Good Behavior

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European observers at the end of the eighteenth century and for many years afterward were appalled by our uncouth manners, filthy towns, and gross tastes. One French aristocrat, a distinguished volunteer in Washington’s army, let such matters distort even his view of us as fighting men when he noted that “Americans have been used to idleness, to drinking tea and rum, to smoking etc.; they will not hold out in such a war....” How we started out as a rough and relatively undisciplined people is the subject of Jack Larkin’s richly detailed survey of our early manners and customs, “The Secret Life of a Developing Country,” in this issue.

Of course, one man’s brutishness is another’s vitality. Every group has its own definition of what constitutes good behavior, and as part of the national myth, we pay lip service to the right to be different. In actuality, any departure from one’s own norm is seen as either absurd or threatening. No wonder that every generation is convinced there has been a deplorable breakdown of manners.

How accurate is that perception? Those who knew life in New York City in the thirties and forties, for example, often recall it as a kind of golden age of personal security. It was possible to walk in most neighborhoods with little sense of danger. Strollers would often cut across Central Park after dark with no hesitation or even sleep there on a summer night, unharmed.

In America, as elsewhere, the level of civility has varied over time according to social forces that are always changing. The Manhattan of my youth seemed safe enough, but only a few decades earlier parts of the city were dangerous to life and limb, let alone to good manners. And in the nineteenth century riot and murder were very familiar among certain classes in certain decrepit corners. Danger in the city today is no longer bound to the poorer districts; it can flash angrily and violently on Park Avenue as well as in Harlem, on Central Park South as well as in the East Village.

The good old days were never all good; the gentle manners of another age—to the extent they prevailed at all—were inculcated with considerable sermonizing and striving. One such effort, the much maligned Sunday-school movement that began in 1790, was part of a desperate drive to make Americans respectable. That the movement served the purposes of a newly founded industrial system in need of punctuality and sobriety was only one of its effects. That it encouraged a conversion of the roughnecks into palefaces was another. Such are the uses and abuses of repression.

The clash between the forces of respectability and roguishness is as old as civilization. Reconciling the two without jettisoning freedom is what self-governance is all about. And, as always, in matters of behavior as well as of law and order, it helps to know where we’ve come from to better determine where we are going.

Byron Dobell