9780618340736

Snobbery: The American Version

Epstein, Joseph

ISBN 10: 0618340734 / 0-618-34073-4
ISBN 13: 9780618340736
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication Date: 2003
Binding: Softcover
About this title:
Synopsis:
A national bestseller, Snobbery examines the discriminating qualities in all of us. With dishy detail, Joseph Epstein skewers all manner of elitism in contemporary America. He offers his arch observations of the new footholds of snobbery: food, fashion, high-achieving children, schools, politics, being with-it, name-dropping, and much more. Clever, incisive, and immensely entertaining, Snobberyexplores the shallows and depths of status and taste -- with enviable results.

About the Author:

JOSEPH EPSTEIN is the author of the best-selling Snobbery and of Friendship, among other books, and was formerly editor of the American Scholar. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.


Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1
It Takes One to Know One

Rather than imply his superiority to his subject, the author of a
book about snobbery ought to set out, fairly briefly, his own
experience of snobbery. He ought to let his readers know if he has
been a victim of snobbery, and of the sorts of snobbery to which he
is susceptible, to allow them to judge his own relationship to the
subject.
Perhaps the best way for me to begin, then, is to explain my
social origins. These are a bit complicated. They seem to have been
culturally lower middle class but with middle- and, later, upper-
middle-class financial backing. Neither of my parents went to
college. My father, growing up in Canada, in fact never finished high
school; my mother took what was then known as "the commercial course"
at John Marshall (public) High School in Chicago. They were both
Jewish, but, against the positive stereotype of Jews loving culture
and things of the mind, my parents had almost no cultural interests
apart from occasionally going to musical comedies or, in later years,
watching the Boston Pops on television. Magazines — Life, Look, later
Time — and local newspapers came into our apartment, but no books. I
don"t recall our owning an English dictionary, though both my parents
were well spoken, always grammatical and jargon-free.
Politics was not a great subject of family conversation. The
behavior of our extended family and neighbors, money, my father"s
relations with customers at his business, these made up the main
conversational fare — unspeculative, nonhypothetical, all very
specific. Education was another subject of little interest; no time
was spent, say, discussing the differences between Amherst and
Williams colleges, for the good reason that neither of my parents had
ever heard of such places.
My father, I believe, hadn"t a speck of snobbery. It would
not have occurred to him to want to rise socially in the world, and
the only people he looked down upon — apart from crooks of one kind
or another — were people who seemed to be without the ambition to
take measured risks in business. We had a distant cousin who was a
lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and my father was baffled by the
notion of a Jewish man settling for a career in the regular army. It
pleased my father to give ample sums to charities (many of them
Jewish charities) and, in later years, to travel to foreign
countries — once, with my mother, to Paris on the Concorde and back
from London on the QE2. Above all, it pleased him to have made enough
money to help out his family and be able to establish his financial
independence, which he did at the age of seventeen. But he barely
acknowledged the social realm in which snobbery takes place. For him
the world of status, where style, rank, and social climbing were
central, was a mystery he felt no need to fathom.
My mother, though no snob either, had a greater awareness of
snobbery. She was on the alert for snobberies used against her, and
could be vulnerable to them. In her friendships she sought out women
who were goodhearted, for she was goodhearted and generous herself.
She also had an unashamed taste for what, by her standard, passed for
luxe, which meant driving big cars (Cadillacs), owning lavish
furniture, dressing well (furs, expensive dresses, Italian shoes,
jewelry). She was made a bit nervous by people who had more money
than she, and tended to arrange her social life among people who were
her financial equals or inferiors. But I never saw my mother — or my
father — commit a single socially mean act: I never saw them fawn
over anyone better off than they, or put down anyone beneath them for
reasons one would think to call snobbish.
Why, then, did the eldest of their two sons, the author of
this book, have so keen a sense, almost from the outset of his
consciousness, of the various arrangements that make for snobbery:
social class, money, taste, religion, admired attainments, status of
all kinds. As a small boy, I sensed who was richer than whom, noted
people who lived more grandly and more poorly than we, immediately
grasped what excited the envy of others, felt stirrings of incipient
envy of my own. Where this came from I cannot even now say, but it
was, beyond argument, in place. Nor, to this day, has it ever left me.
When men gathered in my parents" apartment to talk about
world affairs, I could not help noticing that the wealthier ones
generally did most of the talking, or at least talked most
authoritatively and were listened to most closely. A pleasant man
named Sam Cowling, living in the apartment building next to ours, was
a comedian on a popular radio show called The Breakfast Club, and
this, clearly, lent him a certain allure. Money and celebrity, I
early recognized, counted for quite a bit in the world. Some work in
life carried greater prestige than other work — as in baseball,
shortstop was a more admired position than second base, and in
football, quarterback was more admired than interior lineman.
In grammar school I was able to arrange to play both
shortstop and quarterback. I also became a fair tennis player, a
sport with all sorts of interesting connections to snobbery, from its
then country-club settings to its emphasis on stylishness, which
tends to vaunt appearance over reality — a phenomenon at the heart of
much snobbery.
I went to a high school where status was spelled out with a
brute clarity I have not since encountered elsewhere. At Nicholas
Senn High School on the North Side of Chicago, status was at least as
carefully calibrated as at the court of the Sun King at Versailles,
though the food was less good and the clothing nowhere near so
elegant. The school had roughly fifty clubs, fraternities, and
sororities for boys and for girls, each with its own colorful
jackets. Some had Greek-letter names — Alpha, Beta, Delta; some had
the names of animals, real and mythological — Ravens, Condors,
Gargoyles; some had names with aristocratic shadings — Dukes,
Majestics, Imperials, Gentry; some had neologisms for names —
Raynors, Chiquitas, Fidels, Iaetas. But each club, each fraternity
and sorority had a social character that was distinct and apparent to
the student body: this club represented the best athletes, this
sorority the cutest girls, this fraternity the most fearsome thugs,
this the dreariest nerds ("science bores," we called them).
It didn"t take me long — perhaps a couple of months at the
outside — to decode all these groups with their various social
gradations. Because I had in those days a superficial charm that
allowed me to make friends easily, I was soon invited to join the
best of the clubs and fraternities, which meant those whose members
were among the best athletes and most socially fluent of the school"s
male students. The ease with which I was able to do this may have
left me a touch jaded. Sufficiently so, at any rate, so that during
my senior year in high school I was invited to join a boys" honor
society called Green & White and turned it down, perhaps the first
boy in the history of the school to do so. I didn"t want it, I didn"t
need it, and, besides, I understood that turning it down would confer
greater status upon me than accepting it. From a fairly early age,
then, I was a fairly cunning statustician.
Because I was not an uninterested student, and because my
family had no knowledge of the social and financial implications of
attending the better American colleges and universities — which for
snobbish reasons remain, I believe, considerable — I went to the
University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, which in those days had,
for residents of the state, an open-enrollment policy and low fees.
Illinois turned out to be one of the most Greek — that is, most
fraternity- and sorority-ridden — campuses in the United States. With
my small talent for making myself acceptable, I arranged to be
invited to join the best Jewish fraternity on campus. (And let me add
that — with a feeling of slight shame cannot shake off even now, more
than forty years later — I left behind my two best friends, who were
not invited to join the same fraternity.) I italicize the word Jewish
not only because the fraternity"s membership was exclusively made up
of Jews, but because fraternities and sororities during the middle
1950s were strictly segregated by religion, with almost all Gentile
fraternities and sororities not accepting Jews and some not
permitting Catholics to become members.
Here I ought to underscore that my being Jewish may well have
increased my sensitivity to the realm of snobbery. Although an
agnostic in religion, my father was keen on sniffing out anti-
Semitism, having lived with a great deal of it among the Quebecois in
Montreal when he was a boy and then through the nightmare that Hitler
created during World War Two. One of his few repeated and heavily
emphasized lessons to me was to be on the qui vive for anti-Semitism,
which could crop up anywhere. "People might hate you," he said, "for
no better reason than your name. Be careful. Stay on the alert." Anti-
Semitism may itself be the first and perhaps the longest lasting and
most virulent form of snobbery, though when stepped up to the level
of pogroms, not to say genocide, it becomes, like racism, something
much greater than mere snobbery.
Given all this, I never found myself much upset by the
religious segregation practiced in the Middle West in the years I
grew up there. That Jews were not wanted in Gentile fraternities at
the University of Illinois was not in the least troubling to me.
Jewish snobbishness of its own, reinforced by Jewish chauvinism,
doubtless kicked in (who needs them!), but I never felt it a serious
social deprivation not to be able to join any fraternity or country
club, or even live in certain then Judenrein, or restricted,
neighborhoods or suburbs in and around Chicago, of which there were
quite a few.
I soon became bored by this fraternity and what seemed to me
its rather pathetic social aspirations. Chief among these was the
hope of joining forces with a high-status Gentile sorority in a
musical-comedy sketch called Stunt Show. I was, in fact, about to
change radically the status system under which I operated, then and
forever. After a year at the University of Illinois, I applied to and
was accepted at the University of Chicago, which turned out to be an
entirely different kettle of caviar.
Mike Nichols, the movie director and former comedian, who was
at the University of Chicago roughly four years before I went there —
pity he didn"t attend later, so that I might have known him and thus
dropped his name, a good one, at this point — Mike Nichols has
said, "Everyone at the University of Chicago was neurotic, weird,
strange — it was paradise." I"m not so sure about the paradise part,
but about the neurotic, weird, and strange no argument is possible.
One of the most astonishing things of all was that life at Chicago
was not founded on status — which is also to say, on snobbery — at
least not as I had been hitherto accustomed to it. People were not
ranked by physical beauty, or athletic skill, or wealth, or family
connections. None of these things seemed to matter. All that did was
intelligence — or, more precisely, intellectuality, which I would
define as the ability to deal in a sophisticated way with the issues,
questions, and problems presented by art, science, politics, and
things of the mind generally. Since my own intellectual quality was
then of a low order, my status as a student at the University of
Chicago was commensurately low. Hiding my ignorance as best I could,
I looked on, fascinated. Here was a new game, and one I felt, if then
still somewhat inchoately, I wanted to play.
The University of Chicago, I was to discover, had its own
built-in status system. No one announced what it was, but anyone at
all attentive couldn"t fail to note that in this system only four
kinds of work in life had any standing. These were: to be an artist;
to be a scientist (and not some dopey physician, treating people for
flu or urological problems — only a research physician qualified); to
be a statesman (of which there were none then extant); or — and here
was the loophole — to be a teacher of potential artists, scientists,
and statesmen. To be anything else, no matter how great one"s
financial or professional success, was to be rabble, just another
commoner, a natural slave (in Aristotle"s term), out there struggling
under the blazing sun with the only shade available that provided by
Plato"s cave for the uninitiated ignorant.
Henceforth the snobbish system under which I would operate
would be artistic, intellectual, cultural. Had I gone to Harvard,
Princeton, or Yale (unlikely, since the latter two schools in those
days had strict quotas against Jews, and, besides, my mediocre grades
would not have qualified me for entrance), I might have adopted
snobbery of a social kind, though, so barren of social distinction
was the family I grew up in, this would not have been easy to bring
off without extraordinarily thin pretensions. Meanwhile, artistic,
intellectual, and cultural snobbery gave me quite enough to do. I
began to think of myself as an intellectual and a highbrow,
interested in art only in its exalted forms. As a would-be
intellectual, I found myself comfortably contemptuous of the middle
class (even though it was the class from which I happily derived),
its values and general style of living. As someone with declared
cultural interests, I tended to look down on businessmen, on
philistinism, on anyone, really, who thought there were more
important things in life than art and ideas. Other people might
achieve success in life — I would seek significance.
Of course, for the most part I kept these snobbish notions to
myself. I believe — at least I hope — I never came across as
preposterous as I assuredly was in the inner drama I was then living.
Still, deep down (deep down, that is, for a shallow young person) I
tended to forgo the more innocent affectations by which people hope
to establish superiority — through possessions, through memberships
in clubs and groups, through socially favorable marriages — in favor
of a heavy freight of artiness and intellectuality.
This lasted for several years, certainly till my thirties. I
feel touches of it invade my thinking even today, when I sense my
superiority click in as some friend or relative expresses admiration
for a book or movie or play I think beneath seriousness. What is <...

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