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The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679744146
ISBN-10: 0679744142
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

If Bushman is correct, it was not until the mid-19th century that a majority of middle-class Americans displayed a concern for taste and beauty in their dress, comportment, manners and houses. From colonial times to the Revolution, he writes, gentility was the exclusive province of the gentry--wealthy merchants, planters, clergymen and professionals who copied a Renaissance-inspired ideal imitated by Europe's aristocracy. This intriguing social history shows how a diluted version of gentility became an underpinning of middle-class self-respect as millions of Americans moved into houses with book-lined parlors, consulted etiquette manuals and cultivated gardens. Bushman, a Columbia history professor, argues that the worldly, leisure-oriented genteel code clashed with egalitarian and religious values yet fueled the ethos of consumption that helped capitalism thrive. Photos. BOMC and History Book Club alternates.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

What were the effects of refinement on personalities, society, and the material world in early America? In this work, Bushman maps the spread of refinement in 18th- and 19th-century America. The first section, "Gentility, 1700-1790," takes the "parlor life" movement from the urban wealthy, spreading across the land to encompass the small-town prosperous to affluent rural estates with a refined life limited to gentry. It exerted narrow influence on the lives of middle- and working-class Americans. The second section, "Respectability, 1790-1850," maps refinement as it spread down through the social structure to include the middle class and influence the working class. During this time, gentility expanded, with more people acquiring possessions, parlors, and the mannerisms of the genteel style. Bushman does a good job of showing the historical origins of refinement, its expansion in the United States, and its reflections in current society. Important to any library interested in the cultural life of America.
- Terri P. Summey, Emporia State Univ. Lib., Kan.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (August 31, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679744142
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679744146
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #414,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
Richard L. Bushman, in his book Refinement of America, takes a fresh look at Colonial America and the cultural phenomena of the rise of "gentility." Taking a somewhat cross-disciplined approach to his material, he has combined the traditional historian's look at documentary evidence such as probate records, with an antiquarian's curatorial view of historic sites and an anthropological look at society and social customs. By close examination of the proliferation in material goods after 1690 as well as various other changes that show movement from from survival levels of existance to flourishing societies in the new colonies, Bushman lays groundwork demonstrating the profound impact that ideas of gentility had in the stratification of American society into classes. Perhaps the most interesting point that Bushman raises is the potential for cross-class mobility that existed in Colonial America. By examining the changes from one generation to the next, Bushman is able to show the push toward gentility and gentrification among a rising middle class of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Bushman, in describing the cities and society of eighteenth century America, also makes comparisons to the English and European societies--with their similar social functions and gentility. There is, however, a distinctly American and republican cast to the colonial culture that Bushman is pointing out by these comparisons. American genteel society is not merely a transplanted European aristocracy, but rather a new sort of upper class where status is gained through personal achievement; and family connections, while capable of giving advantage, are secondary to individual skills and success.
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Format: Paperback
In The Refinement of America, Richard L. Bushman focuses on gentility and how the desire to become one of society's elite led to the formation of a whole new class of consumers. The soaring demand for such accoutrements as porcelain and silver made way for industrial capitalism by creating a market economy. Bushman takes a positive outlook on the spread of commerce and gentility throughout the 18th century British Atlantic World. The gentrification and refinement of America created the desire for social mobility, the American Dream. "Gentility offered the hope that however poor or however undignified their work, could become middle class by disciplining themselves and adopting a few outward forms of genteel living." (Bushman, xvi) In this way lines between classes were blurred. Education and worldliness became more important than ever before, as being polite and well-spoken marked respectability. Bushman's work is easy to read and enjoyable. Growing up in present-day America, we are all taught by our parents to say "please" and "thank you," and Bushman offers us insight into the origins of polite culture. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning a little bit more about America (particularly, the 18th century) that is not found in school-used text books.
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By A Customer on December 18, 2003
Format: Paperback
I bought this book for an American history class in college, and absolutely loved it. The clear thesis, multiple examples, and intellectual writing style of this book made every read enjoyable, even though it was assigned reading! I'd highly recommend it for American social history buffs or anyone who enjoys masterful historical writing.
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This is one of my favorite books on colonial America, a cultural history without all the jargon (a la David Waldstreicher). It is well-written, very interesting, and the author does a great job relating the theme of consumption to the Atlantic World. The only flaw is that he never did tie in the Enlightenment to his argument, which is very obvious.
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Richard Bushman argues that what we today call manners in America resulted from our forefathers imitating Italian Renaissance court fashion and etiquette. Beginning with the American aristocracy, the gentry, the pursuit of refinement flowed downward from the mansions and plantation houses to the homes and cabins of people on the frontier. From this trickle-down process we today practice customs such as, putting our hand over our mouth when we yawn, having a living room separate from the kitchen, eating with a knife and fork, even putting brick on our houses. He carries his argument well throughout the book. Anyone wondering how or why people act the way they do will find this interesting.
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