Greenwich Village - Villagers
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Although the serious affairs of life are met as conscientiously by the man or woman who has the real spirit of the Village, nevertheless each of them assuredly shows less of that sordidness and mad desire for money so prevalent throughout the land... .
The real villager's life is better balanced. He produces written words of value, or material objects that offer utility and delight. He sings his songs. He has a good time.—From the Ink Pot (a Greenwich Village paper).
I QUOTED the above to a practical friend and he countered by quoting Dickens' delightful fraud, " Harold Skimpole ":
" This is where the bird lives and sings ! They pluck his feathers now and then, and clip his wings, but he sings, he sings! . . . Not an ambitious note, but still he sings! "
And my friend proceeded heartlessly: " ` Skim-pole' would have made a perfect Villager!"
It is hard to answer cold prose when your arguments are those of warm poetry. Not that prose has power to conquer poetry, but that the languages are so hopelessly dissimilar. They need an interpreter and the post is not a sinecure.
I want to try to throw a few dim sidelights on these Villagers whom I love and whom I know to be as alien to the average metropolitan consciousness and perception as though they were aboriginal representatives of interior and unexplored China. They are perhaps chiefly strange because of their ridiculous and lovely simplicity.
The artistic instinct, or impulse, is not particularly rare. Many persons have a real love for beautiful things, even a real aptitude for de-signing or reproducing them. The creative instinct is something vastly different. Creative artists,—great painters or sculptors, great illustrators, and wizards in pencil and pen and char-coal effects,—must be both born and made; and there are, the gods know, few enough of them, all told! Until comparatively recent times, every-one gifted with the blessing of an artistic sense turned it into a curse by trying to paint, draw or model, while the world yawned, laughed, turned away in disgust; and the real artists flung up their hands to heaven and cried: " What next? "
But lately,—in many places, but preeminently in Greenwich Village,—these folk who love art, but can't achieve great art expression, have evolved a new sort of art life. They are developing the embryo of what was the arts-andcrafts idea into a really fine, useful and satisfying art form. They have left mission furniture and Morris designs behind. They are making their own models, and making them well. They are turning their restless, beauty-loving energies into sound, constructive channels. The girl who otherwise might have painted atrocious pictures is, in the Village, decorating delightful-looking boxes and jars, or hammering metals into quaint, original shapes that embody her own fleeting fancies. The man who wanted to draw but could never get his perspective right is carving wood—a work where perspective is superfluous—and achieving pleasure for others, and comfort and a livelihood for himself, at one and the same time.
I know of nothing which is so typical or so significant in all the Village as this new urge toward good craftsmanship, elementary poetic design,—the fundamentals of a utilitarian, beautiful and pervading art life apart from clay or canvas.
The capitol of the Village shifts a bit from time to time, as befits so flexible, so fluid a community. Just at the present writing, it is at Sheridan Square that you will find it most colourfully and picturesquely represented. Tomorrow, no man may be able to say whence it has flitted.
You will find much golden sunshine in Sheridan Square—not the approved atmosphere of Bohemia, yet the real thing nevertheless. It is a broad, clean, brazen sort of sunshine—a sunshine that should say, " See me work! See me shine! See me show up the least last ugliness or smallness or humbleness, and glorify it to something Village-like and picturesque! "
When you leave the sunny square, you will enter the oddest little court in all New York; it has not to my knowledge any name, but it is the general address of enough tea shops and studios and Village haunts to stock an entire neighbourhood. The buildings are old—old, and, of course, of wood. These artist folk have metamorphosed the shabby and dilapidated structures into charming places.
Following the sign of deep blue with yellow letters which indicates that this is the place where the Hand-Painted Wooden Toys are made, you must climb in the sunshine up the outside stair-case, which looks as though it had been put up for scaffolding purposes and then forgotten. Pausing on the rickety stairway and looking out beyond the crazy little court and over the drowsy Square, you will have a great deal of difficulty in believing that you left your cable car about a minute and a half before. Pass on up the stairs. You may nearly fall over the black-andwhite feline which belongs to no one in any of the buildings, but which haunts them all like an unquiet ghost, and which is known by everyone as the Crazy Cat; so to the door of the studio-workshop where the toys are made.
And have you ever seen anything quite like that workshop?
A little light studio full of colour and the smell of paint. On one side blue-green boxes stacked on shelves; on the other finished sample toys not ready to be boxed. Shallow dishes of orange and emerald green and bright pink and primrose and black and vivid blue.
" Yes," says the girl who is working there—she is fair and wears a pale-green frock and a black work-apron,—" I do this part. Mr. Dicker man, the artist, makes the pictures or designs, then we have them turned out by the mill. See " she shows queer shaped pieces of wood that suggest nothing to the casual observer—" Then the rest is done here!"
The room is full of all manner of curious and charming playthings. Here is a real pirate's chest for your treasures—the young workwoman is just painting the yellow nails on it—and here is a fierce-looking pirate with a cutlass for a book-shelf end; here is a futurist coat-hanger—a cubist-faced burglar with a jaw and the peremptory legend: " Give me your hat, scarf and coat!" Here is a neatly capped little waiting maid whose arms are constructed for flower holders; here are delightful watering-pots, exquisitely painted; wonderful cake covers, powder-boxes, blotters, brackets,;—every single thing a little gem of clever design and individual workmanship. It is more fascinating than Toyland or Santa Claus' shop. These " rocking toys" are particularly fascinating: the dreadnought that careens at perilous angles, and the kicking mule which knocks its driver over as often as you like to make it. Shelves on shelves of these wonder-things complete, and a whole great table laden with them in half-finished forms. Some of the little wooden figures are set in a long rack to dry, for after the shellac has hardened each colour is put on and allowed to dry thoroughly before applying the next. The flesh-coloured enamel goes on first, then the other lighter shades, leaving the darker for the last, and the inevitable touches of black to finish off with.
" This way," says the girl in the black apron (which is really a smock), taking up a squat but adorable little wooden figure which is already coloured all over, but has a curiously unfinished aspect nevertheless. She fills a tiny brush with glittering, black enamel and begins to apply it in dots and lines. " This long dab is supposed to be his gun. These two little squares of black make his belt. One line for his trousers,-now he's done. He's for a blotter."
The little soldier has now taken on character and soldidity as though by magic. He grins at us, very martial and smart indeed, as he is stood in the rack for the enamel to harden.
No one who has ever been to the workroom of one of those art shops will ever forget it. Personally I found it more enchanting than any regular studio I ever visited. There was quite real art there. Remember, those designs show no mean order of genius and imagination, and the more mechanical work is beautifully done and is constantly given a little individual, quaint twist which stamps the toys as personal works of art. And the whole picture,—I wish I could paint it! The low-ceilinged room, set high up above the little court; the sunshine and the golden square outside; the girl in the black smock and the huge table covered with pots and saucers and jars of every shape and size; and the vivid splashes of colour in the bright afternoon light—scarlet and violet and yellow and indigo and red-brown.
And the wall full of strange and brilliant little figures grinning, scowling and staring down like so many goblins!
Just as you go out of the studio your eye can scarcely fail to fall upon one particular wooden hanger to be screwed on a door. If you know the " Rose and the Ring " by heart, as you should, it will give you quite a shock. It is the image of the Doorknocker into which the Fairy Black-stick changed the wicked porter Gruffanuff! It is indeed!
You know, if all these toys should come to life some moonlit night they would make quite a formidable array! Imagine the pirates and the kicking mules and the cubist burglars all running wild together! And there is something uncanny about them and their expressions that makes one suspect that such an event is more than half likely.
Even the advertisements for such a shop could not be commonplace. The artist in charge pro-claims that: " Pirates are his specialty, and that he will gladly furnish estimates on anything from the services of a Pirate Crew to a Treasure Island or a Pirate Ship."
On Washington Square is another sort of workshop,-a place where jewelry is made by hand. The girl who does this work draws her own designs and executes them, and the results are in-finitely quainter and more beautiful than the things to be bought at jewelry shops. She buys her copper and silver and the little gold she uses in bulk; her jewels—semi-precious stones for the most part—come from all over the world. In her cool, airy workroom with the green trees of the big Square outside, this little woman heats and bends and bores her metals and shines her stones in their quaint settings, with a rapt absorption that is balanced by her steady skill. It is no light or easy work, this making of hand-made jewelry, and it requires no inconsiderable gift of delicate fancy and artistic judgment. This girl is an artist, not the less so because she makes her flowers and dragons and symbolic figures out of metal instead of canvas and paint; not the less so because her colours do not come in tubes but imprisoned in the rare, exotic tints of shimmering gems.
Here is a ring of slightly dulled silver—the design is of a water lily, fragile and delicate. In the heart of it lies, like a dewdrop, a pale-green jewel called peridot. Here is the soft, rich blue of lapis lazuli—here the keener azure of turquoise matrix. Here is a Mexican opal, full of fire, almost blood-red, glowing feverishly from its burnished-copper setting. What a terrible, yet beautiful ornament! One would be, I imagine, under a sort of fierce and splendid spell while wearing it. Here, cool and pale and pure as a moonbeam, is a little water opal,—set in silver of course. Here is an " abalone blister," iridescent like mother-of-pearl, carrying in it something of " the shade and the shine of the sea " from which the mother-shell originally came. Here is matrix opal, and here are numbers of strange-hued, crystalline gems with names all ending in " ite." To ,model with metal for clay —to paint with jewels for colour! Does it not sound like very real and very fascinating art?
These are passing glimpses of but two of the art industries of the Village. There are many others—enough to fill a book all by themselves. There are the Villagers who hammer brass, and those who carve wood; who make exquisite lace, who make furniture of quaint and original design. There are the designers and decorators, whose brains are full of graceful images and whose fingers are quick and facile to carry them out. There are, in fact, numbers on numbers of enthusiastic young people—they are nearly all of them young—who from sunrise to sunset spend their lives in adding to the sum of beauty that there is on earth.
The making of box furniture, for instance, sounds commonplace enough, but it is really fascinating. There are places in the Village,—notably one on Greenwich Avenue,—where these clever craftsmen make wonderful things from cubic forms of wood, from boxes and sticks and laths and blocks. They can make anything from a desk to a tall candlestick, and, softly coloured, the square, wooden objects make a highly decorative effect. It is a simple art but a striking one, and the aesthetic sense, the instinct for balance and proportion and ultimate beauty of line and composition, has a splendid outlet.
There is, too, the trade of the designer of garments : the word is advisedly substituted for dresses. The real designer plans and executes pictures, mood-expressions, character settings. She dreams herself into the personalities of her clients, also the necessities and the limitations! Do you think all the artistic costume-creating is done in the Rue de la Paix? Try the Village!
And the florists! The flower shops of the Village are truly lovely, one in particular, the Peculiar Flower Shop, which does not look at all like a shop but like the corner of a country garden. The Village loves flowers and understands them. Every Villager who can, grows them. Believe me, you know nothing about flowers in an intimate sense until you have talked with a flower-loving Villager!
Think of it—you outsiders who imagine that you are exhibiting a fine, artistic tendency by going to an occasional exhibition, and in knowing what colours can discreetly be worn together! Here is a small army of vigourous idealists who live, breathe and create beauty; whose happy, hard-working lives are filled with the exhilarating wine of art and artistic expression; who, when night comes, never turn the keys of their work-shops without the knowledge that they have made one more beautiful thing since dawn, one more concrete materialisation of the art-dream in man, one more new creation to help to furnish pleasure for a beauty-loving world!
There is something about those new forms of art work which recalls the richer and more leisurely past, when good artisans were scarcely less revered than great artists; when men toiled half a lifetime to fashion one or two perfect things; when even the commonest utilitarian articles were expected to be beautiful and were made so by the applied genius of a race of working artists. It suggests other lands too—the East where you will hardly ever see an ugly object, and where everything from a pitcher to a rug is a thing of loveliness, the South where true grace of line and colour is the rule rather than the exception in the homeliest household utensils. Primitive peoples have always stayed close to beauty; it is odd that it has always remained for civilisation to suggest to man that if a thing is useful it need not necessarily be beautiful. In a sense, then, our Villagers have returned to a simpler, purer and surer standard. In shutting out the rest of Philistia they have also succeeded in shutting out Philistia's inconceivable ugliness. So the gods give them joy—the gods give them joy!
Probably no one region on earth has been more misrepresented and miswritten-up than the Village. Its eccentricities, harmless or otherwise, are sufficiently conspicuous to furnish targets both for the unscrupulous fiction-monger and the professional humourist. Sometimes when the fun is clever enough and true enough no one minds, the Village least of all ; humour is their strong point. But they are quite subtle souls with all their child-like peculiarities; there is, in their acceptance of ridicule, a shrewd undercurrent suggestive of the " Virginian's " now classic warning: " When you call me that, smile!" Hence a novel written not long ago and purporting to be a mirror of the Village—Village life and Village ideals, or lack of them—had a peculiar result on the real Village. They knew it to be untrue—those few who read it, that is—but they scorned to notice it. They resented it, but to an astonishing extent they ignored it. The title of it got to mean very little to them save a general term of cheap and unmerited opprobrium, like some insulting epithet in a foreign language which one knows dine would dislike if one could understand it. It is neccessary to grasp these first simple facts to appreciated the following episode:
A certain young Villager—I shall not give his name, but he is an artist of growing and striking reputation, dark-eyed and rather attractive looking—burst into a friend's studio pale with anger:
" See here, have you a copy of ` The Trufflers'? "
"Not guilty," swore the surprised friend. " Why on earth do you want____"
But the young artist had dashed forth again, hot upon his quest. A few houses down the street, he made another spectacular entrance with the same cry;—at another and still another. One friend frankly confessed he had never heard of the book, another expressed indignation that he should be suspected of owning a copy. But not until the temperamental, brown-eyed artist had visited several acquaintances was he able to get what he wanted.
When the long-sought volume was in his grasp, he heaved a sigh of something more emphatic than relief.
" How much did you pay for this thing?" he demanded.
" I didn't. I borrowed it."
" Oh ____ See here. Can't you say you lost it?"
I suppose so, if you want it as much as all that."
The young artist sat down and began seriously to tear the book to pieces.
"Well, for the love of Mike!" cried the friend. " Do you hate it like that?"
" I never read more than three pages of it," said the artist, steadily tearing, " but a slumming creature, a girl from uptown came into the ` Pirate's Den' yesterday where I was sitting, and, after staring at me fascinatedly for five minutes, leaned over to me and murmured breathlessly :
" `Oh, tell me, aren't you a Truffler?' I couldn't wring her neck, and so—"
Another handful of torn pages fluttered from his hand.
Of course, there are always the faddists and theorists, who take their ideals as hard as mumps or measles. Because the 'Village is so kind to new ideas, these flourish there for a time.
Here is a little tale told about a certain talented and charming lady who had a very complete set of theories and wished to try them out on Greenwich. One of her pet theories was that The People were naturally aesthetic; that The People's own untutored instinct would always unerringly select the best; that it was an insult to the noble idealism of The People to try to educate them; they were, so to speak, born with an education, ready-made, automatic, in sound working order from the beginning. Now, anyone almost may have theories, but if they are wise souls they won't try to apply them. If they have never been practically tested they can't be proved fallacious and thus may be treasured and loved and petted indefinitely, to the comfort of the individual and the edification of the multitude. But this fair idealist would not let well enough alone. She wanted to put her favourite theory to the acid test. So this is what she did.
In the one-time roadhouse on Washington Square was a saloon the name of which suggested an embryotic impulse toward poetry; or perhaps she picked that particular " pub " at random. At all events she walked into the bar, put her foot up on the traditional rail and began to con-verse with the barkeep.
She asked him if he had ever seen any of Shakespeare's plays, and he said no. She asked him if he would like to see one. He said sure—he'd try anything once. She invited him to go to see " Hamlet " with her, and he said he was game. Lest his sensitive feelings be hurt by finding himself a humble daw among the peacocks of the rich, gay world, she bought seats in the balcony and wore her shabbiest gown.
When he called for her she felt slightly faint. He was in evening dress, the most impeccable evening dress conceivable, even to the pumps and the opera hat. He, too, looked a little shocked when he saw her. Doubtless he would have asked her to dine at Rector's first if she had been properly dressed . They both recovered sufficiently to go to " Hamlet," and she trembled lest he would not like it. She need not have worried—or rather she had more cause to worry than she knew. Like it? He loved it; he shouted with honest mirth from first to last. And, when it was over
" Say," he burst out, " that beats any musical comedy show hollow! It's the funniest thing I ever see in my life!"
Henceforward that dear lady did not let her theories out in a cold world, but kept them safe in cotton wool under lock and key.
There are fakers in the Village—just as there are fakers everywhere else. Only, of course, the ardour of new ideas which sincerely animates the Village does lend itself to all manner of poses. And because of this a perfectly earnest movement will attract a number of superficial dilettanti who dabble in it until it is in disrepute. And, vice versa, a crassly artificial fad will, by its novelty and picturesqueness, draw some of the real thinking people. Such inconsistencies and discrepancies are bound to occur in any such mental crucible as Greenwich. And, moreover, if the true and the false get a bit mixed once in a way, the wise traveller who goes to learn and not to sit in judgment will not look upon it to the disadvantage or the disparagement of the Village. Young, fervent and courageous souls may make a vast quantity of mistakes ere they be proved wrong with any sort of sound reasoning. If our Villagers run off at tangents on occasion, follow a few false gods and tie the cosmos into knots, it is, one may take it, rather to their credit than otherwise. No one ever accomplished anything by sitting still and looking at a wall. And it is far better to make a fool of your-self with an intense object, than to make nothing of yourself and have no particular object at all!
There are all sorts of fakers—conscious or otherwise. There is the futurist, post-impressionist poseur who more than half believes in his own pose. Possibly two small incidents may in-dictate what the genuine Villagers think of him.
There was once a post-impressionist exhibition at the Liberal Club, and a certain young man who shall be nameless was placed in charge of it. He was a perfectly sane young man and he knew that many of the " art specimens " hung on such occasions were flagrant frauds. Sketch after sketch, study after study, was sent in to him as master of ceremonies until, in his own words, he became so " fed up with post-impressionism that he could not stand another daub of the stuff!" The worm turned eventually, and he vowed to teach those " artists " a short, sweet lesson. He knew nothing about painting, being a writer by trade, but he had the run of several studios and could collect paint as he willed. After fortifying himself with a sufficiency of Dutch courage, he set up a canvas and painted a picture. It had no subject, no lines, no scheme, no integral idea. It was just a squareful of paint —and it held every shade and variety of paint that he could lay his hands on. He says that he took a wicked satisfaction in smearing the colours upon that desecrated canvas. His disgust with the futurist artists who had submitted their works for exhibition was one element to nerve his arm and fire his resentful spirit—another was the stimulus he had, in sheer desperation, wooed so recklessly. When the thing was done it was something for angels and devils alike to tremble before. It meant nothing, of course, but, like many inscrutable and unfathomable things, it terrified by its sheer blank, chaotic madness. He hung it in the exhibition. And it was—yes, it was—the hit of the occasion. This is not a fairy tale—not even fiction. The story was told me by the culprit or was it genius?—himself.
And then people began to talk about it and speculate on what its real, inner meaning might be. They said it was a " mood picture," a " study in soul-tones " and a lot more like that. They even asked the guilty man what he thought of it. When he coldly responded that he thought it " looked like the devil " they told him that, of course he would say so: he had no soul for art.
Now, he had signed this horror, but (let me quote him) : " I had signed it in a post-impressionist style, so no one on the earth could read the name."
After a few days an artist came along who was not wholly obsessed with the new craze. He studied the thing on the wall, and after a while he said: " Someone is guying you. That isn't a picture. It's a joke."
The futurist devotees were indignant, but there were enough who were stung by faint suspicion to investigate. They studied that signature up-side down and under a microscope. After a while they got the identity of the man responsible for it, and—we draw a veil over the rest!
Then there was the man—another one—who, by way of a cheerful experiment, painted a post-impressionist picture with a billiard cue, jabbing gaily at the canvas as though trying to make difficult screwed shots, caroms and so on. Having done his worst in this way, he then took his picture to a gallery and exhibited it upside down. It attracted much attention and a fair quota of praise.
Stories such as these might discourage one if one did not keep remembering that even in far deeper and greater affairs of life, " A hair perhaps divides the false and true." Who are we to improve on Omar's wise and tolerant philosophy?
I have less sympathy with the girl who wrote poetry, and even occasionally sold it, at so much a line. Having sold a poem of eighteen lines for $9.00 she almost wept because,, as she ingenuously complained, she might just as easily have written twenty lines for $10.00!
Then there is the fair Villager who intones Walt Whitman to music of her own composition; that is a bit trying, I grant you. And the male Villager who frequents spiritualistic seances and communes with dead poets.
One night Emerson presided. And, after the ghosts had departed, the spiritualistic Villager read some of his own poems.
" And do you know," he declared, enraptured, " everyone thought it was still Emerson who was speaking! "
Now for him we may have sympathy. He is perhaps a faker, but I am inclined to believe that he is that anachronism, a sincere faker. He is on the level. Like two-thirds of the Village, he is playing his game with his whole heart and soul, with all that is in him. I am afraid that it would be hard to say as much for a certain class of outside-the-Village fakers who, from time to time, drift into the cheery confines thereof and carry away sacks of shekels—though not, let us hope, as much as they wanted to get!
Have you ever heard, for instance, of the psycho-analysts? They diagnose soul troubles as regular doctors diagnose diseases of the body, and they are in great demand. Some of them are alienists, healers of sick brains; some of them are just fakers. They charge immense prices, and just for the moment the blessed Village—always passionately hospitable to new cults and theories and visions—is receiving them cordially, with arms and purses that are both wide open.
None of us can afford to depreciate the genius nor the judgment of Freud, but I defy any Freud-alienist to efficiently psychoanalyse the Village! By the time he were half done with the job he would be a Villager himself and then—pouf! That for his psychoanalysis!
Have you ever read that most enchanting book of Celtic mysticism, inconsequent whimsey and profound symbolism—" The Crock of Gold "—by one James Stevens? The author is not a Villager, and his message is one which has its root and spring in the signs and wonders of another, an older and a more intimately wise land than ours. But when I read of those pure, half-pagan immortals in the dance of the Sluaige Shee (the Fairy Hosts) I could not help thinking that Greenwich Village might well adopt certain pas-sages as fitting texts and interpretations of them-selves and their own lives----" The lovers of gaiety and peace, long defrauded."
The She; as they dance, sing to the old grey world-dwellers,—or Stevens says they do, and I for one believe he knows all there is to know about it ('tis a Leprechaun he has for a friend) :
" Come to us, ye who do not know where ye are —ye who live among strangers in the houses of dismay and self-righteousness. Poor, awkward ones! How bewildered and be-devilled ye go!
. . In what prisons are ye flung? To what lowliness are ye bowed? How are ye ground between the laws and the customs? Come away! For the dance has begun lightly, the wind is sounding over the hill.. ."