Through The Eye Of A Needle – William Dean Howells
It is safe to say that Mr. Howells would rather have this book judged as a study in sociology than as a novel of no matter how deep a romantic interest. The earnestness with which the subject has been studied obviously supplements a habit of observation that is conscious and trained. Perhaps, then, it were best to say in the beginning that Mr. Howells’ book has two distinct attributes, between which it is a difficult matter to judge in respect to value: the fine literary quality is so wonderfully pervasive that the reader is con strained to label this a romance of distinction and interest; On the other hand, the treatment of the sociological theme is so keen, clever, and pointedly ironic, and the substance matter has so much of ac curacy and the convincing, that it must be admitted without parley that here is a work to place side by side with the Utopian visions of the world-with the work of More, and of Sidney, with that of Bellamy and Wells, conceding as regards the last two a decided advantage in the point of masterly writing. ‘Through the Eye of the Needle’ is divided into two sections. The first comprises letters written from America to Altruria by an Altrurian citizen who has come to this country to study conditions. Altruria, let it be said, is an idealistic commonwealth. Part two of the book consists of letters written by an American woman from Altruria, whither she has gone as the wife of the Altrurian. Naturally, customs and institutions in that country are as strange to her as were our customs and institutions to her husband when he visited the United States. In good truth, however, America is at no point spared in the minute analysis of her various phases and aspects. Our friend the Altrurian starts out in his very first sentence : If I spoke with Altrurian breadth of the way New Yorkers live, I should begin by saying that the New Yorkers did not live at all. After which he discourses upon the subject of apartment houses, the servant problem, the enigma of the newly rich, and the other attributes and adornments of our “advanced civilization.” There is no sparing and no condoning, yet the spirit of it all is benevolently broad, and the genial but gently ironic Mr. Howells is scarcely disguised in the charity-saturated criticisms of the observant and knowing Altrurian traveler. Perhaps the most appreciable bit of work in the volume is Mr. Howells’ introduction, with its mild poking of fun, and its delightful little spurts of sarcasm. The whole book means a good deal more than do most of the average books of fiction that are so constantly our portion; and even if one may not be in the mood for serious reading, and the thinking that a thoughtful book compels, there is enough of pleasantry and heart interest, and delightful character study in this volume to provide diversion, and quiet, restful entertainment. The compensation of Mr. Howells’ books is that they prove good company, for the author’s own genial self, with all that mellowness of refinement and culture that is his, gives life’s blood to his volumes.
Through The Eye Of A Needle.
Excerpt from the text:
If I spoke with Altrurian breadth of the way New-Yorkers live, my dear Cyril, I should begin by saying that the New-Yorkers did not live at all. But outside of our happy country one learns to distinguish, and to allow that there are several degrees of living, all indeed hateful to us, if we knew them, and yet none without some saving grace in it. You would say that in conditions where men were embattled against one another by the greed and the envy and the ambition which these conditions perpetually appeal to here, there could be no grace in life; but we must remember that men have always been better than their conditions, and that otherwise they would have remained savages without the instinct or the wish to advance. Indeed, our own state is testimony of a potential civility in all states, which we must keep in mind when we judge the peoples of the plutocratic world, and especially the American people, who are above all others the devotees and exemplars of the plutocratic ideal, without limitation by any aristocracy, theocracy, or monarchy. They are purely commercial, and the thing that cannot be bought and sold has logically no place in their life. But life is not logical outside of Altruria; we are the only people in the world, my dear Cyril, who are privileged to live reasonably; and again I say we must put by our own criterions if we wish to understand the Americans, or to recognize that measure of loveliness which their warped and stunted and perverted lives certainly show, in spite of theory and in spite of conscience, even. I can make this clear to you, I think, by a single instance, say that of the American who sees a case of distress, and longs to relieve it. If he is rich, he can give relief with a good conscience, except for the harm that may come to his beneficiary from being helped; but if he is not rich, or not finally rich, and especially if he has a family dependent upon him, he cannot give in anything like the measure Christ bade us give without wronging those dear to him, immediately or remotely. That is to say, in conditions which oblige every man to look out for himself, a man cannot be a Christian without remorse; he cannot do a generous action without self-reproach; he cannot be nobly unselfish without the fear of being a fool. You would think that this predicament must deprave, and so without doubt it does; and yet it is not wholly depraving. It often has its effect in character of a rare and pathetic sublimity; and many Americans take all the cruel risks of doing good, reckless of the evil that may befall them, and defiant of the upbraidings of their own hearts. This is something that we Altrurians can scarcely understand: it is like the munificence of a savage who has killed a deer and shares it with his starving tribesmen, forgetful of the hungering little ones who wait his return from the chase with food; for life in plutocratic countries is still a chase, and the game is wary and sparse, as the terrible average of failures witnesses.
Of course, I do not mean that Americans may not give at all without sensible risk, or that giving among them is always followed by a logical regret; but, as I said, life with them is in no wise logical. They even applaud one another for their charities, which they measure by the amount given, rather than by the love that goes with the giving. The widow’s mite has little credit with them, but the rich man’s million has an acclaim that reverberates through their newspapers long after his gift is made. It is only the poor in America who do charity as we do, by giving help where it is needed; the Americans are mostly too busy, if they are at all prosperous, to give anything but money; and the more money they give, the more charitable they esteem themselves. From time to time some man with twenty or thirty millions gives one of them away, usually to a public institution of some sort, where it will have no effect with the people who are underpaid for their work or cannot get work; and then his deed is famed throughout the continent as a thing really beyond praise. Yet any one who thinks about it must know that he never earned the millions he kept, or the millions he gave, but somehow made them from the labor of others; that, with all the wealth left him, he cannot miss the fortune he lavishes, any more than if the check which conveyed it were a withered leaf, and not in any wise so much as an ordinary working-man might feel the bestowal of a postage-stamp.
But in this study of the plutocratic mind, always so fascinating to me, I am getting altogether away from what I meant to tell you. I meant to tell you not how Americans live in the spirit, illogically, blindly, and blunderingly, but how they live in the body, and more especially how they house themselves in this city of New York. A great many of them do not house themselves at all, but that is a class which we cannot now consider, and I will speak only of those who have some sort of a roof over their heads.
Formerly the New-Yorker lived in one of three different ways: in private houses, or boarding-houses, or hotels; there were few restaurants or public tables outside of the hotels, and those who had lodgings and took their meals at eating-houses were but a small proportion of the whole number. The old classification still holds in a measure, but within the last thirty years, or ever since the Civil War, when the enormous commercial expansion of the country began, several different ways of living have been opened. The first and most noticeable of these is housekeeping in flats, or apartments of three or four rooms or more, on the same floor, as in all the countries of Europe except England; though the flat is now making itself known in London, too. Before the war, the New-Yorker who kept house did so in a separate house, three or four stories in height, with a street door of its own. Its pattern within was fixed by long usage, and seldom varied; without, it was of brown-stone before, and brick behind, with an open space there for drying clothes, which was sometimes gardened or planted with trees and vines. The rear of the city blocks which these houses formed was more attractive than the front, as you may still see in the vast succession of monotonous cross-streets not yet invaded by poverty or business; and often the perspective of these rears is picturesque and pleasing. But with the sudden growth of the population when peace came, and through the acquaintance the hordes of American tourists had made with European fashions of living, it became easy, or at least simple, to divide the floors of many of these private dwellings into apartments, each with its own kitchen and all the apparatus of housekeeping. The apartments then had the street entrance and the stairways in common, and they had in common the cellar and the furnace for heating; they had in common the disadvantage of being badly aired and badly lighted. They were dark, cramped, and uncomfortable, but they were cheaper than separate houses, and they were more homelike than boarding-houses or hotels. Large numbers of them still remain in use, and when people began to live in flats, in conformity with the law of evolution, many buildings were put up and subdivided into apartments in imitation of the old dwellings which had been changed.
But the apartment as the New-Yorkers now mostly have it, was at the same time evolving from another direction. The poorer class of New York work-people had for a long period before the war lived, as they still live, in vast edifices, once thought prodigiously tall, which were called tenement-houses. In these a family of five or ten persons is commonly packed in two or three rooms, and even in one room, where they eat and sleep, without the amenities and often without the decencies of life, and of course without light and air. The buildings in case of fire are death-traps; but the law obliges the owners to provide some apparent means of escape, which they do in the form of iron balconies and ladders, giving that festive air to their façades which I have already noted. The bare and dirty entries and staircases are really ramifications of the filthy streets without, and each tenement opens upon a landing as if it opened upon a public thoroughfare. The rents extorted from the inmates is sometimes a hundred per cent., and is nearly always cruelly out of proportion to the value of the houses, not to speak of the wretched shelter afforded; and when the rent is not paid the family in arrears is set with all its poor household gear upon the sidewalk, in a pitiless indifference to the season and the weather, which you could not realize without seeing it, and which is incredible even of plutocratic nature. Of course, landlordism, which you have read so much of, is at its worst in the case of the tenement-houses. But you must understand that comparatively few people in New York own the roofs that shelter them. By far the greater number live, however they live, in houses owned by others, by a class who prosper and grow rich, or richer, simply by owning the roofs over other men’s heads. The landlords have, of course, no human relation with their tenants, and really no business relations, for all the affairs between them are transacted by agents. Some have the reputation of being better than others; but they all live, or expect to live, without work, on their rents. They are very much respected for it; the rents are considered a just return from the money invested. You must try to conceive of this as an actual fact, and not merely as a statistical statement. I know it will not be easy for you; it is not easy for me, though I have it constantly before my face.
The tenement-house, such as it is, is the original of the apartment-house, which perpetuates some of its most characteristic features on a scale and in material undreamed of in the simple philosophy of the inventor of the tenement-house. The worst of these features is the want of light and air, but as much more space and as many more rooms are conceded as the tenant will pay for. The apartment-house, however, soars to heights that the tenement-house never half reached, and is sometimes ten stories high. It is built fireproof, very often, and is generally equipped with an elevator, which runs night and day, and makes one level of all the floors. The cheaper sort, or those which have departed less from the tenement-house original, have no elevators, but the street door in all is kept shut and locked, and is opened only by the tenant’s latch-key or by the janitor having charge of the whole building. In the finer houses there is a page whose sole duty it is to open and shut this door, and who is usually brass-buttoned to one blinding effect of livery with the elevator-boy. Where this page or hall-boy is found, the elevator carries you to the door of any apartment you seek; where he is not found, there is a bell and a speaking-tube in the lower entry, for each apartment, and you ring up the occupant and talk to him as many stories off as he happens to be. But people who can afford to indulge their pride will not live in this sort of apartment-house, and the rents in them are much lower than in the finer sort. The finer sort are vulgarly fine for the most part, with a gaudy splendor of mosaic pavement, marble stairs, frescoed ceilings, painted walls, and cabinet wood-work. But there are many that are fine in a good taste, in the things that are common to the inmates. Their fittings for housekeeping are of all degrees of perfection, and, except for the want of light and air, life in them has a high degree of gross luxury. They are heated throughout with pipes of steam or hot water, and they are sometimes lighted with both gas and electricity, which the inmate uses at will, though of course at his own cost. Outside, they are the despair of architecture, for no style has yet been invented which enables the artist to characterize them with beauty, and wherever they lift their vast bulks they deform the whole neighborhood, throwing the other buildings out of scale, and making it impossible for future edifices to assimilate themselves to the intruder.
There is no end to the apartment-houses for multitude, and there is no street or avenue free from them. Of course, the better sort are to be found on the fashionable avenues and the finer cross-streets, but others follow the course of the horse-car lines on the eastern and western avenues, and the elevated roads on the avenues which these have invaded. In such places they are shops below and apartments above, and I cannot see that the inmates seem at all sensible that they are unfitly housed in them. People are born and married, and live and die in the midst of an uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it; and I believe the physicians really attribute something of the growing prevalence of neurotic disorders to the wear and tear of the nerves from the rush of the trains passing almost momently, and the perpetual jarring of the earth and air from their swift transit. I once spent an evening in one of these apartments, which a friend had taken for a few weeks last spring (you can get them out of season for any length of time), and as the weather had begun to be warm, we had the windows open, and so we had the full effect of the railroad operated under them. My friend had become accustomed to it, but for me it was an affliction which I cannot give you any notion of. The trains seemed to be in the room with us, and I sat as if I had a locomotive in my lap. Their shrieks and groans burst every sentence I began, and if I had not been master of that visible speech which we use so much at home I never should have known what my friend was saying. I cannot tell you how this brutal clamor insulted me, and made the mere exchange of thought a part of the squalid struggle which is the plutocratic conception of life; I came away after a few hours of it, bewildered and bruised, as if I had been beaten upon with hammers.
Some of the apartments on the elevated lines are very good, as such things go; they are certainly costly enough to be good; and they are inhabited by people who can afford to leave them during the hot season when the noise is at its worst; but most of them belong to people who must dwell in them summer and winter, for want of money and leisure to get out of them, and who must suffer incessantly from the noise I could not endure for a few hours. In health it is bad enough, but in sickness it must be horrible beyond all parallel. Imagine a mother with a dying child in such a place; or a wife bending over the pillow of her husband to catch the last faint whisper of farewell, as a train of five or six cars goes roaring by the open window! What horror! What profanation!