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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Silent American Society

By Joseph Dennie (1768–1812)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1768. Died in Philadelphia, Penn., 1812. From “The Farrago.”—The Port Folio. Vol. I. 1801.]

THE RIGHTS of men have been so assiduously conned in the school of Paine, it is surprising that the rights of conversation are so partially understood. Though the genius of our government is republican, yet our conversation partakes much of the old leaven of monarchy. Though our political conventions timidly limit the balanced powers of a President, yet our evening clubs, careless of equality, voluntarily become passive and silent subjects, permitting some despot to dictate and to decide. Men, when quitting their closets to combine in social joys, forget that they must give as well as receive pleasure. Dean Swift never spoke more prolixly at a time, than ten minutes would allow; but then regularly and justly expected ten minutes’ worth of instruction or amusement from others. If the Dean Swifts of American circles waited for the motion of other tongues, full soon, I ween, there would be lack of sound. Foreigners remark, to our prejudice, that taciturnity which descends in a straight line to us from our British ancestors. A modern company of gentlemen and ladies, sitting on both sides of the room, reflecting the rays of each other’s eyes, and maintaining a dead silence, reminds one more of a regiment under Prussian discipline, than of social beings, sitting at their ease, and chatting with fluency and good-humor. It has been my misfortune to pass whole evenings with weak women and men, “without a manly mind,” among whom, as Goldsmith tersely expresses it, there seemed to be a general combination in favor of stupidity. I have been compelled to sit, “with sad civility, and an aching head,” and devolve the whole stream of chat among a circle, whose heads were as vacant as their faces, and whose tongues were as silent as if mouldering in a charnel-house.

“Now this is worshipful society,” I have exclaimed, and secretly prayed that I might be wafted to Amsterdam and smoke a smutty pipe with a Dutch burgomaster; that I might exchange conditions with an oyster, alternately opening and shutting his shell on a rock; that I might be confined in a milliner’s bandbox, and doomed to hear the clamorous click-clack of feminine folly, rather than yawn for hours among silent starers who, like puppets, acted in dumb show.

To converse with spirit requires exertion, and hence even the ingenious lounger may consider conversation as a tax. The exigencies of society require that every quota be paid. He, who drone-like indolently and sullenly refuses to contribute to the common stock, is guilty of a high misdemeanor; and Sociability should enjoin on her officers to punish with severity the contempt.