The Perfect Gentleman

Somewhere in the back of every man’s mind there dwells a strange, wistful desire to be thought a Perfect Gentleman. And this is much to his credit, for the Perfect Gentleman, as thus wistfully contemplated, is a high ideal of human behavior, although, in the narrower but honest admiration of many, he is also a Perfect Ass. Thus, indeed, he comes down the centuries — a sort of Siamese Twins, each miraculously visible only to its own admirers; a worthy personage proceeding at one end of the connecting cartilege, and a popinjay prancing at the other. Emerson was and described one twin when he wrote, ‘The gentleman is a man of truth, lord of his own actions, and expressing that lordship in his behavior; not in any manner dependent or servile, either on persons, or opinions, or possessions.’ Walter Pater, had Leonardo painted a Perfect Gentleman’s portrait instead of a Perfect Lady’s, might have described the other: ‘The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the tea-table is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years women had come to desire. His is the head upon which “all the ends of the world have come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. He is older than the tea things among which he sits.’ Many have admired, but few have tried to imitate, the Perfect Gentleman of Emerson’s definition; yet few there are who have not felt the wistful desire for resemblance. But the other is more objective: his clothes, his manners, and his habits are easy to imitate.

Of this Perfect Gentleman in the eighteenth century I recently discovered fossil remains in the Gentleman’s Pocket Library (Boston and Philadelphia, 1794), from which any literary savant may restore the original. All in one volume, the Library is a compilation for Perfect Gentlemen in the shell, especially helpful with its chapter on the ‘Principles of Politeness’; and many an honest but foolish youth went about, I dare say, with this treasure distending his pocket, bravely hoping to become a Perfect Gentleman by sheer diligence of spare-time study. If by chance this earnest student met an acquaintance who had recently become engaged, he would remember the ‘distinguishing diction that marks the man of fashion,’ and would ‘advance with warmth and cheerfulness, and perhaps squeezing him by the hand,’ — oh, horror! — ‘would say, “Believe me, my dear sir, I have scarce words to express the joy I feel, upon your happy alliance with such and such a family, etc.”’ Of which distinguishing diction, ‘believe me’ is now all that is left.

If, however, he knew that the approaching victim had been lately bereaved, he would ‘advance slower, and with a peculiar composure of voice and countenance, begin his compliments of condolence with, “I hope, sir, you will do me the justice to be persuaded, that I am not insensible to your unhappiness, that I take part in your distress, and shall ever be affected when you are so.”’

In lighter mood this still imperfect Perfect Gentleman would never allow himself to laugh, knowing, on the word of his constant pocket-companion, that laughter is the ‘sure sign of a weak mind, and the manner in which lowbred men express their silly joy, at silly things, and they call it being merry.’ Better always, if necessary, the peculiar composure of polite sensibility to the suffering of properly introduced acquaintances. When he went out, he would be careful to ‘walk well, wear his hat well, move his head properly, and his arms gracefully’; and I for one sympathize with the low-breds if they found him a merry spectacle; when he went in, he would remember pertinently that ‘a well-bred man is known by his manner of sitting.’ ‘ Easy in every position,’ say the Principles of Politeness, ‘ instead of lolling or lounging as he sits, he leans with elegance, and by varying his attitudes, shows that he has been used to good company.’ Good company, one judges, must have inclined to be rather acrobatic.

Now, in the seventeen-nineties there were doubtless purchasers for the Gentleman’s Pocket Library: the desire to become a Perfect Gentleman (like this one) by home study evidently existed. But, although I am probably the only person who has read that instructive book for a very long time, it remains to-day the latest complete work that any young man wishing to become a Perfect Gentleman can find to study.

Is it possible, I ask myself, that none but burglars any longer entertain this ambition? I can hardly believe it. Yet the fact stands out that, in an age truly remarkable for its opportunities for self-improvement, there is nothing later than 1794 to which I can commend a crude but determined inquirer. To my profound astonishment I find that the Correspondence-School system offers no course; to my despair I search the magazines for graphic illustration of an Obvious Society Leader confiding to an Obvious Scrubwoman, ‘Six months ago my husband was no more a Perfect Gentleman than yours, but one day I persuaded him to mark that coupon, and all our social prominence and éclat we owe to that school.’ One may say, indeed, that here is something which cannot conceivably be described as a job; but all the more does it seem, logically, that the correspondence schools must be daily creating candidates for what naturally would be a post-graduate course. One would imagine that a mere announcement would be sufficient, and that from all the financial and industrial centres of the country students would come flocking back to college in the next mail.

BE A PERFECT GENTLEMAN In the Bank — at the Board of Directors — putting through that New Railroad in Alaska — wherever you are and whatever you are doing to drag down the Big Money — would n’t you feel more at ease if you knew you were behaving like a Perfect Gentleman? We will teach YOU how.

Some fifty odd years ago Mr. George H. Calvert (whom I am pained to find recorded in the Dictionary of American Authors as one who ‘published a great number of volumes of verse that was never mistaken for poetry by any reader’) wrote a small book about gentlemen, fortunately in prose and not meant for beginners, in which he cited Bayard, Sir Philip Sidney, Charles Lamb, Brutus, St. Paul, and Socrates as notable examples. Perfect Gentlemen all, as Emerson would agree, I question if any of them ever gave a moment’s thought to his manner of sitting; yet any two of them, sitting together, would have recognized each other as Perfect Gentlemen at once and thought no more about it. These are the standard, true to Emerson’s definition; yet such shining examples need not discourage the rest of us. The qualities that made them gentlemen are not necessarily the qualities that made them famous. One need not be as polished as Sidney, but one must not scratch. One need not have a mind like Socrates: a gentleman may be reasonably perfect, —and surely this is not asking too much, — with mind enough to follow this essay. Brutus gained nothing as a gentleman by assisting at the assassination of Cæsar (no more a gentleman, by the way, in Mr. Calvert’s opinion than was Mr. Calvert a poet in that of the Dictionary of Authors).

As for Fame, it is quite sufficient — and this only out of gentlemanly consideration for the convenience of others — for a Perfect Gentleman to have his name printed in the Telephone Directory. And in this higher definition I go so far as to think that the man is rare who is not sometimes a Perfect Gentleman, and equally uncommon who never is anything else. Adam I hail a Perfect Gentleman when, seeing what his wife had done, he bit back the bitter words he might have said, and then — he too — took a bite of the apple: but oh! how far he fell immediately afterward, when he stammered his pitiable explanation that the woman tempted him and he did eat! Bayard, Sir Philip Sidney, Charles Lamb, St. Paul, or Socrates would have insisted, and stuck to it, that he bit it first.

I have so far left out of consideration — as for that matter did the author and editor of the Pocket Library (not wishing to discourage students) — a qualification essential to the Perfect Gentleman in the eighteenth century. He must have had — what no book could give him — an ancestor who knew how to sit. Men there wore whose social status was visibly signified by the abbreviation ‘Gent.’ appended to their surnames. But already this was becoming a vermiform appendix, and the nineteenth century did away with it. This handsome abbreviation created an invidious distinction between citizens which Democracy refused longer to countenance; and, much as a Lenin would destroy the value of money in Russia by printing countless rouble notes without financial backing, so Democracy destroyed the distinctive value of the word ‘gentleman’ by applying it indiscriminately to the entire male population of the United States.

The gentleman continues in various degrees of perfection. There is no other name for him, but one hears it rarely; yet the shining virtue of democratization is that it has produced a kind of tacit agreement with Chaucer’s Parson that ‘to have pride in the gentrie of the bodie is right gret folie; for ofttime the gentrie of the bodie benimeth the gentrie of the soul; and also we be all of one fader and one moder.’ And although there are few men nowadays who would insist that they are gentlemen, there is probably no man living in the United States who would admit that he is n’t.

And so I now see that my bright dream of a correspondence-school postgraduate course cannot be realized. No bank president, no corporation director, electrical engineer, advertising expert, architect, or other distinguished alumnus would confess himself no gentleman by marking that coupon. The suggestion would be an insult, were it affectionately made by the good old president of his Alma Mater in a personal letter. A few decorative cards, to be hung up in the office, might perhaps be printed and mailed at graduation.

A bath every day
Is the Gentleman’s way.
Don’t break the Ten Commandments —
Moses meant YOU!
Dress Well — Behave Better.
A Perfect Gentleman has a Good Heart,
a Good Head, a Good Wardrobe,
and a Good Conscience.