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French Ways and Their Meaning by Edith Wharton

Updated: Jul 1, 2019

First published 1919

This work was written during World War I to help American soldiers understand French culture in comparison with their own. Wharton identifies four qualities she considers integral to French culture: Reverence, Taste, Intellectual Honesty, Continuity. Here are some excerpts:

1. Reverence

“Reverence” may be the wasteful fear of an old taboo; but it is also the sense of the preciousness of long accumulations of experience.

America, because of her origin, tends to irreverence, impatience, to all sorts of rash and contemptuous short-cuts; France, for the same reason, to routine, precedent, tradition, the beaten path. Therefore it ought to help each nation to apply to herself the corrective of the other's example; and America can profit more by seeking to find out why France is reverent, and what she reveres, than by trying to inoculate her with a flippant disregard of her own past.

2. Taste

The artistic integrity of the French has led them to feel from the beginning that there is no difference in kind between the curve of a woman's hat-brim and the curve of a Rodin marble, or between the droop of an upholsterer's curtain and that of the branches along a great avenue laid out by Le Nôtre.

It is just because the French are naturally endowed with taste that they attach such importance to cultivation, and that French standards of education are so infinitely higher and more severe than those existing in Anglo-Saxon countries.

3. Intellectual Honesty

The singular superiority of the French has always lain in their intellectual courage. Other races and nations have been equally distinguished for moral courage, but too often it has been placed at the service of ideas they were afraid to analyse. The French always want to find out first just what the conceptions they are fighting for are worth.

It is this innate intellectual honesty, the specific distinction of the race, which has made it the torch-bearer of the world. But Butler's celebrated: “Things are as they are and will be as they will be” might have been the motto of the French intellect. It is an axiom that makes dull minds droop, but exalts the brain imaginative enough to be amazed before the marvel of things as they are.

The odd Anglo-Saxon view that a love of beauty and an interest in ideas imply effeminacy is quite unintelligible to the French; as unintelligible as, for instance, the other notion that athletics make men manly.

4. Continuity

Any one who really wants to understand France must bear in mind that French culture is the most homogeneous and uninterrupted culture the world has known.

The people of France went on living in France, surviving cataclysms, perpetuating traditions, handing down and down and down certain ways of ploughing and sowing and vine-dressing and dying and tanning and working and hoarding, in the same valleys and on the same river-banks as their immemorially remote predecessors.

Could anything be in greater contrast to the sudden uprooting of our American ancestors and their violent cutting off from all their past, when they set out to create a new state in a new hemisphere, in a new climate, and out of new materials?

The collection also includes an essay entitled "The New Frenchwoman" which begins, "There is no new Frenchwoman; but the real Frenchwoman is new to America, and it may be of interest to American women to learn something of what she is really like."

For more information plus some study questions:

To read the entire text:

Plaque in Paris, France where Wharton lived from 1910-1920

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