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Is Polite Society Polite? 

1895 — A lecture for the New England Women’s Club of Boston, Boston MA


Why do we ask this question? For reasons which I shall endeavor to make evident.

The life in great cities awakens a multitude of ambitions. Some people are very unscrupulous in following these ambitions, attaining their object either by open force and pushing, or by artful and cunning manœuvres. And so it will happen that in the society which considers itself entitled to rank above all other circles one may meet with people whose behavior is guided by no sincere and sufficient rule of conduct. Observing their shortcomings, we may stand still and ask, Are these people what they should be? Is polite society polite?

For this society, which is supposed to be nothing if not polite, does assume, in every place, to set up the standard of taste and to regulate the tone of manners. It aims to be what Hamlet once was in Ophelia’s eyes — “the glass of fashion and the mould of form.” Its forms and fashions change, of course, from age to age, and yet it is a steadfast institution in the development of human civilization.

I should be sorry to overstate its shortcomings, but I wish I might help it to feel its obligations and to fulfil them.

What shall we accept in the ordinary sense of men as politeness? Shall we consider it a mere surface polish — an attitude expressive of deference—corresponding to no inward grace of good feeling? Will you like to live with the person who, in the great world, can put on fine manners, but who, in the retirement of home, manifests the vulgarity of a selfish heart and an undisciplined temper?

No, you will say; give me for my daily companions those who always wear the best manners they have. For manners are not like clothes: you can mend them best when you have them on.

We may say at the outset that sincerity is the best foundation upon which to build the structure of a polite life. The affectation of deference does not impose upon people of mature experience. It carries its own contradiction with it. When I hear the soft voice, a little too soft, I look into the face to see whether the two agree. But I need scarcely do that. The voice itself tells the story, is sincere or insincere. Flattery is, in itself, an offence against politeness. It is oftenest administered to people who are already suffering the intoxication of vanity. When I see this, I wish that I could enforce a prohibitory ordinance against it, and prosecute those who use it mostly to serve their own selfish purposes. But people can be trained never to offer nor to receive this dangerous drug of flattery, and I think that, in all society which can be called good, it becomes less and less the mode to flavor one’s dishes with it.

Having spoken of flattery, I am naturally led to say a word about its opposite, detraction.

The French have a witty proverb which says that “the absent are always in the wrong,” and which means that the blame for what is amiss is usually thrown upon those who are not present to defend themselves. It seems to me that the rules of politeness are to be as carefully observed toward the absent as toward those in whose company we find ourselves. The fact that they cannot speak in their own defence is one which should appeal to our nicest sense of honor. Good breeding, or its reverse, is as much to be recognized in the way in which people speak of others as in the way in which they speak to them.

Have we not all felt the tone of society to be lowered by a low view of the conduct and motives of those who are made the subjects of discussion?

Those unfortunate men and women who delight in talk of this sort always appear to me degraded by it. No matter how clever they may be, I avoid their society, which has in it a moral malaria most unwholesome in character.

I am glad to say that, although frivolous society constantly shows its low estimate of human nature, I yet think that the gay immolation of character which was once considered a legitimate source of amusement has gone somewhat out of fashion. Sheridan’s “School for Scandal” gives us some notion of what this may once have been. I do think that the world has grown more merciful in later years, and that even people who meet only for their own amusement are learning to seek it without murdering the reputation of their absent friends.

There is a mean impulse in human nature which leads some people to toss down the reputation of their fellows just as the Wall Street bear tosses down the value of the investments whose purchase he wishes to command at his own price. But in opposition to this, God has set within us a power which reacts against such base estimates of mankind. The utterance of this false tone often calls out the better music, and makes us admire the way in which good springs up in the very footsteps of evil and effaces them as things of nought.

Does intercourse with great society make us more or less polite? Elizabeth Browning says:—

First time he kissed me he but only kissed
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,
Which ever thence did grow more clean and white,
Slow to world greetings, quick with its “Oh, list,”
When the angels speak.

This clearly expresses the sanctification of a new and noble interest. How is it with those on whom the great world has set its seal of superior position, which is derived from a variety of sources, among which wealth, recognized talent, and high descent are the most important?

I must say in answer that this social recognition does not affect all people in the same manner. One passes the ordeal unscathed, is as fresh in affection, as genuine in relation and intercourse, as faithful to every fine and true personal obligation in the fiery furnace of wealth and fashion and personal distinction as he or she was in the simple village or domestic life, in which there was no question of greatness or smallness, all being of nearly the same dimensions.

The great world may boast of its jewels which no furnace blast can melt or dim, but they are rare. Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier seem to have been among these undimmed gems; so, also, was Madame de Sévigné, with a heart warm with love for her children and her friends in all the dazzle of a brilliant court. So I have seen a vessel of the finest glass, thin as paper, which a chemist left over his spirit-lamp, full of boiling liquid, and, returning the next day, found uninjured, so perfect was the temper of the glass. But for one such unspoiled world-favorite, I can show you twenty men and women who, at the first lift of fortune, forsake their old friends, neglect their near relations, and utterly ignore their poor ones.

Romance is full of such shameful action; and let me say here, in passing, that in my opinion Romance often wears off our horror of what is wicked and heartless by showing it as a permanent and recognized element of society. This is the reverse of what it should do. But in these days it so exceeds its office in the hunt after the exhausted susceptibilities of a novel-reading public that it really thumps upon our aversion to vice until it wears it out.

De Balzac’s novel called Father Goriot tells the story of a man of humble origin who grows rich by trade, educates his daughters for fashionable life, marries them to men of condition, portions them abundantly, and is in return kept carefully out of what the world knows of their lives. They seek him only when they want money, which they always do, in spite of the rich dowry settled on them at their marriage. Father Goriot sells his last piece of silver to help them, and dies in a low boarding-house, tended by the charity of strangers, tormented to the last by the bickering of his children, but not cheered for one moment by their affection.

I have heard on good authority that people of wealth and position in our large cities sometimes deposit their aged and helpless parents in asylums where they may have all that money can buy for them, but nothing of what gratitude and affection should give them. How detestable such a course is I need not say; my present business is to say that it is far from polite.

Apropos of this suggestion, I remember that I was once invited to read this essay to a village audience in one of the New England States. My theme was probably one quite remote from the general thought of my hearers. As I went on, their indifference began to affect me, and my thought was that I might as well have appealed to a set of wooden tenpins as to those who were present on that occasion.

In this, I afterwards learned that I was mistaken. After the conclusion of the evening’s exercise, a young man, well known in the community, was heard to inquire urgently where he could find the lecturer. Friends asked, what did he want of her? He replied: “Well, I did put my brother in the poorhouse, and now that I have heard Mrs. Howe, I suppose that I must take him out.”

Need I say that I felt myself amply repaid for the trouble I had taken? On the other hand, this same theme was once selected from my list by a lecture association in a small town buried in the forests of the far West. As I surveyed my somewhat home-spun audience, I feared that a discussion of the faults of polite society would interest my hearers very little. I was surprised after my reading to hear, from more than one of those present, that this lecture appeared to them the very thing that was most needed in that place.

There is to my mind something hideous in the concealment and disregard of real connections which involve real obligations.

If you are rich, take up your poor relations. Assist them at least to find the way of earning a competence. Use the power you have to bring them within the sphere of all that is refining. You can embellish the world to them and them to the world. Do so, and you will be respected by those whose respect is valuable. On the contrary, repudiate those who really belong to you and the mean world itself will laugh at you and despise you. It is clever and cunning enough to find out your secret, and when it has done so, it will expose you pitilessly.

I have known men and women whose endeavors and successes have all been modelled upon the plane of social ambition. Starting with a good common-school education, which is a very good thing to start with, they have improved opportunities of culture and of desirable association until they stand conspicuous, far away from the sphere of their village or homemates, having money to spend, able to boast of wealthy acquaintances, familiar guests at fashionable entertainments.

Now sometimes these individuals wander so far away from their original belongings that these latter are easily lost sight of. And I assure you that they are left in the dark, in so far as concerns the actions of the friends we are now considering. Many a painstaking mother at a distance, many a plain but honest old father, many a sister working in a factory to help a brother at college, is never spoken of by such persons, and is even thought of with a blush of shame and annoyance.

Oh! shame upon the man or woman of us who is guilty of such behavior as this! These relatives are people to be proud of, as we should know if we had the heart to know what is true, good, and loyal. Even were it not so, were your relative a criminal, never deny the bond of nature. Stand beside him in the dock or at the gallows. You have illustrious precedent for such association in one whom men worship, but forget to imitate.

Let me here relate a little story of my early years. I had a nursery governess when I was a small child. She came from some country town, and probably regarded her position in my father’s family as a promotion. One evening, while we little folks gathered about her in our nursery, she wept bitterly. “What is the matter?” we asked; and she took me up in her lap, and said: “My poor old father came here to see me to-day, and I would not see him. I bade them tell him that he had mistaken the house, and he went away, and as he went I saw him looking up at the windows so wistfully!” Poor woman! We wept with her, feeling that this was indeed a tragical event, and not knowing what she could do to make it better.

But could I see that woman now, I would say to her: “If you were serving the king at his table, and held his wine-cup in your hand, and your father stood without, asking for you, you should set down the cup, and go out from the royal presence to honor your father, so much the more if he is poor, so much the more if he is old.” And all that is really polite in polite society would say so too.

Now this action which I report of my governess corresponds to something in human nature, and to something which polite society fosters.

For polite society bases itself upon exclusions. In this it partly appeals to that antagonism of our nature through which the desire to possess something is greatly exaggerated by the difficulty of becoming possessed of it. If every one can come to your house, no one, you think, will consider it a great object of desire to go there. Theories of supply and demand come in here. People would gladly destroy things that give pleasure, in order to enhance their value in the hands of the few.

I once heard a lady, herself quite new in society, say of a Parisian dame who had shown her some attention: “Ah! the trouble with Madame—— is that she is too good-natured. She entertains everybody.” “Indeed,” thought I, “if she had been less good-natured, is it certain that she would have entertained you?”

But of course the justifiable side of exclusion is choice, selection of one’s associates. No society can confer the absolute right or power to make this selection. Tiresome and unacceptable people are everywhere entangled in relations with wise and agreeable ones. There is no bore nor torment who has not the right to incommode some fireside or assembly with his or her presence. You cannot keep wicked, foolish, tiresome, ugly people out of society, however you and your set may delight in good conduct, grace, and beauty. You cannot keep poor people out of the society of the rich. Those whom you consider your inferiors feed your cherished stomach, and drape your sacred person, and stand behind your chair at your feasts, judging your manners and conversation.

Let us remember Mr. Dickens’s story of “Little Dorrit,” in which Mr. Murdle, a new-rich man, sitting with guests at his own sumptuous table, is described as dreading the disapprobation of his butler. This he might well do, as the butler was an expert, well aware of the difference between a gentleman of breeding and education and a worldling, lifted by the possession of wealth alone.

Very genial in contrast with this picture appears the response of Abraham Lincoln, who, on being asked by the head waiter at his first state dinner whether he would take white wine or red, replied: “I don’t know; which would you?”

Well, what can society do, then? It can decree that those who come of a certain set of families, that those who have a certain education, and above all, a certain income, shall associate together on terms of equality. And with this decree there comes to foolish human nature a certain irrational desire to penetrate the charmed circle so formed.

The attempt to do this encounters resistance; there is pushing in and shoving out, — coaxing and wheedling on the one hand, and cold denial or reluctant assent on the other. So a fight is perpetually going on in the realm of fashion. Those not yet recognized are always crowding in. Those first in occupation are endeavoring to crowd these out. In the end, perseverance usually conquers.

But neither of these processes is polite — neither the crowding in nor the crowding out — and this last especially, as many of those who are in were once out, and are trying to keep other people from doing what they themselves have been very glad to do. In Mr. Thackeray’s great romance, The Newcomes, young Ethel Newcome asks her grandmother, Lady Kew, “Well then, grandmother, who is of a good family?” And the old lady replies: “Well, my dear, mostly no one.” But I would reply: Mostly every one, if people are disposed to make their family good.

There is an obvious advantage in society’s possession of a recognized standard of propriety in general deportment; but the law of good breeding should nowhere be merely formal, nor should its application be petty and captious. The externals of respectability are most easily aped when they are of the permanent and stereotyped kind, and may be used to conceal gross depravity; while the constant, fresh, gracious inspiration of a pure, good heart is unmistakable, and cannot be successfully counterfeited.

On the other hand, young persons should be desirous to learn the opinion of older ones as to what should and should not be done on the ground of general decorum and good taste. Youth is in such hot haste to obtain what it desires that it often will not wait to analyze the spirit of an occasion, but classes opposition to its inclinations as prejudice and antiquated superstition. But the very individual who in youth thus scoffs at restraint often pays homage to it in later days, having meanwhile ascertained the weighty reasons which underlie the whole law of reserve upon which the traditions of good society are based.

How much trouble, then, might it save if the young people, as a rule, were to come to the elders and ask at least why this thing or that is regarded as unbecoming or of doubtful propriety. And how much would it assist this good understanding if the elders, to the last, were careful to keep up with the progress of the time, examining tendencies, keeping a vigilant eye upon fashions, books, and personages, and, above all, encouraging the young friends to exercise their own powers of discrimination in following usages and customs, or in departing from them.

This last suggestion marks how far the writer of these pages is behind the progress of the age. In her youth, it was customary for sons and daughters both to seek and to heed the counsel of elders in social matters. In these days, a grandmother must ask her granddaughter whether such or such a thing is considered “good form,” to which the latter will often reply, “O dear! no.”

It is sad that we should carry all the barbarism of our nature into our views of the divine, and make our form of faith an occasion of ill-will to others, instead of drawing from it the inspiration of a wide and comprehensive charity. The world’s Christianity is greatly open to this accusation, in dealing with which we are forced to take account of the slow rate of human progress.

A friend lately told me of a pious American, familiar in Hong Kong, who at the close of his last visit there, took a formal and eternal leave of one of the principal native merchants with whom he had long been acquainted. Mr. C —— alluded to his advanced age, and said that it was almost certain he could never return to China. “We shall not meet again in this world,” he said, “and as you have never embraced the true religion, I can have no hope of meeting you in a better one.”

I ask whether this was polite, from one sinner to another?

A stupid, worldly old woman of fashion in one of our large cities once said of a most exemplary acquaintance, a liberal Christian saint of thirty years or more ago: “I am very fond of Mrs. S —— but she is a Unitarian. What a pity we cannot hope to meet in heaven!” The wicked bystanders had their own view of the reason why this meeting would appear very improbable.

What shall we say of the hospitality which in some churches renders each man and woman the savage guardian of a seat or pew? Is this God’s house to you, when you turn with fury on a stranger who exercises a stranger’s right to its privileges? Whatever may be preached from the pulpit of such a church, there is not much of heaven in the seats so maintained and defended. I remember an Episcopal church in one of our large cities which a modest looking couple entered one Sunday, taking seats in an unoccupied pew near the pulpit. And presently comes in the plumed head of the family, followed by its other members. The strangers are warned to depart, which they do, not without a smile of suppressed amusement. The church-woman afterwards learned that the persons whom she had turned out of her pew were the English ambassador and his wife, the accomplished Lord and Lady Napier.

St. Paul tells us that in an unknown guest we may entertain an angel unawares. But I will say that in giving way to such evil impulses, people entertain a devil unawares.

Polite religion has to do both with manners and with doctrine. Tolerance is the external condition of this politeness, but charity is its interior source. A doctrine which allows and encourages one set of men to exclude another set from claim to the protection and inspiration of God is in itself impolite. Christ did not reproach the Jews for holding their own tenets, but for applying these tenets in a superficial and narrow spirit, neglecting to practise true devotion and benevolence, and refusing to learn the providential lessons which the course of time should have taught them. At this day of the world, we should all be ready to admit that salvation lies not so much in the prescriptions of any religion as in the spirit in which these are followed.

It is the fashion to-day to decry missions. I believe in them greatly. But a missionary should start with a polite theory concerning the religion which he hopes to supersede by the introduction of one more polite. If he studies rightly, he will see that all religions seek after God, and will imitate the procedure of Paul, who, before instructing the Athenians in the doctrines of the new religion, was careful to recognize the fact that they had a religion of their own.

I wish to speak here of the so-called rudeness of reform; and to say that I think we should call this roughness rather than rudeness. A true reformer honors human nature by recognizing in it a higher power than is shown in its average action. The man or woman who approaches you, urging upon you a more fervent faith, a more impartial justice, a braver resolve than you find in your own mind, comes to you really in reverence, and not in contempt. Such a person sees in you the power and dignity of manhood or womanhood, of which you, perhaps, have an insufficient sense. And he will strike and strike until he finds in you that better nature, that higher sense to which he appeals, and which in the end is almost sure to respond to such appealing.

I remember having thought in my youth that the Presbyterian preacher, John Knox, was probably very impolite in his sermons preached before poor Queen Mary Stuart. But when we reflect upon the follies which, more than aught else, wrecked her unhappy life, we may fancy the stern divine to have seen whither her love of pleasure and ardent temperament would lead her, and to have striven, to the best of his knowledge and power, to pluck her as a brand from the burning, and to bring her within the sober sphere of influence and reflection which might have saved her kingdom and her life.

With all its advances, society still keeps some traces of its original barbarism. I see these traces in the want of respect for labor, where this want exists, and also in the position which mere Fashion is apt to assign to teachers in the community.

That those who must be intellectually looked up to should be socially looked down upon is, to say the least, very inconsistent. That the performance of the helpful offices of the household should be held as degrading to those who perform them is no less so. We must seek the explanation of these anomalies in the distant past. When the handiwork of society was performed by slaves, the world’s estimate of labor was naturally lowered. In the feudal and military time, the writer ranked below the fighter, and the skill of learning below the prowess of arms. The mind of to-day has only partially outgrown this very rude standard of judgment. I was asked, some fifteen years ago, in England, by people of education, whether women teachers ranked in America with ladies or with working women. I replied: “With ladies, certainly,” which seemed to occasion surprise.

I remember having heard that a relative of Theodore Parker’s wife, who disliked him, would occasionally taunt him with having kept school. She said to him one day: “My father always told me to avoid a schoolmaster.” Parker replied: “It is evident that you have.”

I think that as Americans we should all feel an especial interest in the maintenance of polite feeling in our community. The theory of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people is in itself the most polite of theories. The fact that under such a government no man has a position of absolute inferiority forced upon him for life ought to free us from mean subserviency on the one hand, and from haughty and brutal assumption on the other.

Yet I doubt whether politeness is as much considered in American education as it ought to be. Perhaps our theory of the freedom and equality of all men leads some of us to the mistaken conclusion that all people equally know how to behave themselves, which is far from being the fact.

One result of our not being well instructed in the nature of politeness is that we go to the wrong sources to learn it. People who have been modestly bred think they shall acquire fine manners by consorting with the world’s great people, and in this way often unlearn what they already know of good manners, instead of adding to their knowledge.

Rich Americans seem latterly to have taken on a sort of craze about the aristocracies of other countries. One form of this craze is the desire of ambitious parents to marry their daughters to titled individuals abroad. When we consider that these counts, marquises, and barons scarcely disguise the fact that the young lady’s fortune is the object of their pursuit, and that the young lady herself is generally aware of this, we shall not consider marriage under such circumstances a very polite relation.

What does make our people polite, then? Partly the inherited blood of men who would not submit to the rude despotism of old England and old Europe, and who thought a better state of society worth a voyage in the Mayflower and a tussle with the wild forest and wilder Indian. Partly, also, the necessity of the case. As we recognize no absolute social superiority, no one of us is entirely at liberty to assume airs of importance which do not belong to him. No matter how selfish we may be, it will not do for us to act upon the supposition that the comfort of other people is of less consequence than our own. If we are rude, our servants will not live with us, our tradespeople will not serve us.

This is good as far as it goes, but I wish that I could oftener see in our young people a desire to know what is perfectly and beautifully polite. And I feel sure that more knowledge in this direction would save us from the vulgarity of worshipping rank and wealth.

Who have been the polite spirits of our day? I can mention two of them, Mr. Longfellow and Mr. Emerson, as persons in whose presence it was impossible to be rude. But our young people of to-day consider the great fortunes rather than the great examples.

In order to be polite, it is important to cultivate polite ways of thinking. Great social troubles and even crimes grow out of rude and selfish habits of mind. Let us take the case of the Anarchists who were executed in Chicago some years ago. Before their actions became wicked, their thoughts became very impolite. They were men who had to work for their living. They wanted to be so rich that they should not be under this necessity. Their mode of reasoning was something like this: “I want money. Who has got it? The capitalist. What protects him in keeping it? The laws. Down with the laws, then!”

He who reasons thus forgets, foolish man, that the laws protect the poor as well as the rich. The laws compel the capitalist to make roads for the use of the poor man, and to build schoolhouses for the education of his children. They make the person of the poor man as sacred as that of the rich man. They secure to both the enjoyment of the greatest benefits of civilization. The Anarchist puts all this behind him, and only reasons that he, being poor, wants to be rich, and will overthrow, if he can, the barriers which keep him from rushing like a wild beast upon the rich man and despoiling him of his possessions.

And this makes me think of that noble man Socrates, whom the Athenians sentenced to death for impiety, because he taught that there was one God, while the people about him worshipped many deities. Some of the friends of this great man made a plan for his escape from prison to a place of safety. But Socrates refused to go, saying that the laws had hitherto protected him as they protected other citizens, and that it would be very ungrateful for him to show them the disrespect of running away to evade their sentence. He said: “It is better for me to die than to set the example of disrespect to the laws.” How noble were these sentiments, and how truly polite!

Whoever brings up his children to be sincere, self-respecting, and considerate of others brings them up to good manners. Did you ever see an impolite Quaker? I never did. Yet the Friends are a studiously plain people, no courtiers nor frequenters of great entertainments. What makes them polite? The good education and discipline which are handed down among them from one generation to another.

The eminent men of our own early society were simple in their way of living, but when public duty called them abroad to mingle with the elegant people of the Old World, they did us great credit. Benjamin Franklin was much admired at the court of Louis XVI. Jay and Jefferson and Morris and Adams found their manners good enough to content the highest European society. They were educated men; but besides book-learning, and above it, they had been bred to have the thoughts and, more than all, the feelings of gentlemen.

The assumption of special merit, either by an individual or a class, is not polite. We notice this fault when some dressy young lady puts on airs, and struts in fine clothes, or condescends from an elegant carriage. Elder women show it in hardness and hauteur of countenance, or in unnecessary patronage.

But we allow classes of people to assume special merit on false grounds. It may very easily be shown that it requires more talent and merit to earn money than to spend it. Yet, by almost common consent of the fashionable world, those who inherit or marry money are allowed to place themselves above those who earn it.

If this is the case so far as men are concerned, much more is it the case with women. Good society often feels itself obliged to apologize for a lady who earns money. The fact, however explained, is a badge of discredit. She could not help it, poor thing! Her father failed, or her trustee lost the investments made for her. He usually does. So she has — oh, sad alternative! — to make herself useful.

Now in America the judgment of the Old World in this respect has come to be somewhat reversed. We do not like idle inheritors here; and so the moneyed aristocracy of our country is a tolerably energetic and industrious body. But in the case of womankind, I could wish to see a very different standard adopted from that now existing. I could wish that the fact of an idle and useless life should need apology — not that of a laborious and useful one. Idleness is a pregnant source of demoralization to rich women. The hurry and excitement of fashionable engagements, and the absorbing nature of entirely selfish and useless pursuits, such as dancing, dress, and flirtation, cannot take the place of healthful work. Dr. Watts warns us that

Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
And Tennyson has some noble lines in one of his noblest poems: —

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,
You pine among your halls and towers;
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these.
As I am speaking of England, I will say that some things in the constitution of English society seem to tend to impoliteness.

The English are a most powerful and energetic race, with immense vitality, cruelly divided up in their own country by absolute social conditions, handed down from generation to generation. So a sense of superiority, more or less lofty and exaggerated, characterizes the upper classes, while the lower partly rest in a dogged compliance, partly indulge the blind instinct of reverence, partly detest and despise those whom birth and fate have set over them. In England, people assert their own rank and look down upon that of others all the way from the throne to the peasant’s hut. I asked an English visitor, the other day, what inferior the lowest man had, — the man at the bottom of the social pile. I answered him myself: “His wife, of course.”

Where worldliness gives the tone to character, it corrupts the source of good manners, and the outward polish is purchased by the inward corruption of the heart. The crucial experiment of character is found in the transition from modest competency to conspicuous wealth and fashion. Most of us may desire this; but I should rather say: Dread it. I have seen such sweetness and beauty impaired by the process, such relinquishment of the genuine, such gradual adoption of the false and meretricious!

Such was a house in which I used to meet all the muses of the earlier time, — in which economy was elegant; frugality, tasteful and thrifty. My heart recalls the golden hours passed there, the genial, home atmosphere, the unaffected music, the easy, brilliant conversation. Time passes. A or B is the head of a great mercantile house now. I meet him after a lapse of years. He is always genial, and pities all who are not so rich as he is. But when I go to his great feast, I pity him. All the tiresome and antiquated furniture of fashionable society fills his rooms. Those empty bores whom I remember in my youth, and many new ones of their kind, float their rich clothing through his rooms. The old good-hearted greeting is replaced by the distant company bow. The moderate banquet, whose special dishes used to have the care of the young hostess, is replaced by a grand confectioner’s avalanche, cold, costly, and comfortless. And I sigh, and go home feeling, as Browning says, “chilly and grown old.”

This is not one case, but many. And since I have observed this page of human experience, I say to all whom I love and who are in danger ofbecoming very wealthy: Do not, oh! do not be too fashionable. “Love not the world.”

Most of us know the things men really say to us beneath the disguise of the things they seem to say. And So-and-So, taking my hand, expresses to me: “How much more cordial should I be to you if your father’s real estate had not been sold off before the rise.” And such another would, if he could, say: “I am really surprised to see you at this house, and in such good clothes. Pray have you any income that I don’t happen to know about?” The tax-gatherer is not half so vigilant about people’s worldly goods as these friends are. No matter how they bow and smile, their real impoliteness everywhere penetrates its thin disguise.

What is this impoliteness? To what is it shown? To God’s image, — the true manhood and true womanhood, which you may strip or decorate, but which you cannot destroy. Human values cannot be raised or lowered at will. “Thou canst not, by taking thought, add one cubit to thy stature.” I derive impoliteness from two sources, — indifference to the divine, and contempt for the human.

The king of Wall Street, some little time since, was a man who had risen from a humble beginning to the eminence of a successful stock-gambler. He had been fortunate and perhaps skilful in his play, and was supposed to be possessed of immense wealth. Immediately, every door was opened to him. No assemblage was perfect without him. Every designing mother wanted him for her son-in-law. One unlucky throw overturned all this. Down went his fortune; down, his eminence. No more bowing and cringing and smiling now. No more plotting against his celibacy — he was welcome to it. No more burthensome hospitality. He was dropped as coldly and selfishly as he was taken up, — elbowed aside, left out in the cold. When I heard of all this, I said: “Is it ever necessary in these times to preach about the meanness of the great world?”

Let us, in our new world, lay aside altogether the theory of human superiority as conferred by special birth or fortune. Let us recognize in all people human right, capacity, and dignity.

Having adopted this equal human platform, and with it the persuasion that the society of good people is always good society, let us organize our circles by real tastes and sympathies. Those who love art can follow it together; those who love business, and science, and theology, and belles-lettres, can group themselves harmoniously around the object which especially attracts them.

But people shall, in this new order, seek to fill their own place as they find it. No crowding up or down, or in or out. A quiet reference to thestandard of education and to the teachings of Nature will show each one where he belongs. Religion shall show the supreme source of power and of wisdom near to all who look for it. And this final unity of the religious sense shall knit together the happy human variety into one great complex interest, one steadfast faith, one harmonious effort.

The present essay, I must say, was written in great part for this very society which, assuming to take the lead in social attainment, often falls lamentably short of its promise. But let us enlarge the ground of our remarks by a more general view of American society.

I have travelled in this country North and South, East and West. I have seen many varieties of our national life. I think that I have seen everywhere the capacity for social enjoyment. In many places, I have found the notion of co-operation for good ends, which is a most important element in any society. What I have seen makes me think that we Americans start from a vantage-ground compared with other nations. As mere social units, we are ranked higher than Britons or continental Europeans.

This higher estimation begins early in life. Every child in this country is considered worth educating. The State will rescue the child of the pauper or criminal from the ignorance which has been a factor in the condition of its parents. Even the idiot has a school provided for him, in which he may receive such training as he can profit by. This general education starts us on a pretty high level. We have, no doubt, all the faults of our human nature, but we know, too, how and why these should be avoided.

Then the great freedom of outlook which our institutions give us is in our favor. We need call no man Master. We can pursue the highest aims, aspire to the noblest distinctions. We have no excuse for contenting ourselves with the paltry objects and illusory ambitions which play so large a part in Old-World society.

The world grows better and not worse, but it does not grow better everywhere all the time. Wherever human effort to a given end is intermitted, society does not attain that end, and is in danger of gradually losing it from view, and thus of suffering an unconscious deterioration which it may become difficult to retrieve. I do not think that the manners of so-called polite society to-day are quite so polite as they were in my youth. Young women of fashion seem to me to have lost in dignity of character and in general tone and culture. Young men of fashion seem to regard the young ladies with less esteem and deference, and a general cheap and easy standard of manners is the result.

On the other hand, outside this charmed circle of fashion, I find the tone of taste and culture much higher than I remember it to have been in my youth. I find women leading nobler and better lives, filling larger and higher places, enjoying the upper air of thought where they used to rest upon the very soil of domestic care and detail. So the community gains, although one class loses,—and that, remember, the class which assumes to give to the rest the standard of taste.

Instead of dwelling too much upon the faults of our neighbors, let us ask whether we are not, one and all of us, under sacred obligations to carry our race onward toward a nobler social ideal. In Old-World countries, people lack room for new ideas. The individual who would introduce and establish these may be imprisoned, or sent to Siberia, or may suffer, at the least, a social ostracism which is a sort of martyrdom.

Here we have room enough; we cannot excuse ourselves on that ground. And we have strength enough — we, the people. Let us only have the royal will which good Mr. Whittier has celebrated in “Barbara Frietchie,” and we shall be able, by a resolute and persevering effort, to place our civilization where no lingering trace of barbarism shall deform and disgrace it.



Source: Is Polite Society Polite? And Other Essays, by Julia Ward Howe, (Boston: Lamson, Wolffe, & Company) 1895, pp. 3-33.