'Miss Manners' Plugs Etiquette Biz
Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour Comes to Harvard
Judith Martin, also known as "Miss Manners," delivered a sharp-witted speech last night to a packed audience at the Kennedy School on the importance of civilized behavior for all members of society, not just the upper classes.
Martin's address, sponsored by the Institute of Politics, attempted to provide a solution to "The Problem That Baffled Jefferson", how to adapt European etiquette to a democratic society.
Warning her audience that "The etiquette business is not for weaklings," especially in a "do your own thing" American society, Martin embarked on a comprehensive, though prolonged survey of American etiquette.
Tarzan's Table Manners
Jefferson, Martin said, was greatly influenced by the "Jean-Jacques Rousseau noble savage school of etiquette" and tried to apply it to the White House protocol by stripping all foreign visitors, even noblemen, of rank. This "pell mell" effort to make all men equal only "offended everyone equally" and had to be abandoned during President Madison's term, she added.
The Jefferson school of etiquette still survives now, Martin said, adding that its influence on childraising has produced a lot of little savages.
"Citizens are screaming at each other in the streets. Everyone is being treated the same--at the lowest common level," she said.
Martin warned that the "I'm just as good as anyone else" attitude of Americans today has blinded them to the reality of class differences.
Martin drew the heaviest applause in her speech when she said, "Basic American manners, which were extremely good in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, were not a matter of class-there was an understanding of duality and hierarchy." "Good manners are free," she added. "They are available to everyone."
Miss Manners' idea of democracy is a society in which the upper and lower classes revere the same standard of graciousness, Martin wrote in her national bestseller, "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour," a 700-page volume which deals with etiquette dilemmas from circumcision rites to old family silver.
Martin, a native of Washington, D.C. and daughter of a government economist and a school teacher, began her career with The Washington Post after her junior year at Wellesley College, from which she received a B.A. in English in 1959.
Martin covered the diplomatic and political social circuit and served as a drama and film critic before starting her syndicated "Miss Manners" column, which deals humorously with what she calls a serious issue--social manners: "I am very serious about the need for civility in our society, but I don't think I could write about it seriously," Martin said in an interview yesterday.
The columnist has also published a novel called "Gilbert," a comedy of manners set in Harvard University, and a collection of essays on White House and diplomatic social life. "The Name of the White House Floor, and other Anxieties of Our Times.