Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior By Judith Martin Atheneum, $19.95, 786 pp.
MISS MANNERS would not like Harvard, because, all things considered. Harvard is not very well mannered. Harvard drinks at parties until nauseous. Harvard eats at Tommy's Lunch, where they only give one paper cocktail napkin to each customer. Harvard makes Harvard drink from styrofoam cups instead of real glasses, not to mention investing in South Africa. Harvard eats spaghetti with a spoon because the forks came out of the dish washer green. Harvard tears reserved reading and old exams out of books. Harvard is just too busy to worry about being polite.
Although her civility has been largely unrequited. Miss Manners wants to help. After all, two wrongs make a blight, "writes she. So through Judith Martin, whose Washington Post etiquette column is syndicated in newspapers across the country. Miss Manners has given us a single text that explains how to eat, sleep, walk, talk and act properly in any contemporary circumstance.
A strange combination of Ann Landers and Amy Vanderbilt, Miss Manners lays it all out, neatly of course, in a progression from fundamental to intermediate to advanced civilization. It's all there, from your basic introductory handshake to the traditional response to an invitation to dine at the White House.
Because the book is so thoughtfully arranged, busy Harvard can skip the extraneous material and move on to the meatier manners. Birth announcements, communions, marriage (for beginners), marriage II, and even celebrity and publicity get tucked away for after Commencement. "Introductions" seems like a good place to start. How do you introduce the girl that has been living in your suite with a roommate to your parents on a surprise visit? By her name, writes Miss Manners. Simple enough.
Now that everyone's comfortable. Harvard can move out into the street and greet the world. But what about that Hare Krishna in the Square who has selected Harvard as his personal, proselytizing mission? Miss Manners informs us that Harvard can boldly go about the business of the day without concern for the feelings of the street zealot or the wrath of the Almighty.
Miss Manners clearly stresses etiquette at the table, but Harvard finds most of it useless. Three full pages describe the function of every fork imaginable when the Union stocks only one variety. The most important advice goes without mention--avoid the forks that still have this morning's French toast stuck to their tines.
AFTER ALL of this preparation. Harvard is ready for the most pertinent troika of sections: courtship, modern romance and living together. It seems peculiarly appropriate for Martin, a Wellesley alumnus, to explain the intricacies of modern-day relations between the genders to Harvard Dating seems easy enough, only three parts: food, entertainment and affection. Even Miss Manners saves the best for last. Harvard is relieved to know that phone calls after a one-night stand are not required but dismayed to learn that transportation back to Cambridge is also not mandatory.
More than any other, these chapters on modern romance demonstrate the most interesting facet of the book--the juxtaposition of the old and the new and the dependence of contemporary mores on the traditional. A description of a formal wedding--including exhaustive advice on every member of the wedding party--coming less than 50 pages after the proper form for informing a not-so-familiar lover of a social disease vividly proves how far things have come since Grand Dad '05 stalked the Yard.
As a manual for etiquette, the book suffers most from prolixity. Miss Manners loves to see Miss Manners in print. If fact, one wonders if Martin leads a schizophrenic existence, writing herself letters and answering herself with advice. Her antiquated style, which conjures up visions of a Victorian spinster sitting in the drawing room banging away at a manual typewriter, is enjoyable, but less than perfect for getting quick information.
But through all the words, the message is clear. Etiquette has strict rules; it is not doing what comes naturally. If the whole point of politeness is to make others feel comfortable, everyone must have the same standards by which to measure, or actions that were meant in kindness are misinterpreted. That is the purpose of Miss Manners, and more specifically her book. Unfortunately, trudging through 786 pages in an attempt to assimilate the standards of the ages is likely to be, as the title indicates, excruciating, leaving the Gentle Reader a Hopeless Neurotic.
Perhaps Miss Manners would have done better to limit her advice to the sage guidelines passed to her by her Uncle Henry, the kind of relative who pulls you aside at family gatherings for "talks. "Henry's words were sufficient: "I. Don't. 2. Be sure not to forget to. "The rest is up to individual interpretation.