Henry Pearson Gratton.

As a Chinaman saw us; passages from his letters to a friend at home online

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reputation, who has no standing merely because he is vulgar - that is,
ill-bred. I have met another man, a great financier, who would give a
million to have the _entrée_ to the very best houses. Instances could be
cited without end.

Such men and women generally have their standing in Europe; in a word,
go abroad for the position they can not secure at home. A family now
allied to one of the proudest families in Europe had absolutely no
position in America previous to the alliance, and doubtless would not
now be taken up by some. You will understand that I am speaking now of
the most exclusive American society, formed of families who have age,
historical associations, breeding, education, great-grandparents, and
always have had "manners." There are other social sets which pass as
representative society, into which all the ill-mannered _nouveau riche_
can climb by the golden stairs; but this is not real society. The
richest man in America, Rockefeller, quoted at over a billion, is a
religious worker, and his indulgences consist in gifts to universities.
Another billionaire, Mr. Carnegie, gives his millions to found
libraries. Mr. Morgan, the millionaire banker, attends church
conventions as an antipodal diversion. There is no conspicuous
millionaire before the American public who has earned a reputation for
extreme profligacy.

There is a leisure class, the sons of wealthy men, who devote their time
to hunting and other sports; but in the recent war this class surged to
the front as private soldiers and fought the country's battles. I admire
the American gentleman of the select society class I have described. He
is modest, intelligent, learned in the best sense, magnanimous, a type
of chivalry, bold, vigorous, charming as a host, and the soul of honor.
It is a regret that this is not the dominating and best-known class in
America, but it is not; and the alien, the stranger coming without
letters of introduction, would fall into other hands. A man might live a
lifetime in Philadelphia or Boston and never meet these people, unless
he had been introduced by some one who was of the same class in some
other city. Such strange social customs make strange bedfellows. Thus,
if you came to America to-day and had letters to the Vice-President, you
would, without doubt, if properly accredited, see the very best
society. If, on the other hand, you had letters to the President at his
home in the State of Ohio you would doubtless meet an entirely different
class, eminently respectable, yet not the same. It would be impossible
to ignore the inference from this. The Vice-President is in society (the
best); the President is not. Where else could this hold? Nowhere but in

The Americans affect to scorn caste and sect, yet no nation has more of
them. Sets or classes, even among men, are found in all towns where
there is any display of wealth. The best society of a small town
consists of its bank presidents, its clergymen, its physicians, its
authors, its lawyers. No matter how educated the grocer may be, he will
not be received, nor the retail shoe dealer, though the shoe
manufacturer, the dealer in many shoes, may be the virtual leader, at
least among the men. Each town will have its clubs, the members ranging
according to their class; and while it seems a paradox, it is true that
this classification is mainly based upon the refinement, culture, and
family of the man. A well-known man once engaged me in conversation with
a view to finding out some facts regarding our social customs, and I
learned from him that a dentist in America would scarcely be received in
the best society. He argued, that to a man of refinement and culture,
such a profession, which included the cleaning of teeth, would be
impossible; consequently, you would not be likely to find a really
cultivated man who was a dentist. On the same grounds an undertaker
would not be admitted to the first society.

With us a gentleman is born; with Americans it is possible to create
one, though rarely. An American gentleman is described as a product of
two generations of college men who have always had association with
gentlemen and the advantages of family standing. Political elevation can
not affect a man's status as a gentleman. I heard a lady of unquestioned
position say that she admired President McKinley, but regretted that he
was not a gentleman. She meant that he was not an aristocrat, and did
not possess the _savoir faire_, or the family associations, that
completely round out the American or English gentleman. I asked this
lady to indicate the gentlemen Presidents of the country. There were
very few that I recall. There were Washington, Harrison, Adams, and
Arthur. Doubtless there were others, which have escaped me. Lincoln, the
strongest American type, she did not consider in the gentlemen class,
and General Grant, the nation's especial pride, did not fulfil her
ideas of what a gentleman should be.

You will perceive, then, that what some American people consider a
gentleman and what its most exclusive society accepts for one, comprise
two entirely different personages. I found this emphasized especially in
the old society of Washington, which takes its traditions from
Washington's time or even the pre-Revolutionary period. For such society
a self-made man was impossible. Such are the remarkable, indeed
astounding, ramifications of the social system of a people who cry to
heaven of their democracy. "Americans are all equal - this is one of the
gems in our diadem." This epigram I heard drop from the lips of a
senator who was the recognized aristocrat of the chamber; yet a man of
peculiar social reserve, who would have nothing to do with the other
"equals." In a word, all the talk of equality is an absurd figure of
speech. America is at heart as much an aristocracy as England, and the
social divisions are much the same under the surface.

You will understand that social rules and customs are all laid down and
exacted by women and from women. From them I obtained all my
information. No American gentleman would talk (to me at least) on the
subject. Ask one of them if there is an American aristocracy, and he
will pass over the question in an engaging manner, and tell you that his
government is based on the principle of perfect equality - one of the
most transparent farces to be found in this interesting country. I have
outlined to you what I conceived to be the best society in each city,
and in the various sections of the country. In morality and probity I
believe them to stand very high; lapses there may be, but the general
tone is good. The women are charming and refined; the men chivalrous,
brave, well-poised, and highly educated. Unfortunately, the Americans
who compose this "set" are numerically weak. They are not represented to
the extent of being a dominating body, and oddly enough, the common
people, the shopkeepers, the people in the retail trades, do not
understand them as leaders from the fact that they are so completely
aloof that they never meet them. A sort of inner "holy of holies" is the
real aristocracy of America. What goes for society among the people, the
mob, and the press is the set (and a set means a faction, a clique)
known as the Four Hundred, so named because it was supposed to represent
the "blue blood" of New York ten years ago in its perfection. This Four
Hundred has its prototype in all cities, and in some cities is known as
the "fast set." In New York it is made up often of the descendants of
old families, the heads of whom in many instances were retail traders
within one hundred and fifty years ago; but the modern wealthy
representatives endeavor to forget this or skip over it. It is, however,
constantly kept alive by what is termed the "yellow press," which
delights in picturing the ancestor of one family as a pedler and an
itinerant trader, and the head of another family as a vegetable vender,
and so on, literally venting its spleen upon them.

In my studies in American sociology I asked many questions, and obtained
the most piquant replies from women. One lady, a leader in New York in
what I have termed the exclusive set, informed me with a laugh that the
ancestor of a well-known family of to-day, one which cuts a commanding
figure in society, was an ordinary laborer in the employ of her
grandfather. "Yet you receive them?" I suggested. The reply was a shrug
of charming shoulders, which, translated, meant that great wealth had
here enabled them to "bore" into the exclusive circle. I found that even
among these people, the _crême de la crême_ in the eyes of the people,
there were inner circles, and these were not on intimate terms with the
others. Here I met a member of the Washington and Lee family, a
descendant of Bishop Provoost, the first Episcopal bishop of New York,
and friend of Washington and Hamilton. This latter family is notable for
an ancestry running back to the massacre of St. Bartholomew and even
beyond. I astonished its charming descendant, who very delicately
informed me that she knew her ancestry as far back as 1200 A. D., when I
told her that I had my "family tree," as they call it, without a break
for thirty-two hundred years. I am confident she did not believe me, but
her "Indeed!" was delightful. In fact, I assure you I have lost my heart
to these American women. I met representatives of the Adams, Dana,
Madison, Lee, and other families identified with American history in a
most honorable way.

The continuity of the Four Hundred idea as a logical system was broken
by the quality of some of its members. Compared to the society I have
previously mentioned it was as chaff. There was a total lack of
intellectuality. Degeneracy marked some of their acts; divorce blackened
their records, and shameless affairs marked them. In this "set," and
particularly its imitators throughout the United States, the divorce
rate is appalling. Men leave their wives and obtain a divorce for no
other reason than that a woman falls in love with another woman's
husband. On a yacht we will say there is some scandal. A divorce ensues,
and afterward the parties are remarried. Or we will say a wife succumbs
to the blandishments of another man. The conjugal arrangements are
rearranged, so that, as a very merry New York club man told me, "It is
difficult to tell where you are at." In a word, the morale of the men of
this set is low, their standard high, but not always lived up to. I
believe that I am not doing the American of the middle class wrong and
the ultra-fashionable class an injustice in saying that it is as a class

Americans make great parade of their churches. Spires rise like the
pikes of an army in every town, yet the morality of the men is low.
There are in this land 600,000 prostitutes - ruined women. But this is
not due entirely to the Four Hundred, whose irregularities appear to be
confined to inroads upon their own set. Nearly all these men are club
men; two-thirds are in business as brokers, bankers, or professional
men; and there is a large percentage of men of leisure and vast wealth.
They affect English methods, and are, as a rule, not highly intelligent,
but _blasé_, often effeminate, an interesting spectacle to the student,
showing that the downfall of the American Republic would come sooner
than that of Rome if the "fast set" were a dominating force, which it is

In the great middle class of the American men I find much to admire;
half educated, despite their boasted school system, they put up, to
quote one of them, "a splendid bluff" of respectability and morality,
yet their statistics give the lie to it. Their divorces are phenomenal,
and they are obtained on the slightest cause. If a man or woman becomes
weary of the other they are divorced on the ground of incompatibility of

A lady, a descendant of one of the oldest families, desired to marry her
friend's husband. He charged his wife with various vague acts, one of
which, according to the press, was that she did not wear "corsets" - a
sort of steel frame which the American women wear to compress the waist.
This was not accepted by the learned judge, and the wife then left her
husband and went away on a six or eight months' visit. This enabled the
husband to put in a claim of desertion, and the decree of divorce was
granted. A quicker method is to pretend to throw the breakfast dishes at
your wife, who makes a charge of "extreme incompatibility," and a
divorce is at once obtained. Certain Territories bank on their divorce
laws, and the mismated have but to go there and live a few months to
obtain a separation on almost any claim. Many of the most distinguished
statesmen have been charged with certain moral lapses in the heat of
political fights, which, in almost every instance, are ignored by the
victims, their silence being significant to some, illogical to others;
yet the fact remains that the press goes to the greatest extremes. No
family secret is considered sacred to the American politician in the
heat of a campaign; to win, he would sacrifice the husband, father,
mother, and children of his enemy. So remarkable is the rage for divorce
that many of the great religious denominations have taken up arms
against it. Catholics forbid it. Episcopalians resent it by ostracism if
the cause is trivial, and a "separation" is denounced in the pulpit.



The American is an interesting, though not always pleasant, study. His
perfect equipoise, his independence, his assumption that he is the best
product of the best soil in the world, comes first as a shock; but when
you find this but one of the many national characteristics it merely
amuses you. One of the extraordinary features of the American is his
attitude toward the Chinese, who are taken on sufferance. The lower
classes absolutely can conceive of no difference between me and the
"coolie." As an example, a boy on the street accosts me with "Hi, John,
you washee, washee?" Even a representative in Congress insisted on
calling me "John." On protesting to another man, he laughed, and said,
"Oh, the man don't know any better." "But," I replied, "if he does not
know any better how is it he is a lawmaker in your lower house?" "I give
it up," was his answer, and he ordered what they term a "high-ball."
After we had tried several, he laughed and asked, "Shall we consider the
matter a closed incident?" Many diplomatic, social, and political
questions are often settled with a "high-ball."

It is inconceivable to the average American that there can be an
educated Chinese gentleman, a man of real refinement. They know us by
the Cantonese laundrymen, the class which ranks with their lowest
classes. At dinners and receptions I was asked the most atrocious
questions by men and women. One charming young girl, who I was informed
was the relative of a Cabinet officer, asked me if I would not sometime
put up my "pig-tail," as she wished to photograph me. Another asked if
it was really true that we privately considered all Americans as "white
devils." All had an inordinate curiosity to know my "point of view";
what I thought of them, how their customs differed from my own. Of
course, replies were manifestly impossible. At a dinner a young man,
who, I learned, was a sort of professional diner-out, remarked to a
lady: "None of the American girls will have me for a husband; do you not
think that if I should go to China some pretty Chinese girl would have
me?" This was said before all the company. Every one was silent, waiting
for the response. Looking up, she replied, with charming _naïveté_, "No,
I do not think so," which produced much laughter. Now you would have
thought the young man would have been slightly discomfited, but not at
all; he laughed heartily, and plumed himself upon the fact that he had
succeeded in bringing out a reply.

American men have a variety of costumes for as many occasions. They have
one for the morning, which is called a sack-coat, that is, tailless, and
is of mixed colors. With this they wear a low hat, an abomination called
the derby. After twelve o'clock the frock-coat is used, having long
tails reaching to the knees. Senators often wear this costume in the
morning - why I could not learn, though I imagine they think it is more
dignified than the sack. With the afternoon suit goes a high silk hat,
called a "plug" by the lower classes, who never wear them. After dark
two suits of black are worn: one a sack, being informal, the other with
tails, very formal. They also have a suit for the bath - a robe - and a
sleeping-costume, like a huge bag, with sleeves and neck-hole. This is
the night-shirt, and formerly a "nightcap" was used by some. There is
also a hat to go with the evening costume - a high hat, which crushes in.
You may sit on it without injury to yourself or hat. I know this by a
harrowing experience.

Many of the customs of the Americans are strange. Their social life
consists of dinners, receptions, balls, card-parties, teas, and smokers.
At all but the last women are present. At the dinner every one is in
evening dress; the men wear black swallowtail coats, following the
English in every way, low white vest, white starched shirt, white collar
and necktie, and black trousers. If the dinner does not include women
the coat-tails are eliminated, and the vest and necktie are black.
Exactly why this is I do not understand, nor do the Americans. The
dinner is begun with the national drink, the "cocktail"; then follow
oysters on the half-shell, which you eat with an object resembling the
trident carried in the ceremony of Ah Dieu at the Triennial. Each course
of the dinner is accompanied by a different wine, an agreeable but
exhilarating custom. The knife and fork are used, the latter to go into
the mouth, the former not, and here you see a singular ethnologic
feature. Class distinctions may at times be recognized by the knife or
fork. Thus I was informed that you could at once recognize a person of
the gentleman class by his use of the knife and fork. "This is
infallible," said my young lady companion. If he is a commoner, he eats
with his knife; if a gentleman, with his fork. This was a very nice
distinction, and I looked carefully for a knife eater, but never saw

There is a vast amount of ceremony and etiquette about a dinner and
various rules for eating, to break which is a social offense. I heard
that a certain Madam - - gave lessons in "good form" after the American
fashion, so that one could learn what was expected, and at my first
dinner I regretted that I had not availed myself of the services of the
lady, as at each plate there were nearly a dozen solid silver articles
to be used in the different courses, but I endeavored to escape by
watching my companion and following her example. But here the
impossibility of an American girl resisting a joke caused my downfall.
She at once saw my dilemma, and would take up the wrong implement, and
when I followed suit she dropped it and took another, laughing in her
eyes in a way in which the American girl is a prodigious adept; but
completely deceived by her nearly every time, knowing that she was
amusing herself at my expense, I said nothing. The Americans have a
peculiar term for the mental attitude I had during this trial. I "sawed
wood." The saying was particularly applicable to my situation. My young
companion was most engaging, and presently began to talk of the
superiority of America, her inventions, etc., mentioning the telephone,
printing, and others. "Yes, wonderful," I replied; "but the Chinese had
the telephone ages ago. They invented printing, gunpowder, the mariner's
compass, and it would be difficult," I said, "for you to mention an
object which China has not had for ages." She was amazed that I, a
Chinaman, should "claim everything in sight."

There is a peculiar etiquette relating to every course in a dinner. The
soup is eaten with a bowl-like spoon, and it is the grossest breach to
place this in your mouth, or approach it, endwise. You approach the
side and suck the soup from it. To make a noise would attract attention.
The etiquette of the fish is to eat it with a fork; to use the knife
even to cut the fish would be unpardonable, or to touch it to take out
the bones; the fork alone must be used. The punch course is often an
embarrassment to the previous wines, and is followed by what the French
call the _entrée_. In fact, while the Americans boast that everything
American is the best, French customs are followed at banquets
invariably, this being one of the strange inconsistencies of the
Americans. Their clothes are copied from the English, though they will
claim in the same breath that their tailors are the best in the world.
For wines they claim to be unsurpassed, producing the finest; yet the
wines on their tables are French or bear French labels. Game is
served - a grouse or perhaps a hare, and then a vast roast, possibly
venison, or beef, and there are vegetables, followed by a salad of some
kind. Then comes the dessert - an iced cream, cakes, nuts, raisins,
cheese, and coffee with brandy, and then cigars and vermuth or some
cordial. After such a dinner of three hours a Southern gentleman clapped
me on the back and said, "Great dinner, that; but let's go and get a
drink of something solid," and I saw him take what he termed "two
fingers" of Kentucky Bourbon whisky - a very stiff drink. I often
wondered how the guests could stand so much.

The dinner has no attendant amusement, no dancing, no professional
entertainers, and rarely lasts over two hours. Some houses have stringed
bands concealed behind barriers of flowers playing soft music, but in
the main the dinner is a jollification, a symposium of stories, where
the guests take a turn at telling tales. Story-tellers can not be hired,
and the guest at the proper moment says (after having prepared himself
beforehand), "That reminds me of a story," and he relates what he has
learned with great _éclat_ and applause, as every American will applaud
a good story, even if he has heard it time and again. At one dinner
which I attended in New York story-telling had been going on for some
time when a well-known man came in late. He was received with applause,
and when called on for a speech told exactly the same story, by a
strange coincidence, that had been told by the last speaker. Not a guest
interfered; he was allowed to proceed, and at the end the point was
greeted with a roar of laughter. This appeared to me to be an excellent
quality in the American character. I was informed that these stories,
forming so important a feature of American dinners, are the product
mainly of drummers and certain prominent men; but why men that drum are
more skilful in story inventing I failed to learn. President Lincoln and
a lawyer named Daniel Webster originated a large percentage of the
current stories. It is difficult to understand exactly what the
Americans mean.

The American story is incomprehensible to the average foreigner, but it
is good form to laugh. I will relate several as illustrative of American
wit, and I might add that many of these have been published in books for
the benefit of the diner-out. A Cabinet minister told of a prisoner who
was called to the bar and asked his name. The man had some impediment in
his speech, one of the hundred complaints of the tongue, and began to
hiss, uttering a strange stuttering sound like escaping steam. The
judge listened a few moments, then turning to the guard said, "Officer,
what is this man charged with?" "Soda-water, I think, your honor," was
the reply. This was unintelligible to me until my companion explained
it. You must understand that soda-water is a drink that is charged with
gas and makes a hissing, spluttering noise when opened. Hence when the
judge asked what the prisoner was charged with the policeman, an
Irishman, retorted with a joke, the story-teller disregarding the fact
that it was an impertinence.

A distinguished New York judge told the following: Two tenement
harridans look out of their windows simultaneously. "Good-morning, Mrs.
Moriarity," says one. "Good-morning, Mrs. Gilfillan," says the other,
adding, "not that I care a d - - , but just to make conversation." This
was considered wit of the sharpest kind, and was received with applause.
In their stories the Americans spare neither age, sex, nor relatives.
The following was related by a general of the army. He said he took a
friend home to spend the night with him, the guest occupying the best
room. When he came down in the morning he turned to the hostess and

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Online LibraryHenry Pearson GrattonAs a Chinaman saw us; passages from his letters to a friend at home → online text (page 2 of 12)