Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Gilded Age Etiquette Critique of America

Mrs. Desmond Humphreys, aka "Rita", the self-appointed British judge and jury of American etiquette and excess in the Gilded Age
"
I was told I ought to go to Maine, or Illinois, or Chicago, or California before I criticised American life or manners, but I concluded that New York and Washington and Boston were very good specimens of the American States, and quite important enough for my attention !" 
A BRIEF two months' experience of American cities, life, manners, habits, and hospitality, is scarce equipment for criticism. One forms opinions which after-results modify. One salutes the Goddess Liberty with respect, and finds oneself laughing in one's sleeve a week later at the free translation of the word "Freedom." One is called upon to admire in one city what is scoffed at in another. But above all one speedily learns that the term "American" is too comprehensive for general use.


New York is not American ; assuredly Washington is not American ; and only a benighted foreigner would ever so misname Boston. Between all these cities there exists a frantic rivalry and a curiously ingenious diversity of claims. Yet if each looked into the heart of the other they could not but recognise brotherhood and amity. They would lose sight of foibles, and grow tolerant of mistakes. The factors of national strength are often the products of national weakness, and the true history of America is at once the most romantic and the most extraordinary yet — unwritten.


Here are cities so splendid and so rich that one would expect perfection of civilisation. Yet one finds palaces set beside tenements, and avenues that run into filthy slums. Slavery has been abolished by civil war ; but there is not a factory, or a foundry, or a dockyard, or an emporium that does not own thousands of white slaves, earning hardly a living wage, worked for long toilful hours, herded together like cattle, tricked by politicians, hounded down by legislature, and yet content to wave a bit of coloured rag on Independence Day and call themselves patriots!


The wealth of America is amazing. The poverty and vice and degradation of America are heart-rending. If the country were not so rich, if dollars were not a blatant fact for ever poured into your ear, for ever appraising every public or private building you admire, every statue, bridge, park, or street you notice, the bewildered tourist might excuse poverty and misrule ; might even class them as incidents too universal for drastic criticism. But the loudly uttered boasts, the useless and absurd extravagance and costly idiocies of society, these are things that draw down harsher censure on a new country than on one long founded on traditions, and in a measure bound to up-hold them.


In Europe we have feudalism, state, royalty, and aristocracy. America claims none of these. Its sole aristocracy is that of Wealth, and it is not one to be proud of, judged by its proclaimed methods. If one surveys the great Republic's life through the noble prescience of a Lincoln, or Washington, it is but to quote Hamlet and murmur : " What a falling-off is there!


The Republic of their dreams, political, ecclesiastical, and social, is now transformed into a huge iconoclastic machine ; a thing of tyranny and cruelty and unsparing greed. The word " millionaire " is no longer expressive enough to acclaim riches. Even a unit with eighteen ciphers scarcely advertises multi-millionairism to the satisfaction of the New York or Chicago standard. 



New York itself seems to abhor economy in any shape or form. It only believes in glitter, show, and ostentation. The wildest extravagance, and a perpetual advertisement of startling absurdities, mark the deeds of its social world.


If a stranger comes to New York unheralded by the ubiquitous reporter, inclined for comfort, not display, with a desire to study life from an outsider's and not an American's point of view, that stranger is unwelcome. Only the credentials of rank open the door of democracy ; and the cranks and tricks of the wildest madman would be received with acclamation if they meant novelty for a blase society. There is sort of social insanity in the United States that sets the rest of the world agape. But also it brings down the ridicule and condemnation of calm and sensible minds. 



Yet the individual American is so thin-skinned that the very fact of unfavourable criticism makes him your lifelong enemy. Give him praise, flattery, admiration, wonder, and he will perhaps lend you a — greenback. Tell him straight that his nation is vulgar, ostentatious, and blind to its own best interests, and he will advise you to "git."


Possibly this is a somewhat sweeping assertion from the point of view of a mere writer ; but the three great cities I have seen, and about which I have written the following articles, are sufficiently representative as subjects for such an assertion.


I was told I ought to go to Maine, or Illinois, or Chicago, or California before I criticised American life or manners, but I concluded that New York and Washington and Boston were very good specimens of the American States, and quite important enough for my attention !


So of these three cities I have written, calling down much wrath, and much criticism, and many vituperative letters from unknown American correspondents by so doing.


I am sorely tempted to publish some of these letters, but for sake of many kindnesses received, and many pleasant friendships made, I refrain from retaliation. Yet I would like to say that no English writer, however severe or however critical, has ever written harsher truths of the Americans than the Americans have written of themselves.  –" Rita"·1910


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