Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

The Vanishing Southern Gentleman

Here’s an article from “The Independent” Volume 86, published in 1916. The article was written by Louise Collier Willcox of Norfolk, Virginia. It gives an insightful look at what a gentleman was in the early 1900’s, and also reveals what type of men had become the norm and taken hold post reconstruction. It is an insightful document into what characteristics were considered to make an ordinary man into a gentleman. Students of the Southern Gentleman may find this piece very useful. The article and publication have outlived their copyright, and I am posting the entire article in this post.

(The article below may contain spelling or grammatical errors, it is reproduced in its original format)
The Vanishing Gentleman

BY LOUISE COLLIER WILLCOX

AUTHOR OF “THE HUMAN WAY,” “THE ROAD TO JOY”

HE passed very quietly and quickly. One might almost assert that it was accomplished in one generation. The fathers still held a tradition of which the sons were unaware. There was no pomp and circumstance about the end; there was very little lamentation.

Mrs. Comer proclaimed loudly and eagerly the vanishing lady. She raised a pean of praise to the housed, headachy, hampered mid-Victorian type and she saw no good in the candid, athletic, open air, open minded creature who replaced her. But has anyone spoken of the vanishing gentleman? It is said that the bustle and hurry of modern life is the cause of his passing and one must admit that it is in the mart, in the centers of commercialism that one meets his successor. I have conversed with him in his office with his hat on and a cigar in his mouth. I have met him and lunched with him, when he was a representative in Congress, and winked across the table at a confrere when anything amused him. He is short and incisive of speech and definitely prefers bad grammar. In certain localities and grievous to state, from one university, he is capable of sitting in the presence of ladies, with his feet higher than his head. Yes, he even spits! He is the apotheosis of the lowbrow in manners. His speech is wrecked on a false ideal of freedom and ease; his traditions are huddled up under aggression and haste; his manners are sacrificed to a false democracy.

Since the days of Confucius, men have been outlining and defining the gentleman. We have been told that it takes three generations at least to make one. But I have seen two generations of perfect gentlemen produce the up-to-date hoodlum.

There are varying theories as to where a gentleman begins. It used to be the theory that if the heart was right, the manners followed. If I read William James aright, he says that we begin to cry and then are sorry and I know the New-thought prophets say that if you will but persistently smile, you will become happy; ergo, perhaps if you make the manners, the heart will grow right.

There are certain schools, one, at least, in this country and two in England who still lay stress upon all their graduates being gentlemen. Winchester has carven all over it “Manners maketh man.” And of a certain school, in our land, it is said that you can always recognize a representative by the way he apologizes for a mistake or an inadvertency.

Some one asked a Southern gentleman to define the difference between a Northern and a Southern gentleman, “Well,” he said, “the difference is this, one is born in the North and in a different environment, with different traditions, but whatever his thinking and his trappings, the gentleman part of him is just the same as the Southerner’s.” For after all being a gentleman is having a trained heart, just as being a scholar is having a trained mind. There is a hero of fiction whose life maxim was tristem neminem fecit. This type of gentleman may be found in every walk of life. He may load coal or collect pictures for a profession and live in an attic or a palace, but he is trained not to sadden or insult his fellow-sojourner. He may be a college professor or a butler, but at heart he is courtly and selfrestrained. He may be a gentleman because he owes it to other people, or because he feels that he owes it to himself, but he has learned somehow to “go softly.” He is thoughtful because thoughtlessness may do injuries; he is gentle because he knows that he is not alone in the world and that each person in it has a claim to consideration. He has been trained to believe that the world must be kept lovely as well as vigorous. Lafcadio Hearn speaks somewhere of someone who “never did anything which is not—I will not say right, that is commonplace—but beautiful.” This then is the aim of manners, to make life beautiful.

When one unexpectedly runs across a gentleman in an unexpected spot, it comes over one with a rush of pleasure, that a gentleman was after all nearly as wonderful a thing as a lady. Life is more fluid, more colored, freer in his presence. He is not listening for an inadvertence; he is taking his hearer on trust and for granted and he sets him at ease. He wants no advantage and he refrains from bullying or browbeating.

Oddly enough, this definition of a gentleman is some two thousand years old.

“A gentleman has nine aims: to see clearly; to understand what he hears; to be gentle in manner; dignified in bearing; faithful in speech; painstaking at work; to ask when in doubt; in anger to remember difficulties ; in sight of gain to remember right. His modesty escapes insult; his truth gains trust; his earnestness brings success; his kindness is a key to open men’s hearts.”

Tho the species is vanishing, there are still gentlemen in the world, and if the ideal were held aloft and waved there would still be many who would enroll themselves in the order of those who believe in the value of fine manners.

Paul Elmer More has recently made an eloquent plea that there should be a conscious solidarity at the core of the aristocratical class; that class which is capable of finer discriminations into grades of taste and character than exist in untutored nature. Tho he speaks for scholarship and moral and political standards, the result would include the manners also of the Vanishing Gentleman.

Norfolk, Virginia

2 Comments

  1. Dennis L. Peterson

    If Louise Collier Willcox could see today’s typical male, she’d conclude that the Southern gentleman was not only vanishing but also nearing extinction! Families and schools no longer teach gentlemanliness or manners of any sort. We’re so focused on self and what makes us feel good or comfortable that we rarely see a gentleman among the wild ones. Whenever we do, he stands out because he is such a stark contrast to the norm. Thankfully, my parents taught us boys to be gentlemen, and those characteristics generally have become second nature to us, not something consciously done for the effect it might have or to present a front but because it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest compliment I think I’ve ever been given (and it came as a total surprise, not something I was seeking) was when a female colleague described me as “the perfect Southern gentleman.” Would to God that our current generation of young males would grow up and begin to learn the finer things of life!

  2. Greta

    When women no longer expect this behavior (and, in some cases, even deride men for being polite), we can’t discount the role both sexes have had in the degradation of manners.

    Fortunately, I married a gentleman and he’s as gracious behind closed doors as he is in public. He’d never recognize this about himself, of course, but I’m grateful every day.

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