Moving the Mountain, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 3

THE blue shore line of one’s own land always brings a thrill of the heart; to me, buried exile as I had been, the heart-leap was choking.

Ours was a slow steamer, and we did not stop at Montauk where the mail and the swiftest travelers landed, nor in Jamaica Harbor with the immigrants.

As we swept along the sunny, level spaces of the South shore, Nellie told me how Long Island was now the “Reception Room” of our country, instead of poor, brutal little Ellis Island.

“The shores are still mostly summer places,” she said. “One of the most convincing of our early lines of advance was started on the South shore; and there are plenty of Country Clubs, Home Parks and things like that; but the bulk of the island toward the western end is an experiment station in applied sociology.

I was watching the bright shore hungrily. With a glass I could see many large buildings, not too closely set.

“I should think it would spoil the place for homes,” I said.

Nellie had a way of listening to my remarks, kindly and pleasantly, but as if I were somehow a long way off and she was trying to grasp what I said.

“In a way it did—at first;” she explained presently, “but even then it meant just as many homes for other people, and now it means so much more!”

She hesitated a moment and then plunged in resolutely.

“You’re in for a steady course of instructive remarks from now on. Everybody will be explaining things and bragging about them. We haven’t outgrown some of the smaller vices, you see. As to this ‘Immigration Problem’—we woke up to this fact among others, that the ‘reintegration of peoples’ as Ward called it, was a sociological process not possible to stop, but quite possible to assist and to guide to great advantage. And here in America we recognized our own special place—‘the melting pot’ you know?”

Yes, I remembered the phrase, I never liked it. Our family were pure English stock, and rightly proud of their descent.

“I begin to see, my dear sister, that while receiving the torrent of instructive remarks you foretell, the way of wisdom for me is steadfastly to withhold my own opinions.”

Nellie laughed appreciatively.

“You always had a long head, John. Well, whether you like it or not, our people saw their place and power at last and rose to it. We refuse no one. We have discovered as many ways of utilizing human waste as we used to have for the waste products of coal tar.”

“You don’t mean to say idiots and criminals?” I protested.

“Idiots, hopeless ones, we don’t keep any more,” she answered gently. “They are very rare now. The grade of average humanity is steadily rising; and we have the proud satisfaction of knowing we have helped it rise. We organized a permanent ‘reception committee’ for the whole country, one station here and one in California. Anybody could come—but they had to submit to our handling when they did come.”

“We used to have physical examination, didn’t we?”

“A rudimentary one. What we have now is Compulsory Socialization.”

I stared at her.

“Yes, I know! You are thinking of that geological kind of evolution people used to talk about, and ‘you can’t alter human nature.’ In the first place, we can. In the second place, we do. In the third place, there isn’t so much alteration needed as we used to think. Human nature is a pretty good thing. No immigrant is turned loose on the community till he or she is up to a certain standard, and the children we educate.”

“We always did, didn’t we?”

“Always did? Why brother, we didn’t know what the word meant in your time.”

“I shall be glad to follow that up,” I assured her. “Education was improving even in the old days, I remember. I shall be glad to see the schools.”

“Some of them you won’t know when you do see them,” said Nellie. “On Long Island we have agricultural and industrial stations like—like—I think we had something like it in some of our Western colleges, which it was the fashion to look down upon. We have a graded series of dwellings where the use of modern conveniences is taught to all newcomers.”

“Suppose they won’t learn? They used to prefer to live like hogs, as I remember.”

Again Nellie looked at me as if I were speaking to her from a distance.

“We used to say so—and I suppose we used to think so—some of us. But we know better now. These people are not compelled to come to our country, but if they come they know what they have to do—and they do it. You may have noticed that we have no ‘steerage’.”

I had noticed it.

“They have decent surroundings from the first step. They have to be antiseptically clean, they and all their belongings, before entering the ship.”

“But what an awful expense!” I ventured.

“Suppose you keep cattle, John, and knew how to fatten and improve them; and suppose your ranch was surrounded by strays—mavericks—anxious to come in. Would you call it ‘an expense’ to add to your herd?”

“You can’t sell people.”

“No, but you can profit by their labor.”

“That sounds like the same old game. I should think your Socialism would have put an end to that.”

“Socialism did not alter the fact that wealth comes by labor,” she replied. “All these people work. We provide the opportunity for them, we train them to higher efficiency, especially the children. The very best and wisest of us are proud to serve there—as women used to be proud when they were invited ‘to help receive’ some personage. We receive Humanity—and introduce it to America. What they produce is used to cover the expense of their training, and also to lay up a surplus for themselves.”

“They must produce more than they used to,” observed I drily.

“They do,” said Nellie.

“You might as well finish this thing up,” I said. “Then when people talk to me about immigration, I can look intelligent and say, ‘I know about that.’ And really, I’m interested. How do you begin with ’em?”

“When they come into Jamaica Harbor they see a great crescent of white piers, each with its gate. We’ll go and see it some day—splendid arches with figures on them, like the ones they used to put up for Triumphs. There’s the German Gate and the Spanish Gate, the English Gate, the Italian Gate—and so on. There is welcome in their own language—and instruction in ours. There is physical examination—the most searching and thorough—microscopic—chemical. They have to come up to a certain standard before they are graduated, you see.”


“Yes. We have a standard of citizenship now—an idea of what people ought to be and how to make them so. Dear me! To think that you don’t know about that—”

“I shouldn’t think they’d stand for it—all this examination and so on.”

“No country on earth offers so much happiness to its people. Nowhere else—yet—is there as good opportunity to be helped up, to have real scientific care, real loving study and assistance! Everybody likes to be made the most of! Everybody—nearly—has the feeling that they might be something better if they had a chancel We give them the chance.”

“Then I should think you’d have all creation on your hands at once.”

“And depopulate the other nations? They had something to say about that! You see this worked all sorts of ways. In the first place, when we got all the worst and lowest people, that left an average of better ones at home—people who could learn more quickly. When we proved what good stuff human nature was, rightly treated, they all took heart of grace and began to improve their own. Then, as our superior attractions steadily drew off ‘the lower classes,’ that raised the value of those who remained. They were better paid, better thought of at home. As more and more people came to us, the other nations got rather alarmed, and began to establish counter attractions—to keep their folks at home. Also, many other nations had some better things than we did, you remember. And finally most people love their own country better than any other, no matter how good. No, the balance of population is not seriously altered.”

“Still, with such an influx of low-grade people you must have a Malthusian torrent of increasing population on your hands.”

Again that odd listening look, her head a little on one side.

“I have to keep remembering,” she said. “Have to recall what people wrote and said and thought in the past generation. The idea was that people had to increase like rabbits, and would eat up the food supply, so wars and pestilences and all manner of cruel conditions were necessary to ‘keep down the population.’ Wasn’t that it?”

“You are twenty years out, my dear!” I rejoiced to assure her. “We had largely passed that, and were beginning to worry about the decreasing birth rate—among the more intelligent. It was only the lowest grade that kept on ‘like rabbits’ as you say. But it’s that sort you seem to have been filling in with. I should think it would have materially lowered the average. Or have you, in this new ‘forcing system’ made decent people out of scrubs?”

“That’s exactly what we’ve done; we’ve improved the people and lowered the birth-rate at one stroke!”

“They were beginning to talk eugenics when I left.”

“This is not eugenics—we have made great advances in that, of course; but the chief factor in this change is a common biological law—‘individuation is in inverse proportion to reproduction,’ you know. We individualize the women—develop their personal power, their human characteristics—and they don’t have so many children.”

“I don’t see how that helps unless you have eliminated the brutality of men.”

“My dear brother, the brutality of men lowered the birthrate—it didn’t raise it! One of those undifferentiated peasant women would have a baby every year if she was married to a saint—and she couldn’t have more in polyandry—unless it were twins I No, the birthrate was for women to settle—and they have.”

“Out of fashion to have children at all?”

“No, John, you needn’t sneer. We have better children than ever were born on earth before, and they grade higher every year. But we are approaching a balanced population.”

I didn’t like the subject, and turned to the clear skyline of the distant city. It towered as of old, but seemed not so close-packed. Not one black cloud—and very few white ones!

“You’ve ended the smoke nuisance, I’m glad to see. Has steam gone, too?”

“We use electricity altogether in all the cities now,” she said. “It occurred to us that to pipe a leaking death into every bedroom; to thread the city with poison, fire and explosion, was foolish.”

“Defective wiring used to cause both death and conflagration, didn’t it?”

“It did,” she admitted; “but it is not ‘defective’ any more.”

“Is the coal all gone?”

“No, but we burn it at the mines—by a process which does not waste ninety per cent of the energy—and transmit the power.”

“For all New York?”

“Oh, no. New York has enough water power, you see. The tide mills are enough for this whole region.”

“They solved the tide-mill problem, did they?”

“Yes. There are innumerable mechanical advances, of course. You’ll enjoy them.”

We were near enough now to see the city clearly.

“What a splendid water front!” I cried. “Why, this is glorious.”

It surely was. The wide shores swung away, glittering in the pure sunlight. Staten Island lay behind us, a vision of terraced loveliness; the Jersey shore shone clear, no foul pall of oil smoke overhanging; the Brooklyn banks were banks of palaces, and Manhattan itself towered royally before us, all bordered with broad granite piers.

“‘Marginal mile after mile of smooth-running granite embankment’” quoted Nellie. “‘Broad steps of marble descending for the people to enter the water. White-pillared piers——”

“Look at the water!” I cried, suddenly. “It’s clear!”

“Of course it’s clear,” she agreed laughingly. “This is a civilized country, I tell you.”

I looked and looked. It was blue and bright in the distance; it was a clear, soft green beneath us. I saw a fish leap ”

“So far I’m with you, anyhow,” said I. “That certainly is a big step—and looks like a miracle. New York harbor clean! . . . How about customs?” I asked as we drew in.

“Gone—clean forgotten—with a lot of other foolishness. The air ships settled that. We couldn’t plant custom houses in the air, you see—along ten thousand miles of coast and border.”

I was watching the shore. There were plenty of people about, but strangely gay of aspect and bright-colored in raiment. I could see amusement piers—numbers of them—some evidently used as gymnasia, in some there was dancing. Motor cars of all descriptions ran swiftly and quietly about. Air ships, large and small, floated off, to the north and west mostly. The water was freckled with pleasure boats. I heard singing—and music.

“Some new holiday?” I ventured.

“Not at all,” said my sister. “It is afternoon.”

She watched me, quizzically.

“It is afternoon,” she repeated. “Let that sink in!”

It sank in, slowly.

“Do you mean that no one works in the afternoon?”

“No one—except those who don’t work in the morning. Some kinds of work can’t stop, of course; but most kinds can. I told you before—no one has to work more than two hours a day; most people work four. Why?” She saw my unbelieving stare. “Because we like to. Also because we are ambitious,” she went on. “I told you of the gain we’ve made in ‘the civilized world.’ Not all of it is civilized. We are still missionarying. And while there is need of help anywhere on earth, most of us work overtime. Also it lays up public capital—we are planning some vast undertakings—and gives a wider margin for vacations.”

I was thinking in a hazy way of a world that was not tired, not driven, no nose on any grindstone; of a people who only had to work two hours—and worked four! Yet there was every evidence of increased wealth.

Suddenly Nellie gave a joyous little cry.

“Why, there’s Owen!” she waved her veil. “And there’s Jerrold and Hallier. She fairly danced with pleasure.

I could see a big grayish man madly waving his hat down there—and two young folks hopping up and down and flourishing handkerchiefs, among many similarly excited.

“Oh, how good of him!” she cried. “I never dreamed they’d be here!”

“Nellie,” said I sternly. “You never told me you were married!”

“Why should I?” she asked innocently. “You never asked me.”

I had not. I had seen that she signed her name “Ellen Robertson,” and I knew she was president of a college—how could I imagine her married. Married she evidently was, and even her long-lost brother was forgotten for a moment as the big man engulfed her in his gray overcoat, and the tall son and daughter added their arms to the group.

But it was only a moment, and the big brotherly grasp of my new relation’s hand, the cordial nephewly grip, and affectionate niecely kiss gave me a new and unexpected sense of the joys of homecoming.

These were people, real people, as warm and kind and cheery as people ever were; and they greeted me with evident good will. It was “Uncle John” in no time, and Hallie in especial seized upon me as her own.

“I know mother’s got you all broken in by this time,” she said. “And that you are prepared for all manner of amazing disclosures. But Mother never told us how handsome you are, Uncle John!”

“In vain is the net spread in sight of any bird,” murmured young Jerrold mischievously.

“Don’t listen to him, Uncle! I am perfectly sincere,” she protested, leaning over to hug her mother again, and turning back to me with a confiding smile.

“Why should I doubt such evident good judgment?” said I. And she slipped her hand in mine and squeezed it. Nellie sat there, looking as proud and happy and matronly and motherly as anybody could, and a great weight rolled off my heart. Some things were left of my old world anyway.

We talked gaily and excitedly on our way of immediate plans, rolling smoothly along broad, open streets. A temporary conclusion was to stop at Hallie’s apartment for the time being; and I was conscious of a distinct sense of loss to think of my new-found niece being already married.

“How still it is!” I presently observed. “Is that because it is afternoon, too?”

“Oh, no,” they assured me. “We aren’t as noisy as we used to be.”

“These children don’t know anything about what we used to have to put up with,” said Owen. “They never were in New York while it was screaming. You see, there are no horses; all surface vehicles are rubber-tired; the minor delivery is pneumatic, and the freight all goes underneath—on those silent monorails.”

The great city spread about us, clean as a floor, quiet as a country town by comparison with what I remembered; yet full of the stir and murmur of moving crowds. Everyone we passed or met looked happy and prosperous, and even my inexperienced eye caught a difference in costuming.

“There’s no masquerade on, is there?” I asked.

“Oh, no—we all wear what we please, that’s all. Don’t you like it?” Nellie asked.

Generally there appeared the trim short skirt I had noticed as so appropriate on ship-board; here and there a sort of Florentine gown, long, richly damasked; sometimes a Greekish flow of drapery; the men mostly knickerbockered. I couldn’t deny that it was pleasant to the eye, but it worried me a little none the less.

“There’s no hurry, John,” said Nellie, always unobtrusively watching me. “Some things you’ll just have to get used to.”

“Before I wholly accept this sudden new brother,” I presently suggested, “I’d like to know his name.”

“Montrose—Owen Montrose, at your service,” he said, bowing his fine head. “Ateo-i Jerrold Montrose—and Hallie Robertson!”

“Dear, dear!” I protested. “So it’s come to that, has it?”

“It’s come to that—and we still love each other!” Nellie cheerfully agreed. “But it isn’t final. There’s a strong movement on foot to drop hereditary names altogether.”

I groaned. “In the name of common humanity, don’t tell me anything worse than you have now!”

Hallie’s apartment was in a big building, far uptown, overlooking the Hudson

“I have to live in town nine months of the year, you see, Uncle, on account of my work,” she explained rather apologetically.

“Hallie’s an official—and awfully proud of it,” her brother whispered very loudly.

“Jerrold’s only a musician—and pretends to be proud of it!” she retorted. Whereat he forcibly held and kissed her.

I could see no very strong difference between this brother and sister and others I had known—except that they were perhaps unusually affectionate.

It was a big, handsome place. The front windows faced the great river, the rear ones opened on a most unexpected scene of loveliness. A big sheltered garden, every wall-space surrounding it a joy to the eye—rich masses of climbing vines, a few trees, a quiet fountain, beautiful stone seats and winding walks, flowers in profusion, and birds singing.

“We used to have only the song of the tomcat in my time. Have you taught the cat to lie down with the canary—or killed him?”

“There are no animals kept in cities any more—except the birds—and they come and

“Mostly sparrows, I suppose?”

“Nb; the sparrow went with the horse,” Owen replied. “And the mouse, the fly and the croton bug went with the kitchen.”

I turned with a gesture of despair.

“No homes left? ”

“I didn’t say ‘home’—I said ‘kitchen.’

Brace up, old man! We still eat—and better food than you ever dreamed of in your hungriest youth.”

“That’s a long story,” Nellie here suggested. “We mustn’t crowd him. Let’s get washed and rested a bit, and have some of that food you’re boasting of.”

They gave me a room with a river window, and I looked out at the broad current, changed only in its lovely clearness, and at the changeless Palisades.

Changeless? I started, and seized the traveling glass still on the strap.

The high cliffs reached away to the northward, still wooded, though sprinkled with buildings; but the more broken section opposite the city was a picture of startling beauty.

The water front was green-parked, white-piered, rimmed with palaces, and the broken slopes terraced and garlanded in rich foliage. White cottages and larger buildings climbed and nestled along the sunny slopes as on the cliffs at Capri. It was a place one would go far to see.

I dropped my eyes to the nearer shore.

Again the park, the boulevard, the gracious outlines of fine architecture.

It was beautiful—undeniably beautiful—but a strange world to me. I felt like one at a play. A plain, ordinary American landscape ought not to look like a theatre curtain!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54