Our eminent founding father Ben Franklin once famously compared guests to stinking fish. While this assessment may seem a trifle harsh, the truth remains that social intercourse is a most risky endeavor. Who better to address this concern than the inimitable pundit Russell Lynes—a man renowned for his unparalleled expertise on the social graces and the many personality types who regularly abuse them? In this classic guide to "guesting," Lynes provides an indispensable overview of the rituals of behavior that make it possible to visit and be visited, and the necessary safeguards that protect us from our friends and our friends from us. It is a book that demands to be read by every potential guest and host, stinker and stinkee alike.
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About the Author
Russell Lynes (1910-1991) was an art historian, cultural critic, author, photographer, and managing editor of Harper's Magazine. His articles for Harper's and Life in 1949 made parsing American culture into highbrow, upper or lower middlebrow, and lowbrow a national pastime. He wrote many books, including Snobs and The Tastemakers.
Read an Excerpt
Oh, the Times! Oh, the Customs!
Guests in the house have always seemed to me to present an opportunity for imminent catastrophe. In all social intercourse there is the element of risk. The ill-chosen moment for the carefully chosen compliment, the innocent misunderstanding, the simple gaffe, the unpredictable temper—these are always lurking in the background, threatening to strike the most casual of social relationships as well as the most complicated ones.
But to invite people to one's home, or to allow oneself to be the subject of an invitation is to expose oneself to any number of unforeseen difficulties. Everyone knows this, and yet nearly everyone is content to blunder along, exposing himself and his friends and acquaintances to difficulties that he might readily avoid. It speaks well for our resilience and the shortness of our memories that we have not all become hermits long since.
The reason why we have not withdrawn into cells is not only our natural gregariousness but the development of certain rituals of social behavior which make it possible to visit and be visited, safeguards which have grown up through usage to protect us from our friends and our friends from us. Added to the rituals, which in a more formal era than our own were enough to make people go home at a reasonable hour, to appear for meals on time, and to observe certain other amenities now in disuse, are the techniques which have been devised (or perhaps I should say improvised) to deal with all sorts of social situations in which guests are a problem.
I should like to set forth in this little book some of the problems most commonlyfaced both by guests and hosts in the delicate relationships that exist between them, to examine some types of situations in which mere people become guests, and guests become threats to civilized living.
But before launching into specifics, I should explain that my interest in this problem goes back to my early childhood and was almost surely set off by an incident provoked by my older brother when he was about four. My father at that time was the rector of a church in a small but prospering New England town that boasted two small manufacturing plants, two churches besides his own, and a bandstand in front of the Town Hall where Saturday night concerts brought the entire town to lie on the grass and watch the fireflies and hear what seemed to me beautiful music. The rectory, which was next to the Town Hall, was built in the Queen Anne manner, with a brown shingled peaked tower at one corner, a veranda with spindle work hidden by wisteria, and stained glass in the stair-landing windows. The rectory, as rectories are wont to be, was in the center of the town's focus, and what went on there was everybody's business.
Father was in his early thirties and, having got a late start in the ministry, was new in his first parish. He was zealous, but being a New Englander himself, he was aware that whatever overtures he made to his new parishioners must be cordial but cautious and unassuming. He knew that the most he could expect from his flock for the first few years of his incumbency was not warmth but a gradually decreasing chill, and he proceeded accordingly to try with his easy humor to thaw a vestryman here and a Women's Auxiliary member there as occasion arose. He was doing rather well, and my mother, whose blond good looks must have stirred envy or worse in many a local breast, went at the business of being a thinister's wife with all the zest for it that she could summon. My father had been a lawyer when she married him, and when he turned late to the cloth, the adjustment was harder on his wife than on him. But she gave herself to it with good grace and with rather more dedication to her man than to his profession.
My brother, who should never have been a minister's son, started early to speak his mind. The Women's Auxiliary, which sewed things for something known vaguely as "missions," met on Wednesdays, and my mother decided that the parish house was a dreary place for them to forgather and so she invited them to the rectory. They sat around in as much of a circle as the parlor with its mixture of Victorian and mission furniture permitted, and sewed. They may have gossiped too, but I was too young at the time to have much sense of what went on. In fact the only meeting of the Auxiliary that made any impression on me was the one at which my brother became notorious.
I have this second hand, but the story as it has been retold to me is a simple one. My brother, returning from a walk with his nurse, marched into the middle of the parlor and stood for a minute surveying the ladies, who looked up from their sewing. He sized up each one of the ten or twelve who sat around him, and then he singled out one and walked straight to her.
"I certainly don't like you," he said, and then turned away, walked across the room without hesitation to another of the women, and said to her, "But I do like you.
It is not hard to imagine what this did to the immediate circle or how fast the news spread through the town. Those who took the part of the lady my brother disliked said that he never would have said such a thing unless he had heard it from his parents (they underestimated my brother, even at the age of four), and those who were friends of the lady he had singled out for his affection thought the same thing but were delighted that the new minister and his wife had such good sense. The spurned woman . . .Guests. Copyright (c) by Russell Lynes . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.