Caste in American Society

"American society is an anomaly which must puzzle all those who do not believe in it..."

Society in America is not an entity. It is rather the reflection of the mood of the individual who is contemplating it, the incarnation of certain tastes, and has neither locality nor measurement. For some it possesses elasticity, for others immobility; all desire to enter where many have disappeared in an apotheosis of self-laudation, and when there find that their circle is not society, which is ever beyond and ever narrowing.

One lady, a leader of Boston fashion, stated that though " society " consisted of about twenty-five families, yet in the invitations to a general ball it might be safe to include from four to six hundred persons. Society, though not existing per se, is deified as a goddess; its decrees are passports, or edicts of social banishment and death; a knowledge of its laws is the preliminary, and obedience to them the final, requisite for admission. There is no New England, no New York, no Western society; there was Southern society, founded on inheritance of name, on ownership of land and slaves; but so long as there are annual governmental changes in the body politic, and constant reverses of private fortune, through the money markets and opportunities for Bonanza stock, and the advantages of high school in the East and of college education in the West offered free to all, there never can be a dominant force,—society. Manner conquers society sooner than wealth or education; an individual is relegated to his proper social sphere, in the minds of all spectators, as soon as he enters a room. The depth of his bow, the tones of his voice, and the breadth of his smile have averaged him. Manner, however, is constantly reinforced by mind, and the republican mind is one of growth. The absurdity of American social life is to talk of entering society; for as soon as an American tries to bring society into focus to be interviewed, it divides itself into numerous facets of prismatic brilliancy. As a protest against any attempt to define society stands Mrs. Whitney's We Girls; in which some girl invites some one "next" to her, and that next some one next in turn to her, till finally the whole village is related in a community of interests.

This constant enlargement of a social sphere, or the infinite subdivisions of acquaintanceship, prevent society (granted for the moment that such all entity exists) from being a unified power for evil or good; while because there is no such thing as society in itself, but circles of individuals combining for social purposes, these circles represent the social and educational force of life in its less specialized aspects. The absence of any one social power is the safety valve of American life; and any person who has been so unfortunate as to have lived, moved, and had his social being in only one set becomes thoroughly provincial.

The power of society as a unit reached its fullest exemplification in the days of the early French salons. The salon was to Paris what the newspapers and monthlies now are to us. Then the salon made public opinion, and literary criticism was a matter of experience and reflection. Even now the French critic imbibes the mental atmosphere of his equals, and thinks and weighs before he writes; whilst many of our critics go tired from the theatre, lecture, or concert to the newspaper office, to have put in type their fresh opinions, -perhaps slightly tinged by the headache or their somnolent condition,- which the public next morning adopt as the general way of right thinking; forgetting that a critic is but one person, after all, (and possibly, also, not one fortunate in so-called social recognition), and that the impressions of an evening or of quick reading are less valuable than the criticisms of lengthier observation and reflection. Our critics are often only what are denominated as literary hacks; honest and true as fur as in their power lies, but under the necessity of daily production, which must injure original quality and expression. Yet they exercise upon the public the formative power of the old salon, and render null any necessity for its existence. The second reason for the absence of salons lies in the non-existence of any one circle of people who, by virtue of inheritance, actual deed, or promissory note, can definitely establish and maintain their own social boundaries. American life is too busy for definition; men are too tired, women too anxious, to feel the delight of constant recreation through conversation at one another's firesides; we are all so willing to be hospitable by the blazing warmth on our own purchased or ancestral andirons that there are few who go out for others' entertainment. We are all at home-to nobody. Moreover, in a salon half the world were eager listeners, forgetful of themselves; but now we all must talk to prove our position, express ourselves to show that we have mind, or else look wise, hoping to see, by the swelling on our brows, the growth of the thought within.

American society is an anomaly which must puzzle all those who do not believe in it; who do not see that its varying centres are but eddies on the surface of the fixed conviction that one man is the equivalent of another in capacity, and that his failure to prove it by results is the consequence of circumstances beyond his individual control. It is this fixed belief which constitutes the essence of American impudence, boasting, aggressiveness, want of grace, and knock-you-down manner. It is also the source of our sturdy independence, our valuation of character as the final estimate, our reliance upon the common sense of our enemy rather than on the glittering generalities and evasions of our friends. As soon as these social variations are perceived, we become conscious that caste rules in American life with an iron rod, tempered only by the fiery furnace of much wealth or rare intellectual ability: the lower we descend, in what is called social life, the more perceptible become its demarkations. In the working class its sway is omnipotent. A marriage between the rag picker who carries her rags on her back and the man who rolls them in a wheelbarrow is contrary to all the rules of propriety, and ends in family feuds. The regular visitant at hotel cupboards who receives pie is farther removed from the tattered mendicant at back-doors than a member of the diplomatic corps from a native of Washington. In a certain well-known alley resided a shrewd brother and sister of twelve and fourteen, who assigned to each of the other dwellers his proper place in the social status of the by-way, through sumptuary laws of their own devising. These little magnates stayed at home, and sent their agents begging; all food so obtained was delivered into their keeping, and then portioned cut, as the Educational Bureau would say, not according to "the illiteracy of each section, but according to its geographical area." Shapeless pieces of bread and cold flapjacks were for the tenants of cellars and attics; muffins and tit-bits of croquettes were for those who occupied the ground-floor and middle stories of the tenements.

Among the workingwomen is a feeling of exclusiveness most noticeable, while with workingmen it is no more prominent than with professional men. "It is this spirit of caste," says a workingwoman of fifty years, “which keeps us all down. If we could nag one another it would be some gain, but we avoid one another instead. There is no union among in, never was, except for a little while through the French International Association, which has died out. We never can raise ourselves from the bondage of ill-paid labor till we combine, and most of us would rather starve to death than associate with those beneath us." Another one complains that "the skilled workwomen pride themselves too much upon their skill to be willing to pull up the unskilled, just as in the professions a good lawyer or physician will not take a poor partner. It is social ambition, caste, that rules us; it begins with us, and goes up and up to kings and emperors. A woman with many servants despises her with one, and she with one despises the woman who does her own work, and she who does her own work looks down upon her who goes out to work, and the one who goes out to do special housework scorns the scrub-woman, who is the end of womankind."

Many of these people feel that the higher grades of labor can be protected only by recognition of social lines, and talk of "the laziness and ignorance of the lower class of workingwomen." Even when out of employment, or perhaps engaged in some "uncongenial occupation as a temporary make-shift," they still feel keenly that they "belong elsewhere." "Am honest workingwoman," said one of them, "whether of the upper or lower grades of labor, holds herself infinitely superior to the trashy, flashy sort. We may not get work, but we can go from work to poverty, poverty to exhaustion, from exhaustion to death, but not to sin,—those who follow that are a different class, with which we have nothing to do."

In a conversation with several of them, it was asked, "What is the real grievance of the workingwomen?" And the general answer was, that it was due to the spirit of caste, which prevented combination and cooperation, the two agents that could lighten the burdens of ill-paid labor; yet they had sufficient intelligence to see that social union among themselves must first be effected. The stern self-restraint, the power of self-sacrifice, the delicacy of taste, refinement of feeling, appreciation of knowledge, and acts of touching kindness to one another that are found among hundreds of them do not negative the statement that the social line, based on kinds of labor, is closely drawn among them.

"Kindness based upon equality! " exclaimed one woman. "No, it is kindness band on caste. It is Arlington Street and Fifth Avenue that make the North End and the Battery. Employers don't care for employees. If a firm give their girls parlors, lunch or sleeping rooms, it isn't because they care, but because they can get more out of us if we are comfortable. Your republican government does n’t do away with caste; it is the population to a square foot that makes poverty, and according to the laws of caste it is only for the poor to emigrate. Did you ever hear of a rich man emigrating to make room for others? He squats forever, and it is n't called squatting. Talk of emigration and agriculture to factory and city folks, who have neither money nor health to emigrate! We working-people don't envy you your pie or your pictures, if we can have bread. It is the deeper thing which makes us indignant: it is being called fools and simpletons by our employers, and bearing it, because we must have the one dollar. Labor is owned, and women are owned more than men, and will be until they can dare on combine and dare to refuse offers of ill-paid work, larded with harsh words and lunch privileges."

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