Prep Is Dead, Long Live Prep
How a subculture gained the world and lost its soul
But for a brief period in the postwar years, when writers such as C. Wright Mills and David Riesman were in vogue, sociology has rarely been a genre devoured by the general reader. But one type of sociological literary endeavor—works delineating the values, attitudes, prejudices, and consumption patterns of particular subcultures—has long been a publishing staple. Think Orwell’s minute dissections of the working-class buyers of Donald McGill’s postcards and of the aspirational lower-middle-class readership of the boys’ weeklies (examinations that gave birth to the academic field of cultural studies), or Dan Greenburg’s equally observant, if satiric, analysis of emerging middle-class American Jewry, How to Be a Jewish Mother (1964), or, more recently, Christian Lander’s blog and book probing hipsterdom, Stuff White People Like.
The subculture most obsessively, lovingly, and savagely scrutinized, though, has been the northeastern WASP establishment. The best-selling nonfiction books of Cleveland Amory, E. Digby Baltzell, Stephen Birmingham, and Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., and the best-selling novels and short stories of John O’Hara, John Marquand, and Louis Auchincloss, meticulously probed the manners and mores, clubs, sumptuary codes, drinks, summer colonies, houses, bedroom communities, schools and colleges, banks and law firms of what would come to be known as the preppy. And in 1980, Lisa Birnbach—a young woman in, but not exactly of, preppydom—produced The Official Preppy Handbook, a knowing codification of the tribe’s tastes, proclivities, and accoutrements. All but a how-to manual, the book sold 1.3 million copies and, not inconsequentially for the history of American retail, inspired the creation of J. Crew.
Three decades later, the sequel, True Prep, by Birnbach and Chip Kidd, lacks the observational precision of the original. Whereas OPH was crammed with fine-grained analysis— defining, say, the subtle distinctions between Brooks Brothers (mainstream), J. Press (old guard), and Paul Stuart (urbane)—True Prep’s analysis seems vague and flabby. Whereas OPH’s preppies belonged to a distinct and inward-looking subculture, the preppies of True Prep, defined largely by what they buy and wear, are in many ways indistinguishable from fancily educated professionals. The tribe delineated in OPH—and by, say, Baltzell, Aldrich, and Marquand—was famously, flintily austere, and for good reason. Although most families had money that had been acquired somehow sometime in the past, preppies were hardly buccaneers and world-beaters. Marquand’s George Apley in The Late George Apley, and O’Hara’s Joe Chapin in Ten North Frederick and Alfred Eaton in From the Terrace, are quintessentially ineffectual preppies—local nabobs who fail miserably in the wider world. The emphasis, perforce, was on husbanding modest wealth. (Fittingly, the plot of Marquand’s Point of No Return follows the less-than-dramatic career of a trust officer, and the lawyer-novelist Auchincloss practiced the preppiest kind of law: trusts and estates.) Cracked heirlooms, threadbare antique rugs, sturdy L.L. Bean boots, duct-taped Blucher moccasins, and workhorse Volvo station wagons defined OPH’s aesthetic. True Prep’s preppies, armed with BlackBerrys and iPods, wear Verdura jewelry and Prada and vintage Gucci loafers, tote Goyard and Tory Burch bags, and adorn their desks with tchotchkes from Smythson (a firm whose success, Ian Jack notes in The Guardian, has been built “on selling baubles to the impressionable rich”). To be sure, none of these brands signify arriviste flaunting, but they only bespeak wealth and, in the broadest sense (and with the exception of the Gucci loafers), good taste: they’re as likely—more likely—to be acquired by a north-of-Montana-Avenue Santa Monica screenwriter (no doubt Ivy-educated) or even an edgy fashion editor as by a bond trader in New Canaan.
Rather than demonstrating a failure of the authors’ powers, True Prep’s imprecision actually reflects the erosion of the distinctiveness of the subculture it attempts to reveal—an erosion engendered by the progress of capitalism and the attendant triumphs of meritocracy and consumer culture. The northeastern establishment has been absorbed by a broader national and international elite; that process has been under way since the late 19th century and, as True Prep inadvertently shows, it is all but complete today. Preppies’ best schools and universities, their professions, even their Park Avenue co-ops are now the province of the phenomenally talented and ferociously competitive—qualities seldom found among the tribe. Their white-shoe law firms (a term that once signified a sleepy intellectual mediocrity as much as good breeding) are theirs no longer, and their best young lawyers strain with the rest of the top grads for associate positions at the once-scorned firms of Proskauer Rose and Paul, Weiss. So no wonder the stylish preppy haberdasher J. Crew is ever more stylish and ever less preppy, and that Ivy League style, taste, and mores today denote qualities (urban, cosmopolitan) in many ways the very opposite of preppy (tweedy, town-and-country, insular). True Prep far more closely resembles The Last of the Mohicans than The Rector of Justin. In their analysis of capitalism’s march of conquest, Marx and Engels long ago adumbrated the fate of the rock-ribbed tribe that Birnbach and Kidd probe:
In the place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away … All that is solid melts into air.
Academically rigorous and focusing on a most un-preppy population, Habits of the Heartland, by Lyn C. Macgregor, is a very different kind of sociology. In researching her book, the author—intellectual heir to a grand if academically out-of-fashion tradition of participant-observer and community-studies sociology (a tradition that has produced such classic books as Middletown, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, The Urban Villagers, and Slim’s Table)—lived and worked for nearly two years in Viroqua, a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, where she tended bar at the American Legion and even served as vice president of the historical society’s museum. This kind of work stands or falls by the vigilance and precision of the ethnographer’s observations. Macgregor acquits herself brilliantly: she draws subtle distinctions within and between social groups, yet her analysis lets readers generalize about what some idealize and others castigate as small-town American values. For all their differences, the longtime residents (who might drive ATVs and snowmobiles) and the progressives (who favor Subaru Outbacks, the local Waldorf school, and organic produce) share a belief that raising children in Viroqua helps protect them from the “excesses of consumerism.” Indeed, readers from non-flyover places will be struck by the subdued and skeptical consumerism and the commitment to thrift that Macgregor finds among Viroquans. Here’s an unintentional paean to midwestern modesty that’s especially noteworthy in our post-crash era.
Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, by Jonathan Soffer, also traces capitalism’s creative destruction in contemporary America. When Koch was elected mayor of New York in 1977, the city was on its knees. It was ravaged by de-industrialization, crime, drugs, and arson (think Fort Apache, the Bronx), its finances bankrupt, its infrastructure decaying, its services dysfunctional at best, nonexistent at worst. By 1981, Koch had balanced the city’s budget—through hard-won federal loan guarantees, divisive management reforms, and painful austerity measures. That achievement, as Soffer rightly asserts, was “quite simply the greatest turnaround accomplished by any New York mayor in the twentieth century, including Fiorello La Guardia.” Soffer seems ideologically well to the left of Koch, an old-fashioned law-and-order liberal (no necessary contradiction there) who opposed racial quotas and pushed through welfare cuts. But he has written a precise and scrupulously honest, Marxian-inflected assessment of Koch’s mayoralty. Yes, Soffer shows, deep cuts had to be made to New York’s health-care outlays: the cost of providing for the uninsured through the city’s hospitals and the city’s 25 percent share of Medicaid expenditures was usually responsible for more than 75 percent of the city’s budget gap. But Soffer also shows that those cuts meant reduced services to the poor and vulnerable: this book makes bracing reading in a new era of straitened circumstances and subdued civic ambition.
No doubt Koch laid the foundation for New York’s remarkable renaissance. But of necessity he yoked the city’s revival and future health to the tax revenues garnered from the financial, insurance, and real-estate sectors—the ballooning and busting of which have fundamentally altered the city’s character, and perhaps vitiated the nation’s economy and public morality. Soffer’s careful examination of the strange career of Koch—part showman, part kibitzer, part straight-arrow municipal reformer—confirms Marx’s observation: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”