his return he perceives these things with a melancholy a non lucendo luminousness. The dead level of Murray Hill uniformity he finds the most agreeable aspect in the city.
And the reason is that Paris has habituated him to the exquisite, the rational, pleasure to be derived from that organic spectacle a “finished city,” far more than that Murray Hill is respectable and appropriate, and that almost any other prospect, except in spots of very limited area which emphasize the surrounding ugliness, is acutely displeasing. This latter is certainly very true. We have long frankly reproached ourselves with having no art commensurate with our distinction in other activities, resignedly attributing the lack to our hitherto necessary material preoccupation. But what we are really accounting for in this way is our lack of Titians and Bramantes. We are for the most part quite unconscious of the character of the American æsthetic substratum, so to speak. As a matter of fact, we do far better in the production of striking artistic personalities than we do in the general medium of taste and culture. We figure well invariably at the Salon. At home the artist is simply either driven in upon himself, or else awarded by a naïve clientèle, an eminence so far out of perspective as to result unfortunately both for him and for the community. He pleases himself, follows his own bent, and prefers salience to conformability for his work, because his chief aim is to make an effect. This is especially true of those of our architects who have ideas. But these are the exceptions, of course, and the general aspect of the city is characterized by something far less agreeable than mere lack of symmetry; it is characterized mainly by an all-pervading bad taste in every detail into which the element of art enters or should enter—that is to say, nearly everything that meets the eye.
However, on the other hand, Parisian uniformity may depress exuberance, it is the condition and often the cause of the omnipresent good taste. Not only is it true that, as Mr. Hamerton remarks, “in the better quarters of the city a building hardly ever rises from the ground unless it has been designed by some architect who knows what art is, and endeavors to apply it to little things as well as great”; but it is equally true that the national sense of form expresses itself in every appurtenance of life as well as in the masses and details of architecture. In New York our noisy diversity not only prevents any effect ofensemble and makes, as I say, the old commonplace brown stone regions the most reposeful and rational prospects of the city, but it precludes also, in a thousand activities and aspects, the operation of that salutary constraint and conformity without which the most acutely sensitive individuality inevitably declines to a lower level of form and taste. La mode, for example, seems scarcely to exist at all; or at any rate to have taken refuge in the chimney-pot hat and the tournure. The dude, it is true, has been developed within a few years, but his distinguishing trait of personal extinction has had much less success and is destined to a much shorter life than his appellation, which has wholly lost its original significance in gaining its present popularity. Every woman one meets in the street has a different bonnet. Every street car contains a millinery museum. And the mass of them may be judged after the circumstance that one of the most fashionable Fifth Avenue modistes flaunts a sign of enduring brass announcing “English Round Hats and Bonnets.” The enormous establishments of ready-made men’s clothing seem not yet to have made their destined impression in the direction of uniformity. The contrast in dress of the working classes with those of Paris is as conspicuously unfortunate æsthetically, as politically and socially it may be significant; ocularly, it is a substitution of a cheap, faded, and ragged imitation of bourgeois costume for the marvel of neatness and propriety which composes the uniform of the Parisian ouvrier and ouvrière. Broadway below Tenth Street is a forest of signs which obscure the thoroughfare, conceal the buildings, overhang the sidewalks, and exhibit severally and collectively a taste in harmony with the Teutonic and Semitic enterprise which, almost exclusively, they attest. The shop-windows’ show, which is one of the great spectacles of Paris, is niggard and shabby; that of Philadelphia has considerably more interest, that of London nearly as much. Our clumsy coinage and countrified currency; our eccentric book-bindings; that class of our furniture and interior decoration which may be described as American rococo; that multifariously horrible machinery devised for excluding flies from houses and preventing them from alighting on dishes, for substituting a draught of air for stifling heat, for relieving an entire population from that surplusage of old-fashioned breeding involved in shutting doors, for rolling and rattling change in shops, for enabling you to “put only the exact fare in the box”; the racket of pneumatic tubes, of telephones, of aerial trains; the practice of reticulating pretentious façades with fire-escapes in lieu of fire-proof construction; the vast mass of our nickel-plated paraphernalia; our zinc cemetery monuments; our comic valentines and serious Christmas cards, and grocery labels, and “fancy” job-printing and theater posters; our conspicuous cuspadores and our conspicuous need of more of them; the “tone” of many articles in our most popular journals, their references to each other, their illustrations; the Sunday panorama of shirt-sleeved ease and the week-day fatigue costume of curl papers and “Mother Hubbards” general in some quarters; our sumptuous new bar-rooms, decorated perhaps on the principle that le mauvais goût mène au crime—all these phenomena, the list of which might be indefinitely extended, are so many witnesses of a general taste, public and private, which differs cardinally from that prevalent in Paris.
In fine, the material spectacle of New York is such that at last, with some anxiety, one turns from the external vileness of every prospect to seek solace in the pleasure that man affords. But even after the wholesome American reaction has set in, and your appetite for the life of the senses is starved into indifference for what begins to seem to you an unworthy ideal; after you are patriotically readjusted and feel once more the elation of living in the future owing to the dearth of sustenance in the present—you are still at the mercy of perceptions too keenly sharpened by your Paris sojourn to permit blindness to the fact that Paris and New York contrast as strongly in moral atmosphere as in material aspect. You become contemplative, and speculate pensively as to the character and quality of those native and normal conditions, those Relations, which finally you have definitely resumed. What is it—that vague and pervasive moral contrast which the American feels so potently on his return from abroad? How can we define that apparently undefinable difference which is only the more sensible for being so elusive? Book after book has been written about Europe from the American standpoint—about America from the European standpoint. None of them has specified what everyone has experienced. The spectacular and the material contrasts are easily enough characterized, and it is only the unreflecting or the superficial who exaggerate the importance of them. We are by no means at the mercy of our appreciation of Parisian spectacle, of the French machinery of life. We miss or we do not miss the Salon Carré, the view of the south transept of Notre Dame as one descends the rue St. Jacques, the Théâtre Français, the concerts, the Luxembourg Gardens, the excursions to the score of charming suburban places, the library at the corner, the convenient cheap cab, the manners of the people, the quiet, the climate, the constant entertainment of the senses. We have in general too much work to do to waste much time in regretting these things. In general, work is by natural selection so invariable a concomitant of our unrivaled opportunity to work profitably, that it absorbs our energies so far as this palpable sphere is concerned. But what is it that throughout the hours of busiest work and closest application, as well as in the preceding and following moments of leisure and the occasional intervals of relaxation, makes everyone vaguely perceive the vast moral difference between life here at home and life abroad—notably life in France? What is the subtle influence pervading the moral atmosphere in New York, which so markedly distinguishes what we call life here from life in Paris or even in Pennedepie?
It is, I think, distinctly traceable to the intense individualism which prevails among us. Magnificent results have followed our devotion to this force; incontestably, we have spared ourselves both the acute and the chronic misery for which the tyranny of society over its constituent parts is directly responsible. We have, moreover, in this way not only freed ourselves from the tyranny of despotism, such for example as is exerted socially in England and politically in Russia, but we have undoubtedly developed a larger number of self-reliant and potentially capable social units than even a democratic system like that of France, which sacrifices the unit to the organism, succeeds in producing. We may truly say that, material as we are accused of being, we turn out more men than any other nationality. And if some Frenchman points out that we attach an esoteric sense to the term “man,” and that at any rate our men are not better adapted than some others to a civilized environment which demands other qualities than honesty, energy, and intelligence, we may be quite content to leave him his objection, and to prefer what seems to us manliness, to civilization itself. At the same time we cannot pretend that individualism has done everything for us that could be desired. In giving us the man it has robbed us of the milieu. Morally speaking, the milieu with us scarcely exists. Our difference from Europe does not consist in the difference between the Europeanmilieu and ours; it consists in the fact that, comparatively speaking of course, we have no milieu. If we are individually developed, we are also individually isolated to a degree elsewhere unknown. Politically we have parties who, in Cicero’s phrase, “think the same things concerning the republic,” but concerning very little else are we agreed in any mass of any moment. The number of our sauces is growing, but there is no corresponding diminution in the number of our religions. We have no communities. Our villages even are apt, rather, to be aggregations. Politics aside, there is hardly an American view of any phenomenon or class of phenomena. Every one of us likes, reads, sees, does what he chooses. Often dissimilarity is affected as adding piquancy of paradox. The judgment of the ages, the consensus of mankind, exercise no tyranny over the individual will. Do you believe in this or that, do you like this or that, are questions which, concerning the most fundamental matters, nevertheless form the staple of conversation in many circles. We live all of us apparently in a divine state of flux. The question asked at dinner by a lady in a neighboring city of a literary stranger, “What do you think of Shakespeare?” is not exaggeratedly peculiar. We all think differently of Shakespeare, of Cromwell, of Titian, of Browning, of George Washington. Concerning matters as to which we must be fundamentally disinterested, we permit ourselves not only prejudice but passion. At the most we have here and there groups of personal acquaintance only, whose members are in accord in regard to some one thing, and quickly crystallize and precipitate at the mention of something that is really a corollary of the force which unites them. The efforts that have been made in New York, within the past twenty years, to establish various special milieus, so to speak, have been pathetic in their number and resultlessness. Efforts of this sort are of course doomed to failure, because the essential trait of the milieu is spontaneous existence, but their failure discloses the mutual repulsion which keeps the molecules of our society from uniting. How can it be otherwise when life is so speculative, so experimental, so wholly dependent on the personal force and idiosyncrasies of the individual? How shall we accept any general verdict pronounced by persons of no more authority than ourselves, and arrived at by processes in which we are equally expert? We have so little consensus as to anything, because we dread the loss of personality involved in submitting to conventions, and because personality operates centrifugally alone. We make exceptions in favor of such matters as the Copernican system and the greatness of our own future. There are things which we take on the credit of the consensus of authorities, for which we may not have all the proofs at hand. But as to conventions of all sorts, our attitude is apt to be one of suspicion and uncertainty. Mark Twain, for example, first won his way to the popular American heart by exposing the humbugs of the Cinque-cento. Specifically the most teachable of people, nervously eager for information, Americans are nevertheless wholly distrustful of generalizations made by anyone else, and little disposed to receive blindly formularies and classifications of phenomena as to which they have had no experience. And of experience we have necessarily had, except politically, less than any civilized people in the world.
We are infinitely more at home amid universal mobility. We want to act, to exert ourselves, to be, as we imagine, nearer to nature. We have our tastes in painting as in confectionery. Some of us prefer Tintoretto to Rembrandt, as we do chocolate to cocoanut. In respect of taste it would be impossible for the gloomiest skeptic to deny that this is an exceedingly free country. “I don’t know anything about the subject (whatever the subject may be), but I know what I like,” is a remark which is heard on every hand, and which witnesses the sturdiness of our struggle against the tyranny of conventions and the indomitable nature of our independent spirit. In criticism the individual spirit fairly runs a-muck; it takes its lack of concurrence as credentials of impartiality often. In constructive art everyone is occupied less with nature than with the point of view. Mr. Howells himself displays more delight in his naturalistic attitude than zest in his execution, which, compared with that of the French naturalists, is in general faint-hearted enough. Everyone writes, paints, models, exclusively the point of view. Fidelity in following out nature’s suggestions, in depicting the emotions nature arouses, a sympathetic submission to nature’s sentiment, absorption into nature’s moods and subtle enfoldings, are extremely rare. The artist’s eye is fixed on the treatment. He is “creative” by main strength. He is penetrated with a desire to get away from “the same old thing,” to “take it” in a new way, to draw attention to himself, to shine. One would say that every American nowadays who handles a brush or designs a building, was stimulated by the secret ambition of founding a school. We have in art thus, with a vengeance, that personal element which is indeed its savor, but which it is fatal to make its substance. We have it still more conspicuously in life. What do you think of him, or her? is the first question asked after every introduction. Of every new individual we meet we form instantly some personal impression. The criticism of character is nearly the one disinterested activity in which we have become expert. We have for this a peculiar gift, apparently, which we share with gypsies and money-lenders, and other people in whom the social instinct is chiefly latent. Our gossip takes on the character of personal judgments rather than of tittle-tattle. It concerns not what So-and-So has done, but what kind of a person So-and-So is. It would hardly be too much to say that So-and-So never leaves a group of which he is not an intimate without being immediately, impartially but fundamentally, discussed. To a degree not at all suspected by the author of the phrase, he “leaves his character” with them on quitting any assemblage of his acquaintance.
The great difficulty with our individuality and independence is that differentiation begins so soon and stops so far short of real importance. In no department of life has the law of the survival of the fittest, that principle in virtue of whose operation societies become distinguished and admirable, had time to work. Our social characteristics are inventions, discoveries, not survival. Nothing with us has passed into the stage of instinct. And for this reason some of our “best people,” some of the most “thoughtful” among us, have less of that quality best characterized as social maturity than a Parisian washerwoman or concierge. Centuries of sifting, ages of gravitation toward harmony and homogeneity, have resulted for the French in a delightful immunity from the necessity of “proving all things” remorselessly laid on every individual of our society. Very many matters, at any rate, which to the French are matters of course, our self-respect pledges us to a personal examination of. The idea of sparing ourselves trouble in thinking occurs to us far more rarely than to other peoples. We have certainly an insufficient notion of the superior results reached by economy and system in this respect.
In one of Mr. Henry James’s cleverest sketches, Lady Barberina, the English heroine marries an American and comes to live in New York. She finds it dull. She is homesick without quite knowing why. Mr. James is at his best in exhibiting at once the intensity of her disgust and the intangibility of its provocation. We are not all like “Lady Barb.” We do not all like London, whose materialism is only more splendid, not less uncompromising than our own; but we cannot help perceiving that what that unfortunate lady missed in New York was the milieu—an environment sufficiently developed to permit spontaneity and free play of thought and feeling, and a certain domination of shifting merit by fixed relations which keeps one’s mind off that disagreeable subject of contemplation, one’s self. Everyone seems acutely self-conscious; and the self-consciousness of the unit is fatal, of course, to the composure of the ensemble. The number of people intently minding their P’s and Q’s, reforming their orthoepy, practicing new discoveries in etiquette, making over their names, and in general exhibiting that activity of the amateur known as “going through the motions” to the end of bringing themselves up, as it were, is very noticeable in contrast with French oblivion to this kind of personal exertion. Even our simplicity is apt to be simplesse. And the conscientiousness in educating others displayed by those who are so fortunate as to have reached perfection nearly enough to permit relaxation in self-improvement, is only equaled by the avidity in acquisitiveness displayed by the learners themselves. Meantime the composure born of equality, as well as that springing from unconsciousness, suffers. Our society is a kind of Jacob’s ladder, to maintain equilibrium upon which requires an amount of effort on the part of the personally estimable gymnasts perpetually ascending and descending, in the highest degree hostile to spontaneity, to serenity, and stability.
Naturally, thus, everyone is personally preoccupied to a degree unknown in France. And it is not necessary that this preoccupation should concern any side of that multifarious monster we know as “business.” It may relate strictly to the paradox of seeking employment for leisure. Even the latter is a terribly conscious proceeding. We go about it with a mental deliberateness singularly in contrast with our physical precipitancy. But it is mainly “business,” perhaps, that accentuates our individualism. The condition of désœuvrement is positively disreputable. It arouses the suspicion of acquaintance and the anxiety of friends. Occupation to the end of money-getting is our normal condition, any variation from which demands explanation, as little likely to be entirely honorable. Such occupation is, as I said, the inevitable sequence of the opportunity for it, and is the wiser and more dignified because of its necessity to the end of securing independence. What the Frenchman can secure merely by the exercise of economy is with us only the reward of energy and enterprise in acquisition—so comparatively speculative and hazardous is the condition of our business. And whereas with us money is far harder to keep, and is moreover something which it is far harder to be without than is the case in France, the ends of self-respect, freedom from mortification, and getting the most out of life, demand that we should take constant advantage of the fact that it is easier to get. Consequently everyone who is, as we say, worth anything, is with us adjusted to the prodigious dynamic condition which characterizes our existence. And such occupation is tremendously absorbing. Our opportunity is fatally handicapped by this remorseless necessity of embracing it. It yields us fruit after its kind, but it rigorously excludes us from tasting any other. Everyone is engaged in preparing the working drawings of his own fortune. There is no co-operation possible, because competition is the life of enterprise.
In the resultant manners the city illustrates Carlyle’s “anarchy plus the constable.” Never was the struggle for existence more palpable, more naked, and more unpictorial. “It is the art of mankind to polish the world,” says Thoreau somewhere, “and everyone who works is scrubbing in some part.” Everyone certainly is here at work, yet was there ever such scrubbing with so little resultant polish? The disproportion would be tragic if it were not grotesque. Amid all “the hurry and rush of life along the sidewalks,” as the newspapers say, one might surely expect to find the unexpected. The spectacle ought certainly to have the interest of picturesqueness which is inherent in the fortuitous. Unhappily, though there is hurry and rush enough, it is the bustle of business, not the dynamics of what is properly to be called life. The elements of the picture lack dignity—so completely as to leave the ensemble quite without accent. More incidents in the drama of real life will happen before midnight to the individuals who compose the orderly Boulevard procession in Paris than those of its chaotic Broadway counterpart will experience in a month. The latter are not really more impressive because they are apparently all running errands and include no flâneurs. The flâneur would fare ill should anything draw him into the stream. Everything being adjusted to the motive of looking out for one’s self, any of the sidewalk civility and mutual interest which obtain in Paris would throw the entire machine out of gear. Whoever is not in a hurry is in the way. A man running after an omnibus at the Madeleine would come into collision with fewer people and cause less disturbance than one who should stop on Fourteenth Street to apologize for an inadvertent jostle, or to give a lady any surplusage of passing room. He would be less ridiculous. A friend recently returned from Paris told me that, on several street occasions, his involuntary “Excuse me!” had been mistaken for a salutation and answered by a “How do you do?” and a stare of speculation. Apologies of this class sound to us, perhaps, like a subtle and deprecatory impeachment of our large tolerance and universal good nature.
In this way our undoubted self-respect undoubtedly loses something of its bloom. We may prefer being jammed into street-cars and pressed against the platform rails of the elevated road to the tedious waiting at Paris ‘bus stations—to mention one of the perennial and principal points of contrast which monopolize the thoughts of the average American sojourner in the French capital. But it is terribly vulgarizing. The contact and pressure are abominable. To a Parisian the daily experience in this respect of those of our women who have no carriages of their own, would seem as singular as the latter would find the Oriental habit of regarding the face as more important than other portions of the female person to keep concealed. But neither men nor women can persist in blushing at the intimacy of rudeness to which our crowding subjects them in common. The only resource is in blunted sensibility. And the manners thus negatively produced we do not quite appreciate in their enormity because the edge of our appreciation is thus necessarily dulled. The conductor scarcely ceases whistling to poke you for your fare. Other whistlers apparently go on forever. Loud talking follows naturally from the impossibility of personal seclusion in the presence of others. Our Sundays have lost secular decorum very much in proportion as they have lost Puritan observance. If we have nothing quite comparable with a London bank holiday, or with the conduct of the popular cohorts of the Epsom army; if only in “political picnics” and the excursions of “gangs” of “toughs” we illustrate absolute barbarism, it is nevertheless true that, from Central Park to Coney Island, our people exhibit a conception of the fitting employment of periodical leisure which would seem indecorous to a crowd of Belleville ouvriers. If we have not the cad, we certainly possess in abundance the species “hoodlum,” which, though morally far more refreshing, is yet aesthetically intolerable; and the hoodlum is nearly as rare in Paris as the cad. Owing to his presence and to the atmosphere in which he thrives, we find ourselves, in spite of the most determined democratic convictions, shunning crowds whenever it is possible to shun them. The most robust of us easily get into the frame of mind of a Boston young woman, to whom the Champs-Élysées looked like a railway station, and who wished the people would get up from the benches and go home. Our life becomes a life of the interior; wherefore, in spite of a climate that permits walks abroad, we confine out-door existence to Newport lawns and camps in the Adirondacks; and whence proceeds that carelessness of the exterior which subordinates architecture to “household art,” and makes of our streets such mere thoroughfares lined with “homes.”
The manners one encounters in street and shop in Paris are, it is well known, very different from our own. But no praise of them ever quite prepares an American for their agreeableness and simplicity. We are always agreeably surprised at the absence of elaborate manner which eulogists of French manners in general omit to note; and indeed it is an extremely elusive quality. Nothing is further removed from that intrusion of the national gemüthlichkeit into so impersonal a matter as affairs, large or small, which to an occasional sense makes the occasional German manner enjoyable. Nothing is farther from the obsequiousness of the London shopman, which rather dazes the American than pleases him. Nothing, on the other hand, is farther from our own bald dispatch. With us every shopper expects, or at any rate is prepared for, obstruction rather than facilitation on the seller’s side. The dry goods counter, especially when the attendant is of the gentler sex, is a kind of chevaux-de-frise. The retail atmosphere is charged with an affectation of unconsciousness; not only is every transaction impersonal, it is mechanical; ere long it must become automatic. In many cases there is to be encountered a certain defiant attitude to the last degree unhappy in its effects on the manners involved—a certain self-assertion which begs the question, else unmooted, of social equality, with the result for the time being of the most unsocial relation probably existing among men. Perfect personal equality for the time being invariably exists between customer and tradesman in France; the man or woman who serves you is first of all a fellow-creature; a shop, to be sure, is not aconversazione, but if you are in a loquacious or inquisitive mood you will be deemed neither frivolous nor familiar—nor yet an inanimate obstacle to the flow of the most important as well as the most impetuous of the currents of life.
Certainly, in New York, we are too vain of our bustle to realize how mannerless and motiveless it is. The essence of life is movement, but so is the essence of epilepsy. Moreover the life of the New Yorker who chases street-cars, eats at a lunch counter, drinks what will “take hold” quickly at a bar he can quit instantly, reads only the head-lines of his newspaper, keeps abreast of the intellectual movement by inspecting the display of the Elevated Railway newsstands while he fumes at having to wait two minutes for his train, hastily buys his tardy ticket of sidewalk speculators, and leaves the theater as if it were on fire—the life of such a man is, notwithstanding all its futile activity, varied by long spaces of absolute mental stagnation, of moral coma. Not only is our hurry not decorous, not decent; it is not real activity, it is as little as possible like the animated existence of Paris, where the moral nature is kept in constant operation, intense or not as the case may be, in spite of the external and material tranquillity. Owing to this lack of a real, a rational activity, our individual civilization, which seems when successful a scramble, and when unlucky a sauve qui peut, is, morally as well as spectacularly, not ill described in so far as its external aspect is concerned by the epithet flat. Enervation seems to menace those whom hyperæsthesia spares.
“We go to Europe to become Americanized,” says Emerson, but France Americanizes us less in this sense than any other country of Europe, and perhaps Emerson was not thinking so much of her democratic development into social order and efficiency as of the less American and more feudal European influences, which do indeed, while we are subject to them, intensify our affection for our own institutions, our confidence in our own outlook. One must admit that in France (which nowadays follows our ideal of liberty perhaps as closely as we do hers of equality and fraternity, and where consequently our political notions receive few shocks) not only is the life of the senses more agreeable than it is with us, but the mutual relations of men are more felicitous also. And alas! Americans who have savored these sweets cannot avail themselves of the implication contained in Emerson’s further words—words which approach nearer to petulance than anything in his urbane and placid utterances—”those who prefer London or Paris to America may be spared to return to those capitals.” “Il faut vivre, combattre, et finir avec les siens,” says Doudan, and no law is more inexorable. The fruits of foreign gardens are, however delectable, enchanted for us; we may not touch them; and to pass our lives in covetous inspection of them is as barren a performance as may be imagined. For this reason the question “Should you like better to live here or abroad?” is as little practical as it is frequent. The empty life of the “foreign colonies” in Paris is its sufficient answer. Not only do most of us have to stay at home, but for everyone except the inconsiderable few who can better do abroad the work they have to do, and except those essentially un-American waifs who can contrive no work for themselves, life abroad is not only less profitable but less pleasant. The American endeavoring to acclimatize himself in Paris hardly needs to have cited to him the words of Epictetus: “Man, thou hast forgotten thine object; thy journey was not to this, but through this”—he is sure before long to become dismally persuaded of their truth. More speedily than elsewhere perhaps, he finds out in Paris the truth of Carlyle’s assurance: “It is, after all, the one unhappiness of a man. That he cannot work; that he cannot get his destiny as a man fulfilled.” For the work which insures the felicity of the French life of the senses and of French human relations he cannot share; and, thus, the question of the relative attractiveness of French and American life—of Paris and New York—becomes the idle and purely speculative question as to whether one would like to change his personal and national identity.
And this an American may permit himself the chauvinism of believing a less rational contradiction of instinct in himself than it would be in the case of anyone else. And for this reason: that in those elements of life which tend to the development and perfection of the individual soul in the work of fulfilling its mysterious destiny, American character and American conditions are especially rich. Bunyan’s genius exhibits its characteristic felicity in giving the name of Hopeful to the successor of that Faithful who perished in the town of Vanity. It would be a mark of that loose complacency in which we are too often offenders, to associate the scene of Faithful’s martyrdom with the Europe from which definitively we set out afresh a century ago; but it is impossible not to recognize that on our forward journey to the celestial country of national and individual success, our conspicuous inspiration and constant comforter is that hope whose cheering ministrations the “weary Titans” of Europe enjoy in far narrower measure. Living in the future has an indisputably tonic effect upon the moral sinews, and contributes an exhilaration to the spirit which no sense of attainment and achieved success can give. We are after all the true idealists of the world. Material as are the details of our preoccupation, our sub-consciousness is sustained by a general aspiration that is none the less heroic for being, perhaps, somewhat naïf as well. The times and moods when one’s energy is excited, when something occurs in the continuous drama of life to bring sharply into relief its vivid interest and one’s own intimate share therein, when nature seems infinitely more real than the societies she includes, when the missionary, the pioneer, the constructive spirit is aroused, are far more frequent with us than with other peoples. Our intense individualism happily modified by our equality, our constant, active, multiform struggle with the environment, do at least, as I said, produce men; and if we use the term in an esoteric sense we at least know its significance. Of our riches in this respect New York alone certainly gives no exaggerated idea—however it may otherwise epitomize and typify our national traits. A walk on Pennsylvania Avenue; a drive among the “homes” of Buffalo or Detroit—or a dozen other true centers of communal life which have a concrete impressiveness that for the most part only great capitals in Europe possess; a tour of college commencements in scores of spots consecrated to the exaltation of the permanent over the evanescent; contact in any wise with the prodigious amount of right feeling manifested in a hundred ways throughout a country whose prosperity stimulates generous impulse, or with the number of “good fellows” of large, shrewd, humorous views of life, critical perhaps rather than constructive, but at all events untouched by cynicism, perfectly competent and admirably confident, with a livelier interest in everything within their range of vision than can be felt by anyone mainly occupied with sensuous satisfaction, saved from boredom by a robust imperviousness, ready to begin life over again after every reverse with unenfeebled spirit, and finding, in the working out of their own personal salvation according to the gospel of necessity and opportunity, that joy which the pursuit of pleasure misses—experiences of every kind, in fine, that familiarize us with what is especially American in our civilization, are agreeable as no foreign experiences can be, because they are above all others animating and sustaining. Life in America has for everyone, in proportion to his seriousness, the zest that accompanies the “advance on Chaos and the Dark.” Meantime, one’s last word about the America emphasized by contrast with the organic and solidaire society of France, is that, for insuring order and efficiency to the lines of this advance, it would be difficult to conceive too gravely the utility of observing attentively the work in the modern world of the only other great nation that follows the democratic standard, and is perennially prepared to make sacrifices for ideas.
Essay first published in French Traits, by W. C. Brownell, 1889
About the Author:
W. C. Brownell (1851–1928) was an American journalist and literary critic.