The North American Review/Volume 1/Modern Manners



The events of the last thirty years furnish an inexhaustible theme for moralists, historians, and statesmen. The crumbling of ancient systems, the decomposition of civil society, the propagation of extravagant theories, the rashness of new experiments, and the destruction of visionary hopes, have produced many elaborate essays, and educed from human intellect, numerous consummate specimens of splendid eloquence. Nor can such topicks be exhausted, while philosophers possess the power of perception, combination and analysis, to develope, or the talent of speaking to convince, or the art of writing to demonstrate, the inevitable tendency of rash and innovating propositions, by which the simple are confounded, and the wise baffled. I have not leisure, nor has your journal space sufficient to dilate these ideas to their full extent. It is as remote from my inclination as from my capacity, to make the attempt. Wishing to avoid a general and endless view of the subject, I descend at once to a few of its particular bearings, not on human society at large, but some portions of it in particular parts of certain countries.

As my design from this preface must be sufficiently evident, allow me to ask if the violation of decorum, the want of etiquette, the rusticity of manners in this generation, must not be a source of exquisite regret and mortification to those, who have seen the last? What idea can the unfortunate young people of the present day have of ancient polish and refinement? So extensive is the deterioration of society, so deleterious the consequences of abandoning established systems, that even the well-intentioned know not how to conduct themselves. This degradation does not exist in Europe alone, this country also deplores its extent. What are the manners of the present day? The presence among us thirty-five years ago, of the most accomplished noblemen of the Court of Versailles, in adding a slight polish to the simplicity and frankness of our habits, formed a most pleasing and perfect system of behaviour. Since that period every thing has been new modelled, and our manners left to choke themselves with their own wild growth, without any pruning, till they have shot into the utmost exuberance of rudeness. Once in a while a vestige may be perceived of better times, some well-bred antique that shrinks from “modern degeneracy;” and when seen in society recals to mind the insulated Corinthian columns, that are still erect amid the desolation of Palmyra, or the deserted environs of the Forum. When one sees an assembly in the present day, straggling groupes of young men with whiskered cheeks, and wild, uncurled, unpowdered, bewildered locks, and the innocent animated imitations of the Medicean Venus, with their thousand cork-screw ringlets and muslin robes roaming among them, it brings to the fancy a flock of merino lambs in a field of scrub oaks. If it comports with the plan of your journal, I wish, while any trace remains, to attempt restoring a little of former urbanity and elegance. For this purpose, I will in the present letter give a few hints that may be easily observed; hereafter, if this essay should prove acceptable, I will attempt to reform more complicated evils.

No gentleman is to lean back so as to support his chair on its hind legs, except in his own room: in a parlour with a small circle it borders on extreme familiarity, and in a drawing room filled with company, it betokens a complete want of respect for society. Besides, it weakens the chairs, and with perseverance, infallibly makes a hole in the carpet.

There have been circles of society, where it would have been considered impertinent, for a gentleman to sit cross-legged; but as I do not aim at impossibilities, I shall say nothing on this point: no gentleman, however, must allow himself to sit in the company of others in the following position. On the edge of the chair, one leg over the other, parallel to, and leaning on the back of the chair. A position which will at once be understood by any of your readers who have seen a vessel aground, left by the sea laying on one side.

No gentleman at dinner or tea time is to take out a silk handkerchief, that has been in his pocket two or three days, and lay it over his knee; if in eating toast, he is not furnished with a napkin to wipe his fingers, he may make use of a fresh cambrick one, if he has it, but he had better adopt the feline mode of cleansing his paws, than the practice here prohibited.

If a gentleman be requested to carve a turkey, or any other fowl, he is not to proceed as if it were a character, and cut it completely up: but take off a piece as it is wanted, and not keep a company waiting, and leave the whole bird piece-meal, when perhaps no one will taste it. N. B. This rule does not apply to a table d’hote, unless the carver is willing to sacrifice himself, like Curtius, to fill the gulph of appetite around bun.