October 27, 2003

Henry Canby - the ol' lech

I bought an antique book, more or less at random, at a Tampa bookshop this summer because I was on vacation which meant it was not just my right but obligation to buy something. It was by Henry Seidel Canby, authored in the 1930s about life in the 1890s, in which he waxes nostalgic about what he called the "age of confidence". The passage below has enough of a ring of truth to be interesting though I don't quite know what to make of it. To set it up, he says the '90s were a time in which at social gatherings the sexes would intermingle for a bit before dinner but afterwards, to the great relief of both the men and the women - they would divide by sex and go into different rooms:
For these men and women (good friends all) had tacitly agreed to look upon each other as sexless, and that was becoming fatal to their companionship. By convention as strong as faith, they left out of their relationship precisely that which might have made it as stimulating as a meeting between a congenial man or woman and sympathetic woman. Hence my father and the wife of his oldest friend, stranded in a corner, relapsed into silences... Hence every man was all man in his club or business or at the saloon bar, but less than man in the company of any respectable woman but his mother or his wife. And every married woman was less than woman in mixed soceity because her sex was dormant, canalized, inhibited...It is enough that the most settled should know that their nature is still tender, and inflammable by nature if not by will. We, in our early middle age, talked to middle-aged women as if they were cinders - agreeable, yes, admirable often, interesting often, yet cinders, good for home walks and garden beds, but long emptied of fire - and like cinders they responded. --Henry Canby
My mother-in-law says that one of the things she likes about her non-denom church is that she feels "safe" because no one looks at her in that way, which is certainly understandable. For others, perhaps, there is a bit of disappointment if no one recognizes that their "nature is still tender, inflammable by nature".

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