Books March 2009

Class Dismissed

A new status anxiety is infecting affluent hipdom
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Richard Thompson

Some 25 years have passed since the publication of Paul Fussell’s naughty treat Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, and I think this quarter-century mark merits the raising of either a yachting pennant, an American flag, or a wind sock with the Budweiser logo (corresponding to Fussell’s demarcations of Upper Class, Middle Class, and Prole). For readers who somehow missed this snide, martini-dry American classic, do have your assistant Tessa run out and get it immediately (Upper), or at least be sure to worriedly skim this magazine summary over a low-fat bagel (Middle), because Fussell’s bibelot-rich tropes still resonate.

Back in 1983, Fussell—author of the renowned book The Great War and Modern Memory—argued that although Americans loathe discussing social class, this relatively new, rugged country of ours did indeed have a British-style class system, if less defined by money than by that elusive quality called taste. To be sure, Fussell’s universe is somewhat passé, in that its population is almost exclusively white (with the Mafia thrown in for color), and the three “classes” in his opening primer conform to clichés we might think of as Old-Money Wasp, Midwestern Insurance Salesman, and Southern Trailer Trash. The top classes, according to Fussell (with a hint of Nancy Mitford), drink Scotch on the rocks in a tumbler decorated with sailboats and say “Grandfather died”; Middles say “Martooni” and “Grandma passed away”; Proles drink domestic beer in a can and say “Uncle was taken to Jesus.”

The still-fresh guilty pleasure of the reading, however, comes from the insistent unspooling, with an almost Ptolemaic complexity, of Fussell’s cocktail-party-ready argument. (I picture him in rumpled tie elbowing his laughing-head-into-her-hands hostess while he gestures breezily with a glass of chardonnay—white wine itself being much classier in 1983 than now.) By chapter two, Fussell is revealing that he believes there are actually nine classes (Top Out-of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight). His Heart of Darkness journey wends boldly past unicorns (High Prole), ladies’ thimble collections (Middle), men’s hobbies (“One must learn that fishing in fresh water is classier than in salt, and that if salmon and trout are the things to catch, a catfish is something by all means to avoid catching”), the Sunbrella hat (for which he reserves a timeless—and I think appropriate—ire), “parody” hats favored by the upper-middle class such as Pat Moynihan’s tweedy bog cap, and the perils of the dark-blue visored “Greek fisherman’s cap” as advertised in The New Yorker (New Yorker ads themselves being, Fussell explains, crucibles of middle-class high anxiety). God forbid you get that cap in black leather (“Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes”). He even threads through the subtle lexicon of tie patterns—from “amoeba-like foulard blobs” (Upper), signal flags (Upper Middle), musical notes (sliding downward), to Oh Hell, It’s Monday (quite low), with special horror reserved for the southwestern bola (“Says the bola, ‘The person wearing me is a child of nature, even though actually eighty years old’”). Literally no stone—or soapstone—goes unturned.

The high-prole bathroom reveals two contradictory impulses at war: one is the desire to exhibit a “hospital” standard of cleanliness, which means splashing a lot of Lysol or Pine Oil around; the other is to display as much fanciness and luxury as possible, which means a lurch in the opposite direction, toward fur toilet seat covers and towels which don’t work not merely because they are made largely of Dacron but also because a third of the remaining threads are “gold.”

The experience of reading (and re-reading) Class is akin to wiping goggles one didn’t know were fogged. Fussell’s methodology settles into the brain like a virus; one soon cannot stop nanocategorizing one’s world. A quarter century later, most of Fussell’s categories live on—if with some fiscal damage. Fussell’s topmost denizens were “out of sight” in hilltop manses at the end of long, curving driveways. The billionaires in Michael Tolkin’s hilariously mordant The Return of the Player are even farther out, prow-jousting at sea in their satellite-technology-equipped yachts. Indeed, this novel is such a teeth-gnashingly precise class almanac, that Tolkin should surely replace Tom Wolfe as our modern-day high-society-anxiety chronicler (at least of the West Coast variety). Tolkin is particularly hard on his people, wealthy Los Angeles Jews, a variation on the American upper class with their conspicuously consuming Hebraism. At a bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue that shares a driveway with Milken High (named deftly not for Michael but for the brother):

Torahs dressed in embroidered covers and silver breastplates stood on the branches of a sculpted tree behind a sheer curtain, like expensive boots in a winter window display.

In attendance is a “fiesta” of rich Jews:

the trim skeptical men and their two categories of wives, all of them brilliantly educated, some of them successful professionals themselves, others still drifting on the messy alibi supplied by their genuinely screwed-up relationship with their genuinely screwed-up mothers, but all of them, pediatric endocrinologists, failed Tibetan wool importers, soccer moms and private school committee volunteers, recognizing each other’s clan by a signal from within an unfakable right for their chaotic anxieties and complaints to take up space around them.

This isn’t to say that Hollywood Jews’ counterparts, Upper-Class Gentiles, are dead. Their ethos (or at least the ethos of those who aspire to Upper-Class Gentilehood) is lovingly enshrined, for instance, in Vanity Fair, with its wide-eyed revelations from the dusty alcoves of Kennedy history and obsessive detailing of the summerings, winterings, and fallings of obscure Eurotrash. (Though how I devour like stale-but-still-tasty Mon Cheri candies Dominick Dunne’s dispatches about, oh, “Arch Viscount Fernando of Capri’s 80th birthday party—he’s a Scorpio!” featuring murky snaps out from which inevitably loom, like death and taxes, Barry Diller and the shiny gorgon head of Diane von Furstenberg.) Meanwhile, tacking starboard then port around Graydon Carter’s fresh, startled horror over the latest outrages of the Bush administration (and I will miss those) are soft-focus ads pimping what appear to be blond, pink-argyle-sweater-clad, Ralph Lauren–fraternity Hitler Youth who look 30 seconds away from clubbing me (a light-mocha-hued person) over the head with an oar, or perhaps with a Nautica-logo polo mallet, sunglasses by Fendi.

Magazine reading for Middles, though (moving the goalposts in from both coasts), is best defined by the literary output of staid airlines such as Southwest, Delta, and Continental (as opposed to the more edgily cosmopolitan JetBlue and Virgin). Luxuriously Middle are those sumptuous photo ads for restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Why two names?) featuring mute, glistening hillocks of beef. (What is it about a close-up of a filet’s dewy, reddened inside that so tempts the in-flight reader?) And how exquisitely State Farm Middle Manager are the matchmaking ads of Selective Search and It’s Just Lunch!, with their come-hither phalanxes of kitten-nosed executive female “lunch directors”? Their unquestioned queen, I’ve ferreted out, is President Barbie Adler, with her strangely hypnotic execu-speak about eliminating “the pain points” in the dating process, as though the solution to contemporary romance is a Tucson-based chiropractic laser procedure performed on tibiae thrown out in racquetball.

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