The subject of this morning’s lecture in Writing New York was Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and its relation to the novel of manners. I explained why “manners” in this sense means more than simply “good manners” or “good taste.” Instead, it signifies the system of customs, mores, and codes that bind a social group together — a group like the Old New York society that Wharton depicts in her novel. One of the abiding subjects of Wharton’s novel is the way in which Old New York shares characteristics with the kind of tribal societies that ethnographers were beginning to study when Wharton was writing.
One of the quotes that I use to establish this idea comes from Lionel Trilling’s study The Liberal Imagination (1950):
What I understand by manners, then, is a culture