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Gentlemen and Scholars

 

[Unpublished story narrated by my grandmother circa 1939]

Not so long ago, I was reading Gone With the Wind, like everyone else in the neighborhood.  This is a book that makes quite a to-do about who is a gentleman or lady and who isn’t.  Of course, a Jew or a Negro could never be a gentleman in the South, but just who was a gentleman didn’t make any sense to me either. Miss Melanie Hamilton fears that Mr. Thackeray is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is. Yet both these highly respected English writers showed my husband what good English and good English manners were.  (Their books were in a set of Harvard Classics that he bought from a pushcart when we lived on the Lower East Side, and believe me, he learned a lot from them).  And how come Gerald O’Hara who was born poor and had very little education and was “rough of tongue” is a gentleman and Mr. Thackery in not?  It’s all a question of blood, somehow.  I asked my son about this.   

“Blood, my eye!  Mom, that book is nothing but nonsense and lies and distorted history.  Listen to me:  A gentleman by definition is a man who is able to live on his income without working.  He can have inherited land or money or both, but if he has to labor for his bread, he cannot be a gentleman.”

            “In America?  That’s just like Poland!”

            “Exactly.”

            So who needs that?  My son is sometimes too radical for me, so just to be sure I asked my husband one evening when we were playing gin rummy.

            “So,” I said, you are an educated man.  Would you say you’re a gentleman?”

            “What kind of question, right in the middle of a game?”

            “Just answer me for once.”

            “A woman asks a question like this, it’s because the man spilled soup on his shirt or belched.   So now what’s wrong?”

            “Nothing.  I’m curious.  It is true that a gentleman doesn’t work for a living, and if you have to make a living, you can’t be one?”

            “That is so.”

            “So my father and yours—they should rest in peace—they never worked a day in their lives.  Only study, study, study.  They were gentlemen?”

            “Gentlemen?  Hah!  All day long they studied Torah and Talmud, and they died as ignorant as the day they were born.  The only reason they didn’t have to go out and sweat to put food on the table was their wives sweated for them.  Like slaves, your mother and mine.  What’s more, a gentleman has for a wife a lady, and a lady doesn’t work for a living either.”

            “I don’t know about your mother because I never met her, but I can tell you my mother was a lady!”

            “Your mother was no doubt a worthy respectable woman, but, believe me, a lady she wasn’t.”
            “She was a fine woman—and my grandmother too—a model for behavior!”

            “No doubt they were.  A lot of fine women are not ladies—most I suspect.” 

He smiled. pleased with himself.

            “It sounds so disrespectful—‘My mother was not a lady’—I can hardly say it.”

            “Well, of course! The gentlemen and ladies who make up the rules want you to believe that they are respectable and you are not.  Now, look, it’s hard enough to be a mensch, let alone a gentleman.  Pay attention to your cards.”

            Okay,  Gin!  You owe me a nickel.”

            You know, I never read more than the first half of that book, even though I usually try to finish what I’m reading.  Never mind that all those fine ladies and gentlemen thought slavery was wonderful.  I simply couldn’t understand what either Scarlett O’Hara or Melanie Wilkes saw in Ashley—the biggest gentleman of them all.  Without women and slaves he couldn’t find his way to the outhouse. The movie, I have to say, was very engrossing, nevertheless.  Even though in my opinion Leslie Howard is too mature and intelligent to play Ashley Wilkes.

Alice Rosenthal