Read PEOPLE-MACHINES - CHAPTER III of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


I shall never forget one day I spent in New York some years ago-more years than I thought at first.  It was a wrong-headed day, but I cannot help remembering it as a symbol of a dread I still feel at times in New York-a feeling of being suddenly lifted, of being swept out under (it is like the undertow of the sea) into a kind of vast deep of impersonality-swept out of myself into a wide, imperious waste or emptiness of people.  I had come fresh from my still country meadow and mountain, my own trees and my own bobolinks and my own little island of sky up over me, and in the vast and desolate solitude of men and women I wandered about up and down the streets.  Every block I saw, every window, skyline, engine, street-car, every human face, made me feel as if I belonged to another world.  Here was a great conspiracy in stone and iron against my own life with myself.  Was there a soul in all this huge roar and spectacle of glass and stone and passion that cared for the things that I cared for, or the things that I loved, or that would care one shuffle of all the feet upon the stones for any thought or word or desire of mine?  The rain swept in my face, and I spent the day walking up and down the streets looking at stones and glass and people. "Here we are!" say the great buildings crowding on the sky. "Who are you?"....all the stone and the glass and the walls, the mighty syndicate of matter everywhere, surrounded me-one little, shivering, foolish mote of being fighting foolishly for its own little foolish mote of identity!

And I do not believe that I was all wrong.  New York, like some vast, implacable cone of ether, some merciless anæsthetic, was thrust down over me and my breathing, and I still had a kind of left-over prejudice that I wanted to be myself, with my own private self-respect, with my own private, temporarily finished-off, provisionally complete personality.  I felt then, and I still feel to-day, that every man, as he fights for his breath, must stand out at least part of his time for the right of being self-contained.  It is, and always will be, one of the appalling sights of New York to me-the spectacle of the helplessness, the wistfulness, of all those poor New York people without one another.  Sometimes the city seems to be a kind of huge monument or idol or shrine of crowds.  It seems to be a part of the ceaseless crowd action or crowd corrosion on the sense of identity in the human spirit that the man who lives in crowds should grow more dull and more literal about himself every day.  He becomes a mere millionth of something.  All these other people he sees about him hurrying to and fro are mere millionths too.  He grows more and more obliged to live with a vast bulk of people if he is to notice people at all.  Unless he sees all the different kinds of people and forms of life with his own eye, and feels human beings with his hands, as it were, he does not know and sympathize with them.  The crowd-craving or love of continual city life on the part of many people comes to be a sheer lack of imagination, an inability to live in qualities instead of quantities in men.  To live merely in a city is not to know the real flavour of life any more than the daily paper knows it-the daily paper, the huge dull monster of observation, the seer of outsides.  The whole effect of crowds on the individual man is to emphasize scareheads and appearances, advertisements, and the huge general showing off.  The ride in the train from New Haven to New York is the true portrait of a crowd.  Crowds of soaps and patent medicines straining on trees and signboard out of the gentle fields toward crowds of men, culminating at last in Woodlawn Cemetery, where the marble signposts of death flaunt themselves.  Oblivion itself is advertised, and the end of the show of a show world is placarded on our graves.  Men buy space in papers for cards, and bits of country scenery by the great railroads to put up signboards, and they spend money and make constant efforts to advertise that they are alive, and then they build expensive monuments to advertise that they are dead....

The same craving for piled-up appearances is brought to bear by crowds upon their arts.  Even a gentle soul like Paderewski, full of a personal and strange beauty that he could lend to everything he touched, finds himself swept out of himself at last by the huge undertow of crowds.  Scarcely a season but his playing has become worn down at the end of it into shrieks and hushes.  Have I not watched him at the end of a tour, when, one audience after the other, those huge Svengalis had hypnotized him-thundering his very subtleties at them, hour after hour, in Carnegie Hall?  One could only wonder what had happened, sit by helplessly, watch the crowd-thousands of headlong human beings lunging their souls and their bodies through the music, weeping, gasping, huzzaing, and clapping to one another.  After every crash of new crescendo, after every precipice of silence, they seemed to be crying, “This is Soul!  Oh, this is Soul!” The feeling of a vast audience holding its breath, no matter why it does it or whether it ought to do it or not, seems to have become almost a religious rite of itself.  Vistas of faces gallery after gallery hanging on a note, two or three thousand souls suspended in space all on one tiny little ivory lever at the end of one man’s forefinger ... dim lights shining on them and soft vibrations floating round them ... going to hear Paderewski play at the end of his season was going to hear a crowd at a piano singing with its own hands and having a kind of orgy with itself.  One could only remember that there had been a Paderewski once who hypnotized and possessed his audience by being hypnotized and possessed by his own music.  One liked to remember him-the Paderewski who was really an artist and who performed the function of the artist showering imperiously his own visions on the hearts of the people.

And what is true in music one finds still truer in the other arts.  One keeps coming on it everywhere-the egotism of cities, the self-complacency of the crowds swerving the finer and the truer artists from their functions, making them sing in hoarse crowd-voices instead of singing in their own and giving us themselves.  Nearly all our acting has been corroded by crowds.  Some of us have been obliged almost to give up going to the theatre except to very little ones, and we are wondering if churches cannot possibly be made small enough to believe great things, or if galleries cannot be arranged with few enough people in them to allow us great paintings, or if there will not be an author so well known to a few men that he will live forever, or if some newspaper will not yet be great enough to advertise that it has a circulation small enough to tell the truth.