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Civil and Social Comparisons


It might be, somewhat overhardily, advanced that there is no such thing as positive fact, but only relative fact. The mind, in an instinctive perception of this hazardous truth, clings to contrast as the only basis of inference, and in now taking my tenth or twentieth look at London I have been careful to keep about me a pocket vision of New York, so as to see what London is like by making constantly sure what it is not like. A pocket vision, say, of Paris, would not serve the same purpose. That is a city of a legal loveliness, of a beauty obedient to a just municipal control, of a grandeur studied and authorized in proportion and relation to the design of a magnificent entirety; it is a capital nobly realized on lines nobly imagined. But New York and London may always be intelligibly compared because they are both the effect of an indefinite succession of anarchistic impulses, sometimes correcting and sometimes promoting, or at best sometimes annulling one another. Each has been mainly built at the pleasure of the private person, with the community now and then swooping down upon him, and turning him out of house and home to the common advantage. Nothing but our racial illogicality has saved us from the effect of our racial anarchy in the social structure as well as the material structure, but if we could see London and New York as lawless in the one way as in the other, we should perhaps see how ugly they collectively are.

The sum of such involuntary reflection with me has been the perception that London was and is and shall be, and New York is and shall be, but has hardly yet been. New York is therefore one-third less morally, as she is one-third less numerically, than London. In her future she has no past, but only a present to retrieve; though perhaps a present like hers is enough. She is also one less architecturally than London; she is two- thirds as splendid, as grand, as impressive. In fact, if I more closely examine my pocket vision, I am afraid that I must hedge from this modest claim, for we have as yet nothing to compare with at least a half of London magnificence, whatever we may have in the seventeen or eighteen hundred years that shall bring us of her actual age. As we go fast in all things, we may then surpass her; but this is not certain, for in her more deliberate way she goes fast, too. In the mean time the materials of comparison, as they lie dispersed in the pocket vision, seem few. The sky-scrapers, Brooklyn Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and some vast rocketing hotels offer themselves rather shrinkingly for the contrast with those miles of imperial and municipal architecture which in London make you forget the leagues of mean little houses, and remember the palaces, the law-courts, the great private mansions, the dignified and shapely flats, the large department stores, the immense hotels, the bridges, the monuments of every kind.

One reason, I think, why London is so much more striking is in the unbroken line which the irregularly divided streets often present to the passer. Here is a chance for architecture to extend, while with us it has only a chance to tower, on the short up-town block which is the extreme dimension of our proudest edifice, public or private. Another reason is in the London atmosphere, which deepens and heightens all the effects, while the lunar bareness of our perspectives mercilessly reveals the facts. After you leave the last cliff behind on lower Broadway the only incident of the long, straight avenue which distracts you from the varied commonplace of the commercial structures on either hand is the loveliness of Grace Church; but in the Strand and Fleet Street you have a succession of edifices which overwhelm you with the sense of a life in which trade is only one of the incidents. If the day is such as a lover of the picturesque would choose, or may rather often have without choosing, when the scene is rolled in vaporous smoke, and a lurid gloom hovers from the hidden sky, you have an effect of majesty and grandeur that no other city can offer. As the shadow momently thickens or thins in the absence or the presence of the yellowish-green light, the massive structures are shown or hid, and the meaner houses render the rifts between more impressively chasmal. The tremendous volume of life that flows through the narrow and winding channels past the dim cliffs and pinnacles, and the lower banks which the lesser buildings form, is such that the highest tide of Broadway or Fifth Avenue seems a scanty ebb beside it. The swelling and towering omnibuses, the huge trucks and wagons and carriages, the impetuous hansoms and the more sobered four-wheelers, the pony-carts, donkey-carts, handcarts, and bicycles which fearlessly find their way amid the turmoil, with foot-passengers winding in and out, and covering the sidewalks with their multitude, give the effect of a single monstrous organism, which writhes swiftly along the channel where it had run in the figure of a flood till you were tired of that metaphor. You are now a molecule of that vast organism, as you sit under your umbrella on your omnibus-top, with the public waterproof apron across your knees, and feel in supreme degree the insensate exultation of being part of the largest thing of its kind in the world, or perhaps the universe.

It is an emotion which supports the American visitor even against the immensity he shares, and he is able to reflect that New York would not look so relatively little, so comparatively thin, if New York were a capital on the same lines as London. If New York were, like London, a political as well as a commercial capital, she would have the national edifices of Washington added to the sky-scrapers in which she is now unrivalled, and her competition would be architecturally much more formidable than it is. She would be the legislative centre of the different States of the Union, as London is of the different counties of the United Kingdom; she would have collected in her borders all their capitols and public buildings; and their variety, if not dignity, would valiantly abet her in the rivalry from which one must now recoil on her behalf. She could not, of course, except on such rare days of fog as seem to greet Englishmen in New York on purpose to vex us, have the adventitious aid which the London atmosphere renders; her air is of such a helpless sincerity that nothing in it shows larger than it is; no mist clothes the sky-scraper in gigantic vagueness, the hideous tops soar into the clear heaven distinct in their naked ugliness; and the low buildings cower unrelieved about their bases. Nothing could be done in palliation of the comparative want of antiquity in New York, for the present, at least; but it is altogether probable that in the fulfilment of her destiny she will be one day as old as London now is.

If one thinks, however, how old London now is, it is rather crazing; much more crazing than the same sort of thought in the cities of lands more exclusively associated with antiquity. In Italy you forget the present; there seems nothing above the past, or only so thin a layer of actuality that you have scarcely the sense of it. In England you remember with an effort Briton, and Roman, and Saxon, and Norman, and the long centuries of the mediaeval and modern English; the living interests, ambitions, motives, are so dense that you cannot penetrate them and consort quietly with the dead alone. Men whose names are in the directory as well as men whose names are in history, keep you company, and push the shades of heroes, martyrs, saints, poets, and princes to the wall. They do not shoulder them willingly out of the way, but helplessly; there is no place in the world where the material present is so reverently, so tenderly mindful of the material past. Perhaps, therefore, I felt safe in so largely leaving the English past to the English present, and, having in London long ago satisfied that hunger for the old which the new American brings with him to Europe, I now went about enjoying the modern in its manifold aspects and possibly fancying characteristic traits where I did not find them. I did not care how trivial some of these were, but I hesitate to confide to the more serious reader that I was at one moment much interested in what seemed the growing informality of Englishmen in dress, as I noted it in the streets and parks, or thought I noted it.

To my vision, or any illusion, they wore every sort of careless cap, slouch felt hat, and straw hat; any sort of tunic, jacket, and cutaway. The top-hat and frock-coat still appear, but their combination is evidently no longer imperative, as it formerly was at all daytime functions. I do not mean to say that you do not often see that stately garment on persons of authority, but only that it is apparently not of the supremacy expressed in the drawings of Du Maurier in the eighties and nineties of the last century. Certainly, when it comes to the artist at Truefitt's wearing a frock-coat while cutting your hair, you cannot help asking yourself whether its hour has not struck. Yet, when one has said this, one must hedge from a conjecture so extreme. The king wears a frock-coat, a long, gray one, with a white top-hat and lavender gloves, and those who like to be like a king conform to his taste. No one, upon his life, may yet wear a frock and a derby, but many people now wear top-hats, though black ones, with sack-coats, with any sort of coats; and, above all, the Londoner affects in summer a straw hat either of a flat top and a pasteboard stiffness, or of the operatically picturesque Alpine pattern, or of a slouching Panama shapelessness. What was often the derision, the abhorrence of the English in the dress of other nations has now become their pleasure, and, with the English genius of doing what they like, it may be that they overdo their pleasure. But at the worst the effect is more interesting than our uniformity. The conventional evening dress alone remains inviolate, but how long this will remain, who can say? The simple-hearted American, arriving with his scrupulous dress suit in London, may yet find himself going out to dinner with a company of Englishmen in white linen jackets or tennis flannels.

If, however, the men's dress in England is informal, impatient, I think one will be well within the lines of safety in saying that above everything the English women's dress expresses sentiment, though I suppose it is no more expressive of personal sentiment than the chic of our women's dress is expressive of personal chic; in either case the dressmaker, male or female, has impersonally much to do with it. Under correction of those countrywomen of ours who will not allow that the Englishwomen know how to dress, I will venture to say that their expression of sentiment in dress is charming, but how charming it comparatively is I shall be far from saying. I will only make so bold as to affirm that it seems more adapted to the slender fluency of youth than some realizations of the American ideal; and that after the azaleas and rhododendrons in the Park there is nothing in nature more suggestive of girlish sweetness and loveliness than the costumes in which the wearers flow by the flowery expanses in carriage or on foot. The colors worn are often as courageous as the vegetable tints; the vaporous air softens and subdues crimsons and yellows that I am told would shriek aloud in our arid atmosphere; but mostly the shades worn tend to soft pallors, lavender, and pink, and creamy white. A group of girlish shapes in these colors, seen newly lighted at a doorway from a passing carriage, gave as they pressed eagerly forward a supreme effect of that sentiment in English dress which I hope I am not recreant in liking. Occasionally, also, there was a scarf, lightly escaping, lightly caught, which, with an endearing sash, renewed for a fleeting moment a bygone age of Sensibility, as we find it recorded in many a graceful page, on many a glowing canvas.

Pictorial, rather than picturesque, might be the word for the present dress of Englishwomen. It forms in itself a lovely picture to the eye, and is not merely the material or the inspiration of a picture. It is therefore the more difficult of transference to the imagination of the reader who has not also been a spectator, and before such a scene as one may witness in a certain space of the Park on a fair Sunday after church in the morning, or before dinner in the early evening, the boldest kodak may well close its single eye in despair. As yet even the mental photograph cannot impart the tints of nature, and the reader who wishes to assist at this scene must do his best to fancy them for himself. At the right moment of the ripening London season the foliage of the trees is densely yet freshly green and flatteringly soft to the eye; the grass below has that closeness of texture which only English grass has the secret of. At fit distances the wide beds of rhododendrons and azaleas are glowing; the sky is tenderly blue, and the drifted clouds in it are washed clean of their London grime. If it is in the afternoon, these beautiful women begin to appear about the time when you may have bidden yourself abandon the hope of them for that day. Some drift from the carriages that draw up on the drive beside the sacred close where they are to sit on penny chairs, spreading far over the green; others glide on foot from elect neighborhoods, or from vehicles left afar, perhaps that they may give themselves the effect of coming informally. They arrive in twos and threes, young girls commonly with their mothers, but sometimes together, in varied raptures of millinery, and with the rainbow range in their delicately floating, delicately clinging draperies. But their hats, their gowns, always express sentiment, even when they cannot always express simplicity; and the just observer is obliged to own that their calm faces often express, if not simplicity, sentiment. Their beauty is very, very great, not a beauty of coloring alone, but a beauty of feature which is able to be patrician without being unkind; and if, as some American women say, they do not carry themselves well, it takes an American woman to see it. They move naturally and lightly—that is, the young girls do; mothers in England, as elsewhere, are apt to put on weight; but many of the mothers are as handsome in their well-wearing English way as their daughters.

Several irregular spaces are enclosed by low iron barriers, and in one of these the arriving groups of authorized people found other people of their kind, where the unauthorized people seemed by common consent to leave them. There was especially one enclosure which seemed consecrated to the highest comers; it was not necessary that they should make the others feel they were not wanted there; the others felt it of themselves, and did not attempt to enter that especial fairy ring, or fairy triangle. Those within looked as much at home as if in their own drawing-rooms, and after the usual greetings of friends sat down in their penny chairs for the talk which the present kodak would not have overheard if it could.

If any one were to ask me how I knew that these beautiful creatures were of supreme social value, I should be obliged to own that it was largely an assumption based upon hearsay. For all I can avouch personally in the matter they might have been women come to see the women who had not come. Still, if the effects of high breeding are visible, then they were the sort they looked. Not only the women, but the men, old and young, had the aristocratic air which is not aggressive, the patrician bearing which is passive and not active, and which in the English seems consistent with so much that is human and kindly. There is always the question whether this sort of game is worth the candle; but that is a moral consideration which would take me too far from the little scene I am trying to suggest; it is sufficient for the present purpose that the English think it is worth it. A main fact of the scene was the constant movement of distinguished figures within the sacred close, and up and down the paths past the rows of on-lookers on their penny chairs. The distinguished figures were apparently not the least molested by the multiplied and concentrated gazes of the on-lookers, who were, as it were, outside the window, and of the street. What struck one accustomed to the heterogeneous Sunday crowds of Central Park, where any such scene would be so inexpressibly impossible, was the almost wholly English personnel of the crowd within and without the sacred close. Here and there a Continental presence, French or German or Italian, pronounced its nationality in dress and bearing; one of the many dark subject races of Great Britain was represented in the swarthy skin and lustrous black hair and eyes of a solitary individual; there were doubtless various colonials among the spectators, and in one's nerves one was aware of some other Americans. But these exceptions only accented the absolutely English dominance of the spectacle. The alien elements were less evident in the observed than in the observers, where, beyond the barrier, which there was nothing to prevent their passing, they sat in passive rows, in passive pairs, in passive ones, and stared and stared. The observers were mostly men, and largely men of the age when the hands folded on the top of the stick express a pause in the emotions and the energies which has its pathos. There were women among them, of course, but the women were also of the age when the keener sensibilities are taking a rest; and such aliens of their sex as qualified the purely English nature of the affair lost whatever was aggressive in their difference.

It was necessary to the transaction of the drama that from time to time the agents of the penny-chair company should go about in the close and collect money for the chairs; and it became a question, never rightly solved, how the ladies who had come unattended managed, with their pocketless dresses, to carry coins unequalled in bulk since the iron currency of Sparta; or whether they held the pennies frankly in their hands till they paid them away. In England the situation, if it is really the situation, is always accepted with implicit confidence, and if it had been the custom to bring pennies in their hands, these ladies would have no more minded doing it than they minded being looked at by people whose gaze dedicated them to an inviolate superiority.

With us the public affirmation of class, if it were imaginable, could not be imaginable except upon the terms of a mutinous protest in the spectators which would not have been less real for being silent. But again I say the thing would not have been possible with us in New York; though in Newport, where the aristocratic tradition is said to have been successfully transplanted to our plutocratic soil, something analogous might at least be dramatized. Elsewhere that tradition does not come to flower in the open American air; it is potted and grown under glass; and can be carried out-doors only under special conditions. The American must still come to England for the realization of certain social ideals towards which we may be now straining, but which do not yet enjoy general acceptance. The reader who knows New York has but to try and fancy its best, or even its better, society dispersing itself on certain grassy limits of Central Park on a Sunday noon or afternoon; or, on some week-day evening, leaving its equipages along the drives and strolling out over the herbage; or receiving in its carriages the greetings of acquaintance who make their way in and out among the wheels. Police and populace would join forces in their several sorts to spoil a spectacle which in Hyde Park appeals, in high degree, to the aesthetic sense, and which might stimulate the historic imagination to feats of agreeable invention if one had that sort of imagination.

The spectacle is a condition of that old, secure society which we have not yet lived long enough to have known, and which we very probably never shall know. Such civilization as we have will continue to be public and impersonal, like our politics, and our society in its specific events will remain within walls. It could not manifest itself outside without being questioned, challenged, denied; and upon reflection there might appear reasons why it is well so.

William Dean Howells