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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThrough The Eye Of The Needle: A Romance - Introduction
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Through The Eye Of The Needle: A Romance - Introduction Post by :gameTizer Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :3276

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Through The Eye Of The Needle: A Romance - Introduction

Aristides Homos, an Emissary of the Altrurian Commonwealth, visited the United States during the summer of 1893 and the fall and winter following. For some weeks or months he was the guest of a well-known man of letters at a hotel in one of our mountain resorts; in the early autumn he spent several days at the great Columbian Exhibition in Chicago; and later he came to New York, where he remained until he sailed, rather suddenly, for Altruria, taking the circuitous route by which he came. He seems to have written pretty constantly throughout his sojourn with us to an intimate friend in his own country, giving freely his impressions of our civilization. His letters from New York appear to have been especially full, and, in offering the present synopsis of these to the American reader, it will not be impertinent to note certain peculiarities of the Altrurian attitude which the temperament of the writer has somewhat modified. He is entangled in his social sophistries regarding all the competitive civilizations; he cannot apparently do full justice to the superior heroism of charity and self-sacrifice as practised in countries where people live _upon each other as the Americans do, instead of _for each other as the Altrurians do; but he has some glimmerings of the beauty of our living, and he has undoubtedly the wish to be fair to our ideals. He is unable to value our devotion to the spirit of Christianity amid the practices which seem to deny it; but he evidently wishes to recognize the possibility of such a thing. He at least accords us the virtues of our defects, and, among the many visitors who have censured us, he has not seen us with his censures prepared to fit the instances; in fact, the very reverse has been his method.

Many of the instances which he fits with his censures are such as he could no longer note, if he came among us again. That habit of celebrating the munificence of the charitable rich, on which he spends his sarcasm, has fallen from us through the mere superabundance of occasion. Our rich people give so continuously for all manner of good objects that it would be impossible for our press, however vigilant, to note the successive benefactions, and millions are now daily bestowed upon needy educational institutions, of which no mention whatever is made in the newspapers. If a millionaire is now and then surprised in a good action by a reporter of uncommon diligence, he is able by an appeal to their common humanity to prevail with the witness to spare him the revolting publicity which it must be confessed would once have followed his discovery; the right hand which is full to overflowing is now as skilled as the empty right hand in keeping the left hand ignorant of its doings. This has happened through the general decay of snobbishness among us, perhaps. It is certain that there is no longer the passion for a knowledge of the rich, and the smart, which made us ridiculous to Mr. Homos. Ten or twelve years ago, our newspapers abounded in intelligence of the coming and going of social leaders, of their dinners and lunches and teas, of their receptions and balls, and the guests who were bidden to them. But this sort of unwholesome and exciting gossip, which was formerly devoured by their readers with inappeasable voracity, is no longer supplied, simply because the taste for it has wholly passed away.

Much the same might be said of the social hospitalities which raised our visitor's surprise. For example, many people are now asked to dinner who really need a dinner, and not merely those who revolt from the notion of dinner with loathing, and go to it with abhorrence. At the tables of our highest social leaders one now meets on a perfect equality persons of interesting minds and uncommon gifts who would once have been excluded because they were hungry, or were not in the hostess's set, or had not a new gown or a dress-suit. This contributes greatly to the pleasure of the time, and promotes the increasing kindliness between the rich and poor for which our status is above all things notable.

The accusation which our critic brings that the American spirit has been almost Europeanized away, in its social forms, would be less grounded in the observance of a later visitor. The customs of good society must be the same everywhere in some measure, but the student of the competitive world would now find European hospitality Americanized, rather than. American hospitality Europeanized. The careful research which has been made into our social origins has resulted in bringing back many of the aboriginal usages; and, with the return of the old American spirit of fraternity, many of the earlier dishes as well as amenities have been restored. A Thanksgiving dinner in the year 1906 would have been found more like a Thanksgiving dinner in 1806 than the dinner to which Mr. Homos was asked in 1893, and which he has studied so interestingly, though not quite without some faults of taste and discretion. The prodigious change for the better in some material aspects of our status which has taken place in the last twelve years could nowhere be so well noted as in the picture he gives us of the housing of our people in 1893. His study of the evolution of the apartment-house from the old flat-house, and the still older single dwelling, is very curious, and, upon the whole, not incorrect. But neither of these last differed so much from the first as the apartment-house now differs from the apartment-house of his day. There are now no dark rooms opening on airless pits for the family, or black closets and dismal basements for the servants. Every room has abundant light and perfect ventilation, and as nearly a southern exposure as possible. The appointments of the houses are no longer in the spirit of profuse and vulgar luxury which it must be allowed once characterized them. They are simply but tastefully finished, they are absolutely fireproof, and, with their less expensive decoration, the rents have been so far lowered that in any good position a quarter of nine or ten rooms, with as many baths, can be had for from three thousand to fifteen thousand dollars. This fact alone must attract to our metropolis the best of our population, the bone and sinew which have no longer any use for themselves where they have been expended in rearing colossal fortunes, and now demand a metropolitan repose.

The apartments are much better fitted for a family of generous size than those which Mr. Homos observed. Children, who were once almost unheard of, and quite unheard, in apartment-houses, increasingly abound under favor of the gospel of race preservation. The elevators are full of them, and in the grassy courts round which the houses are built, the little ones play all day long, or paddle in the fountains, warmed with steam-pipes in the winter, and cooled to an agreeable temperature in a summer which has almost lost its terrors for the stay-at-home New-Yorker. Each child has his or her little plot of ground in the roof-garden, where they are taught the once wellnigh forgotten art of agriculture.

The improvement of the tenement-house has gone hand in hand with that of the apartment-house. As nearly as the rate of interest on the landlord's investment will allow, the housing of the poor approaches in comfort that of the rich. Their children are still more numerous, and the playgrounds supplied them in every open space and on every pier are visited constantly by the better-to-do children, who exchange with them lessons of form and fashion for the scarcely less valuable instruction in practical life which the poorer little ones are able to give. The rents in the tenement houses are reduced even more notably than those in the apartment-houses, so that now, with the constant increase in wages, the tenants are able to pay their rents promptly. The evictions once so common are very rare; it is doubtful whether a nightly or daily walk in the poorer quarters of the town would develop, in the coldest weather, half a dozen cases of families set out on the sidewalk with their household goods about them.

The Altrurian Emissary visited this country when it was on the verge of the period of great economic depression extending from 1894 to 1898, but, after the Spanish War, Providence marked the divine approval of our victory in that contest by renewing in unexampled measure the prosperity of the Republic. With the downfall of the trusts, and the release of our industrial and commercial forces to unrestricted activity, the condition of every form of labor has been immeasurably improved, and it is now united with capital in bonds of the closest affection. But in no phase has its fate been so brightened as in that of domestic service. This has occurred not merely through the rise of wages, but through a greater knowledge between the employing and employed. When, a few years since, it became practically impossible for mothers of families to get help from the intelligence-offices, and ladies were obliged through lack of cooks and chambermaids to do the work of the kitchen and the chamber and parlor, they learned to realize what such work was, how poorly paid, how badly lodged, how meanly fed. From this practical knowledge it was impossible for them to retreat to their old supremacy and indifference as mistresses. The servant problem was solved, once for all, by humanity, and it is doubtful whether, if Mr. Homos returned to us now, he would give offence by preaching the example of the Altrurian ladies, or would be shocked by the contempt and ignorance of American women where other women who did their household drudgery were concerned.

As women from having no help have learned how to use their helpers, certain other hardships have been the means of good. The flattened wheel of the trolley, banging the track day and night, and tormenting the waking and sleeping ear, was, oddly enough, the inspiration of reforms which have made our city the quietest in the world. The trolleys now pass unheard; the elevated train glides by overhead with only a modulated murmur; the subway is a retreat fit for meditation and prayer, where the passenger can possess his soul in a peace to be found nowhere else; the automobile, which was unknown in the day of the Altrurian Emissary, whirs softly through the most crowded thoroughfare, far below the speed limit, with a sigh of gentle satisfaction in its own harmlessness, and, "like the sweet South, taking and giving odor." The streets that he saw so filthy and unkempt in 1893 are now at least as clean as they are quiet. Asphalt has universally replaced the cobble-stones and Belgian blocks of his day, and, though it is everywhere full of holes, it is still asphalt, and may some time be put in repair.

There is a note of exaggeration in his characterization of our men which the reader must regret. They are not now the intellectual inferior of our women, or at least not so much the inferiors. Since his day they have made a vast advance in the knowledge and love of literature. With the multitude of our periodicals, and the swarm of our fictions selling from a hundred thousand to half a million each, even our business-men cannot wholly escape culture, and they have become more and more cultured, so that now you frequently hear them asking what this or that book is all about. With the mention of them, the reader will naturally recur to the work of their useful and devoted lives--the accumulation of money. It is this accumulation, this heaping-up of riches, which the Altrurian Emissary accuses in the love-story closing his study of our conditions, but which he might not now so totally condemn.

As we have intimated, he has more than once guarded against a rash conclusion, to which the logical habit of the Altrurian mind might have betrayed him. If he could revisit us we are sure that he would have still greater reason to congratulate himself on his forbearance, and would doubtless profit by the lesson which events must teach all but the most hopeless doctrinaires. The evil of even a small war (and soldiers themselves do not deny that wars, large or small, are evil) has, as we have noted, been overruled for good in the sort of Golden Age, or Age on a Gold Basis, which we have long been enjoying. If our good-fortune should be continued to us in reward of our public and private virtue, the fact would suggest to so candid an observer that in economics, as in other things, the rule proves the exception, and that as good times have hitherto always been succeeded by bad times, it stands to reason that our present period of prosperity will never be followed by a period of adversity.

It would seem from the story continued by another hand in the second part of this work, that Altruria itself is not absolutely logical in its events, which are subject to some of the anomalies governing in our own affairs. A people living in conditions which some of our dreamers would consider ideal, are forced to discourage foreign emigration, against their rule of universal hospitality, and in at least one notable instance are obliged to protect themselves against what they believe an evil example by using compulsion with the wrongdoers, though the theory of their life is entirely opposed to anything of the kind. Perhaps, however, we are not to trust to this other hand at all times, since it is a woman's hand, and is not to be credited with the firm and unerring touch of a man's. The story, as she completes it, is the story of the Altrurian's love for an American woman, and will be primarily interesting for that reason. Like the Altrurian's narrative, it is here compiled from a succession of letters, which in her case were written to a friend in America, as his were written to a friend in Altruria. But it can by no means have the sociological value which the record of his observations among ourselves will have for the thoughtful reader. It is at best the record of desultory and imperfect glimpses of a civilization fundamentally alien to her own, such as would attract an enthusiastic nature, but would leave it finally in a sort of misgiving as to the reality of the things seen and heard. Some such misgiving attended the inquiries of those who met the Altrurian during his sojourn with us, but it is a pity that a more absolute conclusion should not have been the effect of this lively lady's knowledge of the ideal country of her adoption. It is, however, an interesting psychological result, and it continues the tradition of all the observers of ideal conditions from Sir Thomas More down to William Morris. Either we have no terms for conditions so unlike our own that they cannot be reported to us with absolute intelligence, or else there is in every experience of them an essential vagueness and uncertainty.

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