Story type: Essay
In times past there have been expressed desire and fear that there should be an American aristocracy, and the materials for its formation have been a good deal canvassed. In a political point of view it is of course impossible, but it has been hoped by many, and feared by more, that a social state might be created conforming somewhat to the social order in European countries. The problem has been exceedingly difficult. An aristocracy of derived rank and inherited privilege being out of the question, and an aristocracy of talent never having succeeded anywhere, because enlightenment of mind tends to liberalism and democracy, there was only left the experiment of an aristocracy of wealth. This does very well for a time, but it tends always to disintegration, and it is impossible to keep it exclusive. It was found, to use the slang of the dry-goods shops, that it would not wash, for there were liable to crowd into it at any moment those who had in fact washed for a living. An aristocracy has a slim tenure that cannot protect itself from this sort of intrusion. We have to contrive, therefore, another basis for a class (to use an un-American expression), in a sort of culture or training, which can be perpetual, and which cannot be ordered for money, like a ball costume or a livery.
Perhaps the “American Girl” may be the agency to bring this about. This charming product of the Western world has come into great prominence of late years in literature and in foreign life, and has attained a notoriety flattering or otherwise to the national pride. No institution has been better known or more marked on the Continent and in England, not excepting the tramway and the Pullman cars. Her enterprise, her daring, her freedom from conventionality, have been the theme of the novelists and the horror of the dowagers having marriageable daughters. Considered as “stock,” the American Girl has been quoted high, and the alliances that she has formed with families impecunious but noble have given her eclat as belonging to a new and conquering race in the world. But the American Girl has not simply a slender figure and a fine eye and a ready tongue, she is not simply an engaging and companionable person, she has excellent common-sense, tact, and adaptability. She has at length seen in her varied European experience that it is more profitable to have social good form according to local standards than a reputation for dash and brilliancy. Consequently the American Girl of a decade ago has effaced herself. She is no longer the dazzling courageous figure. In England, in France, in Germany, in Italy, she takes, as one may say, the color of the land. She has retired behind her mother. She who formerly marched in the van of the family procession, leading them–including the panting mother–a whimsical dance, is now the timid and retiring girl, needing the protection of a chaperon on every occasion. The satirist will find no more abroad the American Girl of the old type whom he continues to describe. The knowing and fascinating creature has changed her tactics altogether. And the change has reacted on American society. The mother has come once more to the front, and even if she is obliged to own to forty-five years to the census-taker, she has again the position and the privileges of the blooming woman of thirty. Her daughters walk meekly and with downcast (if still expectant) eyes, and wait for a sign.
That this change is the deliberate work of the American Girl, no one who knows her grace and talent will deny. In foreign travel and residence she has been quick to learn her lesson. Dazzled at first by her own capacity and the opportunities of the foreign field, she took the situation by storm. But she found too often that she had a barren conquest, and that the social traditions survived her success and became a lifelong annoyance; that is to say, it was possible to subdue foreign men, but the foreign women were impregnable in their social order. The American Girl abroad is now, therefore, with rare exceptions, as carefully chaperoned and secluded as her foreign sisters.
It is not necessary to lay too much stress upon this phase of American life abroad, but the careful observer must notice its reflex action at home. The American freedom and unconventionality in the intercourse of the young of both sexes, which has been so much commented on as characteristic of American life, may not disappear, but that small section which calls itself “society” may attain a sort of aristocratic distinction by the adoption of this foreign conventionality. It is sufficient now to note this tendency, and to claim the credit of it for the wise and intelligent American Girl. It would be a pity if it were to become nationally universal, for then it would not be the aristocratic distinction of a few, and the American woman who longs for some sort of caste would be driven to some other device.
It is impossible to tell yet what form this feminine reserve and retirement will take. It is not at all likely to go so far as the Oriental seclusion of women. The American Girl would never even seemingly give up her right of initiative. If she is to stay in the background and pretend to surrender her choice to her parents, and with it all the delights of a matrimonial campaign, she will still maintain a position of observation. If she seems to be influenced at present by the French and Italian examples, we may be sure that she is too intelligent and too fond of freedom to long tolerate any system of chaperonage that she cannot control. She will find a way to modify the traditional conventionalities so as not to fetter her own free spirit. It may be her mission to show the world a social order free from the forward independence and smartness of which she has been accused, and yet relieved of the dull stiffness of the older forms. It is enough now to notice that a change is going on, due to the effect of foreign society upon American women, and to express the patriotic belief that whatever forms of etiquette she may bow to, the American Girl will still be on earth the last and best gift of God to man.