A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells


We left the hotel, and I began to walk my friend across the meadow toward the lake. I wished him to see the reflection of the afterglow in its still waters, with the noble lines of the mountain-range that glassed itself there; the effect is one of the greatest charms of that lovely region, the sojourn of the sweetest summer in the world, and I am always impatient to show it to strangers.

We climbed the meadow wall and passed through a stretch of woods to a path leading down to the shore, and, as we loitered along in the tender gloom of the forest, the music of the hermit-thrushes rang all round us like crystal bells, like silver flutes, like the drip of fountains, like the choiring of still-eyed cherubim. We stopped from time to time and listened, while the shy birds sang unseen in their covert of shadows; but we did not speak till we emerged from the trees and suddenly stood upon the naked knoll overlooking the lake.

Then I explained: “The woods used to come down to the shore here, and we had their mystery and music to the water’s edge; but last winter the owner cut the timber off. It looks rather ragged now.” I had to recognize the fact, for I saw the Altrurian staring about him over the clearing in a kind of horror. It was a squalid ruin, a graceless desolation, which not even the pitying twilight could soften. The stumps showed their hideous mutilation everywhere; the brush had been burned, and the fires had scorched and blackened the lean soil of the hill-slope and blasted it with sterility. A few weak saplings, withered by the flames, drooped and straggled about; it would be a century before the forces of nature could repair the waste.

“You say the owner did this?” said the Altrurian. “Who is the owner?”

“Well, it does seem too bad,” I answered, evasively. “There has been a good deal of feeling about it. The neighbors tried to buy him off before he began the destruction, for they knew the value of the woods as an attraction to summer-boarders; the city cottagers, of course, wanted to save them, and together they offered for the land pretty nearly as much as the timber was worth. But he had got it into his head that the land here by the lake would sell for building lots if it was cleared, and he could make money on that as well as on the trees; and so they had to go. Of course, one might say that he was deficient in public spirit, but I don’t blame him, altogether.”

“No,” the Altrurian assented, somewhat to my surprise, I confess.

I resumed: “There was no one else to look after his interests, and it was not only his right but his duty to get the most he could for himself and his own, according to his best light. That is what I tell people when they fall foul of him for his want of public spirit.”

“The trouble seems to be, then, in the system that obliges each man to be the guardian of his own interests. Is that what you blame?”

“No, I consider it a very perfect system. It is based upon individuality, and we believe that individuality is the principle that differences civilized men from savages, from the lower animals, and makes us a nation instead of a tribe or a herd. There isn’t one of us, no matter how much he censured this man’s want of public spirit, but would resent the slightest interference with his property rights. The woods were his; he had the right to do what he pleased with his own.”

“Do I understand you that, in America, a man may do what is wrong with his own?”

“He may do anything with his own.”

“To the injury of others?”

“Well, not in person or property. But he may hurt them in taste and sentiment as much as he likes. Can’t a man do what he pleases with his own in Altruria?”

“No, he can only do right with his own.”

“And if he tries to do wrong, or what the community thinks is wrong?”

“Then the community takes his own from him.” Before I could think of anything to say to this he went on: “But I wish you would explain to me why it was left to this man’s neighbors to try and get him to sell his portion of the landscape?”

“Why, bless my soul!” I exclaimed, “who else was there? You wouldn’t have expected to take up a collection among the summer-boarders?”

“That wouldn’t have been so unreasonable; but I didn’t mean that. Was there no provision for such an exigency in your laws? Wasn’t the state empowered to buy him off at the full value of his timber and his land?”

“Certainly not,” I replied. “That would be rank paternalism.”

It began to get dark, and I suggested that we had better be going back to the hotel. The talk seemed already to have taken us away from all pleasure in the prospect; I said, as we found our way through the rich, balsam-scented twilight of the woods, where one joy-haunted thrush was still singing: “You know that in America the law is careful not to meddle with a man’s private affairs, and we don’t attempt to legislate personal virtue.”

“But marriage,” he said —“surely you have the institution of marriage?”

I was really annoyed at this. I returned, sarcastically; “Yes, I am glad to say that there we can meet your expectation; we have marriage, not only consecrated by the church, but established and defended by the state. What has that to do with the question?”

“And you consider marriage,” he pursued, “the citadel of morality, the fountain of all that is pure and good in your private life, the source of home and the image of heaven?”

“There are some marriages,” I said, with a touch of our national humor, “that do not quite fill the bill, but that is certainly our ideal of marriage.”

“Then why do you say that you have not legislated personal virtue in America?” he asked. “You have laws, I believe, against theft and murder, and slander and incest, and perjury and drunkenness?”

“Why, certainly.”

“Then it appears to me that you have legislated honesty, regard for human life, regard for character, abhorrence of unnatural vice, good faith, and sobriety. I was told on the train coming up, by a gentleman who was shocked at the sight of a man beating his horse, that you even had laws against cruelty to animals.”

“Yes, and I am happy to say that they are enforced to such a degree that a man cannot kill a cat cruelly without being punished for it.” The Altrurian did not follow up his advantage, and I resolved not to be outdone in magnanimity. “Come, I will own that you have the best of me on those points. I must say you’ve trapped me very neatly, too; I can enjoy a thing of that kind when it’s well done, and I frankly knock under. But I had in mind something altogether different when I spoke. I was thinking of those idealists who want to bind us hand and foot and render us the slaves of a state where the most intimate relations of life shall be penetrated by legislation and the very hearthstone shall be a tablet of laws.”

“Isn’t marriage a rather intimate relation of life?” asked the Altrurian. “And I understood that gentleman on the train to say that you had laws against cruelty to children, and societies established to see them enforced. You don’t consider such laws an invasion of the home, do you, or a violation of its immunities? I imagine,” he went on, “that the difference between your civilization and ours is only one of degree, after all, and that America and Altruria are really one at heart.”

I thought his compliment a bit hyperbolical, but I saw that it was honestly meant, and as we Americans are first of all patriots, and vain for our country before we are vain for ourselves, I was not proof against the flattery it conveyed to me civically if not personally.

We were now drawing near the hotel, and I felt a certain glow of pleasure in its gay effect on the pretty knoll where it stood. In its artless and accidental architecture it was not unlike one of our immense coastwise steamboats. The twilight had thickened to dusk, and the edifice was brilliantly lighted with electrics, story above story, which streamed into the gloom around like the lights of saloon and state-room. The corner of wood making into the meadow hid the station; there was no other building in sight; the hotel seemed riding at anchor on the swell of a placid sea. I was going to call the Altrurian’s attention to this fanciful resemblance when I remembered that he had not been in our country long enough to have seen a Fall River boat, and I made toward the house without wasting the comparison upon him. But I treasured it up in my own mind, intending some day to make a literary use of it.

The guests were sitting in friendly groups about the piazzas or in rows against the walls, the ladies with their gossip and the gentlemen with their cigars. The night had fallen cool after a hot day, and they all had the effect of having cast off care with the burden of the week that was past, and to be steeping themselves in the innocent and simple enjoyment of the hour. They were mostly middle-aged married folk, but some were old enough to have sons and daughters among the young people who went and came in a long, wandering promenade of the piazzas, or wove themselves through the waltz past the open windows of the great parlor; the music seemed one with the light that streamed far out on the lawn flanking the piazzas. Every one was well-dressed and comfortable and at peace, and I felt that our hotel was in some sort a microcosm of the republic.

We involuntarily paused, and I heard the Altrurian murmur: “Charming, charming! This is really delightful!”

“Yes, isn’t it?” I returned, with a glow of pride. “Our hotel here is a type of the summer hotel everywhere; it’s characteristic in not having anything characteristic about it; and I rather like the notion of the people in it being so much like the people in all the others that you would feel yourself at home wherever you met such a company in such a house. All over the country, north and south, wherever you find a group of hills or a pleasant bit of water or a stretch of coast, you’ll find some such refuge as this for our weary toilers. We began to discover some time ago that it would not do to cut open the goose that laid our golden eggs, even if it looked like an eagle, and kept on perching on our banners just as if nothing had happened. We discovered that, if we continued to kill ourselves with hard work, there would be no Americans pretty soon.”

The Altrurian laughed. “How delightfully you put it! How quaint! How picturesque! Excuse me, but I can’t help expressing my pleasure in it. Our own humor is so very different.”

“Ah,” I said; “what is your humor like?”

“I could hardly tell you, I’m afraid; I’ve never been much of a humorist myself.”

Again a cold doubt of something ironical in the man went through me, but I had no means of verifying it, and so I simply remained silent, waiting for him to prompt me if he wished to know anything further about our national transformation from bees perpetually busy into butterflies occasionally idle. “And when you had made that discovery?” he suggested.

“Why, we’re nothing if not practical, you know, and as soon as we made that discovery we stopped killing ourselves and invented the summer resort. There are very few of our business or professional men now who don’t take their four or five weeks’ vacation. Their wives go off early in the summer, and, if they go to some resort within three or four hours of the city, the men leave town Saturday afternoon and run out, or come up, and spend Sunday with their families. For thirty-eight hours or so a hotel like this is a nest of happy homes.”

“That is admirable,” said the Altrurian. “You are truly a practical people. The ladies come early in the summer, you say?”

“Yes, sometimes in the beginning of June.”

“What do they come for?” asked the Altrurian.

“What for? Why, for rest!” I retorted, with some little temper.

“But I thought you told me awhile ago that as soon as a husband could afford it he relieved his wife and daughters from all household work.”

“So he does.”

“Then what do the ladies wish to rest from?”

“From care. It is not work alone that kills. They are not relieved from household care even when they are relieved from household work. There is nothing so killing as household care. Besides, the sex seems to be born tired. To be sure, there are some observers of our life who contend that with the advance of athletics among our ladies, with boating and bathing, and lawn-tennis and mountain-climbing and freedom from care, and these long summers of repose, our women are likely to become as superior to the men physically as they now are intellectually. It is all right. We should like to see it happen. It would be part of the national joke.”

“Oh, have you a national joke?” asked the Altrurian. “But, of course! You have so much humor. I wish you could give me some notion of it.”

“Well, it is rather damaging to any joke to explain it,” I replied, “and your only hope of getting at ours is to live into it. One feature of it is the confusion of foreigners at the sight of our men’s willingness to subordinate themselves to our women.”

“Oh, I don’t find that very bewildering,” said the Altrurian. “It seems to me a generous and manly trait of the American character. I’m proud to say that it is one of the points at which your civilization and our own touch. There can be no doubt that the influence of women in your public affairs must be of the greatest advantage to you; it has been so with us.”

I turned and stared at him, but he remained insensible to my astonishment, perhaps because it was now too dark for him to see it. “Our women have no influence in public affairs,” I said, quietly, after a moment.

“They haven’t? Is it possible? But didn’t I understand you to imply just now that your women were better educated than your men?”

“Well, I suppose that, taking all sorts and conditions among us, the women are as a rule better schooled, if not better educated.”

“Then, apart from the schooling, they are not more cultivated?”

“In a sense you might say they were. They certainly go in for a lot of things: art and music, and Browning and the drama, and foreign travel and psychology, and political economy and Heaven knows what all. They have more leisure for it; they have all the leisure there is, in fact; our young men have to go into business. I suppose you may say our women are more cultivated than our men; yes, I think there’s no questioning that. They are the great readers among us. We poor devils of authors would be badly off if it were not for our women. In fact, no author could make a reputation among us without them. American literature exists because American women appreciate it and love it.”

“But surely your men read books?”

“Some of them; not many, comparatively. You will often hear a complacent ass of a husband and father say to an author: ‘My wife and daughters know your books, but I can’t find time for anything but the papers nowadays. I skim them over at breakfast, or when I’m going in to business on the train.’ He isn’t the least ashamed to say that he reads nothing but the newspapers.”

“Then you think that it would be better for him to read books?”

“Well, in the presence of four or five thousand journalists with drawn scalping-knives I should not like to say so. Besides, modesty forbids.”

“No, but, really,” the Altrurian persisted, “you think that the literature of a book is more carefully pondered than the literature of a daily newspaper?”

“I suppose even the four or five thousand journalists with drawn scalping-knives would hardly deny that.”

“And it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that the habitual reader of carefully pondered literature ought to be more thoughtful than the readers of literature which is not carefully pondered and which they merely skim over on their way to business?”

“I believe we began by assuming the superior culture of our women, didn’t we? You’ll hardly find an American that isn’t proud of it.”

“Then,” said the Altrurian, “if your women are generally better schooled than your men, and more cultivated and more thoughtful, and are relieved of household work in such great measure, and even of domestic cares, why have they no part in your public affairs?”

I laughed, for I thought I had my friend at last. “For the best of all possible reasons: they don’t want it.”

“Ah, that’s no reason,” he returned. “Why don’t they want it?”

“Really,” I said, out of all patience, “I think I must let you ask the ladies themselves,” and I turned and moved again toward the hotel, but the Altrurian gently detained me.

“Excuse me,” he began.

“No, no,” I said.

  “‘The feast is set, the guests are met,
    May’st hear the merry din.’
Come in and see the young people dance.”

“Wait,” he entreated; “tell me a little more about the old people first. This digression about the ladies has been very interesting, but I thought you were going to speak of the men here. Who are they, or, rather, what are they?”

“Why, as I said before, they are all business men and professional men; people who spend their lives in studies and counting-rooms and offices, and have come up here for a few weeks or a few days of well-earned repose. They are of all kinds of occupations: they are lawyers and doctors, and clergymen and merchants, and brokers and bankers. There’s hardly any calling you Won’t find represented among them. As I was thinking just now, our hotel is a sort of microcosm of the American republic.”

“I am most fortunate in finding you here, where I can avail myself of your intelligence in making my observations of your life under such advantageous circumstances. It seems to me that with your help I might penetrate the fact of American life, possess myself of the mystery of your national joke, without stirring beyond the piazza of your hospitable hotel,” said my friend. I doubted it, but one does not lightly put aside a compliment like that to one’s intelligence, and I said I should be very happy to be of use to him. He thanked me, and said: “Then, to begin with, I understand that these gentlemen are here because they are all overworked.”

“Of course. You can have no conception of how hard our business men and our professional men work. I suppose there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. But, as I said before, we are beginning to find that we cannot burn the candle at both ends and have it last long. So we put one end out for a little while every summer. Still, there are frightful wrecks of men strewn all along the course of our prosperity, wrecks of mind and body. Our insane asylums are full of madmen who have broken under the tremendous strain, and every country in Europe abounds in our dyspeptics.” I was rather proud of this terrible fact; there is no doubt but we Americans are proud of overworking ourselves; Heaven knows why.

The Altrurian murmured: “Awful! Shocking!” But I thought somehow he had not really followed me very attentively in my celebration of our national violation of the laws of life and its consequences. “I am glad,” he went on, “that your business men and professional men are beginning to realize the folly and wickedness of overwork. Shall I find some of your other weary workers here, too?”

“What other weary workers?” I asked in turn, for I imagined I had gone over pretty much the whole list.

“Why,” said the Altrurian, “your mechanics and day laborers, your iron-moulders and glass-blowers, your miners and farmers, your printers and mill-operatives, your trainmen and quarry-hands. Or do they prefer to go to resorts of their own?”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56