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
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
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
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.