Charles Chesnutt believes that all people should be educated, however his ideas of what one must be educated on extends much further then book learning. Chesnutt believes that all people are able to attain a personal system of courteous and acceptable interaction between others and themselves through basic rules of etiquette, advice, and proper hygiene. In his essay titled AEtiquette (Good Manners)@ one can get a closer look at exactly how Chesnutt believes that people may acquire the proper habits and ways of daily life. AWe ought to try to learn, either by reading or such observations as we can have those simple forms and customs, which are common to well-bred people throughout the civilized world. It is only by knowing and observing them that we can feel at ease in society, or properly enjoy the intercourse of people of refinement.@ (Etiquette p. 2) In these few lines one gets a sense that Chesnutt has decided that everyone must learn from the ground up, and that imitation is the best way to interact properly. Chesnutt seems to believe that etiquette will bring some semblance of equality. He feels that through imitation of higher social classes black people, who have not had that kind of social upbringing, will become more like the white population in status.
"It is a good policy to be well behaved. You know the old proverb; 'Manners will carry you where money will not.' The power of money is very great; but however much wealth you may have, there are others as rich as you, and all your money will not bring you into their society unless you can render yourself agreeable to them." (Etiquette Good Manners p.2) This beautifully illustrates one of the major points that Chesnutt is making in his essays on etiquette and daily life; you have to present yourself as equally refined to be considered so. It send the message that money will get you only so far in life and then the rest will be determined by how you behave and present yourself.
Chesnutt has advice and formulas for all manners of daily life it seems to flow into everything, running the gamut of bathing and eating and extending into the ways of marriage. Namely who to marry and why. Some people may think that Chesnutt is being humorous here but not much is seen of humor in his other essays so one may easily take this at face value. However, if one were to view it as satirical, then one possible explanation is that Chesnutt is trying to show a stereotypical view of black men. AEvery man ought to get married. It is a duty, which he owes to himself and to humanity. A married man is a happier man and a very much better citizen than the lonely and selfish bachelor who has nobody to care for, and nobody to care for him.@ (Advice to Young Men p.1) In his essay advice to young men Chesnutt has six basic rules. Chesnutt says that men should marry young and often. Telling one that he believes marrying a younger woman will enable the new husband to mold his impressionable new bride to suit himself. Chesnutt also seems to believe in the practice of taking more then one wife. He explains this by saying AThere may be difficulties in the practical application of this rule at the present day, but by a frequent change of name and residence, and an occasional resort to the divorce courts, an energetic person can accomplish a good deal.@ It is of particular interest to question how many times Chesnutt has done this. Chesnutt is also of the opinion that it is best to marry an orphan so you do not have to deal with her family. While many men today might disagree with this, one might wonder at the cruelty of Chesnutt if you look at all of the rules in conjunction with one another. If you were to take a young and orphaned wife and then leave her so that you could marry another what does that say about the character of you? One may wonder how Chesnutt came up with this when he basis his rules of etiquette on the principal that to be a well-mannered person you need to be a good Christian gentleman. Christian gentlemen do not take more then one wife at a time, nor do they allow the practice of divorce.
The theological strain of Chesnutt=s thinking and advice is also continued into his list AThings to Be Thankful For@ which he copied from and essay published in the Social Circle Journal. The list basically says that things can always be worse and one should be grateful that they are not. A You can scarcely get into a condition where you cannot conceive of something worse, and by looking at the bright side of things, you will always find something to be thankful for.@ (Things to Be Thankful For p55) The list is very sermon like in that it tells one to look on the bright side and that there is hope. The idea of religion is also prevalent in his essay AEtiquitte (Good Manners)@ references are made to Jesus, St. Paul, God and the idea of a Christian teacher in general. Chesnutt also brings up the religious ideal of good and evil. He says that there is evil that some laws cannot protect against. Some of his shorter lessons bring to mind the saying that cleanliness is next to godliness. Chesnutt has taken some excerpts from another book called A Handbook for Home Improvement, here one is given instructions on how to perform their daily bathing, washing of the feet, changing of linen, fingernail maitnence and spitting habits. Chesnutt endorses to his readers' precise specifications on how these absolutions should be preformed. These were a complete set of instructions on personal hygiene and how often these methods should be utilized.
Chesnutt has decided to use etiquette as a way to help gain equality. During this time period there were many people using etiquette books, and they would be read not only by the middle class but by the wealthy as well. Not only was there a hierarchy between the classes and color lines, but between the levels of gentility as well. Social decorum was a major part of the wealthy lifestyle. Etiquette was drummed into you from childhood. This was a way of life and the white people were able to use the ignorance of the black people, in terms of hygiene and social decorum, to say that they were inferior. Chesnutt was allowing the black people, who had never had opportunity to be a part of that type of upbringing, a method of achieving that same level of gentility. Following etiquette was a way to show white people that they were not just backward crude people.
Letters are quoted from: Joseph McElrath, ed. To be an author: The letters
of Charles Chesnutt, 1889-1905. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
Essays are quoted from: Joseph McElrath, ed. Charles Chesnutt: Essays
and Speeches. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Journal entries are quoted from: Richard H. Brodhead. The Journals of
Charles W. Chesnutt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
This page is the work of Teresa Sweeney.
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