$16.95A Journey Across 1950s America
ISBN 1-885211-79-1 292 pages
Forty-five years is not long in geological terms, but it is quite a chunk in the life of a nation, and it’s the better part of an average human lifetime. Forty-five years it is since I published this, my very first book: and if a great deal has happened to me since then, the passage of history has transformed its subject, the United States of America.
My own story is simple, if relatively unusual—I was James Morris when I wrote the book, but twelve years later completed a shift of sexual role and emerged with a new persona as Jan. But the changes in the circumstances of the United States have been infinitely more dramatic: I just went through a so-called change of sex, but since the 1950s America has experienced such triumphs and such traumas, such colossal challenges, such tragic and marvelous adventures, that it has virtually re-invented itself as a nation. It has sent its rockets to the moon! It has been humiliated in war! Since the time when I wrote this book it has grown so incomparably powerful, so unconscionably rich, so sure of itself that it has become in effect the only Great Power, equally admired, envied, resented, copied, and abhorred around the world.
It was not so in 1956, when I ended a year’s traveling fellowship in the United States, and offered this book to my sponsors in lieu of the report I was obliged to present. I had come from a Britain that was still war-scarred, poverty-stricken, and disillusioned, and found an America bursting with bright optimism, generous, unpretentious, proud of its recent victories, basking in its universal popularity but still respectful of older nations. I did not know it then, and nor did America, but chance had brought me across the Atlantic at the very apex of American happiness. I doubt it there has ever been a society, in the history of the world, more attractive than this republic in the decade after the second world war.
Of course it had its downsides. Crime and corruption was rampant. Racism was ugly. Senator McCarthy was on the prowl. There were the first signs (or so I thought) of the social and economic arrogance that we now call globalization. But it was an innocent time for most people. Television was in its infancy then, the Big Mac had not been invented, drugs were hard to come by, and the same popular music had a simple appeal for almost everybody—”Chattanooga Choo-Choo” was the theme-tune, so to speak, of my introduction to America.
Can you wonder that Coast to Coast was written in enjoyment? That year’s wandering in America, in the prime of my youth, through a country so buoyant with success and generosity, was one of the very best presents of my whole life. If the United States of America is not always so much fun today, is not always regarded around the world with the same grateful affection, I can still look back to my first journeys there, nearly half a century ago, as to a dream of young times, hopes, and friendships.
The book is a period piece now. Physically, my America of 1956 exists no longer, but never mind—its soul goes marching on.
# # # #
Not many citizens of the United States, perhaps, realize the existence of a Standard American. The eggheads have been talking for a decade or more of the dire uniformity that is overcoming their country, the growing sameness of it all, the drugstore civilization, the Kleenex age. But it is possibly only the foreigner who has, so to speak, crystallized all these awful warnings into a living symbol—different in every way from the Mr. Citizen accepted as representative by most American cartoonists. From Glasgow to Benares everyone knows the Standard American, and his figure is summoned instantly to the foreign mind whenever the American Way is mentioned. He is alien to almost all our ways, whatever our patrimony; but we feel we know him well.
Like many another observer, I am not much enamored of this new ambassador, successor in reputation to the dashing clipper captains or grandiloquent tycoons of other generations: but fortunately my book is a record of a journey, through all the forty-eight contiguous states of America, in which I discovered to my pleasure that he is not yet, by any manner of means universally predominant in his homeland. The romance of America has always lain in its glorious profusion of elements, welded and transfused by a common environment, but each redolent in some small way of an older civilization, an inherited philosophy, or at least aspirations familiar to us all. In this old patchwork America, so free and expansive, we could all see ourselves reflected, and feel some small proprietary pride. “America, thou half-brother of the world” as Philip Bailey observed, “with something good and bad of every land.”
One day, perhaps, some version of the new all-American society will have swamped that noble country, its old ideals will be warped or banished, and the Standard American, who admits no deviationists, will be supreme. But for the moment America is something of a patchwork still, and still related (if only distantly, or morganatically) to the rest of us elsewhere. You cannot escape the new Americanism as you travel through the United States, especially when you reach the Middle West; nor can you blind yourself to the dulling spread of uniformity. But there is still a splendid variety to the life of the Americans; much sprightly individualism and homely kindness; much brashness, violence, and hocus-pocus; and much of that bold personal initiative (the making of money apart) that we associate with the frontier and the plainsman. Such resilient reminders of a younger America are what my book chiefly describes.
During our travels my family and I wandered, with many sedentary intervals, through the five great regions of the Republic—the East, the South, the West, the Pacific Coast, and the Middle West—traveling generally by car, sometimes by train, ship, or aircraft, and covering in all nearly 70,000 miles. There is only one place to begin an American journey of this kind, however often it is described, however tempting it is to launch an account from Kansas City or San Diego: the gateway of America, and the most dazzling expression of its lingering diversity, is still the City of New York. “New York, is a wonderful town!” run the words of an exhilarating popular song; and brilliant indeed, if a trifle frosty, is the smile on the face of the tiger as the visitor is swirled and eddied into the miraculous streets of Manhattan.
1. New York, New York!
2. Country Style
4. On Violence
5. Clean Steel
6. A Corner of the World
7. Adam Called It Paradise
8. The Rebel Yell
9. Jerks and Serpents
10. The Mississippi
11. Pilot’s Progress
12. Southernmost City
13. Go West
15. Pueblos and Navahos
16. More Indians
17. Dams, Bridges, and Bones
19. A Lively Ghost
20. Creatures of the West
The Pacific Coast
21. On Hollywood
23. San Francisco
24. The Sierra Club
26. Northwest Extremity
The Middle West
29. In Suburbia
31. Two Men
33. The Cooling Crucible
At one time or another I have approached some splendid places, most of them instinct with mystery or age: Venice on a misty post-war morning, silent and shrouded, like a surrendered knight-at-arms; Everest, the watchtower, on the theatrical frontiers of Nepal and Tibet; or Krak of the Crusaders, high and solitary in the mountains of Moab. All are celebrated in history or romance; but none lingers so tenaciously in my memory as the approach to the City of New York, the noblest of American symbols.
The approach from the sea is marvelous enough, but has become hackneyed from film and postcard. It is the road from inland that is exciting now, when Manhattan appears suddenly, a last outpost on the edge of the continent, and the charged atmosphere of the place spreads around it like ripples, and you enter it as you would plunge into a mountain stream in August. A splendid highway leads you there. It sweeps across the countryside masterfully, two white ribbons of concrete, aloof from the little villages and farms that lie beside it. You can enter in only at tollgates, and stop only at specified places (for a hamburger or a tankful of petrol), so the cars move in an endless, unbroken, unswerving stream. They carry the savor of distant places: cars from Georgia, with blossoms wilting in the back seat, or diesel trucks bringing steel pipes from Indiana; big black Cadillacs from Washington, and sometimes a gaudy convertible (like a distant hint of jazz) from New Orleans or California.
Through the pleasant country they pass, the traffic thickening as the big city draws nearer, and into the grimy industrial regions on its periphery; past oil refineries spouting smoke and flame, ships in dock and aircraft on the tarmac, railway lines and incinerators and dismal urban marshes; until suddenly in the distance there stand the skyscrapers, shimmering in the sun, like monuments in a more antique land.
A little drunk from the sight, you drive breathlessly into the great tunnel beneath the Hudson River (turning on as you do so the radio on your dashboard; the Lincoln Tunnel has its own radio station for the benefit of cars passing through it, and it seems churlish not to use it). You must not drive faster than thirty-five miles an hour in the tunnel, nor slower than thirty, and there is an ominous-looking policeman halfway along in a little glass cabin; so that you progress like something on an assembly line, soullessly. (This impression of sluglike impassivity may be heightened if you happen to observe the construction work going on just outside the entrance. They are putting another tunnel under the river, and they are doing it simply by pushing a huge metal tube into the earth, inch-by-inch, month-by-month, with hundreds and hundreds of jacks. There is something blind and mindless about such a method.)
When you emerge into the daylight, though, there is a sort of daily renaissance, a flowering of the spirit. The cars and trucks and buses, no longer confined in channels, suddenly spring away in all directions with a burst of engines and a black cloud of exhausts. At once, instead of uniformity, there is a profusion of variety. There are policemen shouting and gesticulating irritably; men pushing racks of summer frocks; trains rumbling along railway lines; great liners blowing their sirens; dowdy dark-haired women with shopping bags, and men hurling imprecations out of taxi windows; shops with improbable Polish names, and huge racks of strange newspapers; bold colors and noises and indefinable smells; skinny cats and very old dustcarts; and bus drivers with patient, weary faces. Almost before you know it, themystique of Manhattan is all around you.
There is a richness to the life of this extraordinary island that springs only partly from its immeasurable wealth. A lavish fusion of races contributes to it, and a spirit of hope and openheartedness that has survived from the days of free immigration. The Statue of Liberty, graphically described in one reference book as “a substantial figure of a lady,” is dwarfed by the magnificence of the skyline, and from the deck of a ship it is easy to miss it. But in New York, more than anywhere else in America, there is still dignity to the lines carved upon it:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Here in the space of a few square miles all the races mingle, and the extremes of human nature clash. This is not the all-American city, but rather (as Lord Bryce remarked) a European city of no particular country; enlivened, sharpened and intensified by the American ideal.
Everyone has read of the magical glitter of this place; but until you have been there it is difficult to conceive of a city so sparkling that at any time Mr. Fred Astaire might quite reasonably come dancing his urbane way down Fifth Avenue. It is a marvelously exuberant city, even when the bitter winds of the fall howl through its canyons. The taxi drivers talk long and fluently; not so well or so caustically as a Cockney cabman, but from a wider range of experience, for they may speak of a pogrom in old Russia, or of Ireland in its bad days, or speculate about the Naples their fathers came from. The waiters press you to eat more, you look thin. The girl in the drugstore asks so particularly sweetly if she may borrow the comic section of your newspaper. On the skating rink at Rockefeller Center there is always something pleasant to see: pretty girls showing off their pirouettes; children staggering about in helpless paroxysms; an old eccentric sailing by with a look of profoundest contempt on his face; an elderly lady in tweeds excitedly arm-in-arm with an instructor.
Boundless vivacity and verve are the inspiration of Manhattan. In its midtown streets (away from slums and dingy suburbs) you are in a world of spirited movement and color. The new buildings are glass aeries, gay as cream cakes. One structure on Park Avenue has a garden for its ground floor and a slab of green glass for its superstructure. A bank on Fifth Avenue has creepers growing from its ceiling, and the passer-by, looking through its huge plate-glass windows, can see the black round door of its strong room. Outside a near-by typewriter shop a real typewriter is mounted on a pedestal, for anyone to try. Once when I passed at two in the morning an old man with a ragged beard was typing with hectic concentration, as if he had just run down from his garret with an exciting new formula or a translation of the Knossos Plates.
The traffic swirls through New York like a rather slobby mixture running through a cake mold. There are fewer solid traffic jams than in London, but a more inexorable oozy progression of vehicles. Some seventy-five years ago an observer described New York traffic as being “everywhere close-spread, thick-tangled (yet no collision, no trouble) with masses of bright color, action and tasty toilets.” The description is not so far from the mark today, and the colors especially are still bright and agreeable. The women are not afraid of color in their clothes; the shop windows are gorgeous; the cars are painted vividly. From upstairs the streets of Manhattan are alive with shifting colors.
Sometimes, as you push your way through the brisk crowds, there will be a scream of sirens and a little procession of official cars will rush by, pushing the traffic out of its way, crashing the lights with complacent impunity, on its way to the Waldorf or the City Hall. The motorcycle police, hunched on the machines, look merciless (but are probably very kind to old ladies). The reception committee, in dark coats and Homburgs, is excessively official. And there is the recesses of the grandest car can be seen the distinguished visitor, opera singer or diplomat or bronzed explorer, shamefully delighted at being able to ignore the traffic rules. I once rode in such a cavalcade, and found that the psychological effect can be disturbing. A mild little man sharing my car was soon hurling vicious abuse at the less agile of the pedestrians, and the wife of the distinguished visitor fainted.
There is a row of hansom cabs at the corner of Central Park, each with its coal heater (if it is winter), each tended by an elderly gentleman in a top hat, the horses a little thin, the wheels a little wobbly. Lovers find them convenient for bumpy dalliances in the park. If you wander down to the waterside on either side of the island you may stand in the shadow of an ocean liner, or watch a tug (with a high curved bridge, a nonchalant skipper, and an air of Yankee insolence) steaming under the black girders of Brooklyn Bridge. Outside Grand Central Station, through a grill beneath your feet, you may see the gleaming metal of a Chicago express down in the bowels; passengers on the smartest of these trains are ushered into them along deep red carpets. You could live permanently in Grand Central Station without ever seeing a train, for they are all secreted below in carpeted dungeons.
The stores of Manhattan bulge with the good things of the earth, with a splendor that outclasses those perfumed Oriental marts of fable. “Ask for anything you like,” says the old waiter at the Waldorf-Astoria with pardonable bombast, “and if we haven’t got it we’ll send down the road for it.” Furs in the windows shine with an icy distinction. Dresses are magnificent from Paris, or pleasantly easygoing in the American manner. There are shoes for every conceivable size; books for the most esoteric taste; pictures and treasures summoned from every age and every continent; foods of exotic delight; little dogs of unlikely breed; refrigerators already stocked with edibles; haughty Rolls-Royces; a myriad of toys; endless and enchanting fripperies; anything, indeed, that fancy can demand or money buy. It is a storehouse of legendary wonder. What a prize it would be for some looting army of barbarians, slashing their way through its silks and satins, ravishing its debutantes, gorging themselves in its superb French restaurants!
Yes so obvious and dramatic are the extremes of New York that you see many beggars about its streets. They stand diffidently on the pavements, decently dressed but coatless, asking civilly for help before they leave the bright lights and go home for the night to the hopeless squalid doss houses of the Bowery. They are ambassadors from another Manhattan: the countless gloomy streets where Negroes and Puerto Ricans, Poles and poor Italians live in unhappy neighborhood, fighting their old battles and despising one another. In is an unpleasant thing to see the current crime register in a Harlem police station. Page succeeds page in terrible succession. Thronged with stabbings and rapes, robberies and assaults, acts of lunatic spite or repellent perversion. “Well,” you say as casually as you can, a little shaken by this vast superfluity of Sunday journalism, “well, and how many weeks of crime do these pages represent?” The police sergeant smiles tolerantly. “That’s today’s register,” he says.
You can taste a little of all this horror simply by driving through the dark back streets; or buying a drink in an East Side bar, surrounded by companions of advanced animal instincts, funneled from the slums of half a dozen countries. Or you can feel the tensions down at the dockside, where union clashes with union, docker with docker, with a frightening fervor. The dockers, speaking many languages, shuffle here and there like automatons. There is a feeling of cold incipient brutality; and if you make a habit of hanging around the docks you will never be surprised to read, as you often will, of bodies found in the water and bloody wharfside brawls.
These are the heirs to those millions of hopeful immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the Victorian age, fleeing from despotisms or famines, looking for an Eldorado. The poor European immigrant is a dominant figure of American history, and his spirit still haunts the squares and streets of the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, and loiters around the landing-places where the ferry leaves for Staten Island. He is the true symbol of American liberalism, not today’ s brave professors and newspapermen; and it is typical paradox that though politics drove him from Europe, often enough, it was material ambition that made him an American. America is the land acquisitive, and few Americans abandon the search for wealth, or lose their admiration for those who find it.
So the unassimilated New Yorkers, the millions of un-Americans in the city however poor or desolate they seem, however disappointed in their dreams, still loyally respect the American ideal; the chance for every man to achieve opulence. Sometimes the sentiment has great pathos. An old man I met in a cheap coffee shop near the East River boasted gently, without arrogance, of the fabulous wealth of New York; for all the world as if its coffers were his, and all its luxuries, instead of a gray bed-sitting room and a coat with frayed sleeves. He said: “Why, the garbage thrown away in this city every morning—every morning—would feed the whole of Europe for a week.” He said it without envy and with a genuine pride of possession, and a number of dusty demolition men sitting near by nodded their heads in proud and wondering agreement.
All the same, it is sometimes difficult to keep one’ s social conscience in order among the discrepancies of Manhattan; the gulf between rich and poor is so particularly poignant in this capital of opportunity. There is fun and vigor and stimulation in New York’ s symphony of capitalism—the blazing neon lights, the huge bright office blocks, the fine stores and friendly shop assistants; and yet there is something distasteful about a pleasure-drome so firmly based upon personal advantage. Everywhere there are nagging signs that the life of the place is inspired by a self-interest not scrupulously enlightened. “Learn to take care of others,” says a poster urging women to become nurses, “and you will know how to take care of yourself.” “The life you save may be your own,” says a road safety advertisement. “Let us now if you can’ t keep this reservation,” you are told on the railway ticket; “it may be required by a friend or a business associate of yours.” Faced with such constant reminders, the foreign visitor begins to doubt the altruism even of his benefactors. Is the party really to give him pleasure, or is the host to gain some credit from it? The surprise present is very welcome, but what does its giver expect in return? Soon he is tempted to believe that any perversion of will or mind, any ideological wandering, any crankiness, any jingoism is preferable to so constant an obsession with the advancement of self.
But there, Manhattan is a haven for the ambitious, and you must not expect its bustling rivalries to be too saintly. Indeed, you may as well admit that the whole place is built on greed, in one degree or another; even the city churches, grotesquely Gothic or Anglican beyond belief, have their thrusting social aspirations. What is wonderful is that so much that is good and beautiful has spring from such second-rate motives. There are palaces of great pictures in New York, and millions go each year to see them. Each week a whole page of The New York Times is filled with concert announcements. There are incomparable museums, a lively theater, great publishing houses, a famous university. The Times itself (“All the News That’ s Fit to Print”) is a splendid civic ornament, sometimes mistaken, sometimes dull, but never bitter, cheap or malicious; at lunch in its palatial offices the following grace is said:
O Lord, the Giver of All Good,
In whose just Hands are all our Times,
We thank Thee for our daily Food
Gathered (as News) from many Climes.
Bless All of Us around this Board
And all beneath this ample Roof;
What we find fit to print, O Lord,
Is, after all, the Pudding’ s Proof.
May Those we welcome come again
And Those who stay be glad, Amen.
And the city itself, with its sharp edges and fiery colors, is a thing of beauty; especially seen from above, with Central Park startlingly green among the skyscrapers, with the tall towers of Wall Street hazy in the distance, with the two waterways blue and sunny and the long line of an Atlantic liner slipping away to sea. It is a majestic sight, with no Wordsworth at hand to honor it, only a man with a loudspeaker or a fifty-cent guidebook.
So leaving Manhattan is like retreating from a snow summit. When you drive back along the highway the very air seems to relax about you. The electric atmosphere softens, the noise stills, the colors blur and fade, the pressure eases, the traffic thins. Soon you are out of the city’ s spell. Only pausing to look behind, over the tenements and marshes, to see the lights of the skyscrapers riding the night.