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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Foam And Current

Title:     Foam And Current
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Sometimes, on the beach at Newport, I look at the gayly dressed ladies in their phaetons, and then at the foam which trembles on the breaking wave, or lies palpitating in creamy masses on the beach. It is as pretty as they, as light, as fresh, as delicate, as changing; and no doubt the graceful foam, if it thinks at all, fancies that it is the chief consummate product of the ocean, and that the main end of the vast currents of the mighty deep is to yield a few glittering bubbles like those. At least, this seems to me what many of the fair ladies think, as to themselves.

Here is a nation in which the most momentous social and political experiment ever tried by man is being worked out, day by day. There is something ocean-like in the way in which the great currents of life, race, religion, temperament are here chafing with each other, safe from the storms through which all monarchical countries may yet have to pass. As these great currents heave, there are tossed up in every watering-place and every city in America, as on an ocean beach, certain pretty bubbles of foam; and each spot, we may suppose, counts its own bubbles brighter than those of its neighbors, and christens them "society."

It is an unceasing wonder to a thoughtful person, at any such resort, to see the unconscious way in which fashionable society accepts the foam, and ignores the currents. You hear people talk of "a position in society," "the influential circles in society," as if the position they mean were not liable to be shifted in a day; as if the essential influences in America were not mainly to be sought outside the world of fashion. In other countries it is very different. The circle of social caste, whose centre you touch in London, radiates to the farthest shores of the British empire; the upper class controls, not merely fashion, but government; it rules in country as well as city; genius and wealth are but its tributaries. Wherever it is not so, it is because England is so far Americanized. But in America the social prestige of the cities is nothing in the country; it is a matter of the pavement, of a three-mile radius.

Go to the farthest borders of England: there are still the "county families," and you meet servants in livery. On the other hand, in a little village in northern New Hampshire, my friend was visited in the evening by the landlady, who said that several of their "most fashionable ladies" had happened in, and she would like to show them her guest's bonnet. Then the different cities ignore each other: the rulers of select circles in New York may find themselves nobodies in Washington, while a Washington social passport counts for as little in New York. Boston and Philadelphia affect to ignore both; and St. Louis and San Francisco have their own standards. The utmost social prestige in America is local, provincial, a matter of the square inch: it is as if the foam of each particular beach along the seacoast were to call itself "society."

There is something pathetic, therefore, in the unwearied pains taken by ambitious women to establish a place in some little, local, transitory domain, to "bring out" their daughters for exhibition on a given evening, to form a circle for them, to marry them well. A dozen years hence the millionaires whose notice they seek may be paupers, or these ladies may be dwelling in some other city, where the visiting cards will bear wholly different names. How idle to attempt to transport into American life the social traditions and delusions which require monarchy and primogeniture, and a standing army, to keep them up--and which cannot always hold their own in England, even with the aid of these!

Every woman, like every man, has a natural desire for influence; and if this instinct yearns, as it often should yearn, to take in more than her own family, she must seek it somewhere outside. I know women who bring to bear on the building-up of a frivolous social circle--frivolous, because it is not really brilliant, but only showy; not really gay, but only bored-- talent and energy enough to influence the mind and thought of the nation, if only employed in some effective way. Who are the women of real influence in America? They are the schoolteachers, through whose hands each successive American generation has to pass; they are those wives of public men who share their husbands' labor, and help mould their work; they are those women who, through their personal eloquence or through the press, are distinctly influencing the American people in its growth. The influence of such women is felt for good or for evil in every page they print, every newspaper column they fill: the individual women may be unworthy their posts, but it is they who have got hold of the lever, and gone the right way to work. As American society is constituted, the largest "social success" that can be attained here is trivial and local; and you have to "make believe very hard," like that other imaginary Marchioness, to find in it any career worth mentioning. That is the foam, but these other women are dealing with the main currents.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Foam And Current