THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
‘No KIND!’ will of course be the indignant reply of anyone who takes the trouble to answer so irritating a question.
‘What is a snob?’ should then be the pertinent query following the impertinent one; and it will doubtless receive a less immediate reply, because, although we all recognize a snob when we see him (unless we happen to be looking in the mirror), we do find that a snob has to be defined with every new generation.
The Century Dictionary tells us that he is ‘one who is servile in spirit or conduct toward those whom he considers his superiors, and correspondingly proud and insolent toward those whom he considers his inferiors.’ If the snob could be reduced to a formula, this would express him fairly well; yet he is something more than that — something more and something less. The snob has always been one of the contemporary expressions of the changing surface of Society — a bubble that floats on the stream of civilization and shows the direction of the current, when the deeper causes of its ebb and flow are hidden.
In the book devoted to their interpretation seventy-five years ago, the highest authority on Snobs thus classified them: ‘You who despise your neighbor are a Snob. You who forget your own friends, meanly to follow after those of a higher degree, are a Snob; you who are ashamed of your poverty and blush for your calling, are a Snob; so are you who boast of your pedigree or are proud of your wealth.’ To this summing-up, we of the twentieth century can agree today, thanking Heaven that we are not as other men, and forgetting for the moment that Pharisee is another name for Snob.
Let us glance once more at Thackeray’s categorical list of the different varieties of snobs, and see how they compare with their descendants in the New World. First there is the ‘Snob Royal’ (he has not, of course, his exact equivalent in democratic America). Then follows the ‘Military Snob,’ who, we trust, will, at not too distant a day, be relegated to the realms of old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago. There is the ‘Clerical Snob,’ still existent at times, though happily less in evidence here than in England. We shall all agree that the ‘University Snob’ is not confined to Oxford and Cambridge; nor is the ‘Literary Snob’ absent from gatherings of the Illuminati on the New England coast, the western plains, or the slopes of the Pacific. ‘Party-giving Snobs’ were assuredly never more in evidence than in these days, when the ‘right people’ can be invited to their houses by hostesses whose personal friends and acquaintances are, socially speaking, of the blatantly wrong. ‘Dining-out Snobs’ and ‘Country Snobs’ still abound at other people’s tables and at week-end parties. Yet modern life has created various modifications of these basic types, which must be included in any enumeration of contemporary by-products of the social order.
We all know the Intellectual Snob, who loves to conjure with the names of petty poets and aspiring artists, with whom he has occasionally exchanged perfunctory platitudes over the afternoon-teacup. We have also met the Provincial Snob, whose eyebrows are raised in shocked surprise if a family is mentioned whose name is unknown in his own very local habitation. The Educational Snob is a particularly familiar phenomenon nowadays, and a childless onlooker cannot fail to be amused at the attitude of parents in regard to the schools they select for their offspring. They take such elaborate pains to explain that it is not at all because the Hobble-de-Hoy Academy is ‘ rather mixed,’ that they are taking their boy out and sending him to the Hand-Picked School; nor has fashion anything to do with little Elsie’s being sent to the Seminary of the Socially Secure: it is simply that this particular boy and girl react unfavorably to democratic conditions which are perfectly good for other people’s children.
Then there is that singular anomaly, the Inverted Snob, who balances a chip on his shoulder and thinks that everyone of wealth or social prominence is necessarily to be distrusted; that the rich are always pretentious and worldly, while those who have few material possessions are themselves possessed (like Rose Aylmer) of every virtue, every grace. Inverted Snobs should take to heart the admonition of the impassioned Peer in Iolanthe: —
With love affected,
Nor treat with virtuous scorn
High rank involves no shame —
I boast an equal claim
With him of humble name
To be respected!
It is hard to sail between the Scylla of Social Climbers and the Charybdis of Intellectual Strivers, and at the same time to avoid the hidden rocks and shoals of all the other snobberies. ‘A Society that sets up to be polite and ignores Arts and Letters, I hold to be a Snobbish Society,’ says Thackeray, thereby indicating another whirlpool.
To most of us the word ‘snobbish’ (which is almost as much in use to-day as if it were the latest slang) suggests, as the dictionary intimates, either one who toadies to the great, or one who patronizes the humble. Between these two extremes of vulgarity there is a large social area inhabited by the rest of us; but even here, in this zone of excellence, there are far too many who, before daring to do the simple and the appropriate thing, ask themselves the essentially snobbish question, ‘What will people think?’ What a refreshing relaxation of over-tense nerves would result from the abolition of slavery to conventions — not the conventions which are standardized good manners, but the conventions which ordain that perfectly unimportant things should he performed in exactly the same way by totally different people! The woman who will not ask Mrs. Goldcoin to lunch, because she has to give her peas from the can instead of from the South, is quite as much of a snob as Mrs. Goldcoin would be, if she declined the invitation for the same reason.
If only money (and the lack of it), and social position (and the lack of it) could be taken naturally, and not become beams and motes in the eyes of the observers and observed!
Of course, pretense is of the essence of snobbishness; but who is there so sure of authenticity that he can afford to throw stones at pretenders? It is hard for the star to remember always that his glory can never be the glory of the sun or the moon, and to realize that a genuine twinkle is better than a beam of imitation gold.
The day of the twentieth century, being still young, is much more subtly lighted and shaded than the uncompromising black and white of Thackeray’s Victorian noon. We grope in a mist of half-definitions and contradictions. We are no longer either bad or good — we are both bad and good. We are sincere and insincere, genuine and artificial, unpretentious, and at times, snobbish. To avoid being snobs, we must learn to look relentlessly at our own motives and our own actions, and to be sure that they always express ourselves, and nobody else. If we live on a corned-beef-and-cabbage basis when we are alone, we need not aspire to terrapin and artichokes when we entertain our more prosperous friends, but can compromise on — let us say — chicken and cranberry sauce. A professor who tries to live like a banker, succeeds only in living like a snob.
‘Fate has comfortably appointed gold plate for some, and has bidden others contentedly to wear the willowpattern.’ That is the thrust with which Thackeray finds the weak spot in my own armor; for sometimes, when my superiors come to dinner, I must confess to dusting off my Lowestoft plates and serving coffee out of Dresden china, with the air of one more accustomed to porcelain than to crockery! And so I must answer the question I ask others, by confessing that I am the kind of snob who does not always ‘contentedly wear the willow-pattern.’
What kind of a snob are you?