America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter I

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America To-Day, Observations & Reflections  (1900)  by William Archer
Letter I




The Straits of New York—When is a Ship not a Ship?—Nationality of Passengers—A Dream Realised.

R.M.S. Lucania.

The Atlantic Ocean is geographically a misnomer, socially and politically a dwindling superstition. That is the chief lesson one learns—and one has barely time to take it in—between Queenstown and Sandy Hook. Ocean forsooth! this little belt of blue water that we cross before we know where we are, at a single hop-skip-and-jump! From north to south, perhaps, it may still count as an ocean; from east to west we have narrowed it into a strait. Why, even for the seasick (and on this point I speak with melancholy authority) the Atlantic has not half the terrors of the Straits of Dover; comfort at sea being a question, not of the size of the waves, but of the proportion between the size of the waves and the size of the ship. Our imagination is still beguiled by the fuss the world made over Columbus, whose exploit was intellectually and morally rather than physically great. The map-makers, too, throw dust in our eyes by their absurd figment of two "hemispheres," as though Nature had sliced her orange in two, and held one half in either hand. We are slow to realise, in fact, that time is the only true measure of space, and that London to-day is nearer to New York than it was to Edinburgh a hundred and fifty years ago. The essential facts of the case, as they at present stand, would come home much more closely to the popular mind of both continents if we called this strip of sea the Straits of New York, and classed our liners, not as the successors of Columbus's caravels, but simply as what they are: giant ferry-boats plying with clockwork punctuality between the twin landing-stages of the English-speaking world.

To-morrow we shall be in New York harbour; it seems but yesterday that we slipped out of the Cove of Cork. As I look at the chart on the companion staircase, where our daily runs are marked off, I feel the abject poverty of our verbs of speed. We have not rushed, or dashed, or hurtled along—these words do grave injustice to the majesty of our progress. I can think of nothing but the strides of some Titan, so vast as to beggar even the myth-making imagination. It is not seven-league, no, nor hundred-league boots that we wear—we do our 520, 509, 518, 530 knots at a stride. Nor is it to be imagined that we are anywhere near the limit of speed. Already the Lucania's record is threatened by the Oceanic; and the Oceanic, if she fulfils her promises, will only spur on some still swifter Titan to the emprise.[1] Then, again, it is hard to believe that the difficulties are insuperable which as yet prevent us from utilising, as a point of arrival and departure, that almost mid-Atlantic outpost of the younger world, Newfoundland or at the least Nova Scotia. By this means the actual waterway between the two continents will be shortened by something like a third. What with the acceleration of the ferry-boats and the narrowing of the ferry, it is surely no visionary Jules-Vernism to look forward to the time when one may set foot on American soil within, say, sixty-five hours of leaving the Liverpool landing-stage; supposing, that is to say, that steam navigation be not in the meantime superseded.

As yet, to be sure, the Atlantic possesses a certain strategic importance as a coal-consuming force. To contract its time-width we have to expand our coal-bunkers; and the ship which has crossed it in six days, be she ferry-boat or cruiser, is apt to arrive, as it were, a little out of breath. But even this drawback can scarcely be permanent. Science must presently achieve the storage of motive-power in some less bulky form than that of crude coal. Then the Atlantic will be as extinct, politically, as the Great Wall of China; or, rather, it will retain for America the abiding significance which the "silver streak" possesses for England—an effectual bulwark against aggression, but a highway to influence and world-moulding power.

Think of the time when the Lucania shall have fallen behind in the race, and shall be plying to Boston or Philadelphia, while larger and swifter hotel-ships shall put forth almost daily from Liverpool, Southampton, and New York! Think of the growth of intercourse which even the next ten years will probably bring, and the increase of mutual comprehension involved in it! Is it an illusion of mine, or do we not already observe in England, during the past year, a new interest and pride in our trans-Atlantic service, which now ranks close to the Navy in the popular affections? It dates, I think, from those first days of the late war, when the Paris was vainly supposed to be in danger of capture by Spanish cruisers, and when all England was wishing her god-speed.

For my own taste, this sumptuous hotel-ship is rather too much of a hotel and too little of a ship. I resent the absolute exclusion of the passengers from even the most distant view of the propelling and guiding forces. Practically, the Lucania is a ship without a deck; and the deck is to the ship what the face is to the human being. The so-called promenade-deck is simply a long roofed balcony on either side of the hotel building. It is roofed by the "shade deck," which is rigidly reserved "for navigators only." There the true life of the ship goes on, and we are vouchsafed no glimpse of it. One is reminded of the Chinaman's description of a three-masted screw steamer with two funnels: "Thlee piecee bàmboo, two piecee puff-puff, wàlk-along inside, no can see." Here the "walk-along," the motive power, is "inside" with a vengeance. I have not at this moment the remotest conception where the engine-room is, or where lies the descent to that Avernus. Not even the communicator-gong can be heard in the hotel. I have not set eyes on an engineer or a stoker, scarcely on a sailor. The captain I do not even know by sight. Occasionally an officer flits past, on his way up to or down from the "shade deck"; I regard him with awe, and guess reverently at his rank. The ship's company, as I know it, consists of the purser, the doctor, and the army of stewards and stewardesses. The roof of the promenade-deck weighs upon my brain. It shuts off the better half of the sky, the zenith. In order even to see the masts and funnels of the ship one has to go far forward or far aft and crane one's neck upward. Not a single human being have I ever descried on the "shade-deck" or on the towering bridge. The genii of the hundred-league boots remain not only inaccessible but invisible. The effect is inhuman, uncanny. All the luxury of the saloons and staterooms does not compensate for the lack of a frank, straightforward deck. The Lucania, in my eyes, has no individuality as a ship. It—I instinctively say "it," not "she"—is merely a rather low-roofed hotel, with sea-sickness superadded to all the comforts of home. But a first-rate hotel it is: the living good and plentiful, if not superfine, the service excellent, and the charges, all things considered, remarkably moderate.

What chiefly strikes one about the passengers is their homogeneity of race. Apart from a small (but influential) Semitic contingent, the whole body is thoroughly Anglo-Saxon in type. About half are British, I take it, and half American; but in most cases the nationality is to be distinguished only by accent, not by any characteristic of appearance or of demeanour. The strongly-marked Semites always excepted, there is not a man or woman among the saloon passengers who strikes me as a foreigner, a person of alien race. I do not feel my sympathies chill toward my very agreeable table-companion because he drinks ice-water at breakfast; and he views my tea with an eye of equal tolerance. It is not till one looks at the second-class passengers that one sees signs of the heterogeneity of the American people; and then one remembers with misgivings the emigrants who crowded on board at Queenstown, with their household goods done up in bundles and gaping, ill-roped boxes. The thought of them recalls an anecdote which was new to me the other day, and may be fresh to some of my readers. In any case it will bear repetition. An Irishman coming to America for the first time, found New York gay with bunting as he sailed up the harbour. He asked an American fellow-passenger the reason of the display, and was told it was in honour of Evacuation Day. "And what's that?" he inquired. "Why, the day the British troops evacuated New York." Presently an Englishman came up to the Irishman and asked him if he knew what the flags were for. "For Evacuation Day, to be sure!" was the reply. "What is Evacuation Day?" asked the Sassenach. "The day we drove you blackguards out of the country, bedad!" was the immediate reply. If not literally true, the story is at least profoundly typical.

There is a light on our starboard bow: my first glimpse, for two and twenty years, of America. It has been literally the dream of my life to revisit the United States. Not once, but fifty times, have I dreamed that the ocean (which loomed absurdly large even in my waking thoughts) was comfortably crossed, and I was landing in New York. I can clearly recall at this moment some of the fantastic shapes the city put on in my dreams—utterly different, of course, from my actual recollections of it. Well, that dream is now realised; the gates of the Western world are opening to me. What experience awaits me I know not; but this I do know, that the emotion with which I confront it is not one of idle curiosity, or even of calmly sympathetic interest. It is not primarily to my intelligence, but to my imagination, that the word "America" appeals. To many people that word conveys none but prosaic associations; to me it is electric with romance. Only one other word in existence can give me a comparable thrill; the word one sees graven on a roadside pillar as one walks down the southern slope of an Alpine pass: ITALIA. But that word carries the imagination backward only, whereas AMERICA stands for the meeting-place of the past and the future. What the land of Cooper and Mayne Reid was to my boyish fancy, the land of Washington and Lincoln, Hawthorne and Emerson, is to my adult thoughts. Does this mean that I approach America in the temper of a romantic schoolboy? Perhaps; but, bias for bias, I would rather own to that of the romantic schoolboy than to that of the cynical Old-Worldling.

  1. The Oceanic, it appears, is designed to break the record in punctuality, not in speed. Nevertheless there are several indications that our engineers are not resting on their oars, but will presently put on another spurt. The very shortest Atlantic passage, I understand, has been made by a German ship. Surely England and America cannot long be content to leave the record for speed, of all things, in the hands of Germany.