America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter II

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


LETTER II

Fog in New York Harbour—The Customs—The Note-Taker's Hyperæsthesia—A Literary Car-Conductor—Mr. Kipling and the American Public—The City of Elevators.

New York.

By way of making us feel quite at home, New York receives us with a dank Scotch mist. On the shores of Staten Island the leafless trees stand out grey and gaunt against the whity-grey snow, a legacy, no doubt, from the great blizzard. Though I keep a sharp look-out, I can descry no Liberty Enlightening the World. Liberty (absit omen!) is wrapped away in grimy cotton-wool. There, however, are the "sky-scraper" buildings, looming out through the mist, like the Jotuns in Niflheim of Scandinavian mythology. They are grandiose, certainly, and not, to my thinking, ugly. That word has no application in this context. "Pretty" and "ugly"—why should we for ever carry about these æsthetic labels in our pockets, and insist on dabbing them down on everything that comes in our way? If we cannot get, with Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, we might at least allow our souls an occasional breathing-space in a region "Back of the Beautiful and the Ugly," as they say in President's English. While I am trying to formulate my feelings with regard to this deputation of giants which the giant Republic sends down to the waterside to welcome us, behold, we have crept up abreast of the Cunard wharf, and there stands a little crowd of human welcomers, waving handkerchiefs and American flags. An energetic tug-boat butts her head gallantly into the flank of the huge liner, in order to help her round. She glides up to her berth, the gangway is run out, and at last I set foot upon American—lumber.

What are my emotions? I have only one; single, simple, easily-expressed: dread of the United States Custom-House. Its terrors and its tyrannies have been depicted in such lurid colours on the other side that I am almost surprised to observe no manifest ogres in uniform caps, but only, it would seem, ordinary human beings. And, on closer acquaintanceship, they prove to be civil and even helpful human beings, with none of the lazy superciliousness which so often characterises the European toll-taker. At first the scene is chaotic enough, but, by aid of an arrangement in alphabetical groups, cosmos soon emerges. The system by which you declare your dutiable goods and are assigned an examiner, and if necessary an appraiser, is admirably simple and free from red-tape. I shall not describe it, for it would be more tedious in description than in act. Enough that the whole thing is conducted, so far as I could see, promptly, efficiently, and with perfect good temper. One brief discussion I heard, between an official and an American citizen, who was heavily assessed on some article or articles which he declared to have been manufactured in America and taken out of the country by himself only a few months before. The official insisted that there was no proof of this; but just as the discussion threatened to become an altercation (a "scrap" they would call it here) some one found a way out. The goods were forwarded in bond to the traveller's place of residence (Hartford, I think), where he declared that he could produce proof of their American origin. For myself, I had to pay two dollars and a half on some magic-lantern slides. I could have imported the lantern, had I owned one, free of charge, as a philosophical instrument used in my profession; but the courts have held, it appears, that though the lantern comes under that rubric, the slides do not. I cannot pretend to grasp the distinction, or to admire the system which necessitates it. But whatever the economic merits or demerits of the tariff, I take pleasure in bearing testimony to the civility with which I found it enforced.

My companion and I express our baggage to our hotel and jump on the platform of a horse-car on West-street, skirting the wharves. The roadway is ill paved, certainly, and the clammy atmosphere has congealed on its surface into an oily black mud; while in the middle of the side streets one can see relics of the blizzard in the shape of little grubby glaciers slowly oozing away. The prospect is not enlivening; nor do the low brick houses, given up to nondescript longshore traffic, and freely punctuated with gilt-lettered saloons, add to its impressiveness. Squalid it is without doubt, this particular aspect of New York; but what is the squalor of West Street to that of Limehouse or Poplar? Are our own dock thoroughfares always paved to perfection? And if we had a blizzard like that of three weeks ago, how long would its vestiges linger in the side-streets of Millwall? Even as I mark the grimness of the scene, I am conscious of a sort of hyperæsthesia against which one ought to be on guard. The note-taking traveller is very apt to forget that the mere act of note-taking upsets his normal perceptivity. He becomes feverishly observant, morbidly critical. He compares incommensurables, and flies to ideal standpoints. He is so eager to descry differences that he overlooks similarities—nay, identities. Thus only can I account for many statements about New York, occurring in the pages of recent and reputable travellers, both French and English, which I find to be exaggerated almost to the point of monstrosity. What should we say of an American who should criticise the Commercial Road from the point of view of Fifth Avenue? After a week's experience of New York I cannot but fancy that certain travellers I could mention have been guilty of similar errors of proportion.

To return to our street-car platform. The conductor gathers from our conversation that we have just landed from the English steamer, and he at once overflows upon the one great topic of all classes in New York. "I s'pose you've heard," he says, "that Kipling has been very ill?" Yes, we had heard of his illness before we left England. "He's pulling through now, though," says the conductor with heartfelt satisfaction. That, too, we had ascertained on board. "He ought to be the next poet-laureate," our friend continues eagerly; "he don't follow no beaten tracks. He cuts a road for himself, every time, right through; and a mighty good road, too!" He then proceeded to make some remarks, which in the rattle of the street I did not quite catch, about "carpet-bag knights." I gathered that he held a low opinion of the present wearer of the bays, and confounded him (not inexcusably) with one or other of his titled compeers. My companion and I were too much taken aback to pursue the theme and ascertain our friend's opinions on Mr. Ruskin, Mr. Meredith, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and Miss Marie Corelli. Think of it! We have travelled three thousand miles to find a tram-conductor whose eyes glisten as he tells us that Kipling is better, and who discusses with a great deal of sense and acuteness the question of the English poet-laureateship! Could anything be more marvellous or more significant? Said I not well when I declared the Atlantic Ocean of less account than the Straits of Dover?

This was indeed a welcome to the New World. Fate could not have devised a more ingenious and at the same time tactful way of making us feel at home; though at home, indeed, a Mile End 'bus conductor is scarcely the authority one would turn to for enlightened views upon the Laureateship. The mere fact of our friend's having heard of Mr. Kipling's existence struck us as surprising enough, until we learned that the poet of Tommy Atkins is at the present moment quite the most famous person in the United States. When his illness was at its height, hourly bulletins were posted in factories and workshops, and people meeting in the streets asked each other, "How is he?" without deeming it necessary to supply an antecedent to the pronoun. It was grammatically as well as spiritually a case of "Kipling understood."

At a low music-hall into which I strayed one evening, one of the nigger corner-men sang a song of which the nature may be sufficiently divined from the refrain, "And the tom-cat was the cause of it all." This lyric being loudly encored, the performer came forward, and, to my astonishment, began to recite a long series of doggerel verses upon Mr. Kipling's illness, setting forth how

"His strong will made him famous, and his strong will pulled him through."

They were imbecile, they were maudlin, they were in the worst possible taste. So far as the reciter was concerned, they were absolutely insincere clap-trap. But the crowded audience received them with rapture; and the very fact that an astute caterer should serve up this particular form of clap-trap showed how the sympathy with Mr. Kipling had permeated even the most un-literary stratum of the public. To an Englishman, nothing can be more touching than to find on every hand this enthusiastic affection for the poet of the Seven Seas—a writer, too, who has not dealt over-tenderly with American susceptibilities, and has, by sheer force of genius, lived down a good deal of unpopularity.

For the moment, neither President McKinley nor Mr. Fitzsimmons can vie with him in notoriety. His sole rival as a popular hero is Admiral Dewey, whose name is in every mouth and on every hoarding. He is the one living celebrity whom the Italian image-vendors admit to their pantheon, where he rubs shoulders with Shakespeare, Dante, Beethoven, and the Venus of Milo. It is related that, at a Camp of Exercise last year, President McKinley chanced to stray beyond bounds, and on returning was confronted by a sentry, who dropped his rifle and bade him halt. "I have forgotten the pass-word," said Mr. McKinley, "but if you will look at me you will see that I am the President." "If you were George Dewey himself," was the reply, "you shouldn't get by here without the password." This anecdote has a flavour of ancient history, but it is aptly brought up to date.[1]

We bid adieu to our poetical conductor, take a cross-town car, and are presently pushing at the revolving doors—a draught-excluding plate-glass turnstile—of a vast red-brick hotel, luxurious and labyrinthine. A short colloquy with a clerk at the bureau, and we find ourselves in a gorgeously upholstered elevator, whizzing aloft to the thirteenth floor. Not the top floor—far from it. If you could slice off the stories above the thirteenth, as you slice off the top of an egg, and plant them down in Europe, they would of themselves make a biggish hotel according to our standards. This first elevator voyage is the prelude to how many others! For the past week I seem to have spent the best part of my time in elevators. I must have travelled miles on miles at right angles to the earth's surface. If all my ascensions could be put together, they would out-top Olympus and make Ossa a wart.

This is the first sensation of life in New York—you feel that the Americans have practically added a new dimension to space. They move almost as much on the perpendicular as on the horizontal plane. When they find themselves a little crowded, they simply tilt a street on end and call it a sky- scraper. This hotel, for example (the Waldorf-Astoria), is nothing but a couple of populous streets soaring up into the air instead of crawling along the ground. When I was here in 1877, I remember looking with wonder at the Tribune building, hard by the Post Office, which was then considered a marvel of architectural daring. Now it is dwarfed into absolute insignificance by a dozen Cyclopean structures on every hand. It looks as diminutive as the Adelphi Terrace in contrast with the Hotel Cecil. I am credibly informed that in some of the huge down-town buildings they run "express" elevators, which do not stop before the fifteenth, eighteenth, twentieth floor, as the case may be. Some such arrangement seems very necessary, for the elevator Bummelzugs, which stops at every floor, take quite an appreciable slice out of the average New York day. I wonder that American ingenuity has not provided a system of pneumatic passenger-tubes for lightning communication with these aërial suburbs, these "mansions in the sky."

  1. A similar story is told of the Confederate President. Challenged by a sentinel, he said, "Look at me and you will see that I am President Davis." "Well," said the soldier, "you do look like a used postage-stamp. Pass, President Davis!"