The Land of Contrasts eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 243 pages of information about The Land of Contrasts.
no right to exist; it is entirely at variance with the spirit of the country and contradictory of its political system; it is almost solely conditioned by wealth;[6] it is disregarded if not despised by nine-tenths of the population; it does not really count.  However seriously the little cliques of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia may take themselves, they are not regarded seriously by the rest of the country in any degree comparable to the attitude of the British Philistine towards the British Barbarian.  Without the appropriate background of king and nobility, the whole system is ridiculous; it has no national basis.  The source of its honour is ineradicably tainted.  It is the reductio ad absurdum of the idea of aristocratic society.  It is divorced from the real body of democracy.  It sets no authoritative standard of taste.  If anything could reconcile the British Radical to his House of Lords, it would be the rankness of taste, the irresponsible freaks of individual caprice, that rule in a country where there is no carefully polished noblesse to set the pattern.  George William Curtis puts the case well:  “Fine society is no exotic, does not avoid, but all that does not belong to it drops away like water from a smooth statue.  We are still peasants and parvenues, although we call each other princes and build palaces.  Before we are three centuries old we are endeavouring to surpass, by imitating, the results of all art and civilisation and social genius beyond the sea.  By elevating the standard of expense we hope to secure select society, but have only aggravated the necessity of a labour integrally fatal to the kind of society we seek.”

It would, of course, be a serious mistake to assume that, because there are no titles and no theory of caste in the United States, there are no social distinctions worth the trouble of recognition.  Besides the crudely obvious elevation of wealth and “smartness” already referred to, there are inner circles of good birth, of culture, and so on, which are none the less practically recognised because they are theoretically ignored.  Of such are the old Dutch clans of New York, which still, I am informed, regard families like the Vanderbilts as upstarts and parvenues.  In Chicago there is said to be an inner circle of forty or fifty families which is recognised as the “best society,” though by no means composed of the richest citizens.  In Boston, though the Almighty Dollar now plays a much more important role than before, it is still a combination of culture and ancestry that sets the most highly prized hall-mark on the social items.  And indeed the heredity of such families as the Quincys, the Lowells, the Winthrops, and the Adamses, which have maintained their superior position for generations, through sheer force of ability and character, without the external buttresses of primogeniture and entail, may safely measure itself against the stained lineage of many European families of high title.  The very absence of titular distinction often causes the lines to be more clearly drawn; as Mr. Charles Dudley Warner says:  “Popular commingling in pleasure resorts is safe enough in aristocratic countries, but it will not answer in a republic.”  There is, however, no universal theory that holds good from New York to California; and hence the generalising foreigner is apt to see nothing but practical as well as theoretical equality.

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The Land of Contrasts from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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