Caldwell's 'History of Rudeness': apocalyptic?

June 20, 1999|By Dorothea Straus | By Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

"A Short History of Rudeness," by Mark Caldwell. Picador. 273 pages. $23.

To read "A Short History of Rudeness" is to reinforce the belief that the word millennium should be stricken from our current vocabulary. When this overworked reference has lost its popularity, the vertiginous concept of infinite time will be returned to philosophers and soothsayers. For the moment, however, it belongs to politicians, financiers, advertising companies, the media of all varieties, and, as demonstrated by Mark Caldwell, to the conscientious researcher as well, who is motivated to get the mores of the passing century compiled, in quotations from others, before the end of the millennium.

In this work I could find no point of view; rather, the reader is lost in a welter of opinions concerning society during the entire 20th century. Despite its provocative title, the shadowy connection between customs and manners is lost in a deluge of contradictory ideas, until one longs for any bias, right or wrong, to serve as guide through the general confusion.

Unlike his remote relatives -- Colonel Mann, Emily Post, Miss Manners, Martha Stewart, etc. -- who wrote on contiguous matter, Caldwell is untainted by any commercialism, and he offers no pragmatic advice. Perhaps this compilation contains an arcane message -- a farewell to ink and paper before they expire altogether in the takeover of Internet. If so, this diligent scholar might be using his survey as an act of mourning, a farewell to one aspect of the dying century.

Embedded in "A Short History of Rudeness" are two opportunities for a pair of cameo essays that should be rescued from the melee: one on the changes in lifestyle brought about by air travel, the other from Penelope Eckert, an anthropologist, in her "Study in Blue," thoughts on the failures and maladjustments caused by the worthy aim of a classless society.

Caldwell describes its contents: ". . . jeans had acquired a boggling array of fashion attachments like flared and bell-bottoms which lent them a new dimension, two potential identifiers for schools' two hostile social groups. There was an elite cast, the 'jocks' generally high in socioeconomic status, then there were the conscious misfits, the burnouts, bored with the school and prone to illicit drugs . . ."

As I read Mark Caldwell's well-intentioned book, I thought of the great French novelist Honore de Balzac, steeped in the transformations of the early years of the nineteenth century. His vast "Human Comedy" involves all levels of Parisian society, and the author's prejudices (his faith in monarchy and disdain for the new bourgeoisie) lend a strong heartbeat to these volumes, free from the crippling effects of the abstract.

Granted, "A Short History of Rudeness" is nonfiction, and as such, cannot be compared to Balzac's endless narrative. But I kept wondering what had prompted Caldwell to undertake his short, dispassionate, yet ambitious societal thesis. The "millennial" feeling is in the air, but it will recede after January first, and without the aid of prophecy, it can be predicted that the word, both grandiose but essentially meaningless, will lose its influence when the awaited day has come, gone -- and the apocalypse remains in the offing.

Dorothea Straus has written six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species," and "Under the Canopy." She has written for Harper's Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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