Anybody can talk
Why I saved it I don't quite know. A few months ago my wife and I had a general pruning of our library, and a lot of its companions went: lavish old volumes with gilt-edged pages, stiff hardbounds printed on thick deckle-edged paper, worn paperbacks with wrinkled spines, and aged how-to-do-it handbooks with earnest, awkward illustrations.
That's the trouble with books: They accumulate. The only thing for it is a great winnowing now and then - a harvest of the shelves, as it were, so that the next crop has room to take root.
But this little book I kept. I'd always meant to read it - not only for its size (no larger and far thinner than a soap bar), or its covers (embossed with floral arabesques and stamped with gilt figurines), but particularly for its subject. The Art of Conversing, proclaims its title page, Written for the Instruction of Youth in the Polite Manners and Language of the Drawing Room, by ''A Society of Gentlemen,'' published in Boston in 1847. So I took it with me on vacation the other day and read it at a cabin in Maine - a rough-hewn building, dimly lit and cozy for conversation, in a part of the world that still has a lot of 1847 about it.
It has seen us through many a deep evening's talk, that cabin - heard us rage on into the night in discussions with friends, listened as we leisurely shared ideas with the family, watched us simply chat. In our conversations, we never thought much about what we were doing or how to do it. We would just start talking and let the tide of words carry us where it would. Yet here was a book telling us, in the magisterial imperatives of an antique prose, how to do it correctly. Or, rather, telling all Beacon Hill and Brahmin Boston how to do it - and providing an astonishing glimpse into the lives and habits, the whims and interests, of an earlier age.
''It may be necessary to observe,'' note the authors with an archness so bold as to be disarming, ''that talking is not conversation.''
Hardly. Anybody, after all, can talk: domestics, porters, shop-tenders, cab-men, door-keepers, and the rest of life's rabble for whom the authors have but a patronizing regard. Real conversation, instead, is ''the grand social bond.'' For ''man is a social being, deriving his greatest happiness from an interchange of thought; and, in proportion as that interchange is conducted with grace and propriety, in the same ratio is the blessing of speech appreciated.''
''Grace and propriety.'' That, throughout, is the topic here, and every effort is made to discover how to attain it. The authors first lay down sundry rules of physical conduct. ''Politeness demands that you look at the face of one who may be addressing you,'' they say, adding that ''the art of listening well is as desirable an accomplishment as that of speaking well.'' Do not make broad gestures: While the right hand may occasionally be used to make a point, the left ''should be retained in an easy, natural position.'' Neither should you touch the one being addressed - a problem of unusual proportions, to judge by the assertion that ''buttoning or unbuttoning one's own coat or that of the person spoken to . . . are awkward and disagreeable movements.'' Nor, say the authors with some vehemence, should ''a person's head be dragged down by the collar of his coat, in order that your mouth may be applied to his ear, as to a speaking-trumpet.'' Conversing in the Athens of America, it seems, was at times an active and strenuous undertaking.
The meat of the book, however, comes as the authors address themselves to the mental qualities of their art. Under the heading of ''Memory,'' they note that ''the man who has no memory is like a lamp without oil,'' adding that ''in society one should always have something to say.'' They insist on modesty, urging you to ''avoid speaking of yourself in any manner.'' They demand that, however boring the conversation, you pay attention - and appear to be doing so. They counsel against asking constant questions. And they provide tips for conversations in the drawing room, in the theater, while traveling, on the street, and at dinner parties - where they implore you to ''sustain your part in the conversation; and, above all things, refrain from sinking into a sort of sullen, apathetic lethargy, like a gorged boa constrictor, casting restraint and frigidity upon all within your influence.'' Dinner parties in the colonies, it would appear, were occasionally heavy going.
But it is in discussing the relations of gentlemen to ladies that the authors most clearly reflect their times. With matter-of-fact blandness they note that ''you cannot, with any degree of grace,'' discuss ''theological matters'' with women. Yet they insist on refinement and respect in conversing with them. Women, after all, have ''a much more delicate perception than men, and attention to the proprieties of conversation with them must be strict and untiring.'' And above all, ''Be careful not to take the lead in conversation with women, except in so far as may be necessary to encourage free communication on their part.'' Why not? ''They are fond of speaking, and usually speak well. If you compel them to listen continually, you will be voted a troublesome fellow, even should you possess a seraph's tongue.'' Unfortunately, the women of 1847 were apparently given largely to gossip: It became the duty of gentlemen to refuse to repeat ''any carping, slanderous remark about others'' heard in their presence. The world, after all, ''affords sufficient material for conversation, without resort to the verbal weapons of the assassin.''
So it does. And so, it had always seemed, the conversations in our cabin had proved - until, reading that little book, I was assailed with doubt. Had we never really conversed? Had we only bantered frivolously, or skipped idly from topic to topic, or dressed our finest thoughts in stumbling half-measures? Had something of great value been lost over the years?
I thought of that as I looked up at the leaves through the window - dark shapes against an imperturbably blue evening sky. Glancing back to the book, my eye fell on one last aphorism. ''There is no conversation more agreeable,'' it read, ''than that of the man of integrity, who hears without any intention to betray, and speaks without any intention to deceive.''
Yes, I thought, I've spoken to such people, men and women both, and at all levels of society. The substance may have changed. The style may have shifted. But the goals, the reasons, the delights of conversation - they are as untouched as that sky. There's still plenty of 1847 around.