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BOOK REVIEW

Civilized living with 'Emily Post'

Emily Post Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners; Laura Claridge; Random House: 528 pp., $30

October 14, 2008|Liz Brown | Special to The Times

As WITH her last book, a biography of Norman Rockwell, Laura Claridge has revisited an American icon, upending or at least questioning cliche, which, in the case of Emily Post, is that of a fussy, obsessive woman preoccupied with which fork one should use. This, as Claridge points out, was a misinterpretation that exasperated the writer, who held that the point of etiquette was not to burden people with rules but to make them comfortable.

Claridge begins with the most uncomfortable experience of Post's life, the extremely public unraveling of her marriage to the handsome, reckless Edwin Post, a stockbroker, who had promptly lost interest in the wealthy young woman after she became his wife. The anticipation of the 1905 scandal, which involved a scorned chorus girl, extortion, a sting operation, a court trial and Emily Post's humiliation, animates the early sections of the book.

Born in Baltimore, seven years after the Civil War ended, Emily and her family moved to New York when she was 5. A "southern girl manque," Emily was the daughter of Bruce Price, a dashing architect (he designed the vacation enclave Tuxedo Park), and Josephine Lee, who possessed a "certain bland sturdiness" and a Pennsylvania coal fortune, which assured the family's upper-class status. Claridge tracks Emily's rise from vivacious debutante to poised but neglected society wife and mother against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, deftly tucking in such capsule anecdotes as the declasse Vanderbilts vying for high-society acceptance and instructions for preparing terrapin, which includes a directive one isn't likely to forget: "Remove the skin from the feet."

Emily Post's publishing career began in 1902 when Francis Hopkinson Smith, a family friend, passed on some of her letters to an editor at Ainslee's Magazine. A first novel soon followed, and then a second about a depressed and lonely wife, released just after the sprawling scandal of her husband's infidelity. They were divorced in 1906, and though they had two sons together, she never spoke of her ex-husband again.

The way Post liked to tell it, she had been horrified at the idea of writing a book that told people how to act. Long after "Etiquette," first published in 1922, had become a cultural watershed, Post would claim that Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, had put her up to it, urging the writer to think of all the people such instruction would benefit: "All those new war wives desperate to know how to write a thank-you note, all those immigrants who had made it to our country before the rules tightened, all those new money people, ashamed to admit they had no idea how to behave in society." Possibly Emily Post felt there was shame in possessing such ambition, especially for a woman, and that it was more becoming to have her position as social arbiter thrust upon her, but according to Claridge's sleuthing, she'd actually proposed this type of project to a literary agent who dismissed it as unworthy of her abilities.

"Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home" was a phenomenon from its first edition. The country, then "at its wildest," welcomed Post's cast of characters -- the Worldlys, the Gildings, the Kindharts, the Oldnames, the Toploftys -- and their various social dilemmas.

But as her work filled her life, the people closest to Post seemed to leave it. Her father died of stomach cancer. Her mother was killed in a gruesome car accident. Her older son married and began his own family. Her younger son, a rising architect, died of a ruptured appendix. Claridge points out that Joan Didion, in "The Year of Magical Thinking," found if not solace then identification in the "Funerals" chapter of "Etiquette." The ritual of mourning was not an academic exercise for Emily Post.

What comes across in the biography is how little interest Emily had in the fork question. What do you wear when visiting your boyfriend in prison? How do you behave toward a soldier who has returned from war? Manners, for Emily Post, were not something for people to hide behind but a way to be with each other, and her prose reveals that she was a contemporary not only of novelists of manners, like Edith Wharton and Henry James, but also of modernist writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who grappled with the problem of being. In the chapter "Fundamentals of Good Behavior," Post writes, "Unconsciousness of self is not so much unselfishness as it is the mental ability to extinguish all thought of one's self -- exactly as one turns out the light."

With the actual losses in Post's life the narrative momentum found in the earlier sections of Claridge's book slackens. One doesn't wish more trauma on the writer, but without the dramatis personae there is simply less drama. Claridge chronicles an intriguing tension with Post's ri- val, the now-forgotten Lillian Eichler, but the main events are updated editions, new columns and more bestsellers, such as "The Personality of a House."

As Claridge charts the revisions Post made in later editions of "Etiquette," a rough outline emerges of the evolution of American manners. The writer, who died in 1960, accommodated the arrival of the telephone, radio and women in the workforce as well as introduced a new character, Mrs. Three-in-One, because as it turned out, not everyone had the problem of how to deal with servants. Claridge's book hints at becoming a cultural or literary analysis, offering glimpses of Post's historical context and writing style. But it remains a highly competent biography, the beginning, one hopes, of a whole new field of Emily Post Studies.

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Liz Brown has written for various publications, including Bookforum, the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review.

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