Story type: Essay
Foreign critics have apologized for real or imagined social and literary shortcomings in this country on the ground that the American people have little leisure. It is supposed that when we have a leisure class we shall not only make a better showing in these respects, but we shall be as agreeable–having time to devote to the art of being agreeable–as the English are. But we already have a considerable and increasing number of people who can command their own time if we have not a leisure class, and the sociologist might begin to study the effect of this leisureliness upon society. Are the people who, by reason of a competence or other accidents of good-fortune, have most leisure, becoming more agreeable? and are they devoting themselves to the elevation of the social tone, or to the improvement of our literature? However this question is answered, a strong appeal might be made to the people of leisure to do not only what is expected of them by foreign observers, but to take advantage of their immense opportunities. In a republic there is no room for a leisure class that is not useful. Those who use their time merely to kill it, in imitation of those born to idleness and to no necessity of making an exertion, may be ornamental, but having no root in any established privilege to sustain them, they will soon wither away in this atmosphere, as a flower would which should set up to be an orchid when it does not belong to the orchid family. It is required here that those who are emancipated from the daily grind should vindicate their right to their position not only by setting an example of self-culture, but by contributing something to the general welfare. It is thought by many that if society here were established and settled as it is elsewhere, the rich would be less dominated by their money and less conscious of it, and having leisure, could devote themselves even more than they do now to intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
Whether these anticipations will ever be realized, and whether increased leisure will make us all happy, is a subject of importance; but it is secondary, and in a manner incidental, to another and deeper matter, which may be defined as the responsibility of attractiveness. And this responsibility takes two forms the duty of every one to be attractive, and the danger of being too attractive. To be winning and agreeable is sometimes reckoned a gift, but it is a disposition that can be cultivated; and, in a world so given to grippe and misapprehension as this is, personal attractiveness becomes a duty, if it is not an art, that might be taught in the public schools. It used to be charged against New Englanders that they regarded this gift as of little value, and were inclined to hide it under a bushel, and it was said of some of their neighbors in the Union that they exaggerated its importance, and neglected the weightier things of the law. Indeed, disputes have arisen as to what attractiveness consisted in–some holding that beauty or charm of manner (which is almost as good) and sweetness and gayety were sufficient, while others held that a little intelligence sprinkled in was essential. But one thing is clear, that while women were held to strict responsibility in this matter, not stress enough was laid upon the equal duty of men to be attractive in order to make the world agreeable. Hence it is, probably, that while no question has been raised as to the effect of the higher education upon the attractiveness of men, the colleges for girls have been jealously watched as to the effect they were likely to have upon the attractiveness of women. Whether the college years of a young man, during which he knows more than he will ever know again, are his most attractive period is not considered, for he is expected to develop what is in him later on; but it is gravely questioned whether girls who give their minds to the highest studies are not dropping those graces of personal attractiveness which they will find it difficult to pick up again. Of course such a question as this could never arise except in just such a world as this is. For in an ideal world it could be shown that the highest intelligence and the highest personal charm are twins. If, therefore, it should turn out, which seems absurd, that college-educated girls are not as attractive as other women with less advantages, it will have to be admitted that something is the matter with the young ladies, which is preposterous, or that the system is still defective. For the postulate that everybody ought to be attractive cannot be abandoned for the sake of any system. Decision on this system cannot be reached without long experience, for it is always to be remembered that the man’s point of view of attractiveness may shift, and he may come to regard the intellectual graces as supremely attractive; while, on the other hand, the woman student may find that a winning smile is just as effective in bringing a man to her feet, where he belongs, as a logarithm.
The danger of being too attractive, though it has historic illustration, is thought by many to be more apparent than real. Merely being too attractive has often been confounded with a love of flirtation and conquest, unbecoming always in a man, and excused in a woman on the ground of her helplessness. It could easily be shown that to use personal attractiveness recklessly to the extent of hopeless beguilement is cruel, and it may be admitted that woman ought to be held to strict responsibility for her attractiveness. The lines are indeed hard for her. The duty is upon her in this poor world of being as attractive as she can, and yet she is held responsible for all the mischief her attractiveness produces. As if the blazing sun should be called to account by people with weak eyes.