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- The Potiphar Papers - 1/24 -


[Illustration: George William Curtis]

THE POTIPHAR PAPERS

BY

GEORGE WILLIAM CURTIS

[Illustration: ILLUSTRATED BY A. HOPPIN]

"Imagination fondly stoops to trace The parlor splendors of that festive place."

_Goldsmith's Deserted Village._

"Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarise or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in."

_Burke's First Letter on a Regicide Peace._

"And I do seriously approve of that saying of yours, 'that you would rather be a civil, well-governed, well-grounded, temperate, poor angler, than a drunken lord.' But I hope there is none such."

_Walton's Angler._

"'Mon petit faquin de philosophé,' dit le Chevalier de Grammont, 'tu fais ici le Caton de Normandie.'"

"'Est-ce que je mens?' poursuivit Saint-Evremond."

_Memoires de Grammont._

PREFATORY LETTER TO REV. CREAM CHEESE.

REV. AND DEAR SIR:

It is surely unnecessary to call the attention of so astute an observer, and so austere a critic, as yourself, to the fact that the title of the leading essay in this little volume (of which, permit me to say, you are so essential an ornament) is marked as a quotation; and a quotation, as you will very well remember, from the lips of our friend, Mrs, Potiphar, herself.

Therefore, Rev. Sir, your judgment, which, you must allow me to say, is no less impartial than your experience is profound, will suggest to you that the subject of that essay (of the points of which the succeeding sketches are but elaborations) is the aspect of what is currently termed "our best society"--whether with reason or not, is beside the purpose.

Your pastoral charity, I am convinced, will persuade you to direct the attention of your parishioners to this fact, and to assure them, that, when you prepared your timely treatise upon the progress of purple chasubles among the Feejee islanders, you were not justly amenable to the charge of omitting all notice of the cultivation of artificial flowers by the Grim Tartars. The latter are, I believe, a very estimable people, but they were not the subjects of your consideration.

To those in your parish, and elsewhere, who have thought fit to suppose that Mrs. Potiphar is Mrs. Somebody-else,--what can we say? conscious as we are, that they who have once known that lady could never confound her with another.

But for those who have actually supposed you, yourself, Reverend Sir, to be, not somebody else, but nobody, (!) we can only smile compassionately, and express the hope that a broader experience may give them greater wisdom.

In taking leave of you, Sir, I know that I express the warmest wish of a large, a very large parish (might almost say, diocese) that you may long survive. For your parish is fully, and, as I think, most correctly persuaded, that while there is a Cream Cheese, there will always be a Mrs. Potiphar.

With all proper regard,

I am,

Reverend and Dear Sir,

Your very obedient,

humble servant,

THE EDITOR.

NEW YORK, _December_, 1853.

I.

"OUR BEST SOCIETY."

If gilt were only gold, or sugar-candy common sense, what a fine thing our society would be! If to lavish money upon _objets de vertu_, to wear the most costly dresses, and always to have them cut in the height of the fashion; to build houses thirty feet broad, as if they were palaces; to furnish them with all the luxurious devices of Parisian genius; to give superb banquets; at which your guests laugh, and which make you miserable; to drive a fine carriage and ape the European liveries, and crests, and coats-of-arms; to resent the friendly advances of your baker's wife, and the lady of your butcher, (you being yourself a cobbler's daughter); to talk much of the "old families" and of your aristocratic foreign friends; to despise labour; to prate of "good society;" to travesty and parody, in every conceivable way, a society which we know only in books and by the superficial observation of foreign travel, which arises out of a social organization entirely unknown to us, and which is opposed to our fundamental and essential principles; if all this were fine, what a prodigiously fine society would ours be!

This occurred to us upon lately receiving a card of invitation to a brilliant ball. We were quietly ruminating over our evening fire, with Disraeli's Wellington speech, "all tears," in our hands, with the account of a great man's burial, and a little man's triumph across the channel. So many great men gone, we mused, and such great crises impending! This democratic movement in Europe; Kossuth--and Mazzini waiting for the moment to give the word; the Russian bear watchfully sucking his paws; the Napoleonic empire redivivus; Cuba, and annexation, and slavery; California and Australia, and the consequent considerations of political economy; dear me! exclaimed we, putting on a fresh hodful of coal, we must look a little into the state of parties.

As we put down the coal-scuttle there was a knock at the door. We said, "come in," and in came a neat Alhambra-watered envelope, containing the announcement that the queen of fashion was "at home" that evening week. Later in the evening came a friend to smoke a cigar. The card was lying upon the table, and he read it with eagerness. "You'll go, of course," said he, "for you will meet all the 'best society.'"

Shall we, truly? Shall we really see the "best society of the city," the picked flower of its genius, character, and beauty? What makes the "best society" of men and women? The noblest specimens of each, of course. The men who mould the time, who refresh our faith in heroism and virtue, who make Plato and Zeno, and Shakespeare, and all Shakespeare's gentlemen, possible, again. The women, whose beauty, and sweetness, and dignity, and high accomplishment, and grace, make us understand the Greek Mythology, and weaken our desire to have some glimpse of the most famous women of history. The "best society" is that in which the virtues are most shining, which is the most charitable, forgiving, long-suffering, modest, and innocent. The "best society" is, in its very name, that in which there is the least hypocrisy and insincerity of all kinds, which recoils from, and blasts, artificiality, which is anxious to be all that it is possible to be, and which sternly reprobates all shallow pretence, all coxcombry and foppery, and insists upon simplicity as the infallible characteristic of true worth. That is the "best society," which comprises the best men and women.

Had we recently arrived from the moon, we might, upon hearing that we were to meet the "best society," have fancied that we were about to enjoy an opportunity not to be overvalued. But unfortunately we were not so freshly arrived. We had received other cards, and had perfected our toilette many times, to meet this same society, so magnificently described, and had found it the least "best" of all. Who compose it? Whom shall we meet if we go to this ball? We shall meet three classes of persons: first, those who are rich, and who have all that money can buy; second, those who belong to what are technically called "the good old families," because some ancestor was a man of mark in the state or country, or was very rich, and has kept the fortune in the family; and thirdly, a swarm of youths who can dance dexterously, and who are invited for that purpose. Now these are all arbitrary and factitious distinctions upon which to found so profound a social difference as that which exists in American, or, at least, in New York society. First, as a general rule, the rich men of every community who make their own money are not the most generally intelligent and cultivated. They have a shrewd talent which secures a fortune, and which keeps them closely at the work of amassing from their youngest years until they are old. They are sturdy men of simple tastes often. Sometimes, though rarely, very generous, but necessarily with an altogether false and exaggerated idea of the importance of money. They are rather rough, unsympathetic, and, perhaps, selfish class, who, themselves, despise purple and fine linen, and still prefer a cot-bed and a bare room, although they may be worth millions. But they are married to scheming, or ambitious, or disappointed women, whose life is a prolonged pageant, and they are dragged hither and thither in it, are bled of their golden blood, and forced into a position they do not covet and which they despise. Then there are the inheritors of wealth. How many of them inherit the


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