Invisible Censor


5. As An Alien Feels

Twenty-five years ago I knew but dimly that the United States existed. My first dream of it came, as well as I remember, from the strange gay flag that blew above a circus tent on the Fair Green. It was a Wild West Show, and for years I associated America with the intoxication of the circus and, for no reason, with the tang of oranges. "Two a penny, two a penny, large penny oranges! Buy away an' ate away, large penny oranges!" They were oranges from Seville then, but the odor of them and the fumes of circus excitement gave me a first gay ribald sense of the United States.

The next allied sense was gathered from a scallawag uncle. He had sought his fortune in America-sought it, as I infer now, on the rear end of a horse-car. When he came home he was full of odd and delicious oaths. "Gosh hell hang it" was his chief touch of American culture. He was a "Yank" in local parlance, a frequently drunken Yank. His fine drooping mustache too often drooped with porter. Once, a boy of nine, I steadied him home under the October stars and absorbed a long alcoholic reverie on the Horseshoe Falls. As we slept together that night in the rat-pattering loft, and as he absently appropriated all the horse-blanket, I had plenty of chance to shiver over the wonderments of the Horseshoe Falls.

This, with an instilled idea that America and America alone could offer "work," foreshadowed the American landscape. It is the bald hope of work that finally magnetizes us hither. But every dream and every loyalty was with the unhappy land from which I came.

For many months the music of New York harbor spoke only of home. Every outgoing steamer that opened its throat made me homesick. America was New York, and New York was down town, and down town was a vortex of new duties. There I learned the bewildering foreign tongue of earning a living, and the art of eating at Childs'. At night the hall-bedroom near Broadway, and the resourceless promenade up and down Broadway for amusement. The only women to say "dear," the women who say it on the street.

In Chicago, not in New York, I found the United States. The word "settlement" gave me my first puzzled intimation that there was somewhere a clew to this grim struggle down town. I had looked for it in boarding-houses. I had looked for it in stenographic night-schools. I had sought it in the blotchy Sunday newspaper, in Coney Island, in long jaunts up the Palisades. I had looked for it among the street-walkers, the first to proffer intimacy. And of course, not being clever enough, I had overlooked it. But in Chicago, as I say, I came on it at home.

America dawned for me in a social settlement. It dawned for me as a civilization and a faith. In all my first experiences of my employers I got not one glimpse of American civilization. Theirs was the language of smartness, alertness, brightness, success, efficiency, and I tried to learn it, but it was a difficult and alien tongue. Some of them were lawyers, but they were interested in penmanship and ability to clean ink-bottles. Some of them were business men, but they were interested in ability to typewrite and to keep the petty cash. It was not their fault. Ours was not an affair of the heart. But if it had not been for the social settlement, I should still be an alien to the bone.

Till I knew a social settlement the American flag was still a flag on a circus-tent, a gay flag but cheap. The cheapness of the United States was the message of quick-lunch and the boarding-house, of vaudeville and Coney Island and the Sunday newspaper, of the promenade on Broadway. In the social settlement I came on something entirely different. Here on the ash-heap of Chicago was a blossom of something besides success. The house was saturated in the perfume of the stockyards, to make it sweet. A trolley-line ran by its bedroom windows, to make it musical. It was thronged with Jews and Greeks and Italians and soulful visitors, to make it restful. It was inhabited by high-strung residents, to make it easy. But it was the first place in all America where there came to me a sense of the intention of democracy, the first place where I found a flame by which the melting-pot melts. I heard queer words about it. The men, I learned, were mollycoddles, and the women were sexually unemployed. The ruling class spoke of "unsettlement workers" with animosity, the socialists of a mealy-mouthed compromise. Yet in that strange haven of clear humanitarian faith I discovered what I suppose I had been seeking-the knowledge that America had a soul.

How one discovers these things it is hard to put honestly. It is like trying to recall the first fair wind of spring. But I know that slowly and unconsciously the atmosphere of the settlement thawed out the asperity of alienism. There were Americans of many kinds in residence, from Illinois, from Michigan, from New York, English-Americans, Russian-Americans, Austrian-Americans, German-Americans, men who had gone to Princeton and Harvard, women spiritually lavendered in Bryn Mawr. The place bristled with hyphens. But the Americanism was of a kind that opened to the least pressure from without, and never shall I forget the way these residents with their "North Side" friends had managed so graciously to domesticate the annual festival of my own nationality. That, strange though it may seem, is the more real sort of Americanization Day.

From Walt Whitman, eventually, the naturalizing alien breathes in American air, but I doubt if I should have ever known the meaning of Walt Whitman had I not lived in that initiating home. It was easy in later years to see new meanings in the American flag, to stand with Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, but it was in the settlement I found the sources from which it was dyed. For there, to my amazement, one was not expected to believe that man's proper place is on a Procrustean bed of profiteering. A different tradition of America lived there, one in which the earlier faiths had come through, in which the way to heaven was not necessarily up a skyscraper. In New England, later, I found many ideas of which the settlement was symptomatic, but as I imbibed them they were "America" for me.

What it means to come at last into possession of Lincoln, whose spirit is so precious to the social settlement, is probably unintelligible to Lincoln's normal inheritors. To understand this, however, is to understand the birth of a loyalty. In the countries from which we come there have been men of such humane ideals, but they have almost without exception been men beyond the pale. The heroes of the peoples of Europe have not been the governors of Europe. They have been the spokesmen of the governed. But here among America's governors and statesmen was a simple authenticator of humane ideals. To inherit him becomes for the European not an abandonment of old loyalties, but a summary of them in a new. In the microcosm of the settlement perhaps Lincolnism is too simple. Many of one's promptest acquiescences are revised as one meets and eats with the ruling class later on. But the salt of this American soil is Lincoln. When one finds that, one is naturalized.

It is curious how the progress of naturalization becomes revealed to one. I still recollect with a thrill the first time I attended a national political convention and listened to the roll-call of the States. "Alabama! Arizona! Arkansas!" Empty names for many years, at last they were filled with one clear concept, the concept of the democratic experiment. "As I have walk'd in Alabama my morning walk"-the living appeal to each state by name recalled Whitman's generous amusing scope. "Far breath'd land! Arctic braced! Mexican breez'd! The diverse! The compact! The Pennsylvanian! The Virginian! The double Carolinian!" The orotund roll-call was not intended to evoke Whitman. It was intended, as it happened, to evoke votes for Taft and Sherman. But even these men were parts of the democratic experiment. And the vastly peopled hall answered for Walt Whitman, as the empurpled Penrose did not answer. It was they who were the leaves of our grass.

In Whitman, as William James has shown, there is an arrant mysticism which his own Democratic Vistas exposed in cold light. Yet into this credulity as to the virtue and possibilities of the people an alien is likely to enter if his first intimacy with America came in the aliens' crêche. A settlement is a crêche for the step-children of Europe, and it is hard not to credit America at large with some of the impulses which make the settlement. Such, at any rate, is the tendency I experienced myself.

With this tendency, what of loyalty to the United States? I think of Lincoln and his effected mysticism by Union, union for the experiment, and I feel alive within me a complete identification with this land. The keenest realization of the nation reached me, as I recall, the first time I saw the capitol in Washington. Quite unsuspecting I strolled up the hill from the station, just about midnight, the streets gleaming after a warm shower. The plaza in front of the capitol was deserted. A few high sentinel lamps threw a lonely light down the wet steps and scantily illumined the pillars. Darkness veiled the dome. Standing apart completely by myself, I felt as never before the union of which this strength and simplicity was the symbol. The quietude of the night, the scent of April pervading it, gave to the lonely building a dignity such as I had seldom felt before. It seemed to me to stand for a fine and achieved determination, for a purpose maintained, for a quiet faith in the peoples and states that lay away behind it to far horizons. Lincoln, I thought, had perhaps looked from those steps on such a night in April, and felt the same promise of spring.