Recently published by ISI, edited and introduced by the celebrated historian John Lukacs, is a volume called American Austen. Its subject is the Philadelphian writer Agnes Repplier, whose brilliant writings have been largely forgotten — an injustice which this book proposes to rectify, at least in part. Reprinted with permission below is an essay selected from that book, entitled “Town and Suburb,” which in addition to its exemplification of the woman’s splendid style, addresses with some remarkable verve subjects and disputes which have interested many of us here at What’s Wrong with the World. Repplier strikes me in this piece as a kind of contrarian distributist, alternately reproving agrarian idealists and brassbound suburban progressives. The essay fits a style we might call High Polemic, but its ballast is in the very moderate wisdom at back of the energetic argumentation.
Repplier’s career of writing touched on an extraordinary variety of subjects. Lukacs’s collection begins with some selections from her history of Philadelphia that are simply marvelous; it includes several engrossing sketches of a vaguely biographical character; and it of course features numerous literary and political pieces. He and ISI have done us a great favor in working hard to revive this uniquely American woman’s contribution to American letters.
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I prize civilization, being bred in towns, and liking to hear and see what new things people are up to. — George Santayana
When I was a child, and people lived in towns and read poetry about the country, American cities had sharply accentuated characteristics, which they sometimes pretended to disparage, but of which they were secretly and inordinately proud. Less rich in tradition and inheritance than the beautiful cities of Europe, they nevertheless possessed historic backgrounds which colored their communal life, and lent significance to social intercourse. The casual allusion of the Bostonian to his “Puritan conscience,” the casual allusion of the Philadelphian to his “Quaker forbears,” did not perhaps imply what they were meant to imply; but they indicated an outlook, and established an understanding. The nearness of friends in those days, the familiar, unchanging streets, the convivial clubs, the constant companionship helped to knit the strands of life into a close and well-defined pattern. Townsmen who made part of this pattern were sometimes complacent without much cause, and combative without any cause at all; but the kind of cynicism which breeds fatigue about human affairs was no part of their robust constitutions.
A vast deal of abuse has been leveled against cities; and the splendor of the parts they have played has been dimmed by a too persistent contemplation of their sins and their suffering. Thomas Jefferson said that they were a sore on the body politic; but then Jefferson appears to have believed that farming was the only sinless employment for man. When he found himself loving Paris, because he was an American and could not help it, he excused his weakness by reflecting that, after all, France was not England, and by admitting a little ruefully that in Paris “a man might pass his life without encountering a single rudeness.” It was Jefferson’s contemporary, Cobbett, who, more than a hundred years ago, started the denouncement of towns and town life which has come rumbling down to us through the century. London was the object of his supreme detestation. Jews and Quakers lived in London (so he said), also readers of the Edinburgh Review; and Jews, Quakers, and readers of the Edinburgh Review were alike to him anathema. “Cobbett,” mused Hazlitt, “had no comfort in fixed principles”; and for persistent fixity of principles the Review ran a close third to the followers of Moses and of Fox.
It was pure wrong-headedness on the part of a proletarian fighting the cause of the proletariat to turn aside from the age-old spectacle of the townsman cradling his liberty, and rejoicing in his labor. There was not an untidy little mediaeval city in Europe that did not help to carry humanity on its way. The artisans scorned by Froissart, the “weavers, fullers, and other ill-intentioned people of the town,” who gave so much trouble to their betters, battled unceasingly for communal rights, and very often got them. The guilds, proud, quarrelsome and defiant, gave to the world the pride and glory of good work, and the pride and glory of freedom. As for London, those “mettlesome Thames dwellers” held their own for centuries against every form of aggression. The silken cord which halts each king of England at Temple Bar on his way to coronation is a reminder of the ancient liberties of London. There stood the city’s gates, which were opened only at the city’s will. Charles I signed his own death warrant when he undertook to coerce that stubborn will. When George I asked Sir Robert Walpole how much it would cost to enclose Saint James’s Park (long the delight of Londoners), and make it the private pleasure-ground of the king, the minister answered in four words, “Only three crowns, Sire,” and the Hanoverian shrugged his shoulders in silent understanding. What a strange people he had come to rule!
We Americans think that we put up a brave fight against the stupid obstinacy of George III, and so we did for seven years. But London fought him all the years of his reign. “It was not for nothing,” says Trevelyan, “that Londoners with their compact organization, and their habits of political discipline, proudly regarded themselves as the regular army of freedom.” George, whose conception of kingship was singularly simple and primitive, regarded his hostile city pretty much as Victoria regarded her House of Commons. “Very unmanageable and troublesome,” was her nursery governess’s comment upon a body of men who were (though she did not like to think so) the lawmakers of Britain.
With all history to contradict us, it is hardly worth while to speak of city life as entailing “spiritual loss,” because it is out of touch with Nature. It is in touch with humanity, and humanity is Nature’s heaviest asset. Blake, for some reason which he never made plain (making things plain was not his long suit), considered Nature — “the vegetable universe,” he phrased it — to be depraved. He also considered Wordsworth to be more or less depraved because of his too exclusive worship at her shrine. “I fear Wordsworth loves Nature,” he wrote (proud of his penetration) to Crabbe Robinson; “and Nature is the work of the Devil. The Devil is in us all so far as we are natural.” Yet, when Wordsworth the Nature-lover stood on Westminster Bridge at dawn, and looked upon the sleeping London, he wrote a noble sonnet to her beauty:
Earth has not anything to show more fair.
When Blake looked upon London, he saw only her sorrow and her sin, he heard only “the youthful harlot’s curse” blighting her chartered streets. She was a trifle more depraved than Nature.
The present quarrel is not even between Nature and man, between the town and the country. It is between the town and the suburb, that midway habitation which fringes every American city, and which is imposing or squalid according to the incomes of suburbanites. This semi-rural life, though it has received a tremendous impetus in the present century, is not precisely new. Clerkenwell, London’s oldest suburb, dates from the Plantagenets. John Stow, writing in the days of Elizabeth, says that rich men who dwelt in London town spent their money on hospitals for the sick and almshouses for the poor; but that rich men who dwelt in Shoreditch and other suburbs spent their money on costly residences to gratify their vanity. Being an antiquarian, and a freeman of Merchant Taylors’ Company, Stow naturally held by the town.
It is the all-prevailing motor which stands responsible for the vast increase of suburban life in the United States, just as it was the coming of the locomotive which stood responsible for the increased population of London in Cobbett’s last days. “The facilities which now exist for moving human bodies from place to place,” he wrote in 1827 (being then more distressed by the excellence of the coaching roads than by the invasion of steam), “are among the curses of the country, the destroyers of industry, of morals, and of happiness.”
It sounds sour to people who are now being taught that to get about easily and quickly is ever and always a blessing. The motor, we are given to understand, is of inestimable service because it enables men and women to do their work in the city, and escape with ease and comfort to their country homes — pure air, green grass, and so on. Less stress is laid upon the fact that it is also the motor which has driven many of these men and women into the suburbs by rendering the city insupportable; by turning into an open-air Bedlam streets which were once peaceful, comely and secure. Mr. Henry Ford, who has added the trying role of prophet to his other avocations, proclaimed six years ago that American cities were doomed. They had had their day. They had abused their opportunities. They had become unbearably expensive. They had grown so congested that his cars could make no headway in their streets. Therefore they must go. “Delenda est Carthago; dum Ford deliberat.”
If Dickens still has readers as well as buyers, they must be grimly diverted by the art with which, in A Tale of Two Cities, he works up the incident of the child run over and killed in the crowded streets of Paris. He makes this incident the key to all that follows. It justifies the murder by which it is avenged. It interprets the many murders that are on their way. It is an indictment of a class condemned to destruction for its wantonness. And to emphasize the dreadfulness of the deed, Dickens adds this damnatory sentence: “Carriages were often known to drive on, and leave their wounded behind them.”
All this fire and fury over a child killed in the streets! Why, we Americans behold a yearly holocaust of children that would have glutted the bowels of Moloch. When thirty-two thousand people are slain by motors in twelve months, it is inevitable that a fair proportion of the dead should be little creatures too feeble and foolish to save themselves. As for driving on and leaving the wounded, that is a matter of such common occurrence that we have with our usual ingenuity invented a neat and expressive phrase for it, thus fitting it into the order of the day. The too-familiar headlines in the press, “Hit-and-run victim found unconscious in the street,” “Hit-and-run victim dies in hospital,” tell over and over again their story of callous cruelty. That such cruelty springs from fear is no palliation of the crime. Cowardice explains, but does not excuse, the most appalling brutalities. This particular form of ruffianism wins out (more’s the pity!) in a majority of cases, and so it is likely to continue. In the year 1926, three hundred and sixty-one hit-and-run drivers remained unidentified, and escaped the penalty they deserved. Philippe de Comines cynically observed that he had known very few people who were clever enough to run away in time. The hit-and-runners of America could have given him points in this ignoble game.
The supposed blessedness of country life (see every anthology in the libraries) has been kindly extended to the suburbs. They are open to Whistler’s objection that trees grow in them, and to Horace Walpole’s objection that neighbors grow in them also. Rich men multiply their trees; poor men put up with the multiplication of neighbors. Rich men can conquer circumstances wherever they are. Poor men (and by this I mean men who are urbanely alluded to as in “moderate circumstances”) do a deal of whistling to keep themselves warm. They talk with serious fervor about Nature, when the whole of their landed estate is less than one of the back yards in which the town dwellers of my youth grew giant rosebushes that bloomed brilliantly in the mild city air. Mowing a grass plot is to them equivalent to plowing the soil. Sometimes they have not even a plot to mow, not even the shelter of a porch, nor the dignity and distinction of their own front door; but live in gigantic suburban apartment houses, a whole community under one roof like a Bornean village. Yet this monstrous standardization leaves them happy in the belief that they are country dwellers, lovers of the open, and spiritual descendants of the pioneers.
And the city? The abandoned city whose sons have fled to suburbs, what is it but a chaotic jumble of skyscrapers, public institutions, and parked cars? A transition stage is an uncomely stage, and cities on the move have a melancholy air of degradation. Shops elbow their uneasy way, business soars up into the air, houses disappear from their familiar settings, tired men and women drop into their clubs on the twentieth story of an inhospitable building, streets are dug up, paved, and dug up again, apparently with a view to buried treasure; dirt, confusion, and piercing noise are permitted by citizens who find it easier to escape such evils than to control them. An impression prevails that museums, libraries, and imposing banks constitute what our American press delights in calling “the city beautiful.” That there is no beauty without distinction, and that distinction is made or marred by the constant, not the casual, contact of humanity, is a truth impressed upon our minds by countless towns in Europe, and by a great many towns in the United States. They tell their tale as plainly as a printed page, and far more convincingly.
If this tale is at an end; if the city has nothing to give but dirt, disorder, and inhuman racket, then let its sons fly to the suburbs and mow their grass plots in content. If it has no longer a vehement communal life, if it is not, as it once was, the center of pleasure and of purpose, if it is a thoroughfare and nothing else, then let them pass through it and escape. One thing is sure. No rural community, no suburban community, can ever possess the distinctive qualities that city dwellers have for centuries given to the world. The common interests, the keen and animated intercourse with its exchange of disputable convictions, the cherished friendships and hostilities — these things shaped townsmen into a compact, intimate society which left its impress upon each successive generation. The home gives character to the city; the man gives character to the home. If, when his day’s work is over, he goes speeding off to a suburb, he breaks the link which binds him to his kind. He says that he has good and beautiful and health-giving relations with Nature — a tabloid Nature suited to his circumstances; but his relations with men are devitalized. Will Rogers indicated delicately this devitalization when he said: “League of Nations! No, Americans aren’t bothering about the League of Nations. What they want is some place to park their cars.”
Londoners, who have no cause to fear a semi-deserted London, grieve that even a single thoroughfare should change its aspect, should lose its old and rich association with humanity. So Mr. Street grieved over an altered Piccadilly, reconstructing the dramas it had witnessed, the history in which it had borne a part; wandering in fancy from house to house, where dwelt the great, the gay, and the undaunted. His book, he said, was an epitaph. Piccadilly still lived, and gave every day a clamorous demonstration of activity; but her two hundred years of social prominence were over, and her very distinguished ghosts would never have any successors.
This is what is known as progress, and from it the great cities of Europe have little or nothing to fear. London, Paris, and Rome remain august arbiters of fate. They may lose one set of associations, but it would take centuries to rob them of all. Only a mental revolution could persuade their inhabitants that they are not good places to live in; and the eloquence of an archangel would be powerless to convince men bred amid arresting traditions that they are less fit to control the destinies of a nation than are their bucolic neighbors.
It would be hard to say when or why the American mind acquired the conviction that the lonely farmhouse or the sacrosanct village was the proper breeding-place for great Americans. It can hardly be due to the fact that Washington was a gentleman farmer, and Lincoln a country boy. These circumstances are without significance. The youthful Washington would have taken as naturally to fighting, and the youthful Lincoln to politics, if they had been born in Richmond and Louisville. But the notion holds good. It has been upheld by so keen an observer and commentator as Mr. Walter Lippmann, who has admitted that ex-Governor Smith, for whom he cherishes a profound and intelligent admiration, was debarred from the presidency by “the accident of birth.” The opposition to him was based upon a sentiment “as authentic and as poignant as his support. It was inspired by the feeling that the clamorous life of the city should not be acknowledged as the American ideal.”
This is, to say the least, bewildering. The qualities which Mr. Lippmann endorses in Mr. Smith, his “sure instinct for realities,” his “supremely good-humored intelligence, and practical imagination about the ordinary run of affairs,” are products of his environment. His name can be written in the book of state as one who knows his fellow men; and he knows them because he has rubbed elbows with them from boyhood. The American people, says Mr. Lippmann, resent this first-hand knowledge. They will not condone or sanction it.
In spite of the mania for size and the delusions of grandeur which are known as progress, there is still an attachment to village life. The cities exist, but they are felt to be alien; and in this uncertainty men turn to the scenes from which the leaders they have always trusted have come. The farmhouse at Plymouth, with old Colonel Coolidge doing the chores, was an inestimable part of President Coolidge’s strength. The older Americans feel that it is in such a place that American virtue is bred; a cool, calm, shrewd virtue, with none of the red sins of the sidewalks of New York.
There may be Americans who entertain this notion, but Mr. Lippmann, I am sure, is not of the number. He is well aware that sin does not belong to sidewalks. It has no predisposition towards pavements or mud roads. It is indigenous to man. Our first parents lived in the country, and they promptly committed the only sin they were given a chance to commit. Cain was brought up in the heart of the country, and he killed one of the small group of people upon whom he could lay his hands. That “great cities, with their violent contrasts of riches and poverty, have produced class hatred all the world over,” is true — but a half-truth. The Jacquerie, most hideous illustration of well-earned class hatred, was a product of the countryside. So was the German Bundschuh. The French and the Russian Revolutionists lighted up wide landscapes with burning homes, and soaked the innocent soil with blood. The records of crime prove the universality of crime. Bastards and morons and paranoiacs and degenerates and the criminally insane may be found far from the sidewalks of New York.
To live in stable harmony with Nature should be as easy for the town dweller as for the countryman. As a matter of fact, it should be easier, inasmuch as “the brutal, innocent injustice of Nature” leaves the town dweller little the worse. Like authorship, Nature is a good stick but a bad crutch, and they love her best who are not dependent on her caprices:
Bred in the town am I,
So would I wish to be,
Loving its glimpses of sky,
Swayed by its human sea.
If Browning in his incomparable poem, “Up at a Villa — Down in the City,” appears to mock at the street-loving lady, he nevertheless makes out a strong case in her favor. I have sympathized with her all my life; and it is worthy of note that the poet himself preferred to live in towns, and, like Santayana, see what people were up to. The exceptionally fortunate man was Montaigne who drew a threefold wisdom from the turbulent city of Bordeaux, which he ruled as mayor; from the distinction of Paris and the French court, where he was a gentleman of the king’s chamber; and from the deep solitude of Auvergne, where stood his ancestral home. He knew the life of the politician, the life of the courtier, the life of the farmer. Therefore, being kindly disposed towards all the vanities of the world, he was balanced and moderate beyond the men of his day.
Lovers of the town have been content, for the most part, to say they loved it. They do not brag about its uplifting qualities. They have none of the infernal smugness which makes the lover of the country insupportable. “I gravitate to a capital by a primary law of nature,” said Henry Adams, and was content to say no more. It did not seem to occur to him that the circumstance called for ardor or for apology. But when Mr. John Erskine turns his ungrateful back upon the city which loves him, he grows enthusiastic over the joy of regaining “the feel of the soil, the smell of earth and rain, the dramatic contact of the seasons, the companionship of the elements.” It is a high note to strike; but if for drama we must fall back upon the seasons, and for companionship upon the elements, ours will be a dreary existence in a world which we have always deemed both dramatic and companionable. If, as Mr. Erskine asserts, spring, summer, autumn, and winter are “annihilated” in town, we lose their best, but we escape their worst, features. That harsh old axiom, “Nature hates a farmer,” has a fund of experience behind it. A distinguished surgeon, having bought, in a Nature-loving mood, a really beautiful farm, asked an enlightened friend and neighbor: “What had I better do with my land?” To which the answer came with judicious speed: “Pave it.”
There is a vast deal of make-believe in the carefully nurtured sentiment for country life, and the barefoot boy, and the mountain girl. I saw recently in an illustrated paper a picture of a particularly sordid slum in New York’s unredeemed East Side, and beneath it the reproachful query: “Is this a place to breed supermen?” Assuredly not. Neither is a poverty-stricken, fallen-to-pieces farmhouse, with a hole in its screen door; or a grim little home in a grim little suburb, destitute of beauty and cheer. If we want supermen (and to say the truth Germany has put us out of conceit with the species), we shall have to breed them under concentrated violet rays. Sunshine and cloud refuse to sponsor the race.
When Dr. Johnson said, “The man who is tired of London is tired of life,” he expressed only his own virile joy in humanity. When Lamb said, “That man must have a rare receipt for melancholy who can be dull in Fleet Street,” he summed up the brimming delight afforded him by this epitome of civilization. When Sydney Smith wrote from the dignified seclusion of his rectory at Combe-Florey, “I look forward eagerly to the return of the bad weather, coal fires, and good society in a crowded city,” he put the pleasures of the mind above the pleasures of the senses. All these preferences are temperately and modestly stated. It was only when Lamb was banished from the thronged streets he loved that he grew petulant in his misery. It was only when he dreamed he was in Fleet Market, and woke to the torturing dullness of Enfield, that he cried out: “Give me old London at fire and plague times rather than this healthy air, these tepid gales, these purposeless exercises.” Yet even then he claimed no moral superiority over the Nature-lovers who were beginning to make themselves heard in England. He knew only that London warmed his sad heart, and that it broke when he lost her.
Generally speaking, and leaving out of consideration the very poor to whom no choice in life is given, men and women who live in cities or in suburbs do so because they want to. Men and women who live in small towns do so because of their avocations, or for other practical reasons. They are right in affirming that they like it. I once said to a New York taxi driver: “I want to go to Brooklyn.” To which he made answer: “You mean you have to.” So with the smalltown dwellers. They may or may not “want to,” but the “have to” is sure. Professional men, doctors and dentists especially, delight in living in the suburbs, so that those who need their services cannot reach them. The doctor escapes from his patients, who may fall ill on Saturday, and die on Sunday, without troubling him. The dentist is happy in that he can play golf all Saturday and Sunday while his patients agonize in town. Only the undertaker, man’s final servitor, stands staunchly by his guns.
It is not because the city is big, but because it draws to its heart all things that are gay and keen, that life in its streets is exhilarating. It is short of birds (even the friendly little sparrows are being killed off by the drip of oil into its gutters); but that is a matter of more concern to the city’s cats than to the city’s inhabitants. It is needlessly noisy; but the suburb is not without its sufferings on this score. Motors shriek defiance in the leafy lanes, dogs bark their refrain through the night, and the strange blended sounds of the radios, like lost souls wailing their perdition, float from piazza to piazza. These are remediable evils; but so are most of the city’s evils, which are not remedied because Americans are born temporizers, who dislike nothing so much as abating a public nuisance. They will spend time and money on programs to outlaw war, because that is a purely speculative process; but they will not stir themselves to outlaw excessive noise or dangerous speeding, because such measures mean actual campaigning. “The city,” says one clear-eyed and very courageous American, “is the flower of civilization. It gives to menthe means to make their lives expressive. It offers a field of battle, and it could be made a livable place if its sons would stay and fight for it, instead of running away.”