Modern Society, by Julia Ward Howe

Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1881


To me the worship of wealth means, in the present, the crowning of low merit with undeserved honor,--the setting of successful villany above unsuccessful virtue. It means absolute neglect and isolation for the few who follow a high heart's love through want and pain, through evil and good report. It means the bringing of all human resources, material and intellectural, to one dead level of brilliant exhibition-a second Field of the Cloth of bold-to show that the barbaric love of splendor still lives in man, with the thirst for blood, and other quasi animal passions. It means, in the future, some such sad downfall as Spain had when the gold and silver of America had gorged her soldiers and nobles; something like wha France experienced after Louis XIV. And XV. I am no prophet, and, least of all, a prophet of evil; but where, or where, shall we find the antidote to this metallic poison? Per- // haps in the homoepathic principle of cure. When the money miracle shall be complete, when the gold Midas shall have turned everyuthing to gold, then the human heart will cry for flesh and blood, for brain and muscles. Then shall manhood be at a premium, and money at a discount.


The French have found, among many others, one fortunate expression. They speak of a life of representation, by which they mean the olife of a person conspicuous in the great world. This society of representation has some recognition in every stage of civilization, since even nations which we consider barbarous have their festivals and processions. The ministerial bballs in Paris, and perhaps many other entertainments in that city, are of this character.

The guests are admitted in virtue of a card, whichi s really a ticket, though money cannot command it. Many of the persons ientertained are not personally acquainted with eitther host or hostess, and do not necessarily make their acquaintaince by going to their house. Everything is arranged with a view to large effects: music, decorations, supper, etc. A party of friends may go there for their own amusement, or a single individual for his own. But there are no general introductions given, there is no social fusion.

Now this I call society of representation. It bears about the same relation to genuine society that scene-painting bears to a carefully finished picture. People of culture and education enjoy a peep at this spectacular drama off the social stage, but their idea of society would be something very different from this. Where this show-society monopolizes the resources of a community, it implies either a dearth of intellectual resources, or a great misapprehension of what is really delightful and profitable in social intercourse.

Where the stage form of society predominates too largely, its intimate form languishes and declines. The communings of a chosen few around a table simply spread, with no view to the recognition of the great Babylong, but rather with a pleasure in its avoidance; refined sympathy and support given and received in a round of daily duties, by those whose hands are busy and whose minds are full; the inner sweetness of a beautiful song or poem, the kindling of mind from mind, till all become surprised at what each can do,--this sort of society maintains itself by keeping the noisy rush of the crowd at arm's length. Horace says,--

"Odo profanum vulgus et arceo,"


and I, a democrat of the democrats, will say so too. I reverence the massses of mankind, rich or poor. My heart beats high when I think of the good which human society has already evolved, and of the greater good which is in store for those who are to come after us. But I hate the profane vulgarity which courts public notice and mention as the chief end of existence, and which, in so doing, puts out of sight those various ends and interests which each generation is bound to pursue for itself, and to promote for its successors.


The time of poor Marie Antoinette was the culmination of such a period of show. Its glare and glitter, and its lavish waste, had put out of sight the true and intimate relations of man to man. And so, as the gilded portion of the age made its musters of beautiful empty heads, of vanities throned upon vanities, the ungilded part made its deadly muster of disconent, displeasure, and despair. The empty heads fell, and much that was precious and noble fell with them. The great stage produced its bloody drama, and the curtain of horror closed upon it,

Critics of society usually direct their invective against the extravagance and shallownness of this exhibitory department, and would almost make these an excuse for the opposite extreme of misanthropic spleen and avoidance. They whould remember that while society, from an inward necessity, provides for these musterings and displays, it is unable to provide for that intimate and personal intercourse which individuals must found and cultivate for themselves. So much is left for each one of us to do, to find our peers, and open with them an honest exchange of our best for their best. The family most easily begins this, with its intense and ever-enlarging interests. Out of true family life comes a neighborhood; out of a neighborhood the body politic, and the body sympathetic.

If, in the matter of social intercourse, show is allowed to usurp the place of substance, the indolence of mankind must bear its part of the blame. It is far easier to order a suit for the great occasion, than to brighten one's mental jewels for the small one. Many a soldier is brave on parade, who would ot shine on a field of battle. Many a woman will pass for elegant in a ball-room, or even at a court drawing-room, wohse want of true breeding would become evident in a chosen company.

The reason why education is usually so poor among women of fashion is, that it is not needed for the life which they elect to lead. With a good figure good clothes, and ahandsome equipage, with a little reading of the daily papers, and of the fashionable reviews, and above all, with the happy tact which often enables women to make a large display of very small acquirements, the woman of fashion may never feel the need of true education. We pity her none the less, since she willl never know its peace and delight.

In our own country, at this moment, and in Europe as well, ambitions seem to be unduly directed to this department of social action, the training and iscipline for which differ widely from that proper to intimate and domestic life. Hence comes an observable regard, not to appearances only, but to appearance. As actors often paint their faces too highly for near effects, in order to look well at the farthest point of view, so the dress and manners of the day fit themselves for the stage of the great world, and their wearers seem to meditate not only what will not appear amiss, but what will attract attention by some singularity of becoming effect. Hence the supremacy for the time of those whose calling it is to minister to appearance. The tailor has // long been a man of destiny, but the modern plainness of male atire has somewhat sobered his pretensions. But look at the sublime arrogance of the ladies' deressmaker, and the almost equally sublime meekness of the victim, who not only submits, but desires to be as wax in her hands. This supreme functionary has, of course, carte blanche for her ordinances. The subject says to her, "Do what you will with me. Make me modest or immodest. Tie up my feet or straighten my arms till use of them becomes impossible. Deprive my figure of all drapery, or upholster it like a window-frame. Nay, set me in the centre of a movable tent, but array me so that people shall look at me, and shall say I look well."
I cannot but hate, to-day, the slavish fashion which seems to have been invented in order to intensify that self-consciousness which is the worst enemy of beauty. It is administered by means of a system of lacets and whalebones, which everywhere impinge on nature. A young lady who is in her dress like a sword in its scabard (the French name for the fashion is fourreau), is made to think of this pint, and of that, until her whole gait and movement be- // come an interrogation of her silks and elastics. Can I sit? Can I walk? Can I put this foot forward or lift this hand to my head? Ask the satin strait-jacket in which your artist has imprisoned you, receiving high compensation for the service. Much as I resent this constraint and restraint of the body., my saddest thought is, that where it is endured the mind has first been enslaved.

[pp. 32-39]

 

From "Changes in American Society" (the second part of Modern Society)

I have not long since been taken to task by a writer in a prominent New York paper for msome strictures regarding the quasi-omnipotence of money in the society of to-day. The writer in question enlarged somewhat upon the greatly increased expenditure of money in our own country, as if this must be considered as a good in itself. He concludes his statement by remarking that Mrs. Howe has never studied the proper significance of the money question. I desire to say here only that I have not neglected the study of this question, which so regards the very life of society. One of its problems I have ventured to decide for myself, viz., whether the luxury of the rich really suports the industry of the poor.

The aesthetic of luxury is a mean and superficial // one. The critique of luxury is compliant andWith the common school ever at work to lift the social level, unfolding to the child of the day-laborer the page which instructs the son of the peer, the cry is still that money is God, and that there is none other. One may ask, in the business streets, whether rich people have any faults, or poor people any virtues. A woman who sells her beauty for a rich dower is honored in church and State. Both alike bow to the money in her hand. One proverb says that Time is money, as if it were

"Only that, and nothing more."

Another proverb says that Money is power. And in this form, no doubt, it receives the most fervent worship, for luxury palls sooner or later. And in this form, no dout, it receives the most fervent worship, for luxury palls sooner or later, // while ambition is never satisfied. But we constantly meet, on the other hand, with instances in which money is not power. Money does not give talent or intelligence. You cannot buy good government, good manners, or good taste. You cannot buy health or life. Do some of you remember the shipwreck, some twenty years ago, of a steamer homeward-bound from California? The few survivors told how the desperate passengers brought their belts and bags of gold to the cabin, and threw them about with a bitter contempt of their worthlessness. States have such shipwrecks, in which avenging Fate seems to say to those who have sacrificed all for wealth, "Thy money perish with thee."
[pp 64-66]

Of all the changes which I can chronicle as of my own time, the change in the position of women is perhaps the most marked and the least antici- // pated by the world at large. Whatever opinions

 

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