“Nothing, at first sight, seems less important than the external formalities of human behavior,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “yet there is nothing to which men attach more importance. They can get used to anything except living in a society which does not share their manners. The influence of the social and political system on manners is therefore worth serious consideration.” But what are manners? “Definitions,” said Dr. Johnson, “are tricks for pedants.” A definition of manners will not do. We may, however, discriminate, attempting to say what manners are not. Manners are more deep-seated than fashions and styles; they are also more enduring. Manners have certain things in common with etiquette but they are broader than etiquette, which concentrates on particular situations and special occasions. And while a sensitive and sensible minority plays an important part in the creation and the dissemination of manners, manners are not exclusively, or even primarily, an aristocratic phenomenon.
Like character, but unlike fashions, styles, or etiquette, manners change gradually. No matter how self-centered or introspective, a man may not know much about his own manners, while other people will. This is true of a nation, too. When it comes to American manners, we ought to read the observations of foreigners.
Frances Trollope and Alexis de Tocqueville came to America about the same time. Mrs. Trollope was a middleclass Englishwoman, a literary housewife. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, a political philosopher. Upon returning home, she wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans, he Democracy in America.
Mrs. Trollope’s title is deceiving. Domestic Manners of the Americans is a travel book about the young United States, not very interesting, in spite (rather than because) of being archly critical. Her theme is summed up early. “The total and universal want of good, or even pleasing, manners, both in males and females, is . . . remarkable.” And later: “It should seem that nature herself requires some centuries of schooling before she becomes perfectly accomplished in ministering to the luxuries of man, and . . . the champagne and the Bordeaux of the Union may appear simultaneously with a Shakespeare, a Raphael, and a Mozart.” Not so.
At times, however, she could be acute. Observing “the immaculate delicacy” of the ladies in a Western American city, she wrote, “I confess I was sometimes tempted to suspect that this ultra-refinement was not very deep-seated. It often appeared to me like the consciousness of grossness, that wanted a veil; but the veil was never gracefully adjusted.” The odd thing is that all the prejudices of this middle-class woman were in favor of aristocracy. She “endeavored to show how greatly the advantage is on the side of those who are governed by the few, instead of the many.” She abjured “the wild schemes of placing all power of the State in the hands of the populace.”
Her contemporary Tocqueville, on the other hand, was an aristocrat (his Norman ancestry and title went back to the middle of the 11th century) who had a great and open-eyed interest in democracy. In the second volume of Democracy in America (which, at the time of its publication, received less favorable notice than Mrs. Trollope’s book), several of his chapters deal with American manners. His most summary statement reads; “In democracies manners are never as refined as among aristocracies, but they are also never so coarse.”
That statement is both subtle and profound, with a meaning that escaped Mrs. Trollope.
The great problem of the future of civilization, which this French nobleman answered in the 1830’s in a then wholly unexpected way, was whether democracy—at that time uniquely incarnated by the United States—could be prevented from debouching into radical and revolutionary extremes. Tocqueville observed that the problem might be the very opposite. It was the tendency of democratic society to form a vast current of conformity and mediocrity, the existence and the essence of which would be merely obscured by an incessant agitation of petty movements on the surface. He realized (as had few others, foremost among them his American contemporary James Fenimore Cooper) that the pressure of public opinion—or, more precisely, the pressure of an assumed public opinion—was a sometimes salutary but more often stifling regulator of all aspects of the Americans’ lives, including their manners.
Tocqueville was impressed with the high moral tone of marital relations in America, where fidelity was “more obligatory than anywhere else.” Even among the American upper classes circumstances “oblige the wives to stay at home and watch in person very closely over the details of domestic economy.” He found that in many ways American women were admirable wives and mothers. The fear that democracy would lead to unbridled license was nonsense. “In the United States men seldom compliment women, but they daily show how much they esteem them.”
There was, of course, another side to this. “In America, a woman loses her independence forever in the bonds of matrimony. While there is less constraint on girls there than anywhere else, a wife submits to strict obligations. For the former, her father’s home is a house of freedom and pleasure, for the latter, her husband’s is almost a cloister.” The pretty and spirited Betsy Patterson of Baltimore, who had married Napoleon’s brother Jerome (the marriage was not a success), saw that very clearly. When her father asked her to return to America, she refused. “I think it is quite as rational to go to balls and dinners as to get children, which people must do in Baltimore to kill time.”
Well—150 years later this is not what people do in Baltimore to kill time. And here we come to our second difficulty, which is not the definition but the history of manners: their change as well as their continuity. “The Necessity of Manners” is the first chapter in Harold Nicolson’s Good Behaviour. There he wrote that his book is neither a social history nor a manual of etiquette; that it is, in reality, a study of “successive types of civility,” from ancient Athens to the 20th century. But in the relatively short history of the United States, “types of civility” have changed, perhaps especially in the relations of the sexes. As late as 1955 Nicolson was critical (as were also many American writers) of the power of American wives over their husbands, and of American mothers over their sons. (What feminists would now think of such attributions of an American “matriarchal” society I leave to the reader to decide.) But there has been a change. In William Maxwell’s fine novel Time Will Darken It, his shy and sensitive protagonist, a Midwestern lawyer, in 1912 speaks harshly to his secretary on one occasion; he would never talk that way to his wife. I am inclined to think that the opposite would prevail today. In Evan Connell’s exquisite portrait of Mrs. Bridge, her relationship to her husband in the 1920’s and 1930’s is hardly imaginable today. Yet some of Mrs. Bridge’s manners—of an upper-middle-class woman in Kansas City—are not quite extinct. Probably this is what Edith Wharton meant when in The Age of Innocence she wrote that in 1900 the society and the customs of Old New York were almost entirely gone, but there remained an aroma of its erstwhile manners.
Yet our problem, when writing about manners, is not only the passage of time. It is that manners, by and large, are national, even more than they are social. Many habits of social ritual and intercourse—including such courtesies as “monsieur,” “madame,” “mademoiselle”—filtered down from the French aristocracy to the peasantry, and became national; and in communist Poland high party functionaries find it necessary and proper to bow and kiss the hands of women. But the very composition of the American nation has changed drastically since the 1830’s, when Tocqueville found it best to describe them as “Anglo-Americans.” He was already aware of the differences between English and American manners, contrasting them and often preferring American manners to the English. Yet 150 years later, fewer than one out of six Americans are of English or Welsh or Scottish ancestry. How strong, or lasting, is their inheritance? What has happened to those “Anglo-American” manners? What has remained constant in American manners? Can we speak of American manners at all?
In Edmund Burke’s great speech “On Conciliation with the American Colonies” (1775), he warned the English against identifying America “with stories of savage men, and uncouth manners.” In America as in other places, manners must rest (as Goethe realized) on a moral foundation. But the rigid observance of certain manners in early America that impressed Tocqueville cannot be ascribed to American Puritanism: for that strictness—very much including the respect paid to women, and gentlemanly behavior in general—was as strong in the American South as in New England. Indeed, it may be argued that the manners of the South have been better than those of the North.
How can we square this with Goethe? Many people in the South saw slavery as an unalterable fact of life, while they also knew that it was immoral. This partly explains the unique relationship certain families and their slaves had in the South—relationships that had no parallel in the English or Spanish or French colonies. Unlike in the North, the relationship between whites and blacks in the South has often been human rather than legal: and that was a matter of manners, too, since it is the nature of manners that they are not legal but human. At any rate, American Southern manners were, and still are, more than merely superficial. Reading Mrs. Chestnut’s Civil War diaries we are aware of something that is more than beautifully archaic—a code of behavior that impresses us more than the smell of an old lavender sachet left in a cupboard; we are struck by the pervasive sense of a strong-minded refinement that is infinitely preferable to—and more impressive than—the kind of refinement that is the result of anxious circumspection. Her manners are American manners at their best.
During the 19th century, and well after, all the conservative critics of the march of democracy as well as the radical agitators for equality overlooked an essential matter. That was the desire for respectability: an urge that is at times inseparable from the desire for equality, but almost always the stronger of the two. The desire for respectability explains many things—including the essential conservatism of the American working classes, and perhaps especially of their women. More than a century after Goethe we may observe the moral concerns of different American classes, as expressed in their driving habits: when two American workingclass couples ride in a car, the husbands sit in front and the wives in the back; the middle-class habit puts one of the couples in the front seat, the other in the back; the upper-class custom is to seat the couples separately, as at their dinner parties—an illustration of how a certain rigidity of manners is not a monopoly of the upper classes in America.
The desire for respectability also explains the strong tendency to conform among the superficially unruly American masses (something that Tocqueville noticed). It certainly explains the American obsession with manners, which came as early as a century and a half ago, and its particular manifestations in the wild pioneer West. Between 1830 and 1860 dozens of handbooks about etiquette were published in the United States. Many of them were long-lasting bestsellers, including The Dime Book of Practical Etiquette, The Bazaar Book of Decorum, How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Republican Etiquette, and Etiquette, Or A Guide to the Usages of Society, composed by “Count Alfred d’Orsay” (his real name was Charles William Day), which sold thousands of copies in the far West.
The notion that good manners were the prerogatives of the East died slowly. In Frank Crowninshield’s Manners for the Metropolis (1909), all the nouveaux riche were still Westerners, with an excess of money and bad manners. (Among other things, Crowninshield warns, such men are prone to address their wives as “mother.”) In the East a forerunner of the Social Register—that American Almanach de Gotha—was published as early as 1844. At the same time the truest recorders of society, the first serious American novelists, did not write about manners at all. While in Europe most of the great novels of the 19th century were novels of manners, the American equivalents did not appear until Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote them, and established a tradition that has continued through to the present day. The Great Gatsby, for example, is a novel of manners, however its commentators may have inflated it into the American tragedy; and, more than 60 years later, so is Tom Wolfe’s recent The Bonfire of the Vanities (a crude attempt at a novel of manners at a time when, for Wolfe, the most significant details worth recording of an urban society in crisis are precise descriptions of the clothing and the footwear of men and women of different races and classes).
The American character—and this was true long before the predominance of “Anglo-Americans” began to diminish—is a complicated one. Contrary to the generally accepted assumption (especially in Europe), Americans are not a simple people. Nor are American manners simple. One of the problems is the American confusion of publicity and privacy. It is because of the invasion of the former into the domains of the latter that in many places and in many ways celebrity has replaced society in America; it is therefore also one of the remnant habits of the old American upper class to observe and respect privacy. We have heard much about how the American West has been marked by the cult of individualism. But that half-truth is somewhat diminished when we observe how that individualism did not, and does not, include the cult of privacy. Both Mrs. Trollope and Tocqueville noticed this. Mrs. Trollope: “No one dreams of fastening a door in Western America; I was told that it would be considered an affront by the whole neighborhood. I was thus exposed to perpetual, and most vexatious, interruptions from people whom I have often never seen, and whose names still oftener were unknown to me.” Tocqueville about bores in America: ” . . . in the United States it is not at all easy to make a man understand that his presence is unwelcome. To make that point, roundabout methods are by no means always enough . . . ” Ranging from American statecraft through the American economy (consider our tax laws, according to which advertising and publicity are expenses of production) to American manners, the ravages of a preoccupation with “public relations” have been enormous. A preoccupation with one’s public image is almost always a sign of unsureness, or at least of a kind of self-consciousness that is different from good manners.
Yet I repeat: the American people are not simple. Consider the contradictory and alternating pull between public ritual and private anarchy, between conformism and individualism, so typical of the American spirit and mind; and then consider, too, how these opposite tendencies coexist not only within the great spaces of this country but within the minds of the same men. There is the example of Thoreau: “The obligation I have the right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” (This was written more than a century before the inane slogan, “Do your own thing.”) Thoreau was suspicious of both the majority and manners—without recognizing that one of the functions of a decent minority is its adoption of some type of civility, that is, of manners. He spoke out against every kind of public pressure and discipline; yet he was a gentle and private man whose prose style was highly disciplined. Less attractive examples of the coexistence of individualism with conformism were evident throughout the 1960’s, when hundreds of thousands of young Americans, celebrating their individualism, converged in such places as Woodstock; young people who, in Belloc’s words,
. . . take their manners from the Ape
Their habits from the Bear,
Indulge the loud unseemly jape,
And never brush their hair
—The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts
The title of Belloc’s book is telling, since an enduring problem with American manners is the result of the American cult of youth. Good manners are the fruit of a kind of moral discipline, or of a maturation of mind; hence the cult of youth holds little promise for good manners. No use to blame that on the 1960’s; many people had observed its perils earlier. Youth is competitive rather than tolerant (Louis Kronenberger in Company Manners, 1954: “The key slogan is no longer ‘playing the game,’ it is ‘knowing the score.'”) Young minds are imitative rather than original, which explains the obsession of young people with prevalent fashions. But fashions and manners, like appearance and behavior, are not the same things. Neither are the eccentric and the weirdo. What we need is more of the former and fewer of the latter. Young people are seldom capable of discriminating between them; but a well-mannered society will allow opportunities for the enjoyment of eccentric interests and embellishments of civilized life.
Because of the cult of youth, we can find at least one constant in the history of American manners: American children, by and large, are among the worst behaved in the world. They, wrote Nicolson in 1955, “are accorded a licence without bond or bound. . . . The pert, pampered, and loud-voiced infants of the great Republic are [for us] . . . incomprehensible.” One reason for that condition is the hesitation of a democratic people to assert authority. This tendency confuses the young, and obscures an essential condition of their psyche: not only do young people need a certain kind of authority, but they want it, too. In the evolution—or in this case, the devolution—of American manners, the cult of youth reverses the natural order, according to which young people eventually adopt the manners of older people. An example of such a reversal is the recent habit whereby people unknown to each other will instantly call each other by their first names. At first this habit seems to be yet another extension of the democratization of manners, of American friendliness, and the desire to put people at ease. But the result is yet another illustration of the human mistake of pushing a thing to its extreme, so that it becomes its very opposite. For calling a hardly-known person by his first name not only reduces the respect due to him; it is also a drastic reduction of a personal individuality that is embedded in one’s family name.
This is yet another example of our contemporary paradox: the breakdown of authentic communication at a time some silly people are trumpeting “the communications explosion.” What this means is the decay of listening, which is a serious matter. When a man curses someone, he is at least aware of that person’s existence. But when he does not listen to someone he has, for all practical purposes, excluded him from the human race and from this world. One hundred years ago Americans were able and willing to listen—considering the length of the sermons of their pastors and politicians, one would say for unconscionable lengths of time. One hundred years later the drastic shrinking of the American attention-span has resulted in (rather than caused) the inability or the unwillingness of an increasing number of people, brought up in the television age, to listen.
Listening is not merely a good habit that makes conversation possible, profitable and, on occasion, pleasant. It means paying attention to other people, which is surely a moral good but also the essence of good manners. We have at present a president of the United States who shows many signs of being good-natured; but he is also inattentive. He may be the best-dressed president of the United States ever, but his manners do not compare with those of the sometimes indifferently clad and ungainly Lincoln. We have reached a stage in our imperial development where the staffs, the cooks, the decorators, the planners, the social directors of the White House incorporate a ceremonial organization that surpasses that of Versailles at the time of Louis XIV; yet I read that at a state dinner in the White House Madame Chirac, the wife of the prime minister of France, was placed next to Joe Paterno, the football coach of Penn State. (We may be permitted to speculate about the ease of their conversation.) In December 1987, before the state dinner held for the Gorbachevs, they advised the Reagans that they did not wish to wear black tie and long dress. Yet the president prescribed a black-tie dinner, the explanation of a White House spokesman being that for such an occasion people “like to be dressed up.” One would think that elementary good manners (as well as protocol) would put the wishes of the principal guest first; evidently this is not the case.
Are we witnesses not only of a decline but of a degeneration of manners, at the mercy of a rising tide of barbarism, marking the beginning of a new Dark Age? Yes: and no. Again we may face one of the great American paradoxes. While the political and social ideologies of the 1960’s have largely disappeared, many of the fashions and manners have not. For at least a century after 1776 Americans represented the most radical democracy in the world—at a time when their manners were often conservative and rigid. In our times more Americans identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals—while their manners are often loose and even radical. It certainly suggests that they are not as conservative as they think they are.
But in one important sense Americans have become more conservative, and therein lies a symptom of promise. This symptom is the increasing respect they have for the past. However deficient their present knowledge of history, however sorry the degeneration of history-teaching in our schools and colleges and, yes, universities, there has risen among the American people an appetite for the past that has no precedent in the nation’s 200 years.
“The favorite, the constant, the universal sneer that met me everywhere, was on our old-fashioned attachment to things obsolete,” wrote Mrs. Trollope. Exactly 100 years later the fine Philadelphian essayist Cornelius Weygandt, writing about American manners, said, among other things: “We, as a people, postulate change as always desirable. If a thing is not ‘modern’ or ‘up-to-date,’ we cry ‘out with it.'” Americans are still “under the influence of that shibboleth, ‘It isn’t good if it isn’t modern.'” In the 1920’s, when the word “modern” in England still had a double edge, suggesting something fast and faintly amoral, in America a “modern” girl was an all-American girl, and it was the word “old-fashioned” which on occasion carried a pejorative tinge: an “old-fashioned” young man was something of a sissy. How this has changed! By the superficially radical and “revolutionary” 1960’s, “modern” had begun to sink on the stock exchange of words, while “old-fashioned” rose—until now, in the United States even more than in Europe, an old-fashioned house may be worth twice as much as a modern house, most Americans favor an old-fashioned place to a modern one and, I believe, would prefer that their children or their siblings marry someone from an oldfashioned family, rather than a “modern” one.
It is, of course, possible that this national interest and affection for the past is mostly sentimental. But I think that there is more to it. It is certainly true that, unlike in Mrs. Trollope’s times, Americans prefer old-fashioned manners to “modern” or even “up-to-date” ones. A corresponding development may be garnered from the slangy use of the word “class” in our times, when so many of the older class distinctions have otherwise disappeared. Again it was Tocqueville who saw that there were subtle differences in this seemingly classless democracy: “At first sight one might be inclined to say that the manners of all Americans are exactly alike, and it is only on close inspection that one sees all the variations among them.” But as late as the 1930’s the now current phrase, “he has class,” did not figure in H.L. Mencken’s encyclopedic The American Language. Indeed, to such men as Mencken or Frank Crowninshield (a then-arbiter of New York society and its manners) there was something ridiculous and unmannerly in employing the word “class” in America. Yet 50 years later the phrase, “he [or she] has class,” has come to suggest manners even more than fashions: it does not refer merely to style, but to generosity and perhaps even to magnanimity. It includes at least a sense, if not a recognition, that good manners may differ from the customary behavior of the majority. What is badly needed in this country is a moral minority (rather than the self-satisfied assertion of a Moral Majority).
It was an Englishman who said that a gentleman is someone who does not offend others unintentionally; yet the rudeness of Englishmen (which, true, is often the result of a deep-seated shyness) has never been typical of Americans, not even when most of them were descendants of people from the British Isles. Americans, Tocqueville wrote, are “always cold in manner”—this is no longer true—”and sometimes coarse; but they are hardly ever insensitive.” The combination of social cruelty with exquisite manners, practiced on occasion by many of the European aristocracies and here and there prevalent even now in France and England, has never taken root in America. That democratic generosity—what F. Scott Fitzgerald once called “the willingness of the heart”—was, and remains, the essential ingredient of the goodness of American manners. This happens when these manners are the fruits of a true consideration for others. In spite of the greatly changed composition of the American people, this has not changed through the centuries. It does not happen often in this mass democratic age, but when American manners are good, they are among the best in the world. When that “willingness of the heart” has grown into something that is not merely enthusiastic and instinctive, when it is manifest in the attention paid to others, the willingness of the American heart becomes inseparable from the willingness of the American mind.