Work in Progress #21: How My Emily Post Biography Is a Bit Like… Edith Wharton: The Sequel!

Young Emily Post

Young Emily Post

Sequels are very popular these days, which is not good news for historical biographers.  Our subjects tend to die at the end of the story.

When I set out to do a biography of Emily Post three years ago, I certainly wasn’t thinking of the book as a sequel to Edith Wharton. No one was more surprised than I when I noticed that Emily Post (born in 1872, ten years after Edith) addressed the same question that formed an overarching theme in many of Edith’s novels: are social mores just so many snares to trip people up or do they serve some useful purpose?  (See my previous blog… The Haunting Quality of Edith Wharton)

Manners do serve a useful purpose, Emily insisted, not only in the pages of her 1922 Book of Etiquette (and subsequent nine revisions between the original edition and her death in 1960) but in the way she lived through a humiliating divorce, the death of a son, two world wars, the “Roaring ‘20s”, and the Great Depression with unwavering dignity and charm that caused people to look to her as THE authority on how to behave in any and all situations. “If a rule seems to be like sand in the gear box instead of the lubricating oil it is intended to be,” she insisted, “get rid of it and use home made oil instead…Whenever rules are NOT hampering, they should be followed exactly, but when they do hamper they should be discarded.”

Emily Post wrote several unmemorable novels before she reluctantly began her etiquette book and realized how passionate she was about the subject. She met Edith Wharton at a number of literary events and was aware that her novels were no match for Edith’s. But I have to wonder if Edith admired Emily’s easy social skills and her ability to adjust to the changing times (not one of Edith’s strong points!).

Both Edith and Emily were aware of the “birth, background, and breeding” fence that kept the “in-people” in and the “out people” out in Old New York society. Both were appalled by the wealth that enabled the new generation to buy their way into society and behave outrageously once they got there. But while Edith recoiled at the deterioration of society and retreated into her own private social circle, Emily marched straight ahead into the post World War I world of speakeasies and flappers. Her 1922 book democratized society not by wagging her finger at the younger generation but by revealing the real secret to proper etiquette: treat other people with consideration and proper behavior will come easily.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm WooldridgeBiography | View

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