The Small Summer Hotel by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

We certainly are the most eccentric race on the surface of the globe and ought to be a delight to the soul of an explorer, so full is our civilization of contradictions, unexplained habits and curious customs. It is quite unnecessary for the inquisitive gentlemen who pass their time prying into other people’s affairs and then returning home to write books about their discoveries, to risk their lives and digestions in long journeys into Central Africa or to the frozen zones, while so much good material lies ready to their hands in our own land. The habits of the “natives” in New England alone might occupy an active mind indefinitely, offering as interesting problems as any to be solved by penetrating Central Asia or visiting the man-eating tribes of Australia.

Perhaps one of our scientific celebrities, before undertaking his next long voyage, will find time to make observations at home and collect sufficient data to answer some questions that have long puzzled my unscientific brain. He would be doing good work. Fame and honors await the man who can explain why, for instance, sane Americans of the better class, with money enough to choose their surroundings, should pass so much of their time in hotels and boarding houses. There must be a reason for the vogue of these retreats–every action has a cause, however remote. I shall await with the deepest interest a paper on this subject from one of our great explorers, untoward circumstances having some time ago forced me to pass a few days in a popular establishment of this class.

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During my visit I amused myself by observing the inmates and trying to discover why they had come there. So far as I could find out, the greater part of them belonged to our well-to-do class, and when at home doubtless lived in luxurious houses and were waited on by trained servants. In the small summer hotel where I met them, they were living in dreary little ten by twelve foot rooms, containing only the absolute necessities of existence, a wash-stand, a bureau, two chairs and a bed. And such a bed! One mattress about four inches thick over squeaking slats, cotton sheets, so nicely calculated to the size of the bed that the slightest move on the part of the sleeper would detach them from their moorings and undo the housemaid’s work; two limp, discouraged pillows that had evidently been “banting,” and a few towels a foot long with a surface like sand-paper, completed the fittings of the room. Baths were unknown, and hot water was a luxury distributed sparingly by a capricious handmaiden. It is only fair to add that everything in the room was perfectly clean, as was the coarse table linen in the dining room.

The meals were in harmony with the rooms and furniture, consisting only of the strict necessities, cooked with a Spartan disregard for such sybarite foibles as seasoning or dressing. I believe there was a substantial meal somewhere in the early morning hours, but I never succeeded in getting down in time to inspect it. By successful bribery, I induced one of the village belles, who served at table, to bring a cup of coffee to my room. The first morning it appeared already poured out in the cup, with sugar and cold milk added at her discretion. At one o’clock a dinner was served, consisting of soup (occasionally), one meat dish and attendant vegetables, a meagre dessert, and nothing else. At half-past six there was an equally rudimentary meal, called “tea,” after which no further food was distributed to the inmates, who all, however, seemed perfectly contented with this arrangement. In fact they apparently looked on the act of eating as a disagreeable task, to be hurried through as soon as possible that they might return to their aimless rocking and chattering.

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Instead of dinner hour being the feature of the day, uniting people around an attractive table, and attended by conversation, and the meal lasting long enough for one’s food to be properly eaten, it was rushed through as though we were all trying to catch a train. Then, when the meal was over, the boarders relapsed into apathy again.

No one ever called this hospitable home a boarding-house, for the proprietor was furious if it was given that name. He also scorned the idea of keeping a hotel. So that I never quite understood in what relation he stood toward us. He certainly considered himself our host, and ignored the financial side of the question severely. In order not to hurt his feelings by speaking to him of money, we were obliged to get our bills by strategy from a male subordinate. Mine host and his family were apparently unaware that there were people under their roof who paid them for board and lodging. We were all looked upon as guests and “entertained,” and our rights impartially ignored.

Nothing, I find, is so distinctive of New England as this graceful veiling of the practical side of life. The landlady always reminded me, by her manner, of Barrie’s description of the bill-sticker’s wife who “cut” her husband when she chanced to meet him “professionally” engaged. As a result of this extreme detachment from things material, the house ran itself, or was run by incompetent Irish and negro “help.” There were no bells in the rooms, which simplified the service, and nothing could be ordered out of meal hours.

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The material defects in board and lodging sink, however, into insignificance before the moral and social unpleasantness of an establishment such as this. All ages, all conditions, and all creeds are promiscuously huddled together. It is impossible to choose whom one shall know or whom avoid. A horrible burlesque of family life is enabled, with all its inconveniences and none of its sanctity. People from different cities, with different interests and standards, are expected to “chum” together in an intimacy that begins with the eight o’clock breakfast and ends only when all retire for the night. No privacy, no isolation is allowed. If you take a book and begin to read in a remote corner of a parlor or piazza, some idle matron or idiotic girl will tranquilly invade your poor little bit of privacy and gabble of her affairs and the day’s gossip. There is no escape unless you mount to your ten-by-twelve cell and sit (like the Premiers of England when they visit Balmoral) on the bed, to do your writing, for want of any other conveniences. Even such retirement is resented by the boarders. You are thought to be haughty and to give yourself airs if you do not sit for twelve consecutive hours each day in unending conversation with them.

When one reflects that thousands of our countrymen pass at least one-half of their lives in these asylums, and that thousands more in America know no other homes, but move from one hotel to another, while the same outlay would procure them cosy, cheerful dwellings, it does seem as if these modern Arabs, Holmes’s “Folding Bed-ouins,” were gradually returning to prehistoric habits and would end by eating roots promiscuously in caves.

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The contradiction appears more marked the longer one reflects on the love of independence and impatience of all restraint that characterize our race. If such an institution had been conceived by people of the Old World, accustomed to moral slavery and to a thousand petty tyrannies, it would not be so remarkable, but that we, of all the races of the earth, should have created a form of torture unknown to Louis XI. or to the Spanish Inquisitors, is indeed inexplicable! Outside of this happy land the institution is unknown. The pension when it exists abroad, is only an exotic growth for an American market. Among European nations it is undreamed of; the poorest when they travel take furnished rooms, where they are served in private, or go to restaurants or table d’hotes for their meals. In a strictly continental hotel the public parlor does not exist. People do not travel to make acquaintances, but for health or recreation, or to improve their minds. The enforced intimacy of our American family house, with its attendant quarrelling and back-biting, is an infliction of which Europeans are in happy ignorance.

One explanation, only, occurs to me, which is that among New England people, largely descended from Puritan stock, there still lingers some blind impulse at self-mortification, an hereditary inclination to make this life as disagreeable as possible by self-immolation. Their ancestors, we are told by Macaulay, suppressed bull baiting, not because it hurt the bull, but because it gave pleasure to the people. Here in New England they refused the Roman dogma of Purgatory and then with complete inconsistency, invented the boarding-house, in order, doubtless, to take as much of the joy as possible out of this life, as a preparation for endless bliss in the next.

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