Drift of the Day by Roger Skirving

From my station here on the housetop my gaze wanders out over acres of roofs—the leaded coverings of hotels, apartment-houses, and office buildings. They rear themselves beneath and around me as the lesser peaks of the Himalayas seen from Mount Everest. My eyes ache with the diversity of their shapes, the eccentricity of their styles, the irregularity of their altitudes. No man viewing them can continue blind to the independence of the American citizen, to the ostentation of his right of personal selection, to his individual caprice. They stand, a brick-and-iron commentary upon the competing ambitions of two generations of townsmen.

A hulking, twenty-story modernity stands side by side with a dwarfish, Dutch anachronism, but neither possesses any right of precedence over the other. They are equal in the eyes of the proletary. Classic and nondescript, marble and brick, granite and iron, unite to form the most heterogeneous collection of fashions the earth's surface anywhere exhibits. Even Milton's blind eyes pictured nothing so fantastic as this architectural chaos of Manhattan, so hopeless of eventual order. And yet are there not lacking signs that the quaint pot-pourri of whimsicalities will one day coalesce into a well-defined, artistic composition, a twentieth century City Beautiful. God grant its attainment be not unduly protracted!

But it is with the insides of this vast confusion of buildings I am presently concerned. As the buildings are, so are the inhabitants—little and big, tall and short, honestly constructed and jerry built, old fashioned and up to date, aping the fashions of a dozen civilizations. In any one of these great structures will be found the representatives of a dozen nations, born to a dozen tongues, yet all conversing in a common English, covering their motley nationalities with a common Americanism, united in their loyalty to the Republic. In the diversity of its constituents lies the strength of the American nation.

No European section of the American community sufficiently preponderates over its fellows to affect the national sympathy toward foreign Powers. Irish counteracts English opinion; German sonship is balanced by the filial sentiment of the Latin races—the Slavs and the Russian Jews have no European predilections. Consequently, American foreign policy is dictated by Americans for the benefit of Americans, without reference to the warring interests in Europe or in Asia. The men who lead in the United States are men who, for the most part, have not voyaged beyond the confines of the United States. All of their attention upon affairs of State is cast inward upon their own land, is absolutely self-centred. The resultant national policy is the most selfish, but the most formidable in the world of nations.

American and Briton are alike co-heirs to the common Anglo-Saxon heritage, but they are brothers who differ as materially in temperament as in ambition and in creed. The Briton is daily becoming more cosmopolitan, his outlook more world-wide. The shadow of the village pump has departed from his statecraft, and his political horizon girdles the earth. But the American remains intensely introspective, suspicious of foreign influence, interested solely in his world of the Western Hemisphere.

In Britain are Little Englanders who dread every step the nation makes in outward expansion, but there are here no Little Americanders. The Little Englanders doubt the nation's power to hold the nation's possessions. Here, in the United States, are men who question the advisability of penetrating into world politics, but no man among them has doubt of the nation's power to keep whatever territory the Star Spangled Banner once has floated over. They are merely jealous, jealous of the absolute isolation of their commonwealth, quick to resent any remotest possibility of interference with it.

In every American's ears rings the music of assured success, the certainty of a rich inheritance laid up for him and his children's children in the internal resources of his country. In many an Englishman's ears sound only the doleful croakings of the prophets, the sinister rumblings of approaching doom. Though his pessimism be in great part born of his climate, it has had a very real effect upon his statecraft. It has driven him outward to find hope and sunshine abroad, in his colonies, and in India. It has made of the race a nation of expansionists, reaping where they have not sown, gathering where they have not strawed.

It is otherwise here with us under a sky that would make of Job an optimist. All around are light and color, the evidences of life and hope. Here the whites are white, and not a dirty drab. The streets glisten clean in the sunlight, and every window is a reflector of glad promise. In London, choked with fog, and grimy with soot-dust, the Englishman cannot see the future for smoke, cannot extract a gleam of hope from the sodden, mud-soaked thoroughfares. To be sanguine here on my housetop is to be natural and in harmony with my surroundings. To be hilarious in the Strand is to be unnatural, to court detention in a police cell or a lunatic asylum. There is a wide gulf separating Sandy Hook from Land's End, but a still wider between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Westminster Bridge Road.

And so those who have dreamed of Anglo-American alliances awake to find themselves deceived by the very intensity of their desires. The bloodship between the nations is itself the surest deterrent of alliance. Just as in the Church marriage between nigh kinsmen is forbidden, so political marriage between the British and American nations can never be. The United States is possessed of a single idea—the consolidation and enrichment of the United States. No interest is permitted to clash with that paramount national ambition.

To that end all share in the pomp and vanities of the world is sacrificed; her ambassadors tolerated, not supported; her Secretary of State snubbed; her President jealously watched in all his exchanges of courtesy with foreign Powers. United States citizens may be maltreated and murdered in Bulgaria or in China, the United States will not go to war on their behalf. Her mission is confined to the Western Hemisphere, and over its borders no insult, no cajolery will avail to tempt her. Within her own sphere her temper is quick, and her arm strong to avenge. Across the ocean she is long suffering and slow to anger.

Down here at my feet the American is engaged in his nation-building somewhat less satisfactorily than out in the wide world beyond. A nation compounded of a dozen alien races may unite on matters of foreign policy, but in that is no warranty of harmony at home. Domestic strife is as bitter here as in Germany or Britain or France. I watch from my housetop men marching in processions of protest; I read of strikes; I hear of an infinity of rude wranglings, of senators battling on the floor of the forum, of disputes in the sacred halls of Tammany. Not yet has the Irish lamb lain down with the Virginian lion.

It were strange were it otherwise in a land where the city man has destroyed the home. The American has shown no great genius for the domestic virtues. He has hauled down the homes of his ancestors, has builded in their stead vast apartment-houses and tenement buildings—steam-heated Towers of Babel. Into each of these he has packed the population of a European market-town, has left the children to grow up on the roofs and staircases, the babies to find a blessed release through rickety fire-escapes. When a fit of reform has touched him, he has stirred up the garbage of the Tenderloin and the Red Light District, has spread it broadcast over his cities to poison his wife and his daughter.

No, the American has still much to learn of domestic politics. Let him sit with me here any night on my housetop and he will see the sad effects of sectarian reform and newspaper hysteria. He will see the creatures of the Tenderloin at home on Broadway and Fifth Avenue where, twelve months ago, their presence was unknown. He will see the policeman on the beat neglect the broken lock of my house door that haply he may learn something of the doings of his fellow constable. He will see a whole civil service turned into a bureau of information, a department of espionage. He will see the entire machinery of city government made ineffectual in the sacred name of Reform.

It was an American who made immortal the simple phrase: "There's no place like home." Verily, one must take a long day's journey from New York ere he discover a place in any essential comparable with the home of our childhood's prattle, the home with its mother and its mother love, its rosy boys and its sweet faced lasses. That home has been handed over to the house-breakers, to make way for modern buildings, for improvements on the surroundings that made our mothers and our wives.

Sitting here on the housetop, one wonders if those residential skyscrapers are indeed rooted in the foul pit of Acheron. If built in the proportions of the iceberg, they must reach well into the bowels of Tophet and thence derive the evil that is in them.