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Chapter 17: English and American gentlemen

A report is going the rounds of the newspapers-and may, nevertheless, be true-that some Cornell University students were ruled out from rowing in the Henley regatta because they had crossed the ocean in a cattle-steamer; and had therefore earned money by the work of their hands. The college oarsmen, it was stated, “must be gentlemen,” and no gentleman could have worked with his hands. The rumor looks a little improbable, because in Tom Brown at Rugby, written nearly half a century ago, a college crew is described as being saved by the rowing of a plebeian student, who had, it is to be presumed, done some manual labor. If, however, the tale be true, it points to a difference, still insurmountable, between the English and American students. Even in circles of inherited wealth in this country it is not at all uncommon for a young [124] man who is to enter upon manufacturing or mining or railroad business to begin himself at the foundation, work with the laborers, dine from a tin pail, and be paid wages like the rest. Among the owners of mines and factories the greater number have begun on the tin-pail level. To all these the word “gentleman” means something very different from what it means in England. It means good manners and good education, whether the owner dates back to a cattle-steamer or otherwise. This might be called, in a certain way, the Christian meaning of the word-inasmuch as the founder of this religion was a carpenter's son, and, as the Church has generally held, worked at his father's trade in early youth. Yet he was called by the poet Dekker, in a line which is very likely to prove immortal-

The first true gentleman that ever breathed.

There are two great defects in the working of the English theory that a gentleman must never, under any circumstances, have worked with his hands. The first is that it handicaps every one who has so worked, and makes it harder for him, even in the American sense, to be a gentleman. People are very apt to be [125] what is expected of them. Assume that a whole class will be clowns, and they are more likely to be so; assume that they are to be gentlemen, you remove half the obstacle to their success. Hence much of the flexibility of American character, its ready adaptation. Since it made no difference to anybody else that Whittier had been in youth a farmer's boy in summer and a shoemaker in winter, it made no difference to him; and nobody stopped to ask whether he had sustained, in childhood, the same refining influences with Longfellow and Lowell. In New York, in Washington, one often encounters eminent men who have worked with their hands. In England these men would have carried for life the stamp of that experience — some misplaced h, some Yorkshire burr would have stamped them forever. In America the corresponding drawbacks have been easily effaced and swept away. No doubt climate and temperament have something to do with this difference, but the recognized social theory has more. It grows largely out of the changed definition of the word “gentleman.” In America this altered classification has let down the bars. The word “gentleman” denotes a class that is henceforward accessible to merit. [126]

The other defect of the English standard is that it perpetuates, even inside those who rank as gentlemen, a permanent feudalism, a wholly artificial standard of social subordination. This lasts even to the present time. In the autobiography of Anthony Trollope there is an especial chapter on the question, “How a literary man should treat his social superiors” --a chapter which is, to an American literary man, first ludicrous and then pathetic. Walter Besant in his Fifty Years Ago enumerated the list of eminent authors and scientists of the Victorian period, and pointed with what seemed like pride to the fact that they had had nothing to do with the court of Victoria. Now that he has been knighted, he doubtless acquiesces with resignation. But the crowning illustration of the curious attitude given by belated feudalism to the author is to be found in the lately published letters of Sir Walter Scott. They are delightful in all respects but one--the absolute self-subordination, the personal prostration, with which he writes to every titled nonentity about him. Men younger than himself, now utterly forgotten by the world at large, were treated by this leading Scotch intellect of his day as if they conferred honor by letting him write to [127] them; and the very grace and naturalness with which it is done shows how ingrain it is. To the chief of his clan, especially, Scott poses as the humble minstrel for whom it is honor enough to sit in the doorway of his liege and amuse that august leisure. That this attitude was not inevitable we know by the very different tone of Burns; but the facility with which Scott fell into it shows the strength of the feudal tradition; while the attitude of Trollope and Besant shows that it still survives.

But Scott's letters are of especial value for this: that they absolutely defeat the theory held by many Englishmen and some Americans as to the close resemblance between an aristocracy of birth and one of wealth. No one can read these letters of Scott's and imagine for an instant an American man of genius as writing in the same tone to any merely rich man. He might write more beseechingly when he had favors to ask, he might use more direct flattery; but the feudal flavor would not be there, nor would it be possible to put it on. It would not, like Scott's tone, be spontaneous, unaffected, and in that point of view almost dignified. Cringing and mean it might be, but not ingrain and unconscious. [128] It would be the exceptional mean act of a consciously base man; it would not represent the very organization and structure of society. It was because Scott was personally a man of high tone that this deferential attitude is a thing alarming-and instructive. If he had done it for a particular purpose it would have represented far less. It only shows that the feudal survival is really the thing nearest the heart of those who dwell under its influence, and that the satiric pictures of Thackeray are not obsolete, but really belong to to-day. A nation is tested not by watching the class which looks down, but by the class which looks up. In England the upper classes naturally and innocently look down, and the middle and lower classes look up. In the United States the so-called upper class may or may not look down, but the rest do not look up, and this makes an ineradicable difference. The less favored may point with pride or gaze with curiosity, but they certainly do not manifest reverence for the mere social position. Something akin to that feeling may be called out by the political hero, the favorite author, even by the local “boss,” but by mere wealth never. It is better so.


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