Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Genteel South and the Robust North

As leisure and wealth increased, people wanted to know more about how to behave in a proper manner. The Southern plantation owners, sitting amid their productive fields and black vassals, and the prosperous merchants and tradespeople of the Northern port cities all sought a standard of decorum and even elegance that would better reflect their wealth and power. These wealthy planters looked about their own country in vain; then ultimately they looked back to England to find the literature of civility.
The English books imported by Americans weren’t even really English—they were very often translations, adaptations, or outright plagiarism of French works. Since the age of chivalry, France had been Europe’s chief instructor in matters of manners. Now the bookshelves of both the wealthy and the “wannabes” in the eighteenth century soon contained volumes dealing with specifics as to dress, dining, and deportment. According to these publications, the earmarks of a gentleman were not only probity (or moral uprightness), but also valor, piety, and justice. The gentlewoman was modest, meek, chaste, and compassionate.
The habit of Americans looking to England for printed politeness guides continued for about a half-century after the severing of political ties following the American Revolution in 1776.

No comments: