Caste in American Society

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

In other circles the demarkations of caste are felt more than they are seen, but the test of consciousness is more absolute than that of sight. It is after all a personal feeling, far more indefinable since the position of woman has so widely changed. She is no longer merely the housekeeper, obedient wife, or needle-and-thread mother. Almost all have some interest outside their home. Once only Quaker women spoke in church. Now all churches recognize that the power of deposition from the pulpit, or of elevation to it, rests with the women ; they really rule the church. The prayer-meeting itself is an avenue to public life. "Women have no business outside of their home," said a countryman. But his wife went to a prayer-meeting, and a neighbor reported that "she had made a feeling, eloquent prayer." The husband slightly winced. She went to a temperance gathering, and spoke fervently and piously, and the men talked of Farmer B.'s wife; and Farmer B. "smartened up," got his wife a hired girl, and declared that " his wife warn’t one of the show-off kind, but that she begun low down in a prayermeeting, and worked her way up."

As this ability to manage outside affairs increases, women will have too little time to be patient with the limitations of caste, for they must choose their working comrades from those who possess personal power, though not station. Already has the "committee life" of women done much to break down society's barriers. "Oh, yes, I took the initiative," said a fashionable woman, "and invited her first. I knew her on the Board of--; never heard of her before; but she knows how, and has style too, -is a lady." The society leader recognized the only two words that really open wide all doors, knowledge and ladyhood. Manner, savoire faire, is imperative ; no slur is worse than the indifferent utterance, " Oh, she is no lady," or, "He is not a gentleman." Saints are charitable toward outward failings, but busy and gay people alike demand the passport of manner, whose little pleasantnesses are no more than the exchangeable silver coin of society. If no exchange, then no sociability.

Since women have acquired such complex duties or relations, the varieties of society within a city's limits are queer. The superabundance of women perhaps has necessitated the frequent reading of a poem or essay as an introduction to the later supper. The washerwoman has her "bricabrac coterie." The wife of a small store-keeper invites you to pass a pleasant, social evening at her residence, and ghastly poems are recited, and original songs on crumpled paper drawn from waistcoat pockets are sung. The wholesale merchant takes the retail trader to dinner at a hotel, not to his club nor to his house. At a reception of "choice friends," loose, disjointed kid gloves encase long, lank lingers, which give a lingering pressure on introduction, as a deep voice asks, “Where do you belong?” or, “What are you doing for society or the world?” or, “Have you a calling?” and if one could be sure that annual revenues would never fail one would like to exclaim, "I do nothing, am nobody, and aspire to nothing! I live on my estate." A widower says, “Since my wife's death, I am endeavoring to maintain her social reunions. Will you come and read?”and you go,- and find the pictures near the ceiling. The height at which pictures are hung establishes, in the eyes of the social connoisseur, the society standing of their possessor. Money can buy color and frames, inherited taste alone can hang them; all other signs may fail, but the height of a picture will ever be the true indicator of one's social position. Intellectual entertainment is no test of one's social standing ; the lowest and the highest are eager to offer this pièce de résistance. It takes the place of supper, or whets the appetite for something substantial, and is as often the bane as the delight of an evening. People are no longer supposed to possess enough intelligence to talk for two hours at their own sweet will, but the topic must he assigned by the paper, essay, brochure. Even coffee-parties are intellectualized; a kettle-drum, a ball, or a huge reception, remains as the only entertainment incapable of mental improvement. When every one can offer original mental food, who shall lead? The coterie in the side street is as large as that on the fashionable avenue. Within the course of a few days, a lady went to four lunches, two kettle-drums, and two evening receptions, and did not meet the same person twice. The larger the city, the more conspicuous is this variety of circles. Where is society ? At each door there were carriages, end each house was well appointed. Some would fold their napkins; others would throw them crumpled on the table. Some would have wine, others water. In one house it was en rêgle to remove your bonnet; in another, to wear it. Here “gents” were invited; there, “some of our best society.” In one the men carried opera hats, and wore white cravats, and bowed deeply; in another, frock coats and flat scarfs, and shook hands. All and each averred they knew how, and all and each secretly feared they didn't.

The outcome of all this variety is that while there is caste there is no ruling force. The most exquisite kindliness and the freshest bonmots are met with among people forever unknown to fame. Clever talk and storytelling are often most graphic among those who read little. Literary satire, analysis, end epigrammatic wit abound among the more cultured ; and a quiet sympathy, restful manner, and keen, general intelligence, with a thorough knowledge of one's own specialty (where there is such), among the most cultured. Just at present it often requires moral courage to invite a friend to a family dinner, or to ask an acquaintance to meet an undistinguished guest, to hear an unauthorized voice; a social evening is burdened with a purpose, belittling sociability and rendering impossible the grace and freedom of the French salon. To many, a celebrity has a mercantile value, as increasing the number of those who will count to them; the more noted the celebrity, the more are they "in society." Only let it be remembered, the grocer's wife, who lives over her husband's store, also issues invitations to meet some one who has written something, or is going to do it; and guests of as much real intelligence will be met with in the retail merchant's house as in that of the wholesale jobber.

The timidity and ever-obtruding self-consciousness of our people prevent us from constantly asking the same persons; we are afraid lest they fancy we like them. A sympathetic spirit in the host and real devotion to intelligent culture are the only means by which American society can approach the merits of the old salon. Subordination of one's self, interest in others' gifts, and willingness to speak of one's own if asked, will conquer caste and render society delightful. A friend's friends are generally the persons who consent neither to be amused, nor to amuse others, but they exist in every circle. Introductions are like courses at dinner : we have hardly found of what one is composed before another dish or stranger is presented.

There will always be worthy unknown people whom one ought to know in all ranks of American life. The clerk, on eight hundred a year, wonders that you have not read his brother's article in the last magazine; the concocter of hair-oil in an obscure village supposes every one has heard of her contribution to society's physical welfare; you take tea in a little room, and eat pickles, cheese, and bread with a lady and gentleman well known for their devotion to humanity (you never beard of them before, but that is your ignorance) ; you are invited to a reception for the president of—(you were unaware of such an association); you have pamphlets of real excellence sent you (the authors bore all the expenses of publication, so little were they appreciated) ; you meet with the wife of a representative to the General Court (you had never heard of her husband) ; cards come on uncanny paper asking you to meet an artist or musician who exhibits his pictures or sings in some unknown hall or church vestry ; you meet with a noble author, and can hardly recall his books, or a great scientist or genius, and your questions resemble those of a French grammar. And so it goes! But all this is society, and it is all fine and true, though with foibles that amuse, and little awkwardnesses that grate, and stiffness that chills. Every one is of importance in his own circle; how important will be shown by his universality. Some English ladies, in lunching with one of the best families, said that was the first house they had seen where manners were so simple that they dared to ask if they might see the range and the kitchen ménage. We are more shy than cold, and more self-conscious and self-depreciatory than shy ; we honestly do not think any one can care to know us, or that we can give, in our own personality, any pleasure.

Whence is it that, with caste in every direction, the best society, as such, does not exist? It is owing to our wretched self-consciousness, ambitions, and want of calm self-respect that caste exists, and it is the real excellence, the glory, of American life that there is no such an unit as society; whilst both the evil and the excellence are inherent in republicanism and our gratuitous public school education. Theoretically, all children are educated in the public schools; practically, business interests demand mutual assistance. Universal suffrage gives the same right to the clodhopper, author, or merchant. Any one may be where some one else is, for force of will and long-headedness conquer. This is what our Declaration of independence stands for. Are our children to repeat, " All men are born free and equal," and then to covet social superiority? The only position that has ever been acknowledged cheerfully by the American people has been the small circle of first-class historians, poets, and scientists. Prescott, Motley, Ticknor, Agassiz, Bryant, Longfellow, were—Longfellow and Lowell still are- leaders of intellectual, social life, because each unites an exquisite kindliness and active sympathy for others' needs with his own attainments. There is also political society, of all degrees of honesty and grace; but towards even the purest statesmen—there are varying degrees of personal animosity, kindled by difference of opinion, which leave him a doubtful social empire. Certain families have always stood for certain ideas, and extended hospitality towards those of the same faith. Money, position, or literary success is generally supposed to unbar the gates of caste; but money does not do it for those of the first generation, though their children may be accepted. Position is of variable tenure, and small literary success is cheap. Force of character is worth a dozen magazine articles, and if the small number of our best intellectual men had been anything less than manly, simple, and true in their nature, American aggressiveness would never have honored them as social leaders. Character, not intellectual force, is what republicans worship; but discontented aspirants are parasites on society, which adores literary mediocrity.

Common sense can never grant that only a few know what society means, though willing to confess that a few alone understand the laws of conventionality. Republican common sense cares to adapt the means to the end, and if it can have a jolly time in its own parlors, if it can think and read and write papers and dance and sing, it is not going to be told that it is not—societv. Each one is worth the whole of himself; it was thus with his ancestors, and will be so with his descendants; every true democrat will create a little world around himself by virtue of his own being, whilst the old aristocrat will appeal to inheritance and land. When our presidents are often the unknown third man, brought from comparative obscurity to retire again into mellowed light; when presidents' wives cannot banish wine from the tables nor frizzles from the brows o the women, are Americans to talk of the power of society? The power of tact, of sympathy, of native force, of real intelligence, not of idle appreciation, is the only power that American individualism will ever consent to honor. Our high schools and the minimum examinations in colleges will make it more and more possible for cultured circles to exist on small incomes; a love for scholarship, enjoyment of great works, and perception of the opportunities that the simplest forces of nature offer for original research, even to the child botanist, will make literary life less a sham, power and money less a god, until good manners and simplicity of thought and life are as universal possessions in our republic as they are in our theories. Caste in its unkindest or most exclusive forms will gradually disappear in the reality of our living, though it may always remain as an undefined aroma from unknown distances. But society,—where is it? Everywhere.

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