Roderick Mengham Special Commissioned Essay on the American Novel of Manners The Relevancy Of The Novel Of Manners

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The Relevancy Of The Novel Of Manners

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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The novel of manners has played an important role in the development of an American voice in literature, as distinct from a European voice. The examination of society, of conduct, of manners, is, in fact, an examination of who Americans are, and are not. From the period following the Civil War, until today, novelists have used the form of the novel of manners to explore just what being American means. The form is also a vehicle for examining the relationship between morality and behavior, a frequent theme in a culture whose puritanical roots were not too far beneath the surface. The argument that adherence to a code of conduct—good manners—reflected good moral character was a common assumption of sermons and civics lessons. The novelists frequently approach assumptions that the upper class citizens who abide by a code of proper manners are morally superior with irony, suggesting that these codes of conduct may also be a cover for hypocrisy, adultery or greed.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, European observers such as Frances Trollope (mother of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope), de Tocqueville and actress Fanny Kemble recorded their impressions in travel narratives, essays, letters, and novels aimed at European readers curious about the New World. The observations were not always pleasing to Americans. Europeans frequently attacked the lack of “civilization” both in frontier towns and expanding cities. Americans were expected to feel inferiority to the manners of their European ancestors.

Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832, was a scathing account of the writer's two year period living in Cincinnati, Ohio and traveling in the United States. Among her more notorious remarks are such as these:

Had I, during my residence in the United States, observed any single feature in their national character that could justify their eternal boast of liberality and the love of freedom, I might have respected them, however much my taste might have been offended by what was peculiar in their manners or customs. But it is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions of their principles and practice …

Her book cast a cold eye on the contradictions between assertions of equality and the practice of slavery. In the rising appeal of evangelical religion she observed extreme gender inequality. While she acknowledged that equality of opportunity indeed made this country different from England, “this is the only feature in American society that I recognize as indicative of the equality they profess. Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion; on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect” which she found “a positive evil, and, I think, more than balances its advantages (Singleton qtd 166-67). She concludes with a premise that only if Americans can “shrink from the profession of equality which they feel to be untrue, and believe to be impossible”—in other words, to acknowledge the existence of inequality among men and women, slaves and slaveholders, rich and poor—“If this ever happens, if refinement once creeps in among them, if they once learn to cling to the graces, the honours, the chivalry of life, then we shall say farewell to American equality, and welcome to European fellowship one of he finest countries on the earth.” (Manners 318). Until such time, Mrs. Trollope expressed her general disregard of Americans: “I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” (314 Manners)

Writing in the same year, Fanny Kemble, who had come to the United States as an actress and remained as the wife of Philadelphian Pierce Butler, recorded her first impressions of a New York street:

Came home up Broadway, which is a long street of...

(The entire section is 5,366 words.)