A Traveler From Altruria – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells’s ‘A Traveler from Altruria’ recounts only his social apostle’s acts and experiences at a summer hotel in a mountain village of New England, and includes none of the epistles upon the World’s Fair and the life of New York that his chronicler has recently sent to him through a magazine. The author calls the book a romance, but its form is a thinly disguised and somewhat acrid tract for the times, marked in the narrative passages by the colloquialisms that now please Mr. Howells. Designedly unindividual, the village, the hotel and some of their characters are broadly typical of their kind. Other characters are only voices. From a remarkably observant banker, a retired manufacturer, a lawyer, a clergyman, a dry-as-dust professor of economics, an “average” woman, the wife of a prosperous broker, and from the romancer himself – all guests at the hotel- the Altrurian, a skillful questioner, hears much of the darker side of our industrial and social order. Through a mother and son of the soil at a neighboring farm, he acquaints himself with our agrarian discontent. Then, by general desire, he, in turn, becomes pedagogue, and, in a sort of a lecture in a grove, explains rather than pictures his own Altruria – an island common wealth that enjoys every virtue and delight of every Utopia from Plato down to Bellamy, where all men – he tells not how – have become good and pure, unselfish, unambitious, passionless.
A Traveler From Altruria.
Excerpt from the text:
I confess that with all my curiosity to meet an Altrurian, I was in no hospitable mood toward the traveler when he finally presented himself, pursuant to the letter of advice sent me by the friend who introduced him. It would be easy enough to take care of him in the hotel; I had merely to engage a room for him, and have the clerk tell him his money was not good if he tried to pay for anything. But I had swung fairly into my story; its people were about me all the time; I dwelt amid its events and places, and I did not see how I could welcome my guest among them, or abandon them for him. Still, when he actually arrived, and I took his hand as he stepped from the train, I found it less difficult to say that I was glad to see him than I expected. In fact, I was glad, for I could not look upon his face without feeling a glow of kindness for him. I had not the least trouble in identifying him, for he was so unlike all the Americans who dismounted from the train with him, and who all looked hot, worried, and anxious. He was a man no longer young, but in what we call the heyday of life, when our own people are so absorbed in making provision for the future that they may be said not to live in the present at all. This Altrurian’s whole countenance, and especially his quiet, gentle eyes, expressed a vast contemporaneity, with bounds of leisure removed to the end of time; or, at least, this was the effect of something in them which I am obliged to report in rather fantastic terms. He was above the middle height, and he carried himself vigorously. His face was sunburned, or sea-burned, where it was not bearded; and, although I knew from my friend’s letter that he was a man of learning and distinction in his own country, I should never have supposed him a person of scholarly life, he was so far from sicklied over with anything like the pale cast of thought. When he took the hand I offered him in my half-hearted welcome he gave it a grasp that decided me to confine our daily greetings to something much less muscular.
“Let me have your bag,” I said, as we do when we meet people at the train, and he instantly bestowed a rather heavy valise upon me, with a smile in his benignant eyes, as if it had been the greatest favor. “Have you got any checks?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, in very good English, but with an accent new to me, “I bought two.” He gave them to me, and I passed them to our hotel porter, who was waiting there with the baggage-cart. Then I proposed that we should walk across the meadow to the house, which is a quarter of a mile or so from the station. We started, but he stopped suddenly and looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, you needn’t be troubled about your trunks,” I said. “The porter will get them to the house all right. They’ll be in your room by the time we get there.”
“But he’s putting them into the wagon himself,” said the Altrurian.
“Yes; he always does that. He’s a strong young fellow. He’ll manage it. You needn’t—” I could not finish saying he need not mind the porter; he was rushing back to the station, and I had the mortification of seeing him take an end of each trunk and help the porter toss it into the wagon; some lighter pieces he put in himself, and he did not stop till all the baggage the train had left was disposed of.
I stood holding his valise, unable to put it down in my embarrassment at this eccentric performance, which had been evident not to me alone, but to all the people who arrived by the train, and all their friends who came from the hotel to meet them. A number of these passed me on the tally-ho coach; and a lady, who had got her husband with her for over Sunday, and was in very good spirits, called gayly down to me: “Your friend seems fond of exercise!”
“Yes,” I answered, dryly; the sparkling repartee which ought to have come to my help failed to show up. But it was impossible to be vexed with the Altrurian when he returned to me, unruffled by his bout with the baggage and serenely smiling.
“Do you know,” he said, “I fancied that good fellow was ashamed of my helping him. I hope it didn’t seem a reflection upon him in any way before your people? I ought to have thought of that.”
“I guess we can make it right with him. I dare say he felt more surprised than disgraced. But we must make haste a little now; your train was half an hour late, and we shall not stand so good a chance for supper if we are not there pretty promptly.”
“No?” said the Altrurian. “Why?”
“Well,” I said, with evasive lightness, “first come, first served, you know. That’s human nature.”
“Is it?” he returned, and he looked at me as one does who suspects another of joking.
“Well, isn’t it?” I retorted; but I hurried to add: “Besides, I want to have time after supper to show you a bit of our landscape. I think you’ll enjoy it.” I knew he had arrived in Boston that morning by steamer, and I now thought it high time to ask him: “Well, what do you think of America, anyway?” I ought really to have asked him this the moment he stepped from the train.
“Oh,” he said, “I’m intensely interested,” and I perceived that he spoke with a certain reservation. “As the most advanced country of its time, I’ve always been very curious to see it.”
The last sentence raised my dashed spirits again, and I said, confidently: “You must find our system of baggage-checks delightful.” I said this because it is one of the first things we brag of to foreigners, and I had the habit of it. “By-the-way,” I ventured to add, “I suppose you meant to say you brought two checks when I asked you for them at the train just now? But you really said you bought them.”
“Yes,” the Altrurian replied, “I gave half a dollar apiece for them at the station in Boston. I saw other people doing it,” he explained, noting my surprise. “Isn’t it the custom?”
“I’m happy to say it isn’t yet, on most of our roads. They were tipping the baggage-man, to make sure that he checked their baggage in time and put it on the train. I had to do that myself when I came up; otherwise it might have got along here some time next day. But the system is perfect.”
“The poor man looked quite worn out,” said the Altrurian, “and I am glad I gave him something. He seemed to have several hundred pieces of baggage to look after, and he wasn’t embarrassed like your porter by my helping him put my trunks into the car. May I confess that the meanness of the station, its insufficient facilities, its shabby waiting-rooms, and its whole crowded and confused appearance gave me rather a bad impression?”
“I know,” I had to own, “it’s shameful; but you wouldn’t have found another station in the city so bad.”
“Ah, then,” said the Altrurian, “I suppose this particular road is too poor to employ more baggage-men or build new stations; they seemed rather shabby all the way up.”
“Well, no,” I was obliged to confess, “it’s one of the richest roads in the country. The stock stands at about 180. But I’m really afraid we shall be late to supper if we don’t get on,” I broke off; though I was not altogether sorry to arrive after the porter had disposed of the baggage. I dreaded another display of active sympathy on the part of my strange companion; I have often felt sorry myself for the porters of hotels, but I have never thought of offering to help them handle the heavy trunks that they manage.
The Altrurian was delighted with the hotel; and in fact it did look extremely pretty, with its branching piazzas full of well-dressed people, and its green lawns where the children were playing. I led the way to the room which I had taken for him next my own; it was simply furnished, but it was sweet with matting, fresh linen, and pure whitewashed walls. I flung open the window-blinds and let him get a glimpse of the mountains purpling under the sunset, the lake beneath, and the deeply foliaged shores.
“Glorious! glorious!” he sighed.
“Yes,” I modestly assented. “We think that’s rather fine.” He stood tranced before the window, and I thought I had better say: “Well, now I can’t give you much time to get the dust of travel off; the dining-room doors close at eight, and we must hurry down.”
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” he said, pulling off his coat.
I waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs, avoiding the question I met on the lips and in the eyes of my acquaintance. The fame of my friend’s behavior at the station must have spread through the whole place; and everybody wished to know who he was. I answered simply he was a traveler from Altruria; and in some cases I went further and explained that the Altrurians were peculiar.
In much less time than it seemed my friend found me; and then I had a little compensation for my suffering in his behalf. I could see that, whatever people said of him, they felt the same mysterious liking at sight of him that I had felt. He had made a little change in his dress, and I perceived that the women thought him not only good-looking but well-dressed. They followed him with their eyes as we went into the dining-room, and I was rather proud of being with him, as if I somehow shared the credit of his clothes and good looks. The Altrurian himself seemed most struck with the head-waiter, who showed us to our places, and while we were waiting for our supper I found a chance to explain that he was a divinity student from one of the fresh-water colleges, and was serving here during his summer vacation. This seemed to interest my friend so much that I went on to tell him that many of the waitresses, whom he saw standing there subject to the order of the guests, were country school-mistresses in the winter.
“Ah, that is as it should be,” he said; “that is the kind of thing I expected to meet with in America.”
“Yes,” I responded, in my flattered national vanity, “if America means anything at all it means the honor of work and the recognition of personal worth everywhere. I hope you are going to make a long stay with us. We like to have travelers visit us who can interpret the spirit of our institutions as well as read their letter. As a rule Europeans never quite get our point of view. Now a great many of these waitresses are ladies, in the true sense of the word—selfrespectful, intelligent, refined, and fit to grace—”
I was interrupted by the noise my friend made in suddenly pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “You’re not ill, I hope?”