Back to the Town

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Back to the Town  (1915) 
by Jesse Lynch Williams

From Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 58 Nov 1915. Illustrated by May Wilson Preston

I gladly agree that "nature is wonderful." I have frequently sat upon the hardest rocks in order to commune with her, and have been known to "look up at the stars" until I got a crick in my neck. I love the brooklets, I love the treelets, I love the flowerlets so long as I don't have to weed them....


BACK TO THE TOWN;

OR, THE RETURN TO HUMAN NATURE

By Jesse Lynch Williams


I MET Ernest Thompson Seton one day crossing Fifth Avenue. "How are you?" I asked.

"Oh, pretty well," he replied, "for a man who has been in New York for two months. How are you?"

"Oh, pretty well," said I, "for a man who has not been in New York for two months," and gaining the sidewalk in safety we parted, still friends.

It is all in the point of view. There is much to be said for his feeling in the matter. Indeed, I, for one, will gladly admit that entirely too much has been said, of late, about the "love of nature" and not enough about the love of cities. The cry of "Back to the farm!" reverberates from all strata of society. "The return to nature" is celebrated in hundreds of books. Dozens of magazines are devoted to every conceivable phase of country life from "Chickens I Have Chased and Cherished," to "How I Built My Formal Garden for Fourteen-Fifty," "Bungling the Bungalow," "Sleeping-Bags and How to Get Out of Them," and other fascinating advice in publications edited by city men in tall office buildings.

It is, of course, a wholesome movement—when it doesn't move too far. But we are running the country into the ground, as we do most of our enthusiasms in America. Even a love of nature can become an unnatural love. It is now a fashionable fad to manifest passionate interest in "The Flirtations of the Chippy-Bird," "The Domestic Worries of the Woodchuck," "The Characteristic Poses of the Screech-Owl," and "The Left-hind-foot Print of the Skunk"—to quote a few wild titles I have known.

So far as I can make out, it is right and proper to be keen about a city, provided it is built by the dear little beaver, but to be interested in one constructed by your own species indicates that you are a cockney with no soul for "the real things of life." To be of the elect you must look down on the sky-scraper and look up at the ant-hill. In short, love nature only so far as it does not include human nature.

Well, of course, every one has a right to his own tastes, and if you prefer the haunts and habits of birdies and bunnies to the haunts and habits of men and women, you can snub your own genus all you like and nobody will object. But why take on so about it? Some of these nature rhapsodists are as bad as the commuters who sleep out on the porch night and talk about it all day, or those all individuals who can't sleep well anywhere and then assume a virtuous air because they get up early—and arouse the whole household.

Cultivate intimacies with the cunning little squirrels on the tree-tops, if you enjoy it.

Cultivate intimacies with the cunning little squirrels on the tree-tops, if you enjoy it. Toady to the tree-toad, if you really like him. Call them all familiarly by their Latin names, if it makes you feel good; only don't look down on us humble members of your own family simply because we are not climbers too. It's so snobbish. Besides, it is a pity to make the nice, innocent tenderfoot discontented with his lot, city or suburban. I have been in the woods with nature-climbers. Most of them are as awkward and out of place there as a woodsman in a drawing-room.

The joke of it is that what most of us really like about "our furred and feathered friends" is their resemblance to ourselves. The beaver city, for example, or the subway of the field-mouse, is thrilling because it reminds us of similar goings-on of our own. The wild animals known by Ernest Thompson Seton and introduced by him to a large circle of admirers—including myself—have proved such universally acceptable acquaintances simply because they are just regular fellows. Whether true naturalists, like him, or near-naturalists, like his imitators, indignantly resent the imputation or not, the popular interest in nature is simply an interest in human nature after all! Such being the ease, why not go higher up and satisfy it at first hand?

Now, in sheer self-defense, lest I be cast out at this point as a human-nature fakir, I make haste to insert that I have no personal animus against "God's great outdoors." I am not in the least prejudiced against the furred and feathered crowd. I gladly agree that "nature is wonderful." I have frequently sat upon the hardest rocks in order to commune with her, and have been known to "look up at the stars" until I got a crick in my neck. I love the brooklets, I love the treelets, I love the flowerlets so long as I don't have to weed them, and I am extremely fond of birds, preferably ducks done not over eleven minutes. I shoot as many as luck and the law allow once or twice every fall.

Indeed, I spend more time in the country than do certain of my sentimental friends who tell me about it; over half the year, in fact, and the greater portion of that period in "the real country," "the heart of nature," "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife"—or, in more natural language, ten miles from the railroad and five from the nearest telephone, a remote spot where there are few marks of the beast, meaning man, and many signs of our four-footed friends, the beasts.

I have frequently sat upon the hardest rocks in order to commune with her.

But for the other half of the year I am not only willing but anxious to be hemmed in by brick and stone walls in the heart of the city; to get in close touch with the crowd's ignoble strife, to follow the human trail, to catch the scent of gasolene, to hear telephones ringing, taxis tooting, and all the rattle, rush, crash, bang that is different from the Simple Life and the Silent Places. The more different, the better.

I enjoy ordering a dinner at a restaurant with the orchestra playing as well as cooking one in camp with the mosquitoes singing. I don't like boast, but I deem some of my two-footed friends fully as worthy of me as the misunderstood skunk. I like to observe the annual migration of the dear little furred and feathered creatures to Fifth Avenue. It does my soul good to gaze at the opera stars. I am entranced by the characteristic poses of the actress. I take a keen interest in the mating habits and nesting haunts of the genus 'homo, and similar nature-studies.

In short, I'm not above mingling with the human flock and beholding vanities, vulgarities, kindness, cruelty, capitalism, climbing, goodness, grafting, posing, piety, and the rest of our own wild life. For I make bold to affirm, without fear of successful contradiction, that, among others, ours is also quite an interesting little species, even though we do say so ourselves.

Therefore, go ahead and glorify God's great outdoors to your heart's content, only do not bar off what is still generally rated as God's noblest work, made in His own image. It seems so blasphemous.


II

It is not of the city as a siren I would sing. Why extol the ancient and obvious fascinations of the mad metropolitan whirl, as it is called? Its advantages in the way of "art. music, and the drama," the fox trot, are too well known already, especially to people out Of town who are given to discovering that "New York is a great place to visit, but I'd hate to live there."

No. My song of the city is pitched in a lower key, tuned for those who do live in cities—and perhaps wish they did not. For the delectation and, peradventure, edification of many who are dreaming of retiring permanently to the idyllic joys of a little place in the country "beyond the commuter's zone" (as I once dreamed until I tried it and woke up), I would here set down in plain terms some of the less appreciated advantages of a little flat in the city; the peace, the quiet, the simplicity, the solid comfort; the benefit to the children; the freedom from interruption during the hours dedicated to work, the infinite opportunities for variety in your hours of play. And, most welcome surprise of all, the great saving in expense.

Of course, to live grandly while "in town for the opera season," as so many of my friends' characters do in their novels of New York life, must be, I should think, almost as costly to them as it is impressive to me, and at best rather noisy withal. For example, to sleep with all the windows open, as I do, must be difficult when they open on Fifth Avenue where the motors shriek all night and the buses come up like thunder. No wonder so many palaces and chateaux along the avenue are boarded up this winter, while the municipal lodging-houses are crowded to overflowing. Comparatively few persons, however,, are compelled to have homes on the avenue, and to the vast majority, apparently, neither of these great extremes is typical of "New York life."

But to be tucked away in a snug little flat near the towering top of a tall apartment house on a quiet cross street, looking serenely down upon the teeming town with its towers, steeples, domes, and bridges melting in the distant haze, its noise and turmoil reaching your eerie retreat only as a muffled hum, a throbbing stimulant to work by day, a sweet soporific for rest by night—this is to know the joys of true privacy and the luxury of deep sleep. Out in the country, one is usually awakened at dawn by one's bird neighbors saying "Cheap, cheap," though it is not, or by the bark of our intelligent four-footed friends devouring the morning paper.

It is not continuous sound but sudden noises that crash through one's dreams and one's nerves. Nor is utter silence the most soothing thing in the world. We merely assume that it is. Like most traditional beliefs it unfortunately is not so. Any child knows better; our earliest and dearest memories, like those of the billions now asleep forever, are of a lullaby.

Out in the country, one is usually awakened at dawn by one's bird neighbors saying "Cheap, cheap," though it is not.

Nor is the writer the only one who can sleep better in cities than anywhere else, save at sea. Ask your neurologist. Not from the noisy town but from the silent farm comes the greater relative proportion of our insane.

I emphasize this first and all-important advantage of city life, because whatever else a home may become it should ever be a sweet haven of rest. Much can be said for the artificial excitements and extravagant gratifications of country life, but it cannot be denied that plain, old-fashioned health is one of "the real things of life," and to cultivate good habits of sleep is a primal necessity, whereas to cultivate hardy perennials is a highly evolved luxury. It is in beds, not in flower-beds, that we spend a third of our existence.

Of course, for the other basic needs—food, shelter, and warmth—no one who has ever tried a winter in the country can question the superiority of the city. Food is not only of a finer quality and far greater variety at the metropolitan markets, but considerably lower in price than out in the country where it comes from. For, owing to our modern improvements in production and distribution, nearly all products are first sent in to the city centres and then distributed among the rural districts, and the ultimate consumer pays the double freight.

I remember a place I once rented on Long Island for the summer. Near at hand were the market-gardens which had made Long Island famous. My mouth watered as I beheld luscious berries, delicious melons, fat lima beans, succulent salads, and potential shortcakes, all so accessible that I could have stolen them. But I soon found that I could not even buy them until they had first taken a trip to the hot, dusty city and back again—what was left of them. By that time the only thing that had not drooped was the price.

Yes, I admit, in all fairness to Nature, that one should grow such things oneself; and I have done so since I acquired my own "little place in the country." But in my own little flat in the city I can enjoy, even in winter, fresh vegetables, salads, and fruits which in the country are either prohibitive in price, or, like sea-food if your country place is inland, not quite fresh enough at any price. Thanks to the recently established municipal markets—to which the old-fashioned middle-man naturally objects—not a few but many may now secure that wholesome variety in diet and that real pleasure in eating which modern science has happily demonstrated to be a duty to our well-meaning metabolic process.

Food is not only of a finer quality and far greater variety at the metropolitan markets, but considerably lower in price than out in the country where it comes from.

I classify food with sleep as one of "the real things of life," and heartily believe in appreciating both natural privileges to the full. But if by any chance you have a puritanic objection to enjoying your meals and consider eating beneath you, the matter may be regarded in this light: In the city, so much less time, attention, and money need be devoted to this necessary concession to the carnal nature of man, that one is enabled to double one's energy and opportunities for church work, charity, culture, and uplift. Catering and house-keeping can be reduced to their simplest terms with a rôtisserie right around the corner, a pâtisserie on the next block, and a delicatessen shop in between. French and Vienna bakeries supply crisp rolls and bread of every shape, size, and flavor fresh every morning with the newspaper. And incidentally, in the city one need never endure that tragedy so common to country life—breakfast without the morning paper.

Now, as for warmth, I am not of those who maintain that it is impossible to heat a country house. I myself have been warm in the country frequently; on both sides at once. All that is necessary during a cold snap is to have plenty of heating plants in the cellar, plenty of fireplaces in the rooms above, keep them all well stoked, and run when you cross the hall.

Similarly, by having plenty of windows and keeping them all open one can keep cool enough in a steam-heated apartment house. I have no odious urban comparison to make here, and generously neglect to mention the difficulty of getting and keeping good servants in the country in winter. I will merely say that such problems as furnaces, gardens, garages, snow-shovelling, taking down screens and putting up storm-windows, erecting glass inclosures and laying plank walks, do not enter into the truly simple life of the modern apartment house, where the water-pipes never freeze and you have no roof to leak.


III

So much for man's improvements on Nature, which is the proper task of civilization and true culture. But what of God's free gifts of sunlight, air, and water?

One of the pleasantest advantages of wintering in New York, in my humble opinion, is not the bright lights of Broadway, but God's pure sunshine. The average city house, squeezed in between similar houses, does not, I admit, get much more of this free gift than a tent pitched in a canyon. But why camp in a canyon?

If your home sweet home is a flat sweet flat, perched well above adjacent roofs and turned broadside to the south, it will be flooded with more sunshine than any country place I have yet seen—not in half the rooms at a time, but in nearly all of them all the time, from sunrise to sunset, without even the bare branches of trees to interfere in the least with this glorious germ-destroying element so important to health in winter. One cannot have too much sunshine in the home, and, as intimated above, to live in a house is not compulsory in the city as in the country. Even persons of enormous wealth can afford flats, for they now run as high as twenty thousand dollars a year; perfectly good places to rough it in during the hardship of war-time in winter when Mediterranean cruises must be sacrificed.

As for the all-important element of water, I am glad to say that sometimes it is just as good in the country as in the city. For example, in each of the two places I have been comparing it is perfect, and requires no filtering even for drinking purposes. The only difference I can detect is this: In my apartment, water, like heat, is included in the rent, while down in the quaint, old-fashioned village on the rural edge of which I enjoy the privilege of paying an immodest tax-rate, this prime necessity of life is owned and controlled by a quaint, old-fashioned private monopoly. Water is meted and metered out to the helpless victims at so much per thousand gallons, the board of health having placed a ban on wells. A mathematical friend of mine in the seat of learning there has estimated that the price of a bath equals the price of a beer, thus putting a premium on uncleanliness, if not on inebriety.

But let us be just. Air is as free in the country as in the city, and when, as sometimes happens, you can get your township to oil the near-by highway where tireless touring-cars stir up picturesque and permeating clouds of dust, I should say that the air in the country is much purer than the atmosphere of cities; yes, even in the bright and clean up-town districts around the Park in New York. The city hasn't all the advantages nor all the real things of the simple life. Let us avoid a partisan spirit.

If you happen to be one of those cranks who require regular outdoor exercise in order to keep well and happy, there is, of course, no comparison. The outdoor life is one of the chief advantages of the city in winter.

I could not even buy them until they had first taken a trip to the hot, dusty city and back again.

I happen to be one of those cranks myself. I cannot maintain my self-respect throughout the winter unless I get in a good long walk every day. But mid the pastoral scenes of God's gray country, when night approaches and your work is done, you sally forth into mud-puddles or stumble over frozen ruts in the quaint but by this hour quite dark highways and hedges; or else you flounder into snow drifts, beautiful snow-drifts. The view may be wonderful but you cannot even watch your step.

Now, in man's great outdoors of the city these things better for us. Close at hand lies the beautiful Avenue, stretching in undulating grace for miles in both directions; always interesting, never dark, and invariably cleared for action within twenty-four hours of the hardest blizzard. Sparkling in the sun or glistening in the rain, brilliant and crowded at noonday, or opalescent and mysterious at night, it is ever a refreshment to the weary spirit and a stimulation to a dull mind. From early in the day when rosy-cheeked children march sedately off to school, till earlier the next morning when their deserving parents come skidding gayly home from supper-parties, it presents a thousand varied moods to him who in the love of human nature seeks communion with her visible forms:

Con men, clergymen; heiresses, actresses; fast people, slow people; good people, bad people; people you know, people you'd like to know, and people you don't want to know—but all of them interesting to look at, to think about.

The difficulty of getting and keeping good servants in the country in winter.

Here you can even walk alone without being bored. No long, uneventful stretches of bleak, wintry landscape, where nothing moves, not even the train of thought. No benumbed and self-centred trees holding out pathetic frozen branches for sympathy. Impossible to be introspective here. Fall into a brown or blue study and you are likely to be run over. Thought s brought to the surface by mental massage. No time to dwell upon your beloved self. So many more interesting things to think about. And the changing scenes unfold more rapidly than a moving-picture reel.

Here, facing the park, are the palaces of the doges, the invisible rulers of our democracy, it is said-until recently, it is also said. In either case, their monuments remain, marble ones, pink in the sunset glow, or soft stone, pleasantly gray white. So very good, some of them are too, as well as sumptuous, especially certain of the more recent ones. Whether they make comfortable sleeping quarters for those within or not, they make glad the heart of those without. The passer-by can enjoy, free of charge, the thrill born of beauty, whether it be in nature, like the sunset through the trees across the park, or in art, like a cornice in perfect scale.

Let us be grateful to our distinguished American architects for giving Wealth the opportunity for self-expression in such charming forms. If the exquisite refinement and noble serenity of certain of the newer homes of our newer aristocracy of riches suggest the personalities of the owners, as domestic architecture is supposed to do, then all I have to say is that the muck-rakers did not know what they were talking about and ought to have been sued for criminal libel.

Here and there are very different houses, belonging to the stogy period of brownstone and curlicues, looking as much out of place now as mud splatters on a white satin evening gown. Still others are not distinguished at all, even for ugliness. But they all look assured, as if saying: "At any rate, we're on the Avenue."

Down by Saint-Gáudens's superb equestrian statue of Sherman at the main entrance to the park where grooms are waiting for living riders who to them are of more importance, we suddenly enter a more vivid atmosphere, a more populous zone. The region of great hotels, with laughing youth scudding in for tea and dancing. Of clubs with men dropping in for cocktails and a bit of gossip. A suffrage shop with women dropping in for speeches and a bit of work. Art stores with windows that make you stop and look. Smart shops with windows that make you stop again.

And so on down, past Madison Square, and through the crowded loft district to that peaceful island of the blessed in the stormy sea of commerce, the historic Washington Square quarter. Here we find houses that are really homes, old enough to be mellow, lived in enough to have character, and architecturally unconscious enough to have charm. "This is the part of town I love the best of all." And here stands the noble arch from which the Avenue springs.

I am well aware that there are many who do not enjoy a walk of this sort, and some who wish they never had to look at such things at all. They, however, are usually of that small segment of the city born here and their ancestors before them. The country-bred convert is likely to be the most ardent zealot of all.

The truly simple life of the modern apartment house, where the water-pipe never freeze and you have no roof to leak.

Mind you, I do not say that one cannot pound over frozen roads or splash through mud lurking in the shadow for your unwary feet. I did it for years. And years. Excellent exercise. I merely say that most people in the country don't do it. They prefer to hibernate till the tennis-courts are ready and the putting-greens are rolled. Or else they take to dancing. The bane of country life in America is dancing and gambling. It is the effete fondness for indoor sports like the tango and auction bridge that is driving many of us back to the homely virtues of Fifth Avenue. So few of my men friends would walk with me and still fewer of my women friends would dance with me, except as a gracious sacrifice. And I believe in the emancipation of woman.

True, in a city of this size there are plenty to trot with them that trot, but also—and here is the point—plenty to walk with them that walk. Not a few but plenty of all sorts, including even your own! Plenty, if you prefer, to play squash with you, and indoor tennis and basketball and handball, to name a few vigorous forms of exercise for the most part unobtainable in the country. But I shall not dwell on this. There are advantages in being able to swim every day during a blizzard, in gymnasium swimming-pools; to skate every day during a February thaw, in the ice-rinks, instead of only when it suits the whim of nature out in the country. But I would emphasize only the normal, natural means of keeping fit, "the real things" of outdoor life within the reach of all who own two legs—except those who must hibernate or dance.


IV

So much for a few of the simple, wholesome diversions of the pioneers in this back-to-the-town movement—the return to human nature. But life, as has been well said, is not all pleasure. A man's duty is to his family.

In my case I went to the country chiefly for my children's sake, and now for the same reason I have sought the quiet retreat of the city.

The business of childhood is education and growing. The country is the best place in the world for these two infant industries as long as they need protection. But when children are developed enough to be fit for competition, it is well to remove them from the contaminating influences of a small town. Gentle reader, have you ever lived in a small town? If so, you know what I mean. True, big towns include wickedness also, worse wickedness and more of it. Great cities have extremes of everything, including unworldliness. But in great cities it is not so inevitable to be confronted with everything as in the concentrated life of small towns.

Whatever may be said of primary instruction in the country, certainly of secondary education one can find in large cities the best there is for children not yet old enough to go away to boarding-school. Your boys can be placed under the care of the greatest boy experts in the world all day long from breakfast until nightfall. The parents can then have a chance at them, but not to the extent of undermining the good influences of the day. Mental experts in the morning who teach them how to work; physical experts in the afternoon who teach them how to play.

"Humph!" said a satirical bachelor friend of mine whom I had taken to the athletic field to see a group of healthy youngsters enjoy themselves at basketball under the eagle eye of their physical instructors, "I didn't need any one to teach me how to play when I was young." He heartily approved of devoting thousands of dollars for college football coaching in order to develop a winning team for his alma mater—eleven sturdy athletes who are developed enough already—but to employ skilled experts for the all-important plastic period of boyhood, and for training all of them, not just a picked few, in nerve, skill, and clean sportsmanship, seemed to him a modern fad.

Down by Saint-Gaudens's superb equestrian statue of Sherman at the main entrance to the park.
Art stores with windows that make you stop and look.

I let him have his little joke, because bachelors are always incorrigibly reactionary in regard to women and children. Meanwhile, instead of playing when and where, or if, they please, "after school"—with indiscriminate food and fights in various backyard, these boys were competing in a field equipped expressly for that purpose, and in charge of men who have made a life-study of such work. When angry passions arise, too high to be called down, the belligerents are made to put on the gloves and fight it out fairly, with a master to act as referee. From personal experience with the old hit-or-miss method of physical education, and from personal observation of the new, I prefer the latter.

For family life there is still, I know, a lingering prejudice against a flat because it is flat, or on the ground that it is not on the ground. To choose your home on high where the air is pure is supposed to hurt the sacred atmosphere of home, and rooms distributed horizontally, it seems, lack the virtue of those placed vertically.

Personally I'd rather take my exercise out of doors than by climbing stairs: though if you do not want to live on the level, there are plenty of apartments that are duplex. In any ease, it must be admitted that the home unites the family closer when it's in an apartment. It is as compact a life on a steam-yacht yet without any motion, except that of the elevator, which makes it easy to get out a desirable thing at times, though utterly impossible when cruising.

Another cherished tradition about apartment-house life is its alleged lack of privacy. If anything, I should say, there is too much. I met an old friend of mine down-town the other day, a man I'm very fond of but had not seen for a long time. "Where are you living this winter?" I asked. For answer he gave me my own address. We had been sleeping under the same roof for two months but neither of us suspected it. Entirely too private. Imagine living within a square mile of a friend in the country for half the winter without discovering it!

Soon after I arrived in town, a child was born not far from here; about thirty feet away, to be exact. I never should have known it if I had not by chance seen it mentioned in the paper. Who could ask for better or more proper privacy than that?I have never seen the happy parents, so far as I know. I cannot even remember their name. The chances are that I shall never meet them. But I do not care very much—neither do they.

Is that bad? Not at all. In the country one might pretend to care, but in the city flowers come from your friends, not your neighbors. You have no neighbors in the city, and that is one of its great advantages. No neighbors, no gossip.

And yet, should sudden disaster reach me from fire or a motor accident, those same stony-faced individuals who pass me in the vestibule without a sign of recognition would, I believe, rush to my aid. But your friendships, your intimacies, are more likely to be on the true basis of mutual liking and common interests, not on the accidental circumstance of propinquity and a common postman. So there can be more naturalness in the city, less artificiality than in the country, where you answer for your conduct not to your conscience or your God, but to your neighbor.

And so, for work, for play, for privacy, and the great blessings of happy home life, there is no place like the simple city—until you get too much of it, like the country. When spring comes and the notes of the pianola are wafted in through the open window all day, the plaintive call of the tom-cat all night, then it is conceivable that one may look at the matter in a very different light.

As a matter of fact and scientific seriousness, the return-to-nature movement is the human expression of the immemorial migratory instinct, which man has by no means lived down. But in the revulsion from too much city life we should not forget that migration works both ways. It is just as natural for birds to fly south in the fall as north in the spring. And consider the dear animals, the non-hibernating animals. A friend writes from Wyoming that there was a band of twenty thousand elk last winter down in Jackson's Hole, south of the Yellowstone Park; fifteen hundred of them are shown in one photograph. During the warm season they all scatter out among the timbered ridges of the mountains. But remember, oh, remember, faithful lovers of nature, that in the winter months the gregarious instinct brings them down from the mountain fastnesses to the closely crowded stamping-grounds of the flats.


"This is the part of town I love the best of all."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.