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- The Native Son - 3/6 -
Not scenery this time, Reader, nor climate, but weather. Like scenery and climate, it must be done. Hurdle this paragraph, Easterners! Keep on reading, Californiacs!
The "city" does its best to put the San Franciscan in good condition. And the weather reinforces this effort by keeping him out of doors. Because of a happy collaboration of land with sea, the region about San Francisco, the "bay" region - individual in this as in everything else - has a climate of its own. It is, notwithstanding its brief rainy season, a singularly pleasant climate. It cannot be described as "temperate" in the sense, for instance, that New England's climate is temperate. That is too harsh. Neither can it be described as "semi-tropical" in the way that Hawaii, for example, is semi-tropical. That is too soft. It combines the advantages of both with the disabilities of neither.
You may begin to read again, Easterners; for at last I've returned to the Native Son.
That sparkling briskness - the tang - which is the best the temperate climate has to offer, gives the Native Son his high powered strenuosity. That developing softness - lush - (every Native Son will admit the lush) which is the best the semi-tropical element has to contribute, gives him his size and comeliness. The weather of San Francisco keeps the Native Son out of doors whenever it is possible through the day time. To take care of this flight into the open are seashore and mountain, city parks and country roads. That same weather drives him indoors during the evenings. And to meet this demand are hotels, restaurants, theatres, moving-picture houses, in numbers out of all proportion to the population. Again, the weather permits him to play baseball and football for unusual periods with ease, to play tennis and golf three-quarters of the year with comfort, to walk and swim all the year with joy. Notwithstanding the combination of heavy rains with startling hill heights, he never ceases to motor day or night, winter or summer. The weather not only allows this, but the climate drives him to it.
These are the reasons why there is nothing hectic about the hordes of Native Sons who nightly motor about San Francisco, who fill its theatres and restaurants. An after-theatre group in San Francisco is as different from the tallowy, gas-bred, after-theatre groups on Broadway as it is possible to imagine. In San Francisco, many of them look as though they had just come from State-long motor trips; from camping expeditions on the beach, among the redwoods, or in the desert; from long, cold Arctic cruises, or long, hot Pacific ones. Moreover the Native Son's club encourages all this athletic instinct by offering spacious and beautiful gymnasium quarters in which to develop it. Lacking a club, he can turn to the public baths, surely the biggest and most beautiful in the world.
Just as there is a different physical aspect to the Native Son, there is, compared to the rest of the country, a different social aspect to him. California is still young, still pioneer in outlook. Society has not yet shaken down into those tightly stratified layers, typical of the East. There is a real spirit of democracy in the air.
The first time I visited San Francisco I was impressed with the remarks of a Native son of moderate salary who had traveled much in the East.
"This here and now San Francisco is a real man's town", he said. "I don't know so much about the women, but the men certainly can have a better time here than in any other city in the country. And then again, a poor man can live in a way and do things in a style that would be impossible in New York. At my club I meet all kinds of men. Many of them are prominent citizens and many of them have large fortunes. I mix with them all. I don't mean to say I run constantly with the prom. cits. and the millionaires. I don't. I cant afford that. But they occasionally entertain me. And I as often entertain them. So many restaurants here are both inexpensive and good that I can return their hospitality self-respectingly and without undue expense. In New York I would not only never meet that type of man, but I could not afford to entertain him if I did."
Allied to this, perhaps, is a quality, typical of San Francisco, which I can describe only as promiscuity. That promiscuity is in its best phase a frankness; a fearlessness; a gorgeous candor which made possible the epigram that San Francisco has every vice but hypocrisy. Civically, two cross currents cut through the city's life; one of, a high visioned enlightenment which astounds the visiting stranger by its force, its white-fire enthusiasm; the other a black sordidness and soddenness which displays but one redeeming quality - the characteristic San Franciscan candor. That openness is physical as well as spiritual. The city, dropped over its many hills like a great loose cobweb weighted thickly with the pearl cubes of buildings, with its wide streets; its frequent parks; its broad-spaced residential areas; its gardened houses in which high windows crystallize every view and sun parlors or sleeping porches catch both the first and last hint of daylight - the city itself has the effect of living in the open. Everybody is frankly interested in everybody else and in what is going on. Of all the cities the country, San Francisco is by weather and temperament, most adapted to the pleasant French habit of open-air eating. The clients in the barber shops, lathered like clowns and trussed up in what is perhaps the least heroic posture and costume possible for man, are seated at the windows, where they may enjoy the outside procession during the boresome processes of the shave and the hair-cut. In the windows of the downtown shops, with no pretence whatever of the curtains customary in the East, men clerks disrobe and re-robe life-sized female models of an appalling nude flesh-likeness. They dress these helpless ladies in all the fripperies of femininity from the wax out, oblivious to the flippant comments of gathering crowds. It's all a part of that civic candor somehow. Nowhere I think are eyes so clear, glances so direct and expressions so frank as in California. Nowhere is conversation and discussion more straightforward and courageous.
All that I have written thus far is only by way of preliminary to showing you what the background of the Native Son has been and to explaining why Europe does not dazzle him much and the East not at all. Remember that he is instinctively an athlete and that he has never dissipated his magnificent strength in fighting weather. If he is a little - mind you, I say only a little - inclined to use that strength on more entertaining dissipation, he is as likely to restore the balance by much physical exercise.
There I go again! Enormous! Superb! Splendid! Spacious! You see how impossible it is to keep your vocabulary down when California is your subject. Another moment and I shall be saying more unique.
Remember that all his life he has gazed on beauty - beauty tragic and haunting, beauty gorgeous and gay. Remember he is accustomed to enormous sizes; superb heights; splendid distances; spacious vistas. That California does not produce an annual crop of megalo-maniacs is the best argument I know for the superiority of heredity over environment.
Remember, too, that all his life the Native Son has soaked in an art atmosphere potentially as strong and individual as ancient Greece or renaisance Italy. The dazzling country side, the sulphitic brew of races, the cosmopolitan "city" have taken care of that. That art-spirit accounts for such minor California phenomena as photography raised to unequalled art levels and shops whose simple beautiful interiors resemble the private galleries of art collectors; it accounts for such major phenomena as the Stevenson monument, the "Lark", the annual Grove Play of the Bohemian Club, and the Exposition of 1915.
The tiny monument to Stevenson, tucked away in a corner soaked with romantic memories - Portsmouth Square - compares favorably with the charming memorials to the French dead. It is a thing of beautiful proportions. A little stone column supports a bronze ship, its sails bellying robustly to the whip of the Pacific winds. The inscription - a well known quotation from the author - is topped simply by "To remember Robert Louis Stevenson."
Perhaps you will object that some of these are not Native Sons. But hush! Californians consider anybody who has stayed five minutes in the State - a real Californian. And believe us, Reader, by that time most of them have become not Californians but Californiacs.
The "Lark" is perhaps the most delicious bit of literary fooling that this country has ever produced. It raised its blythe song at the Golden Gate, but it was heard across a whole continent. For two years, Gelett Burgess, Bruce Porter, Porter Garnett, Willis Polk, Ernest Peixotto, and Florence Lundborg performed in it all the artistic antics that their youth, their originality, their high spirits suggested. Professor Norton, speaking to a class at Harvard University, and that the two literary events of the decade between 1890 and 1900 were the fiction of the young Kipling and the verse that appeared in the " Lark."
The Grove-Play is an annual incident of which I fancy only California could be capable. Of course the calculable quality of the weather helps in this possibility. But the art-spirit, born and bred in the Californian, is the driving force. Every year the Bohemian Club produces in its summer annex - a beautiful grove of redwoods beside the Russian river - a play in praise of the forest. The stage is a natural one, a cleared hill slope with redwoods for wings. The play is written, staged, produced and acted by members of the club. The incidental music is also written by them. Scarcely has one year's play been produced before the rehearsals for the next begin. The result is a performance of a finished beauty which not only astounds Easterners, but surprises Europeans. Although undoubtedly it is the best, it is only one of numberless out-of-door masques, plays and pageants produced all over California.
As for the Exposition of 1915, when I say that for many Californians, it will take the edge off some of the beauty of Europe, I am quite serious. For it was colored in the gorgeous gamut of the Orient, clamant yellows, oranges, golds, combined with mysterious blues, muted scarlets. And it was illuminated as no Exposition has ever before been illuminated; with lights that dripped down from the cornices of the buildings; or shot up from their foundations; or gleamed through transparent pillars; or glistened behind tumbling waters; or sparkled within leaping fountains. Some of this light even floated from enormous braziers, thereby filling the night with clouds of mist-flame; or flooded across the bay from reservoirs of tinted glass, thereby sluicing the whole dream-world with fluid color. All this was reflected in still lakes and quiet pools. The procession of one year's seasons gradually subdued its gorgeousness to an effect of antiquity, toned but still colorful. The quick-growing California vines covered it with an age-old luxuriance of green. As for the architecture - I repeat that the Californian, seeing for the first time the square of St. Peter's in Rome and of St. Mark's in Venice, is likely to suffer a transitory but definite sense of disappointment. For the big central court of the Exposition held suggestions of both these squares. It seemed quite as old and permanent. And it was much more striking in situation, with the bay offering an immense, flat blue extension at one side and the city hills, pricked with lights, slanting up and away from the other. By day, the joyous, whimsical fantasy of the colossal Tower of Jewels, which caught the light in millions of rainbow sparkles, must, for children at least, have made of its entrance the door to fairyland. At night, there was the tragedy of old history about those faintly fiery facades . . . those enormous shadow-haunted hulks . . .
Remember, last of all, as naturally as from infancy the Native Son has breathed the tonic and toxic air of California, he has breathed the spirit of democracy. That spirit of democracy is so strong, indeed, that
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