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."

Its there rank, then, in all industrial pursuits? A tailoress declares, that " nowhere are the hues of caste more strictly drawn than among tailoresses and sewing-girls. Those on "custom work" and those on "sale work " need not necessarily know each other. Here is a classification given by one who understands, works, and aids others in various ways: "Employments of working-people are either subjective or objective: one cannot consort with another. Under the first are included (1) the stenographer, (2) the newspaper hack, (3) the type-writer, (4) those engaged in life-insurance business and in any sort of nursing. The second division embraces (1) mercantile women, (2) saleswomen, (3) tradeswomen, and (4) servants, who are Pariahs, so to speak, in the eyes of all other workingwomen." These words plainly indicate wherein lies the difficulty of obtaining good domestic service. Not only is there a certain loss of personal independence as to hours and meals, but housework ranks lowest in the scale of honest labor; ambition, uppishness, or aspiration is of national growth. The proof-reader by universal testimony ranks highest in the scale of laborers, for good proof-reading requires not only an excellent elementary education, but also an intuitive mind. A copy-reader often advances to be a proofreader, whereas a type-setter seldom or never becomes a copy-reader. The most amusing instance of drawing the line is seen in the superbly quiet manner in which the “ladies” behind the counters at large dry-goods establishments regard the “women” in thread-and-needle stores; and they in turn look down upon the "girls' employed in confectioners' shops, and the still lower kind of omnion gatherum stores always to be found in the neighborhoods of the poor. They all may stand upon their feet throughout the day and sell goods, but that is all they have in common, except through incidental charitableness. Again, the newspaper hack-work ranges from that of the regularly paid “lady contributor” on certain subjects, to that of the “woman “ with the ready wit to puff up patent medicines and do a job in twenty minutes.

In talking with the thinking working-woman one is struck by the philosophical terms (obtained through processes of imitation and by imbibing mental atmospheres) which spring as readily to her lips as do the words "feeling," "tone," "values," to those of writers on art. Such women analyze life, lay down propositions, premises, and reason from them. Very often their foundation is weak. One of them, whose analysis of the mental requisites for different kinds of labor was very keen, observed, “There are sensuous and supersensuous classes. The supersensuous care less about the technique of their work, and fail in execution, but they are capable of improvement if lofty motives are appealed to, and are ever ready to encourage the stumblers; they long to be all they feel, and their lives are full of strivings and failures. The sensuous could be represented by the Irish girls, who don't know, and don't know that they don't know; they are honest and virtuous, but their tastes are on a low plane."

The workingwomen are struggling against the identical limitations within themselves which philanthropists and believers in social cooperation and those of notable good-will in churches have always felt. These women recognize the power of mutual aid; they acknowledge that employers are not individual tyrants, and that their only chance for a freer, happier life lies not in strikes, but in combinations backed by a public sentiment in favor of equal wages for men and women. Then, the more intelligent daily see due hopelessness of any such attempt at union, on account of the intensity of the caste feeling among them; the enjoyments and occupations of each class are distinct, the latter being the cause of the former.

One more generalization can be given, made by one who is doing all she can to elevate the character of her fellow-workers: "Caste is a nuisance to those who want to get into what you call society, and it is our curse. There is among us (1) the sensuous class, those who dance; (2) the domestic class, who stay by themselves and get their own meals, or live with their parents in rooms, who work all day and sew all night, and go to church on Sunday, or remain at home without gadding about; (3) then the God-forsaken class, who stay honestly in their attics and die by inches, who are not skilled workwoman by birth, and who never can be, any more than all can be artists, but they can do slop-work and starve to death (why don't the skilled pity the unskilled, and look only to the slow process of better born generations to do away with the amount of unskilled labor?) ; and (4) there are the servants," and she shrugged her shoulders, as if mention of them were needless.

This desire for combination, as the means of a general elevation, obtains among the more thoughtful portion of the women. It does not follow that because these women do not know much they therefore think little. Life experience has made them rich in thought, and the socialistic and free-thinking papers urge them on to clearer definition of their needs, often in a wrong direction. Many of them have attempted the formation of clubs and societies of their own, which have almost always failed, if for no other reason than because they have so little surplus time and strength for anything which is not daily bread. When entertainments have been provided for them, the very fact that they were for them included a stigma. Friendly and social evenings have also been established for them here and there, but only when any suspicion of kindness even has been omitted have they been successful. This unwillingness of the more intelligent and ladylike to associate with the less intelligent renders it still more difficult for others to form any classes for their instruction or make social attempts for their enjoyment. The spirit of caste dominates them far more than people in society. Some will not come, fearing patronage of the rich; others from dread of being ignored by those of a higher grade, who yet work for self-support. The Irish feel this incubus of caste far less than the Americans. Difference in station is an Old World fact with which the Irish and their ancestors have long been familiar. Their church frowns on any combination for intellectual purposes which might disintegrate their religious faith, and the sodalities themselves supply avenues for social intercourse, with the added benefit of spiritual instruction.

Among the Western women who are farmers, caste is founded on the aristocracy of energy: she who makes the best butter, “raises” the finest eggs, “steps round smartest,” and cooks the biggest dinner for the largest number of farm hands is the leader. At the harvest festivals and the county fairs, the wives of the poor and of the rich farmer meet on the same social plane; the one assuming and the other acknowledging the superiority born of deftness and strength. The hired girl is a neighbor’s daughter, who will soon marry, have a farm, and be just the same as the woman for whom she is now working; so there is no snubbing her. Whoever is the best cook and the earliest riser will have the means for a better dress, and in all meetings will be the equal of her stalwart husband, in his coarse, ready-made suit: while the weak , inefficient woman stays at home, has no new dresses, and misses the stimulus of the Grange meetings and agricultural shows. Poor woman! Children have multiplied, and the farm income has not kept pace with their growth. Yet she is the social recognized equal of her better-to-do neighbor in all but energy. Caste is founded in the far West on its primal, lawful ground of ability, whether physical or mental.

With the colored women there is much dissatisfaction in regard to obtaining employment. They do not ask, they say, to go to the white folks' parties, clubs, lectures, or houses, -all these they have among themselves; but they complain bitterly, and with justice, that when their daughters graduate from the high and normal schools, with ability equal to that of the white girls, they can find no honorable occupation open to them. Their daughters can neither teach in our schools, nor can they enter first-class establishments as cutters or saleswomen. Even if the employer personally is willing, he excludes them on account of his customers, or of those at service in his store.

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.