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Dressing for Hotel Dinner

Among the high excitements of a recent winter in New York was one of such convulsive intensity that in the nature of things it could not last very long. It affected the feminine temperament of our public with hysterical violence, but left the community the calmer for its throes, and gently, if somewhat pensively, smiling in a permanent ignorance of the event. No outside observer would now be able to say, offhand, whether a certain eminent innkeeper had or had not had his way with his customers in the matter not only of what they should eat or drink, but what they should wear when dining in a place which has been described as "supplying exclusiveness to the lower classes." It is not even certain just how a crucial case was brought to the notice of this authority; what is certain is that his instant judgment was that no white male citizen frequenting his proud tavern should sit at dinner there unless clothed in a dress-coat, or at least in the smoking-jacket known to us as a Tuxedo; at breakfast or at luncheon, probably, the guest, the paying guest, could sufficiently shine in the reflected glory of the lustrous evening wear of the waiters. No sooner was the innkeeper's judgment rendered than a keen thrill of resentment, or at least amusement, ran through the general breast. From every quarter the reporters hastened to verify the fact at first-hand, and then to submit it to the keeper of every other eminent inn or eating-house in the city and learn his usage and opinion. These to a man disavowed any such hard-and-fast rule. Though their paying guests were ordinarily gentlemen of such polite habits as to be incapable of dining in anything but a dress-coat or a Tuxedo, yet their inns and eating-houses were not barred against those who chose to dine in a frock or cutaway or even a sacque. It is possible that the managers imagined themselves acquiring merit with that large body of our vulgar who demand exclusiveness by their avowal of a fine indifference or an enlightened tolerance in the matter. But at this distance of time no one can confidently say how the incident was closed with respect to the pre-eminent innkeeper and his proud tavern. Whether the wayfarer, forced by the conditions of travel upon the company of the exclusive vulgar, may now dine there in the public banqueting-hall in his daytime raiment, or must take his evening meal in his room, with a penalty in the form of an extra charge for service, nowise appears.

What is apparent from the whole affair is that the old ideal of one's inn, as a place where one shall take one's ease, has perished in the evolution of the magnificent American hotel which we have been maliciously seeking to minify in the image of its Old World germ. One may take one's ease in one's hotel only if one is dressed to the mind of the hotel-keeper, or perhaps finally the head waiter. But what is more important still is that probably the vast multitude of the moneyed vulgar whose exclusiveness is supplied to them in such a place dictate, tacitly at least, the Draconian policy of the management. No innkeeper or head waiter, no matter of how patrician an experience or prejudice, would imagine a measure of such hardship to wayfarers willing to pay for the simple comfort of their ancestors at the same rate as their commensals stiffly shining in the clothes of convention. The management might have its conception of what a hotel dining-room should look like, with an unbroken array of gentlemen in black dress-coats and ladies in white shoulders all feeding as superbly as if they were not paying for their dinners, or as if they had been severally asked for the pleasure of their company two weeks before; and the picture would doubtless be marred by figures of people in cutaways and high necks, to a degree intolerable to the artistic sense. But it is altogether impossible that the management would exact a conformity to the general effect which was not desired by the vast majority of its paying guests. What might well have seemed a break on the part of the pre-eminent innkeeper when he cited as a precedent for his decision the practice of the highest hotels in London was really no break, but a stroke of the finest juridical acumen. Nothing could have gone further with the vast majority of his paying guests than some such authority, for they could wish nothing so much, in the exclusiveness supplied them, as the example of the real characters in the social drama which they were impersonating. They had the stage and the scenery; they had spared no expense in their costuming; they had anxiously studied their parts, and for the space of their dinner-hour they had the right to the effect of aristocratic society, which they were seeking, unmarred by one discordant note. After that hour, let it be a cramped stall in the orchestra of another theatre, or let it be an early bed in a cell of their colossal columbary, yet they would have had their dinner-hour when they shone primarily just like the paying guests in the finest English hotel, and secondarily just like the non-paying guests at the innumerable dinners of the nobility and gentry in a thousand private houses in London.

Our aim is always high, and they would be right to aim at nothing lower than this in their amateur dramatics. But here we have a question which we have been holding back by main force from the beginning, and which now persists in precipitating itself in our peaceful page. It is a question which merits wider and closer study than we can give it, and it will, we hope, find an answer such as we cannot supply in the wisdom of the reader. It presented itself to the mind of Eugenio in a recent experience of his at a famous seaside resort which does not remit its charm even in the heart of winter, and which with the first tremor of the opening spring allures the dweller among the sky-scrapers and the subways with an irresistible appeal. We need not further specify the place, but it is necessary to add that it draws not only the jaded or sated New-Yorker, but the more eager and animated average of well-to-do people from every part of their country who have got bored out with their happy homes and want a few days' or a few weeks' change. One may not perhaps meet a single distinguished figure on its famous promenade, or at least more distinguished than one's own; with the best will in the world to find such figures, Eugenio could count but three or four: a tall, alert, correct man or two; an electly fashioned, perfectly set-up, dominant woman or so, whose bearing expressed the supremacy of a set in some unquestionable world. But there was obvious riches aplenty, and aplenty of the kind wholesomeness of the good, true, intelligent, and heaven-bound virtue of what we must begin to call our middle class, offensive as the necessity may be. Here and there the effect of champagne in the hair, which deceived no one but the wearer, was to be noted; here and there, high-rolling, a presence with the effect of something more than champagne in the face loomed in the perspective through the haze of a costly cigar. But by far, immensely far, the greater number of his fellow-frequenters of the charming promenade were simple, domestic, well-meaning Americans like Eugenio himself, of a varying simplicity indeed, but always of a simplicity. They were the stuff with which his fancy (he never presumed to call it his imagination) had hitherto delighted to play, fondly shaping out of the collective material those lineaments and expressions which he hoped contained a composite likeness of his American day and generation. The whole situation was most propitious, and yet he found himself moving through it without one of the impulses which had been almost lifelong with him. As if in some strange paralysis, some obsession by a demon of indifference unknown before, he was bereft of the will to realize these familiar protagonists of his plain dramas. He knew them, of course; he knew them all too well; but he had not the wish to fit the likest of them with phrases, to costume them for their several parts, to fit them into the places in the unambitious action where they had so often contributed to the modest but inevitable catastrophe.

The experience repeated itself till he began to take himself by the collar and shake himself in the dismay of a wild conjecture. What had befallen him? Had he gone along, young, eager, interested, delighted with his kind for half a century of æsthetic consciousness, and now had he suddenly lapsed into the weariness and apathy of old age? It is always, short of ninety, too soon for that, and Eugenio was not yet quite ninety. Was his mind, then, prematurely affected? But was not this question itself proof that his mind was still importunately active? If that was so, why did not he still wish to make his phrases about his like, to reproduce their effect in composite portraiture? Eugenio fell into a state so low that nothing but the confession of his perplexity could help him out; and the friend to whom he owned his mystifying, his all but appalling, experience did not fail him in his extremity. "No," he wrote back, "it is not that you have seen all these people, and that they offer no novel types for observation, but even more that they illustrate the great fact that, in the course of the last twenty years, society in America has reached its goal, has 'arrived,' and is creating no new types. On the contrary, it is obliterating some of the best which were clearly marked, and is becoming more and more one rich, dead level of mediocrity, broken here and there by solitary eminences, some of which are genuine, some only false peaks without solid rock foundations."

Such a view of his case must be immediately and immensely consoling, but it was even more precious to Eugenio for the suggestion from which his fancy—never imagination—began to play forward with the vivacity of that of a youth of sixty, instead of a middle-aged man of eighty-five. If all this were true—and its truth shone the more distinctly from a ground of potential dissent—was not there the stuff in the actual conditions from which a finer artist than he could ever hope to be, now that the first glow of his prime was past, might fashion an image of our decadence, or our arrest, so grandly, so perfectly dull and uninteresting, that it would fix all the after-ages with the sovereign authority of a masterpiece? Here, he tremblingly glowed to realize, was opportunity, not for him, indeed, but for some more modern, more divinely inspired lover of the mediocre, to eternize our typelessness and establish himself among the many-millioned heirs of fame. It had been easy—how easy it had been!—to catch the likeness of those formative times in which he had lived and wrought; but the triumph and the reward of the new artist would be in proportion to the difficulty of seizing the rich, self-satisfied, ambitionless, sordid commonplace of a society wishing to be shut up in a steam-heated, electric-lighted palace and fed fat in its exclusiveness with the inexhaustible inventions of an overpaid chef. True, the strong, simple days of the young republic, when men forgot themselves in the struggle with the wild continent, were past; true, the years were gone when the tremendous adventure of tearing from her heart the iron and the gold which were to bind her in lasting subjection gave to fiction industrial heroes fierce and bold as those of classic fable or mediæval romance. But there remained the days of the years which shall apparently have no end, but shall abound forever in an inexhaustible wealth of the sort wishing not so much to rise itself as to keep down and out all suggestion of the life from which it sprang.

The sort of type which would represent this condition would be vainly sought in any exceptionally opulent citizen of that world. He would have, if nothing else, the distinction of his unmeasured millions, which would form a poetry, however sordid; the note of the world we mean is indistinction, and the protagonist of the fiction seeking to portray its fads and characters must not have more than two or three millions at the most. He, or better she, were better perhaps with only a million, or a million and a half, or enough to live handsomely in eminent inns, either at home or abroad, with that sort of insolent half-knowledge to which culture is contemptible; which can feel the theatre, but not literature; which has passed from the horse to the automobile; which has its moral and material yacht, cruising all social coasts and making port in none where there is not a hotel or cottage life as empty and exclusive as its own. Even in trying to understate the sort, one overstates it. Nothing could be more untrue to its reality than the accentuation of traits which in the arrivals of society elsewhere and elsewhen have marked the ultimation of the bourgeois spirit. Say that the Puritan, the Pilgrim, the Cavalier, and the Merchant Adventurer have come and gone; say that the Revolutionist Patriot, the Pioneer and the Backwoodsman and the Noble Savage have come and gone; say that the Slaveholder and the Slave and the Abolitionist and the Civil Warrior have come and gone; say that the Miner, the Rancher, the Cowboy, and the sardonically humorous Frontiersman have come and gone; say that the simple-hearted, hard-working, modest, genial Homemakers have come and gone; say that the Captain of Industry has come and gone, and the world-wide Financier is going: what remains for actuality-loving art to mould into shapes of perdurable beauty? Obviously, only the immeasurable mass of a prosperity sunken in a self-satisfaction unstirred by conscience and unmoved by desire. But is that a reason why art should despair? Rather it is a reason why it should rejoice in an opportunity occurring not more than once in the ages to seize the likeness and express the significance of Arrival, the arrival of a whole civilization. To do this, art must refine and re-refine upon itself; it must use methods of unapproached delicacy, of unimagined subtlety and celerity. It is easy enough to catch the look of the patrician in the upper air, of the plebeian underfoot, but to render the image of a world-bourgeoisie, compacted in characters of undeniable verisimilitude, that will be difficult, but it will be possible, and the success will be of an effulgence such as has never yet taken the eyes of wonder.

We should not be disposed to deny the artist, dedicated to this high achievement by his love of the material not less than by his peculiar gift, the range of a liberal idealism. We would not have him bound by any precedent or any self-imposed law of literality. If he should see his work as a mighty historical picture, or series of such pictures, we should not gainsay him his conception or bind him rather to any genre result. We ourselves have been evolving here the notion of some large allegory which should bear the relation to all other allegories that Bartholdi's colossus of Liberty bears to all other statues, and which should carry forward the story and the hero, or the heroine, to some such supreme moment as that when, amid the approving emotion of an immense hotel dining-room, all in décolletée and frac paré, the old, simple-lived American, wearing a sack-coat and a colored shirt, shall be led out between the eminent innkeeper and the head waiter and delivered over to the police to be conducted in ignominy to the nearest Italian table d'hôte. The national character, on the broad level of equality which fiction once delighted to paint, no longer exists, but if a deeper, a richer, a more enduring monotony replaces it, we have no fear but some genius will arrive and impart the effect of the society which has arrived.

William Dean Howells