X marks the snob

W.G. Runciman

  • Caste Marks: Style and Status in the USA by Paul Fussell
    Heinemann, 202 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 434 27500 X

The point of Dwarfs’ Lib is not to convince the world that differences in height are an optical illusion foisted by sinister interests on a gullible public. Nor is it to promote a literal cutting-down to size of anybody over 4’1”. It is to vindicate the right of very small people to be treated with equal respect by their taller fellows. In precisely the same way, the American myth of equality is not a fairy-tale denial of the palpable fact that some Americans have very much less power and money than others. Nor is it a programme for taxing every American down to the poverty line. It is a myth according to which power and money are – or if they aren’t, ought to be made to be – as irrelevant to how people treat each other socially as their physical height.

To label it a myth, as generations of self-appointed iconoclasts have done, is to signal an intention to debunk it even before the first snickery little anecdote has been laid on the page. But it is not quite so ill-founded as the blatant hypocrisy and frantic status-seeking gleefully recorded by Professor Fussell and his precursors may make it appear. For it rests on an underlying assumption that Americans treat each other as if they were all, whatever the other differences between them, of common social origin. None of them seriously believes that they are, any more than they believe that the rich aren’t rich or the poor aren’t poor. What they do believe is that because a few people can and do go from rags to riches or from log cabin to White House, it is somehow as if everybody else could too. To remind them that they haven’t and don’t and never conceivably could is to miss the point. It is because they would genuinely like to believe what they know to be untrue that Americans do in fact treat each other differently from the way Europeans do.

Tocqueville, as Professor Fussell rightly acknowledges, saw what it is really all about: reprehension of aristocracy. To the representative American, then as now, there is something at once repugnant and incomprehensible about the notion that status should be transmissible by birth. Inherited titles or ranks, formal degrees of precedence, deference to ‘betters’ and an ideology of superior ‘breeding’ restricted to those whose forebears distinguished themselves in the noble profession of arms are, to the extent that they are taken seriously at all, relegated to a remote and moribund feudalism from which George Washington delivered the land of the free and home of the brave once and for all. It is not equality of opportunity which is the issue here. ‘Self-help’ as preached by Samuel Smiles was, after all, a catchword of Victorian England, and ‘the constitution under which we have the good fortune to live, which opens to every man having talents, energy, perseverance and good conduct any honours and distinctions which his turn of mind may qualify him to aspire to’ is a quotation from a speech by Palmerston at the South London Industrial Exhibition in 1865. The critical difference is in the nature of the ‘honours and distinctions’. The successful 19th-century American’s talents, energy and perserverance would bring him a fortune and with it the esteem and envy of his less successful fellow-countrymen. But his English counterpart who rose likewise to riches would end up being addressed in the vocative by his less successful fellow-countrymen as – of all weird and distasteful things – ‘My Lord’.

Yet the niceties of invidious distinctions of birth are better understood by Americans than they pretend. For a start, they are all uncomfortably aware of the caste-like discrimination practised against black Americans by white ones. Professor Fussell ignores the whole area of race on the grounds that he is only interested in the outward signs of social class ‘that reflect choice’. But this is disingenuous on two counts. First, not even Americans choose their modes of speech or habits of mind as freely as they choose their ice-cream (and Fussell himself insists that ‘the very kind of ice-cream you like has class meaning’). Second, racial differences relate closely to differences in life-style and neither can be properly understood without reference to the other. Ostensibly trivial matters like personalised Lucite napkin rings, ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ stickers, sunken galleons in your (high-prole) aquarium and cutesies in your (middle-class) bourbon-and-ginger are all as inextricably tied up with the same deep unspoken awareness of a ritual hierarchy of status as whether your skin is white or black, whether you were born Howe or changed it from Horowitz and whether you have been brought up, like one of William Buckley’s Texan interviewees, to think that pro-mis'-kitty is the word for the evil habit of indiscriminate sex. Any American who pretends that he or she is totally unaware of what this paragraph is all about might as well pretend to believe that God sends American mothers sanitised babies direct by immaculate conception.

That is why, as Fussell remarks, ‘people often blow their tops if the subject is even broached.’ It has a pornography all its own. Jokes about status are dirty jokes; and in America, where everything is more so, the taboos are more rigid, and the breaking of them is more outrageous, than in feudal old England where nobody has any democratic illusions to lose. Closet snobbery generates a peculiarly ambivalent unease when it seeks to exploit the very thing that the American Experiment is supposed to have abolished. Professor Fussell has some extra-naughty fun on this theme at the expense of institutions of so-called higher education. Any hick teacher-training outfit with a basketball team can call itself a ‘university’, and probably will. So why not? Is it not in the best all-American populist tradition for it to put itself on a par with the la-di-da preppie-farms of the Ivy League? But if they really believed that, they wouldn’t have any reason not to stay as they are. The euphemism is a homage paid by democracy to élitism. Fussell singles out for special mockery a professor at Syracuse University who actually wrote to the proprietor of the New York Times to complain that the place where he teaches had been awarded only two out of five stars in a Selection Guide to American Colleges published under the Times’s imprimatur. To see status-panic like this exposing itself in public is enough to force even the sturdiest reader into the role of guilty but titillated voyeur.

But does it matter? Professor Fussell is a professor of English (an archaic and therefore upper-class subject), not sociology (an uneasy and therefore middle-class subject), and he permits himself a quotation from Professor Arthur Marwick of the Open University (who knows better but pretends not to) that ‘class is too serious a subject to leave to the social scientists.’ Well – OK, fellas. Vance Packard sells better than Aristotle, and we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. But for all the wisecracking, Fussell is right to quote also, as he does, John Adams in 1805: ‘The rewards ... in this life are esteem and admiration of others – the punishments are neglect and contempt.’ Or as John Locke had put it already, ‘the principal spring from which the actions of men take their rise ... seems to be credit and reputation.’ This may be no more true of Americans than of anybody else. But in a context where inherited status is no longer accepted either as a boast or as an excuse, the pains of failure and envy can – as Tocqueville detected at a glance – be that much keener in consequence. No doubt there are plenty of people, even in the most achievement-conscious of cultures, who are happy enough to come to terms with the modest station in life to which it has pleased God to call them. Not every village Hampden is eating his heart out to be running for President, nor is each mute inglorious Milton having a breakdown because he isn’t emceeing his own coast-to-coast quiz show. But the hierarchy of success and failure is there for all to see, and so is the collective differentiation of manners and mores that inevitably goes with it. For the multitude gazing up from the lower slopes, therefore, there is a stark choice of tactics for the preservation of self-esteem: imitation or defiance.

Fussell follows the conventional wisdom in attributing imitation to the middles and defiance to the proles and in heaping a little extra disdain on the middles for the pathetic mixture of pretension and timidity which leads them to fall for the electro-plated ‘Champagne Recork’ in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. But there is an unresolved paradox here. Americans believe – and Tocqueville was on to this one, too – that everything learnable is teachable and vice versa. So if the middles really want to imitate the uppers, why don’t they just go ahead and do it? They can’t of course imitate those whom Fussell calls the ‘top-out-of-sights’ because they can’t afford to. But given how many of the accoutrements of the upper/upper-middle life-style are deliberately downbeat (dry white wine, an elderly Oldsmobile, and gray flannel clothes for both sexes), why do the middles stick so firmly to the sweeter foods, louder colours and motel-room interiors which place them halfway in the direction of the howling ostentatiousness of the proles? And don’t they know when they say ‘fatality’ for ‘death’, ‘currently’ for ‘now’ and ‘a higher-paying area of employment’ for ‘a better-paid job’ that the people Fussell supposes they are trying to impress will only laugh at them?

Yet there is a puzzle about prole defiance, too. Fussell’s comment on the elephantine corpulence of the American junk-food classes is that ‘flaunting obesity is a prole sign, as if the object were to offer maximum aesthetic offence to the higher classes and thus exact a form of revenge.’ But wait a minute. There is a well-tested hypothesis known to (real) social scientists as the ‘trickle effect’ according to which life-styles drip down through the social structure over a fairly constant period, so that the habits of today’s proles can be traced back to those of the day-before-yesterday’s uppers. Millionaires of the year 1900 didn’t go jogging or lay off the potatoes. They gorged themselves stupid on 12-course banquets, and showed off about it too. In similar fashion, Fussell himself points out that the splendidly dogmatic pseudo-scholarship with which prole sports-fans debate the finer points of the World Series and the Super Bowl is a simulacrum of upper-class courthouse rhetoric, and ‘the shrewd weighing of evidence and thoughtful drawing of inferences ape the proceedings in the highest learned conferences and seminars.’ Even the raucous exultation (‘we’re number one!’) with which they celebrate the victories of their team might be interpreted not, with Fussell, as a function of ‘their need as losers to identify with winners’ but as a trickled-down derivative of the Homeric arrogance with which the old-time practitioners of the noble profession of arms used to exult in their triumphs on real fields of battle.

Nor is Fussell very convincing about what he calls ‘Prole Drift’ – the ‘Howard Johnsonisation’ which is turning the wine of American life into Gatorade. Was it not ever thus? If Fussell thinks it’s all getting worse and worse, when does he think was the Golden Age in which America wasn’t, by the standards of a Donald T. Reagan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, a hotbed of philistinism? Isn’t the truth of the matter that away from the East Coast Dude Belt, where the Anglophilia still flowers thick on the ground every spring semester and you can meet Jamesian brahmins or Jewish literati who pronounce the French in the menu like the French do, upper – no less than middle and prole – America is stridently anti-intellectual where it isn’t complacently middlebrow? And isn’t it precisely the exuberant vulgarity and shameless materialism which sends European refugees from the hock-and-seltzer set into ecstasies of delight over Southern California?

An East Coast friend of mine went down to Texas the other day to attend an upper-class wedding, and in the finest traditions of old-world courtesy went up to present his compliments to the mother of the bride. ‘Mary-Ellen,’ he said, ‘you’re looking great!’ To which he received the following reply: ‘Miles, honey, if y’all had spent as much money on yoah titties as Ah have, you’d be lookin’ great too!’ Now the point of this true-life tale is not just that I hope you enjoy it too, but that it gives the authentic flavour of a culture within which, exactly as Tocqueville said, the essentially middle-class passion for physical prosperity ‘mounts into the higher orders of society’ at the same time as it ‘descends into the mass of the people’. Out there where the Okies from Muskogee grow and what Fussell calls ‘Los Angeles County Wasp-Chutzpah’ is the normative style around which uppers and proles range alike, European culture is a concept hardly more meaningful than that of Old Cathay.

So where in it all does the Professor place himself? The back-flap photo shows a rugged physiognomy, an all-American grin, a streetwise look in the eye, an open-necked shirt with a sleeve rolled up to show a brawny forearm and a head of, not too short, not too long black hair that looks neither dyed nor tinted (‘which is a middle-class or high-prole sign, as the practice of President Reagan indicates’). Clearly we are looking at a man who knows how to beat the system. And sure enough, he does. There is, he tells us, a ‘category X’ of independent-thinking, fun-loving, book-reading, instrument-playing, language-speaking, foreign-travelling people ‘loose in carriage and demeanour’ who constitute ‘a sort of unmonied aristocracy’. ‘A really able X person can whistle a given Beethoven quartet with hardly a lapse’ (oh yeah?); ‘There may be lots of comings and goings at night, never mentioned in the morning’ (yippee!); and ‘X people are freely obscene and profane, but tend to deploy vile language with considerable rhetorical effectiveness, differing from proles by using fucking as a modifier only now and then and never dropping the g’ (wow!).

To all this the only possible response is: bullshit. It is just a refurbishment of the old-fashioned romantic self-image of the ‘free-floating intellectuals’, as Karl Mannheim used to call them, who think that because they know it’s all a charade they can step down from the cast. The dismissal of popular shibboleths, the eschewal of conventional accoutrements, the parody display of campy interior decor are all affirmations which make sense only in relation to the very same ritual hierarchy of manners and mores. The ‘Xs” style of self-conscious repudiation places them just as precisely within it as any of the nine separate classes which Professor Fussell’s researches have led him to distinguish. Bohemia was and is firmly located right there on the flank of the upper middle class, and the idea that its denizens are really careless of reputation and immune to snobbery is touching in its innocence. Maybe Fussell has found a Shangri-La somewhere between Malibu and Cape Cod which less penetrating ethnographers have missed. But there are many who will testify, both on this side of the Atlantic and on that, that those cool intellectuals and laid-back artists are some of the biggest social climbers of all.