The Golden Dawn


This was the golden dawn, and Díaz marched through the exact middle of it, with its terrible light glinting from the blade of his sword; this was the thing that romancers had dreamed of, sharpened and made deadly, great beauty and unspeakable cruelty going hand in hand, wealth beyond dreams lying ready to be taken; and every man who reached out to take it ran the risk that he would be thrown down on a stone altar with the throbbing heart torn out of his breast by a bloodstained hand—and an old man, tired and helpless and stricken with poverty, could look back on it and put it down on paper so that people who came later could understand that all of the myths were true. At the very beginning of the American story, before anyone had imagined places like Pittsburgh or Madison Avenue or the Harvard Yard or the Corn Belt, here was the sign that the wildest of dreams could fall short of reality. The dawn came up like thunder, and the memory of it was enough to stir an old soldier and turn him into a poet.

And this was the genuine sounding of the theme song—the snatch of impossible music that would run under and over everything men would ever do in this new world, the strange blend of disillusioned realism and the confirmation of all the gaudy notions of unsophisticated youth. At the very start, men found that America could go beyond their expectations. It would be full of cruelty and injustice and rapacity, but it would also embody the final laying on of hands on the unattainable, and it would offer cloud-capped towers which, when taken, would provide nothing more than a new place from which to go on to greater heights. Here, at last, the imagination of men was set forever free. The natural corollary, of course, is the warning: Beware what dreams you dream because you are living in a land where they are apt to come true.