"THE REFINEMENT OF AMERICA: Persons, Houses, Cities" by Richard L. Bushman
Kirkus Star

"THE REFINEMENT OF AMERICA: Persons, Houses, Cities"

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A historical survey of the idea of gentility as expressed in architecture, furnishings, fashions, manners, and taste from about 1690-1850. Bushman (History/Columbia; co-editor, Uprooted Americans, 1979) has the rare gift of seeing the theoretical--the bases of class, power, and culture--in domestic, ordinary, specific detail and behavior. The author begins with the years 1700-90, tracing the origins of gentility to the aristocratic and worldly courts of Europe, and observing its sudden emergence in the refinements of colonial centers--rural and urban--in mansions, gardens, pianos, parasols, carpets, penmanship, courtesy books, personal hygiene, and social discipline. He then considers the years after the Revolution, from 1790-1850, during which gentility became ""vernacular,"" democratized, identified with respectability--a middle-class standard associated with domesticity, religion, and the work ethic, with its major site being the ubiquitous parlor. Although gentility was exclusive, censorious, judgmental, and artificial--an elitist ideal inappropriate for an egalitarian society (a point made by John F. Kasson in Rudeness and Civility, 1990)--it contributed immensely, Bushman says, to American life: to architecture and the decorative arts but also, in fulfilling the many needs of aspiring gentility, to manufacturing, trade, commerce, education, and, especially, literacy, since the models for American refinement often were found in the novels of sensibility. The Americanization of gentility was, Bushman contends, the translation of a secular, leisured, and public ideal into a domestic one that encouraged religious practice and the work ethic. Resourceful, lucid, sweeping--a true and refining pleasure.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1992
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Knopf