Still waiting for the queen to call

"All joints on the table will be carved," my mother would say with a smile as elbows and arms started to slide onto the tabletop, and just as quickly retreated. She was a stickler.

Table manners were gently drilled at every opportunity, the idea being that, at some point, we would end up unthinkingly well-mannered. Sometimes, though, she would have to repeat a request, "Please don't talk with your mouth full," so often that it would come out as "Please don't eat with your mouthful." And my brothers and I would dissolve into giggles.

Such fastidiousness, she would explain, was so we could have tea with the Queen of England and not fuss over which fork to use - just enjoy the conversation. "So, how are the corgis these days, Ma'am?"

Ironically, though, my mother was American.

"Star-Spangled Manners," Judith Martin's latest book on American etiquette (see review page 20), pulls together the historical threads that shaped this country's manners. The stifling British class distinctions were happily discarded, and what replaced them was an uneven mix of immigrants' own attitudes and customs. With some surprises.

The gentility of the South, so often attributed to lingering British influences, Martin says, was more the result of a subtle sway even Southerners failed to notice: African manners.

"Some house slaves had been of high social class in Africa," she writes, "... and the background of a slave might be seriously above that of his or her owner."

It's a haunting irony that aristocratic slaves who cared for and raised the children of Southern landowners should answer a history of brutality with a legacy of graciousness.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.