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Boston and New York


Later in the summer, or earlier in the fall, than when we saw him newly returned from Europe, that friend whom the veteran reader will recall as having so brashly offered his impressions of the national complexion and temperament looked in again on the Easy Chair.

"Well," we said, "do you wish to qualify, to hedge, to retract? People usually do after they have been at home as long as you."

"But I do not," he said. He took his former seat, but now laid on the heap of rejected MSS., not the silken cylinder he had so daintily poised there before, but a gray fedora that fell carelessly over in lazy curves and hollows. "I wish to modify by adding the effect of further observation and adjusting it to my first conclusions. Since I saw you I have been back to Boston; in fact, I have just come from there."

We murmured some banality about not knowing a place where one could better come from than Boston. But he brushed it by without notice.

"To begin with, I wish to add that I was quite wrong in finding the typical Boston face now prevalently Celtic."

"You call that adding?" we satirized.

He ignored the poor sneer.

"My earlier observation was correct enough, but it was a result of that custom which peoples the hills, the shores, and the sister continent in summer with the New-Englanders of the past, and leaves their capital to those New-Englanders of the future dominantly represented by the Irish. At the time of my second visit the exiles had returned, and there were the faces again that, instead of simply forbidding me, arraigned me and held me guilty till I had proved myself innocent."

"Do you think," we suggested, "that you would find this sort of indictment in them if you had a better conscience?"

"Perhaps not. And I must own I did not find them so accusing when I could study them in their contemplation of some more important subject than myself. One such occasion for philosophizing them distinctly offered itself to my chance witness when an event of the last seriousness had called some hundreds of them together. One sees strong faces elsewhere; I have seen them assembled especially in England; but I have never seen such faces as those Boston faces, so intense, so full of a manly dignity, a subdued yet potent personality, a consciousness as far as could be from self-consciousness. I found something finely visionary in it all, as if I were looking on a piece of multiple portraiture such as you see in those Dutch paintings of companies at Amsterdam, for instance. It expressed purity of race, continuity of tradition, fidelity to ideals such as no other group of faces would now express. You might have had the like at Rome, at Athens, at Florence, at Amsterdam, in their prime, possibly in the England of the resurgent parliament, though there it would have been mixed with a fanaticism absent in Boston. You felt that these men no doubt had their limitations, but their limitations were lateral, not vertical."

"Then why," we asked, not very relevantly, "don't you go and live in Boston?"

"It wouldn't make me such a Bostonian if I did; I should want a half-dozen generations behind me for that. Besides, I feel my shortcomings less in New York."

"You are difficult. Why not fling yourself into the tide of joy here, instead of shivering on the brink in the blast of that east wind which you do not even find regenerative? Why not forget our inferiority, since you cannot forgive it? Or do you think that by being continually reminded of it we can become as those Bostonians are? Can we reduce ourselves, by repenting, from four millions to less than one, and by narrowing our phylacteries achieve the unlimited Bostonian verticality, and go as deep and as high?"

"No," our friend said. "Good as they are, we can only be better by being different. We have our own message to the future, which we must deliver as soon as we understand it."

"Is it in Esperanto?"

"It is at least polyglot. But you are taking me too seriously. I wished merely to qualify my midsummer impressions of a prevailing Celtic Boston by my autumnal impressions of a persisting Puritanic Boston. But it is wonderful how that strongly persistent past still characterizes the present in every development. Even those Irish faces which I wouldn't have ventured a joke with were no doubt sobered by it; and when the Italians shall come forward to replace them it will be with no laughing Pulcinello masks, but visages as severe as those that first challenged the wilderness of Massachusetts Bay, and made the Three Hills tremble to their foundations."

"It seems to us that you are yielding to rhetoric a little, aren't you?" we suggested.

"Perhaps I am. But you see what I mean. And I should like to explain further that I believe the Celtic present and the Pelasgic future will rule Boston in their turn as the Puritanic past learned so admirably to rule it: by the mild might of irony, by the beneficent power which, in the man who sees the joke of himself enables him to enter brotherly into the great human joke, and be friends with every good and kind thing."

"Could you be a little more explicit?"

"I would rather not for the moment. But I should like to make you observe that the Boston to be has more to hope and less to fear from the newer Americans than this metropolis where these are so much more heterogeneous. Here salvation must be of the Jews among the swarming natives of the East Side; but in Boston there is no reason why the artistic instincts of the Celtic and Pelasgic successors of the Puritans should not unite in that effect of beauty which is an effect of truth, and keep Boston the first of our cities in good looks as well as good works. With us here in New York a civic job has the chance of turning out a city joy, but it is a fighting chance. In Boston there is little doubt of such a job turning out a joy. The municipality of Boston has had almost the felicity of Goldsmith—it has touched nothing which it has not adorned. Wherever its hand has been laid upon Nature, Nature has purred in responsive beauty. They used to talk about the made land in Boston, but half Boston is the work of man, and it shows what the universe might have been if the Bostonians had been taken into the confidence of the Creator at the beginning. The Back Bay was only the suggestion of what has since been done; and I never go to Boston without some new cause for wonder. There is no other such charming union of pleasaunce and residence as the Fenways; the system of parks is a garden of delight; and now the State has taken up the work, no doubt at the city's suggestion, and, turning from the land to the water, has laid a restraining touch on the tides of the sea, which, ever since the moon entered on their management, have flowed and ebbed through the channel of the Charles. The State has dammed the river; the brine of the ocean no longer enters it, but it feeds itself full of sweet water from the springs in the deep bosom of the country. The Beacon Street houses back upon a steadfast expanse as fresh as the constant floods of the Great Lakes."


"And we dare say that it looks as large as Lake Superior to Boston eyes. What do they call their dam? The Charlesea?"

"You may be sure they will call it something tasteful and fit," our friend responded, in rejection of our feeble mockery. "Charlesea would not be bad. But what I wish to make you observe is that all which has yet been done for beauty in Boston has been done from the unexhausted instinct of it in the cold heart of Puritanism, where it 'burns frore and does the effect of fire.' As yet the Celtic and Pelasgic agencies have had no part in advancing the city. The first have been content with voting themselves into office, and the last with owning their masters out-of-doors; for the Irish are the lords, and the Italians are the landlords. But when these two gifted races, with their divinely implanted sense of art, shall join forces with the deeply conscienced taste of the Puritans, what mayn't we expect Boston to be?"

"And what mayn't we expect New York to be on the same terms, or, say, when the Celtic and Pelasgic and Hebraic and Slavic elements join with the old Batavians, in whom the love of the artistic is by right also native? Come! Why shouldn't we have a larger Boston here?"

"Because we are too large," our friend retorted, undauntedly. "When graft subtly crept among the nobler motives which created the park system of Boston the city could turn for help to the State and get it; but could our city get help from our State? Our city is too big to profit by that help; our State too small to render it. The commonwealth of Massachusetts is creating a new Garden of Eden on the banks of the Charlesea; but what is the State of New York doing to emparadise the shores of the Hudson?"

"All the better for us, perhaps," we stubbornly, but not very sincerely, contended, "if we have to do our good works ourselves."

"Yes, if we do them. But shall they remain undone if we don't do them? The city of New York is so great that it swings the State of New York. The virtues that are in each do not complement one another, as the virtues of Boston and Massachusetts do. Where shall you find, in our house or in our grounds, the city and the State joining to an effect of beauty? When you come to New York, what you see of grandeur is the work of commercialism; what you see of grandeur in Boston is the work of civic patriotism. We hire the arts to build and decorate the homes of business; the Bostonians inspire them to devote beauty and dignity to the public pleasure and use. No," our friend concluded with irritating triumph, "we are too vast, too many, for the finest work of the civic spirit. Athens could be beautiful—Florence, Venice, Genoa were—but Rome, which hired or enslaved genius to create beautiful palaces, temples, columns, statues, could only be immense. She could only huddle the lines of Greek loveliness into a hideous agglomeration, and lose their effect as utterly as if one should multiply Greek noses and Greek chins, Greek lips and Greek eyes, Greek brows and Greek heads of violet hair, in one monstrous visage. No," he exulted, in this mortifying image of our future ugliness, "when a city passes a certain limit of space and population, she adorns herself in vain. London, the most lovable of the mighty mothers of men, has not the charm of Paris, which, if one cannot quite speak of her virgin allure, has yet a youth and grace which lend themselves to the fondness of the arts. Boston is fast becoming of the size of Paris, but if I have not misread her future she will be careful not to pass it, and become as New York is."

We were so alarmed by this reasoning that we asked in considerable dismay: "But what shall we do? We could not help growing; perhaps we wished to overgrow; but is there no such thing as ungrowing? When the fair, when the sex which we instinctively attribute to cities, finds itself too large in its actuality for a Directoire ideal, there are means, there are methods, of reduction. Is there no remedy, then, for municipal excess of size? Is there no harmless potion or powder by which a city may lose a thousand inhabitants a day, as the superabounding fair loses a pound of beauty? Is there nothing for New York analogous to rolling on the floor, to the straight-front corset, to the sugarless, starchless diet? Come, you must not deny us all hope! How did Boston manage to remain so small? What elixirs, what exercises, did she take or use? Surely she did not do it all by reading and thinking!" Our friend continued somewhat inexorably silent, and we pursued: "Do you think that by laying waste our Long Island suburbs, by burning the whole affiliated Jersey shore, by strangling the Bronx, as it were, in its cradle, and by confining ourselves rigidly to our native isle of Manhattan, we could do something to regain our lost opportunity? We should then have the outline of a fish; true, a nondescript fish; but the fish was one of the Greek ideals of the female form." He was silent still, and we gathered courage to press on. "As it is, we are not altogether hideous. We doubt whether there are not more beautiful buildings in New York now than there are in Boston; and as for statues, where are the like there of our Macmonnies Hale, of our Saint-Gaudens Farragut and Sherman, of our Ward Indian Hunter?"

"The Shaw monument blots them all out," our friend relentlessly answered. "But these are merely details. Our civic good things are accidental. Boston's are intentional. That is the great, the vital difference."

It did not occur to us that he was wrong, he had so crushed us under foot. But, with the trodden worm's endeavor to turn, we made a last appeal. "And with the sky-scraper itself we still expect to do something, something stupendously beautiful. Say that we have lost our sky-line! What shall we not have of grandeur, of titanic loveliness, when we have got a sky-scraper-line?"

It seemed to us that here was a point which he could not meet; and, in fact, he could only say, whether in irony or not, "I would rather not think."

We were silent, and, upon the reflection to which our silence invited us, we found that we would rather not ourselves think of the image we had invoked. We preferred to take up the question at another point.

"Well," we said, "in your impressions of Bostonian greatness we suppose that you received the effect of her continued supremacy in authors as well as authorship, in artists as well as art? You did not meet Emerson or Longfellow or Lowell or Prescott or Holmes or Hawthorne or Whittier about her streets, but surely you met their peers, alive and in the flesh?"

"No," our friend admitted, "not at every corner. But what I did meet was the effect of those high souls having abode there while on the earth. The great Boston authors are dead, and the great Boston artists are worse—they have come to New York; they have not even waited to die. But whether they have died, or whether they have come to New York, they have left their inspiration in Boston. In one sense the place that has known them shall know them no more forever; but in another sense it has never ceased to know them. I can't say how it is, exactly, but though you don't see them in Boston, you feel them. But here in New York—our dear, immense, slattern mother—who feels anything of the character of her great children? Who remembers in these streets Bryant or Poe or Hallock or Curtis or Stoddard or Stedman, or the other poets who once dwelt in them? Who remembers even such great editors as Greeley or James Gordon Bennett or Godkin or Dana? What malignant magic, what black art, is it that reduces us all to one level of forgottenness when we are gone, and even before we are gone? Have those high souls left their inspiration here, for common men to breathe the breath of finer and nobler life from? I won't abuse the millionaires who are now our only great figures; even the millionaires are gone when they go. They die, and they leave no sign, quite as if they were so many painters and poets. You can recall some of their names, but not easily. No, if New York has any hold upon the present from the past, it isn't in the mystical persistence of such spirits among us."

"Well," we retorted, hardily, "we have no need of them. It is the high souls of the future which influence us."

Our friend looked at us as if he thought there might be something in what we said. "Will you explain?" he asked.

"Some other time," we consented.

William Dean Howells