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Arrival
from Letters from America by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

However sedulously he may have avoided a preparatory reading of those 'impressions' of America which our hurried and observant Great continually record for the instruction of both nations, the pilgrim who is crossing the Atlantic for the first time cannot approach Sandy Hook Bar with so completely blank a mind as he would wish. So, at least, I found. It is not so much that the recent American invasion of London music-halls has bitten into one's brain a very definite taste of a jerking, vital, bizarre 'rag-time' civilisation. But the various and vivid comments of friends to whom the news of a traveller's departure is broken excite and predispose the imagination. That so many people who have been there should have such different and decided opinions about it! It must be at least remarkable. I felt the thrill of an explorer before I started. "A country without conversation," said a philosopher. "The big land has a big heart," wrote a kindly scholar; and, by the same post, from another critic, "that land of crushing hospitality!" "It's Hell, but it's fine," an artist told me. "El Cuspidorado," remarked an Oxford man, brilliantly. But one wiser than all the rest wrote: "Think gently of the Americans. They are so very young; and so very anxious to appear grown-up; and so very lovable." This was more generous than the unvarying comment of ordinary English friends when they heard of my purpose, "My God!" And it was more precise than those nineteen several Americans, to each of whom I said, "I am going to visit America," and each of whom replied, after long reflection, "Wal! it's a great country!"

Travelling by the ordinary routes, you meet the American people a week before you meet America. And my excitement to discover what, precisely, this nation was at, was inflamed rather than damped by the attitude of a charming American youth who crossed by the same boat. That simplicity that is not far down in any American was very beautifully on the delightful surface with him. The second day out he sidled shyly up to me. "Of what nationality are you?" he asked. His face showed bewilderment when he heard. "I thought all Englishmen had moustaches," he said. I told him of the infinite variety, within the homogeneity, of our race. He did not listen, but settled down near me with the eager kindliness of a child. "You know," he said, "you'll never understand America. No, Sir. No Englishman can understand America. I've been in London. In your Houses of Parliament there is one door for peers to go in at, and one for ordinary people. Did I laugh some when I saw that? You bet your, America's not like that. In America one man's just as good as another. You'll never understand America." I was all humility. His theme and his friendliness fired him. He rose with a splendour which, I had to confess to myself, England could never have given to him. "Would you like to hear me re-cite to you the Declaration of Independence?" he asked. And he did.

So it was with a fairly blank mind, and yet a hope of understanding, or at least of seeing, something very remarkably fresh, that I woke to hear we were in harbour; and tumbled out on deck at six of a fine summer morning to view a new world. New York Harbour is loveliest at night perhaps. On the Staten Island ferry boat you slip out from the darkness right under the immense sky-scrapers. As they recede they form into a mass together, heaping up one behind another, fire-lined and majestic, sentinel over the black, gold-streaked waters. Their cliff-like boldness is the greater, because to either side sweep in the East River and the Hudson River, leaving this piled promontory between. To the right hangs the great stretch of the Brooklyn Suspension Bridge, its slight curve very purely outlined with light; over it luminous trams, like shuttles of fire, are thrown across and across, continually weaving the stuff of human existence. From further off all these lights dwindle to a radiant semicircle that gazes out over the expanse with a quiet, mysterious expectancy. Far away seaward you may see the low golden glare of Coney Island.

But there was beauty in the view that morning, also, half an hour after sunrise. New York, always the cleanest and least smoky of cities, lay asleep in a queer, pearly, hourless light. A thin mist softened the further outlines. The water was opalescent under a silver sky, cool and dim, very slightly ruffled by the sweet wind that followed us in from the sea. A few streamers of smoke flew above the city, oblique and parallel, pennants of our civilisation. The space of water is great, and so the vast buildings do not tower above one as they do from the street. Scale is lost, and they might be any size. The impression is, rather, of long, low buildings stretching down to the water's edge on every side, and innumerable low black wharves and jetties and piers. And at one point, the lower end of the island on which the city proper stands, rose that higher clump of the great buildings, the Singer, the Woolworth, and the rest. Their strength, almost severity, of line and the lightness of their colour gave a kind of classical feeling, classical, and yet not of Europe. It had the air, this block of masonry, of edifices built to satisfy some faith, for more than immediate ends. Only, the faith was unfamiliar. But if these buildings embodied its nature, it is cold and hard and light, like the steel that is their heart. The first sight of these strange fanes has queer resemblances to the first sight of that lonely and secret group by Pisa's walls. It came upon me, at that moment, that they could not have been dreamed and made without some nobility. Perhaps the hour lent them sanctity. For I have often noticed since that in the early morning, and again for a little about sunset, the sky-scrapers are no longer merely the means and local convenience for men to pursue their purposes, but acquire that characteristic of the great buildings of the world, an existence and meaning of their own.

Our boat moved up the harbour and along the Hudson River with a superb and courteous stateliness. Round her snorted and scuttled and puffed the multitudinous strange denizens of the harbour. Tugs, steamers, queer-shaped ferry-boats, long rafts carrying great lines of trucks from railway to railway, dredgers, motor-boats, even a sailing-boat or two; for the day's work was beginning. Among them, with that majesty that only a liner entering a harbour has, she went, progressed, had her moving---English contains no word for such a motion---"incessu patuit dea." A goddess entering fairyland, I thought; for the huddled beauty of these buildings and the still, silver expanse of the water seemed unreal. Then I looked down at the water immediately beneath me, and knew that New York was a real city. All kinds of refuse went floating by: bits of wood, straw from barges, bottles, boxes, paper, occasionally a dead cat or dog, hideously bladder-like, its four paws stiff and indignant towards heaven.

This analysis of fairyland turned me towards the statue of Liberty, already passed and growing distant. It is one of those things you have long wanted to see and haven't expected to admire, which, seen, give you a double thrill, that they're at last there, and that they're better than your hopes. For Liberty stands nobly. Americans, always shy about their country, have learnt from the ridicule which Europeans, on mixed æsthetic and moral grounds, pour on this statue, to dismiss it with an apologetic laugh. Yet it is fine---until you get near enough to see its clumsiness. I admired the great gesture of it. A hand fell on my shoulder, and a voice said, "Look hard at that, young man! That's the first time you've seen Liberty---and it will be the last till you turn your back on this country again." It was an American fellow-passenger, one of the tall, thin type of American, with pale blue eyes of an idealistic, disappointed expression, and an Indian profile. The other half of America, personated by a small, bumptious, eager, brown-faced man, with a cigar raking at an irritating angle from the corner of his mouth, joined in with, "Wal! I should smile, I guess this is the Land of Freedom, anyway." The tall man swung round: "Freedom! do you call it a free land, where---" He gave instances of the power of the dollar. The other man kept up the argument by spitting and by asseveration. As the busy little tugs, with rugs on their noses, butted the great liner into her narrow dock the pessimist launched his last shafts. The short man denied nothing. He drew the cigar from his lips, shot it back with a popping noise into the round hole cigars had worn at the corner of his mouth, and said, "Anyway, it's some country." I was introduced to America.

 

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