Letters to Young Men



Go over violent, or over civil,
That every man with him was God or devil.


Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy ; rich, not gaudy ;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.


IT is well for young men to obtain, at the very start of their career, some idea of the value of politeness. Some cannot be otherwise than urbane. They are born so. One can kick them roundly and soundly, and they will not refuse to smile, if it be done good-naturedly. They dodge all corners by a necessity of their nature. If their souls had only corporeal volume, we could see them making their way through a crowd, like nice little spaniels, scaring nobody, running between nobody’s legs, but winding along shrinkingly and gracefully, seeing a master in every man, and thus flattering every man’s vanity into good-nature, but really spoiling their reputation as reliable dogs, by their undiscriminating and universal complaisance. There is a self-forgetfulness which is so deep as to be below self-respect, and such instances as we occasionally meet with should be treated compassionately, like cases of idiocy or insanity, except when found in connexion with the post-office department or among hotel waiters.

But puppyism is not really politeness. The genuine article is as necessary to success, and particularly to an enjoyable success, as integrity, or industry, or any other indispensable thing. All machinery ruins itself by friction, without the presence of a lubricating fluid. Politeness, or civility, or urbanity, or whatever we may choose to call it, is the oil which preserves the machinery of society from destruction. We are obliged to bend to one another — to step aside and let another pass, to ignore this and that personal peculiarity, to speak pleasantly when irritated, and to do a great many things to avoid abrasion and collision. In other words, in a world of selfish interests and pursuits, where every man is pursuing his own special good, we must mask our real designs in studied politeness, or mingle them with real kindness, in order to elevate the society of men above the society of wolves. Young men generally would doubtless be thoroughly astonished if they could comprehend at a single glance how greatly their personal happiness, popularity, prosperity, and usefulness depend on their manners.

I know young men who, in the discharge of their duties, imagine that if they go through them with a literal performance, they are doing all that they undertake to do. You will never see a smile upon their faces, nor hear a genial word of good fellowship from their lips; and from the manner in which their labor is performed you would never learn that they were engaged in intercourse with human beings. They carry the same manner and the same spirit into the counting-room that they do into the dog-kennel or the stable. Everybody hates such young men as these, and recoils from all contact with them. If they have business with them, they close it as soon as possible, and get out of their presence. A man who, having got his vessel under headway on the voyage of life, takes a straight course, minding nothing for the man-of-war that lies in his path, or the sloop that crosses his bow, or the fishing smacks that find game where he seeks nothing but a passage, or interposing rocks or islands, will be very sure to get terribly rubbed before he gets through — and he ought to be. I despise servility, but true and uniform politeness is the glory of any young man. It should be a politeness full of frankness and good-nature, unobtrusive and constant, and uniform in its exhibition to every class of men. The young man who is overwhelmingly polite to a celebrity or a nabob, and rude to a poor Irishman be cause he is a poor Irishman, deserves to be despised. That style of manners which combines self-respect with respect for the rights and feelings of others, especially if it be warmed up by the fires of a genial heart, is a thing to be coveted and cultivated, and it is a thing that pays, alike in cash and comfort.

The talk of manners introduces us naturally to dress and personal appearance. I believe in dress. I believe that it is the duty of all men — young and old — to make their persons, so far as practicable or possible, agreeable to those with whom they are thrown into association. I mean by this that they shall not offend by singularity, nor by slovenliness ; that they shall “make a conscience” of clean boots and finger-nails, change their linen twice a week, and not show themselves in shirt-sleeves if they can help it. Let no man know by your dress what your business is. You dress your person, not your trade. You are, if you know enough, to mould the fashion of the time to your own personal peculiarities — to make it your servant, and not allow it to be your master. Never dress in extremes. Let there always be a hint in your dress that you know the style, but, for the best of reasons, disregard its more extreme demands. The best possible impression that you can make by your dress is to make no separate impression at all ; but so to harmonize its material and shape with your personality, that it becomes tributary in the general effect, and so exclusively tributary that people cannot tell after seeing you what kind of clothes you wear. They will only remember that you look well, and somehow dress becomingly.

I suppose that I shall be met here with a protest from employers, and a kind of protest from the employed. Counsel to dress well is dangerous, is it? But everybody now dresses extravagantly ; and, as extravagant dressing is usually very far from good dressing, I think that the danger of exciting greater extravagance is very small. It may be descending into pretty small particulars, but it is proper to say that some men can dress better on fifty dollars a year than others can on one hundred, and for reasons which it is my duty to disclose. There was something in the doctrine of the loafer who maintained that “extremes justify the means,” illustrating his proposition by wearing faultless hat and boots and leaving the rest of his person in rags; but he had not touched the real philosophy of the matter. There is on every man what may be called a dress centre — a nucleus from which the rest of the dress should be developed, and unfolded. This dress-centre, or primary dress idea, is different in different persons, but it is always above the waist, the cravat, the vest, the hat, the bosom, the coat-collar, may either of them be this idea. It is always safe to locate it about the neck and chest. A beautiful cravat, sustaining a faultless dicky, is about all a man can stand without damage, in the way of elegant dress. This should form the centre. The vest should harmonize, but be modest, and all the other robing should be shaded off, until there is not an obtrusive feature. Extremities will then only be noticed. These should be faultlessly dressed, but in a manner rather to satisfy than attract attention, Everything should be subordinated to this idea; the whole dress should bow to the cravat. Any man who has made dress a study knows very well that ten dollars a year, spent about the neck, will go further than fifty dollars spread upon the person. Coarsest clothes, developed from an elegant neck-tie, or an elegant central idea of any kind, become elegant themselves, and receive and evolve a glory which costs absolutely nothing at all, except a few brains, some consideration, and the reading of this letter.

One sees the demonstration of this in travelling. We meet multitudes from all quarters and of different nationalities. One, and he is usually a Yankee, wears the best of broadcloth, and the costliest of coats, and looks vulgar; while another with a single stamp of good taste upon him, at some central point, is a gentleman at half price. Rich clothes are really a sign of mental poverty. Let the secret of good dressing be thoroughly learned, and we shall hear comparatively little of the cost of dress. Let each young man choose his central idea, plant it and develop it; and if he has good common sense he will find that he can dress better than he ever could before, with the expenditure of half the money it has usually cost him.

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