Commentary Magazine


Table Manners and Morals

My New York friends are taken aback when they hear of my childhood eating habits. My daily fare—this was in Kentucky in the 50′s—consisted of such items as Campbell’s soup, Dinty Moore beef stew, and Hostess Twinkies. On coming home from school, I would typically prepare a snack of two slices of white bread smeared with Miracle Whip (which, until I was in my twenties, I thought was the same as mayonnaise). My idea of cooking was laying out on a thin metal sheet the frozen fish sticks that we heated for dinner on Friday evenings. Although we always had salad of real lettuce and tomatoes, the dressing came from a bottle; only on the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants did I notice that my mother, harking back to earlier and more gracious days, would resort to the cruets of vinegar and oil.

The reason we ate frozen vegetables, canned foods, and all other manner of packaged preparations was that, in contrast to my friends, I had a mother who worked outside the home, riding a bus every morning to an office where she took shorthand and typed letters. But this did not mean that we neglected family habits. Whatever our meals consisted of, we ate them together, even if we had been fighting and harboring murderous thoughts about one another. Every morning we sat down as a family at breakfast (for me, cereal with loads of sugar on top, or sugar-covered donuts washed down with Welch’s grape juice). There was no rushing to get out of the house; my parents hunkered down with their weak coffee—my mother’s black, my father’s lightened with condensed milk from a can—and read the Louisville Courier-Journal before each of us left for our respective destinations.

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Such remembered tableaux endow the past with an aura of stability that may well be deceptive. Indeed, this odd juxtaposition—prepackaged foods combined with genteel table habits—seems quaint beside so many other less genteel aspects of our family life: persistent dunning by bill collectors, constant repossessions of our car, and relocations to ever more meager and ever less inviting apartments (my father’s employment was sporadic). Yet our outward propriety, which remained an immovable fact, has lately been on my mind. Forty years down the road, with lots of American mothers working, with instant food much more ubiquitously the rule of the day, do families still sit down together for meals? Does it make any difference that we now have our coffee not at home but at Starbucks, or that the government feeds our children breakfast in school?

When I ask my friends such questions, some of them respond by dismissing me as a “conservative.” And it may be true that inwardly I remain in something of a time warp, while outwardly, which is perhaps what confuses them, I have undergone the same material changes as they. That is, I look like a with-it female of the late 1990′s; I am a runner, and the only time I look at a Hostess Twinkie is to marvel at the calorie count printed on the wrapper; and, as the beneficiary of cosmetic and medical democratization, I certainly will not, like my grandmother, have blue hair when I am sixty.

These material changes are partly the long-term result of the slight lift in my parents’ financial status that occurred as I was about to enter college in the 1960′s. But the economic upturn of those days was a nationwide development, and its beneficiaries included many of my female contemporaries, who were quick to head for lucrative professions, particularly in the law. I, too, after leaving my parents’ home, devoted myself to what early feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill called the “higher spheres,” areas of intellectual life from which women had traditionally been excluded. In my case that translated into literary and academic pursuits.

It also, again in common with many women of my generation, translated into my remaining single and childless. In contrast to the restricted and unending round of duty that was my parents’ lot in life, my own existence was characterized by a great deal of freedom. But this was truly deceptive. Like my ambitious friends, and despite the lack of personal encumbrances—for decades I lived alone, and had no one else to whom I was responsible—I came to have very little life outside my work. So much freedom, so little time: the mantra of my class.

Still, a few years ago I did meet a man who decided he wanted to marry me. As fate would have it, within months of getting to know him I became a candidate for a position at a major university several hundred miles distant from New York City. Perhaps because I had never been married, and perhaps because I could not cook, I was somewhat naive about what goes into making a life together. Since the so-called bicoastal marriage is not uncommon in academia, I briefly considered pushing hard for the position. Luckily, several female colleagues warned me against it, explaining that the professional demands on my time would be so great that even under optimal conditions I could hardly expect to have much personal life for several years. One of them even confided that her own marriage had foundered because of such a long-distance arrangement.

I marvel now at my failure to consider what is involved in building a common household, forming common friendships and interests, strengthening the ties that bind—ties that come, for a start, from sitting down every morning to coffee together. In having decided to “give up” my evenings and weekends in order to cultivate a life with another human being, I was on the road to an eventual illumination concerning the difference between myself and many of my feminist peers. When these women say, as many of them do, that what they really need is a wife, they are alluding not only to all the household tasks that feminists find so exploitative—so consuming of their precious time—but to the palpable fact that something is missing from their lives. In my judgment, what is missing are precisely those habits of graciousness, decorum, and civility that my mother and father unwittingly impressed on us during our morning hours at the breakfast table.

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The coarsening of American manners is a much-bruited complaint these days, often illustrated by children who seem constitutionally incapable of removing their baseball caps, who cannot sit up straight in a chair, or who walk down the street stuffing pizza into their mouths. Fault is routinely ascribed to mass advertising, to television, or to the movies. But I wonder if anyone has noticed how common this coarse behavior has become not among children but among adults, and precisely in the social spheres where one would expect to see it the least—namely, among those of my generation who have helped to produce and have certainly benefited from the astounding affluence we enjoy.

The lack of personal cultivation in those with full access to a genteel style of life is on view in public spaces from Barnes & Noble to airport waiting lounges. My own favorite image is of the Wall Street type on a commuter train, his expensive suit no match for the flaking croissant and tipping cup of gourmet coffee he has heedlessly balanced on his lap. To take another snapshot: at academic conferences, untidy and uncouth professors, male and female alike, can be seen slouching in the hotel bar as if it were their personal rumpus room, declining to order anything while awaiting the signal to enter the banquet rooms and fall upon the free food and drink. So much for the life of the mind!

Academics being good talkers, the disappearance of decorum has been met by an entire industry devoted to questioning the value of decorum—indeed, to showing that manners and standards of behavior are marks not of civilization but of oppression. Disdain for convention has become the basis of whole intellectual doctrines, from deconstruction to the “new historicism,” aimed at subverting our appreciation for the beautiful surface of things and justifying our failure even to make the effort. As our outer muscles tire from all the work that makes us successful and that we are constantly complaining about, our inner muscles atrophy into sloth.

This brings me back to my mother, who made me go through the motions. Acceptance of convention—conventional graces, conventional duties—is not something one is born with. It has to be implanted and cultivated in wild, young children by their patient elders. Parents who do the necessary work have obviously acquired a little starch in their own outward habits, if only by dint of being parents. Yet the sheer numbers these days of single women of advancing years, and of professional couples who turn over their children to nannies, suggest that my generation and class feel an attenuated personal stake in transmitting those indispensable aspects of our common human inheritance.

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I recently read a review in the New Yorker of a volume of letters by the food writer M.F.K. Fisher. Though she grew up in an earlier era than did I, Fisher’s childhood experience in the barren cultural soil of California seems, meal-wise, to have been no less impoverished. As a mature writer, Fisher became famous for her sensuous evocations of food, evocations that, for her, are clearly entangled with the cultivation of a private life, of love and friendship and family ties.

The author of the New Yorker review, Joan Acocella, though clearly an admirer of Fisher, overlooks this connection of themes. Instead, she focuses in the course of her review on the moment after World War II when Fisher, having published nine books in the space of twelve years, returned from Europe to her hometown in California—“a conservative town where she no longer felt comfortable”—to undertake the arduous task of caring for her dying father. During this period, Fisher stopped writing; she even stopped regarding herself as a writer.

Here is Acocella’s evaluation of Fisher’s sacrifice:

Those who lament the dissolution of the American family—kids with no way to get to Girl Scouts, aging parents put into nursing homes—should remember what it was that kept the American family together: women’s blood.

That metonymic “women’s blood” is good—a phrase richly connotative of earthly female experience—though I am tempted to respond to it with the prosaic thought that, long before women started filling corporate boardrooms, American men, too, metaphorically sweated blood during the best years of their lives to keep their families together. But Acocella is quite naturally fixated on women’s roles, and her phrase neatly captures current priorities: to maintain that the sacrifices the private sphere may entail are justified—that children need someone to take them to Scouts, or that our aging parents need our care rather than the ministrations of social workers, or even that food needs to be prepared and served—is to suggest that women should be kept from participating in the public sphere, and especially its higher reaches.

My own mother, as it happens, in common with most mothers of her class, harbored quite lofty ambitions for her children. In fact, she was a great imitator of those who inhabited social spheres higher than her own. Her morning rituals, including drinking coffee and reading the newspaper at home, were components of a life of amenity to which she aspired. (Probably, it was the same kind of life that Betty Friedan was just then in the process of demolishing.) Besides being acutely aware of the ideals of the surrounding culture, however, she also understood the connection between the exercise of private virtues and the attainment of higher public goods, whether in school or in life. While struggling with my father to keep a roof over the heads of her often ungrateful children, she winged it, as best she could, with the ceremonies of our morning and evening meals. She could, of course, also expect the schools to do what schools used to do.

Nowadays, the sorts of women my mother took as her models have law or medical degrees. For them to become full-time mothers would mean removing themselves from the labor market when they are at the height of their earning power. Naturally, few do so. May that have something to do, I wonder, not only with their children’s failed manners but with their failure to perform well in school, at least as measured by international comparisons of achievement? It is one of the sublime ironies of the age that ambitious and often gifted women have children who will not match the capabilities that have made these women successful.

These mothers obviously believe they can offset their absence from home by sending their children to posh private schools, or by living in neighborhoods where the public schools rank high. But it stands to reason that the replacement of mothers by Norwegian or French or German girls of nineteen and twenty will ultimately have a detrimental effect on the life of the mind. No wonder that, as with academic deconstructors, a journalistic sub-industry has sprung up to advance the notion that excessive competitiveness in school causes emotional damage; such doctrines seem calculated to justify the laziness of overworked parents while making them feel better about the declining accomplishments of their children.

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Ultimately, of course, it is the less privileged classes and their children who suffer the most from these progressive ideas. All the effort that children like myself used to devote to becoming popular and successful—efforts our mothers insisted on—has been cast aside as the relic of a more compulsive age. If we were not high academic achievers, we at least tried to get respectable grades. We also imitated the outward habits of the most successful children, seeking to dress nicely within our means, groom ourselves, excel in extracurricular activities, speak grammatically. The payoff was that one day some of us might be lucky enough to study literature, travel in Europe, come to appreciate fine food, live the good life. Nowadays children, often financed by their working mothers, seem to ape their superiors solely in conspicuous consumption. In dress and mariners, and therefore, I would say, in their spiritual and intellectual standards, they look, and act, down.

The great English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in “On Marriage and the Single Life,” wrote that “the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from unmarried men.” He meant that single men, being freed from the economic and physical burdens of family life, could devote themselves single-mindedly to their ideas and their projects. But the sentence captures something else about life in those “higher spheres” where so many women, married and single, have now also landed: that it rewards, and sometimes requires, sterility.

What Bacon well knew is that seeing to the posterity of the race has its own requirements, as well as its mutually fructifying rewards. Parents, he wrote in the same essay, “have greatest care of future times; unto which they know they must transmit their dearest pledges.”

One can take this statement literally: the sacrifices mothers and fathers make for their children provide an example that children absorb into their innermost beings, and that serves them well when they too become parents. But there is a universal dimension to the trouble parents, and especially mothers, take upon themselves in cultivating decorous behavior (including good table manners) in their children. They thereby help to ensure that intellectual and cultural achievements, indeed the larger spiritual legacy that has been passed down to them, are not squandered but are rather preserved, enriched, and handed on to future generations.

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