What Is Vulgarity?


IN just precisely what does vulgarity consist ? Is there any better definition of it to be had than such as Polonius would have given? —

“ For, to define true vulgarity,
What is ’t but to be nothing else but vulgar ? ”

It seems to me that most, if not all, of its aspects would be covered by saying that vulgarity is “ to be nothing else but ” second-rate. This points straight back to the original, vulgus, as being the characteristic of the commonalty. They — the populace — are not only themselves second-rate in grade of being and attainment, but their belongings, and even their desires of different belongings, are such. If we conceive society as consisting of amass and a “ remnant,” we find the persons making up this latter fraction to be characterized, more definitely than in any other way, by this one peculiarity, that they are " amorous of perfection.” They are continually seeking after the first-rate of every species of thing, and are not to be satisfied with anything short of it. It is from this point of view of theirs, only, that the idea of the existence of vulgarity can arise. For this is the thing, of whatever kind, that they reject as imperfect, lower in grade than the best, second-rate, or, to use the excellent Oriental term, not at all itself a vulgarism, though often unjustly suspected of being such, second-chop.

Vulgarity, therefore, is purely a relative term. It is contentment with an inferior thing, seen from the point of view of one who knows of a better. To eat certain articles of food with the fingers is vulgar, so soon as you have attained to a knife. To eat them with the knife is vulgar, when once you know about a fork. And to eat them with the fork might equally be thought so by one who had acquired of some courtly mandarin the dainty use of the delicate chop-stick. (The fork, namely, would in that case seem a second-chop stick.) In all tongues certain words are vulgar to any one who uses choicer ones. Equus was good Latin, while caballus was vulgar; as horse is good English, while hoss is vulgar. Beethoven is good music, while the Saccharine Hereafter is vulgar music ; that is to say, what else but that it is second-rate, and accordingly preferred by musically second-rate people ? To be always chaffing each other is a vulgar way that some persons have of conversing; the better bred know of a better way. To gag up a carriage horse’s nose into the air with the torturing bearing-rein is vulgar ; it is a low trick of second-chop shoddy people who are afraid of their coachman. But we need not multiply illustrations. The vulgar thing is always something accepted in ignorance of a better, which is known to the person perceiving the vulgarity.

In villages and country towns the “ masses ” have a retaliatory term, so far as manners and dress are concerned. Catching up a popular neologism from the newspapers, without a too clear idea of its original application, they call any man whose habits or garments might seem to throw their own into the second grade a “ dude.” The relativity of this term, also, is curious. In the heart of the village a man is a dude if he wears a late-patterned coat and shoes blacked twice a day. A little way back in the interior, he is a dude if he wears any coat whatever on week days in the summer, or has his shoes blacked oftener than semi-annually. I suppose one might go on so far into the “ interior ” of some other continent, if not of this one, that he would be considered the most flagrant sort of a dude if he wore anything at all. So of personal habits : there are all stages of the appellation, from setting a man down as a dude because he has a daily bath, to the attitude of the chimney-sweep, reported lately in the papers, who proudly stated his determination to “ wash his face once a week, whether it needed it or not.”

There is small chance for phariseeism in any wise perception of the prevalence of vulgarity. For in view of it the best of us may well “ suspect ” rather than “ revere himself ; ” may suspect himself, namely, of having somewhere about him — in his manners, in those inner manners known as feelings, in his opinions, in his desires or deficiency of desires — some certain mouldy remainders of second-choppiness ; that is to say, of vulgarity.

Second-rateness, combined with obtuseness to the fact, — as we think of the causes producing vulgarity of this definition, in the community, do we not at once hit upon the second-rate newspaper ? I think we each know of a newspaper whose influence is constantly vulgarizing, because it is invariably on the side of the second-best as against the first-best in everything. With its single second-chop aim at a huge subscription list, it is always on the safe side of hitting a low enough average appreciation, instead of any high and exceptional appreciation. Its editorials are so plainly written down to a supposed low grade of intelligence that even this low grade would seem certain to detect and resent it. Its very news is so dressed as to make sure, at all hazards, of suiting the most vulgar palate among its patrons. With its amplification of second-chop events by second-chop writers, its puffs of second-chop people and their books or other achievements, its hot advocacy of second-chop office-seekers, with their second-chop political notions, — what can it be but a vulgarizing influence ?

On the other hand, do we not know of a journal whose whole tone—in editorials, in news and news comment, in political discussion, in literary review — is the tone of candid talk between gentlemen ? It is plain in every line that each writer is offering, not a second-best, supposed to be suited to a duller intelligence or inferior opportunities, but the best knowledge and opinion by him attainable. Any considerable acquaintance with its issues, moreover, gives one a confidence that the writer undertaking a special topic in its columns has some competency to speak upon it. In other words, it maintains the reputation with its readers of being a journal prepared by first-class intelligence for first-class intelligence.

We all feel that we must keep up with the news of the world. We insist on taking our “ fifty years of Europe ” in daily, or at least weekly, installments. Is it not, now, a most strange and vulgar taste in us if we prefer — or even if we submit — to take this indispensable news through a medium perfectly recognized to be second-rate in morals, manners, and intelligence, when there is a better to be had

The " power of the press ” ! — we are always eulogizing it as one of our boasted modern blessings. Yet in my own private judgment I take the liberty of thinking that the evil newspaper aforementioned has done more harm in this country in the past dozen years than any other one influence. In social aims, in political morals (or immorals), in general tone and atmosphere, it has done its worst, and is doing its worst, to vulgarize the country.

Nevertheless, it would be much too rapid generalization to affirm that the press is any such vulgarizing force. There are newspapers and newspapers.