A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells

I

I confess that with all my curiosity to meet an Altrurian, I was in no hospitable mood toward the traveler when he finally presented himself, pursuant to the letter of advice sent me by the friend who introduced him. It would be easy enough to take care of him in the hotel; I had merely to engage a room for him, and have the clerk tell him his money was not good if he tried to pay for anything. But I had swung fairly into my story; its people were about me all the time; I dwelt amid its events and places, and I did not see how I could welcome my guest among them, or abandon them for him. Still, when he actually arrived, and I took his hand as he stepped from the train, I found it less difficult to say that I was glad to see him than I expected. In fact, I was glad, for I could not look upon his face without feeling a glow of kindness for him. I had not the least trouble in identifying him, for he was so unlike all the Americans who dismounted from the train with him, and who all looked hot, worried, and anxious. He was a man no longer young, but in what we call the heyday of life, when our own people are so absorbed in making provision for the future that they may be said not to live in the present at all. This Altrurian’s whole countenance, and especially his quiet, gentle eyes, expressed a vast contemporaneity, with bounds of leisure removed to the end of time; or, at least, this was the effect of something in them which I am obliged to report in rather fantastic terms. He was above the middle height, and he carried himself vigorously. His face was sunburned, or sea-burned, where it was not bearded; and, although I knew from my friend’s letter that he was a man of learning and distinction in his own country, I should never have supposed him a person of scholarly life, he was so far from sicklied over with anything like the pale cast of thought. When he took the hand I offered him in my half-hearted welcome he gave it a grasp that decided me to confine our daily greetings to something much less muscular.

“Let me have your bag,” I said, as we do when we meet people at the train, and he instantly bestowed a rather heavy valise upon me, with a smile in his benignant eyes, as if it had been the greatest favor. “Have you got any checks?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, in very good English, but with an accent new to me, “I bought two.” He gave them to me, and I passed them to our hotel porter, who was waiting there with the baggage-cart. Then I proposed that we should walk across the meadow to the house, which is a quarter of a mile or so from the station. We started, but he stopped suddenly and looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, you needn’t be troubled about your trunks,” I said. “The porter will get them to the house all right. They’ll be in your room by the time we get there.”

“But he’s putting them into the wagon himself,” said the Altrurian.

“Yes; he always does that. He’s a strong young fellow. He’ll manage it. You needn’t —” I could not finish saying he need not mind the porter; he was rushing back to the station, and I had the mortification of seeing him take an end of each trunk and help the porter toss it into the wagon; some lighter pieces he put in himself, and he did not stop till all the baggage the train had left was disposed of.

I stood holding his valise, unable to put it down in my embarrassment at this eccentric performance, which had been evident not to me alone, but to all the people who arrived by the train, and all their friends who came from the hotel to meet them. A number of these passed me on the tally-ho coach; and a lady, who had got her husband with her for over Sunday, and was in very good spirits, called gayly down to me: “Your friend seems fond of exercise!”

“Yes,” I answered, dryly; the sparkling repartee which ought to have come to my help failed to show up. But it was impossible to be vexed with the Altrurian when he returned to me, unruffled by his bout with the baggage and serenely smiling.

“Do you know,” he said, “I fancied that good fellow was ashamed of my helping him. I hope it didn’t seem a reflection upon him in any way before your people? I ought to have thought of that.”

“I guess we can make it right with him. I dare say he felt more surprised than disgraced. But we must make haste a little now; your train was half an hour late, and we shall not stand so good a chance for supper if we are not there pretty promptly.”

“No?” said the Altrurian. “Why?”

“Well,” I said, with evasive lightness, “first come, first served, you know. That’s human nature.”

“Is it?” he returned, and he looked at me as one does who suspects another of joking.

“Well, isn’t it?” I retorted; but I hurried to add: “Besides, I want to have time after supper to show you a bit of our landscape. I think you’ll enjoy it.” I knew he had arrived in Boston that morning by steamer, and I now thought it high time to ask him: “Well, what do you think of America, anyway?” I ought really to have asked him this the moment he stepped from the train.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m intensely interested,” and I perceived that he spoke with a certain reservation. “As the most advanced country of its time, I’ve always been very curious to see it.”

The last sentence raised my dashed spirits again, and I said, confidently: “You must find our system of baggage-checks delightful.” I said this because it is one of the first things we brag of to foreigners, and I had the habit of it. “By-the-way,” I ventured to add, “I suppose you meant to say you brought two checks when I asked you for them at the train just now? But you really said you bought them.”

“Yes,” the Altrurian replied, “I gave half a dollar apiece for them at the station in Boston. I saw other people doing it,” he explained, noting my surprise. “Isn’t it the custom?”

“I’m happy to say it isn’t yet, on most of our roads. They were tipping the baggage-man, to make sure that he checked their baggage in time and put it on the train. I had to do that myself when I came up; otherwise it might have got along here some time next day. But the system is perfect.”

“The poor man looked quite worn out,” said the Altrurian, “and I am glad I gave him something. He seemed to have several hundred pieces of baggage to look after, and he wasn’t embarrassed like your porter by my helping him put my trunks into the car. May I confess that the meanness of the station, its insufficient facilities, its shabby waiting-rooms, and its whole crowded and confused appearance gave me rather a bad impression?”

“I know,” I had to own, “it’s shameful; but you wouldn’t have found another station in the city so bad.”

“Ah, then,” said the Altrurian, “I suppose this particular road is too poor to employ more baggage-men or build new stations; they seemed rather shabby all the way up.”

“Well, no,” I was obliged to confess, “it’s one of the richest roads in the country. The stock stands at about 180. But I’m really afraid we shall be late to supper if we don’t get on,” I broke off; though I was not altogether sorry to arrive after the porter had disposed of the baggage. I dreaded another display of active sympathy on the part of my strange companion; I have often felt sorry myself for the porters of hotels, but I have never thought of offering to help them handle the heavy trunks that they manage.

The Altrurian was delighted with the hotel; and in fact it did look extremely pretty, with its branching piazzas full of well-dressed people, and its green lawns where the children were playing. I led the way to the room which I had taken for him next my own; it was simply furnished, but it was sweet with matting, fresh linen, and pure whitewashed walls. I flung open the window-blinds and let him get a glimpse of the mountains purpling under the sunset, the lake beneath, and the deeply foliaged shores.

“Glorious! glorious!” he sighed.

“Yes,” I modestly assented. “We think that’s rather fine.” He stood tranced before the window, and I thought I had better say: “Well, now I can’t give you much time to get the dust of travel off; the dining-room doors close at eight, and we must hurry down.”

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” he said, pulling off his coat.

I waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs, avoiding the question I met on the lips and in the eyes of my acquaintance. The fame of my friend’s behavior at the station must have spread through the whole place; and everybody wished to know who he was. I answered simply he was a traveler from Altruria; and in some cases I went further and explained that the Altrurians were peculiar.

In much less time than it seemed my friend found me; and then I had a little compensation for my suffering in his behalf. I could see that, whatever people said of him, they felt the same mysterious liking at sight of him that I had felt. He had made a little change in his dress, and I perceived that the women thought him not only good-looking but well-dressed. They followed him with their eyes as we went into the dining-room, and I was rather proud of being with him, as if I somehow shared the credit of his clothes and good looks. The Altrurian himself seemed most struck with the head-waiter, who showed us to our places, and while we were waiting for our supper I found a chance to explain that he was a divinity student from one of the fresh-water colleges, and was serving here during his summer vacation. This seemed to interest my friend so much that I went on to tell him that many of the waitresses, whom he saw standing there subject to the order of the guests, were country school-mistresses in the winter.

“Ah, that is as it should be,” he said; “that is the kind of thing I expected to meet with in America.”

“Yes,” I responded, in my flattered national vanity, “if America means anything at all it means the honor of work and the recognition of personal worth everywhere. I hope you are going to make a long stay with us. We like to have travelers visit us who can interpret the spirit of our institutions as well as read their letter. As a rule Europeans never quite get our point of view. Now a great many of these waitresses are ladies, in the true sense of the word — selfrespectful, intelligent, refined, and fit to grace —”

I was interrupted by the noise my friend made in suddenly pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “You’re not ill, I hope?”

But he did not hear me. He had run half down the dining-hall toward the slender young girl who was bringing us our supper. I had ordered rather generously, for my friend had owned to a good appetite, and I was hungry myself with waiting for him, so that the tray the girl carried was piled up with heavy dishes. To my dismay I saw, rather than heard at that distance, the Altrurian enter into a polite controversy with her, and then, as if overcoming all her scruples by sheer strength of will, possess himself of the tray and make off with it toward our table. The poor child followed him, blushing to her hair; the head-waiter stood looking helplessly on; the guests, who at that late hour were fortunately few, were simply aghast at the scandal; the Altrurian alone seemed to think his conduct the most natural thing in the world. He put the tray on the side-table near us, and in spite of our waitress’s protests insisted upon arranging the little bird-bath dishes before our plates. Then at last he sat down, and the girl, flushed and tremulous, left the room, as I could not help suspecting, to have a good cry in the kitchen. She did not come back, and the head-waiter, who was perhaps afraid to send another in her place, looked after our few wants himself. He kept a sharp eye on my friend, as if he were not quite sure he was safe, but the Altrurian resumed the conversation with all that lightness of spirits which I noticed in him after he helped the porter with the baggage. I did not think it the moment to take him to task for what he had just done; I was not even sure that it was the part of a host to do so at all, and between the one doubt and the other I left the burden of talk to him.

“What a charming young creature!” he began. “I never saw anything prettier than the way she had of refusing my help, absolutely without coquetry or affectation of any kind. She is, as you said, a perfect lady, and she graces her work, as I am sure she would grace any exigency of life. She quite realizes my ideal of an American girl, and I see now what the spirit of your country must be from such an expression of it.”

I wished to tell him that while a country school-teacher who waits at table in a summer hotel is very much to be respected in her sphere, she is not regarded with that high honor which some other women command among us; but I did not find this very easy, after what I had said of our esteem for labor; and while I was thinking how I could hedge, my friend went on.

“I liked England greatly, and I liked the English, but I could not like the theory of their civilization or the aristocratic structure of their society. It seemed to me iniquitous, for we believe that inequality and iniquity are the same in the last analysis.”

At this I found myself able to say: “Yes, there is something terrible, something shocking, in the frank brutality with which Englishmen affirm the essential inequality of men. The affirmation of the essential equality of men was the first point of departure with us when we separated from them.”

“I know,” said the Altrurian. “How grandly it is expressed in your glorious Declaration!”

“Ah, you have read our Declaration of Independence, then?”

“Every Altrurian has read that,” answered my friend.

“Well,” I went on smoothly, and I hoped to render what I was going to say the means of enlightening him without offence concerning the little mistake he had just made with the waitress, “of course we don’t take that in its closest literality.”

“I don’t understand you,” he said.

“Why, you know it was rather the political than the social traditions of England that we broke with, in the Revolution.”

“How is that?” he returned. “Didn’t you break with monarchy and nobility, and ranks and classes?”

“Yes, we broke with all those things.”

“But I found them a part of the social as well as the political structure in England. You have no kings or nobles here. Have you any ranks or classes?”

“Well, not exactly in the English sense. Our ranks and classes, such as we have, are what I may call voluntary.”

“Oh, I understand. I suppose that from time to time certain ones among you feel the need of serving, and ask leave of the commonwealth to subordinate themselves to the rest of the state and perform all the lowlier offices in it. Such persons must be held in peculiar honor. Is it something like that?”

“Well, no, I can’t say it’s quite like that. In fact I think I’d better let you trust to your own observation of our life.”

“But I’m sure,” said the Altrurian, with a simplicity so fine that it was a long time before I could believe it quite real, “that I shall approach it so much more intelligently with a little instruction from you. You say that your social divisions are voluntary. But do I understand that those who serve among you do not wish to do so?”

“Well, I don’t suppose they would serve if they could help it,” I replied.

“Surely,” said the Altrurian, with a look of horror, “you don’t mean that they are slaves.”

“Oh no! oh no!” I said; “the war put an end to that. We are all free now, black and white.”

“But if they do not wish to serve, and are not held in peculiar honor for serving —”

“I see that my word ‘voluntary’ has misled you,” I put in. “It isn’t the word exactly. The divisions among us are rather a process of natural selection. You will see, as you get better acquainted with the workings of our institutions, that there are no arbitrary distinctions here but the fitness of the work for the man and the man for the work determines the social rank that each one holds.”

“Ah, that is fine!” cried the Altrurian, with a glow of enthusiasm. “Then I suppose that these intelligent young people who teach school in winter and serve at table in the summer are in a sort of provisional state, waiting for the process of natural selection to determine whether they shall finally be teachers or waiters.”

“Yes, it might be stated in some such terms,” I assented, though I was not altogether easy in my mind. It seemed to me that I was not quite candid with this most candid spirit. I added: “You know we are a sort of fatalists here in America. We are great believers in the doctrine that it will all come out right in the end.”

“Ah, I don’t wonder at that,” said the Altrurian, “if the process of natural selection works so perfectly among you as you say. But I am afraid I don’t understand this matter of your domestic service yet. I believe you said that all honest work is honored in America. Then no social slight attaches to service, I suppose?”

“Well, I can’t say that, exactly. The fact is, a certain social slight does attach to service, and that is one reason why I don’t quite like to have students wait at table. It won’t be pleasant for them to remember it in after-life, and it won’t be pleasant for their children to remember it.”

“Then the slight would descend?”

“I think it would. One wouldn’t like to think one’s father or mother had been at service.”

The Altrurian said nothing for a moment. Then he remarked: “So it seems that while all honest work is honored among you, there are some kinds of honest work that are not honored so much as others.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because some occupations are more degrading than others.”

“But why?” he persisted, as I thought, a little unreasonably.

“Really,” I said, “I think I must leave you to imagine.”

“I am afraid I can’t,” he said, sadly. “Then, if domestic service is degrading in your eyes, and people are not willing servants among you, may I ask why any are servants?”

“It is a question of bread-and-butter. They are obliged to be.”

“That is, they are forced to do work that is hateful and disgraceful to them because they cannot live without?”

“Excuse me,” I said, not at all liking this sort of pursuit, and feeling it fair to turn even upon a guest who kept it up. “Isn’t it so with you in Altruria?”

“It was so once,” he admitted, “but not now. In fact, it is like a waking dream to find one’s self in the presence of conditions here that we outlived so long ago.”

There was an unconscious superiority in this speech that nettled me, and stung me to retort: “We do not expect to outlive them. We regard them as final, and as indestructibly based in human nature itself.”

“Ah,” said the Altrurian, with a delicate and caressing courtesy, “have I said something offensive?”

“Not at all,” I hastened to answer. “It is not surprising that you did not get our point of view exactly. You will by-and-by, and then, I think, you will see that it is the true one. We have found that the logic of our convictions could not be applied to the problem of domestic service. It is everywhere a very curious and perplexing problem. The simple old solution of the problem was to own your servants; but we found that this was not consistent with the spirit of our free institutions. As soon as it was abandoned the anomaly began. We had outlived the primitive period when the housekeeper worked with her domestics and they were her help, and were called so; and we had begun to have servants to do all the household work, and to call them so. This state of things never seemed right to some of our purest and best people. They fancied, as you seem to have done, that to compel people through their necessities to do your hateful drudgery, and to wound and shame them with a name which every American instinctively resents, was neither republican nor Christian. Some of our thinkers tried to mend matters by making their domestics a part of their families; and in the life of Emerson you’ll find an amusing account of his attempt to have his servant eat at the same table with himself and his wife. It wouldn’t work. He and his wife could stand it, but the servant couldn’t.”

I paused, for this was where the laugh ought to have come in. The Altrurian did not laugh, he merely asked, “Why?”

“Well, because the servant knew, if they didn’t, that they were a whole world apart in their traditions, and were no more fit to associate than New–Englanders and New–Zealanders. In the mere matter of education —”

“But I thought you said that these young girls who wait at table here were teachers.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon; I ought to have explained. By this time it had become impossible, as it now is, to get American girls to take service except on some such unusual terms as we have in a summer hotel; and the domestics were already ignorant foreigners, fit for nothing else. In such a place as this it isn’t so bad. It is more as if the girls worked in a shop or a factory. They command their own time, in a measure, their hours are tolerably fixed, and they have one another’s society. In a private family they would be subject to order at all times, and they would have no social life. They would be in the family, out not of it. American girls understand this, and so they won’t go out to service in the usual way. Even in a summer hotel the relation has its odious aspects. The system of giving fees seems to me degrading to those who have to take them. To offer a student or a teacher a dollar for personal service — it isn’t right, or I can’t make it so. In fact, the whole thing is rather anomalous with us. The best that you can say of it is that it works, and we don’t know what else to do.”

“But I don’t see yet,” said the Altrurian, “just why domestic service is degrading in a country where all kinds of work are honored.”

“Well, my dear fellow, I have done my best to explain. As I intimated before, we distinguish; and in the different kinds of labor we distinguish against domestic service. I dare say it is partly because of the loss of independence which it involves. People naturally despise a dependant.”

“Why?” asked the Altrurian, with that innocence of his which I was beginning to find rather trying.

“Why?” I retorted. “Because it implies weakness.”

“And is weakness considered despicable among you?” he pursued.

“In every community it is despised practically, if not theoretically,” I tried to explain. “The great thing that America has done is to offer the race an opportunity — the opportunity for any man to rise above the rest and to take the highest place, if he is able.” I had always been proud of this fact, and I thought I had put it very well, but the Altrurian did not seem much impressed by it.

He said: “I do not see how it differs from any country of the past in that. But perhaps you mean that to rise carries with it an obligation to those below ‘If any is first among you, let him be your servant.’ Is it something like that?”

“Well, it is not quite like that,” I answered, remembering how very little our self-made men as a class had done for others. “Every one is expected to look out for himself here. I fancy that there would be very little rising if men were expected to rise for the sake of others, in America. How is it with you in Altruria?” I demanded, hoping to get out of a certain discomfort I felt in that way. “Do your risen men generally devote themselves to the good of the community after they get to the top?”

“There is no rising among us,” he said, with what seemed a perception of the harsh spirit of my question; and he paused a moment before he asked in his turn: “How do men rise among you?”

“That would be rather a long story,” I replied. “But, putting it in the rough, I should say that they rose by their talents, their shrewdness, their ability to seize an advantage and turn it to their own account.”

“And is that considered noble?”

“It is considered smart. It is considered at the worst far better than a dead level of equality. Are all men equal in Altruria? Are they all alike gifted or beautiful, or short or tall?”

“No, they are only equal in duties and in rights. But, as you said just now, that is a very long story. Are they equal in nothing here?”

“They are equal in opportunities.”

“Ah!” breathed the Altrurian, “I am glad to hear that.”

I began to feel a little uneasy, and I was not quite sure that this last assertion of mine would hold water. Everybody but ourselves had now left the dining-room, and I saw the head-waiter eying us impatiently. I pushed back my chair and said: “I’m sorry to seem to hurry you, but I should like to show you a very pretty sunset effect we have here before it is too dark. When we get back, I want to introduce you to a few of my friends. Of course, I needn’t tell you that there is a good deal of curiosity about you, especially among the ladies.”

“Yes, I found that the case in England, largely. It was the women who cared most to meet me. I understand that in America society is managed even more by women than it is in England.”

“It’s entirely in their hands,” I said, with the satisfaction we all feel in the fact. “We have no other leisure class. The richest men among us are generally hard workers; devotion to business is the rule; but, as soon as a man reaches the point where he can afford to pay for domestic service, his wife and daughters expect to be released from it to the cultivation of their minds and the enjoyment of social pleasures. It’s quite right. That is what makes them so delightful to foreigners. You must have heard their praises chanted in England. The English find our men rather stupid, I believe; but they think our women are charming.”

“Yes, I was told that the wives of their nobility were sometimes Americans,” said the Altrurian. “The English think that you regard such marriages as a great honor, and that they are very gratifying to your national pride.”

“Well, I suppose that is so in a measure,” I confessed. “I imagine that it will not be long before the English aristocracy derives as largely from American millionaires as from kings’ mistresses. Not,” I added, virtuously, “that we approve of aristocracy.”

“No, I understand that,” said the Altrurian. “I shall hope to get your point of view in this matter more distinctly by-and-by. As yet, I’m a little vague about it.”

“I think I can gradually make it clear to you,” I returned.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38