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The Salon in America

March 1893 — The Contemporary Club, Philadelphia PA


The word “society” has reached the development of two opposite meanings. The generic term applies to the body politic en masse; the specific term is technically used to designate a very limited portion of that body. The use, nowadays, of the slang expression “sassiety” is evidence that we need a word which we do not as yet possess. It is with this department of the human fellowship that I now propose to occupy myself, and especially with one of its achievements, considered by some a lost art,—the salon.

This prelude of mine is somewhat after the manner of Polonius, but, as Shakespeare must have had occasion to observe, the mind of age has ever a retrospective turn. Those of us who are used to philosophizing must always go back from a particular judgment to some governing principle which we have found, or think we have found, in long experience. The question whether salons are possible in America leads my thoughts to other questions which appear to me to lie behind this one, and which primarily concern the well-being of civilized man. 

The uses of society, in the sense of an assemblage for social intercourse, may be briefly stated as follows: first of all, such assemblages are needed, in order to make people better friends. Secondly, they are needed to enlarge the individual mind by the interchange of thought and expression with other minds. Thirdly, they are needed for the utilization of certain sorts and degrees of talent which would not be available either for professional, business, or educational work, but which, appropriately combined and used, can forward the severe labors included under these heads, by the instrumentality of sympathy, enjoyment, and good taste.

Any social custom or institution which can accomplish one or more of these ends will be found of important use in the work of civilization; but here, as well as elsewhere, the ends which the human heart desires are defeated by the poverty of human judgment and the general ignorance concerning the relation of means to ends. Society, thus far, is a sort of lottery, in which there are few prizes and many blanks, and each of these blanks represents some good to which men and women are entitled, and which they should have, and could, if they only knew how to come at it.

Thus, social intercourse is sometimes so ordered that it develops antagonism instead of harmony, and makes one set of people the enemies of another set, dividing not only circles, but friendships and families. This state of things defeats society’s first object, which, in my view, is to make people better friends. Secondly, it will happen, and not seldom, that the frequent meeting together of a number of people, necessarily restricted, instead of enlarging the social horizon of the individual, will tend to narrow it more and more, so that sets and cliques will revolve around small centres of interest, and refuse to extend their scope.

In this way, end number two, the enlargement of the individual mind is lost sight of, and, end number three, the interchange of thought and experience does not have room to develop itself. People say what they think others want to hear: they profess experiences which they have never had. Here, consequently, a sad blank is drawn, where we might well look for the greatest prize; and, end number four, the utilization of secondary or even tertiary talents is defeated by the application of a certain fashion varnish, which effaces all features of individuality, and produces a wondrously dull surface, where we might have hoped for a brilliant variety of form and color.

These defects of administration being easily recognized, the great business of social organizations ought to be to guard against them in such wise that the short space and limited opportunity of individual life should have offered to it the possibility of a fair and generous investment, instead of the uncertain lottery of which I spoke just now.

One of the great needs of society in all times is that its guardians shall take care that rules or institutions devised for some good end shall not become so perverted in the use made of them as to bring about the result most opposed to that which they were intended to secure. This, I take it, is the true meaning of the saying that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” no provision to secure this being sure to avail, without the constant direction of personal care to the object.

The institution of the salon might, in some periods of social history, greatly forward the substantial and good ends of human companionship. I can easily fancy that, in other times and under other circumstances, its influence might be detrimental to general humanity and good fellowship. We can, in imagination, follow the two processes which I have here in mind. The strong action of a commanding character, or of a commanding interest, may, in the first instance, draw together those who belong together. Fine spirits, communicative and receptive, will obey the fine electric force which seeks to combine them, — the great wits, and the people who can appreciate them; the poets, and their fit hearers; philosophers, statesmen, economists, and the men and women who will be able and eager to learn from the informal overflow of their wisdom and knowledge.

Here we may have a glimpse of a true republic of intelligence. What should overthrow it? Why should it not last forever, and be handed down from one generation to another?

The salon is an insecure institution; first, because the exclusion of new material, of new men and new ideas, may so girdle such a society that its very perfection shall involve its death. Then, on account of the false ideas and artificial methods which self-limiting society tends to introduce, in time the genuine basis of association disappears from view: the great name is wanted for the reputation of the salon, not the great intelligence for its illumination. The moment that you put the name in place of the individual, you introduce an element of insincerity and failure. There is a sort of homage quite common in society, which amounts to such flattery as this: “Madam, I assure you that I consider you an eminently brilliant and successful sham. Will you tell me your secret, or shall I, a worker in the same line, tell you mine?” Again, the contradictory objects of our desired salon are its weakness. We wish it to exclude the general public, but we dreadfully desire that it shall be talked about and envied by the general public. These two opposite aims — a severe restriction of membership, and an unlimited extension of reputation—are very likely to destroy the social equilibrium of any circle, coterie, or association.

Such contradictions have deep roots; even the general conduct of neighborhood evinces them. People are often concerned lest those who live near them should infringe upon the rights and reserves of their household. In large cities, people sometimes boast with glee that they have no acquaintance with the families dwelling on either side of them. And yet, in some of those very cities, social intercourse is limited by regions, and one street of fine houses will ignore another, which is, to all appearances, as fine and as reputable. Under these circumstances, some may naturally ask: “Who is my neighbor?” In the sense of the good Samaritan, mostly no one.

Dante has given us pictures of the ideal good and the ideal evil association. The company of his demons is distracted by incessant warfare. Weapons are hurled back and forth between them, curses and imprecations, while the solitary souls of great sinners abide in the torture of their own flame. As the great poet has introduced to us a number of his acquaintance in this infernal abode, we may suppose him to have given us his idea of much of the society of his own time. Such appeared to him that part of the World which, with the Flesh and the Devil, completes the trinity of evil. But, in his Paradiso, what glimpses does he give us of the lofty spiritual communion which then, as now, redeemed humanity from its low discredit, its spite and malice!

Resist as we may, the Christian order is prevailing, and will more and more prevail. At the two opposite poles of popular affection and learned persuasion, it did overcome the world, ages ago. In the intimate details of life, in the spirit of ordinary society, it will penetrate more and more. We may put its features out of sight and out of mind, but they are present in the world about us, and what we may build in ignorance or defiance of them will not stand. Modern society itself is one of the results of this world conquest which was crowned with thorns nearly two thousand years ago. In spite of the selfishness of all classes of men and women, this conquest puts the great goods of life within the reach of all.

I speak of Christianity here, because, as I see it, it stands in direct opposition to the natural desire of privileged classes and circles to keep the best things for their own advantage and enjoyment. enjoyment. “What, then!” will you say, “shall society become an agrarian mob?” By no means. Its great domain is everywhere crossed by boundaries. All of us have our proper limits, and should keep them, when we have once learned them.

But all of us have a share, too, in the good and glory of human destiny. The free course of intelligence and sympathy in our own commonwealth establishes here a social unity which is hard to find elsewhere. Do not let any of us go against this. Animal life itself begins with a cell, and slowly unfolds and expands until it generates the great electric currents which impel the world of sentient beings.

The social and political life of America has passed out of the cell state into the sweep of a wide and brilliant efficiency. Let us not try to imprison this truly cosmopolitan life in cells, going back to the instinctive selfhood of the barbaric state.

Nature starts from cells, but develops by centres. If we want to find the true secret of social discrimination, let us seek it in the study of centres, — central attractions, each subordinated to the governing harmony of the universe, but each working to keep together the social atoms that belong together. There was a time in which the stars in our beautiful heaven were supposed to be kept in their places by solid mechanical contrivances, the heaven itself being an immense body that revolved with the rest. The progress of science has taught us that the luminous orbs which surround us are not held by mechanical bonds, but that natural laws of attraction bind the atom to the globe, and the globe to its orbit.

Even so is it with the social atoms which compose humanity. Each of them has his place, his right, his beauty; and each and all are governed by laws of belonging which are as delicate as the tracery of the frost, and as mighty as the frost itself.

The club is taking the place of the salon to-day, and not without reason. I mean by this the study, culture, and social clubs, not those modern fortresses in which a man rather takes refuge from society than really seeks or finds it. I have just said that mankind are governed by centres of natural attraction, around which their lives come to revolve. In the course of human progress, the higher centres exercise an ever-widening attraction, and the masses of mankind are brought more and more under their influence.

Now, the affection of fraternal sympathy and good-will is as natural to man, though not so immediate in him, as are any of the selfish instincts. Objects of moral and intellectual worth call forth this sympathy in a high and ever-increasing degree, while objects in which self is paramount call forth just the opposite, and foster in one and all the selfish principle, which is always one of emulation, discord, and mutual distrust. While a salon may be administered in a generous and disinterested manner, I should fear that it would often prove an arena in which the most selfish leadings of human nature would assert themselves.

In the club, a sort of public spirit necessarily develops itself. Each of us would like to have his place there, — yes, and his appointed little time of shining, — but a worthy object, such as will hold together men and women on an intellectual basis, gradually wins for itself the place of command in the affections of those who follow it in company. Each of these will find that his unaided efforts are insufficient for the furthering and illustration of a great subject which all have greatly at heart. I have been present at a forge on which the pure gold of thought has been hammered by thinkers into the rounded sphere of an almost perfect harmony. One and another and another gave his hit or his touch, and when the delightful hour was at an end, each of us carried the golden sphere away with him.

The club which I have in mind at this moment had an unfashionable name, and was scarcely, if at all, recognized in the general society of Boston. It was called the Radical Club,—and the really radical feature in it was the fact that the thoughts presented at its meetings had a root, and were, in that sense, radical. These thoughts, entertained by individuals of very various persuasions, often brought forth strong oppositions of opinion. Some of us used to wax warm in the defence of our own conviction; but our wrath was not the wrath of the peacock, enraged to see another peacock unfold its brilliant tail, but the concern of sincere thinkers that a subject worth discussing should not be presented in a partial and one-sided manner, to which end, each marked his point and said his say; and when our meeting was over, we had all had the great instruction of looking into the minds of those to whom truth was as dear as to ourselves, even if her aspect to them was not exactly what it was to us.

Here I have heard Wendell Phillips and Oliver Wendell Holmes; John Weiss and James Freeman Clarke; Athanase Coquerel, the noble French Protestant preacher; William Henry Channing, worthy nephew of his great uncle; Colonel Higginson, Dr. Bartol, and many others. Extravagant things were sometimes said, no doubt, and the equilibrium of ordinary persuasion was not infrequently disturbed for a time; but the satisfaction of those present when a sound basis of thought was vindicated and established is indeed pleasant in remembrance.

I feel tempted to introduce here one or two magic-lantern views of certain sittings of this renowned club, of which I cherish especial remembrance. Let me say, speaking in general terms, that, albeit the club was more critical than devout, its criticism was rarely other than serious and earnest. I remember that M. Coquerel’s discourse there was upon “The Protestantism of Art,” and that in it he combated the generally received idea that the church of Rome has always stood first in the patronage and inspiration of art. The great Dutch painters, Holbein, Rembrandt, and their fellows, were not Roman Catholics. Michael Angelo was protestant in spirit; so was Dante. I cannot recall with much particularity the details of things heard so many years ago, but I remember the presence at this meeting of Charles Sumner, George Hillard, and Dr. Hedge. Mr. Sumner declined to take any part in the discussion which followed M. Coquerel’s discourse. Colonel Higginson, who was often present at these meetings, maintained his view that Protestantism was simply the decline of the Christian religion. Mr. Hillard quoted St. James’s definition of religion, pure and undefiled,—to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. Dr. Hedge, who was about to withdraw, paused for a moment to say: “The word ‘religion’ is not rightly translated there; it should mean” — I forgot what. The doctor’s tone and manner very much impressed a friend, who afterwards said to me: “Did he not go away ‘like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him’?”

Or it might be that John Weiss, he whom a lady writer once described as “four parts spirit and one part flesh,” gave us his paper on Prometheus, or one on music, or propounded his theory of how the world came into existence. Colonel Higginson would descant upon the Greek goddesses, as representing the feminine ideals of the Greek mythology, which he held to be superior to the Christian ideals of womanhood, — dear Elizabeth Peabody and I meeting him in earnest opposition. David Wasson, powerful in verse and in prose, would speak against woman suffrage. When driven to the wall, he confessed that he did not believe in popular suffrage at all; and when forced to defend this position, he would instance the wicked and ill-governed city of New York as reason enough for his views. I remember his going away after such a discussion very abruptly, not at all in Dr. Hedge’s grand style, but rather as if he shook the dust of our opinions from his feet; for no one of the radicals would countenance this doctrine, and though we freely confessed the sins of New York, we believed not a whit the less in the elective franchise, with amendments and extensions.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, one day, if I remember rightly, gave a very succinct and clear statement of the early forms of Calvinistic doctrine as held in this country, and Wendell Phillips lent his eloquent speech to this and to other discussions.

When I think of it, I believe that I had a salon once upon a time. I did not call it so, nor even think of it as such; yet within it were gathered people who represented many and various aspects of life. They were real people, not lay figures distinguished by names and clothes. The earnest humanitarian interests of my husband brought to our home a number of persons interested in reform, education, and progress. It was my part to mix in with this graver element as much of social grace and geniality as I was able to gather about me. I was never afraid to bring together persons who rarely met elsewhere than at my house, confronting Theodore Parker with some archpriest of the old orthodoxy, or William Lloyd Garrison with a decade, perhaps, of Beacon Street dames. A friend said, on one of these occasions: “Our hostess delights in contrasts.” I confess that I did; but I think that my greatest pleasure was in the lessons of human compatibility which I learned on this wise. I started, indeed, with the conviction that thought and character are the foremost values in society, and was not afraid nor ashamed to offer these to my guests, with or without the stamp of fashion and position. The result amply justified my belief.

 Some periods in our own history are more favorable to such intercourse than others. The agony and enthusiasm of the civil war, and the long period of ferment and disturbance which preceded and followed that great crisis, — these social agitations penetrated the very fossils of the body politic. People were glad to meet together, glad to find strength and comfort among those who lived and walked by solid convictions. We cannot go back to that time; we would not, if we could; but it was a grand time to live and to work in.

I am sorry when I see people build palaces in America. We do not need them. Why should we bury fortune and life in the dead state of rooms which are not lived in? Why should we double and triple for ourselves the dangers of insufficient drainage or defective sanitation? Let us have such houses as we need, — comfortable, well aired, well lighted, adorned with such art as we can appreciate, enlivened by such company as we can enjoy. Similarly, I believe that we should, individually, come much nearer to the real purpose of a salon by restricting the number of our guests and enlarging their variety. If we are to have a salon, do not let us think too much about its appearance to the outside world,—how it will be reported, and extolled, and envied. Mr. Emerson withdrew from the Boston Radical Club because newspaper reports of its meetings were allowed. We live too much in public to-day, and desire too much the seal of public notice.

There is not room in our short human life for both shams and realities. We can neither pursue nor possess both. I think of this now entirely with application to the theme under consideration. Let us not exercise sham hospitality to sham friends. Let the heart of our household be sincere; let our home affections expand to a wider human brotherhood and sisterhood. Let us be willing to take trouble to gather our friends together, and to offer them such entertainment as we can, remembering that the best entertainment is mutual.

But do not let us offend ourselves or our friends with the glare of lights, the noise of numbers, in order that all may suffer a tedious and joyless being together, and part as those who have contributed to each other’s ennui, all sincere and reasonable intercourse having been wanting in the general encounter.

We should not feel bound, either, to the literal imitation of any facts or features of European life which may not fit well upon our own. In many countries, the currents of human life have become so deepened and strengthened by habit and custom as to render change very difficult, and growth almost impossible. In our own, on the contrary, life is fresh and fluent. Its boundaries should be elastic, capable even of indefinite expansion.

In the older countries of which I speak, political power and social recognition are supposed to emanate from some autocratic source, and the effort and ambition of all naturally look toward that source, and, knowing none other, feel a personal interest in maintaining its ascendency, the statu quo. In our own broad land, power and light have no such inevitable abiding-place, but may emanate from an endless variety of points and personalities.

The other mode of living may have much to recommend it for those to whom it is native and inherited, but it is not for us. And when we apologize for our needs and deficiencies, it should not be on the ground of our youth and inexperience. If the settlement of our country is recent, we have behind us all the experience of the human race, and are bound to represent its fuller and riper manhood. Our seriousness is sometimes complained of, usually by people whose jests and pleasantries fail to amuse us. Let us not apologize for this, nor envy any nation its power of trifling and of persiflage. We have mighty problems to solve; great questions to answer. The fate of the world’s future is concerned in what we shall do or leave undone.

We are a people of workers, and we love work — work — shame on him who is ashamed of it! When we are found, on our own or other shores, idling our life away, careless of vital issues, ignorant of true principles, then may we apologize, then let us make haste to amend.



Source: Modern Eloquence: A Library of the World’s Best Spoken Thought, Vol V, Lectures F-M, ed. Thomas B. Reed, Justin McCarthy, Rossiter Johnson, Albert Ellery Bergh, (Philadelphia: John D. Morris and Company) 1900, pp. 591-601.


Also: Is Polite Society Polite? And Other Essays, by Julia Ward Howe, (New York: Lamson, Wolffe, & Company) 1895, pp. 113-129.