Mark Caldwell's book contains an inventory of riotous, boorish behavior, from Titanic passenger J. Bruce Ismay elbowing "his way into a lifeboat past women and children" to the United Airlines stewardess who was so rude that she drove an investment banker to defecate on a food cart, then swab himself off "with a wad of linen napkins." Caldwell also uncovers instances of peculiar forms of etiquette connecting social ritual and class, such as Massachusetts "nude weddings" circa the early 1800s, where widows married in the buff so their dead husbands' debits wouldn't get transferred to the new spouses.
Despite Caldwell's tireless listings of social graces and pratfalls (he also points out that fruit flies follow social rituals), what he's building toward is the suggestion that to rebel against conventional manners is not necessarily bad, but rather increases the "tendency to take morals seriously." That's a statement that reverberates with the book's examples of evil civility: the Aztec cannibals who followed Emily Poststyle rules concerning who got to munch on whom, or the 19th-century Southern plantation owners who were overly polite to their slaves in order to "mitigate the inequities of the relationship."
In the end, Caldwell treats manners as quaint absurdities, which makes for an amusing but lightweight read. Even Mick Jagger had a more rigorous take on the subject when he sang, in "Sympathy for the Devil," "Have some courtesy...or I'll lay your soul to waste." But then, that's rock and roll.
A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America
By Mark Caldwell
Picador, 274 pp., $23
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