The Unholy Pleasure: My life-long recovery from snobbery.

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Jan. 24 2011 7:08 AM

The Unholy Pleasure

My life-long recovery from snobbery.

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I began to draw conclusions from things that my mother had told me about my father's childhood. I construed every fact as romantically as possible. My grandfather married six times and died young? Why then he was a bonvivant! I preferred the most handsome photograph of him, one in which he is posed with a briefcase and wearing a plaid waistcoat under his suit, the very picture of the amiable, world-traveling Jules Verne character. He was, after all, in the rather mysterious and alluring import-export business. And his forebears—why, two of them, his father and great-uncle, had their very own entries in Western Pennsylvanians, a volume so ludicrous I would not believe it existed, were it not for its permanent residence on my parents' living-room bookshelf, with sewn bindings and two black covers, the title embossed on the cover in gold, the pages of heavy stock bearing elegant black-and-white photographs. The mere existence of "Who's Who" volumes like this one, edited by one Charles Alexander Rook and published in 1923, hints at the tragedy of the snob, which is that he needs to think he is grand just to think he is worthwhile.

But then plain, denuded truth is not much fun, is it? Life without family coats of arms is much less colorful. Not only for the person who lives without family mythology, but for her friends and loved ones, too. It is interesting, after all, to have a friend who says she is descended from a long line of pathbreaking feminists; one does not want to fact-check her stories; one does not want to apply any Google scrutiny. It is delightful to marry somebody whose grandmother says that her grandmother was a baroness, and it is all the more delightful if her stories seem just barely plausible. I imagine Australians sit around drinking their Foster's, competing to see whose great-great-grandparents committed the more heinous crimes to get exiled to the penal colony.

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I have long wondered how to make sense of snobbery's many faces. Wherever snobbery can be found, it is evidence of insecurity, even emotional poverty; and yet it is frequently one of life's great pleasures. Consider two favorite books of my early teenage years, both of which I was to discover have wide followings. Their titles live in the lingua franca of Anglo-American snobbery, and when you meet someone else who loves one of these books, there is immediately a lot of knowing, no-need-to-speak smiling and nodding.

The first book is The Official Preppy Handbook, by Lisa Birnbach. I found this 1980 book around 1989, I think the summer after my first year at Loomis, a reasonably well-regarded prep school in northern Connecticut, one that now might be described as producing good food writers: Corby Kummer of the Atlantic magazine and Frank Bruni, past restaurant critic for the New York Times, are both alumni. In my first year at Loomis, I had just begun to make sense of the welter of different fashions, codes, and shibboleths that constitute boarding-school style (it did not help that I was a day student, so definitely second-class). For example, I had figured out that there was something classy about leaving old lift tickets from ski slopes dangling from the tab of one's parka zipper. I had quickly mastered that a certain amount of fraying of the cuffs connoted elegance. There was a premium on the appearance of age: nothing too shiny. And there was something special, I gathered, about wearing clothes bearing the names of prep schools other than one's own: It suggested that your friends, whose shirts you gathered off the floor of one Maine cabin or another, also attended prep schools.

But Miss Birnbach, with the zeal of an outsider—she was Jewish, and attended a day school outside New York—had the wonderful gumption to spell out which schools were preppy, which not; which vacation locales were exclusive, which were drearily democratic; which clothes could be worn, which really ought not. One chapter explained the differing connotations of loafers and top-siders. And she had figured out the mysterious principles behind certain seemingly arbitrary, but quite undeniable, pecking orders. For example, in sport, the smaller the ball, the higher-class the sport. Hence squash outranks tennis, lacrosse outranks football. You can quibble with the examples, but Birnbach had a genius for making explicit and comprehensible what otherwise, especially to the neophyte, could seem a bewildering set of unwritten laws.

I suspect that Birnbach was deeply conflicted about prepdom, and probably hated some of the preppiest people she knew, and thus was eager to describe them as the superficial twits they were. She smartly chose to use humor as her weapon, and I think she also found a certain refuge herself in the snobbery she was describing. She thus offered a witty, fairly generous-spirited version of preppy snobbery: She was aware of its foibles but seduced by them nonetheless. And what she wrote was, after all, a handbook; it allowed anyone who read it, like 14-year-old me, to walk a little more confidently in the world it so cleanly dissected. In fact, after acquiring The Official Preppy Handbook, I decided that I was in possession of knowledge that many of my richer, more truly preppy classmates lacked. They didn't seem to know which three schools were known collectively as "St. Grottlesex," but I did—so who was the real insider?

At about the same age, my friend Derek's father, a minister with a mischievous sense of humor who himself liked to observe, and indulge in, various benign snobberies, took me and Derek into a shopping-mall Waldenbooks and bought for me a copy of Paul Fussell's Class, a crueler, funnier, and more intellectually penetrating improvement on The Official Preppy Handbook. Class is different in that Fussell, by training a literary critic, is concerned not just with the upper class but also with the various lower classes ("upper middles," "upper proles," "low proles," and the like). He wants to describe the wardrobes and decors, and plumb the psyches and neuroses, of all Americans. What in Birnbach is always good fun—after all, whether mocking or exalting she is always writing about privileged white people—in Fussell is often like vivisection, performed not on pampered purebreds but on hapless, unwilling mutts.

What is amazing about Fussell is his totally self-confident prescriptivism: He writes omnisciently, as if he were Nabokov pinning butterflies. According to Fussell, there are three categories of American: upper, middle, and prole. Within each of those categories, there are three subcategories. The people at the top and the bottom can be quite similar, in that one never sees them (the upper-most uppers are at the ends of very long driveways, the lowest lowers are in homeless shelters or in prisons), in that they can be quite stupid, and in that they think very little about class. Those to be despised are the striving middles. (One is put in mind of the famous line about patrician New York mayor John Lindsay, that he liked only the very rich and the very poor.) A sampling of Fussell's pronouncements: "Billiards has status only if a separate room, rather large, is devoted to it exclusively. Billiard tables which, once a cover is set into place, become the family dining table are high-prole." "One way to learn which flowers are vulgar is to notice the varieties favored on Sunday-morning TV religious programs like Rex Humbard's or Robert Schuller's." "If you drink martinis after dinner, you are a prole."

Fussell, perhaps terrified of the assuredness of the taxonomy he's created, adds another category: Category X. "Some Xs are intellectuals," Fussell writes, "but a lot are not: they are actors, musicians, sports stars, 'celebrities,' well-to-do former hippies, confirmed residers abroad, and the more gifted journalists, those whose by-lines intelligent readers recognize with pleasant anticipation." In other words, Fussell and his friends. His X category is presaged by an exchange between Martin Amis' brother Louis and their father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, recounted in Martin's memoir, Experience: "—Dad. —Yes. —What class are we? —We aren't. We don't buy that stuff. —Then what are we? —We're outside all that. We're the intelligentsia."

It's to Fussell's credit that, like the adult Martin Amis, he realizes this Category X business is sustained by wishful thinking. Nobody is outside the class system, and in fact Category X people are a cliché unto themselves: "L.L. Bean and Lands' End are the main costumers for X people," Fussell writes, intentionally undermining his contention that Category X is any sort of meaningful escape hatch.

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