A Short History of Rudeness

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Neither an etiquette manual nor a handbook to turn to for a pithy put-down, A Short History of Rudeness is an interesting examination of the challenges modern life poses to civilized conduct, and a book poorly served by its title. Readers hoping for a light-hearted catalogue of colorful phrases or pointed gestures to add to their repertoire will be disappointed. So, to some extent, will social historians. Mark Caldwell offers as much cultural commentary as history, rarely harking back further than the nineteenth century for his material, and his concern is as much with the norms of polite behavior as with the more flagrant breaches of society’s codes.

As cultural observer, Caldwell is as interested in why we need a code of behavior as in why we flout that code. His work is not so much a history of the impolite as a thoughtful examination of the role that good behavior plays in our social history, in the observance as well as in the breach.

This work is organized by some of the dilemmas that test our sense of what is fitting. Some deal with perennial problems like life’s rites and passages or the correct upbringing of children. Others deal with problems particularly pressing in our own times, like the increasing mobility of the population; race and gender relations; the explosion in mass communications; and the sexual revolution. Caldwell does not flinch from the challenges of the moment as he assesses the place of manners in the age of the Internet flame, South Park, and Jerry Springer. Indeed, the chapter on mass media and the new technology is one of the most interesting and insightful of this volume.