Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America

By Mark Caldwell

Picador. 274 pp. $23

This thoughtful and witty book, an examination of manners American-style, draws on an impressive variety of sources. One unintentional effect of this multiplicity was to make me realize how many other books on this subject or closely related ones have been published in recent years and how many of them -- from Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society to Margaret Visser's The Rituals of Dinner to Robert Hughes's Culture of Complaint -- I have reviewed. Obviously, as Mark Caldwell says, manners -- civility, etiquette, polite behavior, whatever one cares to call them -- are a subject "everyone cares about," but it is difficult to recall a single book in which they are discussed as comprehensively and intelligently as in this one.

As Caldwell understands, manners are at once simple and complex, and his attempt to characterize them takes this into account: "Manners, good and bad, pervade so much of daily life that at times they seem to embrace everything -- considerateness and selfishness, freedom and anarchy, birth and death, cooking and upholstery, crime and punishment, linens and sex. Manners are trivial, profound and amorphous beyond compassing. Manners are what is left when serious issues of human relations are removed from consideration; yet without manners serious human relations are impossible."

Dip your toe into the murky waters of manners, and soon enough you'll find yourself dragged in right down, or up, to your hat. If manners were only about when (not to mention how!) to use fish knives or whether to walk on the street side of your female companion, perhaps they would be simple and subject to comfortable "rigidities and fiats." But manners are also about morals, and ethics, and mobility both physical and social, and class, and the workplace, and a great many other subjects that introduce ambiguity and uncertainty, rather than clarity, into the equation. What is polite to an American may be rude to an Egyptian, and vice versa, and what is rude to an Asian American may be polite to an African American, and so forth and so on until confusion reigns.

Caldwell begins his journey through the mysteries of manners with a brief recollection of two New Yorkers who thrived early in the century. One, Col. William d'Alton Mann, published a scandalous weekly, Town Topics, that excoriated the high and mighty in a "personal, vicious, salacious" style; the other was Emily Post, whose famous book, Etiquette (1922), "addressed frankly a widening conviction among Americans that good conduct and morality were becoming unglued from each other." The two regarded each other with hostility, but:

"Mann and Post, had they ever met, could nonetheless have seen eye to eye on one key point. Both took manners seriously; neither thought them a trivial study; both saw them as indissolubly linked to the gravest issues of morality. Blackmailer and extortionist he may have been, but a genuine moral indignation fueled Mann's attack on the hypocrisy of the gilded class he'd stealthily invaded. He despised the perverse misuse of social polish as a cover for vice. Manners, he thought, ought to reflect morals and reinforce them, not cover up for their absence. And Post, though she belonged to that class by unassailable birthright, agreed emphatically as to the moral importance of manners and the extent to which her compatriots often casually betrayed them. `The code of ethics,' Emily Post wrote, `is an immutable law of etiquette.' True good manners were therefore the reverse of vacuous rituals. `The code of a thoroughbred,' she continued, `. . . is the code of instinctive decency, ethical integrity, self-respect and loyalty.' "

Now, at the end of the century, the connection between manners and morals is a central theme of the political and/or social conservatives -- Himmelfarb, John Silber, William Bennett -- who have been the most forceful and prominent advocates of what might be called the moral life. Caldwell, though he has -- and what a relief it is! -- no ideological axes to grind, seems to be rather to the left of the aforementioned, but this does not prevent him from examining their arguments sympathetically and dispassionately. "Manners are related to morals," he writes; "thus far the conservatives, from [Edmund] Burke to Himmelfarb and Silber, are right. But the link is far more deceptive, sinuous and complicated than is usually admitted by those who yearn to restore some hypothetical lost bond between civility and ethics." What is moral to one person or group may be immoral to another person or group, and all parties to the disagreement may have legitimate, persuasive reasons for what they believe, which is to say that what is mannerly to some will be unmannerly to others, and in many instances there simply is no way to reconcile their differences.

Not merely that, but there is "the close and troublesome linkage between manners and class." Manners "have immemorially served both as a badge of entry into an elite class and a barrier against encroachments by the declasse," but "in America, values if not realities are egalitarian, and the persistence of sharp class distinctions is therefore a source of discomfort," to wit: "If manners are moral, and a rigid class system is immoral, then how can good manners not only coexist with but depend upon class?"

Complicating the issue still further is the relationship of manners (and morality, and ethics, and mobility) to that most central of all American locations, the workplace. Though we like to imagine it a classless and egalitarian place, in fact there are sharp distinctions of status and class between executives and workers, as well as among executives and among workers. What is mannerly between oneself and one's fellow worker may be rude in the extreme between oneself and one's boss.

Which leaves us to ponder the state of manners today, as we lurch into the next millennium in what seems -- or so most critics and commentators, yours truly included, would have us believe -- a most unmannerly fashion. There's all that rudeness and crudeness on the Internet, in pop music, in late-night cable television and daytime talk shows, in politics and sports and God knows what else. Is the end of manners really at hand?

Caldwell, rather surprisingly, thinks not. The human instinct for civil behavior, he believes, is powerful. "First," he says, "civility is more adaptable and inventive than we give it credit for; it can take root even in the most unpromising soil. And second, as soon as we adjust ourselves to new manners, and begin to think them natural or even inevitable, they crumble in our grip, as if change and instability were part of their very existence. . . ." What is perhaps most surprising of all is that he finds hope in the person of Martha Stewart, looking past her rank commercialism and self-promotion and finding an agenda that "seems not to imitate upper-class manners, but rather to separate the art of civilized living from class; to relocate it . . . to a schooling in good taste that anybody might acquire with thought and careful study."

This is, for those of us who delight in beating up on the sainted Martha, a difficult analysis to confront, but it is astute and original, and it is probably correct. In that it is of a piece with everything else in A Short History of Rudeness, which seems to me the definitive book on its subject -- at least for the moment -- and a splendidly readable one as well. If I have quoted too frequently from it, it is because Mark Caldwell's prose, like his insights, is entirely irresistible.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.