The Civility Revival

Who's next in the civility revival? There's probably no going back to Briton John Galsworthy's "Forsyte Saga" on black-and-white TV. But up there, speaking in sentences on the big movie screen, have been characters from E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Louisa May Alcott, a Jane Austen galaxy (including the California "Clueless" version of "Emma"), and a new flurry of Henry James.

Not that these bygone writers ignored the darker sides of human relations. But the surfaces are so civilized, don't you know, and the soundtracks don't have to be so terribly loud except in the storm scenes.

The popularity of such civility - the huge TV audience for Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," for example - comes as surveys find Americans lamenting lack of civility in daily life.

"P. and P." the book was a favorite of William Dean Howells (1837-1920), who may be ripe for civility canonization. He both pioneered realism in fiction and called on novelists to stress "the more smiling aspects of life." Before the V-chip, he kept unsuitable books from his children and wanted his own fit for their eyes.

In "The Rise of Silas Lapham," Howells dealt with the kind of self-made achiever that still fascinates Americans, not to mention the question of business ethics that makes headlines every day. All the while keeping a civil tongue in his head.

Pending new media versions of such serious fare, how dare PBS jettison sleuth Hercule Poirot, as played by David Suchet, a droll pinnacle of civility in a naughty world?

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