Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
List: 17th-18th Century
Subjects: Consumerism, Republicanism, Class.

Richard Bushman's Refinement of America explores the dynamics and spread of aristocratic gentility in otherwise republican America from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the onset of the Civil War. In sum, I quite enjoyed this tome, both in its attention to detail and its knack for the appealing anecdote.

In the first half of the book, Bushman describes in exquisite detail the genteel affectations of habit, speech, dress, custom, and setting that moved from the European court life to the American colonies by way of courtesy books, including the increased usage of forks and plates, the addition of second stories and paint to colonial homes, the honoring of smoothness, delicacy, sensibility, and taste as cardinal virtues, and the proper stance and gait with which to address superiors and inferiors, be they your father or your servant.

Bushman goes on to explain how these refinements were appropriated by the gentlemen of the eighteenth century to differentiate themselves from the common folk (these pastimes, such as card-playing and dancing, were not created out of whole cloth, but rather transplanted into new settings), and how these aristocratic, repressive, and exclusionary tenets ultimately posed a troubling contradiction for the revolutionary republican mind, a contradiction best exemplified in the book by the agonizing ambivalence of John Adams to the luxurious excesses of the genteel.

Part two of Bushman's tome goes on to explore the rapid proliferation of genteel refinement - or at least its ideals, habits, affectations, and parlors -- to lower and middle-class Americans in the nineteenth century, a spread that worked simultaneously to facilitate social mobility while further complicating and obscuring class, "America's dirty little secret." He also examines the concessions that eighteenth century gentility makes to republicanism and Christianity in order to create a vast armada of middle-class genteel Gentiles, such as the introduction and rise of comfort in the home as a virtue and the replacement of courtesy books with sentimental fiction.

I found the last chapter of the book, which attempts to address the reasons why gentility was adopted so voraciously in the New World, to be both the most speculative and the most interesting. Bushman posits several answers to this question, most notably that citizens wanted to emulate the ideals of the most powerful segment of society in order to have a goal to look up to and a signpost with which to judge their own elevation and self-improvement (which, I suppose, tells you a lot about celebrity culture today.) The last chapter also quickly and tantalizingly examines gentility's relationship to capitalism, race, gender, and log cabin democracy. To be honest, I could have stood to have heard less about staircases and more about the issues he raises in this closing chapter, but all in all I found Refinement of America quite illuminating.

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