A look back at a gentleman and his life
E. Digby Baltzell’s ideals of conduct are worth recollecting in these times
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 5, 1997
By Art Carey
When E. Digby Baltzell died in August, Philadelphia -- and the world -- lost not just a scholar but a gentleman.
As we begin the new year, and draw closer to the millennium, it’s a concept -- and legacy --well worth remembering, now more than ever. In an age that celebrates the Howard Sterns and Michael Irvins, the Donald Trumps and Al Dunlaps, the word seems quaint, almost anachronistic. A gentleman? What’s that? Are there any left? Does it matter?
To Baltzell, it mattered very much. The word appears in the title of two of his four books: Philadelphia Gentlemen and Sporting Gentlemen. For him, being a gentleman was not just about politeness, courtesy, good manners, and knowing which fork to use.
It was a word that encapsulated a whole constellation of character traits: honor, integrity, civility, self-control, modesty, dignity, sincerity and duty, to name a few. These were qualities once cultivated and evinced by the WASP leadership class in America, transmitted by breeding, ancestral rite and family example, reinforced at New England prep and boarding schools, displayed in sterling deeds on the playing field and the battlefield, and exercised in the corporate boardroom and in public and national service.
Being a gentleman was the essence of WASP majesty and the wellspring of WASP authority, Baltzell believed, and that authority, so crucial to a stable, civilized society, was a privilege and a responsibility, entailing the obligation to lead, to set (and live up to) high moral standards, to make a contribution to the common weal, and to live and work for something above and beyond money, material comfort and self-indulgence.
Baltzell practiced what he preached. Certainly, no one could accuse him of living ostentatiously. He dwelled in a cozily cluttered Delancey Place townhouse (only blocks from where he was born 80 years before on Rittenhouse Square) whose prevailing decor was shabby genteel.
His ruggedly handsome face was as craggy and weathered as the coast of Maine, and he dressed -- well, Central Casting couldn’t have concocted a more classic-looking college professor: askew, droopy bow tie, rumpled tweed jacket, frayed button-down shirt, baggy khaki trousers, scuffed brown oxfords.
He revered WASP values, traditions and contributions, but Baltzell was contemptuous of the upper class for losing its self-confidence, abdicating its responsibility to lead, squandering its moral capital, and violating its Christian principles by indulging in anti-Semitism, racism and mindless snobbery. “They built a great civilization. They built this country,” he said. “But they aren't doing it now.”
From time to time, Baltzell would call me to comment on something I had written or to express dismay or outrage over some fresh example of stupidity, knavery or decadence. “How’s that headmaster of yours?” he would invariably ask, referring to the headmaster of my alma mater, the Episcopal Academy. “He's Catholic, you know.” And then he would launch into a disquisition about how he admired Catholics, because they still adhered to an absolute sense of right and wrong, unlike Episcopalians, who were mired in a swamp of anything-goes relativism, foolishly twiddling with their moral compasses and fast becoming a marginal, largely ceremonial cocktail-party religion. Yes, he would say, Catholics are running many old-line WASP institutions because they still believe in traditional values, they know how to shape character, and they’re willing to impose discipline and exert authority. During the counterculture ‘60s (a period of upheaval that he loathed), he would continue, if you wanted to see college students who looked like Ivy Leaguers -- wholesome, clean-cut, respectful -- you wouldn’t visit Penn or Princeton, you would go to Villanova.
An unabashed elitist, he believed in the importance of a leadership class and an aristocracy, but an aristocracy based on talent, hard work and character, not pedigree or inherited wealth. “A crisis in moral authority has developed in modern America,” he wrote in his 1964 book, The Protestant Establishment, “largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant establishment’s unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks. . . . Any vital tradition, Biblical warnings to the contrary, requires the continuous pouring of new wine into old bottles.”
He paid close attention to ancestry and bloodlines and was exquisitely attuned to the nuances of birth, rank and caste. But he also knew, and frankly declared, that for all the so-called “right people” in the Social Register there were also plenty of bounders, rascals, poseurs, ciphers, phonies, roues, dullards, degenerates and ne’er-do-wells who, deluded by their own mystique, looked down on the vulgar hustlers and strivers who outstripped them in talent, ability and accomplishment, and sought relief from the rage of irrelevance by obsessing over the feats of dead forebears and retreating to their clubs, their hounds, their horses, their racquets or the bottle.
He was blissfully at home on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, his beloved alma mater and the place where he spent his career as a sociologist. But he was appalled by the moral vacuum, the “progressive” permissiveness of liberalism gone amok, and the refusal of wimpy college administrators and spineless bureaucrats to articulate and uphold standards of conduct and acceptable behavior. “We tolerate anything,” he said. “How many students get caught cheating at Penn? Nobody!”
He was a Philadelphian through and through, a man who loved and was proud of his native city. But he was intolerant of its smug mediocrity; its Quaker mistrust of authority, bold individualism and reaching for excellence (the theme of his 1979 book, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia); and its corrosive penchant for self-deprecation, what Owen Wister called “a civic instinct for disparagement.”
He believed deeply in “equality of people under God, equality of soul, equality of human dignity, equality before the law,” but he was a fierce foe of egalitarianism -- the notion that everyone can and should be equal and that it is the government’s job to rig the results -- because it was anti-hierarchical (hierarchy is a prerequisite for authority, he contended) and inimical to excellence.
In his later years, he became increasingly cranky and pessimistic about the future of the country and the fate of Western civilization. He was deeply disturbed by the breakdown of the family, which he attributed directly to the easy dissolution of marriage. “Adultery is only a sin,” he said, “but divorce is the ruination of society.”
Americans today are “aspiring downward,” stalking sensation and sensual pleasure, emulating and idolizing the dregs rather than the cream. The old class structure is collapsing, being swallowed up by an ever-burgeoning middle class. As a society, we are leveling out, he said, but “instead of leveling upward, we’re leveling downward.”
“The whole idea of class is irrelevant now,” he said. “We've got a classless, bureaucratic society, and I think that is not healthy. It leads to totalitarianism.”
Baltzell’s final book, Sporting Gentlemen, which was published in 1995, was ostensibly a fond history of men’s tennis in America. But it was much more than that. As its subtitle -- “Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar” -- suggests, it was also a wistful polemic and elegiac salute to the fading ethos of amateurism and good sportsmanship.
In the rise and fall of amateur tennis, from cultivated gentlemen like Bill Tilden and Arthur Ashe to mercenary brats like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Baltzell found a metaphor for many of the themes he had spent his life writing about, and a pulpit from which to deliver a swan-song sermon about what counts in life:
“It is important to remember that the word amateur derives from the Latin amare, meaning ‘to love.’ The amateur plays the game for the love of the process and not for the prize,” he wrote in the book’s concluding chapter. “In a very real sense, although we should hate to admit it, are not more and more of us, not only in the tennis, baseball or football businesses, but also in the law, medicine and education businesses . . . making more and more of our lives into means to money rather than ends in themselves?
“The more our greatest and most talented athletes sell themselves to the entertainment business, the more they lose the sense of fun and joy in competing. And we Americans have never been so over-entertained, and never so bored and joyless.”
In the end, there was something poignant, almost tragic, about his fierce nostalgia for a time long gone, his vain quest to recover and revive the dying grace and grandeur of his class. In a way, he brought to mind Fitzgerald’s line in The Great Gatsby. He beat on, a boat against the current, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But if it was romantic and futile, his quest was nonetheless noble and worthwhile, for he reminded us all that with the passing of the ancien regime and the decay of the WASP establishment, we’ve all lost something good, true and beneficial: the Anglo-American ideals of proper conduct and decorum, of gentlemanliness and sportsmanship, those unwritten class codes of honor, decency, deference and what Edward Gibbon called “manly virtue.”
Little wonder we are living today in such a fractious, anarchic and diminished age.