A Nation On The Wing by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

On being taken the other day through a large and costly residence, with the thoroughness that only the owner of a new house has the cruelty to inflict on his victims, not allowing them to pass a closet or an electric bell without having its particular use and convenience explained, forcing them to look up coal-slides, and down air-shafts and to visit every secret place, from the cellar to the fire-escape, I noticed that a peculiar arrangement of the rooms repeated itself on each floor, and several times on a floor. I remarked it to my host.

“You observe it,” he said, with a blush of pride, “it is my wife’s idea! The truth is, my daughters are of a marrying age, and my sons starting out for themselves; this house will soon be much too big for two old people to live in alone. We have planned it so that at any time it can be changed into an apartment house at a nominal expense. It is even wired and plumbed with that end in view!”

This answer positively took my breath away. I looked at my host in amazement. It was hard to believe that a man past middle age, who after years of hardest toil could afford to put half a million into a house for himself and his children, and store it with beautiful things, would have the courage to look so far into the future as to see all his work undone, his home turned to another use and himself and his wife afloat in the world without a roof over their wealthy old heads.

Surely this was the Spirit of the Age in its purest expression, the more strikingly so that he seemed to feel pride rather than anything else in his ingenious combination.

He liked the city he had built in well enough now, but nothing proved to him that he would like it later. He and his wife had lived in twenty cities since they began their brave fight with Fortune, far away in a little Eastern town. They had since changed their abode with each ascending rung of the ladder of success, and beyond a faded daguerreotype or two of their children and a few modest pieces of jewelry, stored away in cotton, it is doubtful if they owned a single object belonging to their early life.

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Another case occurs to me. Near the village where I pass my summers, there lived an elderly, childless couple on a splendid estate combining everything a fastidious taste could demand. One fine morning this place was sold, the important library divided between the village and their native city, the furniture sold or given away,–everything went; at the end the things no one wanted were made into a bon-fire and burned.

A neighbor asking why all this was being done was told by the lady, “We were tired of it all and have decided to be ‘Bohemians’ for the rest of our lives.” This couple are now wandering about Europe and half a dozen trunks contain their belongings.

These are, of course, extreme cases and must be taken for what they are worth; nevertheless they are straws showing which way the wind blows, signs of the times that he who runs may read. I do not run, but I often saunter up our principal avenue, and always find myself wondering what will be the future of the splendid residences that grace that thoroughfare as it nears the Park; the ascending tide of trade is already circling round them and each year sees one or more crumble away and disappear.

The finer buildings may remain, turned into clubs or restaurants, but the greater part of the newer ones are so ill-adapted to any other use than that for which they are built that their future seems obscure.

That fashion will flit away from its present haunts there can be little doubt; the city below the Park is sure to be given up to business, and even the fine frontage on that green space will sooner or later be occupied by hotels, if not stores; and he who builds with any belief in the permanency of his surroundings must indeed be of a hopeful disposition.

A good lady occupying a delightful corner on this same avenue, opposite a one-story florist’s shop, said:

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“I shall remain here until they build across the way; then I suppose I shall have to move.”

So after all the man who is contented to live in a future apartment house, may not be so very far wrong.

A case of the opposite kind is that of a great millionaire, who, dying, left his house and its collections to his eldest son and his grandson after him, on the condition that they should continue to live in it.

Here was an attempt to keep together a home with its memories and associations. What has been the result? The street that was a charming centre for residences twenty years ago has become a “slum;” the unfortunate heirs find themselves with a house on their hands that they cannot live in and are forbidden to rent or sell. As a final result the will must in all probability be broken and the matter ended.

Of course the reason for a great deal of this is the phenomenal growth of our larger cities. Hundreds of families who would gladly remain in their old homes are fairly pushed out of them by the growth of business.

Everything has its limits and a time must come when our cities will cease to expand or when centres will be formed as in London or Paris, where generations may succeed each other in the same homes. So far, I see no indications of any such crystallization in this our big city; we seem to be condemned like the “Wandering Jew” or poor little “Joe” to be perpetually “moving on.”

At a dinner of young people not long ago a Frenchman visiting our country, expressed his surprise on hearing a girl speak of “not remembering the house she was born in.” Piqued by his manner the young lady answered:

“We are twenty-four at this table. I do not believe there is one person here living in the house in which he or she was born.” This assertion raised a murmur of dissent around the table; on a census being taken it proved, however, to be true.

How can one expect, under circumstances like these, to find any great respect among young people for home life or the conservative side of existence? They are born as it were on the wing, and on the wing will they live.

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The conditions of life in this country, although contributing largely to such a state of affairs, must not be held, however, entirely responsible. Underlying our civilization and culture, there is still strong in us a wild nomadic strain inherited from a thousand generations of wandering ancestors, which breaks out so soon as man is freed from the restraint incumbent on bread-winning for his family. The moment there is wealth or even a modest income insured, comes the inclination to cut loose from the dull routine of business and duty, returning instinctively to the migratory habits of primitive man.

We are not the only nation that has given itself up to globe-trotting; it is strong in the English, in spite of their conservative education, and it is surprising to see the number of formerly stay-at-home French and Germans one meets wandering in foreign lands.

In 1855, a Londoner advertised the plan he had conceived of taking some people over to visit the International Exhibition in Paris. For a fixed sum paid in advance he offered to provide everything and act as courier to the party, and succeeded with the greatest difficulty in getting together ten people. From this modest beginning has grown the vast undertaking that to-day covers the globe with tourists, from the frozen seas where they “do” the midnight sun, to the deserts three thousand miles up the Nile.

As I was returning a couple of years ago via Vienna from Constantinople, the train was filled with a party of our compatriots conducted by an agency of this kind–simple people of small means who, twenty years ago, would as soon have thought of leaving their homes for a trip in the East as they would of starting off in balloons en route for the inter-stellar spaces.

I doubted at the time as to the amount of information and appreciation they brought to bear on their travels, so I took occasion to draw one of the thin, unsmiling women into conversation, asking her where they intended stopping next.

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“At Buda-Pesth,” she answered. I said in some amusement:

“But that was Buda-Pesth we visited so carefully yesterday.”

“Oh, was it,” she replied, without any visible change on her face, “I thought we had not got there yet.” Apparently it was enough for her to be travelling; the rest was of little importance. Later in the day, when asked if she had visited a certain old city in Germany, she told me she had but would never go there again: “They gave us such poor coffee at the hotel.” Again later in speaking to her husband, who seemed a trifle vague as to whether he had seen Nuremberg or not, she said:

“Why, you remember it very well; it was there you bought those nice overshoes!”

All of which left me with some doubts in my mind as to the cultivating influences of foreign travel on their minds.

You cannot change a leopard’s spots, neither can you alter the nature of a race, and one of the strongest characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon, is the nomadic instinct. How often one hears people say:

“I am not going to sit at home and take care of my furniture. I want to see something of the world before I am too old.” Lately, a sprightly maiden of uncertain years, just returned from a long trip abroad, was asked if she intended now to settle down.

“Settle down, indeed! I’m a butterfly and I never expect to settle down.”

There is certainly food here for reflection. Why should we be more inclined to wander than our neighbors? Perhaps it is in a measure due to our nervous, restless temperament, which is itself the result of our climate; but whatever the cause is, inability to remain long in one place is having a most unfortunate influence on our social life. When everyone is on the move or longing to be, it becomes difficult to form any but the most superficial ties; strong friendships become impossible, the most intimate family relations are loosened.

If one were of a speculative frame of mind and chose to take as the basis for a calculation the increase in tourists between 1855, when the ten pioneers started for Paris, and the number “personally conducted” over land and sea to-day, and then glance forward at what the future will be if this ratio of increase is maintained the result would be something too awful for words. For if ten have become a million in forty years, what will be the total in 1955? Nothing less than entire nations given over to sight-seeing, passing their lives and incomes in rushing aimlessly about.

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If the facilities of communication increase as they undoubtedly will with the demand, the prospect becomes nearer the idea of a “Walpurgis Night” than anything else. For the earth and the sea will be covered and the air filled with every form of whirling, flying, plunging device to get men quickly from one place to another.

Every human being on the globe will be flying South for the cold months and North for the hot season.

As personally conducted tours have been so satisfactory, agencies will be started to lead us through all the stages of existence. Parents will subscribe on the birth of their children to have them personally conducted through life and everything explained as it is done at present in the galleries abroad; food, lodging and reading matter, husbands and wives will be provided by contract, to be taken back and changed if unsatisfactory, as the big stores do with their goods. Delightful prospect! Homes will become superfluous, parents and children will only meet when their “tours” happen to cross each other. Our great-grandchildren will float through life freed from every responsibility and more perfectly independent than even that delightful dreamer, Bellamy, ventured to predict.

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