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New York
from Letters from America by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

In five things America excels modern England---fish, architecture, jokes, drinks, and children's clothes. There may be others. Of these I am certain. The jokes and drinks, which curiously resemble each other, are the best. There is a cheerful violence about them; they take their respective kingdoms by storm. All the lesser things one has heard turn out to be delightfully true. The first hour in America proves them. People here talk with an American accent; their teeth are inlaid with gold; the mouths of car-conductors move slowly, slowly, with an oblique oval motion, for they are chewing; pavements are 'sidewalks.' It is all true. . . . But there were other things one expected, though in no precise form. What, for instance, would it be like, the feeling of whatever democracy America has secured?

I landed, rather forlorn, that first morning, on the immense covered wharf where the Customs mysteries were to be celebrated. The place was dominated by a large, dirty, vociferous man, coatless, in a black shirt and black apron. His mouth and jaw were huge; he looked like a caricaturist's Roosevelt. 'Express Company' was written on his forehead; labels of a thousand colours, printed slips, pencils and pieces of string, hung from his pockets and his hands, were held behind his ears and in his mouth. I laid my situation and my incompetence before him, and learnt right where to go and right when to go there. Then he flung a vast, dingy arm round my shoulders, and bellowed, "We'll have your baggage right along to your hotel in two hours." It was a lie, but kindly. That grimy and generous embrace left me startled, but an initiate into Democracy.

The other evening I went a lonely ramble, to try to detect the essence of New York. A wary eavesdropper can always surprise the secret of a city, through chance scraps of conversation, or by spying from a window, or by coming suddenly round comers. I started on a 'car.' American tram-cars are open all along the side and can be entered at any point in it. The side is divided by vertical bars. It looks like a cage with the horizontal lines taken out. Between these vertical bars you squeeze into the seat. If the seat opposite you is full, you swing yourself along the bars by your hands till you find room. The Americans become terrifyingly expert at this. I have seen them, fat, middle-aged business men, scampering up and down the face of the cars by means of their hands, swinging themselves over and round and above each other, like nothing in the world so much as the monkeys at the Zoo. It is a people informed with vital energy. I believe that this exercise, and the habit of drinking a lot of water between meals, are the chief causes of their good health.

The Broadway car runs mostly along the backbone of the queer island on which this city stands. So the innumerable parallel streets that cross it curve down and away; and at this time street after street to the west reveals, and seems to drop into, a mysterious evening sky, full of dull reds and yellows, amber and pale green, and a few pink flecks, and in the midst, sometimes, the flushed, smoke-veiled face of the sun. Then greyness, broken by these patches of misty colour, settles into the lower channels of the New York streets; while the upper heights of the sky-scrapers, clear of the roofs, are still lit on the sunward side with a mellow glow, curiously serene. To the man in the mirk of the street, they seem to exude this light from the great spaces of brick. At this time the cars, always polyglot, are filled with shop-hands and workers, and no English at all is heard. One is surrounded with Yiddish, Italian, and Greek, broken by Polish, or Russian, or German. Some American anthropologists claim that the children of these immigrants show marked changes, in the shape of skull and face, towards the American type. It may be so. But the people who surround one are mostly European-born. They represent very completely that H. C. F. of Continental appearance which is labelled in the English mind 'looking like a foreigner'; being short, swarthy, gesticulatory, full of clatter, indeterminately alien. Only in their dress and gait have they---or at least the men among them---become at all American.

The American by race walks better than we; more freely, with a taking swing, and almost with grace. How much of this is due to living in a democracy, and how much to wearing no braces, it is very difficult to determine. But certainly it is the land of belts, and therefore of more loosely moving bodies. This, and the padded shoulders of the coats, and the loosely-cut trousers, make a figure more presentable, at a distance, than most urban civilisations turn out. Also, Americans take their coats off, which is sensible; and they can do it the more beautifully because they are belted, and not braced. They take their coats off anywhere and anywhen, and somehow it strikes the visitor as the most symbolic thing about them. They have not yet thought of discarding collars; but they are unashamedly shirt-sleeved. Any sculptor, seeking to figure this Republic in stone, must carve, in future, a young man in shirt-sleeves, open-faced, pleasant, and rather vulgar, straw hat on the back of his head, his trousers full and sloppy, his coat over his arm. The motto written beneath will be, of course, 'This is some country.' The philosophic gazer on such a monument might get some way towards understanding the making of the Panama Canal, that exploit that no European nation could have carried out.

What facial type the sculptor would give the youth is harder to determine, and very hard to describe. The American race seems to have developed two classes, and only two, the upper-middle and the lower-middle. Their faces are very distinct. The upper-class head is long, often fine about the forehead and eyes, and very cleanly outlined. The eyes have an odd, tired pathos in them---mixed with the friendliness that is so admirable---as if of a perpetual never quite successful effort to understand something. It is like the face of an only child who has been brought up in the company of adults. I am convinced it is partly due to the endeavour to set their standards by the culture and traditions of older nations. But the mouth of such men is the most typical feature. It is small, tight, and closed downwards at the corners, the lower lip very slightly protruding. It has little expression in it, and no curves. There the Puritan comes out. But no other nation has a mouth like this. It is shared to some extent by the lower classes; but their mouths tend to be wider and more expressive. Their foreheads are meaner, and their eyes hard, but the whole face rather more adaptive and in touch with life. These, anyhow, are the types that strike one in the Eastern cities. And there are intermediate varieties, as of the genial business-man, with the narrow forehead and the wide, smooth---the too wide and too smooth---lower face. Smoothness is the one unfailing characteristic. Why do American faces hardly ever wrinkle? Is it the absence of a soul? It must be. For it is less true of the Bostonian than of the ordinary business American, in whose life exhilaration and depression take the place of joy and suffering. The women's faces are more indeterminate, not very feminine; many of them wear those 'invisible' pince-nez which centre glitteringly about the bridge of the nose, and get from them a curious air of intelligence. Handsome people of both sexes are very common; beautiful, and pretty, ones very rare. . . .

I slipped from my car up about Fortieth Street, the region where the theatres and restaurants are, the 'roaring forties.' Broadway here might be the offspring of Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square, with, somehow, some of Fleet Street also in its ancestry. I passed two men on the sidewalk, their hats on the back of their heads, arguing fiercely. One had slightly long hair. The other looked the more truculent, and was saying to him, intensely, "See here! We con-tracted with you to supply us with sonnets at five dollars per sonnet---" I passed up a side-street, one of those deserted ways that abound just off the big streets, resorts, apparently, for such people and things as are not quite strident or not quite energetic enough for the ordinary glare of life; dim places, fusty with hesternal excitements and the thrills of yesteryear. Against a flight of desolate steps leant a notice. I stopped to read it. It said:

There was no explanation; Cockie may have been dead for years. I went, musing on her possible fates, towards the pride and spaciousness of Fifth Avenue.

Fifth Avenue is handsome, the handsomest street imaginable. It is what the streets of German cities try to be. The buildings are large, square, 'imposing,' built with the solidity of opulence. The street, as a whole, has a character and an air of achievement. "Whatever else may be doubted or denied, American civilisation has produced this." One feels rich and safe as one walks. Back in Broadway, New York dropped her mask, and began to betray herself once again. A little crowd, expressionless, intent, and volatile, before a small shop, drew me. In the shop-window was a young man, pleasant-faced, a little conscious, and a little bored, dressed very lightly in what might have been a runner's costume. He was bowing, twisting, and posturing in a slow rhythm. From time to time he would put a large card on a little stand in the corner. The cards bore various legends. He would display a card that said, "THIS UNDERWEAR DOES NOT IMPEDE THE MOVEMENT OF THE BODY IN ANY DIRECTION." Then he moved his body in every direction, from position to position, probable or improbable, and was not impeded. With a terrible dumb patience he turned the next card: "IT GIVES WITH THE BODY IN VIOLENT EXERCISING." The young man leapt suddenly, lunged, smote imaginary balls, belaboured invisible opponents, ran with immense speed but no progress, was thrown to earth by the Prince of the Air, kicked, struggled, then bounded to his feet again. But all this without a word. "IT ENABLES YOU TO KEEP COOL WHILE EXERCISING." The young man exercised, and yet was cool. He did this, I discovered later, for many hours a day.

Not daring to imagine his state of mind, I hurried off through Union Square. One of the many daily fire-alarms had gone; the traffic was drawn to one side, and several fire-engines came, with clanging of bells and shouting, through the space, gleaming with brass, splendid in their purpose. Before the thrill in the heart had time to die, or the traffic to close up, swung through an immense open motor-car driven by a young mechanic. It was luxuriously appointed, and had the air of a private car being returned from repairing. The man in it had an almost Swinburnian mane of red hair, blowing back in the wind, catching the last lights of day. He was clad, as such people often are in this country these hot days, only in a suit of yellow overalls, so that his arms and shoulders and neck and chest were bare. He was big, well-made, and strong, and he drove the car, not wildly, but a little too fast, leaning back rather insolently conscious of power. In private life, no doubt, a very ordinary youth, interested only in baseball scores; but in this brief passage he seemed like a Greek god, in a fantastically modern, yet not unworthy way emblemed and incarnate, or like the spirit of Henley's 'Song of Speed.' So I found a better image of America for my sculptor than the shirt-sleeved young man.

 

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