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.
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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. Moneey 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 baseeeeeball, 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 operating here is the snobbery of opinion, or, more precisely, of correct opinion. Someone tells me that he thinks, say, Death of a Salesman is a great play, and my mind goes — click — foolish opinion, betraying a want of intellectual subtlety, a crudity of sensibility. (My view of that play has come to be close to that of the salesman who, leaving the theater after the play, is supposed to have said to his friend, “That New England territory was never any goddamn good.”) A person who is not a snob is content merely to think a wrong opinion mistaken and let it go at that; it surely doesn’t speak to the character or anything else essential about the person who has expressed it. For the snob, a wrong opinion is usually more than stupid; it’s an utter disqualification.
The tricky part of judging snobbery, in oneself or others, is in determining the intrinsic value of a thing, or act, or person and the value that society assigns that thing, or act, or person. Behind all acts of snobbery is, somehow or other, a false or irrelevant valuation. I drive a Jaguar S-type; it is a fairly expensive car — costing roughly $45,000 — and has, I recognize, some snobbish cachet. But it is also a very reliable and comfortable and handsomely designed car, a pleasure to drive. I bought it, I like to believe, for its inherent quality and not for what other peopl...
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