from a series of sketches by J. W. De Forest: "Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons."
There certainly is more suavity of manner at the South than at the North. It is delightful to see two high-toned gentlemen of the old Virginian or Carolinian school greet each other. Such gracious bows and insinuating tones! Such mellifluous compliments, particular inquiries concerning health and welfare, animating congratulations as to future prospects! Such sunny and, one might almost say, equatorial blandness! You feel as if you were in Paradise, hearing Dante address Beatrice as “gracious lady.” The moral thermometer rises to summer heat; your humanities expand and bloom under the influence; you are a kindlier and, I think, a better man for the sight. It is a pity that we have not been better educated in such gentilities, and that we have not the requisite time for the exercise of them. If there were twenty-eight hours in a day the Northerner might possibly become thus urbane; as it is, he has barely opportunity to fill his pocket with the necessary greenbacks and his head with the necessary information to get on in the world; he is too much hurried by practicalities to make his manners. At the South there has hitherto been a leisurely caste which set the example to all the others.
But the high-toned gentleman, full of provincial prejudices, is not always civil to outside barbarians. He was not civil to our Congressmen in the old days when he governed them; he cracked the plantation whip over them as he did over his negroes, and for the same reasons: they were not of his caste, they were his natural subordinates, and they were sometimes fractious.
Returning to my own experience with this grand personage, I must state that I have not always obtained sweetness from him. It must be remembered that to my native infamy as a Yankee I added the turpitude of being a United States military officer, and the misdemeanor of being a Sub-Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In the exercise of these atrocious characteristics it was once my duty to settle a dispute as to the division of a crop between an elderly negro and a South Carolinian of historic name and French descent. The planter’s accounts were admirably kept; the right was on his side, and I decided in his favor. Throughout the interview I treated him with all possible courtesy for the sake of the worth of his revolutionary ancestor; but, alas! I committed the error of pronouncing his patronymic after the English manner instead of the French. When his Huguenot patience was exhausted he corrected me: “Sir, my name is ______," giving it the Gallic accent.
“I beg pardon,” I replied. “We at the North habitually anglicize foreign names. My name is French by origin, but we use the English pronunciation.”
He picked up the certificate of settlement on which I had just indorsed my official approval, glanced at my signature, and said, with a half-concealed sneer, “Oh, I see that you put a De to it!”
Conceive my humiliation, thus charged with stealing a French particle!
A few days later I had occasion to approve a labor contract for a lady of another family, but likewise of Huguenot race. Her name I also anglicized, not in ignorance of the Gallic form, and not with the purpose of giving offense, hut solely because of Northern custom. Again I was corrected: “Sir, my name is _______."
Struck with the repetition of incident, I made the same reply as to the gentleman: “I beg pardon; we at the North habitually anglicize foreign names; my own, etc., etc.”
The lady picked up the now finished contract, glanced at the indorsement, and said, “Oh, I see—De Forest. I knew a Mr. De Forest once; that is, he did some work for me. He was a shoemaker.”
Conceive my second humiliation, thus crushed under this degraded De Forest, who was a shoemaker!
But before the war, before the days of rage and ruin, the high-toned was not thus peevish; he was, notwithstanding some superciliousness and imperiousness, our courtliest social figure.
I shall never forget the grace and kindness of a man who must yet he remembered in Charleston as one of its most finished social ornaments. I was at a supper of the Literary Club; we were standing or sitting around a table which would have pleased Brillat-Savarin; all the others were well-known citizens, reverend and respectable; I was the youngest and the only stranger. I had dropped out of the conversation and withdrawn a little aside, when Colonel John Alston observed me and divined my stranded situation. He did not know me; it was the first time that we had ever met; but he instantly came toward me and begged leave to wait on me. It was not the deed so much as the manner which was so exquisitely ingratiating. There was an empressement in his expression which seemed to sat: “Sir, your mere appearance fills me with respect and interest; you are obviously worthy of my attentions.” I have sometimes thought that it would be a fine thing to be a handsome young lady; and I felt at that moment as if I were one. Well, this hospitable act toward a perfect stranger, this courteous advance toward a wall-flower, was characteristic of the man, and, in general, of his caste.
De Forest, J.W., “Chivalrous and Semi-Chivalrous Southrons” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 38, Issue 224, January 1869; New York: Harper & Bros.
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