Letters Home

Letters Home – William Dean Howells

A group of people from Boston and inland towns of Iowa and New York spent the three months between December and March, 1901 – 1902, in New York City for different reasons. Their “letters home” to various relations and friends tell an ingenious story. The fascination of the great city tells upon them all, and excellent descriptions of the turn-of-the-century New York appear in all the letters.

Letters Home

Letters Home.

Format: eBook.

Letters Home.

ISBN: 9783849657758


Excerpt from the text:



From Mrs. Otis Binning to Mrs. Walter Binning, Boston.

 New York, Dec. 12, 1901.


My Dear Margaret:

I am afraid it will not do, and that you will have your brother-in-law back on your hands again, for the winter, or lose him indefinitely. I do not mean, lose him to New York; far from that; as far as Europe, in fact; for if I were to take stock (the local commercialism instantly penetrates one’s vocabulary) of my emotions, I suspect I should find myself evenly balanced between the impulse to board the next train for Boston and the impulse to board the next steamer for Liverpool. The things are about equally simple: the facilities for getting away from New York compensate for the facilities for getting to New York; and I could keep my promise of amusing your invalid leisure by letter as well from one place as from another. Wherever I am to be, I am not to be pitied as one taxed beyond his strength in keeping a rash promise. Your rest-cure may be good for you, or it may not; but for me I am sure it will be good if it gives me back that boon period of life, when T wrote letters willingly and wrote them long. I have already a pleasing prescience of an earlier time; in the mere purpose of writing you, I feel the glow of that charming adolescence of the world, in the eighteenth century, when everybody, no matter of what age, willingly wrote such long letters as to give the epistolary novel a happy air of verisimilitude.

I wish I could be more definite as to the reasons of my doubts whether I shall stay here or not. , Certainly the meteorological conditions have nothing to do with the matter. Up to the present date these have been the greatest amiability. About Thanksgiving there were some days of rough cold, which with our native climate still in my nerves, I expected to last for a week at least; but with the volatility of the New York nature, it all blew away in forty-eight hours. The like has happened several times since; a sort of corrupt warmth has succeeded the cold, affecting one as if the tissues of the season had broken down through sympathy with the municipal immorality. I should like to stay, if for nothing else, to see what the reformers will do in the way of an honest climate after they get into power at the end of the year, but I do not know whether I shall be able to do it. In the meantime, I like the mildness, though I can never get over my surprise at it; I enjoy it, as I suppose I should enjoy standing in with Tammany, in some enormously wicked deal that turned over half the streets to me for, say, automobile speedways, I had really forgotten what a Florentine sky New York often has in mid-December, by night and by day, with a suffusion of warm color from the sunsets, which is as different from the shrill pink of our Back Bay sunsets as the New York relaxation is from our moral tension. You have been here much later and oftener than I, and I dare say you take for granted all the unseasonable gentleness which I am finding so incredible, and so acceptable. But as yet I am not accustomed to it, and I have a bad conscience in celebrating it.

The whole place is filthier, with the pulling down and building up, the delving for the Rapid Transit, and I do not know what else, than I have seen it since poor Waring first taught Father Knickerbocker (as their newspaper cartoonists like to figure the city), the novelty of purging and living cleanly like a gentleman, and I suppose it is the sense of the invasive, pervasive dirt that has much to do with my doubt whether I can stand it. Now and then a rain comes and washes it all away, and makes the old sloven look endimanche, but the filth begins again with the first weekday, and you go about with your mouth and eyes full of malarious dust, as you did before. Of course, you will remind me that Boston is always pulling down and building up too; but her vices whiten into virtues beside New York’s in that way. Then the noise, the noise! All the money from all the stocks and bonds centering their wealth into the place, cannot buy exemption from it. Boston is noisy, too, but there are large spaces in Boston where you can get fairly well away from the noise, and I know of none here, though there is said to be one block up and down next the Riverside Drive which is tolerably free from it; but no one that is any one lives there, for New York is in nothing more anomalous than in having the east side for her fashionable quarter. Everywhere the noise buffets you, insults you; and the horrible means of transit, that add so much to the danger and the dirt, burst your ears with their din.

I am no longer young, and I am not very well; you are quite right on both of these points; but I am not a dotard quite, or quite an invalid, and I do not exaggerate the facts which you beautiful creatures in your later forties make so light of. I fancy there is a dreadful solidarity in New York. I dare not trust myself to the climate, for instance, which I know is doing me good, for fear there is something behind it, something colossally uncertain and unreliable, and that later I shall pay with pneumonia for the relief from my nervous dyspepsia.

Just now, indeed, we are in one of those psychological moments when there ought to be great safety for me. The better element, as it diffidently calls itself, has been given charge of the city, you know, by the recent election, and the experiment of self-government is to be tried once more by people who have apparently so little interest in it. As nearly as I can make out from chance encounters at the Perennial Club (where Malkin has had me elected a non-resident member; he left town as soon as he had done it), there seems to be what I should call an unexpectation in the general mind: a willingness to take things as they come, to wait on providence in a semi-cynical resignation, which in the last analysis might prove a kind of piety. They have been reformed so frequently, these poor New Yorkers, and then unreformed, that they have rather fallen into the habit of taking the good with the bad as if it might turn out the bad. The newspapers keep shouting away, but that does not count; there are only two or three of them that are ever regarded seriously; and the people at the Perennial, who do not get their politics from London quite so entirely as some of our fellows, are very placid about the municipal situation. They seem to rely altogether on the men who have been put into office, and not the least on those who put them in; in fact the government of New York is almost as personal as that of Germany.

You can read this to Walter; and tell him that the Perennial is certainly a club to be put up at if you must come to New York. There are interesting heads, inside and out, here; the house is wonderfully cozy and incredibly quiet, an oasis in a desert of noise; and the windows look out over two miles of woodland in the Park, where I have already begun to take my walks. You will say, Here are the elements of a pleasant sojourn; and I do not deny it; but they are only the elements. The chemistry of their combination is wanting; and what I fear is that at the end of the winter, I should look back over my experience, and find in it nothing but the elements of a pleasant sojourn.

Yours affectionately,





From Wallace Ardith to A. Lincoln Wibbert, Office of THE DAY, Wottoma, Iowa.

 New York, Dec. 15, 1901.


Dear Old Line:

It is simply glorious, there is no other word for it. I have to keep pinching myself, to make sure that it is not some other fellow; but if it be I as I hope it be, I’ve a little Line at home, and he’ll know me — or words to that effect. So I will try to sober down and make the appeal to you. But I feel that it is an awful waste of time, for the subjects crowd upon you here, and what I give to friendship I take from literature. I want you to appreciate that.

It seems strange that it should be only three nights ago that I parted from you with that awful wrench in the dirty old depot at Wottoma, and took the sleeper for Chicago. Aeons of experience, swept down by deluges of emotion, have passed since then, and I feel older than the earth. I do not think I was very young then; I had gone through what is supposed to age a man, and if it had not been for you, and your sympathy in it all, I do not know what I should have done. But I believe I was wise to wait till I had a better excuse for running away than I had six months ago. I am all right, now, and I am all the better for being at a distance from a Certain Person. If you happen to see her, will you kiss my hand to her, very airily, and say, ” Merci, ma chère “? If she asks you why, will you tell her that you have heard from W. A., and that his health is perfectly restored! Understand, Line, I don’t blame her now, if I ever did; you will bear me witness that I would not let you do it. She had a perfect right to turn me down, but to turn me down for him, oh, that hurt! I could stand being near her (and yet so far!) but it was being within nose-pulling distance of him that I could not stand. I am glad that I came here to face the ghost down in the midst of men, instead of taking the woods, as I was tempted to do. It would have faced me down, if I had gone home, and it would have killed my poor old mother to see my hopeless lovesickness.

That’s what I was, Line: love-sick, and now I am love-well and it is New York that has completed my cure. Or rather, she has inspired me with a new passion; she herself is my passion, and I will never leave to love her evermore! Radiant, peerless divinity, but majestic and awful too, her splendor dazzles me, her sovereign beauty enthralls me, her charm intoxicates, maddens me! What is any mortal girl to this apotheosis of Opportunity, this myriad-visaged Chance, this Fortune on a million wheels! There is more material in a minute here. Line, than there is in Wottoma in a year. I don’t want to go back on the dear old place — or to it, as George Ade said about Indiana; but there is no Wottoma when you think of New York; it wipes itself from the map, and vanishes from the gazetteer.

You will never understand why till you come here, but you will come someday, and then you will know all about it. I was wishing to-night when I came out of the little French restaurant where I dine (it was the first time, but I am always going to dine there) that you could have been here to put your hand in mine, and walk up Broadway with me, just for one breath, one glimpse of it all. You would not have needed that dinner — six courses, with wine included, for fifty cents — warm under your waistcoat, to make you feel yourself not merely a witness of the great procession of life, but a part of it. By that time every one’s work is over, and the people are streaming to the theatres, past the shining shops on foot, and cramming the trolleys, the women in furs and diamonds, and the men in crush hats and long overcoats, with just enough top buttons open to betray the dress tie and dress shirt. (I have laid in one of those majestic overcoats already, and I have got a silk hat, and I would like to show it to you in Wottoma, where you can’t buy a silk hat unless you send to Chicago for it.) At the doors of the theatres, more gorgeous women and more correct men are getting out of hansoms, and coupés, and automobiles, and trailing in over the pavements between rows of resplendent darkeys in livery; and life is worth living. But when I begin anywhere on New York, I want to leave off and begin somewhere else, for the job is always hopeless. Take the Christmas streets alone, at three o’clock in the afternoon, and if you have a soul in you it soars sky-scraper high at the sight of the pavements packed with people, and the street jammed with cars, wagons, carriages, and every vehicle you can imagine, and many you can’t, you poor old provincial! I ache to get at it all in verse; I want to write the Epic of New York, and I am going to. I would like to walk you down Twenty-third Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, and wake you up to the fact that you have got a country. Only you would think you were dreaming; and it is a dream. What impresses me most is the gratis exhibition that goes on all the time, the continuous performance of the streets that you could not get for money anywhere else, and that here is free to the poorest. In fact, is for the poor. There is one window on Fourteenth Street where the sidewalk is a solid mass of humanity from morning till night, entranced by the fairy scene inside; and most of the spectators look as if they had not been to breakfast or dinner, and were not going to supper. But they are enraptured; and that is the great secret of New York; she takes you out of yourself; she annihilates you and disperses you, and you might starve to death here without feeling hungry, for your mind wouldn’t be on it. That is what convinces me that I have come to the best place for that little heart-cure.

This afternoon I was in the Park; my hotel is only a few blocks below it, and the woods called to me across the roofs, and I went. The sunset was dying over the Seventh Avenue entrance as I went in and as I tramped up past a big meadow where they pasture a flock of sheep, and crossed a bridge to a path that follows the border of a lake into what they call the Ramble, far from hoofs and wheels. The twilight was hovering in the naked tree tops, but the sunset was still reflected from the water among the trunks below, and just as I got to a little corner under the hill where there is a bust of Schiller on a plinth, between evergreens that try to curtain it, the red radiance glorified a pair of lovers tilting on the air above the path before me. He had his arm across her shoulders, and she had hers flung round his waist; I stopped, for I felt myself intruding, and that made them look round, and they started apart. Then, after they had taken a few steps, she closed upon Mm again, and with an action of angelic defiance, as if she said, ” I don’t care; suppose we are? ” she flung her slim little arm round him, and ran him up the slope of the path past the bust, and round a rock out of sight. It was charming, Line, but it made me faint, and I dropped down on a bench beside an old fellow who might have been a fellow-sufferer, though he didn’t look it. He was got up in things that reduced mine to an average value of thirty cents, and I saw that if I really meant business I must have a pair of drab gaiters inside of the next twenty-four hours. I don’t know what made me think he was also literary, but I did, and I was flattered to have him speak to me after he had given me a glance over the shoulder next me, through his extremely polite pince-nez. He was clean shaven, except for the neat side whiskers, of the period of 1840-60, as you see them in the old pictures; and very rosy about the gills, with a small, sweet smile. You could see that he was his own ideal of a gentleman, and he looked as if he had been used to being one for several generations; at least, that was the way I romanced him; and perhaps that was why I felt flattered when he suggested, as if I would perfectly understand, ” That was rather pretty. ” I ventured to answer, ” Yes, very pretty, indeed. ” I was just thinking how old Schiller would have liked to wink the other eye of his bust there, and tell them he knew how it was himself. So I quoted —

” Ich habe genossen das irdische Glück,

Ich habe gelebt und geliebet. 



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