WHENEVER I go west of the Alleghenies for a while, I feel refreshed almost on my first morning, as if there the real life of America is coursing. I look back at this Northeast that boasts so much of itself, and in comparison it seems forlorn and nail-biting and fretful.
It used to be only a cliche to say this, but now its truth has the force of revelation. What was said some 60 years age by Randolph Bourne, the American critic who died so tragically young, seems more clear and urgent even than when he wrote it: "No Easterner can pass very far beyond the Alleghenies without feeling that American civilization is here found in the full tide of believing in itself"; in the East "no one really believes that anything startling will be done to bring about a new heaven and a new earth"; "Hope has not vanished from the East, but it has long ceased to be our daily diet."
If we no longer believe that this full tide is still flowing, is it not because the East has ceased to look to the West? The only real work of Boston and New York and Washington, after all, is to draw a map of America from which most of America is eliminated.
The annual migration of our eastern intellectuals is about to begin. And where do they go? They go to Martha's vineyard and the Hamptons and Cape Cod. Squeezed for the rest of the year in this narrow corridor of the Northeast, they now squeeze themselves for the summer in even narrower corners of it. Having talked to each other for the past ten months, they now pack their bags, and flock to where they may still talk to each other.
Then they come back again, to redraw their baleful maps, refreshed by their own dejection. Yet it is not very long since the East was willing to look to the West for inspiration, when it responded eagerly to the flowering of new life in the Great Valley.
It is zest and brawn that I find in the West and it should at once be clear that I am not talking of California, for these are hardly the words that it pricks in one's mind. Nothing was more invigorating on a recent visit to Texas than to find that the Texan's mild amusement at California has hardened into contempt. He feels that he has no more in common with it than with Florida. An oil man in Houston, still with something of the wildcatter in him, said dismissively to me: "Florida is where the old go to die - yes? Well, California is where the young go to die."
West of the Alleghenies, then, but east of Sierra Nevada. And how does one encounter its zest? First, in its hospitableness. There is no other hospitality like it in the world. It is as if every table has been laid in the expectation that a stranger will pass through town. And not only for the stranger, but for the neighbor as well.
I do not know the origins of the phrase - so felicitous and so American - to "visit with" instead of to "visit". But it is only in the West that I hear it, or from the Westerners transplanted to the East. A friend in Colorado who was trying to explain it to me said: "You can visit with someone with whom you just stop to chat on the street." It is a concept that alters the way in which a neighbor may just drop in. Not only does a place seem always to be laid, but the time seems always to be made available. Yet these are people busy making and producing.
But this hospitableness tells of somthing else. There were no servants in the West, as it grew, in the sense that there were in the East and in Europe. Hired hands and hired help, of course, but no idea of the servant. There was no work that only the servant was able to do. That is why the millionaire and even the multimillionaire in the West is as likely as not to be found in the kitchen: not peering a few pebbles of charcoal on a grill, but moving quite naturally among all the modern gadgets, drinking and talking as he whips something up of takes it suddenly into his head to roast a whole ox.
There is democracy in this; and there is zest in it. Everyone is able to take part in every activity. The open-plan house is quite natural to the West. Everything that makes the liveliness of a home is there done in front of one.
Then there is the land. To believe that the land is the source of virtue and strength in a people is regarded as sentimental. Yet close one's eyes as one leaves the West, and one sees these people in their land. Talk about Texas to those who do not know it, and they think only of its oil. But leave to Texas all its oil, all its refining, all the petrochemical industries built on them, and Texas would die without its agriculture.
No Texan ever forgets it. But neither does anyone in Chicago. Walk down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and still the prairie at your back. Stand in the now cosmopolitan heart of Houston, and someone will soon remind you that Texas is wheat; that it is cotton and rice and sorghum and cattle; that it is tomatoes and peanuts and even goats. Name whatever grows from the earth, and Texas (of course) has it!
This presence of the land in the West is quite different from that of the countryside in the East. The industrial towns of New England seem disfigurements of the countryside; but the huge new cities of the West seem to rise out of the plains. As one drives toward them, what is more, that is in fact what they do.
W.H. Auden once said that the last time that the town and the countryside were in harmonious relationship with each other was in 18th century. But he was thinking, of course, of Europe, and he might have been thinking of Europe's extension in New England. When one gets into the West, the metropolis falls into place, against the vastness of the Great Valley; and since the Westerner thinks of nothing of getting into his car and driving 200 miles to go to a cocktail party or a drive-in movie, the hugeness of the prairie with all its changes of seasons is at least as accessible to him as the fenced-off countryside of New England.
When the presence of the land is so strong, work is something that is meant to produce. Out in the West, they still produce. One of the reasons why the wealth in the West is less offensive than it is in the East is that it at least comes from producing and making. All that Boston and New York and Washington make are images of the rest of the Americans who are making things. Wealth here is paper; out there is products.
It is typical that Houston in recent years should have had a chic restaurant for the young with the name "Daddy's money." There is still in that the edge of contempt for a younger generation that will not go out and make its own way in the world by itself making and producing. The West should tighten its law of inheritance.
There is still the space to make - but time also is different. It is unnerving to look at the holes of the worked-out mines in the side of the Rockies, and realize that it was only yesterday that men and women clawed and grubbed in them with their hands. It is awesome to stand in the emptiness of the great railroad station at Cheyenne, and realize that its whole legendary story took place in little more than a lifetime. It is strange to sit with an international oil banker in Texas, and realize that the memory of the Republic is still actual to him.
This time-scale is now lost to the East as it is to Europe. It is so compressed and for that reason, still so open. That West is still making. That is why its deserted towns and villages tell so much. They grew and boomed and died, all in a short a span, and there has never been the time, perhaps there will never be, to clean them up of trick them out with boutiques. The history of the West does not need to be preserved, because its history is still in the process of decay and growth. The West is for this reason strangely a place of ruins among the new.
I sometimes have the feeling that the East is now closing down America, that it is putting up the shutters, to share the fear and failure that live at the heart of the Old World. It is true that much of the new in the West is ramshackle and tawdry, especially in the smaller towns that still spring up, but one turns up to Randolp Bourne as he wrote of the West: "It is a litter of aspiring order, a chaos which the people are insentitive to because they are living in the light of a hopeful future." So it once was of Venice orAmsterdam as they grew. . .
So it still is west of the Alleghenies. . .
And a few things seem more important to me than that Texas, with its zest and brawn, thrusts not east and west, but north and then out into the Great Valley, into the prairie where time and space are different. CAPTION: Picture, The huge new cities of the West seem to rise out of the plains.