America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter VII

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


LETTER VII

American Hospitality—Instances—Conversation and Story-Telling—Over-Profusion in Hospitality—Expensiveness of Life in America—The American Barber—Postscript: An Anglo-American Club.

Boston.

Much has been said of American hospitality; too much cannot possibly be said. Here am I in Boston, the guest of one of the foremost clubs of the city. I sit, as I write, at my bedroom window, with a view over the whole of Boston Common, and the beautiful spires of the Back-Bay region beyond. I step out on my balcony, and the gilded dome of the State House—"the Hub of the Universe"—is but a stone's-throw off. Through the leafless branches of the trees I can see the back of St. Gaudens's beautiful Shaw Monument, and beyond it the graceful dip of upper Beacon Street. My room is as spacious and luxurious as heart can desire, lighted by half a dozen electric lamps, and with a private bath-room attached, which is itself nearly as large as the bedroom assigned me in the "swagger" hotel of New York—an establishment, by the way, of which it has been wittily said that its purpose is "to provide exclusiveness for the masses." All the comforts of the club are at my command; the rooms are delightful, the food and service excellent. In short, I could not be more conveniently or agreeably situated. Of course I pay the club charges for my room and meals, but it is mere hospitality to allow me to do so. And how do I come to be established in these quarters? The little story is absolutely commonplace, but all the more typical.

In Washington I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who invited me to lunch at the leading diplomatic and social club. I had no claim upon him of any sort, beyond the most casual introduction. He regaled me with little-neck clams, terrapin, and all the delicacies of the season, and invited to meet me half a dozen of the most interesting men in the city, all of them strangers to me until that moment. I found myself seated next an exceedingly amiable man, whose name I had not caught when we were introduced. One of the first things he asked me was—not "What did I think of America?" no one ever asked me that—but "Where was I going next?" To Boston. "Where was I going to put up?" I thought of going to the T—— Hotel. "Much better go the U—— Club," he replied; "I've no doubt they will be able to give you a room. As soon as lunch is over, I shall telegraph to the club and make sure that everything is ready for you." I, of course, thanked him warmly. "But what credentials shall I present?" "You don't require any—just present your card. I shall make it all right for you." This was a man whom I had met ten minutes before, whose name I did not know, and to whom I had been introduced by a man whom I barely knew! It did not appear that he, on his side, knew or cared about anything I had said or done in the world. He simply obeyed the national instinct of courtesy and helpfulness. And he was as good as his word. Arriving in Boston at a somewhat unearthly hour in the morning, I found my room allotted me and the club servants ready to receive me with every attention. I felt like the Prince in the fairy tale, only that I had done nothing whatever to oblige the good fairy.

Another example. I had a letter of introduction to the Governor of one of the States of the Union, probably (what does not always happen) the most universally respected man in the State, and a member of one of its oldest and most distinguished families. I left the letter, with my card, at this gentleman's house, and in the course of a few hours received a note from his wife, telling me that, owing to a death in the family, they were not then entertaining at all, but saying that the Governor would call upon me to offer me any courtesy or assistance in his power. And so he did. He called, not once, but twice. He presented me with a card for one of the leading clubs of the city, and if my time had allowed me to avail myself of his courtesy, he would have put me in the way of seeing any or all of the State institutions to the best advantage. The governorship of an American State, let me add, is no ornamental sinecure. This was not only a man in high position, but a very busy man. Is there any other country where a mere letter of introduction is so generously honoured? If so, it is to me an undiscovered country.

These are but two cases out of a hundred. The Americans are said to be the busiest people in the world (I have my doubts on that point), but they have always leisure to give a stranger "a good time." Even, be it noted, during the working hours of the day. My evenings being occupied with theatre-going, I could not accept invitations to dinner; wherefore those who were hospitably inclined towards me had to invite me to lunch; and a luncheon party in America invariably absorbs the best part of an afternoon. A score of these delightful gatherings will always remain in my memory. The "bright" American is, to my thinking, the best talker in the world—certainly the best talker in the English language. A light and facile humour, a power of giving a pleasant little sparkle even to sufficiently commonplace sayings, is in this country the rule and not the exception. I must have met at these luncheon parties, and actually conversed with, at least a hundred different men of all ages and occupations, and I do not remember among them a single dull, pompous, morose, or pedantic person. The parties did not usually exceed six or eight in number, so that there was no necessity for breaking up into groups. The shuttlecock of conversation was lightly bandied to and fro across the round table. Each took his share and none took more. All topics—even the burning question of "expansion"—were touched upon gaily, humorously, and in perfect good temper.

It is said that American conversation among men tends to degenerate into a mere exchange of anecdotes. I can remember only one party which was in the least degree open to this reproach; and there the anecdotes were without exception so good and so admirably told, that I, for one, should have been sorry to exchange them for even the loftiest discourse on Shakespeare and the musical glasses. Here, for instance, is an example of the American gift of picturesque exaggeration. On board one of the Florida steamboats, which have to be built with exceedingly light draught to get over the frequent shallows of the rivers, an Englishman accosted the captain with the remark, "I understand, captain, that you think nothing of steaming across a meadow where there's been a heavy fall of dew." "Well, I don't know about that," replied the captain, "but it's true we have sometimes to send a man ahead with a watering-pot!" Or take, again, the story of the southern colonel who was conducted to the theatre to see Salvini's Othello. He witnessed the performance gravely, and remarked at the close, "That was a mighty good show, and I don't see but the coon did as well as any of 'em." A third anecdote that charmed me on this occasion was that of the man who, being invited to take a drink, replied, "No, no, I solemnly promised my dear dead mother never to touch a drop; besides, boys, it's too early in the morning; besides, I've just had one!"

Furthermore, as I recall the party in question, I feel that I am wrong in implying that the conversation was mainly composed of anecdotes. It was mainly composed of narratives; but that is a different matter. There is a clear distinction between the mere story-teller and the narrator. Two or three of the party were brilliant narrators, and delighted us with accounts of personal experiences, quaint character-sketches, novels in a nutshell. One of the guests was, without exception, the most ready-witted man I ever met. His inexhaustible gift of lightning repartee I saw illustrated on another occasion, when he presided at the midnight "gambol" of a Bohemian club, at which it needed the utmost tact and presence of mind to "ride the whirlwind and direct the storm." At the luncheon party, he related several episodes from his chequered journalistic career in a style so easy and yet so graphic that one felt, if they could have been taken down in shorthand, they would have been literature ready-made. It is a clear injustice to confound such talk as this with a mere bandying of Joe-Millers.

The one drawback to American hospitality is that it is apt to be too profuse. I have more than once had to offer a mild protest against being entertained by a hard-working brother journalist on a scale that would have befitted a millionaire. The possibility of returning the compliment in kind affords the canny Scot but poor consolation. A dinner three times more lavish and expensive than you want is not sweetened by the thought that you may, in turn, give your host a dinner three times more expensive and lavish than he wants. Both parties, on this system, suffer in digestion and in pocket, while only Delmonico is the gainer. It seems to me, on the whole, that in this country the millionaire is too commonly allowed to fix the standard of expenditure. Society would not be less, but more, agreeable if, instead of always emulating the splendours of Lucullus, people now and then studied the art of Horatian frugality. And I note that in club life, if the plutocrat sets the standard of expenditure, the aristocrat looks to the training of the servants. Their obsequiousness is almost painful. There is not the slightest trace of democratic equality in their dress, their manners, or their speech.

Take it all and all, America is a trying place of sojourn for the aforesaid canny Scot—the man who without being stingy (oh, dear, no!) has "all his generous impulses under perfect control." The sixpences do not "bang" in this country: they crepitate, they crackle, as though shot from a Maxim quick-firer. For instance, the lowest electric-trolley fare is twopence-halfpenny. It is true that for five cents you can, if you wish it, ride fifteen or twenty miles; but that advantage becomes inappreciable when you don't want to ride more than half a mile. Take, again, the harmless, necessary operation of shaving. In a good English barber's shop it is a brief and not unpleasant process; in an American "tonsorial parlour" it is a lingering and costly torture. One of the many reasons which lead me to regard the Americans as a leisurely people rather than a nation of "hustlers" is the patience with which they submit to the long-drawn tyranny of the barber. In England one grudges five minutes for a shave, and one pays from fourpence to sixpence; in America one can hardly escape in twenty-five minutes, and one pays (with the executioner's tip)[1] from a shilling to eighteenpence. The charge would be by no means excessive if one wanted or enjoyed all the endless processes to which one is subjected; but for my part I would willingly pay double to escape them. The essential part of the business, the actual shaving, is, as a rule, badly performed, with a heavy hand, and a good deal of needless pawing-about of the patient's head. But when the shave is over the horrors are only beginning. First, your whole face is cooked for several minutes in relays of towels steeped in boiling water. Then a long series of essences is rubbed into it, generally with the torturer's naked hand. The sequence of these essences varies in different "parlours," but one especially loathsome hell-brew, known as "witch-hazel," is everywhere inevitable. Then your wounds have to be elaborately doctored with stinging chemicals; your hair, which has been hopelessly touzled in the pawing process, has to be drenched in some sickly-smelling oil and brushed; your moustache has to be lubricated and combed; and at last you escape from the tormentor's clutches, irritated, enervated, hopelessly late for an important appointment, and so reeking with unholy odours that you feel as though all great Neptune's ocean would scarcely wash you clean again. Only once or twice have I submitted, out of curiosity, to the whole interminable process. I now cut it short, not without difficulty, before the "witch-hazel" stage is reached, and am regarded with blank astonishment and disapproval by the tonsorial professor, who feels his art and mystery insulted in his person, and is scarcely mollified by a ten-cent tip. Americans, on the other hand, go through all these processes, and more, with stolid and long-suffering patience. Yet this nation is credited with having invented the maxim "Time is money," and is supposed to act up to it with feverish consistency!

Postcript.—As I have said a good deal about clubs in this letter, let me add to it a word as to the influence of club life in keeping America in touch with England. At all the leading clubs one or two English daily papers and all the more important weekly papers are taken as a matter of course; so that the American club-man has not the slightest difficulty in keeping abreast of the social, political, and literary life of England. As a matter of fact, the educated American's knowledge of England every day puts to shame the Englishman's ignorance of America. Reciprocity in this matter would be greatly to the advantage of both countries. I am much mistaken if there is a single club in London where American periodicals are so well represented on the reading-room table as are English periodicals in every club in New York. Yet there is assuredly no dearth of interesting weekly papers in America, some connected with daily papers, others independent. It may be said that they are not taken at English clubs because they would not be read. If so, the more's the pity; but I do not think it is so; for this is a case in which supply would beget demand. At any rate, there must be numbers of people in London who would be glad to keep fairly in touch with American life, if they could do so without too much trouble. Why should there not be an Anglo-American social club, organised with the special purpose of bringing America home (in a literal sense) to London and England? Why should not (say) the Century Club of New York be reproduced in London, with American periodicals as fully represented in its news-room and reading-room as are English periodicals in an American club of the first rank? Interest in and sympathy with America would be the implied condition of membership; and by a judiciously-devised system of non-resident membership, American visitors to London would be enabled to read their home newspapers in greater comfort than at the existing American reading-rooms, and would, moreover, come into easy contact with sympathetically-minded Englishmen, to their mutual pleasure and profit. Such a club might, in process of time, become a potent factor in international relations, and form a new bond of union, of quite appreciable strength, between the two countries.

  1. I had read or been told that the tip system did not obtain in America, except in the case of negroes and waiters. A very few days in New York undeceived me. I went twice to a barber's shop in the basement of the house in which I lived, paid fifteen cents to be shaved, and gave the operator nothing; but at my second visit I found myself so lowered upon by that portly and heavy-moustached citizen that I never again ventured to place myself under his razor, but went to a more distant establishment and tipped from the outset. There are, indeed, certain classes of people—railroad conductors for instance—who do not expect the tips which in England they consider their due; but, according to my experience, the safe rule in America is "when in doubt tip."