Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catherine Allgor

Catherine Allgor is the Visiting Croul Chair in American History at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt, 2006).

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The most intriguing thing I learned from P. M. Forni's Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct is on the front cover. A professor of Italian literature, Forni is also the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project! Who knew there was such a thing?

This amazing fact does not mean you need to stop at the cover; Forni's small volume contains much wisdom and many insights. Choosing Civility, as Forni acknowledges, is just the most up-to-date version of a long-established genre--the courtesy book. As a historian of early America, I have had my own experiences with these manners manuals. Though they originated in European courts, courtesy books have an important place in American history. George Washington famously copied the dicta from one into his own little book; the nineteenth-century versions played an enormous role in the refinement movement in the United States.

When you read the old books--and even skim the rules that a young Washington chose to record--you understand how many of these "don't's" were about not intruding on another's space. Such intrusion could be grossly physical--hence, the injunctions not to sprawl while seated--or merely impositions on the other person's delicacy--whether by whistling loudly, talking with a full mouth, or spitting on the floor.

Forni brings those concerns to the modern era, where, one might argue, we need to consider personal space even more seriously. Not only are there many more of us, but technologies, such as cell phones, up the level of potential obnoxiousness. Readers will find Forni's rules of behavior as useful as George Washington found his--I especially hope that his rule about alerting the person behind you right before you lower your airline seat catches on.

But this book is also about a different kind of space and a different kind of relationship to it. Forni sees his work as part of another traditional genre--the guide to the good life, as espoused by work of Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. Or to put in another way, a kind of Buddhist-style take on modern life, with the idea of minimizing suffering--and not just one's own. "[R]espect, restraint, and responsibility," which is how he defines "civility" means that when we lessen the burden of living for others, we do so for the world. (4-5).

Ironically, by giving others the consideration of space (in the old way), we lessen the real space that divides human beings. The goal for Forni is not for us to be well-regulated isolated atoms, moving in polite orbits around each other, but beings of true empathy, acknowledging our connectedness. Best quotes? "Civility does the work of empathy." (13) "Manners are the first steps of the soul toward love." (20)

One of Forni's chapter heads is "Respect in Action," which makes me dream of a new action hero--"Civil Being," who is able to leap over the coarseness and self-involvement of our world and plunge down into the depths of what we all share as human beings. I guess the point of Forni's work is that we all have the opportunity, a hundred times a day, to be that action hero. I think anyone who reads this book will be inspired to do so, plunging into the fray (or the Starbucks) with a cry of "Civility above all!"
Catherine Allgor's book Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, won the prize for the best first book by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Pulitzer Prize Winner Joseph J. Ellis calls it, "An extraordinary piece of work, easily one of the most intellectually original and stylishly elegant first books I have ever read."

The Page 99 Test: A Perfect Union.

--Marshal Zeringue