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The fear of the dead level

it is noticeable that foreign observers, who were always a little anxious about the possible monotony of our society, have grown a little more so since they have ventured west of the Alleghanies and crossed the long plain to be traversed before reaching the Rocky Mountains. In the days when an American trip culminated at Niagara, and even Trenton Falls was considered a sight so remarkable that Charles Sumner wrote from England to caution a traveller by no means to quit the country without seeing it, there was no complaint that our scenery was monotonous. The continent was supposed to have done all, in that line, which could fairly be asked of it. Since then, the criticism has grown with the railway journey, and people fear that the horizontal line of the prairies must more than counterbalance the vertical line of Niagara, in moulding the American mind. Then these very travellers are justly [71] anxious about the sameness of our cities; the streets numbered one way, the avenues the other. ‘Can the young heart,’ they ask, ‘attach definite associations or tender emotions with an Arabic figure? Is there romance in numeration?’ Probably they carry the criticism too far. As Nature, according to Emerson, loves the number five, so does the well-bred New Yorker. Surely ‘Fifth Avenue’ has as definite and distinctive a meaning for him as if there were no other number in the universe; and I am sure that in every city there is some youth who cannot look up at the street-sign denoting some Twenty-third Street or Thirty-fifth Street without a slight spasm of the heart. Such associations last a great while, even if the street be disagreeable; the philosopher Descartes was enamored in his youth with a young lady who squinted a little, and it is said that he never through life could behold without the tenderest emotion a woman having a cast in her eye. If Descartes was permanently sentimental about orbs that were crooked, cannot others be so about streets that are straight?

Still, in the long run, monotony is not satisfying; [72] and the kind traveller hastens to conciliate local pride by granting some individuality to a few cities, such as New York, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston. It is very possible that a closer student of this particular point might find less monotony, even among towns, than he does. In Mr. Warner's late studies of American cities, for instance, we are struck, not with the sameness, but with the variety. Much depends upon the trained eye. A long railway trip across a level plain is monotonous to one who is looking for bold scenery; but it may not be monotonous to the agriculturist who is studying the crops, or to the botanist who is looking out for trees and wild flowers, or to the student of human nature who is watching for new types of character. So an exhibition of machinery is monotonous to the ignorant, but full of knowledge to the expert; and there was a capital illustration in Punch at the time of the first International Exposition in London, showing the difference between a group of bored fashionables, passing languidly through the hall devoted to new inventions, and a party of intelligent mechanics eagerly examining [73] a machine. So of human beings: to a raw officer of colored troops, for instance, in the Civil War, his men looked hopelessly alike as they stood uniformed in line; but he soon found that every face had its individuality. I have even heard teachers say the same of a new class, black or white, on its entering school. Living in a college town, I find the young men looking so much the same, so long as I do not know them, as to suggest the wish expressed by Humpty Dumpty to Alice, that some human beings could be constructed with their features differently combined—the noses, for instance, being sometimes put above the eyebrows—in order to distinguish them more conspicuously. Yet each one becomes on acquaintance a perfectly defined personality; and it is complained by their professors that there is sometimes rather an excess of individuality, when it comes to discipline.

It turns out, then, that individuality depends largely on the observer. Thoreau points out that no two oak-leaves are precisely alike; and Scudder says the same of the markings on butterflies' wings. Alexander von Humboldt [74] remarked that this trait develops with civilization; a hundred wild dogs are more alike than their domesticated kindred, and so of a hundred wild men. If the step we have taken in America, away from courts and hereditary institutions, be a step in civilization, then it is certainly to lead to more individuality, not less. Even in England, where is marked individuality to be found? Surely, among the men who have made the name of England great; her artists, authors, inventors, scientific teachers. Yet Mr. Besant has lately pointed out, in a very impressive passage, that scarcely one of these men ever went near the court of England. The marked individuality of that nation, therefore, is distinctly outside of the court circle; and, if so, individuality would gain and not lose by dropping those circles altogether. The difficulty is that the court circle substitutes for this quality a mere variation of costume—a robe, a decoration. But in reality these things subdue individuality, instead of developing it; as every recruiting officer found, during our Civil War, that recruits became more docile the moment they put on the uniform; and a lady [75] at Newport once vindicated to me the desirableness of liveries on the ground that they were ‘very repressive.’ In persons of higher grade in England there is developed the official—the Lord Chamberlain, the Lord of the Hounds; or the typical hereditary lord, in perhaps two different types, ‘the wicked lord,’ and ‘the good lord;’ but there is no added development of the individual.

It all comes to this, then, that for the development of individuality you must have a free career; and the guarantee of freedom is the first step toward what you seek. Nowhere will you find a more racy personality than among New England farmers, whose fathers lived before them on the same soil, or perhaps six generations of ancestors, and who, among all restrictions of hard soil and severe competition, have yet kept their separate characteristics. I have spent summer after summer in the country, and have never yet encountered two farmers alike—two who would not, even if drawn by an unsympathetic though acute observer like Howells, stand out on the canvas with as marked an individuality as Silas Lapham. It [76] is so with our native-born population generally. In the best volume of New England stories ever written—it is perhaps needless to say that I refer to ‘Five Hundred Dollars a Year and Other Stories,’ by Mr. H. W. Chaplin—there is an inimitable scene in a jury-room where the hero, ‘Eli,’ holds out during many hours for the innocence of a wronged man. The jurymen are commonplace personages enough—a sea captain, a butcher, a pedler, and so on—and yet their talk through page after page brings out in each a type of character so vivid and distinct that you feel sure that you would know each interlocutor afterward, if you met him in the street. He who approaches human nature in such a spirit need have no fear of the dead level.

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