In Which Miss Manners Defends

American Etiquette (For a Change)

By Judith Martin

Norton. 319 pp. $24.95

The title of Judith Martin's new book is clever but coy. It's actually a social history of interpersonal relations in the United States over the past two centuries, with greatest emphasis upon changes that have occurred during the past three decades. At the end, she wraps up with a critique of contemporary mores (and their abuses), and in the process she seems to override her assertion early on that the death of American etiquette has been greatly exaggerated.

Martin defines etiquette broadly at the outset and once again later: "Etiquette does more than act as a paralegal system to root out annoyance before it blossoms into crime. It defines a community by providing the language of rituals and symbols with which members identify their commonality while busily sizing up one another individually." Subsequently, she refers to "etiquette's true goal of making human relations easier." At times her generalizations assume that "one size fits all," and the book appears primarily aimed at middle-class middlebrows. Yet Martin does acknowledge some racial, ethnic and geographical variations.

How reliable is her history? Although she makes the Founding Fathers sound more obsessed with manners than they really were -- rationalizing a radically new system of government was their overwhelming concern -- her "deconstruction" of the Declaration of Independence in terms of its implications for equality is astute. At her best, Martin is able to summarize a good deal of recent scholarship in an accessible, pithy manner. Example: "The major holidays and ceremonial patterns that we now celebrate, along with the spirit and the rules we expect them to have (and complain that they have lost), were dreamed up by Victorians. It was a regular industry. They took old cultural patches they found around at the time and joined them, using not the thread of history but the glue of sentimentality to hold them together."

In numerous places, discussions of past and present get telescoped, however, so that our perception of what happened (and when) is blurred and we yearn for a crisper chronology. Chapter Three, for example, which has much on the Declaration and the early 19th century, also deals with gender relations in the contemporary workplace, thereby scrambling the reader's sense of time frequencies into a tasty but ingredient-mysterious frittata.

Martin's sure-handed treatment of recent social change offers prescient thoughts concerning weddings, funerals, birth-related events and so forth. Not surprisingly, she aims considerable scorn at contemporary consumerism and at rituals that run amok because they have been rampantly commodified. There is no lack of wistfulness for older traditions that have been lost amid our penchant for informality and idiosyncrasy. Sunday dinner with the whole family gathered is a lost cause, according to Martin, a casualty of individualized lifestyles in contemporary America.

Occasionally, Miss Manners makes sweeping generalizations or hyperbolic claims that defy the diversity of American pluralism, past and present. These judgments can also lack credibility, because she establishes no clear basis for making comparisons with other societies. And she sometimes follows up extravagant claims with elusive inferences: "Children are urged not to care what people think of them in their quest to become popular and celebrated. At the same time that this encourages freelance nuisances, it keeps a check on the empowered, who might otherwise make more serious nuisances of themselves." Say what?

The concluding chapter is quite hopeful for the future despite Martin's belief that Americans are not well-behaved. (I regret that she has nothing to say about my own pet puzzles: the display of body metal attached in bizarre places, the ubiquitous exposure of navels, especially for females under the age of 25, and above all the obnoxious use of mobile phones in public places, such as airport lounges.) From Martin's perspective, however, egalitarianism is the key to American achievement in the realm of manners. She believes that we teach the world how to behave because we are a step ahead of others in terms of equality -- hence the freedom we offer in the realm of behavior.

If all the world were just like America, would it be a better place? Surely it would be a less interesting place. But Martin closes with soothing reassurance. "If we ditch the delusions that we can return to some perfect historical past, or even more laughably, revert to a state of natural goodness, we can still take enough modest pride in our historical achievement and national character to provide hope for the future."

Possibly, but then I am left wondering why there is so much anti-Americanism rampant in the world, and not merely in the Muslim world. Perhaps hubris provides a large part of the answer. *

Michael Kammen teaches history at Cornell and is the author of "American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century."