ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, Dealy Hall, Rm. 541W, Fordham University, 441 East Fordham Rd., Bronx, NY 10458.
CAREER: Fordham University, Bronx, NY, professor of English.
(Editor, with Walter Kendrick) The Treasury of English Poetry, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1984.
(Editor) The Prose of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, Garland (New York, NY), 1987.
The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862–1954, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1988.
A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, Picador (New York, NY), 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Fordham University English professor Mark Caldwell's social history, The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862–1954, studies the tuberculosis (TB) epidemic that was the scourge of the United States and the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One seventh of the world's population succumbed to the disease during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and TB caused three times more deaths than did cancer. The supreme tragedy was that Robert Kock isolated the tubercle bacillus in 1882, but he was ridiculed by the American Medical Association because doctors of the time were suspicious of the inroads bacteriology was making into standard medical practice.
Caldwell details the rise of the sanatorium movement in the treatment of tuberculosis. These facilities, which grew from one in 1885 to 889 by 1935, controlled every aspect of their patients' lives, but were a spectacular failure. A quarter of the patients died during the course of treatment, and another half died within five years of being released. Drug treatments, available from 1945 on, are often credited with halting the spread of TB, but the disease had run its course by then.
Caldwell seeks in his book to ferret out the social and political impact of TB on American life, using sources as diverse as personal diaries and motion pictures. He concludes that the "darkness and ambiguity" surrounding the disease left an indelible mark on American culture. He also draws analogies between tuberculosis and modern-day maladies such as the AIDS epidemic. "The analogies Caldwell seeks out between TB and the afflictions of today exist in abundance," noted Michael Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "We may not want to hear it, but the history of medicine is the history of improvisation."
Goldstein praised The Last Crusade's detail and its "ability to indicate how the image of TB in the popular mind and the media both influenced and responded to developments in medicine." Susan Wood, writing for the Washington Post Book World, noted that Caldwell "raises a number of fascinating questions," and remarked that his "discussion of the sociology of the sanatorium itself—with its ironclad authority (reflected even in its architecture) and relentless optimism—is particularly interesting." New York Times Book Review contributor Leonard Groopman thought less of the book, writing that Caldwell "sees tuberculosis reflected everywhere in late nineteenth-and twentieth-century society, but he does not muster the evidence needed to clarify its significance." Groopman also commented on the "dangers of popular history written by a nonhistorian."
When Caldwell surveys American etiquette from his professor's chair at Fordham University, he is confronted with a bleak vision. "Americans have undergone periodic anxiety attacks over their manners since the dawn of the Republic," he tells readers of A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America. Caldwell notes that when the United States was founded, it had an unusual government compared to the monarchies of Europe. Set free from the moorings of hierarchical etiquette, America's nineteenth-century citizens sought to construct a new code they defined as "republican manners." Caldwell traces the development of these republican manners through the pages of the books of etiquette published during that time. Although he generally sticks to the topic of modern American manners, he casts a sidelong glance at such antecedents as Aztec rules on who gets to gnaw on a victim's heart first, and some Southern slaveholders' policy of gentility toward slaves as a way to "mitigate the inequities of the relationship." These practices have influenced table manners and the corporate code for the handling of subordinates.
Caldwell sees the modern office and factory as moral thickets. Corporate-based efforts to disguise the hierarchical structure in the workplace can be perceived alternately as compassionate or hypocritical. Other rules of etiquette have their pitfalls as well. Lying is generally seen as a bad thing by most people, yet social lying—as in the statement "all brides are beautiful"—is often viewed as useful and even desirable. Caldwell takes no sides for the most part; his observations are descriptive, not prescriptive. He notes, however, that American mistrust of rank and emphasis on individuality have made them feel ambivalent toward manners. The result is that contemporary manners rely on context. Saying "excuse me," according to Caldwell, is usually not an apology at all, but an empty phrase betraying no emotion. Flaming e-mails would seem way over the top if spoken, but seem curiously flat on the screen. Compliments masquerade as putdowns, "a fact," Caldwell observes, "without which screwball comedy would scarcely exist." Caldwell concludes in A Short History of Rudeness that "manners work best when not laden with moral significance."
David Bowman, writing for the Village Voice, commented that Caldwell's credo is "that to rebel against conventional manners is not necessarily bad, but rather increases the 'tendency to take morals seriously.'" A Publishers Weekly reviewer called A Short History of Rudeness a "witty and up-to-the-minute history," while Kent Worcester, writing for Library Journal, hailed Caldwell's work as a "book [that] has that 'can't put it down' quality that is the mark of an exceptionally strong prose stylist." Naomi Bliven, reviewing the book for the New York Times, praised it at length, commenting that Caldwell "captures such a wide range of American experience that readers are sure to find themselves somewhere in A Short History of Rudeness. His topics include weddings, funerals, raising children, factory work, lifestyles, and travel, including subway travel. But unlike the subway, he never gives a sense of crowding. He packs in his information with unobtrusive dexterity in a style that is modest, readable, intelligent, and companionable."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Futurist, January, 2000, Jeff Minerd, review of A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America, p. 6.
Insight on the News, September 6, 1999, Colin Walters, review of A Short History of Rudeness, p. 28.
Library Journal, May 15, 1999, Kent Worcester, review of A Short History of Rudeness, p. 113.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 28, 1988, Michael Goldstein, review of The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862–1954, pp. 1, 11.
New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1988, Leonard Groopman, review of The Last Crusade, p. 15; September 12, 1999, Naomi Bliven, review of A Short History of Rudeness, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1999, review of A Short History of Rudeness, p. 60.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1985, Christopher Clausen, review of The Treasury of English Poetry, pp. 157–162.
Village Voice, July 20, 1999, David Bowman, review of A Short History of Rudeness, p. 148.
Washington Post Book World, February 14, 1988, review of The Last Crusade, p. 8.