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Friday, December 13, 2019

Turn of the Century

Guest Blogger Dept. It hardly seems like twenty years since we witnessed a turn of the century, making the turn of a century before that seem even more remote still. But Booth Tarkington witnessed it, and captured some of its spirit in his novels like the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons. Here’s an excerpt (Chapter Three) from an autobiographical work from 1929 titled The World Does Move.


Booth Tarkington
ONE EVENING we had our own gaslight accident on the top floor. An Irish housemaid used a spiral paper taper to light the gas in the hall bedroom; then she dropped it to the floor and put her foot over it to extinguish it. But there was still a flame from the taper, and the girl’s skirt and petticoats, which of course were so long that they touched the floor, caught fire, and instantly she blazed from foot to head. The medical student and I heard her making strange moans of protest; but she was already in flight, a wild torch with her long thick hair aflame high over her head. We chased her down two flights of stairs before we caught her, and the medical student wrapped her tightly in a heavy curtain he had torn from a doorway as we ran.

She recovered, after a painful siege in the hospital; but the kind of accident she suffered was not infrequent and sometimes was fatal. Nowadays she would not use a taper to light the gas; she would not light the gas. She would not light the gas and drop the taper on the floor; but, if she did, her skirt would not catch fire. And, if her skirt did catch fire, her petticoats wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t have any; but if she did wear them, and if her skirt and petticoats did catch fire, her hair wouldn’t. No matter how they may look, girls are at least safer from fire to-day than they were then.

On the other hand, we all have diseases now that we didn’t have then; or at least we didn’t know the right names for them in those days, and that was half the battle, giving us a much better chance to get well. But the right names were being developed, and almost every evening the medical student told us a new one. Appendicitis had not really arrived; but the medical student gave us advance information about it, and so thoroughly made us understand the symptoms that we were uncomfortable all the rest of that winter. Nevertheless, his lessons were of the greatest use to me when I had a series of violent and unmistakable attacks. During the last one a physician was summoned to examine me and he dug his thumb into me precisely upon the point at which the medical student had taught us the appendix had its unpleasant situation.

“Does that hurt?” the doctor inquired.

It did. It hurt so unbearably that only the complete horror of operations I had developed by listening to the medical student enabled me not to shriek.

“No,” I said. “The trouble seems to be more on the other side and higher up. It seems to be more in the left upper chest, as it were, doctor.”

So he prescribed calomel and poultices, and I got well and began to be grateful to the medical student; and yet he had been enthusiastic about the new operation and maintained that under the best surgery a patient had almost an even chance for recovery.

For the medical student told us of all the new and strange doings in his branch of science, and one evening he arrived upon the top floor with a startling bit of scientific news.

“There’s been a machine invented,” he said – “a machine that will let people see spang through solid matter. They can use it to look right through a wall, or a door, or a person’s clothes, or whatever’s in the way.”

We couldn’t believe anything so fantastic as this, but he insisted that he was serious.

“It’s the absolute truth. What’s more, they can look through your skin with it. They can see all around in your insides with it as much as they please.”

“Not in mine!” the law student said sharply. “Not in mine!”

“Why not?”

“In the first place, because I got anyhow enough out of the physics course I took in college to know that such a thing isn’t possible; and, in the second place, because I wouldn’t let anybody look at me through an instrument like that, even if he had one. Why, there’d be laws against manufacturing those things! Nobody’s got a right to be looking through the walls of other people’s houses, or through their clothes, or into their insides. What’d be the good of such an instrument anyway?”

“Well, suppose you’d been playing marbles and swallowed one and — ”

“Who?” the law student asked quickly. He had been graduated from college the preceding June, the youngest of his class, and since he had fallen in love with Madame Melba he had become sensitive about his age and suspicious of insult. “Suppose who’d been playing marbles?”

“I don’t mean you personally; I mean anybody – a little boy, for instance. If he’d swallowed a marble, or a dime, maybe, or a collar button, or tacks, they could turn this X-ray on him and find out just where to operate. Why, this invention is going to lead to more operations” – the medical student’s eyes brightened with his enthusiasm – “it’s going to lead to more operations than all the accidents and diseases people have ever had in the whole history of the world! Because now, with this X-ray, a surgeon can show his patient an actual photograph of what’s the matter with him.

“‘Look here!’ he’ll say. ‘Here’s a picture of what you look like inside. Heavens and earth! You don’t want to go on looking like that, do you?’”

But we thought that his eagerness had made him credulous, that he had been gulled by a fairy tale; and we refused to believe in the magic ray until he produced an article clipped from a scientific journal and overwhelmed our skepticism by the power of print. We were awed by this culminating wonder of the day of necromancy we were living in, and we felt that the human mind had reached the limit of its powers. Within the lifetime of an elderly man, the age of invention had touched the ultimate, so fast had been its development!

For it had begun, really, with the railroad and the telegraph. My grandfather, who lived under every President until McKinley, beginning with Washington, had told me of his first railway journey. The train worked up to a speed of sixteen miles an hour, and he got off at the first stop and hired a horse; he was appalled, unable to endure such a hurtling through space. And my father had told me how Governor Ray, of Indiana, was defeated for a reëlection to Congress because he had voted for a reckless governmental appropriation of several thousand dollars to stretch an experimental wire between Washington and Baltimore for the purpose of making little clicking sounds at each end of it. The voters were indignant that their representative could believe in such nonsense and waste public money upon it.

Since then the world had become a New World, indeed. We of the top floor were in our early twenties, yet we had seen the first electric lights, the first telephones, the first phonographs, the first cable cars, the first trolley-cars, the first rubber tires, the passing of the universal household bootjack and winter high boots, with the better paving of city streets; we had read the first cabled news of Pasteur. Telephones and electric light were not yet in common household use, but were coming more and more to be so; rubber tires were still a luxury, though all bicycles were now made with them; but, as for the phonograph, many people felt that Edison had rather wasted his time. The machine was too squeaky to be long endured, and the waxy records were too perishable. Children played with the thing for half an hour, when it was given to them at Christmas, and then broke it.

Nevertheless, the phonograph, like everything else, was being improved and could take its place as one of the miracles of the triumphant fin de siècle. And now that the X-ray, performing the incredible, penetrated to the mysterious heart of solids and brought human vision to bear upon what had been immemorially secret, so that a living man might see his own skeleton, what more was left to be done? No wonder we thought that after us must indeed and inevitably come the decadence!

And yet, within gunshot of our comfortable boarding house, there were slums more tragic than any to be found in New York now; and the “Tenderloin,” like the “Red Light” of all American cities, renewed a vivid, septic life with every nightfall. The top floor had little curiosity about the “Tenderloin” and never entered it; but we knew something of one miserable tenement quarter, for we had a Reverend comrade who was in charge of a mission there. So we learned something of mission work – so much more desultory then than now, but no less devoted – and even tried to help the missionary in small and easy ways. And after all these years it is still not difficult to remember the smell of that district; it was a smell to be rivalled now only by the smell of some quarters of the cities of Araby. American cities no longer contain such smells; municipal health officers are providentially more effective than they were in the ‘Nineties.

The top floor had other comrades, some of them highly plutocratic, and these asked us to dinners and dances, congenial gaieties, but not directly helpful to surgery, law, engineering, literature and the drama. These last two advanced most slowly of all; for the thresholds of managers, editors and publishers remained cold and uncrossed by the top floor aspirant. The medical student, the law student and the engineer made visible progress; they followed straight roads symmetrically set out with milestones; their destinations were fixed, and they knew always just how far they had come on the way. But the young man who was trying to write groped in a thick mist, not knowing whether his feet were upon a road or walking circles in a desert.

His stories all came back promptly from the magazine offices; he rewrote them and they came back again with the same printed rejection slips. His plays never reached a manager; they were returned by the dramatists’ agents to be rewritten; and, rewritten, were returned again. The top floor was sympathetic, and a non-resident comrade, who had already become an actual newspaper man on the advertising end of a journal down in Park Row, tried to bring the aspirant into contact with people who could advise him to his profit. The undergraduate nickname of this friendly helper was “Big,” which applied both to his heart and his body; and he was so long that when he spent the night with us on the top floor, as he did sometimes, a chair had to be placed, for his feet, at the lower end of the adjustable bed where he slept.

“You’ve got to meet some of these people and ask ‘em what’s the matter with you,” he said. “You’ll never find out by just sending manuscripts around. You’ve got to talk to ‘em face to face and then they can tell you.”

“Yes, but how do I — ”

“I’m going to take you to a dinner at the Lantern Club,” he said. “Irving Bacheller’s the toastmaster; Steve Crane’s a member and he knows Harold Frederic. Has anybody ever written a better novel than Frederic’s Damnation of Theron Ware?”

“No, it isn’t possible to write a finer novel; but — ”

“Well, Crane could probably help tell you what’s the matter with you – he’s been having a fairly rough time himself, though it’s true people are beginning to talk a lot about his writing. But if he couldn’t, Frederic could. But that’s not all. Edward Eggleston is coming to this dinner and they have hopes of getting William Dean Howells himself. I guess he could tell you what’s the matter with you, couldn’t he?”

“Good heavens, yes! But — ”

“Begin asking at the top,” Big said. “If Howells comes to that dinner, go right up to him and tell him all about it and ask him what’s the matter with you.”

Mr. Howells did come to the dinner, though Stephen Crane didn’t, having gone away from New York just then in search of a cheaper place to live; but the literary young man from the boarding house failed to make any inquiries of the chief practitioner of his adopted vocation. The apprentice was reverentially in a state of nerves to find himself at the foot of the long table at the head of which sat that gentle and most unleonine of lions. The aspirant could not possibly have asked him any question whatever; it was too frightening merely to be in his presence, remembering what he knew about writing; and, besides, there befell a disaster.

With coffee, the toastmaster, who was the president of the club, rose urbanely. “Before we proceed to the speechmaking,” he said, “I will announce that we have with us to-night a young man, lately out of college, who sings.”

Then, to his utmost horror, the nervous guest perceived that Mr. Bacheller was looking down the table at him. Stricken instantly with stage-fright, he heard Mr. Bacheller request him to rise to his feet and burst forth in song.

It wasn’t possible to offer any excuse or to decline; there was nothing on earth for it but to get up and make sounds. Without accompaniment then, the dazed and shaking young man lately out of college put forth a quavering voice upon the air. He was irrecoverably off key; he squeaked and blatted on misplaced octaves and knew that although upon occasion he had sung villainously before, he had never equalled this. Somehow, though it is still an unexplained mystery, he lived through his own performance and sat down, praying for unending oblivion thenceforth.

“Well, did you get a chance to ask Howells what’s the matter with you?” Big inquired as we walked home after the dinner.

“Good heavens, no! I didn’t go near him! He’d have thought I meant my singing!”

– Booth Tarkington, from The World Does Move, Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, NY, 1929.

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