Emily Post's Etiquette came out in 1922 and quickly her name became synonymous with good manners. A new biography of the etiquette doyenne by Laura Claridge, reviewed in the current New Yorker, shows her to have been a scandal-surviving divorcee who played the banjo and worked as a professional writer in a time when well-bred women didn't. Claridge argues that by laying out the rules, Post gave new immigrants a template for assimilation that was essentially democratic. Whatever your interpretation, you gotta wonder if Post's rules of the road have any place in our uncouth world.Emily Post was the scion of an old and respectable New York family, a great beauty who made a triumphant marriage that soon went sour. After a blackmailing scandal that outed her husband's infidelity, Post started a professional novelist's career. She wrote Etiquette as an alternative to the labrynthine rulebooks that came before.
During the Gilded Age, the rules of etiquette had become increasingly baroque; to be considered well-bred, a lady had to know not just how to wield a knife and fork but where to seat the guest of honor at a formal dinner, how to arrange a receiving line, when to send flowers to whom, and what to wear to a morning function, an afternoon function, and a ball. (As one etiquette writer of the eighteen-eighties observed, "Not even a saint could, from ‘inner consciousness’ alone, evolve a conception of the thousand and one social observances of modern fashionable life.")In contrast to these esoteric rule books, as The New Yorker tells us, “Etiquette has characters — the Worldlys, the Wellborns, the Toploftys — who periodically appear and reappear to make introductions, hold christenings, and ask friends to their great camps for the weekend." Post's book emphasized conformity — getting along with the customs of your surroundings. Claridge says this allowed anyone, paradoxically, to become an insider, or at least blend in. When I was a kid, my mom was strict about manners, but we — not to mention my dad — were never sure why. The order of utensils and protocol of introductions seems arbitrary in a world where no one knew or followed the rules. In a sense, etiquette seemed to have lost its purpose — an easy path to conformity. Etiquette was important because it put you at ease, because you knew what to do in a given situation, because rules and structure, when you know them, provide comfort. In a vacuum, the actual ins and outs of protocol are essentially meaningless. However, a few years ago I ran across something in another old etiquette book — I wish I could remember which — that suddenly really made all this a lot clearer. The gist was: the basis of all good manners is kindness - putting others at ease, making sure no one is uncomfortable. To the extent rules facilitate this, great; but they should exist to make people comfortable rather than the reverse. It's easy to point out lapses in manners or breaches of protocol, but that kind of petty snobbery shouldn't have anything to do with actual etiquette. If you read Emily Post, this was at the root of a lot of her rules, too —paradoxically designed to grease the wheels of social interaction rather than keep things stilted. Obviously the kind of conformity Post preached can feel anathema to those of us raised on the gospel of individuality, even an artificial imposition of gratuitous strictures designed to further stratify society. Certainly it evokes a society anything but open to diversity. Yes, obviously her work is a time capsule, an anachronism — therein lies much of its fascination. But bridge luncheons aside, I feel like you could argue this about any set of rules: someone needs to set them out; used well they impose order and comfort, but they can be perverted and employed for exclusion. That someone could set them out so authoritatively and immediately be accorded respect seems particularly American — we're always looking for guides and rules, much as we scorn them. And reading her book, it's hard not t have a little nostalgia for a time when using the right fork could alleviate anxiety; it's certainly cheaper than therapy! Place Settings [The New Yorker]