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Having Just Got Home

The air of having just got home from Europe was very evident in the friend who came to interview himself with us the other day. It was not, of course, so distinguishing as it would have been in an age of less transatlantic travel, but still, as we say, it was evident, and it lent him a superiority which he could not wholly conceal. His superiority, so involuntary, would, if he had wished to dissemble, have affirmed itself in the English cut of his clothes and in the habit of his top-hat, which was so newly from a London shop as not yet to have lost the whiteness of its sweat-band. But his difference from ourselves appeared most in a certain consciousness of novel impressions, which presently escaped from him in the critical tone of his remarks.

"Well," we said, with our accustomed subtlety, "how do you find your fellow-savages on returning to them after a three months' absence?"

"Don't ask me yet," he answered, laying his hat down on a pile of rejected MSS., delicately, so as not to dim the lustre of its nap. "I am trying to get used to them, and I have no doubt I shall succeed in time. But I would rather not be hurried in my opinions."

"You find some relief from the summer's accumulation of sky-scrapers amid the aching void of our manners?" we suggested.

"Oh, the fresh sky-scrapers are not so bad. You won't find the English objecting to them half so much as some of our own fellows. But you are all right about the aching void of manners. That is truly the bottomless pit with us."

"You think we get worse?"

"I don't say that, exactly. How could we?"

"It might be difficult."

"I will tell you what," he said, after a moment's muse. "There does not seem to be so much an increase of bad manners, or no manners, as a diffusion. The foreigners who come to us in hordes, but tolerably civil hordes, soon catch the native unmannerliness, and are as rude as the best of us, especially the younger generations. The older people, Italians, Czechs, Poles, Greeks, Assyrians, or whatever nationalities now compose those hordes, remain somewhat in the tradition of their home civility; but their children, their grandchildren, pick up our impoliteness with the first words of our language, or our slang, which they make their adoptive mother-tongue long before they realize that it is slang. When they do realize it, they still like it better than language, and as no manners are easier than manners, they prefer the impoliteness they find waiting them here. I have no doubt that their morals improve; we have morals and to spare. They learn to carry pistols instead of knives; they shoot instead of stabbing."

"Have you been attacked with any particular type of revolver since your return?" we inquired, caustically.

"I have been careful not to give offence."

"Then why are you so severe upon your fellow-savages, especially the minors of foreign extraction?"

"I was giving the instances which I supposed I was asked for; and I am only saying that I have found our manners merely worse quantitatively, or in the proportion of our increasing population. But this prompt succession of the new Americans to the heritage of the old Americans is truly grievous. They must so soon outnumber us, three to one, ten to one, twenty, fifty, and they must multiply our incivilities in geometrical ratio. At Boston, where I landed—"

"Oh, you landed at Boston!" we exclaimed, as if this accounted for everything; but we were really only trying to gain time. "If you had landed at New York, do you think your sensibilities would have suffered in the same degree?" We added, inconsequently enough, "We always supposed that Boston was exemplary in the matters you are complaining of."

"And when you interrupted me, with a want of breeding which is no doubt national rather than individual, I was going on to say that I found much alleviation from a source whose abundant sweetness I had forgotten. I moan the sort of caressing irony which has come to be the most characteristic expression of our native kindliness. There can be no doubt of our kindliness. Whatever we Americans of the old race-suicidal stock are not, we are kind; and I think that our expression of our most national mood has acquired a fineness, a delicacy, with our people of all degrees, unknown to any other irony in the world. Do you remember The House with the Green Shutters—I can never think of the book without a pang of personal grief for the too-early death of the author—how the bitter, ironical temper of the Scotch villagers is realized? Well, our ironical temper is just the antithesis of that. It is all sweetness, but it is of the same origin as that of those terrible villagers: it comes from that perfect, that familiar understanding, that penetrating reciprocal intelligence, of people who have lived intimately in one another's lives, as people in small communities do. We are a small community thrown up large, as they say of photographs; we are not so much a nation as a family; we each of us know just what any other, or all others, of us intend to the finest shade of meaning, by the lightest hint."

"Ah!" we breathed, quite as if we were a character in a novel which had inspired the author with a new phrase. "Now you are becoming interesting. Should you mind giving a few instances?"

"Well, that is not so easy. But I may say that the friendly ironies began for us as soon as we were out of the more single-minded keeping of the ship's stewards, who had brought our hand-baggage ashore, and, after extracting the last shilling of tip from us, had delivered us over to the keeping of the customs officers. It began with the joking tone of the inspectors, who surmised that we were not trying to smuggle a great value into the country, and with their apologetic regrets for bothering us to open so many trunks. They implied that it was all a piece of burlesque, which we were bound mutually to carry out for the gratification of a Government which enjoyed that kind of thing. They indulged this whim so far as to lift out the trays, to let the Government see that there was nothing dutiable underneath, where they touched or lifted the contents with a mocking hand, and at times carried the joke so far as to have some of the things removed. But they helped put them back with a smile for the odd taste of the Government. I do not suppose that an exasperating duty was ever so inexasperatingly fulfilled."

"Aren't you rather straining to make out a case? We have heard of travellers who had a very different experience."

"At New York, yes, where we are infected with the foreign singleness more than at Boston. Perhaps a still livelier illustration of our ironical temperament was given me once before when I brought some things into Boston. There were some Swiss pewters, which the officers joined me for a moment in trying to make out were more than two hundred years old; but failing, jocosely levied thirty per cent. ad valorem on them; and then in the same gay spirit taxed me twenty per cent. on a medallion of myself done by an American sculptor, who had forgotten to verify an invoice of it before the American consul at the port of shipment."

"It seems to us," we suggested, "that this was a piece of dead earnest."

"The fact was earnest," our friend maintained, "but the spirit in which it was realized was that of a brotherly persuasion that I would see the affair in its true light, as a joke that was on me. It was a joke that cost me thirty dollars."

"Still, we fail to see the irony of the transaction."

"Possibly," our friend said, after a moment's muse, "I am letting my sense of another incident color the general event too widely. But before I come to that I wish to allege some proofs of the national irony which I received on two occasions when landing in New York. On the first of these occasions the commissioner who came aboard the steamer, to take the sworn declaration of the passengers that they were not smugglers, recognized my name as that of a well-known financier who had been abroad for a much-needed rest, and personally welcomed me home in such terms that I felt sure of complete exemption from the duties levied on others. When we landed I found that this good friend had looked out for me to the extent of getting me the first inspector, and he had guarded my integrity to the extent of committing me to a statement in severalty of the things my family had bought abroad, so that I had to pay twenty-eight dollars on my daughter's excess of the hundred dollars allowed free, although my wife was bringing in only seventy-five dollars' value, and I less than fifty."

"You mean that you had meant to lump the imports and escape the tax altogether?" we asked.

"Something like that."

"And the officer's idea of caressing irony was to let you think you could escape equally well by being perfectly candid?"

"Something like that."

"And what was the other occasion?"

"Oh, it was when I had a letter to the customs officer, and he said it would be all right, and then furnished me an inspector who opened every piece of my baggage just as if I had been one of the wicked."

We could not help laughing, and our friend grinned appreciatively. "And what was that supreme instance of caressing irony which you experienced in Boston?" we pursued.

"Ah, there is something I don't think you can question. But I didn't experience it; I merely observed it. We were coming down the stairs to take our hack at the foot of the pier, and an elderly lady who was coming down with us found the footing a little insecure. The man in charge bade her be careful, and then she turned upon him in severe reproof, and scolded him well. She told him that he ought to have those stairs looked after, for otherwise somebody would be killed one of these days. 'Well, ma'am,' he said, 'I shouldn't like that. I was in a railroad accident once. But I tell you what you do. The next time you come over here, you just telephone me, and I'll have these steps fixed. Or, I'll tell you: you just write me a letter and let me know exactly how you want 'em fixed, and I'll see to it myself.'"

"That was charming," we had to own, "and it was of an irony truly caressing, as you say. Do you think it was exactly respectful?"

"It was affectionate, and I think the lady liked it as much as any of us, or as the humorist himself."

"Yes, it was just so her own son might have joked her," we assented. "But tell us, Crœsus," we continued, in the form of Socratic dialogue, "did you find at Boston that multiple unmannerliness which you say is apparent from the vast increase of adoptive citizens? We have been in the habit of going to Boston when we wished to refresh our impression that we had a native country; when we wished to find ourselves in the midst of the good old American faces, which were sometimes rather arraigning in their expression, but not too severe for the welfare of a person imaginably demoralized by a New York sojourn."

Our friend allowed himself time for reflection. "I don't think you could do that now with any great hope of success. I should say that the predominant face in Boston now was some type of Irish face. You know that the civic affairs of Boston are now in the hands of the Irish. And with reason, if the Irish are in the majority."

"In New York it has long been the same without the reason," we dreamily suggested.

"In Boston," our friend went on, without regarding us, "the Catholics outvote the Protestants, and not because they vote oftener, but because there are more of them."

"And the heavens do not fall?"

"It is not a question of that; it is a question of whether the Irish are as amiable and civil as the Americans, now they are on top."

"We always supposed they were one of the most amiable and civil of the human races. Surely you found them so?"

"I did at Queenstown, but at Boston I had not the courage to test the fact. I would not have liked to try a joke with one of them as I would at Queenstown, or as I would at Boston with an American. Their faces did not arraign me, but they forbade me. It was very curious, and I may have misread them."

"Oh, probably not," we lightly mocked. "They were taking it out of you for ages of English oppression; they were making you stand for the Black Cromwell."

"Oh, very likely," our friend said, in acceptance of our irony, because he liked irony so much. "But, all the same, I thought it a pity, as I think it a pity when I meet a surly Italian here, who at home would be so sweet and gentle. It is somehow our own fault. We have spoiled them by our rudeness; they think it is American to be as rude as the Americans. They mistake our incivility for our liberty."

"There is something in what you say," we agreed, "if you will allow us to be serious. They are here in our large, free air, without the parasites that kept them in bounds in their own original habitat. We must invent some sort of culture which shall be constructive and not destructive, and will supply the eventual good without the provisional evil."

"Then we must go a great way back, and begin with our grandfathers, with the ancestors who freed us from Great Britain, but did not free themselves from the illusion that equality resides in incivility and honesty in bluntness. That was something they transmitted to us intact, so that we are now not only the best-hearted but the worst-mannered of mankind. If our habitual carriage were not rubber-tired by irony, we should be an intolerable offence, if not to the rest of the world, at least to ourselves. By-the-way, since I came back I have been reading a curious old book by James Fenimore Cooper, which I understand made a great stir in its day. Do you know it?—Home as Found?"

"We know it as one may know a book which one has not read. It pretty nearly made an end of James Fenimore Cooper, we believe. His fellow-countrymen fell on him, tooth and nail. We didn't take so kindly to criticism in those days as we do now, when it merely tickles the fat on our ribs, and we respond with the ironic laughter you profess to like so much. What is the drift of the book besides the general censure?"

"Oh, it is the plain, dull tale of an American family returning home after a long sojourn in Europe so high-bred that you want to kill them, and so superior to their home-keeping countrymen that, vulgarity for vulgarity, you much prefer the vulgarity of the Americans who have not been away. The author's unconsciousness of the vulgarity of his exemplary people is not the only amusing thing in the book. They arrive for a short stay in New York before they go to their country-seat somewhere up the State, and the sketches of New York society as it was in the third or fourth decade of the nineteenth century are certainly delightful: society was then so exactly like what it is now in spirit. Of course, it was very provincial, but society is always and everywhere provincial. One thing about it then was different from what it is now: I mean the attitude of the stay-at-homes toward the been-abroads. They revered them and deferred to them, and they called them Hajii, or travellers, in a cant which must have been very common, since George William Curtis used the same Oriental term for his Howadji in Syria and his Nile Notes of a Howadji."

"We must read it," we said, with the readiness of one who never intends to read the book referred to. "What you say of it is certainly very suggestive. But how do you account for the decay of the reverence and deference in which the Hajii were once held?"

"Well, they may have overworked their superiority."

"Or?" we prompted.

"The stay-at-homes may have got onto the been-abroads in a point where we all fail, unless we have guarded ourselves very scrupulously."

"And that is?"

"There is something very vulgarizing for Americans in the European atmosphere, so that we are apt to come back worse-mannered than we went away, and vulgarer than the untravelled, in so far as it is impoliter to criticise than to be criticised."

"And is that why your tone has been one of universal praise for your countrymen in the present interview?"

Our friend reached for his hat, smoothed a ruffled edge of the crown, and blew a speck of dust from it. "One reasons to a conclusion," he said, "not from it."

William Dean Howells