“La politesse de l’esprit consiste a penser des choses honnetes et delicates.”
A great deal has been said and written during the past few years on the subject of American manners, and the consensus of opinion is, on the whole, unfavourable. We have been told, more in sorrow than in anger, that we are not a polite people; and our critics have cast about them for causes which may be held responsible for such a universal and lamentable result. Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, for example, is by way of thinking that the fault lies in the sudden expansion of wealth, in the intrusion into the social world of people who fail to understand its requirements, and in the universal “spoiling” of American children. He contrasts the South of his childhood, that wonderful “South before the war,” which looms vaguely, but very grandly, through a half-century’s haze, with the New York of to-day, which, alas! has nothing to soften its outlines. A more censorious critic in the “Atlantic Monthly” has also stated explicitly that for true consideration and courtliness we must hark back to certain old gentlewomen of ante-bellum days. “None of us born since the Civil War approach them in respect to some fine, nameless quality that gives them charm and atmosphere.” It would seem, then, that the war, with its great emotions and its sustained heroism, imbued us with national life at the expense of our national manners.
I wonder if this kind of criticism does not err by comparing the many with the few, the general with the exceptional. I wonder if the deficiencies of an imperfect civilization can be accounted for along such obvious lines. The self-absorption of youth which Mrs. Comer deprecates, the self-absorption of a crowd which offends Mr. Page, are human, not American. The nature of youth and the nature of crowds have not changed essentially since the Civil War, nor since the Punic Wars. Granted that the tired and hungry citizens of New York, jostling one another in their efforts to board a homeward train, present an unlovely spectacle; but do they, as Mr. Page affirms, reveal “such sheer and primal brutality as can be found nowhere else in the world where men and women are together?” Crowds will jostle, and have always jostled, since men first clustered in communities. Read Theocritus. The hurrying Syracusans–third century B.C.–”rushed like a herd of swine,” and rent in twain Praxinoe’s muslin veil. Look at Hogarth. The whole fun of an eighteenth-century English crowd consisted in snatching off some unfortunate’s wig, or toppling him over into the gutter. The truth is we sin against civilization when we consent to flatten ourselves against our neighbours. The experience of the world has shown conclusively that a few inches more or less of breathing space make all the difference between a self-respecting citizen and a savage.
As for youth,–ah, who shall be brave enough, who has ever been brave enough, to defend the rising generation? Who has ever looked with content upon the young, save only Plato, and he lived in an age of symmetry and order which we can hardly hope to reproduce. The shortcomings of youth are so pitilessly, so glaringly apparent. Not a rag to cover them from the discerning eye. And what a veil has fallen between us and the years of our offending. There is no illusion so permanent as that which enables us to look backward with complacency; there is no mental process so deceptive as the comparing of recollections with realities. How loud and shrill the voice of the girl at our elbow. How soft the voice which from the far past breathes its gentle echo in our ears. How bouncing the vigorous young creatures who surround us, treading us under foot in the certainty of their self-assurance. How sweet and reasonable the pale shadows who smile–we think appealingly–from some dim corner of our memories. There is a passage in the diary of Louisa Gurney, a carefully reared little Quaker girl of good family and estate, which is dated 1796, and which runs thus:–