So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
NEW JERSEY: THE REENTRY
Exiles who make their reentry at New York run the risk of burning out in the atmosphere of Kennedy Airport; travel on a French freighter makes a more tonic prelude. The sea is one of the few sublimities left in the world; when its silences are enhanced by nautical camaraderie and by French cuisine, one docks refreshed. Even amid the bleak geometry of containers at Elizabeth and the pervasive stench of petroleum, one feels braced for the terrors and mysteries of the megalopolis.
No visitor can approach the Lincoln Tunnel with a light heart, but for us the shock was partially mitigated by the more seasoned dispositions of our fellow travelers. Our youthful guest in the taxi was fresh from the ship too, but more lightly attired than we, in shorts and washed-out tee shirt, and more lightly burdened in every sense. Franco-American, bilingual, indelibly marked by American mobility, this modern Hoigrave, with his pack and his gold-brown beard, had already gone through his annual metamorphosis—in France, he was Michel Echard; in the States, Mike Eckhart—and was far better armored against the assault of the terrible town than we musty, scowling Pyncheons after our years of sheltered absence. Equally adjustable was our Puerto Rican chauffeur, whose mission was emblazoned on his taxi: “Peppy’s Prompt Private Transport.” They relaunched us, Mike and Peppy, on the vast, open surface of American manners, and their even-tempered accessibility, though it couldn’t loosen the inextricable knot of the Jersey traffic, was as welcome as sweet water after the astringencies of European reserve.
Accessibility was, in truth, what one needed most in the reconquest of New York, and under the abrasive crust, one found it. A bank clerk paused to guide us through the mazes of the credit card (each species, we discovered, was governed by its own set of dogmas and taboos). A flat-voiced doorman patiently laid out the route for odd revenants who had acquired the un-American habit of walking without jogging. And the cabdrivers, lurching and bumping over the potholes of bankrupt New York, had lost little of their cheerful cynicism. The only notes of the unaffable, of discontent and distrust, clearly audible under the imposed surface of approachability, came, not without reason, from blacks, including those of small commerce and the disaffected police. But nearly everywhere we found again the American disposition to help, to explain, to “pass the time of day.” And so it was that Peppy, in his Latin fashion, exteriorized his rage against the traffic by regaling us, in the syntax of Chico Marx, with grim tales of barrier and bottleneck.
One needed no Puerto Rican chorus to underline the hard facts of environment. They assaulted us on the freeway with an insistence that the crisp, breezy autumn day could neither soften nor surmount. To unaccustomed eyes, the American automobiles were monstrous, even terrifying, as they crawled beside us, empurpling the Jersey air with fumes that matched the greasy counter-odor of the refineries. Trucks one could understand, especially in the heart of the container country; but the automobiles—there undeniably was the first index of riot and ravage, unabashed and unchecked. Each juggernaut, swollen and bedizened with chromium, contained one occupant, impatiently enthroned over tons of steel where five travelers might have found places. What an undreamed of demonstration of Veblen.
MANHATTAN: THE MELTING POT MELTED
More than any other city I visited, New York reawakened my uneasy sense—snobbish, I was sternly told, and WASP— that at the very outset of our imperial phase, the barbarians were not so much at the gates as within them. Far from any invidious complacency, I trembled before the visible consequences of our sins of omission during half a century. Scarcely have we swallowed—or been swallowed by—Italians and Irish, Poles and Russian Jews, Germans and Scandinavians—when we flounder and thrash about in the flood of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and Asians, before we have even solved the problems which our indigenous black and red minorities have quite justifiably waved under our noses. But how, others may ask, can you speak—how, in fact, dare you speak—of “we” and “us” and “our”? Who are you to judge the “huddled masses”? I can only reply that by “we” I mean no regional or racial group: I invoke no privileged descent. I speak only of those who have been around the premises long enough to feel the new arrivals as a shock—healthy, if you will, but still disruptive—rather than as a complement; as a problem to be solved rather than an apotheosis to be worshiped in the spirit of Emma Lazarus.
New York, in any event, remains the touchstone—at least for the visitor and instant analyst—of American success and American failure in racial and social accommodation. And in New York the exile’s perception of the unassimilable—or at least, of the unassimilated—was at its most acute. How, I kept asking, had this element so quickly developed into a foreign body, in a sense almost medical, and so enormously burgeoned in the social organism? In the early years of the century, the general prosperity had encysted the growth so that it was a matter of indifference to the more fortunate—the “us” whom I have mentioned—among whom it has now spread and broken out until it has altered the very fabric of the American character. As I shuttled from East Harlem to Sutton Place, from Columbus Circle to poor battered little Washington Square, I failed to discern any “national type” at all. And I found myself envying the homogeneous Norwegians and the Scotch.
Even among those who claim English as their mother tongue, I confronted an assault, continuous and implacable, on the language and syntax which, in my innocence, I had supposed to be our standard. I gulped down ecstatically the drafts of Midwest and New England undefiled that I heard in the Gotham Book Mart and other beleaguered corners. But these were mere islands in the torrent. Elsewhere in the city, if you multiply the factor of language by that of race or nationality, you feel a discomfiture bordering on xenophobia. What views are these oblivious aliens exchanging in their various codes? Good heavens, they may even be talking about you!
The decades of headlong expansion and migration—European, Caribbean, and intra-imperial from the South—that produced our racial and cultural tensions also produced the growth that kept them within limits. But in the present era of contraction the ideological frosting that one finds in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty has become a cruel paradox: the “homeless and tempest-tossed” are now established on our own teeming shores; they have brought us up short, and nowhere more than in New York, against the basic issues of conversion and adaptation. Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray (unless we are racial nationalists) that Irish, Italians, Russian Jews, Asians, Scandinavians, Poles, and Americans— black, white, or red, Anglophone or Hispanaphone—may some day form part of one great pattern. But even the most insensitive visitor in the imperial metropolis can see that it is the melting pot itself that has melted and that we possess only the dimmest notions of the shape into which the ebullient contents will ultimately be cast.
EAST RIVER AND LITTLE ITALY: THE ENIGMA OF AGING
Emerging from the welter of the East Forties, the exile greeted with relief the prisms and domes of the United Nations. The terrace and park that adjoin the Assembly Building are noble achievements: they make one ache for similar deference in other areas to the rivers of New York, which are mostly inaccessible to the viewer and obscured by the whizzing traffic of the expressways. If the face of the Secretariat is rather blank, it serves the prospect no worse than the laddered smokestacks of the notorious Consolidated Edison on First Avenue,
One lingers on the esplanade to watch the squirrels and pigeons, fatter and more aggressive than their opposite numbers in Paris or Rome, and to enjoy the river traffic and the neonized impertinences of publicity on the opposite bank. Closer at hand, one is exhorted in the cautious passives of bureaucracy: “Lunches not permitted to be consumed in the park.” “Visitors are requested to be properly attired.” Other inscriptions are fraught with irony for whoever picks up a newspaper; none more than the injunction about swords and ploughshares that adorns the stairs leading up from the U. N. Plaza to Tudor City.
But as I climbed up to Tudor City, I lost any disposition to carp amid the absurd but endearing flamboyancies of the 1920’s. The medieval fakery went well with the tiny private parks, where the oldest of old ladies were seated beneath the trees; the leaves at the feet of these frail sibyls were clearly from last year and not from this—a fact eloquent in itself— but the view that opened before their eyes and mine was of a rare felicity. The octagonal mass of the Pan-American Building at the end of the canyon echoed faintly the magic of yesteryear. And when one pivoted around, there was the river again, imperturbably flowing, asking nothing of the great city that owes it everything.
Quite extreme was the contrast of the Italian Quarter, where we dined with friends in a Neapolitan-cum-gangster splendor of mahogany and brass. We dined far better than in the fraudulent French restaurants of Upper Manhattan, but, as everywhere, at an expense that made us old pensioners tremble for our hosts. Little Italy was in the full effervescence of the Feast of San Gennaro: it was a dizzying plunge from the indifferent towers uptown into the jostle and bustle of a genuine street festival, with lanterns and overhanging wreaths and lighted globes and the pungent vapors of outdoor cooking. Cadillacs (how could recession have spared so many?) and yellow taxis pushed through the packed mob, like whales nosing through schools of small fish, and for once in a way, the rule was on the side of the pedestrians.
Despite the decay of its buildings and the slops in its streets, the downtown area was more congenial, more homogenized by direct popular pressure, than the uptown, and less glaring in its contrasts. One could forget momentarily the cruelest feature of New York: that narrow silver vein of affluence and privilege that runs up Fifth Avenue and slopes off on either side into the gullies of petty commerce and finally into unspeakable squalor. And what a relief to find real place names again—Broome, Crosby, Lafayette, Mulberry—and to see the night sky above the lower buildings. One felt rehumanized in the high-ceilinged loft where our friends lived and on the fire escapes, which served as porches, or as trapezes for the scurrying human squirrels of the quarter. Our hosts told us that, ironically, the presence of the Mafia in Little Italy ensures greater security than in the northern reaches of the island, and relative immunity from mugging, knifing, and purse-snatching. One may be murdered in the Quarter but not molested.
Agreeable surprises also awaited the nostalgic exile near City Hall and in the Financial District. Here in the realm of mammon, one rediscovers the remains of New York’s youth: amid the towering monuments of American “growth,” the small, clear fagades of Fraunces Tavern and of City Hall, with its French amenity and balance, speak softly but distinctly of American beginnings, of the young Republic, and the threatened Union. But it is in the graveyards of Trinity and St. Paul’s that one feels history unmistakably hovering. The greenery and the thin gray wedges, whose sober inscriptions recall the dawn of national consciousness, impose a silence on those that come to sit in the rush of the noon hour. I recalled Henry James’s shock at the realization that the parishioners of these very churches had created the skyscrapers that dwarf them. And my own sense of incongruity took a sharp lift when my neighbor on one of the sunwarmed benches, a harried and friendly woman from City Hall, told me that the municipality contemplated closing the graveyards to the public because they serve as stations for the passing of drugs.
I inscribe another vexatious footnote to this excursion merely because it also lights a small lantern to the social problem. This was the absence of public toilets. With the mounting curves of criminality and public sexual aberration, most buildings keep their washrooms locked. Unless one is near a hotel—and not all hotels are unconditionally hospitable—one resorts to shameful expedients: trumped up missions to stores or banks in the hope that someone will lend “the key.” Municipal buildings still permit the shamefaced taxpayer to excrete at public expense, but one longs—rather desperately if one is old—for the vespasienne or for European laxity with respect to shrubbery. But the former is disappearing even from Paris, and the latter is protected by American prudery.
I find myself drawing the longest of bows as I hunt for parallels between the aging of buildings and the aging of humans. Old age, and especially the premature ruin of the city-dweller, presents a cruel aspect everywhere, but the fantasies of New Yorkers who struggle in its clutches—the excesses of coiffure and dye, with red and white in streaky juxtaposition; the jewels and bangles; the pants and fedoras of elderly women; the extremes of skeletal wasting and glandular obesity—become doubly grim against the background of stain and smut and rust and bedizened neglect of structures scarcely a generation old. The 19th-century rectangles have an uncompromising dignity; and there is charm in the surviving brownstones, with their curving bays and primly encircling stoops, like the footstools of old ladies. But where affluence has scuttled and run, the proud towers are stricken in their prime; some malign law prevents their aging gracefully. The runnels of soot that disgrace Rockefeller Center furnish a classic instance: the face of Mr. Harrison’s giant is neither wrinkled with age nor lined with wisdom; he is merely dirty, like some miscreant from the West Side who finds no opportunity to wash. Why, one constantly asked onself, does the “crud” on some buildings—Notre Dame in Paris, the Athenaeum in Boston, the Treasury in Washington—veer over into patina, while to St. Thomas or Rockefeller Center or the apartment buildings of the East Side it lends merely the air of a hapless bum? Here perhaps lay the analogy one sought for the human drift and neglect that one encountered so often in the terrible town.
I soon found, however, that it was a gross error to interpret slovenliness—or its obverse: the desperate clutch at ornament—as a sign of decomposition. Enter any of the bedraggled buildings and you find it pullulating with life and enterprise, not always edifying. Or hail one of the human relics on First Avenue and he or she will respond immediately in the harsh but not unfriendly tones of Manhattan, or with the secular New York humor, which, after many an ordeal, is beginning to resemble that of Berlin. One specimen was a graffito over the hot air dryers in a washroom: “Just push the button,” it advised, “and get a message from your Mayor.” Quite a different species, the Manhattanese, from the bent old ladies of Paris, whose fluting courtesy covers depths of reserve, or from the bowlered old gentlemen of London, with their dry silences and discreet good will,
So one blundered about in the blighted labyrinth, more disheartened than its inhabitants, who seem to carry more lightly than the visitor the constant menace of ethnic conflict, of strikes and blackouts and outlawry that has eaten into everything, including the city’s finances and the vitals of its physical infrastructure. While New Yorkers may have no illusions about the feckless opportunism of their officials, they remain perversely attached to the despised megalopolis, especially if they were born elsewhere. Let slip a sign or a gasp or an allusion to other times and other towns, and they are at your throat. They speak with bitterness of federal indifference and the smug financial preachments of outsiders. They boast of the city’s perennial sparkle and excitement: why, they ask, do young people keep coming to New York to make their way, even when they proclaim their resolve not to stay? Finally, they point out—and they are right—that while the biggest city may have the biggest problems, whatever happens in New York happens sooner or later in all large cities.
One glimpse of better things was reserved for the tender-hearted returnee on the Columbia Promenade in Brooklyn. From there one could look across to the magic web of Hart Crane, so audaciously flung across the river and still outclassing all the bridges that have multiplied near it. Boats moved slowly over the vast surface of the harbor down below; the lights of Manhattan began to twinkle and glow against the pink sky of evening. One sensed the accidental in this spectacle; one was gnawed by an awareness of the provisional, especially when our host revealed that Brooklyn Bridge, having attained the status of an historical monument, is now vaguely menaced by the imperatives of transport. But for the moment the beauty was enough to efface one’s fears. Dull would he be of soul who could pass by such a display of the national genius without wonder and pride, and even a flutter of hope.
HARVARD: THE NEW UNIVERSITY
To revisit Harvard after 40 years was, inevitably, to plunge into melancholy. But it was the classic melancholy of thoughtful age in places that youth had thoughtlessly loved, and thus free of the depression and even despair that one felt before the amputations and uprootings in other cities.
Of the great university’s installations, the newer new struck me as admirable; the relatively new as sadly deteriorated; and the unquestionably old as the most durable.
Happiest of all in the first category is the Science Building, with its towers and sky-lighted outcroppings and restful courtyards, in which students were in fact studying. To the visitor’s eye the structure is spacious, transparent, and yet mysterious with the promise of penetralia—in short, everything that the new academe requires, in contrast to the gray platitude of the School of Administration that crouches sulkily beside it. Admirable also the Le Corbusier Visual Center in Quincy Street, although here as elsewhere the buildings, old and new, fairly gasp for air and space, squeezed and jostled as the University is by pitiless contemporary Cambridge.
Of the relatively new, I was most startled by the shabbiness of the Houses built in the 1930’s. At some points they had faded and dimmed into positive sordidness, with paint peeling from Georgian columns and dirty, staring windows that recalled apartment houses of the era or military barracks, rather than communal spaces for the give and take of young people. Surely, one told oneself, an assemblage of young men and women deserved something bolder and more spacious than these relics of the boom or the cramped and timid classicism of the dormitories that push against the palings of the Yard. And in the Harvard Union, all crowded and battered, it seemed to me that poor Henry Lee Higginson, for all the lolling complacency that Sargent has portrayed, must have been rather dismayed as he looked down at the swarming hordes at table and the raspberry paint that now surmounts the wainscots,
The Harvard Yard, sanctuary though it may be, in no way resembles a cloister. For if it still consecrates the vieux vieux of Harvard, it has greatly changed: it has in fact absorbed more gracefully than the periphery the new university of the postwar and Vietnam decades. Early New England still lives in the chaste and fragile structures of Holden Chapel and Massachusetts Hall, from whose facades one would subtract not one brick or cornice, nor any crumb of gilding from the blazoned pediments. Pushed into a corner by their more pretentious sisters, these vessels of the Puritan spirit remain exquisite, both in their intrinsic form and in what they evoke. Harvard Hall, though more stolid, was for me just as evocative: its reconstruction completed, the wooden hoardings that surrounded it in the late 60’s, together with the graffiti and the slogans about Vietnam and Greek Colonels and God, had vanished with the fevers of those days and the brief insurrection that cleared the air at Harvard.
The insurrection has left its mark all the same. The Yard is less shady and withdrawn, more densely populated, more bristling with new faces and new life, with blacks and foreigners and with women, who lend new grace to the crisscross of paths and to the grass plots, where they sprawl with guitars or books, along with the men, or fix themselves apart, a little self-consciously, in the lotus pose. Was it then just the spell of the Yard that made me find the same assortment of youth I had known as a fledgling instructor before the war? The fats and the thins, the gleaming faces and the pimpled, the humorous and the solemn, the loners and the gregarious, the intros and the extros—still the same sweet bird of youth, with, I was sure, the same old alternations of impulsive generosity and oblivious ignorance; of languor and energy.
Was the exile patronizing toward these and other evidences of inexperience? Whatever his motives, he ached with a retro-grade desire, not to imitate Faust but merely to assemble the young around him in class again. And this longing was sharpened by the temper of the Yard, which had not allowed itself to be crushed or cheapened or shabbified, but had kept a firm grip on the cup of the past, proffering it undiluted to its new parishioners.
CONCORD: THE NEW ENGLAND HEARTBEAT
An October afternoon in Concord did as much to restore the exile’s sense of native land as any other pilgrimage, save perhaps that of Charlottesville. I had “done” Concord I know not how many times, but autumn, I found, lent the best relief to the whole historic frieze. We were briefly smothered in a rush of late tourists, most of them from the deep South.”Any moah mon’ments down yonduh?” I heard one woman ask, as she gazed with blank avidity from the base of Daniel French’s Minuteman toward the Buttrick Farm, where the “incident” had created no less a monument than the United States. But the caravan of buses passed, and one had ample time to wander about, breathing the crystalline air or standing in solitude by the “rude bridge.”
This structure, which used to be a mere concrete substitute, has long since been restored in weathered timber and keeps good company with French’s masterpiece. Everything about the Minuteman—forward step, tilted young face, musket, buttoned gaiters, rolled-up sleeves—seemed exactly right against the blue and yellow of October. And the three inscriptions—the telegraphic summary of the “incident,” the account of the opening skirmish, and Lowell’s reference, on the gravestone of the British soldiers, to their “English mother’s moan”—again struck the right note: restrained, tactful, and, in every large and generous sense, patriotic. Where else but in this tiny, quiet spot could one hope to find implications so gigantic, or challenges so uncompromising to the conscience of the great democracy?
The flush of renewal remained as we wandered along the sweetly meandering stream; it found further stimulus in the realization that the contours of the Concord meadows were still what they had been for Thoreau in his canoe or for the distinguished tenants who had gazed out through the back windows of the Old Manse. The Manse struck one as larger, lighter, more cheerful than one remembered, and nothing could have projected the quality of Concord more beautifully than the lithographs of Emerson in all his serenity and of Hawthorne, dark-browed and handsome, in contrast to the sheep-like images of school textbooks.
To define the quality of Concord is not easy. One can only say that at every turn one comes straight up against the evidence of sacrifices and of intuitive moral discriminations for which hand and heart grope in vain elsewhere today. That our aberrations—and especially the neglect, in high places, of proven grandeur—should seem even more distinct in the small, steady light of Concord is natural enough. Although we have pursued gods alien to the sages of Concord and traveled far along alien paths, we can still respond to the act of courage that is consecrated in the monuments clustered by the river. And we emerge refreshed from the modest dwellings of the gifted inhabitants that followed. Most of New England lies before one in the narrow compass of Concord, and a great deal of America too. Here at least the pulse of our origins beats strong and clear. But is the heartbeat palpable elsewhere?
WASHINGTON: THE IMPERIAL FREEZE
An adoptive Washingtonian, returning after long absence, has at first the impression that he has strayed into the capital of Abraham Lincoln. The population is almost 75 percent black; the whites, having ignominiously fled to Maryland and Virginia, are rarely visible between Capitol Hill and Seventeenth Street. In Foggy Bottom nearly every old landmark— saltbox houses, brick brewery, donjon warehouses—has been razed. Newly planted trees and grass struggle manfully to deck out the no-man’s land between State and Interior, but one half expects to see the familiar figure with the stovepipe hat and umbrella picking his way amid the mud and nude asphalt.
This impression is rapidly, and unhappily, supplanted by another: the austerity of present-day Washington is less that of union battling to impose itself than that of empire chilled by incertitude. The wedding-cake office buildings of Connecticut -and Pennsylvania Avenues have been supplanted by ribs of gray concrete and blankly reflecting glass. Having torn themselves loose from the Federal-classical heritage, architects, in the aftermath of Mies van der Rohe, shrink from innovation, Ornamentation is joyless or simply absent: in the time of turmoil and doubt, the allegorical faculty—or the ideological conviction that lies behind it—has deserted the builders who serve the Republic. Originalities, one feels, have been melted down in the same foundry. Culture is enthroned behind acres of blank marble and uniform brass beanpoles at the Kennedy Center; bureaucracy is housed in identical red brick penitentiaries on the flanks of Lafayette Square; when you pass the second of these lamentable twins and gaze at the same mean, vacant windows, you have a mad sense of architectural binary fission.
In Washington I found myself thinking of the hushed and de-humanized perspectives of Chirico. Were these cold monoliths and bleak spaces symptoms of our imperial phase, of a context for faceless administration, in which beeping computers would supplant the trial-and-error, block-and-tackle methods of its easier and more confident predecessors of the immediate postwar years?
Nothing in my brief contacts with employees of the government or with journalists was to cure my malaise. Henry James’s City of Conversation had lost none of its loquacity, but the conversation sounded shrill or, too often, frankly sordid. So far as parochial interests go, Washingtonians still intoxicate themselves with tales of violence and racial conflict, especially if they are suburbanites or Watergate cliff dwellers, who bolt doors at five o’clock and leap from lobby to taxi with closed eyes. Girded for the worst by friends and by memories of the Burning of Fourteenth Street, I found—perhaps I was superficial—that the gears of the interracial machine actually meshed better than they had ten years earlier. Black and white rubbed elbows in stores and buses rather more than they did “at the North,” and even managed to smile wanly at one another now and then. One couldn’t blink the fact that the daily operations of Washington life had become noticeably less efficient. But the “new inefficiency” is far from unique to Washington: if blacks have acceded to jobs where they are still learners rather than experts, it would be absurdly retrograde to find this unnatural or less desirable than the bar which has at last been broken.
I was repeatedly told that Washington, after three tragic presidencies and the wambling Regency of Ford, had at last “pulled up its socks” and, with the new president, had acquired a new and dynamic outlook. My short stay did not allow me to judge how well the garments in question had been straightened or smoothed, but I couldn’t see that the quality of the material had much improved. The Watergate purge and the advent of new faces (which had lost some of their freshness) had neither refined nor matured the political grain. The bureaucrats and congressional hangers-on and media-men with whom I spoke were admittedly peripheral, but the atmosphere in which they lived and moved was thick with the fumes of cynicism, Wheeling and dealing, conning and chiseling—these were the leitmotifs of Washington conversation, not only in the domain of personal aspirations but also in the objective aspect of government. One still awaited the long overdue renewal of confidence in the Public Thing.
The Capitol and the press seemed in fact to desire the exact opposite, to lust for evidences of wrongdoing; and the intensity of their focus on minor delinquencies was in itself a sign of morbid appetite. Relations between Executive and Congress, the latter too long baffled and deceived by the White House, had never, in my memory, been more rancorous, The White House struck an outsider as still overrun by enthusiastic amateurs: every position taken—on the energy crisis, Israel, Panama, southern Africa (what a tissue of hypocrisies!), tax reform, unemployment, even the sacred cow of human rights—was no sooner announced than abandoned or waffled in the face of orchestrated pressures. At least no one could deny that the presidency had become more responsive: at times it seemed to respond to everything and anything, shadowed as it was by special interest groups, by a disillusioned electorate, and by a press which arrogated to itself a degree of prudery and of public representativeness which I rarely saw reflected in the comment of those supposedly represented.
This devotion to tactics at the expense of poor, beleaguered strategy is doubtless the consequence of the Nixon and post-Nixon regime. It left the dazed exile rubbing his eyes: didn’t the “new” presidency, in its frenzy of virtuous accommodation, risk losing the respect of everyone, including those accommodated? Where, amid the “images” and the “programs,” was dear old principle, or even dear old self-interest, enlightened or not? If the president, who clearly had genuine values of his own, were to stop lurching between wisdom and expediency, were to stick to his guns on issues of gravity, would he really go down under the weight of popular disapproval? But to pose such questions in Washington was to elicit, one soon discovered, the pitying smiles reserved for Rip van Winkle, or at best, the sighs of those who scanned a wider, more troubled horizon. The sighs were warranted: if President Carter, coming after three failed administrations, couldn’t hack it, then who, in the name of the Republic, could? Perhaps we had arrived at the edge of the outright imperial presidency.
In the face of these portentous questions, one found relief in the universe of L’Enfant and Latrobe and Bulfinch, in the crisscross of broad avenues and circles, in the fountains and the statues of French and St. Gaudens, in the serene monuments of a surer time against the play of trees and wide sky. On Capitol Hill the grass was still green under the light autumn rain; the rhododendrons and magnolias glittered like chandeliers in the mild, liquid southern air. Marching up the slope, one was quite swept along by the presence of far-flung democracy. The rotunda of the Capitol, overarched by the vast dome and echoing with the babble and hum of the visiting throng, fairly throbbed with the sense of power. American history was everywhere present and the high American mythology, even in the scratchy canvases that depict the glories of the colonies and the Revolution.
The American “thing” dominated Statuary Hall also, even in the pell-mell of bronze and plaster and marble, as though some gigantic housemoving of sculptors had taken place. When I inquired why Senator Gruening kept company with the founders of the Republic, I was told that the rules didn’t allow him to be “placed” because he hadn’t yet been “dedicated”; until then he was doomed to stand unassimilated among his elders, like some Odyssean shade newly debarked from Charon’s ferry. In this pantheon, which is more like a warehouse, differences of scale, both physical and aesthetic, furnished ample fare for the exile in search of democratic allegory. Effigies of the obscure or the parochial have clearly gained admittance through hometown pressures rather than through any arbitration, political or aesthetic, of national dimensions. Once again I drew the symbolic bow to strenuous lengths when I found reflected in this strangely assorted company the dispersive influence of local pressures. The egalitarian myth has a rough time when it tussles with the stubborn facts of civic and political aptitudes.
My last discovery in Washington was far more diverting—a reminder of the sympathetic village capital of my own memory. Beating in vain against the gates of the subway in Farragut Square, I was informed that this lavish new installation follows the old practice of “taking in the sidewalks”: it stops operating on Friday night and only resumes on Monday when bureaucrats crawl back from their refuges in Maryland and Virginia. In that simple fact I discerned a great deal of Washington, old and new, in the 1970’s.
CHARLOTTESVILLE AND MONTICELLO: THE AUTHENTIC PAST
Nowhere, surely, could a returning exile find himself more at ease than in Charlottesville, where “The University” bears the imprint, tactfully preserved but with an intensity undiminished, of its founder. The mildly bookish amenity of Jefferson was everywhere: in the Lawn, in the Serpentine Wall, above all in the famous Rotunda, where I was guided by a genial and knowledgeable undergraduate. The floor and rooms which had fallen victim to the grandiosities of Stanford White were now restored; the Rotunda was once again the true center of the University and the expression of the founder’s conceptions. Did Jefferson’s ghost still sigh, I wondered, over the desecration of Cabell Hall, standing athwart the vista he had left open to the primeval forest, the most breathtaking of Charlottesville’s contrasts?
For the visitor, unacquainted with the academic machinery, contrasts at Charlottesville, as at nearby Monticello, reside mostly in the domain of nature. In this the University differs sharply from Harvard, where a restless and sometimes inchoate development strains at the seam of a crowded city. In Charlottesville, once past the rush and roar of the highway and the motels at the bottom of the hill, the note is still one of homogeneity. The rows of faintly blushing brick suggest academic leisure, untroubled exchanges among the learned, scholarly withdrawal from the hustle and bustle that thrust themselves against the protecting grills and sun-drenched walls. Not that the University has become in any way dull or backward. On the contrary, the notes I heard in conversation with my hosts and students and with my amiable guide were clear and lively and far more attuned to reality than the mutterings of Washington or New York. But if the institution at Charlottesville is strongly aware of the modern world, the tone of its response owes much to the idealistic and conservative landowner who planted it there in the sublimity of the wilderness and who imparted to it his own jealous guardianship of local loyalties against encroaching centralism. It serves the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as the Nation, and in local parlance it remains “The University,” no geographic gloss being deemed necessary or even proper.
As in Cambridge, I was melted by the kindness of young men and women who answered my foolish queries and set my foolish feet in the right paths, sometimes spontaneously and always with the softer manners and accents of the South. Their elders often fretted over their detachment; at times they seemed positively nostalgic for the turbulent youth of the ‘60’s, but the wistful exile could only marvel at the reservoir of capacity for more generous absorptions than our poor limping society could offer. One French student told me he found his American classmates trop sérieux, with their noses buried in textbooks and their limbs given over to improving sports, instead of the extremes of agitation and frivolity he had been led to expect. I found the complaint ungracious. Where else in the world, I wondered, could one find a youth that combined so much sérieux with such uncalculating geniality?
I found Monticello in a state of siege unknown two decades ago, but a siege tactfully contained at the bottom of the hill, with little loss to the holy of holies at the top. Superlatives may be out of place in the mild Jeffersonian world, but one couldn’t refuse them to the swimming bluish lines of the surrounding mountains and forests, where autumnal colors were accented by pink and white farmhouses and by the cluster of Charlottesville in the haze below. From the vantage point where mansion and gardens sit, the eye is drawn in directions of such felicity that one inevitably thinks of Piedmont or Tuscany, especially as the Southern ladies firmly maintain that Mister Jefferson always pronounced the name of his cherished domain in the Italian manner. But Italy has nothing to show more fair: Monticello remains one of the supreme sites of the United States and, without question, of the world.
The approaches, however, were intimidating. The automotive dinosaur snorted and lumbered on all the lower roads, and I wondered, for the umpteenth time, as my rented car joined the vehicular millipede, whether the automobile exists for America or America for the automobile. Once disembarked and standing in line for the bus that goes to the top of the hill, I marveled at the patience with which American tourists will wait to avoid the ordeal of walking. I broke away finally and climbed the long winding drive on foot under the yellowing leaves, only to find the same good-natured herd standing under umbrellas on the lawn that stretches to the portico.
Black visitors were noticeably absent. I could only suppose that in the black mythology, the master of Monticello remains a man of large gestures rather than of heroic sacrifice. For there was no blinking the fact that everywhere on the premises, and especially in the dependencies (kitchen, smoke house, slave quarters and the maze of all-weather passages that led to the privileged center), one ran square up against the paradox of “Athenian Democracy,” of slavery underpinning the world that produced the most eloquent expressions of our liberties. All of which was to lead us precisely—and not to our discredit—to the molten overflow of Selma, of Harlem, and of Fourteenth Street.
The house itself, for all its charm, is no Florentine or Urbinese palace. In the thin air of Monticello, even slavery does not make a very picturesque or gloomy wrong, and the mansion remains a curiosity, a slightly freakish little pantheon, in which the douceur de vivre of its century has been enshrined by the eccentric genius of its designer. In the light, clear rooms, ingeniously linked and crammed with gadgets, one is amazed by the lengths to which elegance and comfort could be brought in the wilderness. One envisions Indians lurking in the nearby woods, or stalking the terrace to peer in through the French windows at the products of the Enlightenment that was to spell their doom.
For me, what made the ineffable charm effable, so to speak, was the presence of one man—and undeniably “one of ours”—who breathes and beckons at every turn. Here was Enlightened Europe, if you like: here was the Europe of Montesquieu and Voltaire and Diderot. But here also was the quirky, pawky genius of America, with its shrewd resourcefulness, its confident idealism, its conviction of having opened perspectives genuinely new and commensurate at last with human capacities. Viewing Monticello in this optic, one could even forgive the . Virginian tendency to exploit the asset of “Mister Jefferson” in the spirit of the gift shop.
It was a measure of Jefferson’s scope that under these circumstances one didn’t for a moment tire of him. Self-conscious adulation vulgarizes lesser figures, as witness Grant’s Tomb or the stonecutter’s showroom on Capitol Hill, but Jefferson at Monticello escapes with smiling ease the slightest imputation of mediocrity or “push.” The test is harder than that of Concord, where the chords of American inspiration sound just as loudly but on humbler instruments and in voices more varied and diffused. At Monticello you lift your eyes to the hills, but you gaze through the windows of a drawing room, or from the shade of gardens, that breathe the essence of one person. And if the stern Concord undertones of sacrifice are absent, one can only say that the voice of Virginian serenity is as much a part of the national patrimony as that of New England strenuousness, and as worthy of inscription in the ledger of the New World’s inheritance from the old. Such, it seemed to me on that rainy afternoon, was the message of the master of Monticello, speaking across 250 years to other Americans. What else could have imposed so audible a hush upon the myriad visitors of different antecedents? And who better than Jefferson could have mitigated or channeled, without constraint or artifice, the universal affable, promiscuous trampling of the multitude who had climbed the hill to do him honor?
So one turned with a sigh from the peaceful terraces that led past Jefferson’s tomb, with his own modest epitaph, to the long descent through the sad wood and the autumnal odors of decay. At the bottom lay the Avernus one had left behind for a blessed hour, the world of exhaust fumes, coke machines, litter, and all the press and meaningless scurry. But all of us had carried away from Monticello something indescribably fortifying, a sense of Promethean gifts generously shared, a welling up of original virtues. In that scene of grandeur where civilization had taken root, those virtues seemed more real than the exile had hoped.
THE DANGER AND THE HOPE
But would the virtues survive?
It seemed to the exile, as he turned his back on Charlottesville and headed north again, that the older strain to which he belonged—crumbling, dispersed, Prufrockian in its squeamishness—was condemned to provinciality, even to parochialism, amid the disaffected swarm of New York and Chicago and Detroit. And if we could no longer impose the concepts of Jefferson and Emerson, if our notions of virtus were lost on the turbulent majority, we might well end by rallying to them or, worse still, surrendering to a new leadership, which, like the totalitarians of Eastern Europe and the Third World, would preserve the old vocabulary of democracy only to pervert it to the uses of empire and dictatorship. Thus the eternal antinomy of liberty and equality might again find itself cruelly resolved.
Here, it seemed to me, was the danger I had sensed all through my pilgrimage: not the tumult and fever and terror of revolution but the chill and lassitude and passive cruelty of counter-revolution. The line-up of forces and numbers in the cities—of black and white, young and old, police and dissidents, blue collars and white collars—seemed to weigh on the side of reaction rather than revolt. In an automated, urbanized society, where everything is punched on cards and wound on cybernetic wheels, one’s vigilance is suffocated by a sense of futility. Slogans instead of sacrifice, conformity rather than pluralism—anything comes to seem better than the bother and discomfort of change.
But if one couldn’t blink the errors of the past, it would surely be un-American to condemn the future a priori.Two hopeful hypotheses had failed: the melting pot had shattered under the impact of national and racial divergence and discontent; the “nation of nations” had also faded because separatism was absurd in a society whose variant strains were so insidiously integrated and interdependent. Thus the pressures against existing patterns of racial and social adjustment had become terrific, and no one had found a way to channel them. But who could say that a society so mobile and flexible as the American would fail to produce a new synthesis? Social leveling, one saw, was an inexorable process not only in America but in the Europe to which one was returning. But nothing should stop Americans from seeking a New Jerusalem, to which black and white and brown and yellow and red, foreign and domestic, could, if they would, contribute something as yet invisible to an elderly WASP but not for that reason impossible. Even if one couldn’t take part in the crossover, one needn’t, one mustn’t, set one’s face against it.
In the official palaver of bicentennials and common ideals, we sometimes forget that not all Europeans or their American descendants loved Franklin and Jefferson, or threw their nightcaps in the air when the news came in from Lexington or Saratoga. Emerson was once deemed a flaming radical and Lincoln a bumptious upstart. Europe has always had trouble understanding the innovations and, in our time, the exigencies of her eldest daughter. But what does Europe’s perplexity amount to when one compares it to America’s perennial struggle to adjust its energies to the heavy European heritage? One issue is no sooner settled than another arrives with a new wave of strangers on our shores.”How queerly they dress!” we cry.”How absurdly they behave!” But the alluvial deposits remain, to be transformed and returned to the senders. In this flux and reflux, the Communist-capitalist, totalitarian-democratic, East-West polarizations are only passing phases. Even when Americans lick their wounds, they never cease to circle around the enigma of their antecedents or to wrestle with the burden that these impose, And no American can solve the problem or cast off the load:
“When me they fly, I am the wings; I am the doubter and the doubt.”
There the exile had to leave it. At the moment of his pilgrimage, neither Europeans, for all their experience, nor Americans, for all their energy, seemed very resourceful in their management of the common estate. But as an American he had to share the larger hope that our present time of trouble—our first real trial since the Civil War—would yet produce another credit to balance the European debits in the ledger.