As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorite of his admonitions was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics,” which reflect a conviction that some people were simply regarded as better than others. Classes, evolving from the Feudal age, were beginning to form and they would take firm hold well into the age of capitalism and industrialization when they would begin to blur. But the point was that people were becoming aware that others mattered; the “higher” classes were beginning to learn manners and they were also determined that they needed to take care of those who were their responsibility (no doubt because the “rustics” provided them with their living. Here we have a sense of duty born of self-interest). Thus came into being, I would think, social “forms,” which were prevalent well into the Victorian age in England and, to a lesser extent, in this country as well.
But then came the growth of capitalism and the sudden birth of a wealthy class which blurred the old social classes and the “new rich” began to imitate the “well-born.” The blue bloods had been taught from birth to behave well in company and to take into account the impact of their behavior on others. But right and wrong became lost in the confusion over whether or not wealth was a good thing as a waning Christianity weakened the restraints of morality and the Other became less and less important. Manners began to deteriorate as the new rich took up the same forms and tried to mimic those they regarded as the paradigms of society, their “betters.”
This is what was happening in New York in the early part of the twentieth century as reflected in many of Edith Wharton’s novels: ethical restraints were tottering and the new rich were social climbers who took up behaviors that were not natural to themselves and those behaviors became mere empty forms — though those “born to the manor” whom the new-rich imitated increasingly lost sight of what those forms had once meant. I don’t think Wharton had any quarrel with the forms themselves, after all, they were built around a genuine concern for others and focused on what she would have called “good manners.” But when the forms were empty they became a sham, and the young, especially, saw that and also saw the hypocrisy and pretense that hid behind a false front. So the young during Wharton’s era started looking for new paradigms and saw around them the more “natural” behaviors of others who smoked, were disrespectful of their elders, and were increasingly preoccupied with themselves. This they found an easy model to copy and it became the norm.
Again, Wharton’s quarrel was with the pretense and falsehood of the empty forms that were being grafted onto wealthy social climbers who modeled themselves after a “higher” social class who had begun to forget why the forms were invented in the first place. In the shuffle something terribly important was being lost, namely, a determined effort (for whatever reasons) to behave toward others as one would have them behave toward oneself. Indeed, the sense of “other” was soon lost entirely. That, I think, is what bothered Edith Wharton. It bothered George Eliot and Anthony Trollope as well who saw it happening around them in England a generation before Wharton. And we are the inheritors of this legacy. The loss of “good manners” was nothing less than the loss of a sense that the “other” mattered in the least. Thus, if manners are a sign that we have become civilized, then the loss of manners would suggest that we are reverting to a sort of new barbarism in which the individual is the only one who matters.