America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter VIII

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


LETTER VIII

Boston—Its Resemblance to Edinburgh—Concord, Walden Pond, and Sleepy Hollow—Is the "Yankee" Dying Out?—America for the Americans—Detroit and Buffalo—The "Middle West."

Chicago.

The luxury of my quarters in Boston seduced me into a disquisition on American hospitality which would have come in equally well with reference to any other city. Were I to search very deeply into my soul (an exercise much in vogue in Boston), I might perhaps find reasons for my rambling off. To say that Boston did not interest me would be the reverse of the truth. It interested me deeply; but it did not excite me with a sense of novelty or vastness. One can only repeat the obvious truth that it is like an exceptionally dignified and stately English town. One instinctively looks around for a cathedral, and finds the State House in its stead. To the founders of this city, the glory of God was not a thing to be furthered, or even typified, by any work of men's hands; but the salvation of men's souls, they thought, could be best achieved in a well-ordered democratic polity. Their descendants have of late years taken to decorating their places of worship, and Trinity Church (by H. H. Richardson), and the new Old South Church, are ambitious and beautiful pieces of ecclesiastical architecture. But the old Old South Meeting-House, the ecclesiastical centre of the city, is the flat and somewhat sour negation of all that is expressed or implied in an English cathedral. Let me not be understood to disparage the Old South or the spirit which fashioned it. In my eyes, minster and meeting-house are equally interesting historic monuments, and to my hereditary instincts the latter is the more sympathetic. I merely note the fact that the most conspicuous edifice in Boston, its Duomo, its St. Peter's or St. Paul's, is dedicated, not to the glory of God, but to the well-being of man.

Not physically, of course, but intellectually, Boston has been likened to Edinburgh. The parallel is fair enough, with this important reservation, that the theological element in the atmosphere is not Presbyterian but Unitarian. The Boston of to-day, it must be added, especially resembles Edinburgh in the fact that its pre-eminence as an intellectual centre has virtually departed. The Atlantic Monthly survives, as Blackwood survives, a relic of the great days of old; but Boston has no Scott Monument to bear visual testimony to her spiritual achievement. She ought certainly to treat herself to a worthy Emerson Monument on the Common, whither the boy Emerson used to drive his mother's cows: not, of course, a Gothic pile like that which commemorates the genius of Scott, but a statue by the incomparable St. Gaudens, under a modest classic canopy.

But if, or when, such a monument is erected, it will absolve no one of the duty of making a pilgrimage to Concord. Even if it had no historic or literary associations, this simple, dignified, beautiful New England village, with its plain frame houses and its stately elm avenues, would be well worth a visit. Village I call it, but township would be a better word. Let no one go there with less than half a day to spare, for the places of interest are widely scattered. My companion and I went first to Walden Pond, then to the Emerson and Hawthorne houses, then to that ideal burying-place, Sleepy Hollow, where Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau rest side by side, and finally to the bridge—

Where once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Everything here is beautifully appropriate. The commemorative statue of the "minute-man" with his musket is simple and expressive, and the four lines of Emerson's hymn graven on the pedestal are the right words written by the right man, entwining, as it were, the historical and literary associations of the place. An exquisite appropriateness, too, presides over the Poets' Corner of Sleepy Hollow. The grave of Emerson is marked by a rough block of pure white quartz, in which is inserted a bronze tablet bearing the words:

The passive master lent his hand
To the vast soul that o'er him planned.

Altogether, among the places of pilgrimage of the English-speaking race, there is none more satisfactory or more inspiring than Concord, Mass.

If Boston is no longer a great centre of literary production, it remains, with its noble public library in its midst, and with Harvard University on its outskirts, a great centre of culture. I shall always remember a luncheon party at Harvard, where I was the guest of an eminent Shakespearean critic, and had for my fellow guests a very learned Dante scholar (one of the most delightful talkers imaginable), a famous psychologist, a political economist, and a lecturer on English literature. The talk fell upon the depopulation of New England, or rather the substitution of an alien race for (I had almost said) the indigenous Yankee stock. There was some discussion as to whether the Yankee was really dying out, or had merely spread throughout the West, taking with him and disseminating the qualities which had made the greatness of New England. It was not denied, of course, that westward emigration has much to do with the matter. The New England farmer, unable to stand up against the competition of the prairies, has betaken himself to the prairies so as to compete on the winning side. But one of the company maintained that this did not account for the whole phenomenon. "The real key to it," he said, "lies in such a family history as mine. My grandmother was the youngest of thirteen children; my mother was the eldest of five; my brother and I are two; and we are unmarried."

I am inclined to think that this story of a dwindling stock is typical, not for New England alone, but for other parts of the Union. It seems as though the pressure of life in the Eastern States, and perhaps some subtle influence of climate upon temperament, were rendering the people of old Teutonic blood—British, Dutch, and German—unwilling to face the responsibility of large families, and so were giving the country over to the later and usually inferior immigrant and his progeny. I am not sure that it might not be well to cultivate a new sense of social duty in this matter. Is it Utopian to suggest a policy of "America for the Americans"—some effectual restriction of immigration before it is too late, so as to leave room for the natural increase of the American people? This is an "expansion," a "taking up of the white man's burden," which would command my warmest sympathy. It is to the interest of the whole world that the America of the future should be peopled by "white men" in every sense of the word.

New England, however, cannot be utterly depopulated of its old stocks, for at every turn you come up against those good old Puritan names which bespeak a longer ancestry than many an English peer can claim. I find among the signatures to a petition against the reinstatement of an elevated railroad in Boston, such names as Adams, Morse, Lowell, Emerson, Bowditch, Lothrop, Storey, Dabney, Whipple, Ticknor, and Hale. Of the fifty signatures, only three (or, at the outside five, if we include two doubtful cases) are of other than English origin. In contrast to this I may mention another list of names which came under my notice at the same time—a list of the purchasers at a sale by auction of seats for a New York first-night. Here twenty-six names out of forty are obviously of non-English origin, while several of the remaining fourteen have a distinctly Hebraic ring.

Though very much smaller than New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Boston is essentially a great city, with a very animated street life, and nothing in the least provincial about it. But it is not in these great capitals, not even in this marvellous Chicago where I am now writing, that one most clearly realises the bewildering potentialities of the United States. It is precisely in the minor, the provincial cities, which to us in Europe are no more than names—perhaps not so much. For instance, what does the average Englishman know of Detroit?[1] What State is it in? Is it in the North or the South, the East or the West? For my part I knew in a general way, having been there before, that Detroit was situated somewhere between Chicago and Niagara Falls, but until a few days ago I should have been puzzled to describe its situation more precisely. Well, I arrive in this obscure, insignificant place, and find it a city of considerably more than a quarter of a million inhabitants, beautifully laid out, magnificently paved and lighted, its broad and noble avenues lined with handsome commercial houses and roomy if not always beautiful villas, trees shading its sidewalks, electric cars swimming in an endless stream along its bustling thoroughfares, its imposing public library swarming with readers, its theatres crowded, its parks alive with bicyclists, an eager activity, whether in business, culture, or recreation, manifesting itself on every hand. Or take, again, Buffalo, somewhat larger than Detroit, but still by no means a city of the first rank. Everything that I have said of Detroit applies to it, with the addition that some of its commercial buildings are not only palatial in their dimensions, but original and impressive in their architecture. An afternoon stroll along Woodward Avenue, Detroit, or Main Street, Buffalo, reassures one as to the future—the physical future, at any rate—of the American people. The prevailing type is, if not definitely Anglo-Saxon, at any rate Teutonic, and the average of physical development is very high, especially among the women. It may have some bearing upon what I have been saying above to note that, in point of stature and beauty, the Bostonian woman, as a rule, seemed to me to fall far short of her sisters in the other cities I have visited. I have before my mind's eye many distinguished and delightful exceptions to this rule; but, postponing gallantry to sociological candour, I state my general impression for what it is worth.

Here, in Chicago, gallantry and candour go hand in hand. A legend of the envious East represents that a Chicago young man travelling in Louisiana wrote to his sweetheart: "Dear Mamie,—I have shot an alligator. When I have shot another I will send you a pair of slippers." The implication is, to the best of my knowledge and belief, a base and baseless calumny. New York itself does not present a higher average of female beauty than Chicago, and that is saying a great deal. But I must not enlarge on this fascinating topic. A Judgment of Paris is always a delicate business, and I am in nowise called upon to make the invidious award. Were I compelled to undertake it, I could only distribute the apple, and my homage, in equal shares to the goddesses of the East, the South, and the Middle West.

When I was in Chicago in '77, it was the metropolis of the West, without qualification. Now it is merely the frontier city of the Middle West. From the standpoint of Omaha and Denver, it seems to fill the Eastern horizon, and shut out the further view. Many stories are told to show how absolutely and instinctively your true Westerner ignores the Eastern States and cities. Here is one of the most characteristic. A little girl came into the smoking-car of a train somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, and stood beside her father, who was in conversation with another man. The father put his arm round her and said to his companion, "She's been a great traveller, this little girl of mine. She's only ten years old, and she's been all over the United States."

"You don't say!" replied the other; "all over the United States?"

"Yes, sir; all over the United States," said the proud father; and then added, as though the detail was scarcely worth mentioning, "except east of Chicago."

Chicago, unfortunately, marks the limit of my wanderings; so I shall return to England without having seen anything of the United States, except for a sort of Pisgah-glimpse from the tower of the Auditorium.

  1. My own visit to Detroit illustrated this vagueness of the average Englishman. I was anxious to see Mr. James A. Herne's famous play, Shore Acres, and learned from Mr. Herne that it would be played by a travelling company at Buffalo on a certain date. I carefully noted the place and day, but contrived to mix up Buffalo and Detroit in my mind, and arrived on the appointed day in Detroit nearly two hundred and fifty miles from the appointed place! It was as though, having arranged to be in Brighton at a certain time, one should go instead to Scarborough.