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Chapter 7

VII

I can never insist enough, my dear Cyril, upon the illogicality of American life. You know what the plutocratic principle is, and what the plutocratic civilization should logically be. But the plutocratic civilization is much better than it should logically be, bad as it is; for the personal equation constantly modifies it, and renders it far less dreadful than you would reasonably expect. That is, the potentialities of goodness implanted in the human heart by the Creator forbid the plutocratic man to be what the plutocratic scheme of life implies. He is often merciful, kindly, and generous, as I have told you already, in spite of conditions absolutely egotistical. You would think that the Americans would be abashed in view of the fact that their morality is often in contravention of their economic principles, but apparently they are not so, and I believe that for the most part they are not aware of the fact. Nevertheless, the fact is there, and you must keep it in mind, if you would conceive of them rightly. You can in no other way account for the contradictions which you will find in my experiences among them; and these are often so bewildering that I have to take myself in hand, from time to time, and ask myself what mad world I have fallen into, and whether, after all, it is not a ridiculous nightmare. I am not sure that, when I return and we talk these things over together, I shall be able to overcome your doubts of my honesty, and I think that when I no longer have them before my eyes I shall begin to doubt my own memory. But for the present I can only set down what I at least seem to see, and trust you to accept it, if you cannot understand it.

Perhaps I can aid you by suggesting that, logically, the Americans should be what the Altrurians are, since their polity embodies our belief that all men are born equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but that illogically they are what the Europeans are, since they still cling to the economical ideals of Europe, and hold that men are born socially unequal, and deny them the liberty and happiness which can come from equality alone. It is in their public life and civic life that Altruria prevails; it is in their social and domestic life that Europe prevails; and here, I think, is the severest penalty they must pay for excluding women from political affairs; for women are at once the best and the worst Americans: the best because their hearts are the purest, the worst because their heads are the idlest. "Another contradiction!" you will say, and I cannot deny it; for, with all their cultivation, the American women have no real intellectual interests, but only intellectual fads; and while they certainly think a great deal, they reflect little, or not at all. The inventions and improvements which have made their household work easy, the wealth that has released them in such vast numbers from work altogether, has not enlarged them to the sphere of duties which our Altrurian women share with us, but has left them, with their quickened intelligences, the prey of the trivialities which engross the European women, and which have formed the life of the sex hitherto in every country where women have an economical and social freedom without the political freedom that can alone give it dignity and import. They have a great deal of beauty, and they are inconsequently charming; I need not tell you that they are romantic and heroic, or that they would go to the stake for a principle, if they could find one, as willingly as any martyr of the past; but they have not much more perspective than children, and their reading and their talk about reading seem not to have broadened their mental horizons beyond the old sunrise and the old sunset of the kitchen and the parlor.

In fine, the American house as it is, the American household, is what the American woman makes it and wills it to be, whether she wishes it to be so or not; for I often find that the American woman wills things that she in no wise wishes. What the normal New York house is, however, I had great difficulty in getting Mrs. Makely to tell me, for, as she said quite frankly, she could not imagine my not knowing. She asked me if I really wanted her to begin at the beginning, and, when I said that I did, she took a little more time to laugh at the idea, and then she said, "I suppose you mean a brown-stone, four-story house in the middle of a block?"

"Yes, I think that is what I mean," I said.

"Well," she began, "those high steps that they all have, unless they're English-basement houses, really give them another story, for people used to dine in the front room of their basements. You've noticed the little front yard, about as big as a handkerchief, generally, and the steps leading down to the iron gate, which is kept locked, and the basement door inside the gate? Well, that's what you might call the back elevator of a house, for it serves the same purpose: the supplies are brought in there, and market-men go in and out, and the ashes, and the swill, and the servants—that you object to so much. We have no alleys in New York, the blocks are so narrow, north and south; and, of course, we have no back doors; so we have to put the garbage out on the sidewalk—and it's nasty enough, goodness knows. Underneath the sidewalk there are bins where people keep their coal and kindling. You've noticed the gratings in the pavements?"

I said yes, and I was ashamed to own that at first I had thought them some sort of registers for tempering the cold in winter; this would have appeared ridiculous in the last degree to my hostess, for the Americans have as yet no conception of publicly modifying the climate, as we do.

"Back of what used to be the dining-room, and what is now used for a laundry, generally, is the kitchen, with closets between, of course, and then the back yard, which some people make very pleasant with shrubs and vines; the kitchen is usually dark and close, and the girls can only get a breath of fresh air in the yard; I like to see them; but generally it's taken up with clothes-lines, for people in houses nearly all have their washing done at home. Over the kitchen is the dining-room, which takes up the whole of the first floor, with the pantry, and it almost always has a bay-window out of it; of course, that overhangs the kitchen, and darkens it a little more, but it makes the dining-room so pleasant. I tell my husband that I should be almost willing to live in a house again, just on account of the dining-room bay-window. I had it full of flowers in pots, for the southern sun came in; and then the yard was so nice for the dog; you didn't have to take him out for exercise, yourself; he chased the cats there and got plenty of it. I must say that the cats on the back fences were a drawback at night; to be sure, we have them here, too; it's seven stories down, but you do hear them, along in the spring. The parlor, or drawing-room, is usually rather long, and runs from the dining-room to the front of the house, though where the house is very deep they have a sort of middle room, or back parlor. Dick, get some paper and draw it. Wouldn't you like to see a plan of the floor?"

I said that I should, and she bade her husband make it like their old house in West Thirty-third Street. We all looked at it together.

"This is the front door," Mrs. Makely explained, "where people come in, and then begins the misery of a house—stairs! They mostly go up straight, but sometimes they have them curve a little, and in the new houses the architects have all sorts of little dodges for squaring them and putting landings. Then, on the second floor—draw it, Dick—you have two nice, large chambers, with plenty of light and air, before and behind. I do miss the light and air in a flat, there's no denying it."

"You'll go back to a house yet, Dolly," said her husband.

"Never!" she almost shrieked, and he winked at me, as if it were the best joke in the world. "Never, as long as houses have stairs!"

"Put in an elevator," he suggested.

"Well, that is what Eveleth Strange has, and she lets the servants use it, too," and Mrs. Makely said, with a look at me: "I suppose that would please you, Mr. Homos. Well, there's a nice side-room over the front door here, and a bath-room at the rear. Then you have more stairs, and large chambers, and two side-rooms. That makes plenty of chambers for a small family. I used to give two of the third-story rooms to my two girls. I ought really to have made them sleep in one; it seemed such a shame to let the cook have a whole large room to herself; but I had nothing else to do with it, and she did take such comfort in it, poor old thing! You see, the rooms came wrong in our house, for it fronted north, and I had to give the girls sunny rooms or else give them front rooms, so that it was as broad as it was long. I declare, I was perplexed about it the whole time we lived there, it seemed so perfectly anomalous."

"And what is an English-basement house like?" I ventured to ask, in interruption of the retrospective melancholy she had fallen into.

"Oh, never live in an English-basement house, if you value your spine!" cried the lady. "An English-basement house is nothing but stairs. In the first place, it's only one room wide, and it's a story higher than the high-stoop house. It's one room forward and one back, the whole way up; and in an English-basement it's always up, and never down. If I had my way, there wouldn't one stone be left upon another in the English-basements in New York."

I have suffered Mrs. Makely to be nearly as explicit to you as she was to me; for the kind of house she described is of the form ordinarily prevailing in all American cities, and you can form some idea from it how city people live here. I ought perhaps to tell you that such a house is fitted with every housekeeping convenience, and that there is hot and cold water throughout, and gas everywhere. It has fireplaces in all the rooms, where fires are often kept burning for pleasure; but it is really heated from a furnace in the basement, through large pipes carried to the different stories, and opening into them by some such registers as we use. The separate houses sometimes have steam-heating, but not often. They each have their drainage into the sewer of the street, and this is trapped and trapped again, as in the houses of our old plutocratic cities, to keep the poison of the sewer from getting into the houses.

William Dean Howells