Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 182: Ward McAllister, Success in Entertaining (#48)

Ward McAllister, "Success in Entertaining" (1890) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

"Hate-watching" has found its appropriate 19th-century corollary, the "hate-read." That is, just as today some people will watch some show primarily to be annoyed by it (and then usually to share that annoyance online), so the only way I could get through McAllister's piece is by holding it above my head so that I could read it as I continually rolled my eyes. Is there any other way to read sentences like this:
Success in entertaining is accomplished by magnetism and tact, which combined constitute social genius. It is the ladder to social success. If successfully done, it naturally creates jealousy.
Really? In McAllister's world, genius and success lead to jealousy--not as an unfortunate side-effect, but as the marker of triumph. Soon after this he quickly notes stories of people driven from America because they couldn't throw elaborate dinners and of friendships broken up over soup.

But McAllister doesn't really live in a world of friendship. The highest social genius is concealing your feelings; and when you arrange a dinner, you should think about who is desirable to invite. And even when dealing with your chef, you should--if you follow McAllister--found that relationship on manipulation and flattery.

McAllister lives in a world of affected manners and artificiality; but what really sinks this piece is how po-faced and serious the whole thing is. Even back in the day, William Dean Howells critiqued this failure:
It is always and everywhere amusing to see a plutocracy trying to turn into an aristocracy, and that is what Mr. McAllister shows us with no apparent sense of its comicality.
If there was some sense of joy in the listing of the best foods to serve at the best times, I could take this piece. But there's nothing here beyond the anxiety of trying to seem cultivated, the persistent problem of the nouveau, the arriviste, and the married-into-money--as Ward himself was. The overarching feeling for a reader today will probably be sadness and pity.

And doubly so since Ward McAllister got cut by the very society he attempted to codify: when he wrote the book that this piece was from, the high society of New York seemed to turn on him. You can use and manipulate people within the club--but once you expose their hollowness to the hoi polloi, you're dead to them.

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