Emily Post’s Rhetorical Garden: A Field of Claims, Evidence, and Warrants

It’s too bad Emily Post was not a literary critic, for she was a whiz at rhetoric.

This is as close as she comes to lit-crit, but who can disagree? “There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the ‘best sellers’ have no literary merit whatsoever” (chap. 8, para. 7).

Unfortunately, she does not give away the titles in her library, but her assumptions can be deadly: “It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature” (chap. 8, para 1).

If you are looking for an exercise to practice identifying claims, evidence, and warrants (and who is not?), take a look at Emily Post’s original Etiquette (1922). Get ready to frolic in a field of assumptions.

“Every house has an outward appearance to be made as presentable as possible, an interior continually to be set in order, and incessantly to be cleaned. And for those that dwell within it there are meals to be prepared and served; linen to be laundered and mended; personal garments to be brushed and pressed; and perhaps children to be cared for. There is also a door-bell to be answered in which manners as well as appearance come into play” (chap. 12, para. 1). And don’t we know it?

“But the ‘mansion’ of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation’” (chap 12, para 4). We’ve a rule in our place that offending mustaches must be swept clean by eleven every morning (save Saturday).

“Who does not dislike a ‘boneless’ hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?” (chap. 3, para. 14).

It becomes increasingly clear why Emily Post did not go into literary criticism. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, study etiquette, or rhetoric, or grammar, or some such thing.” And Emily’s Etiquette is a work of fiction, and she is a stunning, literary star. Had she placed her cartoonish characters into any kind of plot, she could have been as good as P. G. Wodehouse.

Leave a Note.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s