Some boys and girls are born so that they enjoy society, and all the forms of society, from the beginning. The passion they have for it takes them right through all the formalities and stiffness of morning calls, evening parties, visits on strangers, and the like, and they have no difficulty about the duties involved in these things. I do not write for them, and there is no need, at all, of their reading this paper.
There are other boys and girls who look with half horror and half disgust at all such machinery of society. They have been well brought up, in intelligent, civilized, happy homes. They have their own varied and regular occupations, and it breaks these all up, when they have to go to the birthday party at the Glascocks', or to spend the evening with the young lady from Vincennes who is visiting Mrs. Vandermeyer.
When they have grown older, it happens, very likely, that such boys and girls have to leave home, and establish themselves at one or another new home, where more is expected of them in a social way. Here is Stephen, who has gone through the High School, and has now gone over to New Altona to be the second teller in the Third National Bank there. Stephen's father was in college with Mr. Brannan, who was quite a leading man in New Altona. Madam Chenevard is a sister of Mrs. Schuyler, with whom Stephen's mother worked five years on the Sanitary Commission. All the bank officers are kind to Stephen, and ask him to come to their houses, and he, who is one of these young folks whom I have been describing, who knows how to be happy at home, but does not know if he is entertaining or in any way agreeable in other people's homes, really finds that the greatest hardship of his new life consists in the hospitalities with which all these kind people welcome him.
Here is a part of a letter from Stephen to me,--he writes pretty much everything to me: "...Mrs. Judge Tolman has invited me to another of her evening parties. Everybody says they are very pleasant, and I can see that they are to people who are not sticks and oafs. But I am a stick and an oaf. I do not like society, and I never did. So I shall decline Mrs. Tolman's invitation; for I have determined to go to no more parties here, but to devote my evenings to reading."
Now this is not snobbery or goodyism on Stephen's part. He is not writing a make-believe letter, to deceive me as to the way in which he is spending his time. He really had rather occupy his evening in reading than in going to Mrs. Tolman's party,--or to Mrs. Anybody's party,--and, at the present moment, he really thinks he never shall go to any parties again. Just so two little girls part from each other on the sidewalk, saying, "I never will speak to you again as long as I live." Only Stephen is in no sort angry with Mrs. Tolman or Mrs. Brannan or Mrs. Chenevard. He only thinks that their way is one way, and his way is another. His determination is the same as Tom's was, which I described in Chapter II. But where Tom thought his failure was want of talking power, Steve really thinks that he hates society.
It is for boys and girls like Stephen, who think they are "sticks and oafs," and that they cannot go into society, that this paper is written.
You need not get up from your seats and come and stand in a line for me to talk to you,--tallest at the right, shortest at the left, as if you were at dancing-school, facing M. LabbassA(C). I can talk to you just as well where you are sitting; and, as Obed Clapp said to me once, I know very well what you are going to say, before you say it. Dear children, I have had it said to me four-score and ten times by forty-six boys and forty-six girls who were just as dull and just as bright as you are,--as like you, indeed, as two pins.
There is Dunster,--Horace Punster,--at this moment the favorite talker in society in Washington, as indeed he is on the floor of the House of Representatives. Ask, the next time you are at Washington, how many dinner-parties are put off till a day can be found at which Dunster can be present. Now I remember very well, how, a year or two after Dunster graduated, he and Messer, who is now Lieutenant-Governor of Labrador, and some one whom I will not name, were sitting on the shore of the Cattaraugus Lake, rubbing themselves dry after their swim. And Dunster said he was not going to any more parties. Mrs. Judge Park had asked him, because she loved his sister, but she did not care for him a draw, and he did not know the Cattaraugus people, and he was afraid of the girls, who knew a great deal more than he did, and so he was "no good" to anybody, and he would not go any longer. He would stay at home and read Plato in the original. Messer wondered at all this; he enjoyed Mrs. Judge Park's parties, and Mrs. Dr. Holland's teas, and he could not see why as bright a fellow as Dunster should not enjoy them. "But I tell you," said Dunster, "that I do not enjoy them; and, what is more, I tell you that these people do not want me to come. They ask me because they like my sister, as I said, or my father, or my mother."
Then some one else, who was there, whom I do not name, who was at least two years older than these young men, and so was qualified to advise them, addressed them thus:--
"You talk like children. Listen. It is of no consequence whether you like to go to these places or do not like to go. None of us were sent to Cattaraugus to do what we like to do. We were sent here to do what we can to make this place cheerful, spirited, and alive,--a part of the kingdom of heaven. Now if everybody in Cattaraugus sulked off to read Plato, or to read 'The Three Guardsmen,' Cattaraugus would go to the dogs very fast, in its general sulkiness. There must be intimate social order, and this is the method provided. Therefore, first, we must all of us go to these parties, whether we want to or not; because we are in the world, not to do what we like to do, but what the world needs.
"Second," said this unknown some one, "nothing is more snobbish than this talk about Mrs. Park's wanting us or not wanting us. It simply shows that we are thinking of ourselves a good deal more than she is. What Mrs. Park wants is as many men at her party as she has women. She has made her list so as to balance them. As the result of that list, she has said she wanted me. Therefore I am going. Perhaps she does want me. If she does, I shall oblige her. Perhaps she does not want me. If she does not, I shall punish her, if I go, for telling what is not true; and I shall go cheered and buoyed up by that reflection. Anyway I go, not because I want to or do not want to, but because I am asked; and in a world of mutual relationships it is one of the things that I must do."
No one replied to this address, but they all three put on their dress-coats and went. Dunster went to every party in Cattaraugus that winter, and, as I have said, has since shown himself a most brilliant and successful leader of society.
The truth is to be found in this little sermon. Take society as you find it in the place where you live. Do not set yourself up, at seventeen years old, as being so much more virtuous or grand or learned than the young people round you, or the old people round you, that you cannot associate with them on the accustomed terms of the place. Then you are free from the first difficulty of young people who have trouble in society; for you will not be "stuck up," to use a very happy phrase of your own age. When anybody, in good faith, asks you to a party, and you have no pre-engagement or other duty, do not ask whether these people are above you or below you, whether they know more or know less than you do, least of all ask why they invited you,--but simply go. It is not of much importance whether, on that particular occasion, you have what you call a good time or do not have it. But it is of importance that you shall not think yourself a person of more consequence in the community than others, and that you shall easily and kindly adapt yourself to the social life of the people among whom you are.
This is substantially what I have written to Stephen about what he is to do at New Altona.
Now, as for enjoying yourself when you have come to the party,--for I wish you to understand that, though I have compelled you to go, I am not in the least cross about it,--but I want you to have what you yourselves call a very good time when you come there. O dear, I can remember perfectly the first formal evening party at which I had "a good time." Before that I had always hated to go to parties, and since that I have always liked to go. I am sorry to say I cannot tell you at whose house it was. That is ungrateful in me. But I could tell you just how the pillars looked between which the sliding doors ran, for I was standing by one of them when my eyes were opened, as the Orientals say, and I received great light. I had been asked to this party, as I supposed and as I still suppose, by some people who wanted my brother and sister to come, and thought it would not be kind to ask them without asking me. I did not know five people in the room. It was in a college town where there were five gentlemen for every lady, so that I could get nobody to dance with me of the people I did know. So it was that I stood sadly by this pillar, and said to myself, "You were a fool to come here where nobody wants you, and where you did not want to come; and you look like a fool standing by this pillar with nobody to dance with and nobody to talk to." At this moment, and as if to enlighten the cloud in which I was, the revelation flashed upon me, which has ever since set me all right in such matters. Expressed in words, it would be stated thus: "You are a much greater fool if you suppose that anybody in this room knows or cares where you are standing or where you are not standing. They are attending to their affairs and you had best attend to yours, quite indifferent as to what they think of you." In this reflection I took immense comfort, and it has carried me through every form of social encounter from that day to this day. I don't remember in the least what I did, whether I looked at the portfolios of pictures,--which for some reason young people think a very poky thing to do, but which I like to do,--whether I buttoned some fellow-student who was less at ease than I, or whether I talked to some nice old lady who had seen with her own eyes half the history of the world which is worth knowing. I only know that, after I found out that nobody else at the party was looking at me or was caring for me, I began to enjoy it as thoroughly as I enjoyed staying at home.
Not long after I read this in Sartor Resartus, which was a great comfort to me: "What Act of Parliament was there that you should be happy? Make up your mind that you deserve to be hanged, as is most likely, and you will take it as a favor that you are hanged in silk, and not in hemp." Of which the application in this particular case is this: that if Mrs. Park or Mrs. Tolman are kind enough to open their beautiful houses for me, to fill them with beautiful flowers, to provide a band of music, to have ready their books of prints and their foreign photographs, to light up the walks in the garden and the greenhouse, and to provide a delicious supper for my entertainment, and then ask, I will say, only one person whom I want to see, is it not very ungracious, very selfish, and very snobbish for me to refuse to take what is, because of something which is not,--because Ellen is not there or George is not? What Act of Parliament is there that I should have everything in my own way?
As it is with most things, then, the rule for going into society is not to have any rule at all. Go unconsciously; or, as St. Paul puts it, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think." Everything but conceit can be forgiven to a young person in society. St. Paul, by the way, high-toned gentleman as he was, is a very thorough guide in such affairs, as he is in most others. If you will get the marrow out of those little scraps at the end of his letters, you will not need any hand-books of etiquette.
As I read this over, to send it to the printer, I recollect that, in one of the nicest sets of girls I ever knew, they called the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians the "society chapter." Read it over, and see how well it fits, the next time Maud has been disagreeable, or you have been provoked yourself in the "German."
"The gentleman is quiet," says Mr. Emerson, whose essay on society you will read with profit, "the lady is serene." Bearing this in mind, you will not really expect, when you go to the dance at Mrs. Pollexfen's, that while you are standing in the library explaining to Mr. Sumner what he does not understand about the Alabama Claims, watching at the same time with jealous eye the fair form of Sybil as she is waltzing in that hated Clifford's arms,--you will not, I say, really expect that her light dress will be wafted into the gas-light over her head, she be surrounded with a lambent flame, Clifford basely abandon her, while she cries, "O Ferdinand, Ferdinand!"--nor that you, leaving Mr. Sumner, seizing Mrs. General Grant's camel's hair shawl, rushing down the ball-room, will wrap it around Sybil's uninjured form, and receive then and there the thanks of her father and mother, and their pressing request for your immediate union in marriage. Such things do not happen outside the Saturday newspapers, and it is a great deal better that they do not. "The gentleman is quiet and the lady is serene." In my own private judgment, the best thing you can do at any party is the particular thing which your host or hostess expected you to do when she made the party. If it is a whist party, you had better play whist, if you can. If it is a dancing party, you had better dance, if you can. If it is a music party, you had better play or sing, if you can. If it is a croquet party, join in the croquet, if you can. When at Mrs. Thorndike's grand party, Mrs. Colonel Goffe, at seventy-seven, told old Rufus Putnam, who was five years her senior, that her dancing days were over, he said to her, "Well, it seems to be the amusement provided for the occasion." I think there is a good deal in that. At all events, do not separate yourself from the rest as if you were too old or too young, too wise or too foolish, or had not been enough introduced, or were in any sort of different clay from the rest of the pottery.
And now I will not undertake any specific directions for behavior. You know I hate them all. I will only repeat to you the advice which my father, who was my best friend, gave me after the first evening call I ever made. The call was on a gentleman whom both I and my father greatly loved. I knew he would be pleased to hear that I had made the visit, and, with some pride, I told him, being, as I calculate, thirteen years five months and nineteen days old. He was pleased, very much pleased, and he said so. "I am glad you made the call, it was a proper attention to Mr. Palfrey, who is one of your true friends and mine. And now that you begin to make calls, let me give you one piece of advice. Make them short. The people who see you may be very glad to see you. But it is certain they were occupied with something when you came, and it is certain, therefore, that you have interrupted them."
I was a little dashed in the enthusiasm with which I had told of my first visit. But the advice has been worth I cannot tell how much to me,--years of life, and hundreds of friends.
Pelham's rule for a visit is, "Stay till you have made an agreeable impression, and then leave immediately." A plausible rule, but dangerous. What if one should not make an agreeable impression after all? Did not Belch stay till near three in the morning? And when he went, because I had dropped asleep, did I not think him more disagreeable than ever?
For all I can say, or anybody else can say, it will be the manner of some people to give up meeting other people socially. I am very sorry for them, but I cannot help it. All I can say is that they will be sorry before they are done. I wish they would read Aesop's fable about the old man and his sons and the bundle of rods. I wish they would find out definitely why God gave them tongues and lips and ears. I wish they would take to heart the folly of this constant struggle in which they live, against the whole law of the being of a gregarious animal like man. What is it that Westerly writes me, whose note comes to me from the mail just as I finish this paper? "I do not look for much advance in the world until we can get people out of their own self." And what do you hear me quoting to you all the time,--which you can never deny,--but that "the human race is the individual of which men and women are so many different members "? You may kick against this law, but it is true.
It is the truth around which, like a crystal round its nucleus, all modern civilization has taken order.