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The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities

The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities

by Richard Lyman Bushman

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This lively and authoritative volume makes clear that the quest for taste and manners in America has been essential to the serious pursuit of a democratic culture. Spanning the material world from mansions and silverware to etiquette books, city planning, and sentimental novels, Richard L. Bushman shows how a set of values originating in aristocratic court culture


This lively and authoritative volume makes clear that the quest for taste and manners in America has been essential to the serious pursuit of a democratic culture. Spanning the material world from mansions and silverware to etiquette books, city planning, and sentimental novels, Richard L. Bushman shows how a set of values originating in aristocratic court culture gradually permeated almost every stratum of American society and served to prevent the hardening of class consciousness. A work of immense and richly nuanced learning, The Refinement of America newly illuminates every facet of both our artifacts and our values.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If Bushman is correct, it was not until the mid-19th century that a majority of middle-class Americans displayed a concern for taste and beauty in their dress, comportment, manners and houses. From colonial times to the Revolution, he writes, gentility was the exclusive province of the gentry--wealthy merchants, planters, clergymen and professionals who copied a Renaissance-inspired ideal imitated by Europe's aristocracy. This intriguing social history shows how a diluted version of gentility became an underpinning of middle-class self-respect as millions of Americans moved into houses with book-lined parlors, consulted etiquette manuals and cultivated gardens. Bushman, a Columbia history professor, argues that the worldly, leisure-oriented genteel code clashed with egalitarian and religious values yet fueled the ethos of consumption that helped capitalism thrive. Photos. BOMC and History Book Club alternates. (Sept.)
Library Journal
What were the effects of refinement on personalities, society, and the material world in early America? In this work, Bushman maps the spread of refinement in 18th- and 19th-century America. The first section, ``Gentility, 1700-1790,'' takes the ``parlor life'' movement from the urban wealthy, spreading across the land to encompass the small-town prosperous to affluent rural estates with a refined life limited to gentry. It exerted narrow influence on the lives of middle- and working-class Americans. The second section, ``Respectability, 1790-1850,'' maps refinement as it spread down through the social structure to include the middle class and influence the working class. During this time, gentility expanded, with more people acquiring possessions, parlors, and the mannerisms of the genteel style. Bushman does a good job of showing the historical origins of refinement, its expansion in the United States, and its reflections in current society. Important to any library interested in the cultural life of America.-- Terri P. Summey, Emporia State Univ. Lib., Kan.
Bryce Christensen
The evangelists of elegance found surprisingly eager converts in early America. A distinguished historian here recounts the remarkable spread of decorative architecture, delicate manners, polished conversation, genteel literature, courtly dancing, and fine linens at a time when most families still struggled for subsistence in a raw land. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, the arts of refinement attracted American adherents trying to secure their status in a still inchoate society. For many, the revolution against the British monarchy required no subsequent repudiation of the cultural standards derived from royal courts. But pretensions of refinement did create tensions and confusions in an egalitarian republic. Nor could the devout always find an easy reconciliation between the demands of conviction and the appeals of gentility. And even while venerating women as the presiding spirits in the home parlor, men transferred their real allegiance to the factory, club, and office. Told with clarity and intelligence, this is the story of an American civilization trying to find its way between barbarism and snobbery.
Kirkus Reviews
A historical survey of the idea of gentility as expressed in architecture, furnishings, fashions, manners, and taste from about 1690-1850. Bushman (History/Columbia; co-editor, Uprooted Americans, 1979) has the rare gift of seeing the theoretical—the bases of class, power, and culture—in domestic, ordinary, specific detail and behavior. The author begins with the years 1700-90, tracing the origins of gentility to the aristocratic and worldly courts of Europe, and observing its sudden emergence in the refinements of colonial centers—rural and urban—in mansions, gardens, pianos, parasols, carpets, penmanship, courtesy books, personal hygiene, and social discipline. He then considers the years after the Revolution, from 1790-1850, during which gentility became "vernacular," democratized, identified with respectability—a middle-class standard associated with domesticity, religion, and the work ethic, with its major site being the ubiquitous parlor. Although gentility was exclusive, censorious, judgmental, and artificial—an elitist ideal inappropriate for an egalitarian society (a point made by John F. Kasson in Rudeness and Civility, 1990)—it contributed immensely, Bushman says, to American life: to architecture and the decorative arts but also, in fulfilling the many needs of aspiring gentility, to manufacturing, trade, commerce, education, and, especially, literacy, since the models for American refinement often were found in the novels of sensibility. The Americanization of gentility was, Bushman contends, the translation of a secular, leisured, and public ideal into a domestic one that encouraged religious practice and the work ethic. Resourceful,lucid, sweeping—a true and refining pleasure. (Photos—130—not seen.)

From the Publisher
"This important study . . . offers a promising framework for understanding American life."— The New York Times Book Review"From an astonishing array of sources Bushman has pieced together an extraordinarily rich and readable account of the spread of gentility over a century and a half. . . . This is a remarkable book about a subject that is presently emerging as one of the most significant in the history not only of early America but of all early modern Western societies."— Gordon S. Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution"The scope of this book is enormous. . . . Bushman is a skilled researcher, and he has combed the archives of historical museums for his evidence, which he arranges neatly and intelligently."—Los Angeles Times Book Review"One of the most skillful and sensitive accounts in a fresh field . . . The Refinement of America will fundamentally alter the way we think about the genesis of American civilization."— Michael Kammen, Cornell University

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Meet the Author

Richard Lyman Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History, Emeritus, at Columbia University, grew up in Portland, Oregon, and earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University. He has also taught at Brigham Young University, Boston University, and the University of Delaware. His From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 16901765 won the Bancroft Prize in 1967. His other books include Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984), winner of the Evans Biography Award; King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985); and The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992). A practicing Mormon, he lives in New York City with his wife, Claudia.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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