2/7/13 - how you treat others

In today's excerpt - Emily Post's landmark book, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, debuted during the raucous flouting of morals and conventions known as the Jazz Age. Yet the book immediately became an overwhelming best-seller, as it codified anew the eternal idea that how you treat others matters:

"[Emily Post] witnessed Reconstruction and Jim Crow, as well as the emergence of Martin Luther King. Her youth was shaped by the high Victorian era, cosseted by the Gilded Age, and then tossed about in the restless years culminating in World War I. Through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and its domestic aftermath (all revolutions of a sort), Emily Post's Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home -- magisterial, impatient, collegial, and neighborly -- would outlast the ages it reflected and corrected.

"When it debuted in 1922, Etiquette represented a fifty-year-old woman at her wisest and a country at its wildest. The preternaturally confident au­thor had her feet firmly planted in the Jazz Age, taking its thoughtful mea­sure in her meticulous way. What Emily initially called her 'little blue book' debuted in a Manhattan society intrigued by the Algonquin's Round Table, where Harold Ross, editor of a new, quickly influential weekly, the New Yorker, held court with a whiskey in hand. Even as sales skyrocketed for Emily Post's guide to the good but proper life, the same decade would also nurture Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, Claudette Colbert and Clara Bow, George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong. Etiquette assumed its position within the heady cultural milieu of the 1920s, shaped by the era of its birth even while modifying it.

"At its broadest, etiquette -- the measure of how we treat one another -- reaches across class, race, gender, and culture. For many women, particularly (and through their transmission to their sons and husbands), Etiquette long fashioned our country's idea and ideal of what it was to pursue a gracious -- possibly even a moral-life. Attention to behavior, after all, preoccupied the founders of our nation. Sixteen-year-old George Washington had written his pamphlet Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation; A Book of Etiquette believing that everything he already knew about getting on in life was worth sharing with others.

"Though never a head of state, Emily Post didn't lack for recognition. In 1976 and again in 1990, Life magazine would laud her as one of the most im­portant Americans of the twentieth century. Etiquette, by the 1930s having sold over a million copies, would continue to be touted in the most unlikely moments and places. The list of extravagant citations the book has received in the past few years alone includes admirers as disparate as P. J. O'Rourke, reminiscing about learning how to fit into society through Emily's book; Joan Didion, using Etiquette to confront her grief over her spouse's death; and Tim Page, a Washington Post music critic, discovering that Etiquette could help him cope with Asperger's syndrome. ...

"How could the promise that etiquette bestows be maintained through­out the [tumultuous] twentieth century? How, in the face of massive human and natural evils, could Americans believe that considerate social intercourse remained a significant issue? That politesse mattered? If misleadingly superficial at first glance, however, the lady's solution holds up after all. Emily Post was not alone in maintaining that the art of treating people well is the other side to the act of waging war."


Laura Claridge


Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners


Random House


Copyright 2008 by Laura Claridge


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