THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN GENTILITY by Stow Persons

THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN GENTILITY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The flowering of American democracy in the 19th century threw up ""a new and unique figure, the natural gentleman"" -- an individual devoted to the annealing force of equalitarianism, the civilizing power of liberal education, and an unswerving belief in the ineluctability of progressive change and success American-style. This paragon -- firmly planted between the social-economic elite and the unschooled mob -- was ""the spontaneous, unpremediated product of a social environment uncontaminated by all the accretions of the traditional social order."" Professor Persons (History, Univ. of Iowa) traces the emergence of the natural gentleman through his cultural, political, social, and educational attitudes and contributions, drawing on such representative figures as Charles William Eliot, Henry Adams, and the editor-journalist Edwin Lawrence Godkin. But it soon became apparent that egalitarianism and gentility could not long coexist; the romance of the notion that the mass of men could be ennobled by the lyceums and chautauquas eventually gave way to the realization that scientism would triumph over morality, that specialization would render the refined generalist obsolete, that the conservative business ethos would overpower gracious individualism. Intellectual and cultural mediocrity -- what critic Richard Blackmur has called the ""new illiteracy,"" Dwight Macdonald ""masscult,"" Norman Mailer ""the Wad"" -- rather than excellence has become the American standard. This is one way of looking at our history. Whether it is ""right"" or ""wrong"" of course is not the question. What is important in interpretation of this sort is the degree of scholarly acuity the author brings to bear -- and by this standard Professor Parsons' essay is an achievement of considerable magnitude.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1973
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press