Chivalry is not dead, not in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the ghosts of Civil War Soldiers are still occasionally spotted, where reenactments of the siege take place annually, where some of the houses, alas, not mine, are straight out of a Margaret Mitchell antebellum fantasy.
Chivalry is not dead. It is not even really wounded. It is not even stunned, the way a bug gets slightly stunned by a pesticide it has already survived, by the poisonous culture of today. However, chivalry is not alone in the South today. Chivalry lives next to unimaginably bad manners, and perhaps it always has.
Chivalry is not dead in the historic town of Vicksburg
On one hand, the one that is getting kissed, perhaps, in this photo, men are still gallant. Yes, I said gallant, not just because hand-kissing still exists once in a blue moon.
For some reason, I have always been the kind of woman who gets her hand kissed, even on the beach. It started when I was twelve. Throughout my young years, young adulthood, and then, now, in my — ahem — prime, men have chosen that gesture to express their feelings about me, or maybe they thought since conventional methods to get me alone wouldn’t work, perhaps old-fashioned ones would work better. Maybe I have nice hands. Maybe I’m just too tall to kiss on the lips. Whatever the reason, men kiss my hand. Here, my husband kisses my hand. I don’t know that he has ever performed that gesture with another woman — he doesn’t strike me as the hand-kissing type altogether, too modern, but with me, it feels natural to him to do so.
However, as I said, I am not just talking about hand-kissing. I’m talking about real, unimaginably old-fashioned reenacted gallantry.
For instance, we had our electrical contractors, from a company called without a whisper of irony Joe Gay Electric, in the house installing new lights and making slight repairs. I was in the house making sure my wishes were carried out.
One of the Joe Gay men, a sweet-faced guy named Pete, asked me very politely if I might not have a needle. At that point, I had unpacked nothing, so I apologized that no, I did not have one. The foreman asked him why he needed a needle.
“To drain the blood out of this thing.”
He held up a thumb that had received some kind of significant trauma under the nail. It wasn’t quite bad enough to go to the emergency room, but almost, and he looked like he was suffering.
“You sure did bang up your thumb, Pete!” Said the foreman, examining it under a light, “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you scream none. That must have hurt!”
“Well,” Pete said sheepishly, leaning his head in my direction, “I couldn’t cuss with a lady present.”
Because I was there, he felt he couldn’t trust himself not to curse in pain, so he held it in — a wounded rebel soldier who would not offend his hoop-skirted hostess as the minie hit him. I found myself uttering words I thought I would never say, not in the twenty-first century, not out of this Brooklyn mouth where such a construct does not linguistically exist:
“I thank you, sir, for your gallantry.”
Such a phrase was surely uttered by Melanie Wilkes between the barbeque at Twelve Oaks and Sherman’s takeover of Atlanta. Such a phrase would not have been uttered even by Scarlet O’Hara, who would have found it too mealy-mouthed, unless she was trying to charm something out of someone. Yet, it came out of my mouth, here in Vicksburg, in my own home.
Other men open doors, walk me to the place I am going where I am lost, carry my packages when I am overburdened, this without expectation of any return but of perhaps some word of thanks. Since moving South, I have been the recipient of some chivalry, and I’m not pregnant, not elderly, not infirm, and not so luscious as I might inspire men to do anything at all to speak to me. There are plenty of chivalrous men. No, Southern chivalry is breathing, walking around, and ordering grits for breakfast at Waffle House.
However, chivalry co-exists with some of the worst manners I have ever even heard of.
The flip side of the Confederate coin.
Remember that I come from Brooklyn, a place where the signs welcoming one to the Borough say “fuggetaboutit,” instead of , “welcome, gentle visitors, to our humble abode.”
Men shove women out of the way in an effort to get a cab in a rain storm in New York City. They bump into each other and don’t say, “excuse me.” They complain about each other within earshot of each other. At best it’s frank, but at other times, New Yorkers can be downright rude.
That said, I have come to understand that certain Southerners, the kind that end up on Jerry Springer throwing chairs, have worse manners than any I encountered in New York, and that’s saying something.
To the right of this text is a political illustration of a Southern representative in Congress in 1856 caning a Yankee congressman during a session. Without going into what turned into a war between the states, that’s just bad manners, shocking, horrible bad manners.
A young man of my acquaintance down here recently lost his father. An older man he knew and who did not like him took that particular moment as the time to tell this young man, while his father was dying, that his father was a no-good %&*%# who deserved to die. If someone in New York tried being mean like that in a place where he could be overheard, even by strangers, he would find himself surrounded by people demanding an apology for the young man, even threatening him with violence if he didn’t apologize. That didn’t happen in this case.
I remember reading in a short story by Allan Gurganus, the Southern writer, the following phrase, “Now there’s mean, and then there’s country mean.”
We’re talking country mean.
A woman I have some contact with had every reason to thank me. I had done a large number of very nice things for her daughters, purchased them presents, treated them honorably, and generally showed them kindness. Far from being grateful, she subsequently went out of her way to insult me in front of her daughters and my husband.
I was kind enough to get a young woman down here a designer purse from New York, precisely the kind she said she dreamed of owning. Not only did she not thank me, she insulted Yankees the next time she saw me. Then she had the nerve to ask for another designer purse.
I can hear all the Brooklyn girls wagging their heads, shouting, “Oh no she di-nt!” Oh, yes, she did. No one in NYC would ever expect a second act of kindness after a display like that of bad, bad manners.
So why do chivalry and Jerry Springer manners cohabit this region of the country in quite this way? I have been pondering this. Perhaps the people with really good manners are just too polite to tell the people with really bad manners where they can go.
Me, I’m from Brooklyn. I’m a lady. People kiss my hand, even on Coney Island Beach — seriously! I think that the best of manners must be tempered with a measure of frank confrontation. No one should countenance bullies. Bitchiness followed by the words, “bless her heart” is still bitchiness. In Brooklyn, we tell people who are rude they are being rude. Occasionally, it may come to blows, but not with me — I’m six feet tall, and I look like I know a good lawyer if my mere physicality doesn’t intimidate someone rude. Most of the time, we don’t invite the rude people back, the way they do around here. My husband was surprised that I would not invite the rude girl who insulted Yankees and wanted new purses from the Yankees she insulted to our wedding. People down here, the chivalrous ones, they just keep the wheels turning, never confronting the ones who abuse the social system. In Brooklyn, we call people out. Then we either fight, or — we just fuggetaboutit.