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Entertaining Etiquette

The Centennial Edition of Emily Post’s classic offers rules on pronouns and Uber drivers.

Emily Post Dictating
Emily Post: (1873-1964) dictating at her home. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When I settle into one of my armchairs before bedtime, there are a few books that are always on my side table. I have the Yale Shakespeare and the Ignatius Bible, of course, but also Dryden’s Plutarch, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Emily Post’s Etiquette, the last of which I suspect many people own but few would admit to having read. And not without good reason. Etiquette is a manners manual, and it is not good manners to acknowledge that you have been schooled in the art, and it is even worse if you are self-educated. A gentleman, or, as the case may be, a lady, has no need to learn manners. He or she possesses manners by virtue of good breeding, and, as Post writes, enters society equipped with “not only perfect manners but a perfect manner.”   

For those who were not blessed with good breeding, Post offers Etiquette as a remedy. Manners and manner can be improved, and in some cases perfected, she argues, but only with much effort and study: “One who has good manners is unselfconscious in the observance of etiquette, the precepts of which must be so thoroughly absorbed as to make their observance a matter of instinct rather than of conscious obedience.” The Italians call this seeming nonchalance sprezzatura. In Post’s view, the best way to achieve it is to read and reread Emily Post. Until somewhat recently, most educated people agreed. Etiquette was a bestseller upon its publication in 1922, and in the years following became synonymous with polite society. At one time its presence in a drawing room signaled a sort of middle class sophistication, and the Post family has striven to ensure that it remains the essential guidebook to Best Society.

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That task has become more difficult in the past fifty years. Part of the problem is that American manners have become much more complex. Overt pretense is no longer acceptable, and the affected unpretentiousness that has replaced it comes with so many unspoken rules and taboos that politeness often requires the performance of a gnostic ritual. No manual, no matter how good, can help you there. But the greater difficulty derives from the fact that Emily Post’s descendants are not Emily Post. The First Lady of Manners was neither a scold nor a schoolmarm, but primarily a humorist who sold her social advice on the strength of its entertainment value as much as on its practicality. The same is not true of her children and grandchildren who revise and update Etiquette about once a generation. The most recent iteration, the Centennial Edition, in the spirit of “upholding traditions while moving forward with the times,” attempts to give advice for situations unique to the current decade. It advises readers on protocol regarding pronouns, the polite use of artificial intelligence, and best practices for tipping Uber drivers, among many other novelties which will likely be outdated in another ten years. The original edition does not indulge such vulgarity. Instead, Post all but refuses to acknowledge the world outside of calling cards, wedding invitations, and letter writing. What emerges is a lofty—and from the outset, doomed—attempt at bringing civility to a nation of proud savages that, even one hundred years later, remains the most enjoyable of all American advice manuals. 

Etiquette was published in response to the social upheaval that followed World War I. In New York, a new batch of strivers replaced the old, and it quickly became clear that the customs that had long dictated the rhythms of moneyed life were in danger of extinction. Post, whose entire adult life had revolved around those customs, reacted as many do when their worlds collapse. “When modern devices fail, it is our nature to reach back among the cures of our fathers,” William Gaddis wrote. “If those fail, there were fathers before them. We can reach back for centuries.” Emily Post only had to reach back a generation. When she was young, New York was controlled by the “Four Hundred,” a mixture of old money and socially acceptable new money who decided the boundaries of society. The group’s name came from Ward McAllister’s remark that in the whole city there were only four hundred people whose breeding allowed them to be at ease in a ballroom. And, McAllister added privately, only ten among them were truly graceful. To that second remark, Post observes that in her own time, “it is certain the number is still further reduced.” That alarmed Post, since the ballroom was the ultimate test of gentility. Etiquette was her attempt to keep the number above zero.

Post recognized that there was only so much that she could do. There had already been many manners books before her. Once a subject has made its way to the province of the self-improvement manual, it has been thoroughly debased. So she accepted the genre and aimed Etiquette squarely at the self-help set, advising them that although the age of the American aristocracy was ending, its successors would do well to maintain its morals:

Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members. 

But Post distinguishes herself from other advice writers by recognizing that she has a second audience: those who don’t much care whether or not Best Society accepts them, but do enjoy reading about civic morals simply for entertainment. And it is to this audience that she delivers some of her best lines. Washington, D.C., she writes, is the one place in America that still maintains a weekly “day at home,” a restful custom “more in keeping with Europe than America, which does not care for gentle paces once it has tasted swift.” New York is a city where introductions are considered crass, and in fact, “nearly all people of the Atlantic Coast dislike introductions and present people to each other as little as possible.” In Boston, even the best people’s vowels are “so curiously flattened that the speech has a saltless effect.” And so on. Post herself was raised in Baltimore, a city which even then was so much its own world that she likely felt she had license to criticize the surrounding customs liberally.  

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Post also proves a canny observer of the parts of human behavior ungoverned by social custom. In a long section on funerals, she provides a surprisingly sharp picture of grief immediately following the death of a loved one:   

Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use nor be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from dearest friends.

Joan Didion writes that after her husband died, she found herself returning to the funeral section of Etiquette for comfort, reading and rereading the prescribed rituals for mourning. “There’s something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here and the instinctive understanding of physiological disruption,” Didion wrote, adding that in Post she found permission for sorrow. It is unsurprising that Didion, who spent almost her entire career cataloging the shifts in middle class manners, first read Etiquette cover to cover while waiting out a snow day in Colorado as a young girl. 

The version of the book that I grew up reading was my mother’s childhood edition, bought by my grandmother in 1965. It is much the same as the 1922 edition, except for a few updates added in by Elizabeth Post aimed at the youth of the time. “Except by young children,” she advises, “shorts are not worn at the bowling alley.” She reminds young women that until very recently, “all make-up was considered wicked” and that before dolling herself up, the young woman should consider, “Are you sure you are not exchanging a face for a mask?” And she includes an entire chapter extolling the nobility of the United Nations. This edition is very much a product of its time and, as with all editions following the original, cuts most of the material that makes reading Emily Post such a pleasure. It ends with a rather shrill diatribe against divorce that charges the children of broken families with “hardness, lack of consideration, and indifference toward family obligations” and speculates that in the near future perhaps “those who grow up never having known the completeness of home will find it unessential.”This is of course exactly what happened, and the Posts have suffered for it. No number of revisions or updates can make up for the fact that Best Society, such as it is, has little use for the book anymore except as a curiosity. Without fixed and identifiable social structures, Etiquette can only be invoked as a plea for civility, usually by the most uncultured people. For most everyone else, it is simply a punchline. In an early episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David, exasperated by his colleagues, rants at length about a supposedly sophisticated woman who has slighted him. “You know what she should be reading?” he shouts, wildly gesturing at the audience. “Emily f—ing Post!”

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