Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Rough-and-Ready Pioneers

When the Americans, whose sinewy hands tamed a wild new continent and fashioned an industrial juggernaut, set out to acquire their own systems of courtesy and manners, they did so with characteristic vigor and a style that was by turns practical and quixotic, solemn and hilarious. These Americans came for the most part from Old World classes that were cut off from the customs of the “best” society, and many of them came to the New World because they despised the social rigors of European society. In the beginning, there was little time for contemplating the social graces. The struggle to conquer the wilderness was constantly renewed as American civilization marched toward the Pacific. Behind the westward-questing pioneers, the unceasing arrival of new hordes of immigrants kept conditions continually unsettled. Another major factor in pioneer life was the scarcity of women. In Europe, women were continually in the majority, and they were the makers and the guardians of the traditions of courtesy. In early America, women were a minority and, in fact, so scarce that men tended to treat them with something close to reverence and to compete in exaggerated and often comical politeness for their attention. Women were to be respected and protected and, if possible, pampered.

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