National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach spent most of 2010 on a Civility Tour of America, hosting events and discussions about the importance of the humanities for reintroducing civil discourse to American culture. Leach sees civility as a key part of a functioning society, and I agree. But whatever we mean when we talk about how the humanities can encourage civility, I think we have to mean something more than their ability to provide simple moral instruction.
Rules are good things to have. We need to learn not to wipe our noses on our sleeves, not to take stuff that isn’t ours, not to scream at people when we’re debating them on television, not to shout abuse at politicians even if they deserve it. But as useful as rules like that can be, they’re limited in significant ways. Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth probably has a few choice words for societies in which everyone obeys the technical rules of civilized behavior and where no one’s voice is ever raised—and where all these perfect manners simply serve to cloak the viciousness with which people treat one another.
If that sort of rule is all the humanities can offer, there’s no reason to value them any more than or any differently from how we do etiquette manuals or advice columns or the barrage of rules for meaningless politeness that Alice gets from the Red Queen. The interactions of politics, of business, of the adult world are too complicated for simple rules to be useful. To learn to deal with these things civilly, we need to get past thinking about civility as social rules that everyone can agree on. We need to talk about more than good manners. We need to talk about what the humanities do best. We need to talk about learning how to be a grownup.
It is, perhaps, another Alice who can help lead the way. In 1921 Booth Tarkington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning and now much-neglected novel, Alice Adams, which contains the most horrifying description of a dinner party since Grendel slaughtered and ate Beowulf ’s men in the mead hall. Alice Adams is just about to age out of the marriage market in her Indiana town. Her social class is marginal. She stayed at home while other local girls of “good” families went away to school, and she became something of the town belle, but did not manage to “secure a husband.” She has now attracted the attentions of Arthur Russell, a wealthy and handsome out-of-towner. Throughout the summer, Arthur and Alice have spent the evenings talking in the romantic twilight of Alice’s front porch. But now the relationship has come to the tipping point and Arthur must be invited in to dinner.
We’ve all done it, right? Dinner for the boss? For the prospective in-laws? For the man or woman we want to impress? We all know how it feels—that fear that what we have and what we are isn’t good enough. And we all begin to die a little inside when things go wrong for Alice. There’s the heavy, pretentious meal that her mother decides to serve: from canned caviar sandwiches and hot soup to larded beef fillet and Brussels sprouts. There’s the intoxicated waitress hired to make it appear that Alice and her mother don’t engage in housework. There’s Alice’s bewildered father, who can’t understand why they have to pretend to be fancy since “If they get things settled between ’em he’ll be around the house and to meals most any time, won’t he? … Well he’ll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off and bluff, won’t he?” There’s Alice’s mother, whose desperation to charm Alice’s suitor sends him running. And there’s the heat “like an affliction sent upon an accursed people”—that renders the heavy food, the reek of boiled Brussels sprouts, and the endless social pressure even more torturous.
The first time I read Alice Adams I was a teenager, and I thought the dinner scene was heartbreaking. It seemed unfair for Alice to have worked so hard and gotten nothing. And didn’t this Tarkington guy know anything about romance? Everyone knows the pretty girl and the handsome young man are supposed to get together at the end. I suffered for Alice, but I suffered childishly.
The second time I read Alice Adams I was in college. This time, I thought the scene was hilarious. Alice and her mother were such hopeless, desperate social climbers! I felt very sophisticated getting Tarkington’s joke.
Reading Alice Adams as an adult, I realized how callous I was as a college student and how sentimental I was as a teenager. Today the scene strikes me as a masterpiece of literary balance. It is tragic. I wasn’t wrong at 15. And it is hilarious. I wasn’t wrong at 20. But it took time and life experience for me to realize that Alice’s dinner party could be both of those things at once—and that when it was, it was a better, richer, more realistic piece of fiction than my earlier readings had indicated.
What I was doing with my repeated readings of Alice Adams, though I didn’t know it, was practicing what the eighteenth-century moral philosopher, economist, and rhetorician Adam Smith called “sympathy.” And I was using the humanities to do it.