The White City

1893 Chicago World's Fair and Exposition


Compiled by K.L. Nichols




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from Letters of an Altrurian Traveller (1894)

By William Dean Howells


(Originally published in The Cosmopolitan Magazine (Nov. 1893) to (Oct. 1894).




William Dean Howells was a well-known American novelist and literary critic who, because of his editorial role with the Atlantic Monthly, was known, unofficially, as the "Dean of American letters."

The following selection from "The Altrurian in The Cosmopolitan" (pp. vi-vii) introduces the author and his fictional character and situation to his readers:



"Gentlemen, I wish to introduce my friend, Mr. Homos," said the popular novelist, Mr. Twelvemough, in the summer of 1892, addressing a banker, a minister, a lawyer, a doctor, and a professor, seated on the wide veranda of a country hotel in New Hampshire. Thus W. D. Howells presented a "Traveller from Altruria" to a group of Americans living in a decade torn with social strife; these gentlemen were at the moment thoughtfully enjoying their after-dinner cigars.

At the same time Howells introduced the readers of The Cosmopolitan to Aristides Homos, spokesman for his dream of an Altrurian America, and invited them to consider with him his hopes and fears for the expanding country.

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Written by Aristides Homos to his friend Cyril in Altruria, the Letters reflect the Traveller's views of America, unmodified by his former urbane good manners. This second Letter. . . expressed the hope that the United States might eventually evolve toward the Altrurian vision of Classical beauty and Christian brotherhood which almost miraculously had become embodied in the White City on the shores of Lake Michigan. Aristides had always thought of Chicago as merely a sort of "ultimate Manhattan, the realized ideal of that largeness, loudness and fastness, which New York has persuaded the Americans is metropolitan." He added: "But after seeing the World's Fair City here, I feel as if I had caught a glimpse of the glorious capitals which will whiten the hills and shores of the east and the borderless plains of the west, when the New York and the Newer York of today shall seem to all the future Americans as impossible as they would seem to any Altrurian now."



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"Letter II," from Letters of an Altrurian Traveller



Illustration from The Cosmopolitan Magazine.



Chicago, Sept. 28, 1893


My dear Cyril:

When I last wrote you, I thought to have settled quietly down in New York for the rest of my stay in America, and given my time wholly to the study of its life, which seemed to me typical of the life of the whole country. I do not know, even now, that I should wish altogether to revise this impression; it still appears to me just, if not so distinct and so decisive, as it appeared before I saw Chicago, or rather the World's Fair City at Chicago, which is what I want to write you of. Chicago, one might say, was after all only a Newer York, an ultimated Manhattan, the realized ideal of that largeness, loudness and fastness, which New York has persuaded the Americans is metropolitan. But after seeing the World's Fair City here, I feel as if I had caught a glimpse of the glorious capitals which will whiten the hills and shores of the east and the borderless plains of the west, when the New York and the Newer York of today shall seem to all the future Americans as impossible as they would seem to any Altrurian now.

To one of our philosophy it will not be wonderful that this Altrurian miracle should have been wrought here in the very heart, and from the very heart, of egoism seven times heated in the fiery competition hitherto the sole joy of this strange people. We know that like produces like only up to a certain point, and that then unlike [comes] of like since all things are of one essence; that from life comes death at last, and from death comes life again in the final issue. Yet it would be useless trying to persuade most Americans that the World's Fair City was not the effect, the fine flower, of the competition which underlies their economy, but was the first fruits of the principle of emulation which animates our happy commonwealth, and gives men, as no where else on earth, a foretaste of heaven. If I were writing to an American I should have to supply him with proofs and argue facts at every moment, which will be self-evident to you in their mere statement.

I confess that I was very loth to leave New York, which I fancied I was beginning to see whole, after my first fragmentary glimpses of it. But I perceive now that without a sight of the White City (as the Americans with their instant poetry called the official group of edifices at the great Fair) and the knowledge of its history, which I could have realized nowhere but in its presence, New York would have wanted the relief, the projection, in which I shall hereafter be able to study it. For the worst effect of sojourn in an egoistic civilization (I always use this word for lack of a closer descriptive) is that Altrurian motives and efforts become incredible, and almost inconceivable. But the Fair City is a bit of Altruria: it is as if the capital of one of our Regions had set sail and landed somehow on the shores of the vast inland sea, where the Fair City lifts its domes and columns.

Its story, which I need not rehearse to you at any length, records the first great triumph of Altrurian principles among this people in a work of peace; in their mighty civil war they were Altrurian enough; and more than once they have proved themselves capable of a magnificent self-sacrifice in bloodshed, but here for the first time in their pitiless economic struggle, their habitual warfare in which they neither give nor ask quarter, and take no prisoners, the interests submitted to the arts, and lent themselves as frankly to the work as if there had never been a question of money in the world. From the beginning it was believed that there could be no profit in the Fair; money loss was expected and accepted as a necessary part of the greater gain; and when the question passed from how much to how, in the discussion of the ways and means of creating that beauty which is the supreme use, the capitalists put themselves into the hands of the artists. They did not do it at once, and they did not all do it willingly. It is a curious trait of the American who has made money that he thinks he can make anything; and the Chicago millionaires who found themselves authorized by the nation to spend their money in the creation of the greatest marvel of the competitive world, thought themselves fully competent to work the miracle, or to choose the men who would work it according to their ideals. But their clarification, if it was not as swift as the passage of light was thorough, and I do not suppose there is now any group of rich men in Europe or America who have so luminous a sense of the true relations of the arts and the interests as they. The notion of a competition among the artists, which is the practical American's notion of the way to get the best art, was at length rejected by these most practical Americans, and one mind large enough to conceive the true means and strong enough to give its conception effect was empowered to invite the free cooperation of the arts through the foremost artists of the country. As yet the governmental function is so weak here that the national part in the work was chiefly obstructive, and finally null; and when it came to this there remained an opportunity for the arts, unlimited as to means and unhampered by conditions.

For the different buildings to be erected, different architects were chosen; and for the first time since the great ages, since the beauty of antiquity and the elegance of the renaissance, the arts were reunited. The greatest landscape gardeners, architects, sculptors and painters, gathered at Chicago for a joyous interchange of ideas and criticisms; and the miracle of beauty which they have wrought grew openly in their breath and under their hands. Each did his work and had his way with it, but in this congress of gifted minds, of sensitive spirits, each profited by the censure of all, and there were certain features of the work as for instance, the exquisite peristyle dividing the city from the lake which were the result of successive impulses and suggestions from so many different artists that it would be hard to divide the honor among them with exactness. No one, however, seems to have been envious of another's share, and each one gave his talent as freely as the millionaires gave their money. These great artists willingly accepted a fifth, a tenth, of the gain which they could have commanded in a private enterprise, and lavished their time upon the opportunity afforded them, for the pleasure of it, the pride of it, the pure good of it.

Of the effect, of the visible, tangible result, what better can I say, than that in its presence I felt myself again in Altruria? The tears came, and the pillared porches swam against my vision; through the hard nasal American tones, the liquid notes of our own speech stole to my inner ear; I saw under the care-worn masks of the competitive crowds, the peace, the rest of the dear Altrurian face; the gay tints of our own simple costumes eclipsed the different versions of the Paris fashions about me. I was at home once more, and my heart overflowed with patriotic rapture in this strange land, so remote from ours in everything, that at times Altruria really seems to me the dream which the Americans think it.

I first saw the Fair City by night, from one of the electric launches which ply upon the lagoon; and under the dimmed heaven, in the splendor of the hundred moony arc-lamps of the esplanades, and the myriad incandescent bubbles that beaded the white quays, and defined the structural lines of dome and porch and pediment, I found myself in the midst of the Court of Honor, which you will recognize on the general plan and the photographs I enclose. We fronted the beautiful Agricultural building, which I think fitly the finest in the city, though many prefer the perfect Greek of the Art building; and on our right was the Administration building with its coroneted dome, and the magnificent sculptured fountain before it, turned silver in the radiance of the clustered electric jets at either side. On our right was the glorious peristyle, serene, pure, silent, lifting a population of statues against the night, and dividing the lagoon from the lake, whose soft moan came appealingly through the pillared spaces, and added a divine heartache to my ecstacy. Here a group of statuary showed itself prominently on quay or cornice; we caught the flamy curve of a bridge's arch; a pale column lifted its jutting prores into the light; but nothing insisted; all was harmonized to one effect of beauty, as if in symbol of the concentered impulses which had created it. For the moment I could not believe that so foul a thing as money could have been even the means of its creation. I call the effect creation because it is divinely beautiful, but no doubt suggestion would be a better word, since they have here merely sketched in stucco what we have executed in marble in each of our Regionic capitals.

In grandeur of design and freedom of expression, it is perhaps even nobler than the public edifices of some of these, as I had to acknowledge at another moment, when we rounded the shores of the Wooded Island which forms the heart of the lagoon, and the launch slowed while we got the effect of its black foliage against the vast lateral expanse of the Liberal Arts building. Then, indeed, I was reminded of our national capitol, when it shows its mighty mass above the bosks around it, on some anniversary night of our Evolution.

But the illusion of Altruria was very vivid at many moments in the Fair City, where I have spent the happiest days of my stay in America, perhaps because the place is so little American in the accepted sense. It is like our own cities in being a design, the effect of a principle, and not the straggling and shapeless accretion of accident. You will see, from the charts and views I send you, something of the design in detail, but you can form only a dim conception of the skill with which the natural advantages of the site have been turned to account, and even its disadvantages have been transmuted to the beauty which is the highest and last result of all. There was not only the great lake here, which contributes so greatly to this beauty, but there were marshes to be drained and dredged before its pure waters could be invited in. The trees which at different points offer the contrast of their foliage to the white of the edifices, remain from wilding growths which overspread the swamps and sand dunes, and which had to be destroyed in great part before these lovely groves could be evoked from them. The earth itself, which now of all the earth seems the spot best adapted to the site of such a city, had literally to be formed anew for the use it has been put to. There is now no shadow, no hint of the gigantic difficulties of the undertaking, which was carried on in the true Altrurian spirit, so far as the capitalists and artists were concerned, and with a joy like ours in seeing nature yield herself to the enlightened will of man. If I told you how time itself was overcome in this work by the swiftness of modern methods, it would be nothing new to you, for we are used to seeing the powerful machinery of our engineers change the face of the landscape, without stay for the slow processes of other days, when the ax and the saw wrought for years in the destruction of the forests that now vanish in a night. But to the Americans these things are still novel, and they boast of the speed with which the trees were dragged from the soil where they were rooted, and the morasses were effaced, and the wastes of sand made to smile with the verdure that now forms the most enchanting feature of their normal city. They dwell upon this, and they do not seem to feel as I do the exquisite simplicity with which its life is operated, the perfection with which it is policed, and the thoroughness with which it has been dedicated to health as well as beauty. In fact, I fancy that very few out of the millions who visit this gala town realize that it has its own system of drainage, lighting and transportation, and its own government, which looks as scrupulously to the general comfort and cleanliness, as if these were the private concern of each member of the government. This is, as it is with us, military in form, and the same precision and discipline which give us the ease and freedom of our civic life, proceed here from the same spirit and the same means. The Columbian Guards, as they are called, who are here at every turn, to keep order and to care for the pleasure as well as the welfare of the people, have been trained by officers of the United States army, who still command them, and they are amenable to the rules governing the only body in America whose ideal is not interest but duty. Every night, the whole place is cleansed of the rubbish which the visitors leave behind them, as thoroughly as if it were a camp. It is merely the litter of lunch-boxes and waste paper which has to be looked after, for there is little of the filth resulting in all other American cities from the use of the horse, which is still employed in them so many [c]enturies after it has been banished from ours. The United States mail-carts and the watering-carts are indeed anomalously drawn through the Fair City thoroughfares by horses, but wheeled chairs pushed about by a corps of high school boys and college undergraduates form the means of transportation by land for those who do not choose to walk. On the water, the electric launches are quite of our own pattern, and steam is allowed only on the boats which carry people out into the lake for a view of the peristyle. But you can get this by walking, and as in Venice, which is represented here by a fleet of gondolas, there are bridges that enable you to reach every desirable point on the lagoon.

When I have spoken of all this to my American friends they have not perceived the moral value of it, and when I have insisted upon the practical perfection of the scheme apparent in the whole, they have admitted it, but answered me that it would never do for a business city, where there was something going on besides the pleasure of the eyes and the edification of the mind. When I tell them that this is all that our Altrurian cities are for, they do not understand me; they ask where the money is made that the people live on in such play-cities; and we are alike driven to despair when I try to explain that we have no money, and should think it futile and impious to have any.

I do not believe they quite appreciate the intelligence with which the Fair City proper has been separated, with a view to its value as an object lesson, from all the state and national buildings in the ground. Some of the national buildings, notably those of Germany and Sweden, are very picturesque, but the rest decline through various grades of inferiority, down to the level of the State buildings. Of these, only the California and the New York buildings have a beauty comparable to that of the Fair City: the California house, as a reminiscence of the Spanish ecclesiastical architecture in which her early history is recorded, and the New York house, as a sumptuous expression of the art which ministers to the luxury of the richest and greatest State of the Union[.]

By still another remove the competitive life of the present epoch is relegated to the long avenue remotest from the White City, which you will find marked as the Midway Plaisance. Even this, where a hundred shows rival one another in a furious advertisement for the favor of the passer, there is so much of a high interest that I am somewhat loth to instance it as actuated by an inferior principle; and I do so only for the sake of the contrast. In the Fair City, everything is free; in the Plaisance everything must be paid for. You strike at once here the hard level of the outside western world; and the Orient, which has mainly peopled the Plaisance, with its theaters and restaurants and shops, takes the tint of the ordinary American enterprise, and puts on somewhat the manners of the ordinary American hustler. It is not really so bad as that, but it is worse than American in some of the appeals it makes to the American public, which is decent if it is dull, and respectable if it is rapacious. The lascivious dances of the East are here, in the Persian and Turkish and Egyptian theaters, as well as the exquisite archaic drama of the Javanese and the Chinese in their village and temple. One could spend many days in the Plaisance, always entertainingly, whether profitably or unprofitably; but whether one visited the Samoan or Dahomeyan in his hut, the Bedouin and the Lap in their camps; the delicate Javanese in his bamboo cottage, or the American Indian in his tepee, one must be aware that the citizens of the Plaisance are not there for their health, as the Americans quaintly say, but for the money there is in it. Some of the reproductions of historical and foreign scenes are excellent, like the irregular square of Old Vienna, with its quaintly built and quaintly decorated shops; the German village, with its admirably realized castle and chalet; and the Cairene street, with its motley oriental life; but these are all there for the profit to be had from the pleasure of their visitors, who seem to pay as freely as they talk through their noses. The great Ferris wheel itself, with its circle revolving by night and by day in an orbit incomparably vast, is in the last analysis a money-making contrivance.

I have tried to make my American friends see the difference, as I do, between the motive that created the Fair City, and the motive that created the Plaisance, but both seem to them alike the outcome of the principle which they still believe animates their whole life. They think both an effect of the competitive conditions in which they glory, not knowing that their conditions are now purely monopolistic, and not perceiving that the White City is the work of an armistice between the commercial interests ruling them. I expressed this belief to one of them, the banker, whom I met last summer in the country, and whom I ran upon one night during the first week of my visit here ; and he said there could certainly be that view of it. But, like the rest, he asked where the money would have come from without the warfare of competitive conditions, and he said he could not make out how we got the money for our public works in Altruria, or, in fact, how we paid the piper. When I answered that as each one of us was secured by all against want, every one could freely give his labor, without money and without price, and the piper could play for the pure pleasure of playing, he looked stupefied and said incredulously, "Oh, come, now!"

"Why, how strange you Americans are," I could not help breaking out upon him, "with your talk about competition! There is no competition among you a moment longer than you can help, a moment after one proves himself stronger than another. Then you have monopoly, which even upon the limited scale it exists here is the only vital and fruitful principle, as you all see. And yet you are afraid to have it upon the largest possible scale, the national scale, the scale commensurate with the whole body politic, which implicates care for every citizen as the liege of the collectivity, When you have monopoly of such proportions money will cease to have any office among you, and such a beautiful creation as this will have effect from a consensus of the common wills and wishes."

He listened patiently, and he answered amiably, "Yes, that is what you Altrurians believe, I suppose, and certainly what you preach; and if you look at it in that light, why there certainly is no competition left, except between the monopolies. But you must allow, my dear Homos," he went on, " that at least one of the twin fetishes of our barbarous worship has had something to do with the creation of all this beauty. I'll own that you have rather knocked the notion of competition on the head; the money that made this thing possible never came from competition at all; it came from some sort or shape of monopoly, as all money always does ; but what do you say about individuality? You can't say that individuality has had nothing to do with it. In fact, you can't deny that it has had everything to do with it, from the individuality of the several capitalists, up or down, to the individuality of the several artists. And will you pretend in the face of all this wonderful work that individuality is a bad thing?"

"Have I misrepresented myself and country so fatally," I returned, "as to have led you to suppose that the Altrurians thought individuality a bad thing? It seems to us the most precious gift of the Deity, the dearest and holiest possession of his creatures. What I lament in America at every moment, what I lament even here, in the presence of a work so largely Altrurian in conception and execution as this, is the wholesale effacement, the heartbreaking obliteration of individuality. I know very well that you can give me the name of the munificent millionaires large-thoughted and noble-willed men whose largesse made this splendor possible, and the name of every artist they freed to such a glorious opportunity. Their individuality is lastingly safe in your memories; but what of the artisans of "every kind and degree, whose patience and skill realized their ideals? Where will you find their names?"

My companions listened respectfully, but not very seriously, and in his reply he took refuge in that humor peculiar to the Americans: a sort of ether where they may draw breath for a moment free from the stifling despair which must fill every true man among them when he thinks how far short of their ideal their reality has fallen.

For they were once a people with the noblest ideal; we were not mistaken about that; they did, indeed, intend the greatest good to the greatest number, and not merely the largest purse to the longest head. They are a proud people, and it is hard for them to confess that they have wandered from the right way, and fallen into a limitless bog, where they can only bemire themselves more and more till its miasms choke them or its foul waters close over them.

"My dear fellow," the banker laughed, ''you are very easily answered. You will find their names on the pay-rolls, where, I've no doubt, they preferred to have them. Why, there was an army of them; and we don't erect monuments to private soldiers, except in the lump. How would you have managed it in Altruria?"

"In Altruria," I replied, "every man who drove a nail, or stretched a line, or laid a trowel upon such a work, would have had his name somehow inscribed upon it, where he could find it, and point it out to those dear to him and proud of him. Individuality ! I find no record of it here, unless it is the individuality of the few. That of the many makes no sign from the oblivion in which it is lost, either in these public works of artistic cooperation, or the exhibits of your monopolistic competition. I have wandered through these vast edifices and looked for the names of the men who wrought the marvels of ingenuity that fill them. But I have not often found the name even of a man who owns them. I have found the styles of the firms, the companies, the trusts which turn them out as impersonally as if no heart had ever ached or glowed in imagining and embodying them. This whole mighty industrial display is in so far dehumanized; and yet you talk of individuality as one of your animating principles!"

'"You are hopelessly unbusinesslike, my dear Homos," said the banker, "but I like your unpracticability. There is something charming in it; there is, really; and I enjoy it particularly at this moment because it has enabled me to get back my superiority to Chicago. I am a Bostonian, you know, and I came out herewith all the misgivings which a Bostonian begins to secrete as soon as he gets west of the Back Bay Fens. It is a survival of Puritanism in us. In the old times, you know, every Bostonian, no matter how he prayed and professed, felt it in his bones that he was one of the eiect, and we each feel so still; only, then God elected us, and now we elect ourselves. Fancy such a man confronted with such an achievement as this, and unfriended yet by an Altrurian traveller!

Why, I have gone about the last three days inwardly bowed down before Chicago in the most humiliating fashion. I've said to myself that our eastern fellows did half the thing, perhaps the best half; but then I had to own it was Chicago that imagined letting them do it, that imagined the thing as a whole, and I had to give Chicago the glory. When I looked at it I had to forgive Chicago Chicago, but now that you've set me right about the matter, and I see that the whole thing is dehumanized, I shall feel quite easy, and I shall not give Chicago any more credit than is due."

I saw that he was joking, but I did not see how far, and I thought it best not to take him in joke at all. "Ah, I don't think you can give her too much credit, even if you take her at the worst. It seems to me, from what I have seen of your country and, of course, I speak from a foreigner's knowledge only that no other American city could have brought this to pass."

"You must come and stay with us a while in Boston," said the banker; and he smiled. " One other city could have done it. Boston has the public spirit and Boston has the money, but perhaps Boston has not the ambition. Perhaps we give ourselves in Boston too much to a sense of the accomplished fact. If that is a fault, it is the only fault conceivable of us. Here in Chicago they have the public spirit, and they have the money, and they are still anxious to do; they are not content as we are, simply to be. Of course, they have not so much reason! I don't know," he added thoughtfully, "but it comes in the end to what you were saying, and no other American city but Chicago could have brought this to pass. Leaving everything else out of the question, I doubt if any other community could have fancied the thing in its vastness; and the vastness seems an essential condition of the beauty. You couldn't possibly say it was pretty, for instance; if you admitted it was fine you would have to say it was beautiful. To be sure, if it were possible to have too much of a good thing, there are certain states of one's legs, here, when one could say there was too much of it; but that is not possible. But come, now; be honest for once, my dear fellow, and confess that you really prefer the Midway Plaisance to the Fair City!"

I looked at him with silent reproach, and he broke out laughing, and took me by the arm.

"At any rate," he said, "let us go down there, and get something to eat.


'The glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome,'

here, take it out of you so that I find myself wanting lunch about every three hours. It's nearly as long as that now, since I dined, and I feel an irresistible yearning for Old Vienna, where that pinchbeck halberdier of a watchman is just now crying the hour of nine."

"Oh, is it so late as that?" I began, for I like to keep our Altrurian hours even here, when I can, and I was going to say that I could not go with him when he continued:

"They won't turn us out, if that's what you mean. Theoretically, they do turn people out toward the small hours, but practically, one can stay here all night, I believe. That's a charming thing about the Fair, and I suppose it's rather Chicagoan; if we'd had the Fair in Boston, every soul would have had to leave before midnight. We couldn't have helped turning them out, from the mere oldmaidishness of our Puritanic tradition, and not because we really minded their staying. In New York they would have put them out from Keltic imperiousness, and locked them up in the station-house when they got them out, especially if they were sober and inoffensive."

I could not follow him in this very well, or in the playful allusiveness of his talk generally, though I have reported it, to give some notion of his manner; and so I said, by way of bringing him within easy range of my intelligence again, "I have seen no one here who showed signs of drink."

"No," he returned. "What a serious, and peaceable, and gentle crowd it is ! I haven't witnessed a rudeness, or even an unkindness, since I've been here, and nobody looks as if anything stronger than apollinaris had passed his lips for a fortnight. They seem, the vast majority of them, to pass their time in the Fair City, and I wish I could flatter myself that they preferred it, as you wish me to think you do, to the Plaisance. Perhaps they are really more interested in the mechanical arts, and even the fine arts, than they are in the muscle dances, but I'm afraid it's partly because there isn't an additional charge for admission to those improving exhibits in the official buildings. Though I dare say that most of the hardhanded folks here, are really concerned in transportation and agricultural implements to a degree that it is difficult for their more cultivated fellow-countrymen to conceive of. Then, the merely instructive and historical features must have an incredible lot to say to them. We people who have had advantages, as we call them, can't begin to understand the state that most of us come here in, the state of enlightened ignorance, as one may call it, when we know how little we know, and are anxious to know more. But I congratulate you, Homos, on the opportunity you have to learn America personally, here; you won't easily have such another chance. I'm glad for your sake, too, that it (the crowd) is mainly a western and south-western crowd, a Mississippi Valley crowd. You can tell it by their accent. It's a mistake to suppose that New England has a monopoly of the habit of speaking through the nose. We may have invented it, but we have imparted it apparently to the whole west, as the Scotch-Irish of Pennsylvania have lent the twist of their "r," and the combined result is something frightful. But it's the only frightful thing about the westerners, as I find them here. Their fashions are not the latest, but they are not only well behaved, they are on the average pretty well dressed, as the clothing store and the paper pattern dress our people. And they look pathetically good! When I think how hard-worked they all are, and what lonely lives most of them live on their solitary farms, I wonder they don't descend upon me with the whoop of savages. You're very fond of equality, my dear Homos! How do you like the equality of the American effect here? It's a vast level, as unbroken as the plains that seemed to widen as I came over them in the cars to Chicago, and that go widening on, I suppose, to the sunset itself. I won't speak of the people, but I will say the plains were dreary."

"Yes," I assented, for those plains had made me melancholy, too. They looked so habitable, and they were so solitary, though I could see that they were broken by the lines of cultivated fields, which were being plowed for wheat, or were left standing with their interminable ranks of maize. From time to time one caught sight of a forlorn farmstead, with a windmill beside it, making helpless play with its vanes as if it were vainly struggling to take flight from the monotonous landscape. There was nothing of the cheerfulness of our Altrurian farm villages; and I could understand how a dull uniformity of the human type might result from such an environment, as the banker intimated.

I have made some attempts, here, to get upon speaking terms with these average people, but I have not found them conversible. Very likely they distrusted my advances, from the warnings given them to beware of imposters and thieves at the Fair; it is one of the necessities of daily life in a competitive civilization, that you must be on your guard against strangers lest they cheat or rob you. It is hard for me to understand this, coming from a land where there is no theft and can be none, because there is no private property, and I have often bruised myself to no purpose in attempting the acquaintance of my fellow-visitors of the Fair. They never make any attempt at mine; no one has asked me a favor, here, or even a question; but each remains bent, in an intense preoccupation, upon seeing the most he can in the shortest time for the least money. Of course, there are many of the more cultivated visitors, who are more responsive, and who show themselves at least interested in me as a fellow-stranger ; but these, though they are positively many, are, after all, relatively few. The vast bulk, the massed members of that immense equality which fatigued my friend, the banker, by its mere aspect, were shy of me, and I do not feel that I came to know any of them personally. They strolled singly, or in pairs, or by family groups, up and down the streets of the Fair City, or the noisy thoroughfare of the Plaisance, or through the different buildings, quiescent, patient, inoffensive, but reserved and inapproachable, as far as I was concerned. If they wished to know anything they asked the guards, who never failed in their duty of answering them fully and pleasantly. The people from the different states visited their several State buildings, and seemed to be at home, there, with that instinctive sense of ownership which every one feels in a public edifice, and which is never tainted with the greedy wish to keep others out. They sat in long rows on the benches that lined the avenues, munching the victuals they had mostly brought with them in the lunch-boxes which strewed the place at nightfall, and were gathered up by thousands in the policing of the grounds. If they were very luxurious, they went to the tables of those eating-houses where, if they ordered a cup of tea or coffee, they could spread out the repast from their boxes and enjoy it more at their ease. But in none of these places did I see any hilarity in them, and whether they thought it unseemly or not to show any gayety , they showed none. They were peacefully content within the limits of their equality, and where it ended, as from time to time it must, they betrayed no discontent. That is what always astonishes me in America. The man of the harder lot accepts it unmurmuringly and with no apparent sense of injustice in the easier lot of another. He suffers himself, without a word, to be worse housed, worse clad, worse fed, than his merely luckier brother, who could give him no reason for his better fortune that an Altrurian would hold valid. Here, at the Fair, for example, on the days when the German village is open to the crowd without charge, the crowd streams through without an envious glance at the people dining richly and expensively at the restaurants, with no greater right than the others have to feed poorly and cheaply from their paper boxes. In the Plaisance, weary old farmwives and delicate women of the artisan class make way uncomplainingly for the ladies and gentlemen who can afford to hire wheeled chairs. As meekly and quietly they loiter by the shores of the lagoon and watch those who can pay to float upon their waters in the gondolas and electric launches. Everywhere the economic inequality is as passively accepted as if it were a natural inequality, like difference in height or strength, or as if it were something of immemorial privilege, like birth and title in the feudal countries of Europe. Yet, if one of these economically inferior Americans were told that he was not the peer of any and every other American, he would resent it as the grossest insult, such is the power of the inveterate political illusion in which the nation has been bred.

The banker and I sat long over our supper, in the graveled court of Old Vienna, talking of these things, and enjoying a bottle of delicate Rhenish wine under the mild September moon, not quite put out of countenance by the electric lamps. The gay parties about us broke up one after another, till we were left almost alone, and the watchman in his mediaeval dress, with a halberd in one hand, and a lantern in the other, came round to call the hour for the last time. Then my friend beckoned to the waiter for the account, and while the man stood figuring it up, the banker said to me: "Well, you must come to Boston a hundred years hence, to the next Columbian Fair, and we will show you every body trundled about and fed at the public expense. I suppose that's what you would like to see?"

"It is what we always see in Altruria," I answered. "I haven't the least doubt it will be so with you in much less than a hundred years."

The banker was looking at the account the waiter handed him. He broke into an absent laugh, and then said to me, "I beg your pardon! You were saying?"

"Oh, nothing," I answered, and then, as he took out his pocket-book to pay, he laid the bill on the table, and I could not help seeing what our little supper had cost him. It was twelve dollars; and I was breathless; it seemed to me that two would have been richly enough.

"They give you a good meal here, don't you think?" he said. "But the worst of having dined or supped well is reflecting that if you hadn't you could have given ten or twelve fellows, who will have to go to bed supperless, a handsome surfeit; that you could have bought twenty-five hungry men a full meal each; that you could have supplied forty-eight with plenty; that you could have relieved the famine of a hundred and twenty-four. But what is the use? If you think of these things you have no peace of your life!"

I could not help answering, "We don't have to think of them in Altruria."

"Ah, I dare say," answered the banker, as he tossed the waiter a dollar, and we rose and strolled out into the Plaisance. "If all men were unselfish, I should agree with you that Altrurianism was best."

"You can't have unselfishness till you have Altrurianism," I returned. "You can't put the cart before the horse."

"Oh, yes, we can," he returned in his tone of banter. "We always put the cart before the horse in America, so that the horse can see where the cart is going."

We strolled up and down the Plaisance, where the crowd had thinned to a few stragglers like ourselves. Most of the show villages were silenced for the night. The sob of the Javanese water-wheel was hushed; even the hubbub of the Chinese theater had ceased. The Samoans slept in their stucco huts; the Bedouins were folded to slumber in their black tents. The great Ferris wheel hung motionless with its lamps like a planetary circle of fire in the sky. It was a moment that invited to musing, that made a tacit companionship precious. By an impulse to which my own feeling instantly responded, my friend passed his arm through mine.

"Don't let us go home at all! Let us go over and sleep in the peristyle. I have never slept in a peristyle, and I have a fancy for trying it. Now, don't tell me you always sleep in peristyles in Altruria!"

I answered that we did not habitually, at least, and he professed that this was some comfort to him; and then he went on to talk more seriously about the Fair, and the effect that it must have upon American civilization. He said that he hoped for an aesthetic effect from it, rather than any fresh impulse in material enterprise, which he thought the country did not need. It had inventions enough, millionaires enough, prosperity enough; the great mass of the people lived as well and travelled as swiftly as they could desire. Now what they needed was some standard of taste, and this was what the Fair City would give them. He thought that it would at once have a great influence upon architecture, and sober and refine the artists who were to house the people; and that one might expect to see everywhere a return to the simplicity and beauty of the classic forms, after so much mere wandering and maundering in design, without authority or authenticity.

I heartily agreed with him in condemning the most that had yet been done in architecture in America, but I tried to make him observe that the simplicity of Greek architecture came out of the simplicity of Greek life, and the preference given in the Greek state to the intellectual over the industrial, to art over business. I pointed out that until there was some enlightened municipal or national control of the matter, no excellence of example could avail, but that the classicism of the Fair City would become, among a wilful and undisciplined people, a fad with the rich and a folly with the poor, and not a real taste with either class. I explained how with us the state absolutely forbade any man to aggrieve or insult the rest by the exhibition of his ignorance in the exterior of his dwelling, and how finally architecture had become a government function, and fit dwellings were provided for all by artists who approved themselves to the public criticism. I ventured so far as to say that the whole competitive world, with the exception of a few artists, had indeed lost the sense of beauty, and I even added that the Americans as a people seemed never to have had it at all.

He was not offended, as I had feared he might be, but asked me with perfect good nature what I meant.

"Why, I mean that the Americans came into the world too late to have inherited that influence from the antique world which was lost even in Europe, when in mediaeval times the picturesque barbarously substituted itself for the beautiful, and a feeling for the quaint grew up in place of love for the perfect."

"I don't understand, quite," he said, ["]but I'm interested. Go on!"

"Why," I went on, "I have heard people rave over the beauty of the Fair City, and then go and rave over the beauty of the German village, or of Old Vienna, in the Plaisance. They were cultivated people, too; but they did not seem to know that the reproduction of a feudal castle or of a street in the taste of the middle ages, could not be beautiful, and could at the best be only picturesque. Old Vienna is no more beautiful than the Javanese village, and the German village outrivals the Samoan village only in its greater adaptability to the purposes of the painter. There is in your modern competitive world very little beauty anywhere, but there is an abundance of picturesqueness, of forms that may be reflected upon canvas, and impart the charm of their wild irregularity to all who look at the picture, though many who enjoy it there would fail of it in a study of the original. I will go so far as to say that there are points in New York, intrinsically so hideous that it makes me shudder to recall them "

"Don't recall them!" he pleaded.

"Which would be much more capable of pictorial treatment than the Fair City, here," I continued. We had in fact got back to the Court of Honor, in the course of our talk, which I have only sketched here in the meagerest abstract. The incandescent lamps had been quenched, and the arc-lights below and the moon above flooded the place with one silver, and the absence of the crowds that had earlier thronged it, left it to a solitude indescribably solemn and sweet. In that light, it was like a ghost of the antique world witnessing a loveliness lost to modern times everywhere but in our own happy country.

I felt that silence would have been a fitter tribute to it than any words of mine, but my companion prompted me with an eager, "Well!" and I went on.

"This beauty that we see here is not at all picturesque. If a painter were to attempt to treat it picturesquely, he must abandon it in despair, because the charm of the picturesque is in irregularity, and the charm of the beautiful is in symmetry, in just proportion, in equality. You Americans do not see that the work of man, who is the crown of animate life, can only be beautiful as it approaches the regularity expressive of beauty in that life. Any breathing thing that wants perfect balance of form or feature is in so far [ugly]; it is offensive and ridiculous, just as a perfectly balanced tree or hill would be. Nature is picturesque, but what man creates should be beautiful, or else it is inferior. Since the Greeks, no people have divined this but the Altrurians, until now; and I do not believe that you would have begun to guess at it as you certainly have here, but for the spread of our ideas among you, and I do not believe this example will have any lasting effect with you unless you become Altrurianized. The highest quality of beauty is a spiritual quality."

"I don't know precisely how far I have followed you," said my companion, who seemed struck by a novelty in truisms which are so trite with us, "but I certainly feel that there is something in what you say. You are probably right in your notion that the highest quality of beauty is a spiritual quality, and I should like very much to know what you think that spiritual quality is here." "The quality of self-sacrifice in the capitalists who gave their money, and in the artists who gave their talent without hope of material return, but only for the pleasure of authorizing and creating beauty that shall last forever in the memory of those it has delighted."

The banker smiled compassionately.

"Ah, my dear fellow, you must realize that this was only a spurt. It could be done once, but it couldn't be kept up."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because people have got to live, even capitalists and artists have got to live, and they couldn't live by giving away wealth and giving away work, in our conditions."

"But you will change the conditions!"

"I doubt it," said the banker with another laugh. One of the Columbian guards passed near us, and faltered a little in his walk. "Do you want us to go out?" asked my friend.

"No," the young fellow hesitated. "Oh no!" and he continued his round.

"He hadn't the heart to turn us out." said the banker, " he would hate so to be turned out himself. I wonder what will become of all the poor fellows who are concerned in the government of the Fair City when they have to return to earth! It will be rough on them." He lifted his head, and cast one long look upon the miracle about us. "Good heavens! " he broke out, "And when they shut up shop, here, will all this beauty have to be destroyed, this fabric of a vision demolished? It would be infamous, it would be sacrilegious! I have heard some talk of their burning it, as the easiest way, the only way of getting rid of it. But it musn't be, it can't be."

"No, it can't be," I responded fervently. "It may be rapt from sight in the flames like the prophet in his chariot of fire; but it will remain still in the hearts of our great people. An immortal principle, higher than use, higher even than beauty, is expressed in it, and the time will come when they will look back upon it, and recognize in it the first embodiment of the Altrurian idea among them, and will cherish it forever in their history, as the earliest achievement of a real civic life."

I believe this, my dear Cyril, and I leave it with you as my final word concerning the great Columbian Fair.



Yours in all brotherly affection,

A. Homos.





Source: "Letter II," Letters of an Altrurian Traveller, 1893-94 by Howells, William Dean:
archive.org/stream/lettersofaltruri00howe#page/20/mode/2up





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Posted: 4-15-15; Updated: 4-18-18