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Paris, as the land of the _mot_ and the epigram, has always had a great attraction for literary people. Carlyle said of England that it was composed of sixty millions of people, mostly fools. His own experience as a favoured guest at Lady Ashburton's, and other great houses, ought to have modified his decision. In America, the Carlyles would have been called "queer," and probably left out. In England, it is a recommendation to be "queer," original, thoughtful. In that bubble which rises to the top, to which Mr. McAllister has given the name "the four hundred," it is not a recommendation to be queer, original, or thoughtful.
That some men and women of genius have commanded success in society only proves the rule; that some people of fashion have become writers, and painters, and poets, and have still kept their foothold, is only the exception.
Charles Astor Bristed, born to fortune and fashion, declared that what he gained in prestige in England by becoming an author, he lost in America. What woman of fashion goes out of her way to find the man of letters who writes the striking editorials in a morning paper in New York? In London, a dozen coroneted notes await such a lucky fellow.
Perhaps the most curious instance of the awkward handling of that rare and valuable instrument, which we call the art of entertaining in America, is the deliberate ignoring of the best element of a dinner party,--the hitherto unknown, or the well-known man of brains. This distinguishes our entertaining from that of foreigners.
The best society we have in America is that at Washington; the President's house is the palace. He and his ministers, and the judges of the Supreme Court, the officers of the army and navy, are our aristocracy,--a simple, unpretending one, but as real in its social laws and organization as any in the world. And there intellect reigns.
The dinners at Washington, having a kind of precedence, reinforced by intelligence, independent of wealth, and regardless of the arbitrary rules of a self-elected leadership, are the most agreeable in this country, if not in the world. We have said there are many sorts of Paris, and so there are many sorts of America. It must not be supposed that clever people do not get together, and that there are not dinners of the brightest and the best. Outside the "four hundred" there is a group of fifty thousand or more, who have travelled, thought, and read, experienced, and learned how to give a good dinner,--a witty dinner.
I use the term "four hundred" as a convenient alias for that for which Americans have no other name; that is, the particular reigning set in every city, every small village. In Paris, republic as it is, there is still a very decided aristocracy. There is the d.u.c.h.esse Rochefaucauld Bisaccia, and the eccentric d.u.c.h.esse d'Uzes, and so on, who are decidedly the four hundred. There are the very wealthy Jews, like the Rothschilds, who are much to be commended for their recognition of the supremacy of art and letters. They have become the protectors of these cla.s.ses commercially, and their intelligent wives have made their _salons_ delightful, by bringing in men of culture and talent. On Sundays the Comtesse Potocka, who wears the best pearls in Paris, tries to revive the traditions of the Hotel Rambouillet, in her beautiful hotel in the Avenue Friedland. Her guests are De Maupa.s.sant, Ratisbonne, Coquelin, the painter Berand, and other men of wit. The Baroness de Poilly has a tendency to refine Bohemianism and is an indefatigable pleasure seeker. The only people she will not receive are the financiers and the heavy-witted. The Comtesse de Beaumont says that the key to her house is "wit and intellect without regard to party, caste, or school." Carolus Duran, Alphonse Daudet, the painters, whoever is at the head of music, literature, or the dramatic art, is welcomed there.
The princes of the House of Orleans, are most prominent in their attentions to people of talent. The Princesse Mathilde has a house in the Rue de Berri full of exquisite pictures by the old masters, and a few of the modern school. Her _salon_ is a model of comfort and refined elegance, and at her Sunday receptions, where one meets the world, are men distinguished in diplomacy, art, and letters.
But what simple dinners, as to meat and drink, do any of these great people give, compared to the dinners which are given constantly in New York,--dinners which are banquets, but to which the young _litterateur_ or painter would not be invited! That is to say, in London and in Paris the fashionable woman who would make her party more fashionable, courts the literary and artistic guild; as a guild, the fashionable woman in America does not court them.
It may be said that this is an unfair presentation of the case, because in London there may be patronage on one side, while in America there is perfect equality, and the literary man is a greater aristocrat than the fashionable woman who gives the party. This is in one sense true, for the professions have all the honour here. The journalists are often the men who give the party. The witty lawyer is the most honoured guest everywhere; so are certain _litterateurs_.
People who have become rich suddenly, who wish to be leaders, to have gay, young, well-dressed guests at their dinners, do not desire the company of any but their own kind. Yet they try to emulate the dinners of London, and are surprised when some English critic finds their entertainments dull, flat, and unprofitable, overloaded and vulgar.
The same young, gay, rich dancing set in London would have asked Robert Browning to the dinner, merely as a matter of fashion. And it is this fashion which is commendable. It improves society.
The social recognition of the dramatic profession is not here what it is in England or France. There is no Lady Burdett Coutts to take Mr.
Irving off on her yacht. No actor here has the social position which Mr. Irving has in London. Who ever heard of society running after Mr.
John Gilbert, one of the most respectable men of his profession, as well as a consummate actor?
In London, d.u.c.h.esses and countesses run after Mr. Toole; he is a darling of society. Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft have done much to help their profession and themselves by taking the initiative, and giving delightful little evenings. But it is vastly more common, to see many of the leading actors and actresses in society in London than in New York. Indeed, it is the custom abroad to ask, "what has he done, what can he do?" rather than, "how much is he worth?" The actor is valued for what he is doing. Perhaps our system of equality is somewhat to blame for this, and the woman of fashion may wait for the dramatic artist to take the initiative and call on her. But we know that any one who should urge this would be talking nonsense. In our system of entertaining in a gay city, it is the richest who reigns, and although there are some people who can still boast a grandfather, it is the new-comer who is the arbiter of fashion. Such a person could, in London or Paris or Rome, merely as a fashionable fad, invite the artist or the writer to make her party complete. In America she would not do it, unless the man of genius were a lion, a foreigner, a novelty. Then she would do so, and perhaps run after him too much.
And now, as we have been treating of a very small, unimportant, and to the great American world, unknown quant.i.ty, the reigning set in any city, let us look at the matter from within. Have we individually considered the merits of the festive plenty which crowns our table, relatively to the selection of the company which is gathered around it?
Have we in any of our cities those _dejeuners d'esprit_, as in Paris, where certain witty women invite other witty women to come and talk of the last new novel? Have we counted on that possible Utopia where men and women meet and talk, to contribute of their best thought to the entertaining? Have we many houses to which we are asked to a banquet of wit? Are there many opulent people who can say, The key to my house is wit and intellect, and character, without regard to party, caste or school? If such a house can be found, its owner has, all other things being equal, conquered the art of entertaining.
Now, all people of talent are not personages of society. To be that, one must have good manners, know how to dress one's self and respect the usages of society. We should not like to meet Dr. Johnson at a ball, but it is very rare to find people nowadays, however learned, however retired, however gifted, who have discarded as he did, the decencies of deportment. The far greater evil of depriving society of its backbone should be balanced against this lesser danger.
There are literary and artistic and academic _salons_ in Paris, which are the most interesting places to the foreigner, which might be copied in every university town of America, to the infinite advantage of society. A fashionable young woman of Paris never misses these, or the lectures, or her Thursday at the Comedie Francaise where she hears the cla.s.sic plays of Moliere and even Shakspeare. It makes her a very agreeable talker, although her culture may not be very deep. She is not a bit less particular as to the number of b.u.t.tons on her gloves, or the becomingness of her dress, because she has given a few hours to her mental development. In America, we have thoughtful women, gifted women, brilliant women, but we rarely have the combination which we see in France, of all this with fashion.
When this young and fashionable hostess gives a dinner, or an evening, she invites Coquelin and some of his witty compeers, and she talks over Moliere with the men who understand him best.
It is possible that French _litterateurs_ care more for society than their American brothers. They go into it more, and at splendid dinners in Paris I remember the writers for the "Figaro," as most desirable guests. The presence of members of the French Academy, for instance, is much courted, and as feminine influence plays a considerable _role_ in the Academy elections, it is advisable for playwrights, novelists, and aspiring writers generally to cultivate influential relations with a view to the future. However this may be, literature and art are more highly honoured socially in Paris than in America, and men of letters lead a very joyous existence, dining and being dined, and making a dinner delightfully brilliant.
The artists of Paris have become such magnates, living in sumptuous houses and giving splendid fetes, that it is hardly possible to speak of their being left out; they are mostly agreeable men,--Carolus Duran and Bonnat especially. But painters, especially portrait painters, are always favourites in all fashionable society.
The French women talk much about being in the "movement" which to the American ear may be translated the "swim." They follow every picture exhibition, can quote from the "Figaro" what is going on, they criticise the last play, the last new novel, they do much hard work, but they seek out and honour the man of brains, known or unknown, who has made a fine play or novel.
Every woman in America may take a lesson in entertaining from the old world, and strive to combine this respect for both conditions, the luxury which feeds, and the brain which illuminates. A house should be at once a pleasure and a force,--a force to sustain the struggling, as well as a pleasure to the prosperous.
A merely sumptuous buffet, a check sent to Delmonico for a "heavy feed" does not master that great art, which has illuminated the n.o.blest chapters in the history of our race, and led to the most complete improvement in the continuous development of mankind. Without each other we become savages, with the conquering of the art of entertaining we reach the highest triumphs of civilization.
It is a progressive art, while those that we have worshipped stand still. No architect of our day, even when revealing the inner conceit which cynics say possesses all minds, would hope to surpa.s.s the builders of the Parthenon, no carver of marble hopes to reach Phidias, no painter dares to measure his brush with Raphael, t.i.tian, or Velasquez. "In Asia art has been declining for ages; the Moor of Fez would hardly recognize what his race did in Granada; the Indian Mussulman gazes at the Pearl Mosque as if the genii had built it; the Persians buy their own old carpets; and the j.a.panese confess, with a sigh, that their own old ceramic work cannot be equalled now." In all art there is "despair of advance," except in the art of entertaining.
That is always new and always progressive; there is no end to the originality which may be brought to bear upon it. This rule should be constantly enforced. A hostess must take pains and trouble to give her house a colour, an originality, and a type of its own. She must put brains into her entertaining.
We have begun this little book, somewhat b.u.mptiously perhaps, with an account of our physical resources. Let us pursue the same strain as to our mental wealth. We have not only witty after-dinner speakers--in that, let no country hope to rival us--amongst our lawyers, journalists, and literary men, but we have our clergy. It would be difficult to find any hamlet in the United States where there is not one agreeable clergyman, more often three or four.
The best addition to a company is an accomplished divine, who knows that his mission is for two worlds. He need not be any the less the amba.s.sador to the next, of which we know so little, because he is a pleasant resident and improver of this world, of which many of us feel that we know quite enough. The position of a popular clergyman is a peculiar and a dangerous one, for he is expected to be merry with one, and sad with another, at all hours of the day. Next to the doctor, we confide in him, and the call on his sympathies might well make a man doubtful whether any of his emotions are his own.
But the scholarship, the communing with high ideas, the relationship to his flock, all tend to the formation of that type of man which we call the agreeable, and America is extremely rich in this eminent aid to the art of entertaining. As a Roman Catholic bishop once observed, "As a part of my duty, I must make myself agreeable in society;" and so must every clergyman.
And to say truth, we have few examples of a disagreeable clergyman.
While his cloth surrounds him with reverence and respect, his fertile brain, ready wit, and cheerful co-operation in the pleasure of the moment, will be like a finer education and a purifying atmosphere.
From the days of Chrysostom to Sydney Smith the clergy should be known as the golden-mouthed. The American mind, brilliant, rapid, and clear, the American speech, voluble, ready, and replete, the talent for repartee, rapier-like with so many of our orators, and the quick wit which seems to be born of our oxygen, all this, added to the remarkable beauty and tact of our women, of which all the world is talking, and which the young aristocrats of the old world seem to be quite willing to appropriate, makes splendid provision for a dinner, a reception, an afternoon tea, or a ball.
We sometimes hear complaints of the insufficiency of society, and that our best men will not go into it. If there is such an insufficiency, it is because we have too much sufficiency, we are struggling with the overplus, often as great an embarra.s.sment as the too little. It is somebody's fault if we have not learned to play on this "harp of a thousand strings."
We need not heed the criticism of the world, sn.o.bbishly; we are a great nation, and can afford to make our own laws. But we should ask of ourselves the question, whether or not we are too lavish, too fond of display, too much given to overfeeding, too fond of dress, too much concerned with the outside of things; we should take the best ideas of all nations in regard to the progressive art, the art of entertaining.