Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett
SOCIETY IN WASHINGTON.
IT is by the qualities of courtesy and amiability and loving-kindness that society -- meaning that force in a community that exists for social ends -- is distinguished from the sphere called business, where competition and self-preservation are the motive-powers. And it is only in a community where the absorption of business does not contract the faculties of its citizens that the growth necessary to the social graces of men and women is nursed into fruition. The imagination is then able to catch a glimpse of what perfect fellowship might be. For it needs but to idealize our love for our neighbor to perceive how much more spiritual than solitude society may become. Should this appeal fail, we must deny to human society a higher growth, and in regard to what is known by the restricted term of polite society, we must (in common with a few great men and many smaller ones) contemn it, and, wrapping ourselves in egoism, have eyes for naught but the folly of our neighbors. But in doing so we might as well know that the fault is with our own hearts, which are not strong enough to humor a falling short in an ideal by our fellow-humans. If we could but love these same men and women a little more, we would see in them a great deal more that was worthy to love.
It is in a spirit of charity like this, and without disparagement to the present day or to this country, that we must study, if we wish to understand it, the polite society about us that has been created by our democratic institutions. What matter if this society be full of imperfections? We still cling to its ideals, and it is interesting to see what these ideals have become in our hands.
Naturally it is to the capital of the nation that we turn to study the last growth of democratic polite society. Nor is there any city in the great republic where its elements and its tendencies are more clearly disclosed, or where its democratic principles are retained with less perversion. In this community the official and the social circles are intermingled, and the first of these carries with it a respect that is at the least always honorary. Here also men's occupations are such as allow of the fuller development of society than elsewhere. The struggle for existence is hidden out of sight under a comfortable average of wealth; mercantile pursuits and the making of money are not of great importance. Secured from the daily fluctuations of trade and the uncertainties of professions by regular competences, most of the members of this society enjoy a freedom from care which invites them to relax the anxieties of life. Diplomacy, government, justice, and other occupations in Washington have no daily market to be watched. They leave those who are engaged in them freer from routine and less enslaved to physical labor than do other pursuits. The employés of the government take more leisure for their tasks than do men in business; the same may be said with stronger application of the large number of diplomats in Washington; and there is growing up there a leisure class pure and simple, which consists of Americans of wealth who come there merely to enjoy society. There is no such trait as hurry in Washington, from the workings of the huge government to the walking of the people on the streets. An air of leisure impresses the visitor who may come there from other American cities. The city is peaceful with parks and gardens, which the inhabitants love beyond streets. There are no buildings with a score of stories, all humming with business. In the afternoons some of the residence portions of the city are quite given over to the brave show of society; and idleness and courtesy and conversation usurp the streets. One forgets that one is in the heart of an American city.
Society is an important part of Washington life, and the time and talents devoted to it by the educated classes there make it their principal relaxation. The obligations of official etiquette, which exact ceremony and much formality, seem to be catching to the people in private life, and all society is imbued with official customs. As, numerically, society in Washington is small (though proportionately larger than elsewhere) the striking features that mark it are quickly noticed. It is observed as soon as one enters it that the variety of occupations of the men in it is unusually large. The politicians, foreign ministers, senators, and other officials that one meets may be not only officials but also lawyers, mercantile men, scientists, or men of leisure. A drawing-room in Washington seldom passes into the possession of a guild whose interests of the business-day are reviewed after working hours. The elements that are most noticeable for their absence from Washington society are those represented by enormous wealth and by extraordinary business talents, for neither of these can find as large a field for its powers by residence in Washington as by living elsewhere. But there is one feature of the composition of Washington society which has no break in its variety, and that is the mingling of nationalities that characterizes it. No important social or official assemblage is without representatives from all parts of the earth. Equally unusual in any one American city, and of greater interest, is the variety of sectional types of one's own countrymen that an American finds gathered there from all States of the Union. To study the note of difference that marks their speech or person, and indicates their States or sections, is sure to be a revelation to him; he did not know how diverse and yet (more wonderful) how similar these distant neighbors could be.
The result of the combining of so many Americans -- the living together of Virginians and Nebraskans, of Californians and Vermonters, of Louisianians and New Yorkers, and the interspersion among them of Spanish, English, and remoter races -- has produced a cosmopolitanism that is unknown in other American societies, and which has removed all narrow local prides from the general speech. A provincial soon finds that he has got into an atmosphere where one cannot breathe freely unless one be a man of the world, or at least an American whose conversation knows no sectionalism. In Washington, the only topics that can be common to the diverse comradeship of its mixed society are such as must not be provincial. The nation's affairs or the world's affairs are always among its chief interests. To feel the charm of this trait of cosmopolitanism in intercourse, it needs but to find ourselves for a few evenings amid the society of any other of our large cities. At once the horizon of their daily speech appears provincial, and one longs for the freer view even of politicians and of idle attachés of legations.
But there is a larger and more deep-seated quality than cosmopolitanism in Washington society, -- in fact, the chief condition of its existence, -- and that is, of course, democracy. It is universal and almost untempered there, except in a few small circles. Not only men and women of all countries does one meet, but men and women of all classes. Social exclusiveness as practiced in other cities does not prevail; in fact, it is seldom attempted, for the reason that it would exclude too much that was worth admitting. It is high official position that carries prestige rather than refinement, and the latter often seeks the former, or is glad to welcome it to its doors. Moreover, it not infrequently happens -- though not so often as in other days -- that the two adornments are united on a single brow. But even supposing this not to be the case, yet must high official position presuppose sufficient qualities of brain and heart to entitle it to be treated as the congener of birth and breeding. It must be so, or our democracy is a failure.
There are houses in Washington which are, I believe, the most interesting in this country, where the habit is great refinement, the sesame to which is intellect (either official or other, native or foreign), and where the peculiar charm is the dignified patriotism of the American women who preside over them. A sort of public element pertains even to these interiors (which are comparatively exclusive), although they may be wholly unconcerned with official life otherwise than from choice. It does not take long to feel there is the quality of character about such an interior as this. Somehow, other houses miss it. Beside this character there is an insignificance and a triviality in the seclusiveness of mere refinement, particularly when -- as often seen elsewhere in America -- it is unconscious of civic duty and aimless in its existence beyond the feeding of itself upon its own refinement. In Washington the atmosphere is too robust for such desiccated growths. And yet a true American cannot fail to be disappointed to observe how few are the refined interiors that I have spoken of in the capital of his country. They are even fewer today than they were twenty years ago. This may or may not be connected with the recent appearance in Washington of wealth unattended by other advantages. The chances are that this is only one of the causes for the fact that the general atmosphere of society there is infected with -- let us not be afraid of words -- a spirit of commonness and vulgarity.
It will hardly be said that this disturbance of an old-time gentility is peculiar to Washington. Rather is it but a ripple of a large wave that has been sweeping over most of our old cities, and that wave in turn may be but a part of a tide that maintains its flood somewhere in the vicinity of our centre of population. Nevertheless, its appearance, even in diminished form, in the capital is more to be deplored than elsewhere, for the reason that refinement is more necessary there, and also because, when found, it is more enjoyable on account of the added charms peculiar to the place. It may be an unusual criticism, and it may show an ignorance of the standards of the hour to lament the scarcity of the quality of gentility in those whom we have raised to the class of rulers over us. One rarely thinks of such requisites nowadays, and it certainly is American as well as noble to believe that the accidents of birth and breeding should be despised in the larger question of obtaining the character and ability that are necessary for governing us. But where this compensation is invisible, where the modest robe of humbleness of birth is used to strut and parade in, and what should be a gentle pride is flaunted as a vanity, -- is it not equally American and noble to resent this parade of plebeianism under the guise of democracy? It is a pleasure to discover that -- like many a disagreeable personal trait -- this one is more obvious to the sensibilities than it really deserves to be. A better insight discloses an element of simplicity beneath the general vulgarity. In this light what was an ugly trait often dwindles into a mere blemish of personality which we should be careful not to magnify in our appraisal of character beneath. And here let me say that it is in Washington society, above all other societies, that we find this humanity of judgment, and that it is there valued as a blessing. For it is one of the peculiar advantages of life in that city that people of different classes are brought together who might elsewhere have remained unknown to each other. The narrow eye of class is opened to a larger view of humanity, and to an acknowledgment of the primacy of the heart in determining the companionships of men. The appeal that one human face should always make to another -- the appeal of man to man -- is more frequent in this society, and it is here that one may see partly realized the humanity of republicanism. General Washington, were he alive to-day, would see this, and no one ever cherished this feeling more deeply than he. But at the same time there is little doubt that he would be shocked by the general absence of distinction and of fine manners in a society where the presence of these graces would do most good. They are gone, however, except in a few places; and it is probable that their culture at these infrequent shrines is regarded by the multitude as a sort of superstition. It is interesting to try to trace their loss, not only in Washington but elsewhere. It may be an outbreak in the body politic due to its taking the tonic which is included in the belief that the state is for man, and not man for the state. The former subordination of self-interest to the interest of the state must necessarily have proved a great factor in individual character, and as character finds its expression in personality, the presences of men to-day are not what they were in the time of Henry the Eighth. And yet our democracy embraces a larger passion than any merely institutional devotion to a State. It is 'hitched to a star.' It is an exhortation to love your neighbor as yourself. As a political creed, is this too illusory to exert a visible, daily influence on men and their manners? At any rate, it is worth while believing that it is not. It is certain that to be a true republican in heart and soul is to have the basis of a true American gentleman. Perhaps it may be because this noblest offspring of time is also the last that it is more difficult to find than the corresponding type in other societies which are older and more winnowed. Yet let not any one suppose that it cannot be found among the company of men that gather from the North, South, East, and West, to form the society that I am discussing. It is only that one cannot fail to be impressed by its scarcity and to long to see more of it. It would, however, be a great mistake to fall into the error of despair, as great as that other mistake, which is so often made, of believing that corruption in our public morals is either deep-rooted or widespread. With love of country to work on, there is always hope, and in the society of the capital one notices that there is not only a great interest in the national government, but also a universal sentiment of generous patriotism. Nationalism, ungrasped by the smaller prides of other communities, -- indeed, permitting none but a large embrace to grasp it at all, -- is here one of the most stimulating and delightful of forces.
And there is still another quality conspicuous in Washington society, or, perhaps, I ought to say in that portion of it which consists of high official life and of those that are drawn about it, and that is the very high average of ability that distinguishes it. Even if an observer believe that these men and women do not compare favorably in their scholarship and light accomplishments with some other societies in other countries, yet must he acknowledge that there is a weight and an impress in their sayings that he misses in such frequency in any other society of this country. It is the custom of some Americans to be much impressed by high officials in foreign lands, to overlook the person in the personage, to measure true calibre by mere accomplishments. They take for granted the genius of the leader of a parliament whom they may meet. To such I would suggest a pilgrimage to Washington, where they will be surprised by the frequency of their contact with quiet men who are also leaders, and whose abilities are also great. But there will be an absence of fine trappings and of retinues about them, and probably, also, a lack of distinction, and a bald simplicity of manner which may approach even to a lack of polish.
In claiming that Washington society is characterized by such qualities as democracy, cosmopolitanism, patriotism, we are praising it sufficiently to do it no great harm by calling attention to its deficiencies. Besides those that I have already spoken of, it should be said that there is less of elegance and of good appearance in it than in the societies of our larger cities. A more important defect than this is that there is not the same attention paid to the arts, to learning, to poetry that there is in the latter. The quiet life is rarer here than elsewhere. The devotion to society is absorbing, and those who engage in it (and there seem to be few who do not) seem to forget that there may be a higher life than that which they are leading. And the hurry which many people are in, at the change of an administration, to intrench themselves in the favor of the new one, is not a dignified sight. Also, there is too often a sinister motive in the smiling speech of Washington. Political preferment has arts that do not scorn the aids of society. They may even invade a ball-room; and in that arena of soft vanities and graces one may see a fan or a flower turned aside from its proper use as an instrument of grace to become a petty engine of intrigue and promotion.
Washington society has its faults; it is not, as a whole, as cultured and refined as some of our societies, but it is the most varied, the most liberal, the most American, and the most interesting of any of them.
"Society in Washington" appeared in The United Service, edited by L. R. Hamersly in January 1897, pp. 107. Jewett wrote to Horace Scudder from the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, Virginia on March 18, 1897:I have just been reading a most delightful short essay in the United Service Magazine for January, a magazine which I never saw before, and it seemed to me that I must write to you and Mr. Page and ask you to look out for the writer of "Society in Washington," and some day give him a chance in our Atlantic. I do not know him and I do not think that I ever read anything of his before, but he says first rate things in this little paper and the 'atmosphere' is so fine " (Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters 103-4).In his notes, Richard Cary explains that Jewett has confused two magazines; United Service and United Service Magazine are actually different publications. He also explains that Walter Hines Page (1855-1918) was assistant editor at Atlantic in 1896. Livingston Hunt (1859-1943) was a naval officer, and was married to Catherine Howland Hunt, daughter of the architect, Richard Morris Hunt (104-5).
[ Back ]
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College