George Washington’s Rules of Civility
by George Washington, introduced by Adam Haslett
One of America’s most unusual publishers, Akashic Books, embarks on a project to print some of our early president’s less known writings, along with commentary by still living authors. First out of the gate is George Washington with an obscure exercise in penmanship and deportment. As a young man, he copied 110 rules of how a gentleman ought to behave. He didn’t invent these, but wrote them out as a school assignment, which in no way reduces their charm as guidance on how to behave 300 years ago. The topics covered fall into two general categories – table and social manners (don’t clean your teeth with a napkin, don’t tell professionals how to do their job when you don’t know it yourself), and how to behave in a strongly class-conscious society (defer to your betters, don’t argue in front of the help). While quaintly worded, and faithfully typeset with original spelling and capitalization peculiarities, most of these rules still find good use in today’s society. Good manners are to a large extent timeless.
Haslett’s introduction is nearly as long as the subject material and he supplies some “annotations” to the main text. His tale of discovering the book in a friend’s library and reading it aloud in a King James voice is amusing, and there is no joy like discovering something unexpected while nosing around. With the exception of a page or two of bitter digression on modern political events, the intro makes this odd book enjoyable. As we enter into the Washington text, Haslett peppers them with rather snide remarks, many seeming more like graffiti in the men’s room than insightful political commentary. References to Rumsfeld and Bush not only date the book, but likely will seem just as mysterious in a decade as some of Washington’s more obscure rules are today. Haslett’s notations read like cheap shots, and cloaking them in context of the original GW infuses Chardonnay-and-Brie smugness to this otherwise entertaining tome. As Mr. Washington wrote (#65) “Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest scoff at none thought they give occasion.” It’s still true – you can lead a political writer to culture, but it’s pretty hard to pound it into his skull. Incivility is so much more fun.