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Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America

David Shields

Paper: 978-0-8078-4656-8 ($33.95)

Copyright 1997
University of North Carolina Press

In cities from Boston to Charleston, elite men and women of eighteenth-century British America came together in private venues to script a polite culture. By examining their various 'texts'—conversations, letters, newspapers, and privately circulated manuscripts—David Shields reconstructs the discourse of civility that flourished in and further shaped elite society in British America.

About the Author

David S. Shields is professor of English at The Citadel.


In this wonderful book, David Shields brilliantly recovers the disappeared world of eighteenth-century belles lettres as a set of performances at coffeehouses, private societies, literary salons, clubs, colleges, balls, and gaming tables. Whether poetry or prose, these circulated texts, written not for posterity but as group communications, served to display wit, to create shared pleasure, and to preserve genteel society. Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters permanently changes our understanding of eighteenth-century literary history and offers a powerful account of the fate of social pleasure in American culture.

--Jay Fliegelman

The argument of this exceptional book is deceptively simple, that ‘belles lettres,’ a concept colonial writers owed to their English contemporaries, arose and flourished in distinctive sites or places—the salon, the coffeehouse, a royal governor’s retinue. In pursuing this argument and filling out the details of the story, David Shields has performed remarkable feats of recovery and interpretation. Here is literary history that in an exemplary manner links the history of taste and aesthetics with the social history of literary production.

--David D. Hall

Shields has transformed our understanding of the cultural and literary history of British America. Taking readers into the salons, coffeehouses, clubs, and tea tables of the colonies, he introduces us to . . . not only the men whose presence we might have anticipated but the previously invisible women who were central to these discursive institutions. Learned and elegant, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters illuminates the world in which a provincial elite constituted sociability and in the process defined themselves.

--Mary Kelley

Shields explores compellingly the role of private societies—salons, clubs, coffeehouses, tavern companies, tea tables, balls, and ritual assemblies—in invoking free discourse and civility in British America. . . . Scholars of British America and early American literature will find this book the most valuable, as will any reader interested in the 18th century's 'Republic of Letters'.

--Library Journal

A stunning portrait of the culture of the private literary societies and circles that sprouted up in the more cosmopolitan centers of the eighteenth-century British-American colonies.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

An immensely learned and stimulating account of cultural change at a crucial time in British America.

--New England Quarterly

Civil Tongues is not only indispensable study for any student of British America, it is also one of the most pleasurable reading events of the year.

--Over Here

Shields's learned book creates an archivally informed and balanced picture of eighteenth-century elite culture in Anglo-America. . . . [A] splendid book.

--American Literature

Glittering descriptions and insightful analysis. . . . For the sheer pleasure of it, the reader should indulge.


Civil Tongues uses manuscript sources to make the different colonial milieus in which belles lettres were practiced come alive. . . . [Shields's] critical exuberance has the happy side-effect of transforming Civil Tongues into a virtual sourcebook for the fields of both belles lettres and British-American culture. . . . Civil Tongues should prove to be required reading for scholars of eighteenth-century America, but because it can be read as a case study in the ways that communitarian cultures often depend upon tacit assumptions of ethnic and racial homogeneity, its implications extend well beyond the field of colonial American studies.

--South Atlantic Review

Examines the complexities of private society with detailed, lively accounts of the coffeehouses, clubs, salons, balls, and tea times of eighteenth-century America. Shields recreates an exuberant social exchange that provides a significant contribution for scholars, students, and general readers of British-American history and culture. . . . An invaluable source of archival writings, poetry, letters, gazettes, all meticulously gathered for this collection. . . . Not only testifies to women's influence on public discourse but also suggests exciting directions for future scholarship in what is certainly a landmark study.

--Women's Studies