David Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America
List: 17th-18th Century
Subjects: Arts and Letters, Social Life.

An Unworthy Doggerel on Reading Mr. Shield's Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, 11.28.2001

This past week our history club did peruse
An interesting tome that I desire to use
For my own research, which will concern
The roles of the tavern and the urn
In fomenting revolt and colonial strife
And setting the stage for republican life

Yet, after this work, I must confess
I now find myself in some distress
For Mssrs. Bailyn, Pocock, Sandel, and Wood,
Paint the republican mind as a force for good,
That enthrones civic virtue as the key to community
And offers corruption no degree of impunity.
While Conroy, Maier, and Hooker do boast
That republicanism may have roots in the toast.
So, it's depressing to find that Shields, for one,
Says republican virtue has no interest in fun.
This public philosophy to which I subscribe
Has naught but contempt for those who imbibe.
Its early practitioners chomp at the bit
When confronted with politeness, pleasure, or wit.

Nevertheless, this book penned by Dave Shields
(an English professor) still clearly yields
Some intriguing tales of colonial letters
Such as how Tom Dale hoodwinked his betters,
Or how hominy was honored as a premium dish
While other men chose to do battle with fish.
In the spa, women honed their own repartee,
Which they used in the salon or over piquet,
To create more space and freedom from courting,
(And while I'm here, I don't think it's sporting,
For Marx to compare bourgeois love to commerce,
Since I doubt Marxist love is any better or worse.
Dr. Zhivago aside, I have seen naught to suggest,
That love is any different in the East or the West.)

Shields continues his study of the Wit and the Beau,
From the saucy dregs of Grub Street we go,
Through riddles (My precious!), whist, and crambo,
To the Harvard, fair Harvard of Proteus Echo.
We stop in the tavern to meet Henry Brooke,
"Wit over jest!" is the thrust of his hook,
"And whatever you do, by the Great Maker,
Stop getting drunk and hog-rolling Quakers!"
In coffeehouses, we watch merchants go to be seen
And conduct secret business in the throes of caffeine.
Only men are allowed in, and that is the key
To why women soon make a daily habit of tea.

What is the point of all this civil discourse?
To Shields, it's that it reverses the course
Of the prevailing historical ideas, which state,
That politics comes early and sociability late
For Shields, the truth is quite the reverse:
Forget the Revolution - belles lettres comes first.
The "republican world did not spring full blown,"
Civil tongues and polite letters had long set the tone.
And when you consider he prides English over History,
How he came to this conclusion loses its mystery.

In the final accounting, I thought the book was ok.
You don't get to read this much verse everyday.
Or bad verse, at that, so forgive me, M. Sloan,
If this reading response has elicited groans,
I'll close by wishing Mr. Shields quite well,
I'm sure he'll need it if he's at the Citadel.
If my suspicions are true, I fear that his plight
Is that no one much cares about being civil or polite.


The most obvious question, as you might expect,
Would Bushman think Shields is wrong or correct?
And, for that matter, while we're placing the call,
What would Rhys Isaac think of his take on the Ball?

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