With keen insight and subtle humor, John F. Kasson explores the history and politics of etiquette from America's colonial times through the nineteenth century. He describes the transformation of our notion of "gentility," once considered a birthright to some, and the development of etiquette as a middle-class response to the new urban and industrial economy and to the excesses of democratic society.
A social historian who has written previously about leisure and technology, Kasson ( Amusing the Millionssingular is correct? : Coney Island at the Turn of the Century ) here interprets the development of middle-class manners in an insightful essay on conduct, culture and consciousness. He examines the transformation of our notion of ``gentility'' from the period before the American Revolution, when it seemed a birthright to some, until the early 20th century, when the term, he argues, came to suggest habits of ``excessive conventionality'' and ``false delicacy.'' In the intervening years, politeness epitomized an ideal of public and private control, which the author explores in the advice of etiquette manuals, illustrations from period advertisements and excerpts from diaries, novels, autobiographies and travel sketches detailing American daily life. Kasson's close readings are generally most illuminating when he sticks to standard texts such as Edgar Allen Poe's story ``The Man of the Crowd'' and Herman Melville's ``Bartleby,comma is correct?/correct the Scrivener''; a few more inventive intellectual exertions, like his reconsideration of the Last Supper in the context of Victorian dining ideals, take him somewhat far afield.