A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America

A Short History of Rudeness by Mark CaldwellMark Caldwell
Picador USA ($18)

by Christopher Tinney

In his introduction to A Short History of Rudeness, the author asks us, "What are manners, anyway?" It seems a pertinent question in this era of road rage, Jerry Springer, and political correctness. Are manners inextricably tied to morality? Or are they simply learned gestures, automatic behaviors and phrases that once distinguished one class from another and are now often used as a way to conceal indifference or contempt? Mark Caldwell surveys a century of the increasingly boorish culture in America, where it seems as if freedom succeeds at the price of civility, and for every Emily Post or Martha Stewart, there are The Simpsons or South Park.

Though the demise of etiquette has in recent years become a national obsession, Caldwell demonstrates that this has been a consistently recurring phenomenon for several centuries; only now, with telecommunications and the internet, it has never been easier to "do unto your neighbor." In this fascinating history, Caldwell discusses the many aspects of proper behavior, from the usual rites of passage to the less clear issues of race and sexuality, touching on supposed sources of decay: mass media, increased mobility, and the changing shape of the American family.

Caldwell's study is divided into "Public Life" and "Private Life." His in-depth exploration of etiquette and power in the American workplace compels and alarms the reader, and he traces the recent trend in this country toward materialism as a substitute for ritual when it comes to weddings and funerals. Likewise, we are treated to Caldwell's estimation of the influence of Drs. Spock and Ruth as he examines child-rearing and the manners of sex in the '90s.

It is refreshing to find a scholar and critic who is willing and able to present both sides of the issues with the same clarity and wit. Unlike the droves of rabid pundits, Caldwell bypasses the wholesale trashing of American culture. "It is suspiciously easy," he says, "to polemicize an instance of bad behavior into an emblem of the decay of the times and a portent of apocalypse, and the pleasure of denouncing the antisocial excesses of one's age has been a conventional and rather stale reflex."

Though at times, the subject seems to get away from him, Caldwell certainly cannot be held accountable. Instead of trying to define and thereby limit an already elusive subject matter, he presents the reader with page after page of stimulating facts and ideas that weave casually back and forth across a common theme.

Caldwell's offering, in the end, is not just a cursory survey of etiquette, but a broader perspective on the social texture in America--one that entertains and at times disturbs. Far from closing the book on manners, Rudeness opens us up to the very middle and leaves us with endless musings as we approach a new millennium.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999