After months of trying to get her children to sit up straight, eat properly, chew with their mouths closed, and stop picking at the serving dishes, Eleanor Bradley had become frustrated and exasperated. She had been brought up in a strict home where napkins were spread evenly on laps, knives and forks were used properly and quietly, and mouths wiped carefully and decorously. The dinner table at her own house was feral and disgusting. She blamed it on her husband who had been brought up to eat ‘with gusto’ , as he described his extended family meals; but to her these dinners were free-for-all, undisciplined affairs at which food was eaten quickly and carelessly.
“Manners are bourgeois”, said her teenage son, and served no purpose in the modern world. They were vestiges of an elitist system. They were markers of class and lineage designed to distinguished aristocrats from rabble; and whatever the social value in earlier times, they were unnecessary reminders of oppression.
“Yeah”, said his younger sisters. “Who needs them?”
That was when the mother put down her fork and stared across the table at her husband and children. She patted her lips, carefully folded her napkin and laid it next to her plate, and stood up.
“Manners are not for you”, Eleanor said. “They are for me. I have to look at you, and I am disgusted.” With that she left the table and did not return.
It was an epiphany. The children and their father looked at each other. None of them had ever thought of manners this way. They were always an unwanted, unnecessary obligation. They made eating tedious and inefficient. They were relics from an earlier age that inhibited ‘gusto’ and the enjoyment of food. In short they were restrictions on individual behavior, on personal space.
With their mother’s few words, they finally understood. For the first time in their lives they put themselves in her shoes, imagined what they must look like to her – pigs at a trough; cud-chewing cows; a pack of dogs tearing at dead meat.
From then on while never perfect, their manners were much improved. They ate well if not properly, and their mother was pleased.
Eleanor Bradley was right, of course. Manners, politeness, civility are for other people. Yes, they do reflect well on one’s own upbringing and education, but courtesy is for others.
The American presidential campaign (2016) is an example of bad manners, incivility, and disrespect. There seems to be no end to the vitriolic, nasty, and deliberately abusive and demeaning language of the two candidates. Politeness, demurral, and respectful silence are seen as signs of weakness. Americans, the candidates have concluded, respect combativeness as a sign of strength; respect as sign of defeat, personal attacks as fair tactics in a high-stakes game.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. The Kennedy-Humphrey primary debate in West Virginia in 1960 was a model of propriety, respect, politeness, and good manners. The candidates expressed their views and commented on those of their opponent; yet the discourse never left the high ground. Points were scored on intelligence, clarity, precision, and insight.
What has happened in 50 years? How did America go from a society where civility and respect were the norms to one where discourse is discordant and individual identity primary?
The movies of the 40s reflect this culture of good manners and social propriety. Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Lionel Barrymore were exemplary of a culture which, while no less enterprising as today’s, respected a notion of social grace. Men wore suits and hats. Women dressed elegantly but conservatively. Clothes were both fashion statements and reflections of common social values. A suit displayed formality, shirtsleeves an intrusive, personal informality.
Graceful masculine manners – holding a door, standing up when a woman entered the room, helping her with her coat, escorting her to her car – were not the now-parodied symbols of male superiority and chauvinism but tributes to a woman’s own careful attention to her dress, demeanor, and social behavior.
In other words, civility in dress and behavior was a way of respecting not only others but the entire community.
Society was simpler, less diverse, and far less aggressively competitive than that of today. More people lived in small towns where everyone knew each other and where individual propriety and manners were not only matters of civility and respect but survival. Conformity to social norms was the rule.
Sinclair Lewis, most often thought of as a savage critics of the fat and happy American bourgeoisie of the early 20th century was far from it. Main Street, perhaps his finest novel, tells the story of a young woman who moves from a city to a small Midwestern town to follow her physician husband who intends to set up a practice there. She is intelligent, sensitive, and ambitious and quickly finds the town insufferably conservative and insular. Her attempts to start a theatre group, revitalize the library, and introduce art and literature to the community are considered intrusive and seditious.
Yet despite sympathizing with his heroine in her struggle for personal authenticity in a society which has no use for it, Lewis never condemns the town itself. There is something important, he concludes, about social integrity and community – something very American. Life on the prairie in 1920 was harsh and unforgiving; and only with social solidarity could survival and prosperity be assured. Individualism had to give way to normative behavior.
In the end Lewis’ heroine, Carol Milford, comes to realize that her husband despite his intellectual timidity and bourgeois sentiments, is a good man; that his profession is difficult and essential if not noble. She is less critical of her neighbors who might lack creative spirit but who are hardworking, essentially moral, and patient. ‘Boosterism’, Lewis’ satirical characterization of America’s self-assured but sanctimonious belief in and promotion of small town values is less prominent in Main Street. In the novel he has as much respect for the town of Gopher Prairie as he does for Carol who struggles for independence and individual expression.
Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) is both a celebration of family as it is about the integrity of community. It not only is the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation. Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding. The plantation is a physical and historical enclave.
The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors. Welty makes occasional but only incidental references to the Civil War, who went off to it and who came back. There is nothing about the War itself, the battles that were fought in the Delta, Radical Reconstruction, refugees, the dislocation of the planter class, the difficult restructuring of the slave economy, or the political and social upheavals that resulted.
Welty, then, by writing about a family isolated from the devastation of the War and its consequences and leading an idyllic and romantic existence, had another agenda
Some critics have suggested that the sense of place was really what gave her later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation was a metaphor for place and family: Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations.
Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant. This is the job of the storyteller.
Today’s world feels and is very unlike those of Welty, Lewis, or Wilder who in Our Town writes of the same conservative values of Grover’s Corners and about the necessarily small interstices between its residents and how this social integrity is essential to individual life and community. Our world not only celebrates classic American individualism but has turned it into a culture of identity. Society has become so diverse sexually, ethnically, and racially that each group and sub-group must fight for air, space, and territory among many competing claims. How can civility, manners, and mutual respect prevail in such a competitive environment?
The dream of social integration first expressed in the 60s has been replaced by separatism in the name of civil rights. The only way for gays, racial and ethnic minorities, and women to attain social and economic parity is to first fight for turf and perimeter. Then, once parity has been attained, assimilation of identity groups can occur.
Aggressive individualism is taught in the home as well. Self-worth, self-image, and personal identity are valued more than civility, respectful demurral, compromise, and accommodation.
There is no way to impose a 1940s conception of civility on 2016 America. It is too late, and except for ironic revivals of old fashion, the past is dead and gone.
Yet is it? Americans always refer to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the genius of the Bill of Rights, the principles of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin; and the invocation of the past is never considered retrograde or antiquated thinking. Why not the 40s for its graceful civility, manners, and polite respect?
Of course there was a dark side to the era – Appalachia, the Deep South, urban ghettoes were as much a part of the post-war period as the enthusiasm of the middle class – but such undersides exist in every period. It is historically revisionist to focus on underclass when the middle- and upper-class were defining American values.
So, a re-visitation of Welty, Lewis, and Wilder might be good for a start; or a non-ironic read of Emily Post; or Dark Victory and The Talk of the Town.