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While reading a recent Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan calling for a revival of the American gentleman, I remembered an old episode of The Simpsons. They’re on the couch watching a public television fundraiser. Garrison Keillor reads a bit of Prairie Home Companion to the obliging laughter and applause from the studio audience. Homer asks “What the ****’s so funny?” and Bart says “maybe it’s the TV.” Homer bangs his fist against the television set and yells “Stupid TV … be more funny!”
While reading all Ms. Noonan’s well-meaning advice, I couldn’t help but picture Homer banging his fist against the computer saying “Stupid Internet … be more gentlemanly!”
Gentleman - Ms - Noonan - Feat - Reverse
This isn’t to say that the gentleman can’t be revived, but I’m not sure Ms. Noonan grasps what a massive feat of reverse engineering she’s talking about. Before we can even discuss the prospects of a revival, we need to know when, where, and why the gentleman got his start, what sustained him for the next 1,000 years or so, and when the wheels flew off.
The gentleman is an English import, a title that once designated men who had served the king in battle, and who were allotted land grants in exchange for their service. While a gentleman’s behavior toward ladies mattered a great deal in the chivalric era, a man’s status as a gentleman did not initially depend on his behavior towards women.
Thing - English - Gentleman - Countrymen - Sense
The essential thing that set the English gentleman apart from his fellow countrymen was a strong sense of obligation (at least up until his demise that began in the early part of the twentieth century). As Simon Raven explained in his 1957 history/memoir, The Decline of the English Gentleman, the king had bestowed material advantages upon the gentry, but those advantages carried with them obligations, not only toward...
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