Manners and the Puritan


MR. ELLWOOD HENDRICK’S article, ‘We Are so Young,’ which appeared in the May Atlantic, will bring satisfaction and refreshment to many of us, who have long felt as he does on the subject of American manners.

The question, as he raises it, is not whether American manners are bad, but whether, if they are bad, we can allow the ‘older’ nations to excuse us on the gound of our ‘youth.’

Many of us must agree heartily with Mr. Hendrick in his protest against the acceptance of this excuse. We may go even further, and maintain that we cannot afford to claim or accept exemption from world-standards of manners on any ground whatever. If, however, we are seeking, not excuses but reasons, I am inclined to think that, at least as far as New England, and those sections of the country which derive from New England, are concerned, we have paid too little attention to the possible effect on manners of a Puritan tradition.

The Puritan conscience and other things about the Puritans have, perhaps, been a little overemphasized, but it is, I hope, not altogether fanciful to suggest that the habits of mind which fostered the Puritan reaction and which were in turn fostered by it, are not of a sort which would blossom and bear fruit in comeliness of manner and of phrase.

For this was a reaction from what? From what seemed to them empty ritualism, with its attendant evils of worldliness, vanity, subservience, easy-going acceptance of authority, shirking of individual responsibility. These things were embodied in the court and the cavalier, in the papacy and hardly less in the episcopacy. They wore, it was admitted, a pleasing shape, but the heart of them was rotten.

But reactions always swing too far, and the Puritans proved no exception to the rule. In casting off worldliness, they cast off, also, some of the courtesies of life. In condemning subservience and easy-going, they condemned also deference and tolerance. In putling aside vanity and untruth, they gave up a certain daintiness and comeliness in the ordering of life. Not necessarily all at once, and certainly not with any intention. It is conceivable that the effect of this attitude might not be apparent at first. I do not know what were the manners of my ancestors; they may have been as finished as any courtier’s; but I know the manners of some of their descendants, and I am sure no court would find them appropriate.

The old world, and the older religion, stood for the efficacy of ritual. ‘Never mind about thinking,’ it said in effect, ’there are those who will do that for you, in government, in learning, in religion. All you need to do is to perform the rites as they are laid down for you. This way lies salvation.’

The Puritan responded, ‘This way lurks damnation. Ritual is nothing; nay, it is worse than nothing if it comes between you and the truth. See to it first of all that your heart is right. Examine yourself sternly and cast out hypocrisy. All else matters little. No authority can do a man’s thinking for him. Each for himself, men must face God. Observances, ceremonies, are Popish abominations. What does it matter if the outer man be altogether pleasing, so long as the soul of him is damned?’

Now, whatever might be the first effect of such an attitude, the ultimate effect could hardly help being a minimizing of the importance of all the externals of life. The theory might actually justify a good deal of this, and practice might tend to go even further than theory. For when once you have said that if the heart is right externals are unimportant, it is easy, by a confusion of thought very common, to assume that externals are not merely subordinate to the things of the heart, but are actually at war with them. The phrases ‘empty form,’ ‘hollow sham,’ ‘rough honesty,’ ‘rugged virtue,’ indicate a tendency to regard the inner and the outer virtues as antagonistic. Has a man pleasing manners and courteous address? His heart may nevertheless be black. This does not, indeed, warrant us in assuming that because he has pleasing manners his heart is therefore black, yet the passage from one conviction to the other is curiously easy.

The quality that New Englanders worship is sincerity, but they can with difficulty conceive a sincerity that is not also a little rough and blunt. Polish, rouses their suspicion. They can appraise a rough diamond more easily than a finished one. I suppose we all know the New England mother who says, ‘Manners are all very well, but what I care about in my children is their morals. I would rather have my children truthful and good than have them learn to bow gracefully and say, “Pardon me.” ’

If one suggests in answer that these things are not mutually exclusive, that not all rude children are truthful, nor all well-mannered ones hypocrites, she looks at one a little askance. She is of those who traditionally and sincerely believe that the French are vicious in proportion as they are polite, since honesty must of necessity be ‘ rugged.’

Such people have no sympathy with the theory that the way you behave reacts upon the way you feel. They will, perhaps, admit that if you do a definite service for some one, you are more apt to feel kindly toward him, but it has never occurred to them to go further and admit that if you behave courteously, it makes you feel more courteous inside; that if you go to meet a person as if you were glad to see him, it makes you actually feel more glad; that if you kneel, it may make you actually feel more reverent. If it did occur to them, they would repudiate it as sanctioning hypocrisy. Why it should be more hypocritical to speak pleasantly and with deference to people whom you do not care for than it is to give soup or coal to other people whom you do not care for, they could not, perhaps, fully explain.

Perhaps this attitude is not quite as unreasonable and unlovely as I am making it appear. I am stating it a little perversely, to make my point clear. As a matter of fact, New England is not alone in admiring blunt honesty and rugged virtue, and in distrusting a smooth exterior. It was not a Puritan who said that a man might smile and smile and be a villain. Yet, when New Englanders quote this, they forget that the particular villain in question was the only smiling one the master created. Did he realize, instinctively, perhaps, that to smile and smile and still be a villain a man must be an arch-villain indeed?

At all events, these traditions have found in New England a soil of peculiar richness, and they have flourished exceptionally well. Without any explicit assertion that to bow is vice and to smile is villainy, there has often seemed to be an instinctive feeling that the truly honest and high-minded will not stoop to garnish their lives with such trumpery trimmings.

Now it should of course be remembered that people’s principles never have quite the influence that we might expect them to have. Human nature is an imperfectly unified conglomerate, shot through here and there by a ray of principle — if one may use the word ‘ray’ of that which seems so often to darken rather than illumine. Principles are nothing in themselves. They have to be held by particular persons, and they are held in all sorts of ways. Some carry their principles as certain folk do horse-chestnuts, — in their pockets, as a specific against disease, — and then go along much as if they were not there. Others wear them like a garment; but there were, proverbially, many ways of wearing the toga. Others again give their principles a more intimate reception. But in such intimacy the influences are reciprocal; often, by the time a principle had penetrated through a temperament it would not know its own countenance.

So with the New Englander. It is not in every individual that the New England tradition has had its perfect work. I know many in whom it has not. I know some in whom it has — people of unflinching honesty, of clear integrity, of real benevolence, whose manners are distinctly grim, and whose feelings of affection and devotion, deep and strong as they are, find no habitual expression in ways of pleasantness. On the other hand, there is in New England a body of people, equally belonging to it, who have not shared this distinctively Puritan tradition.

In almost every New England town, while there are many Nonconformist churches, — Presbyterian and Congregational and Baptist and Methodist, — there is usually also one Episcopal church. It is often the littlest one, it is almost always the prettiest. The others are stern and uncompromising — four walls and a roof, windows and a door, and perhaps a steeple for the bell. The best of them have, in their own way, a very real distinction. But the little Episcopal church has something different. Shall we venture to call it charm? It nestles beside the village street with a cosy air, it encourages vines to grow over it. It is pleasant and propitiatory and adaptable in every line. And within, the congregation and those who lead in the service, have usually something of this same quality. Voices are a little less strident, manners are a little more gracious, than in the other churches.

I knew a young man who claimed that he could tell an Episcopalian by her hats. This, I think, is going too far. I should dislike to predicate of any denomination the eccentricities patent in most women’s hats. But, taken in moderation, there is something in it. Of course, there are exceptions: not all Episcopalians have pleasant voices, nor all Presbyterians nasal ones. Especially in the cities, where the church influence is but a tiny strand among a multitude woven into each life, all such differences tend to disappear. And even in villages, I have seen Episcopal churches as ugly as the worst of the Nonconformist, and I have seen Presbyterian churches that were — well, they were by strangers persistently mistaken for the Episcopal.

Yet it seems to me not unnatural that this difference, typically, should exist. For the Nonconformists deliberately broke with a tradition that had its own ripe beauty. They distrusted charm. They saw an antagonism between beauty and truth. They avoided the ways of pleasantness. They felt that conventions and convictions could not dwell together. In all this there was gain and there was loss. And when, as all rebels against convention inevitably do, they erected their own conventions, these were relatively stern and barren, and a little ungracious.

All this while I have spoken of New England, which is a small part of the United States. But the West, so far as it is not foreign, was settled from New England or from the South, and its pioneer past is nearer by many generations than our own, so that other elements enter into the question of manners. The South, again, is preponderantly Episcopal — at least the South that we usually think of. And this South has, so far as I know, not had its manners often called in question. Whether this is a mere coincidence, or whether its Episcopacy has really been a contributing cause, I cannot say.

In any case, this is not a defense of Episcopacy nor an arraignment of Nonconformity. It is a study of possible tendencies involved in two rather different attitudes toward life. Each is beset by dangers, each achieves its characteristic victories. The sins of Nonconformity are the sins of presumption and intolerance, the sins of ritualism are the sins of formalism and indifference and superficiality. The virtues of the one are those of independence and honesty and devotion; the virtues of the other are those of tolerance and deference and kindness. It is, to some extent, the individual virtues contrasted with the social virtues.

But all of these are good, all are necessary to society, and the pity is that they have not always been able to live together companionably; that one set should drive out the other. Perhaps it does no harm to remind ourselves that these two attitudes are not the only possible ones. As interpretations of life, Nonconformity and Episcopacy can learn from each other, and the outcome may conceivably be something better than either.