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Chapter 18: the future of polite society

Dr. Lyman Abbott, in a late paper, thinks that polite society, in the exclusive sense, is hardly destined to sustain itself. His reason is that wealth is superseding birth as its basis. In this respect, however, his inference is doubtful, while his facts are true. He says that “some communities, like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, make a brave attempt to maintain a respect for old families; but this is an inheritance from colonial days, and visibly wanes.” He might have gone further and have said that in only one of these three cities-Philadelphia — has the “smart set” any particular connection with old families or gives itself any concern about them. The utmost that it does is to draw a feeble line at the recognized occupations of fathers, while the occupation or social position of the grandfather is pretty thoroughly ignored. Given a [130] fortune, with a reasonable amount of tact, and one generation, at most two, can accomplish the rest. There is a lingering rumor that at Newport a rich dealer in patent medicines was for years successfully kept from buying land on the fashionable avenue; but if so, the exclusion was in itself an absurdity, like those attempted distinctions between wholesale and retail trade. Surely it is absurd to assume it as plebeian to sell tape by the piece, and not plebeian to sell it by the thousand pieces; to call it discreditable when a fortune is made by a medicine, and not when it is made by hotel-keeping or laying water-pipes or carrying on the express business. All these vocations, and a thousand others equally modest and respectable, have contributed to the gilding of our jeunesse doree, and no one need be ashamed of any one of them, except when it tempts him to sneer at some other.

When Mrs. Thrale, the witty friend and hostess of Dr. Samuel Johnson, after being left the widow of a brewer, married for her second husband a professional musician, Signor Piozzi, all London society thought that she had degraded herself; whereas, when she went to Italy, her husband's musical relatives wondered that she could ever, even in youth, [131] have stooped so low as to marry a brewer. It was a period when in society, described by Miss Berry from girlish recollection, “authors, actors, composers, singers, musicians were all equally considered as profligate vagrants.” Thus various are the habits of nations. With Americans, again, the brewer sinks in comparative standing, and the musician rises. Once accept the fiction of hereditary nobility, and it leads you to extend its traditions over all your circle. The first effort of acquired wealth is to supply itself with a coat of arms — to sail, that is, under the flag of “the old families.” A Scotch antiquarian, Ferne, writing The Blaen of Gentry in 1586, carrying the process a little further, affirms that the Twelve Apostles of Christianity, although apparently humble fishermen, were undoubtedly gentlemen of high blood, in temporary poverty, but “entitled to bear coat armour.” Many of them, he is satisfied, were descended from “that worthy conqueror Judas Maccabaeus.”

But the truth is that the distinction between a newly enriched family and a family descended even from Judas Maccabaeus is a mere matter of a century or two. Every family has sprung, as Lord Murray in Scott's Monastery says, “from one mean man” --taking [132] the word “mean” only in the sense of humility of station. He usually raised himself largely by the aid of wealth, and often by qualities held in their day disreputable. In a country of hereditary aristocracy it is rare to dwell much on the first step taken by the “mean man” ; people often admit very frankly that his elevation came from the trickery of some courtier or from some woman's disgrace. What they urge in favor of the system is that aristocracy is a habit of living, not a difference in the chemical atoms of the blood; that people acquire by the exercise of power and station a certain advantage of manner and tone. Now comes Mr. Hamerton and points out, with great skill and plausibility, that all this applies just as clearly to an aristocracy of wealth, and that a household which spends $20,000 a year for two or three generations becomes insensibly different in its habits and standards from one which spends $500 a year. This does not imply that these standards and habits are necessarily superior, especially on the moral side; on the contrary, it is now common in all countries to speak rather contemptuously of “the bourgeois virtues,” as if high breeding soon carried us beyond those. The point is that this high breeding, [133] for good or for evil, is easily manufactured in a few generations, and that birth and wealth both have a hand in the manufacture.

The curious thing is that those who profess a religion which theoretically goes back to the son of a carpenter should fall in with this assumption and acquiesce in either of these aristocracies as the final and sufficient thing. If there is to be any real or permanent progress in human society, it must be by that process of levelling upward which has already taken us beyond feudalism and human slavery, but is still struggling with the inequalities of a transition period. We must surely come to a time when no labor will degrade except by being unmanly or unwomanly, and when good manners will be exercised to all upon something approaching a level, and not by looking down from above. We cannot be satisfied with plantation manners or servile manners; they must be humane manners — that is, human. As vocations are gradually refined and elevated by machinery-turning, as Napoleon Bonaparte predicted, trades into arts — it becomes more and more absurd to classify men and women by occupation instead of character. Howells has lately pointed out how pitifully Dickens stultified his own democratic tendencies [134] when he showed himself “really and lastingly ashamed of having once put up shoe-blacking as a boy, and was unable to forgive his mother for suffering him to be so degraded.” Howells adds, admirably, “One perceives that he too was the slave of conventions and the victim of conditions which it is the highest function of his criticism to help destroy.” It may be set down as a certainty that no form of society is permanent which makes any person ashamed of ever having done a stroke of honest labor.


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