Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

New York to the Home-Comer's Eye

Our friend came in with challenge in his eye, and though a month had passed, we knew, as well as if it were only a day, that he had come to require of us the meaning in that saying of ours that New York derived her inspiration from the future, or would derive it, if she ever got it.

"Well," he said, "have you cleared your mind yet sufficiently to 'pour the day' on mine? Or hadn't you any meaning in what you said? I've sometimes suspected it."

The truth is that we had not had very much meaning of the sort that you stand and deliver, though we were aware of a large, vague wisdom in our words. But we perceived that our friend had no intention of helping us out, and on the whole we thought it best to temporize.

"In the first place," we said, "we should like to know what impression New York made on you when you arrived here, if there was any room left on your soul-surface after the image of Boston had been imprinted there."

No man is unwilling to expatiate concerning himself, even when he is trying to corner a fellow-man. This principle of human nature perhaps accounts for the frequent failure of thieves to catch thieves, in spite of the proverb; the pursuit suggests somehow the pleasures of autobiography, and while they are reminded of this and that the suspects escape the detectives. Our friend gladly paused to reply:

"I wish I could say! It was as unbeautiful as it could be, but it was wonderful! Has anybody else ever said that there is no place like it? On some accounts I am glad there isn't; one place of the kind is enough; but what I mean is that I went about all the next day after arriving from Boston, with Europe still in my brain, and tried for something suggestive of some other metropolis, and failed. There was no question of Boston, of course; that was clean out of it after my first glimpse of Fifth Avenue in taxicabbing hotelward from the Grand Central Station. But I tried with Berlin, and found it a drearier Boston; with Paris, and found it a blonder and blither Boston; with London, and found it sombrely irrelevant and incomparable. New York is like London only in not being like any other place, and it is next to London in magnitude. So far, so good; but the resemblance ends there, though New York is oftener rolled in smoke, or mist, than we willingly allow to Londoners. Both, however, have an admirable quality which is not beauty. One might call the quality picturesque immensity in London, and in New York one might call it—"

He compressed his lips, and shut his eyes to a fine line for the greater convenience of mentally visioning.

"What?" we impatiently prompted.

"I was going to say, sublimity. What do you think of sublimity?"

"We always defend New York against you. We accept sublimity. How?"

"I was thinking of the drive up or down Fifth Avenue, the newer Fifth Avenue, which has risen in marble and Indiana limestone from the brownstone and brick of a former age, the Augustan Fifth Avenue which has replaced that old Lincolnian Fifth Avenue. You get the effect best from the top of one of the imperial motor-omnibuses which have replaced the consular two-horse stages; and I should say that there was more sublimity to the block between Sixteenth Street and Sixtieth than in the other measures of the city's extent."


"This is very gratifying to us as a fond New-Yorker; but why leave out of the reach of sublimity the region of the sky-scrapers, and the spacious, if specious, palatiality of the streets on the upper West Side?"

"I don't, altogether," our friend replied. "Especially I don't leave out the upper West Side. That has moments of being even beautiful. But there is a point beyond which sublimity cannot go; and that is about the fifteenth story. When you get a group of those sky-scrapers, all soaring beyond this point, you have, in an inverted phase, the unimpressiveness which Taine noted as the real effect of a prospect from the summit of a very lofty mountain. The other day I found myself arrested before a shop-window by a large photograph labelled 'The Heart of New York.' It was a map of that region of sky-scrapers which you seem to think not justly beyond the scope of attributive sublimity. It was a horror; it set my teeth on edge; it made me think of scrap-iron—heaps, heights, pinnacles of scrap-iron. Don't ask me why scrap-iron! Go and look at that photograph and you will understand. Below those monstrous cliffs the lower roofs were like broken foot-hills; the streets were chasms, gulches, gashes. It looked as if there had been a conflagration, and the houses had been burned into the cellars; and the eye sought the nerve-racking tangle of pipe and wire which remains among the ruins after a great fire. Perhaps this was what made me think of scrap-iron—heaps, heights, pinnacles of it. No, there was no sublimity there. Some astronomers have latterly assigned bounds to immensity, but the sky-scrapers go beyond these bounds; they are primordial, abnormal."

"You strain for a phrase," we said, "as if you felt the essential unreality of your censure. Aren't you aware that mediæval Florence, mediæval Siena, must have looked, with their innumerable towers, like our sky-scrapered New York? They must have looked quite like it."

"And very ugly. It was only when those towers, which were devoted to party warfare as ours are devoted to business warfare, were levelled, that Florence became fair and Siena superb. I should not object to a New York of demolished sky-scrapers. They would make fine ruins; I would like to see them as ruins. In fact, now I think of it, 'The Heart of New York' reminded me of the Roman Forum. I wonder I didn't think of that before. But if you want sublimity, the distinguishing quality of New York, as I feel it more and more, while I talk of it, you must take that stretch of Fifth Avenue from a motor-bus top."

"But that stretch of Fifth Avenue abounds in sky-scrapers!" we lamented the man's inconsistency.

"Sky-scrapers in subordination, yes. There is one to every other block. There is that supreme sky-scraper, the Flatiron. But just as the Flatiron, since the newspapers have ceased to celebrate its pranks with men's umbrellas, and the feathers and flounces and 'tempestuous petticoats' of the women, has sunk back into a measurable inconspicuity, so all the other tall buildings have somehow harmonized themselves with the prospect and no longer form the barbarous architectural chaos of lower New York. I don't object to their being mainly business houses and hotels; I think that it is much more respectable than being palaces or war-like eminences, Guelf or Ghibelline; and as I ride up-town in my motor-bus, I thrill with their grandeur and glow with their condescension. Yes, they condescend; and although their tall white flanks climb in the distance, they seem to sink on nearer approach, and amiably decline to disfigure the line of progress, or to dwarf the adjacent edifices. Down-town, in the heart of New York, poor old Trinity looks driven into the ground by the surrounding heights and bulks; but along my sublime upper Fifth Avenue there is spire after spire that does not unduly dwindle, but looks as if tenderly, reverently, protected by the neighboring giants. They are very good and kind giants, apparently. But the acme of the sublimity, the quality in which I find my fancy insisting more and more, is in those two stately hostelries, the Gog and Magog of that giant company, which guard the approach to the Park like mighty pillars, the posts of vast city gates folded back from them."

"Come!" we said. "This is beginning to be something like."

"In November," our friend said, taking breath for a fresh spurt of praise, "there were a good many sympathetic afternoons which lent themselves to motor-bus progress up that magnificent avenue, and if you mounted to your place on top, about three o'clock, you looked up or down the long vista of blue air till it turned mirk at either vanishing-point under a sky of measureless cloudlessness. That dimness, almost smokiness at the closes of the prospect, was something unspeakably rich. It made me think, quite out of relation or relevance, of these nobly mystical lines of Keats:

'His soul shall know the sadness of her night,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.'"

We closed our eyes in the attempt to grope after him. "Explain, O Howadji!"

"I would rather not, as you say when you can't," he replied. "But I will come down a little nearer earth, if you prefer. Short of those visionary distances there are features of the prospect either way in which I differently rejoice. One thing is the shining black roofs of the cabs, moving and pausing like processions of huge turtles up and down the street; obeying the gesture of the mid-stream policemen where they stand at the successive crossings to stay them, and floating with the coming and going tides as he drops his inhibitory hand and speeds them in the continuous current. That is, of course, something you get in greater quantity, though not such intense quality, in a London 'block,' but there is something more fluent, more mercurially impatient, in a New York street jam, which our nerves more vividly partake. Don't ask me to explain! I would rather not!" he said, and we submitted.

He went on to what seemed an unjustifiable remove from the point. "Nothing has struck me so much, after a half-year's absence, in this novel revelation of sublimity in New York, as the evident increase on the street crowds. The city seems to have grown a whole new population, and the means of traffic and transportation have been duplicated in response to the demand of the multiplying freights and feet." Our friend laughed in self-derision, as he went on. "I remember when we first began to have the electric trolleys—"

"Trams, we believe you call them," we insinuated.

"Not when I'm on this side," he retorted, and he resumed: "I used to be afraid to cross the avenues where they ran. At certain junctions I particularly took my life in my hand, and my 'courage in both hands.' Where Sixth Avenue flows into Fifty-ninth Street, and at Sixth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, and at Dead Man's Curve (he has long been resuscitated) on Fourteenth Street, I held my breath till I got over alive, and I blessed Heaven for my safe passage at Forty-second and Twenty-third streets, and at divers places on Third Avenue. Now I regard these interlacing iron currents with no more anxiety than I would so many purling brooks, with stepping-stones in them to keep my feet from the wet: they are like gentle eddies—soft, clear, slow tides—where one may pause in the midst at will, compared with the deadly expanses of Fifth Avenue, with their rush of all manner of vehicles over the smooth asphalt surface. There I stand long at the brink; I look for a policeman to guide and guard my steps; I crane my neck forward from my coign of vantage and count the cabs, the taxicabs, the carriages, the private automobiles, the motor-buses, the express-wagons, and calculate my chances. Then I shrink back. If it is a corner where there is no policeman to bank the tides up on either hand and lead me over, I wait for some bold, big team to make the transit of the avenue from the cross-street, and then in its lee I find my way to the other side. As for the trolleys, I now mock myself of them, as Thackeray's Frenchmen were said to say in their peculiar English. (I wonder if they really did?) It is the taxicabs that now turn my heart to water. It is astonishing how they have multiplied—they have multiplied even beyond the ratio of our self-reduplicating population. There are so many already that this morning I read in my paper of a trolley-car striking a horse-cab! The reporter had written quite unconsciously, just as he used to write horseless carriage. Yes, the motor-cab is now the type, the norm, and the horse-cab is the—the—the——"

He hesitated for the antithesis, and we proposed "Abnorm?"

"Say abnorm! It is hideous, but I don't know that it is wrong. Where was I?"

"You had got quite away from the sublimity of New York, which upon the whole you seemed to attribute to the tall buildings along Fifth Avenue. We should like you to explain again why, if 'The Heart of New York,' with its sky-scrapers, made you think of scrap-iron, the Flatiron soothed your lacerated sensibilities?"


"The Flatiron is an incident, an accent merely, in the mighty music of the Avenue, a happy discord that makes for harmony. It is no longer nefarious, or even mischievous, now the reporters have got done attributing a malign meteorological influence to it. I wish I could say as much for the white marble rocket presently soaring up from the east side of Madison Square, and sinking the beautiful reproduction of the Giralda tower in the Garden half-way into the ground. As I look at this pale yellowish brown imitation of the Seville original, it has a pathos which I might not make you feel. But I would rather not look away from Fifth Avenue at all. It is astonishing how that street has assumed and resumed all the larger and denser life of the other streets. Certain of the avenues, like Third and Sixth, remain immutably and characteristically noisy and ignoble; and Fifth Avenue has not reduced them to insignificance as it has Broadway. That is now a provincial High Street beside its lordlier compeer; but I remember when Broadway stormed and swarmed with busy life. Why, I remember the party-colored 'buses which used to thunder up and down; and I can fancy some Rip Van Winkle of the interior returning to the remembered terrors and splendors of that mighty thoroughfare, and expecting to be killed at every crossing—I can fancy such a visitor looking round in wonder at the difference and asking the last decaying survivor of the famous Broadway Squad what they had done with Broadway from the Battery to Madison Square. Beyond that, to be sure, there is a mighty flare of electrics blazoning the virtues of the popular beers, whiskeys, and actresses, which might well mislead my elderly revisitor with the belief that Broadway was only taken in by day, and was set out again after dark in its pristine—I think pristine is the word; it used to be—glory. But even by night that special length of Broadway lacks the sublimity of Fifth Avenue, as I see it or imagine it from my motor-bus top. I knew Fifth Avenue in the Lincolnian period of brick and brownstone, when it had a quiet, exclusive beauty, the beauty of the unbroken sky-line and the regularity of facade which it has not yet got back, and may never get. You will get some notion of it still in Madison Avenue, say from Twenty-eighth to Forty-second streets, and perhaps you will think it was dull as well as proud. It is proud now, but it is certainly not dull. There is something of columnar majesty in the lofty flanks of these tall shops and hotels as you approach them, which makes you think of some capital decked for a national holiday. But in Fifth Avenue it is always holiday—"

"Enough of streets!" we cried, impatiently. "Now, what of men? What of that heterogeneity for which New York is famous, or infamous? You noticed the contrasting Celtic and Pelasgic tribes in Boston. What of them here, with all the tribes of Israel, lost and found, and the 'sledded Polack,' the Czech, the Hun, the German, the Gaul, the Gothic and Iberian Spaniard, and the swart stranger from our sister continent to the southward, and the islands of the seven seas, who so sorely outnumber us?"

Our friend smiled thoughtfully. "Why, that is very curious! Do you know that in Fifth Avenue the American type seems to have got back its old supremacy? It is as if no other would so well suit with that sublimity! I have not heard that race-suicide has been pronounced by the courts amenable to our wise State law against felo de se, but in the modern Fifth Avenue it is as if our stirp had suddenly reclaimed its old-time sovereignty. I don't say that there are not other faces, other tongues than ours to be seen, heard, there; far from it! But I do say it is a sense of the American face, the American tongue, which prevails. Once more, after long exile in the streets of our own metropolis, you find yourself in an American city. Your native features, your native accents, have returned in such force from abroad, or have thronged here in such multitude from the prospering Pittsburgs, Cincinnatis, Chicagos, St. Louises, and San Franciscos of the West, that you feel as much at home in Fifth Avenue as you would in Piccadilly, or in the Champs Elysées, or on the Pincian Hill. Yes, it is very curious."

"Perhaps," we suggested, after a moment's reflection, "it isn't true."

William Dean Howells