On his lunch break, Patrick Kurp has been reading Shirley Robin Letwin’s philosophical study of The Gentleman in Trollope (1982). “[T]he morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me,” Letwin writes in her preface.
The gentleman appeals to Letwin because he represents an ideal of morality that is not easily reduced to rules. It is not an abstract or theoretical ideal. It cannot be written down in black and white. And as Cardinal Newman made clear in On the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), his morality is nearly indistinguishable from his good manners: “The true gentleman . . . carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home.” The gentlemanly ideal—for Newman, never inflicting pain—is not the product of a self-consistent ethical system at all. It is a literary construction, and as such represents one of the great triumphs of English literature.
If the OED is to be believed, the word gentleman had ceased to refer strictly to a man belonging to a family with social position and had come to be extended to his qualities as early as the late fourteenth century. Chaucer is the quoted source, but perhaps the best account is given two-and-a-half centuries later by Walton in The Compleat Angler. On the first day, Piscator sets out to praise angling—first for its antiquity, although it need not claim an ancient origin “to be, like virtue, a reward to itself.” Antiquity to angling is like social position to the gentleman:
By Austen’s day, the term had come so firmly to connote moral behavior that anyone who used it to make a social distinction, like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion, exposes himself as a strutting buffoon:
A better critique is that the gentlemanly ideal belongs to a particular culture. To be specific, it is an English ideal to which Americans cannot (and ought not) aspire. Some such critique is advanced by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every reader of the novel will recall, with a mixture of laughter and wincing, the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, which provides a “right smart chance of funerals” and has been carried on for so long that no one remembers the original cause. For Huck, though, the feud ends badly. From a perch in a tree, he witnesses the ambush of two Grangerford boys:
The duke and the dauphin pretend to be gentlemen, but they do not travesty the ideal so much as they establish that the ideal, like the Shakespearean soliloquy mangled by the duke, is twisted beyond recognition when it is “torn from [its] high estate” (in the duke’s words) and transferred from England to America. In their most elaborate con, the duke and king impersonate the long lost brothers of the late Peter Wilks, a man of property who had “houses and land” and “three or four thousand in cash hid up som’ers.” The first thing they do, when they get their hands on the estate, is to sell the slaves for cash, breaking up a family by seeking to convert their new assets into quick cash,
The other true gentleman in the novel, distinguished by his title, is Col. Sherburn. Huck encounters him deep in Arkansas. Sherburn is abused as a swindler and a hound by the town drunk, “the best naturedest old fool in Arkansaw—never hurt nobody, drunk nor sober.” Even so, Sherburn refuses to endure the insult to his honor. A “proud-looking man” and “the best dressed man in that town, too,” Sherburn warns the drunk that he has until one o’clock: “If you open your mouth against me only once after that time,” he says, “you can’t travel so far but I will find you.” The drunk continues his tirade, and Sherburn guns him down (“Bang! goes the first shot, and he staggers back, clawing at the air—bang! goes the second one, and he tumbles backwards on to the ground, heavy and solid, with his arms spread out”). A lynch mob forms and swarms to the shooter’s house. Sherburn steps out to confront the mob with a double-barrel shotgun in his hand. He says:
The idea of virtue derives from the Nicomachean Ethics, but Aristotle’s areté was corrupted when it entered the English language during the Renaissance. Consider, for example, Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608). A truly noble man, Hall says,
All of these qualities can be glimpsed in Sherburn’s account of manliness. For the English, the virtuous man is the truly noble man, the gentleman. For Twain, though, he is the cold-blooded murderer of a harmless old fool or the patriarch of a family that asks its youngest sons to risk getting shot in a feud. The ideal of the gentleman can never be disentangled from a man’s social position, Twain is saying—drunks, illiterate boys, and ne’er-do-wells need not apply (unless they pretend to be gentlemen for the sake of a flim-flam). The gentleman may represent man at his highest level (the most complete and coherent understanding of a human condition, in Letwin’s phrase), but as Twain wrote elsewhere, man is the lowest animal. It is no accident that the noblest creature in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the slave Jim, who is not considered fully human even by his friend Huck.
You don’t have to be, like Twain, a misanthrope to see the basic foreignness of the gentlemanly ideal. Even James was constrained to acknowledge that it belonged to the customs of Europe, which were at sixes and sevens with American customs. In Daisy Miller (published six years before Huck), Winterbourne tries to warn Daisy about flirting with Giovanelli: “[W]hen you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here.” And when he finally meets Giovanelli, he realizes that the Italian is “not a gentleman,” but “only a clever imitation of one.” Winterbourne, however, is a Europeanized American. Daisy, who has arrived from Schenectady only a few months before, is still tightly bound by American customs. Consequently, she is incapable of “knowing the difference between a spurious gentleman and a real one.” She is incapable, because the knowledge is a cultural knowledge that she lacks.
In the end, I am self-divided over the question of the gentleman. On the one hand, the gentlemanly ideal serves as a welcome reminder that moral conduct is rooted in good manners. Every father knows this: the moral instruction of his children starts with teaching them to be polite. Waiting your turn, taking no more than your share, saying “please” and “thank you”—this is the beginning of wisdom, or at least the recognition of the moral autonomy of other people. On the other hand, the more closely moral conduct is identified with good manners the more easily it becomes confused with a particular code of manners. The English gentleman may, as Newman says, “carefully avoid whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling,” but the Jewish intellectual seeks those out. Does it follow, then, that the Jewish intellectual cannot be a gentleman, or does it mean rather that conceiving a clash of opinions as unmannerly is to put the gentlemanly ideal beyond the reach of Jewish intellectuals, rendering their argumentative efforts, and even their success at arguing without gloom or resentment, invisible?
The trouble is that, when the Jew is represented in English literature, he is rarely shown to be a gentleman. And since the gentleman is a composite literary sketch of an agreeable man in a particular setting, since the gentlemanly ideal is what passes for good or noble or excellent in a specific culture at a specific time and in a specific place, the danger is that adherence to the local customs (dressed up as virtues) will be the loudest demand, even if it does violence to the unremarked subtleties of moral conduct.