One hears it all the time: where did Manners go? The entire concept has been thrown out the window…(although here in the South Manners persisted a bit longer than in rest of the U.S. I’ll never forget my first trip to NYC, at 19; I couldn’t believe it when the token-seller in the subway yelled at me for trying to make conversation as I looked for my change purse…)
Yes, by and large, they’re gone. And Nellie Oleson is to blame.
But first, a rant. A regrettable facet of American literature is how authors are judged, and sometimes very ill-judged, by factors other than their skill as writers.
Case in point: Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that “no one would take me seriously as a writer because I knew how my refrigerator worked.” He having a degree in engineering from M.I.T.
What does a good writer do? (Prose, of course, not Poetry). A good writer—among other things—observes movements/changes/etc. in society.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is one such; in my opinion, she is a truly great writer. Read the last few pages of Little House in the Big Woods; not a word can be removed, nor can one be added; it’s perfect. However, she is ignored (if you don’t count the rather embarrassing tv series) because: she wrote for children, and that somehow “doesn’t count.” (Sarah Orne Jewett is another non-valued American writer—besides writing about (only) women, she (gasp) wrote about old women!)(But that’s for another rant).
[Booklovers note: I have a friend, the Children’s Librarian here in our county, who attended the University of Nebraska. She once told me that, there, she had seen the original Little House manuscripts (written in spiral-bound notebooks)!! I fell at her feet crying, “I’m not worthy!”]
Back to Nellie. A few months ago I decided to reread my way through the Little House books. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura—who is 14—once again meets her nemesis, Nellie Oleson. Nellie’s family (as well as Laura’s) have moved to De Smet, South Dakota, and are homesteading. Well, Nellie is her old nasty self; domineering, snobbish, cruel, and manipulative.
But how did an ill-tempered teenager (you cry) bring down Western Civ?
Well, of course she didn’t do it alone. There were a lot of Nellies.
In LTOP, Laura and Nellie are attending the local school. Nellie avoids the other “big girls” (Laura, Mary Power, Ida Brown, and Minnie Johnson). Laura and the other girls are good friends; in finest 19th century style, they stay in the (one-room) schoolhouse during recess and talk (although Laura occasionally looks longingly at the boys’ games and wishes she could join them). In the fall term, the only boys there are the little boys; the “big boys” don’t attend until the winter term, when their farm/homestead work is over. One of them is Cap Garland, and he is obviously sweet on Mary Power. One day during recess he comes into the schoolroom with a bag of candy, obviously meant for Mary. However, Nellie intercepts him with sugary thanks, calling him “Cappie” (feel free to gag…); she thanks him profusely for bring her candy…he looks pleadingly, Wilder says, at Mary, but she angrily ignores him. This happens 2 or 3 days…the poor guy comes in with the candy and Nellie pretends it’s for her, and that he is her boyfriend.
My point? Think of what a modern 17 or 18 year-old guy would do! Even a very polite one would send Nellie about her business…what a less polite one would do…well, you can imagine all too well.
But Cap is hamstrung by the manners of Western Civ, which dictate that he mustn’t be impolite to a girl. He surrenders his candy helplessly.
At least this episode has a happy ending, where one day Laura (who has observed the entire scenario) whisks the bag out of Nellie’s reaching fingers and hands it to Mary, and everyone (especially Cap) is happy—except, of course, Nellie!
When I said there were a lot of Nellies, I mean selfish people (of all genders) who twisted the concept of “good manners” to suit their own ends. This is why, as near as I can tell, we have no manners at all any more. Well, scattered individuals…but in general…no.
Literature has a way of permeating a culture, non-readers as well as readers. The 19th century ideal in America was to be a good person: unselfish, hard-working, well-mannered, generous…etc. . That’s all very nice, except for the fact that many people find it almost impossible to be this way, being: ill-tempered, selfish, stingy, lazy, etc. This is the “hypocrisy” Dickens et al exposed in countless novels. This exposé of a certain selfish type of person seems to have given people a sense of relief, and they gave way to their selfish impulses, their baser emotions, freely.
To wit: what do manners mean? All of them, from the simplest greeting upward, express one idea: that the person they are addressed to is…a person. A human being. Walking down the aisles of the grocery store, we older people tend to nod a hello to one another…that’s all, but that nod says: you are a person, just as I am. This is what we have thrown out the window. Oh, thank you Nellie, thank you!