Tag Archives: America

Victorian Life Advice, Part 1: “Keep Your Eye on the Main Chance”

7 May

Unless I’ve grown up completely out of the cultural loop (and that’s a distinct possibility), most young people don’t spend their free time reading etiquette handbooks anymore.  I graduated from college Saturday, and I didn’t get a single volume titled “The Ladies’ Guide to Politeness” (a major disappointment, needless to say).

“I get my post-graduation guidance from the cast of Mad Men!”

True, self-help books are everywhere.  When Kate the Lostie graduated from high school, she got a book called “What Should I Do With My Life?” from our grandparents, and apparently corporate culture is such that my very successful mother gets leadership handbooks and inspiration business stories from the higher-ups on what seems like a daily basis (books with titles like “Our Iceberg is Melting” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” or “Whale Done!”, books that seem to have taken Aesop’s Fables to a whole new level of strangeness, books that I take every opportunity to make fun of).

But the difference is that these are all books geared toward people who want to network, make money (and friends to influence), succeed in business (without really trying, I imagine), or find their life’s passion (best of luck to you with that).  They aren’t really books on how–as an 1875 etiquette manual promises–to learn “a new set of forms or ceremonies to be observed if you wish to glide down the current of polite life smoothly and pleasantly.”  Surely, we don’t make such a big deal of etiquette in this grand and glorious 21st century, do we?

Do we?

Since my last post on Victorian etiquette seemed fairly popular (and I am shamelessly angling for an audience), I decided to look again at the manner and morals of the late 19th century.  And as it turns out, they’re not very different from the rules we still follow today.

“You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.”

1. Choose Your Friends Wisely

The 1875 “Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette” by Cecil B. Hartley (obviously the name of a true gentleman) is the sort of thing a young man with a brand new Bachelor of Arts in XYZ might get for a graduation gift.  And it starts its gents-in-training with some basic advice:

“The young man who makes his first entrance into the world of society, should know how to choose his friends, and next how to conduct himself towards them.”

Why, doesn’t that sound like just the sort of thing snobby Victorian New Englanders would say!  The right kind of people indeed!  Next thing you know, we’ll be calling people “mudbloods” and looking down our noses at anyone without an Ivy League pedrigree.  The outrage!

Yeah, yeah.  Let’s get down off our high horses for a moment and recall that this is exactly the advice that most moms give their teenagers at some point or another (ever been told your friends were having a “bad influence”? or gotten the “You are who your friends are” lecture?  I haven’t, obviously, but I know some folks).  And it doesn’t always have to do with any sticky class or racial prejudices–getting ahead is the sort of thing that ‘Murricans worry about, like, all the time.

Royall Tyler: Making fun of the British and rocking Elvis Presley hair since 1787.

There’s this great 18th-century play called The Contrast, written by a man with the very un-American name of Royall Tyler, whose comedy of errors was a still-pretty-funny send-up of Americans trying to act like fashionable European dandies.  Maybe inadvertently, but probably not, Tyler pokes fun at that most American of virtues: making money.  Hey, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that–I’ve been tweeting disparaging things about OWS-ers for months.  But you have to admit, Royall Tyler has it exactly write when our heroine’s father spouts his favorite line half a dozen times throughout the first act:

“No! no! no! child; it is money makes the mare go; keep your eye upon the main chance, Mary.”

Yes, we have a deeply-entrenched national faith that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps with hard work and a never-day-die attitude, but hey–it doesn’t hurt to know the right people.

Today, we call that “networking.”

***

Join me next time for 19th century advice on how to engage in gentlemanly conversation.  I promise to let you know exactly when and where it’s appropriate to use the phrase “Hail, fellow, well met!” (because there are totally rules about that).

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Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)

24 May

“Atheists are the most reviled minority in America.”

Sam Harris has it exactly right.  Polls—even some taken shortly after 9/11—show that the majority of Americans would rather have a Muslim president than one who doesn’t believe in any God at all.  Maybe that seems hard to believe when we think back to the horror over our current Presidents highly suspicious middle name, but the number bear it out.  Atheists aren’t likely to achieve high office.

Maybe that’s why one of our most famous nonbelievers in American history, Thomas Paine, is the most notable of our founding fathers not to have a monument.  They don’t even mention him in the recent History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us (which is otherwise both moving and surprisingly objective) in the Valley Forge segment.  George Washington thought the political pamphleteer important and inspiring enough to read to his starving, freezing men at Valley Forge (and thus keep the army together through a terrible winter)—but this isn’t the Age of Reason anymore.

In high school, I was nostalgic for the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine rallying patriots to the Revolutionary cause.  Nostalgic not because I’d been there (though I’m still holding out for time travel), but because today’s political debates involve so much more mudslinging and snide soundbites than any meaningful debate, and because—to someone who compliments acquaintances on brilliant extended metaphors in emails and cries after every re-reading of Plato’s Phaedo—good rhetoric is so, so hard to find.

Especially on the issue of religion and faith.  On a small scale, the University of Alabama club “triple-A,” Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, had its chalking vandalized by devout Southern Christians about half a dozen times this past year.  Pouring slushies on a chalk portrait of Darwin is the college equivalent of a shut-down of intellectual debate, I guess—which is something atheists face in the “Christian nation” of the United States.

I can’t help but have a wonderful time reading the gleefully irreverent Christopher Hitchens.  As might be expected, I can’t say the same for my ex-roommate at UA, who never looked at me the same after she found God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on my Kindle.  But Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation satisfied my sentimental longing for Thomas Pain-esque writing, and then some.  His short book—more a manifesto—echoes Paine’s celebrated Age of Reason in that he’s not on the defensive.  Harris explains that the New Atheism isn’t just a negative (not believing in God): it’s about a positive too, belief in science and reason.

Last fall, I awarded Thomas Paine the Scattering’s premier literary award—the Heretic Badge of Honor—for his 1794 Age of Reason.  Today, I’m awarding the Heretic Badge to Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, for taking up the torch.  He writes in his conclusion, after all, that:

“This letter is the product of failure—the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures—failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God an despising those who muddle differently.”

In his letter, the New Atheist does revive for a modern audience some ideas that reminded me of past doubters very strongly.  The foundation of atheism, he argues, is a scientific mindset, but that might mean something different than many people expect:

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honest.  It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”

Atheists don’t revile God (although, as Harris points out, there’s a whole lot of evidence to do just that)—we respect rationality.  That’s the scientific mindset.

This definition of “intellectual honesty” struck me as particularly reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he wrote my favorite 18th-century quote:

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Or for Harris, what is impossible to believe in in modern society, with so much scientific evidence stacked against the need for a God.  It’s as incongruous as, well, to use one of my favorite expressions from the Letter—“souls in a Petri dish.”

I won’t go into detail on Harris’s arguments, because I couldn’t begin to write more clearly or concisely than he does in Letter to a Christian Nation.  And personally, I wonder how many of the Christians the book’s addressed to will actually read it—but for those who do or are considering it, let me say that while it’s bold and certainly controversial, it’s written in some of the most clear, logical prose I’ve ever read.  It’s accessible, and written more to persuade than inflame (like some of Hitchens’s writings).

The book’s only 900 locations on the Kindle (as opposed to the 5-8,000 of the average novel), so I’d place it at about 100 pages.  In any case, it’s a one-afternoon read.  So head on outside on this beautiful summer (is it summer yet?  I never really know) day, relax in the sun, wear a hat or a beekeeper’s veil if you’re easily sunburned, listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and insects buzzing in the grass, and remember that you can thank evolution for it all—not God.

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Letter to a Christian Nation is available in paperback as well as an ebook on Amazon for $8.64