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Chapter 15: the cant of cosmopolitanism

This is the period when young people just coming out of college are receiving a good deal of advice, and giving some. As it is the period when they feel oldest for themselves, and are regarded as youngest by their elders, most of the advice is superfluous, and is pretty sure not to be heeded. They are at a time when they must learn, not by the wisdom or unwisdom of others, but by their own-and particularly by their own-blunders. They may, for instance, fall into either of two forms of cant — that of spread-eagleism or that of cosmopolitanism. Of the two, the cant of cosmopolitanism is the worst. It belongs chiefly to the untravelled, or to those who have travelled very little. No one is quite so cosmopolitan as the youth who, having crossed the ocean on a cattle-steamer, has found his way to Paris, and has been prevented from being a little [111] wicked only by the lingering of a very few scruples and the presence of but a very few dollars. After his return to his family his cosmopolitanism is appalling. Perhaps there is a maiden who might compare with him, the damsel who has been taken abroad with the expectation of becoming the proud bride of a ducal coronet, and has come home with only a complete wardrobe and an exceedingly incomplete French accent. The more experienced often go abroad, as Emerson said-and Motley and Lowell illustrated-“to be Americanized.” That is, they learn that the nation of which they are a portion has its own career to work out; that nothing that can be learned or won in Europe is too good for us, but that you can no more transplant the social atmosphere of Europe than you can change the climate or the sky.

They learn also the folly of supposing that cosmopolitanism means good manners, or has, indeed, very much to do with them. Perhaps, if we hear a man mentioned as a cosmopolite, we are apt to expect good manners from him; but if we substitute the now familiar and irreverent word “globe-trotter,” the spell vanishes. A globe-trotter does not necessarily have good manners. We soon learn that it is [112] possible to visit many nations and see less, on the whole, than if one had stayed at home; and that it is easy to say nothing through a great many tongues. No one would send his children to be trained in manners among a circle of professional couriers. Some of the most essentially vulgar women ever seen in American society have been those most versed in European drawing-rooms, and, by all testimony, not unpopular there. The brilliant Lady Eastlake went so far as to assert that high society in London “positively likes vulgarity, if it be but new” ; and that “Sir Francis Palgrave was right in saying that a person who would say rude things would be sure to take in London.” And in circles of really good manners, some of the Americans who have been most cordially received in Europe, from the Revolutionary days until the present time, have been those who did not go abroad until middle life, when their habits had been formed wholly at home. The late Richard Grant White always maintained that he never saw in Europe manners so fine as those of his own grandfather, in New England; and when he himself first visited England, at fifty or thereabouts, he was described in the London papers as having the bearing of a lord and the figure [113] of a guardsman. In the same way Lady Eastlake describes Motley's visible annoyance at being constantly addressed as “Milord” at German hotels; and I knew a Boston lady, going abroad for the first time after middle life, who was identified for her husband by the Suisse at a crowded cathedral, where they had got separated, as “the lady with a grand air.”

What we all need to teach our children is that manners are not a matter of veneering, but ingrain. In Tennyson's phrase:

Kind nature's are the best; those next to best
That fit us like a nature second-hand,
Which are indeed the manners of the great.

It is possible, in other words, to have better manners than those of the merely great, by having a surer foundation. Why not strike for the best? Self-respect, self-control, kind feeling, refined habits-these are the basis. If, in addition to these, one happens to inherit an agreeable voice and a good intonation, what more is essential? The trivialities of spoons and napkins are easily enough acquired. I have sat at table with a Pueblo Indian chief, introduced for the first time to silver forks, who handled those and all other implements with an awkwardness so dignified and delicate [114] that it actually gave a charm. Never have I seen finer manners than those of an old “body servant” whom I knew in my youth on a Virginia plantation, who could neither read nor write, and had never gone farther from home than the White Sulphur Springs. There is no delusion greater than that which confounds good manners with cosmopolitan experience.

In the same way, those who are always urging the need of cosmopolitanism in our literature are usually youths and maidens just from college, whose vast knowledge of the great world is yet to come. It is not necessary to deny the advantage that proceeds, on the whole, from those changes which make travel easier and cause the world to seem smaller. But it is well to remember how much may be done by staying at home. Hawthorne's fame still rests on his Scarlet Letter. Mr. Henry James derides Thoreau as not merely provincial, but parochial; yet that parochial life has found already three biographers in England, which is possibly two more than the lifelong transplantation of Mr. James may win for him. On the other hand, what place in the world is less truly cosmopolitan than Paris, where no native feels called upon to learn a modern language or visit a foreign country, [115] but each Frenchman remains at home for other people to visit him and learn the language he speaks? Paul Bourget, it is to be noticed, had to place his Cosmopolis elsewhere than in Paris. And what a commentary it is upon the qualities which make for permanence that the genius of Edgar Allan Poe has so impressed itself on French literature as still to be quoted there, while successive literary models in that very language-Charles de Bernard, Stendhal, Baudelaire, even Guy de Maupassant — have risen and passed away!

The moral is that while cosmopolitanism may be an ornament either in manners or in literature, provided more essential qualities are secured, yet “the root of the matter” is elsewhere. First get the real qualities, which lie at the basis, whether of social manners or of literary style, and all the rest shall be added unto you.


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