The Physiognomy of the New Yorker

THE New York face! There is no face like it in the world. It is a mixture of Frenzy and Barter, Power and Servility. It is at once a threat and a promise. In a word, a composite creation, embodying the spirit of the Great Republic.

If poetry is the expression of the hunger for Elsewhere, the New York face is the epiphany of the eternal Here and Now, believed in and conquered, a Here and Now worth so much cash-down on the counter, a Here and Now that is to be haggled for and swapped.

It is a concrete face, a face that believes in “doing things,” a face that never procrastinates except on a “sure tip,” a face without irony, a face without tears, a face that has just enough imagination to wreck a railroad or outgeneral a political adversary on the Field of the Cloth of Yellow.

It has something of the sublime in it—this New Face in the world. There is something inexorable in the way the New Yorker walks, the way he talks, the way he looks at a real estate possibility out in boggy Queens. His walk has been called a swagger in the American provinces, but the swagger is the swagger of Juggernaut, not the swagger of the professional “bluffer.”

I would call the New Yorker sublime because he never counts his losses—or other people’s. He is an unconscious fatalist. And this fatalism always carries in it the germ of the sublime, and it has passed into the face and manner of its beneficiary—or victim. Points of view differ. The typical New Yorker is as unscrupulous as a plumber. This trait, Philistia to the contrary notwithstanding, adds to the dignity of his countenance. “Get the goods, but don’t be caught with them on you” is his text. It is in his face. It is not a smug, hypocritical face, but one that looks up at you boldly and pronounces those immortal words of Richard Croker—or were they Tweed’s words—“Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Brazenness is in itself not to be condemned. In New York it is a necessary ingredient of success. You see it in the face of the Tammany politician, the Wall-street broker, the hotel manager, the subway director. Brazenness has been evolved in the struggle for existence in this chaos called Manhattan and it sits there in our faces by divine right. It is an asset. It will cow the world in time.

Ah! This is all a terrific indictment of our public men, or, rather of our public Face, the public may say. Not at all. It is a description of what the eye sees. It is a notorious face—this New York face—but it is a great face, for in it there are the traits that mould great empires and found oversea commercial and political kingdoms. Such empires and kingdoms are never fashioned by the soft hand or the weakly honest face.

The New York face! By its very brutality shall it conquer, its moral defects shall contribute its aureole.

It is a rough-cast of America-that-shall-be.

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Camera Work, January 1910, No. 29, p. 35