Paul Fussell was born in Pasadena, California. After service with the 103rd Infantry Division in France and Germany (Bronze Star, Purple Heart), Fussell attended Pomona College and Harvard University.
Fussell's career as a university teacher began in 1951 at Connecticut College. He has taught at Rutgers University where, from 1976-83 he was John DeWitt Professor of English Literature, and at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where, from 1983-1993, he held the post of Donald T. Regan Professor of English Literature. At present, Paul Fussell is Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English Literature, University of Pennsylvania.
It was Paul Fussell's passion for Eighteenth-Century literature that fired his early career. His first books are entitled: Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, Poetic Meter and Form, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism: Ethics and Imagery from Swift to Burke, and, Samuel Johnson and The Life of Writing.
The second half of Fussell's career has been devoted to Twentieth-Century social and cultural history. Describing the transition, Fussell says in a recent interview: "I learned [to turn experience toward intellect and away from emotion through] my long immersion in Eighteenth-Century literature, where the urge is constantly outward from oneself; that is, not trying to undertake deep voyages into the self, but rather, to escape the self, look out at society, see what's going on, and then comment on it. Irony is a great help there, to protect oneself from the self-regarding emotion, which has always been an enemy of mine from the start."
It was during those very productive years from the mid 1970s onward that Fussell wrote the books that made him famous. The Great War and Modern Memory (1976) was the first in an impressive list of publications dealing with war and Twentieth-Century culture (Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, and Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic). The Great War and Modern Memory moreover, was awarded the National Book Award in Arts and Letters and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa. Other books by Paul Fussell include Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars, The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, Class: A Guide through the American Status System, and Bad, or The Dumbing of America.
Since 1993, Fussell devotes his time to writing and to a busy lecturing career. In this country, Fussell has been featured recently on the CBC's "Writers and Company," "Ideas," as well as on the CBC's Harbourfront broadcasts. He and his wife, Harriette Behringer Fussell, live in Philadelphia.
In Class Paul Fussell explodes the sacred American myth of social equality with eagle-eyed irreverence and iconoclastic wit. This bestselling, superbly researched, exquisitely observed guide to the signs, symbols, and customs of the American class system is always outrageously on the mark as Fussell shows us how our status is revealed by everything we do, say, and own. He describes the houses, objects, artifacts, speech, clothing styles, and intellectual proclivities of American classes from the top to the bottom and everybody -- you’ll surely recognize yourself -- in between. Class is guaranteed to amuse and infuriate, whether your class is so high it’s out of sight (literally) or you are, alas, a sinking victim of prole drift.
Top Out of Sight - Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don't want us to.
Upper Class - Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don't have to work. They refer to tuxes as "dinner jackets."
Upper Middle - Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn't be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.
Middle Class - The great American majority, sort of.
High Proletarian (or "prole") - Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term "proletarian."
Middle Prole - Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)
Low Prole - Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask "Would you like fries with that, sir?" as a career.
Destitute - Working and non-working poor.
Bottom Out of Sight - Street people, the most destitute in society. "Out of sight" because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don't vote.)
From Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell.
A Touchy Subject
Although most Americans sense that they live within an extremely complicated system of social classes and suspect that much of what is thought and done here is prompted by considerations of status, the subject has remained murky. And always touchy. You can outrage people today simply by mentioning social class, very much the way, sipping tea among the aspidistras a century ago, you could silence a party by adverting too openly to sex. When, recently, asked what I am writing, I have answered, "A book about social class in America," people tend first to straighten their ties and sneak a glance at their cuffs to see how far fraying has advanced there. Then, a few minutes later, they silently get up and walk away. It is not just that I am feared as a class spy. It is as if I had said, "I am working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals." Since I have been writing this book I have experienced many times the awful truth of R.H. Tawney's perception, in his book Equality (1931): "The word 'class' is fraught with unpleasing associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit."
Especially in America, where the idea of class is notably embarrassing. In his book Inequality in an Age of Decline (1980), the sociologist Paul Blumberg goes so far as to call it "America's forbidden thought." Indeed, if people often blow their tops if the subject is even broached. One woman, asked by a couple of interviewers if she thought there were social classes in this country, answered: "It's the dirtiest thing I've ever head of!" And a man, asked the same question, got so angry that he blurted out, "Social class should be exterminated."
Actually, you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle class and nervous about slipping down a rung or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love to topic to come up: the more attention paid to the matter the better off they seem to be. Proletarians generally don't mind discussions of the subject because they know that can do little to alter their class identity. Thus the whole class matter is likely to seem like a joke to them - the upper classes fatuous in their empty aristocratic pretentiousness, the middles loathsome in their anxious gentility. It is the middle class that is highly class-sensitive, and sometimes class-scared to death. A representative of that class left his mark on a library copy of Russell Lynes's The Tastemakers (1954). Next to a passage patronizing the insecure decorating taste of the middle class and satirically contrasting its artistic behavior to that of some more sophisticated classes, this offended reader scrawled, in large capitals, "BULL SHIT!" A hopelessly middle-class man (not a woman, surely?) if I ever saw one.
If you reveal your class by your outrage at the very topic, you reveal it also by the way that you define the thing that's outraging you. At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people grant that money has something to do with it, but think education and the kind of work you do almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style, and behavior are indispensable criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education. One woman interview by Studs Terkel for Division Street: America (1967) clearly revealed her class as middle both by her uneasiness about the subject's being introduced and by her instinctive recourse to occupation as the essential class criterion. "We have right on this street almost every class," she said. "But I shouldn't say class," she went on, "because we don't live in a nation of classes." Then, the occupational criterion: "But we have janitors living on the street, we have doctors, we have businessmen, CPAs."
Being told that there are no social classes in the place where the interviewee lives is an old experience for sociologists. " 'We don't have classes in our town' almost invariably is the first remark recorded by the investigator," reports Leonard Reissman, author of Class in American Life (1959). "Once that has been uttered and is out of the way, the class divisions in the town can be recorded with what seems to be an amazing degree of agreement among the good citizens of the community." The novelist John O'Hara made a whole career out of probing into this touchy subject, to which he was astonishingly sensitive. While still a boy, he was noticing that in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up, "older people do not treat others as equals."
Class distinctions in America are so complicated and subtle that foreign visitors often miss the nuances and sometimes even the existence of a class structure. So powerful is the "fable of equality," as Frances Trollope called it when she toured America in 1832, so embarrassed is the government to confront the subject - in the thousands of measurements pouring from its bureaus, social class is not officially recognized - that it's easy for visitors not to notice the way the class system works. A case in point is the experience of Walter Allen, the British novelist and literary critic. Before he came over here to teach at a college in the 1950's, he imagined that "class scarcely existed in America, except, perhaps, as divisions between ethnic groups or successive waves of immigrants." But living a while in Grand Rapids opened his eyes: there he learned of the snob power of New England and the pliability of the locals to the long-wielded moral and cultural authority of the old families.
Some Americans viewed with satisfaction the failure of the 1970's TV series Beacon Hill, a drama of high society modeled on the British Upstairs, Downstairs, comforting themselves with the belief that this venture came to grief because there is no class system here to sustain interest in it. But they were mistaken. Beacon Hill failed to engage American viewers because it focused on perhaps the least interesting place in the indigenous class structure, the quasi-aristocratic upper class. Such a dramatization might have done better if it had dealt with places where everyone recognizes interesting class collisions occur - the place where the upper-middle class meets the middle and resists its attempted incursions upward, or where the middle class does the same to the classes just below it.
If foreigners often fall for the official propaganda of social equality, the locals tend to know what's what, even if they feel some uneasiness talking about it. When the acute black from the South asserts of an ambitious friend that "Joe can't class with the big folks," we feel in the presence of someone who's attended to actuality. Like the carpenter who says: "I hate to say there are classes, but it's just that people are more comfortable with people of like backgrounds." His grouping of people by "like backgrounds," scientifically uncertain as it may be, is nearly as good a way as any to specify what it is that distinguishes one class from another. If you feel no need to explicate your allusions or in any way explain what you mean, you are probably talking with someone in your class. And that's true whether you're discussing the Rams and the Forty-Niners, RV's, the House (i.e. Christ Church, Oxford), Mama Leone's, the Big Board, "the Vineyard," "Baja," or the Porcellian.
In Class: A Guide Through the American Status System I deal with some of the visible and audible signs of social class, but I stick largely with those that reflect choice. That means that I do not consider matters of race, or, except now and then, religion or politics. Race is visible, but it is not chosen. Religion and politics, while usually chosen, don't show, except for the occasional front-yard shrine or car bumper sticker. When you look at a person you don't see "Roman Catholic" or "liberal": you see hand-printed necktie or "crappy polyester shirt"; you hear parameters or in regards to. In attempting to make sense of indicators like these, I have been guided by perception and feel rather than by any method that could be deemed "scientific," believing with Arthur Marwick, author of Class: Image and Reality (1980), that "class... is too serious a subject to leave to the social scientists."
It should be a serious subject in America especially, because here we lack a convenient system of inherited titles, ranks, and honors, and each generation has to define the hierarchies all over again. The society changes faster than any other on earth, and the American, almost uniquely, can be puzzled about where, in the society, he stands. The things that conferred class in the 1930's - white linen, golf knickers, chrome cocktail shakers, vests with white piping - are, to put it mildly, unlikely to do so today. Belonging to a rapidly changing rather than a traditional society, Americans find Knowing Where You Stand harder than do most Europeans. And a yet more pressing matter, Making It, assumes crucial importance here. "How'm I doin?" Mayor Koch of New York used to bellow, and most of his audience sensed that he was, appropriately, asking the representative American question.
It seems no accident that, as the British philosopher Anthony Quinton says, "The book of etiquette in its modern form... is largely an American product, the great names being Emily Post... and Amy Vanderbilt." The reason is that the United States is preeminently the venue of newcomers, with a special need to place themselves advantageously and to get on briskly. "Some newcomers," says Quinton, "are geographical, that is, immigrants; others are economic, the newly rich; others again chronological, the young." All are faced with the problem inseparable from the operations of a mass society, earning respect. The comic Rodney Dangerfield, complaining that he don't get none, belongs to the same national species as that studied by John Adams, who says, as early as 1805: "The rewards... in this life are esteem and admiration of others - the punishments are neglect and contempt... The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger - and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone..." About the same time the Irish poet Thomas Moore, sensing the special predicament Americans were inviting with the egalitarian Constitution, described the citizens of Washington, D.C., as creatures "born to be slaves, and struggling to be lords." Thirty years later, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger precisely on the special problem of class aspiration here. "Nowhere," he wrote, "do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation." Nowhere, consequently, is there more strenuous effort to achieve - earn would probably not be the right word - significance. And still later in the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1871), perceived that in the United States, where the form of government promotes a condition (or at least an illusion) of uniformity among the citizens, one of the unique anxieties is going to be the constant struggle for individual self-respect based upon social approval. That is, where everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody. In a recent Louis Harris poll, "respect from others" is what 76 percent of respondents said they wanted most. Addressing prospective purchasers of a coffee table, an ad writer recently spread before them this most enticing American vision: "Create a rich, warm, sensual allusion to your own good taste that will demand respect and consideration in every setting you care to imagine."
The special hazards attending the class situation in America, where movement appears so fluid and where the prizes seem available to anyone who's lucky, are disappointment, and, following close on that, envy. Because the myth conveys the impression that you can readily earn your way upward, disillusion and bitterness are particularly strong when you find yourself trapped in a class system you've been half persuaded isn't important. When in early middle life some people discover that certain limits have been placed on their capacity to ascend socially by such apparent irrelevancies as heredity, early environment, and the social class of their immediate forebears, they go into something like despair, which, if generally secret, is no less destructive.
De Tocqueville perceived the psychic dangers. "In democratic times," he granted, "enjoyments are more intense than in the ages of aristocracy, and the numbers of those who partake in them is vastly larger." But, he added, in egalitarian atmospheres "man's hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself more keen."
And after blasted hopes, envy. The force of sheer class envy behind vile and even criminal behavior in this country, the result in part of disillusion over the official myth of classlessness, should never be underestimated. The person who, parking his attractive car in a large city, has returned to find his windows smashed and his radio aerial snapped off will understand what I mean. Speaking in West Virginia in 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy used language that leaves little doubt about what he was really getting at - not so much "Communism" as the envied upper-middle and upper classes. "It has not been the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this nation out," he said, "but rather those who have had all the benefits, the finest homes, the finest college education... ." Pushed far enough, class envy issues in revenge egalitarianism, which the humorist Roger Price, in The Great Roob Revolution (1970), distinguishes from "democracy" thus: "Democracy demands that all of its citizens begin the race even. Egalitarianism insists that they all finish even." Then we get the situation satirized in L.P. Hartley's novel Facial Justice (1960), about "the prejudice against good lucks" in a future society somewhat like ours. There, inequalities of appearance are redressed by government plastic surgeons, but the scalpel isn't used to make everyone beautiful - it's used to make everyone plain.
Despite our public embrace of political and judicial equality, in individual perception and understanding - much of which we refrain from publicizing - we arrange things vertically and insist on crucial differences in value. Regardless of what we say about equality, I think everyone at some point comes to feel like the Oscar Wilde who said, "The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet's dream: it is a most depressing and humiliating reality." It's as if in our hear of hearts we don't want agglomerations but distinctions. Analysis and separation we find interesting, synthesis boring.
Although it is disinclined to designate a hierarchy of social classes, the federal government seems to admit that if in law we are all equal, in virtually all other ways we are not. Thus the eighteen grades into which it divides its civil-servant employees, from grade 1 at the bottom (messenger, etc.) up through 2 (mail clerk), 5 (secretary), 9 (chemist), to 14 (legal administrator), and finally 16, 17, and 18 (high level administrators). In the construction business there's a social hierarchy of jobs, with "dirt work," or mere excavation, at the bottom; the making of sewers, roads, and tunnels in the middle; and work on buildings (the taller, the higher) at the top. Those who sell "executive desks" and related office furniture know that they and their clients agree on a rigid "class" hierarchy. Desks made of oak are at the bottom, and those of walnut are next. Then, moving up, mahogany is, if you like, "upper middle class," until we arrive, finally, at the apex: teak. In the army, at ladies' social functions, pouring the coffee is the prerogative of the senior officer's wife because, as the ladies all know, coffee outranks tea.
There seems no place where hierarchical status-orderings aren't discoverable. Take musical instruments. In a symphony orchestra the customary ranking of sections recognizes the difficulty and degree of subtlety of various kinds of instruments: strings are on top, woodwinds just below, then brass, and, at the bottom, percussion. On the difficulty scale, the accordion is near the bottom, violin near the top. Another way of assigning something like "social class" to instruments is to consider the prestige of the group in which the instrument is customarily played. As the composer Edward T. Cone says, "If you play a violin, you can play in a string quartet or symphony orchestra, but not in a jazz band and certainly not in a marching band. Among woodwinds, therefore, flute, and oboe, which are primarily symphonic instruments, are 'better' than the clarinet, which can be symphonic, jazz, or band. Among brasses, the French horn ranks highest because it hasn't customarily been used in jazz. Among percussionists, tympani is high for the same reason." And (except for the bassoon) the lower the notes an instrument is designed to produce, in general the lower its class, bass instruments being generally easier to play. Thus a sousaphone is lower than a trumpet, a bass viol lower than a viola, etc. If you hear "My boy's taking lessons on the trombone," your smile will be a little harder to control than if you hear "My boy's taking lessons on the flute." On the other hand, to hear "My boy's taking lessons on the viola da gamba" is to receive a powerful signal of class, the kind attaching to antiquarianism and museum, gallery, or "educational" work. Guitars (except when played in "classical" - that is, archaic - style) are low by nature, and that is why they were so often employed as tools of intentional class degradation by young people in the 1960s and '70s. The guitar was the perfect instrument for the purpose of signaling these young people's flight from the upper-middle and middle classes, associated as it is with Gypsies, cowhands, and other personnel without inherited or often even earned money and without fixed residence.
The former Socialist and editor of the Partisan Review William Barrett, looking back thirty years, concludes that "the Classless Society looks more and more like a Utopian illusion. The socialist countries develop a class structure of then own," although there, he points out, the classes are very largely based on bureaucratic toadying. "Since we are bound... to have classes in any case, why not have them in the more organic, heterogeneous and variegated fashion" indigenous to the West? And since we have them, why not know as much as we can about them? The subject may be touchy, but it need not be murky forever.
A new status anxiety is infecting affluent hipdom
By Sandra Tsing Loh
Some 25 years have passed since the publication of Paul Fussell’s naughty treat Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, and I think this quarter-century mark merits the raising of either a yachting pennant, an American flag, or a wind sock with the Budweiser logo (corresponding to Fussell’s demarcations of Upper Class, Middle Class, and Prole). For readers who somehow missed this snide, martini-dry American classic, do have your assistant Tessa run out and get it immediately (Upper), or at least be sure to worriedly skim this magazine summary over a low-fat bagel (Middle), because Fussell’s bibelot-rich tropes still resonate.
Back in 1983, Fussell—author of the renowned book The Great War and Modern Memory—argued that although Americans loathe discussing social class, this relatively new, rugged country of ours did indeed have a British-style class system, if less defined by money than by that elusive quality called taste. To be sure, Fussell’s universe is somewhat passé, in that its population is almost exclusively white (with the Mafia thrown in for color), and the three “classes” in his opening primer conform to clichés we might think of as Old-Money Wasp, Midwestern Insurance Salesman, and Southern Trailer Trash. The top classes, according to Fussell (with a hint of Nancy Mitford), drink Scotch on the rocks in a tumbler decorated with sailboats and say “Grandfather died”; Middles say “Martooni” and “Grandma passed away”; Proles drink domestic beer in a can and say “Uncle was taken to Jesus.”
The still-fresh guilty pleasure of the reading, however, comes from the insistent unspooling, with an almost Ptolemaic complexity, of Fussell’s cocktail-party-ready argument. (I picture him in rumpled tie elbowing his laughing-head-into-her-hands hostess while he gestures breezily with a glass of chardonnay—white wine itself being much classier in 1983 than now.) By chapter two, Fussell is revealing that he believes there are actually nine classes (Top Out-of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight). His Heart of Darkness journey wends boldly past unicorns (High Prole), ladies’ thimble collections (Middle), men’s hobbies (“One must learn that fishing in fresh water is classier than in salt, and that if salmon and trout are the things to catch, a catfish is something by all means to avoid catching”), the Sunbrella hat (for which he reserves a timeless—and I think appropriate—ire), “parody” hats favored by the upper-middle class such as Pat Moynihan’s tweedy bog cap, and the perils of the dark-blue visored “Greek fisherman’s cap” as advertised in The New Yorker (New Yorker ads themselves being, Fussell explains, crucibles of middle-class high anxiety). God forbid you get that cap in black leather (“Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes”). He even threads through the subtle lexicon of tie patterns—from “amoeba-like foulard blobs” (Upper), signal flags (Upper Middle), musical notes (sliding downward), to Oh Hell, It’s Monday (quite low), with special horror reserved for the southwestern bola (“Says the bola, ‘The person wearing me is a child of nature, even though actually eighty years old’”). Literally no stone—or soapstone—goes unturned.
The high-prole bathroom reveals two contradictory impulses at war: one is the desire to exhibit a “hospital” standard of cleanliness, which means splashing a lot of Lysol or Pine Oil around; the other is to display as much fanciness and luxury as possible, which means a lurch in the opposite direction, toward fur toilet seat covers and towels which don’t work not merely because they are made largely of Dacron but also because a third of the remaining threads are “gold.”
The experience of reading (and re-reading) Class is akin to wiping goggles one didn’t know were fogged. Fussell’s methodology settles into the brain like a virus; one soon cannot stop nanocategorizing one’s world. A quarter century later, most of Fussell’s categories live on—if with some fiscal damage. Fussell’s topmost denizens were “out of sight” in hilltop manses at the end of long, curving driveways. The billionaires in Michael Tolkin’s hilariously mordant The Return of the Player are even farther out, prow-jousting at sea in their satellite-technology-equipped yachts. Indeed, this novel is such a teeth-gnashingly precise class almanac, that Tolkin should surely replace Tom Wolfe as our modern-day high-society-anxiety chronicler (at least of the West Coast variety). Tolkin is particularly hard on his people, wealthy Los Angeles Jews, a variation on the American upper class with their conspicuously consuming Hebraism. At a bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue that shares a driveway with Milken High (named deftly not for Michael but for the brother):
Torahs dressed in embroidered covers and silver breastplates stood on the branches of a sculpted tree behind a sheer curtain, like expensive boots in a winter window display.
In attendance is a “fiesta” of rich Jews:
the trim skeptical men and their two categories of wives, all of them brilliantly educated, some of them successful professionals themselves, others still drifting on the messy alibi supplied by their genuinely screwed-up relationship with their genuinely screwed-up mothers, but all of them, pediatric endocrinologists, failed Tibetan wool importers, soccer moms and private school committee volunteers, recognizing each other’s clan by a signal from within an unfakable right for their chaotic anxieties and complaints to take up space around them.
This isn’t to say that Hollywood Jews’ counterparts, Upper-Class Gentiles, are dead. Their ethos (or at least the ethos of those who aspire to Upper-Class Gentilehood) is lovingly enshrined, for instance, in Vanity Fair, with its wide-eyed revelations from the dusty alcoves of Kennedy history and obsessive detailing of the summerings, winterings, and fallings of obscure Eurotrash. (Though how I devour like stale-but-still-tasty Mon Cheri candies Dominick Dunne’s dispatches about, oh, “Arch Viscount Fernando of Capri’s 80th birthday party—he’s a Scorpio!” featuring murky snaps out from which inevitably loom, like death and taxes, Barry Diller and the shiny gorgon head of Diane von Furstenberg.) Meanwhile, tacking starboard then port around Graydon Carter’s fresh, startled horror over the latest outrages of the Bush administration (and I will miss those) are soft-focus ads pimping what appear to be blond, pink-argyle-sweater-clad, Ralph Lauren–fraternity Hitler Youth who look 30 seconds away from clubbing me (a light-mocha-hued person) over the head with an oar, or perhaps with a Nautica-logo polo mallet, sunglasses by Fendi.
Magazine reading for Middles, though (moving the goalposts in from both coasts), is best defined by the literary output of staid airlines such as Southwest, Delta, and Continental (as opposed to the more edgily cosmopolitan JetBlue and Virgin). Luxuriously Middle are those sumptuous photo ads for restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Why two names?) featuring mute, glistening hillocks of beef. (What is it about a close-up of a filet’s dewy, reddened inside that so tempts the in-flight reader?) And how exquisitely State Farm Middle Manager are the matchmaking ads of Selective Search and It’s Just Lunch!, with their come-hither phalanxes of kitten-nosed executive female “lunch directors”? Their unquestioned queen, I’ve ferreted out, is President Barbie Adler, with her strangely hypnotic execu-speak about eliminating “the pain points” in the dating process, as though the solution to contemporary romance is a Tucson-based chiropractic laser procedure performed on tibiae thrown out in racquetball.
Fussell believed in an escape pod from this tyranny of classhood: residence in a special American psycho-emotional space called “category X.” (Fussell borrowed his notion from Matthew Arnold’s analysis of the three British classes—even a century earlier, Arnold was describing this fourth set of “aliens.”) Fussell’s Xs were essentially bohemians, the young people who flocked to cities in search of “art,” “writing,” and “creative work,” ideally without a supervisor. Xs disregarded authority; they dressed down on every occasion; they drank no-name liquor (“Beefeater Gin and Cutty Sark Scotch betray the credulous victim of advertising, and hence the middle class”); they wore moccasins and down vests (in 1983, Fussell considered L.L.Bean and Lands’ End natural X clothiers); they carelessly threw out, unread, their college alumni magazines.
Roger that. Even today, I think one’s relation to one’s alma mater is fraught with haute-bourgeois peril. In descending order of coolness are:
1. Dropped out of prestigious college;
2. Graduated from prestigious school, never bring it up unless asked—then as joke;
3. Graduated from prestigious school with honors, bring up quickly, no irony;
4. Graduated, have become garish, cheerful head of alumni booster committee.
I say “coolness” instead of “class” because that’s how desperately I cling to my tattered X membership card, even as I creep toward 50 (What? Haven’t you heard? Fifty is the new 36! Clock? What’s a clock? I obey no clock!). Fussell argued that Xs wear T-shirts without lettering or only with “interesting” lettering, and it’s true that, even today, I treasure my—yes, cliché—Ramones T-shirt. But wait! This is not the brand-new Ramones T-shirt sported so conspicuously by needy soul-patched 50-ish alternadads at the Silver Lake dog park. If you actually bought the black Ramones tee the year it came out, the lettering will be so faded (as mine is), you literally cannot read it. It looks like a linty rag. So there. Granted, this sense of X superiority is an absurd stance for a fanny-pack-wearing mother in Desitin-smeared drawstring Target pants who never particularly liked the Ramones and who, like any obedient dog, now dutifully listens to public radio while driving her kids about town in a McDonald’s-bag-strewn Toyota minivan. However, I believe it is the very je-ne-sais-quoi boldness with which I saucily steer my bird-shit-bedecked “ride” into scattering flocks of L.A. valet parkers that marks the true rebel. As Fussell puts it:
When an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message “I am freer and less terrified than you are.”
I believe the true X philosophy is to try to destroy “hipness” wherever one sees it. (Some 40-something mom friends and I thought the way to drain the pagan power from Burning Man would be to set up our own Jenny Craig camp there. And, if we get child care, we will!)
Sadly, though, rebellion is not the outlier stance it once was. Xs are no longer America’s free. By 2009, Xs are neither what Fussell called the “classless class” nor an “unmonied aristocracy” with the freedom of the Out-of-Sights, if without the bucks. (Note: tickets to Burning Man start at more than $200.) Today’s Xs do not “occupy the one social place in the U.S.A. where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful.” Thanks to the economic rise, over the past three decades, of what Richard Florida (betraying a wee bit too much admiration) calls “the creative class,” Xs now rule the world. Or, as David Brooks wrote in Bobos in Paradise (Bobos is short for “bourgeois bohemians”): “Dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes.” Today’s Xs define themselves largely by what they consume. This is particularly well articulated, I think, in an L.A. Times home-section piece I clipped in 2005 about Brian and Gigi Levangie Grazer—think film mogul and writer/trophy wife making do in a modest 11,000-plus-square-foot home complete with little pads and pencils for brainstorming poised, as I pictured it, on every renewable-bamboo table. (Children: Asia and Lennon? Upper-class pediatric frailties: sugar issues, lactose intolerance, wheat allergies, Asperger’s, difficulty with gestalt thinking?—as opposed to the Old World ruling-class pediatric scourge of hemophilia.)
Charity itself is complicated when one hates to admit that one rules. Although old-school WASPs might tinkle their G-and-Ts while hosting an annual spring benefit for The Poor, the creative class will throw a star-studded fete to combat a politically fashionable disease, with celebs relaying anecdotes about personal frailty (as detailed in their candid new addiction memoirs). They can be rich and feel vaguely anti-establishment at the same time. The New World is all Richard Branson interviewed by Charlie Rose onstage at the Clinton Conference on Global … Whatever—with a faint chunky mix-in of Third World Poverty. (The creative class usually prefers faraway poor people to the local variety, and always prefers the “ethnic” poor to the white kind.)
At network-TV meetings, millionaire 20-something comedy writers see how low they can go with torn jeans, T-shirts, and grimy Red Sox caps, while the only guys in coat and tie on the lot are the Honduran valet parkers. That grimy baseball cap signifies Harvard Lampoon alum, which opens the door to Hollywood comedy riches, in a process that can seem, to the uninitiated, truly bewildering and mysterious. X people offer jobs to those they recognize, by certain nuanced clues, as members of their creative tribe, which makes people fear that they might mistransmit a code—bringing us back to Fussell’s rubric of class being announced in clothing, lifestyle, and speech. What will best fire the small talk, and the resulting intimate connection, that invigorates the start of a pitch meeting? Mets cap? Cubs cap? Yankees cap? What if you went to UC Davis instead of Harvard—are you not as funny? What is the right note of irony to apply to your hip-hop speech, given that you are, in actuality, suburban, 33, and white? Oh, yes, the newfangled Xs now have not only the money, but also the anxiety. It’s easy to be banished from the land of affluent hipdom—especially now that the scratch that pays for all that hipness has been depleted. When I see those TV commercials of silverback Baby Boomers sprinting with vintage surfboards toward ever-higher-yielding money-market funds, I feel both Boomer derision and a gnawing dread that my own funds are not similarly accruing (and in fact they are not—but maybe, to offset the losses, Brian Grazer will option my book?). Although in Fussell’s day, the denizens of the middle class were the more piquant sufferers of “status panic,” today the most metaphysically fearful group is, in fact, the Xs.
It’s not just that Romantic Selfhood—Walter Pater’s notion of burning with a “hard, gemlike flame,” which is the true emotional underpinning of bohemia—has become commodified. Fairly harmless is the $4 venti soy latte purchased amid Starbucks’s track lighting, Nina Simone crooning, and a story about Costa Rican beans that have sailed around the world just to see YOU! It’s that Selfhood has its own berth now in the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a generational shift presaged by American sociologists who, as early as the 1970s, posited that, while hungry people are concerned about survival, those who grow up in abundance will hunger for self-expression. In the relatively affluent post–Cold War era, the search for self-expression has evolved into a desire to not have that self-expression challenged, which in turn necessitates living among people who think and feel just as you do. It’s why so many bohemians flee gritty Los Angeles for verdant Portland, where left-leaning citizens pride themselves on their uniform, monotonously progressive culture—the Zipcars, the organic gardens, the funky graphic-novel stores, and the thriving alternative-music scene. (In the meantime, I’ve also noticed that Portland is much whiter than Los Angeles, disconcertingly white.)
Further, as Bill Bishop argues in his disturbing, illuminating The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, the creative class’s quest for lifestyle self-determination has had a giant and, in some ways, deleterious national effect. In the past, U.S. migration patterns were based on economics and available jobs. By contrast, writes Bishop, over the past 30 years, “there was a surge of people who wanted to live in cities for what could only be social—or even aesthetic—reasons.” In Austin alone, the percentage of people with a college education went from 17 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 2004. In 60 years, the total population of San Francisco stayed roughly the same, but the average house price rose ninefold, from $60,162 to nearly $550,000 (compared with Cincinnati, where the average house price increased from $65,000 to $145,000). New “superstar cities” (a term coined by the economist Joseph Gyourko) were
metro areas where residence had become, in essence, a luxury good. People paid for the privilege of being in cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and Raleigh-Durham because they wanted to live there, not because they expected an economic return.
The function of cities had changed. Their reason for being—and their residents’ reason for living within them—was no longer to produce salable goods and services. The city’s new product was lifestyle.
These locales became “‘consumer cities’—metro areas that catered to the well-paid, well-educated people who moved there.”
Counterintuitively, an over-clustering of educated people in one region is not always a social boon. Citing the research of the political scientist Diana Mutz, Bishop shows that, startlingly,
education is presumed to nurture an appreciation of diversity: the more schooling, the greater the respect for works of literature and art, different cultures, and various types of music. Certainly, well-educated Americans see themselves as worldly, nuanced, and comfortable with difference. Education also should make us curious about—even eager to hear—different political points of view. But it doesn’t. The more educated Americans become—and the richer—the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view.
In 2000, the research of Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, showed that the correlation between the health of civic culture and the affluence of the local economy was actually negative; the highest-tech cities tended to have the lowest rate of civic connections. I think of the Silicon Valley runner guy we met in San Francisco who, when we showed him a set of lost car keys we’d found on the path in Golden Gate Park, said: “I wouldn’t trust the police with those. Post a notice on Craigslist!” For all of Richard Florida’s celebration of San Francisco, the city has been hemorrhaging families with children at an alarming rate, because of the creative class’s flight from public schools there. (Florida proposes some remedies for these problems in “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” page 44.)
It will be interesting to see, now that the apocalypse has arrived, how various modes of American status-striving will be rejiggered, particularly those predicated on amassing large amounts of debt.
Never mind Fussell’s outdated notion that sartorial fearlessness belongs to the sloppy-T-shirt X class; the insouciant fun will probably now belong to the few defiant outlying WASPs still quaffing Bloodys before noon and tumbling off the dock in lime-green-and-blue whale pants. Or to those highest of High Proles called pimps. (For extraordinary archiving of such, see the classic HBO documentary Pimps Up, Ho’s Down, featuring an annual pimp awards ball with gents in elaborately tailored suits, watch fobs, and bowlers, in “fuck you” colors of hot purple and tangelo, who explode out of ornate Freddie Munster Model T cars.)
As for the Upper Middles and their betters, what about Tolkin’s formulation of “an unfakable right for their chaotic anxieties and complaints to take up space around them”? That really is financially viable only for the real upper class (to wit, not the millionaire but the ten-millionaire or more). The first tower to fall, for middle-class families, will be that fiduciary meritocratic yoke, the expensive education. Increasingly, college tuitions are outstripping the middle class’s ability to pay them. Although 20-somethings going for “hard” educations in things like medicine (aka “the Koreans,” quipped a professor friend) may still see a return, the high-water days of the $50,000-a-year liberal-arts education are drawing to a close. (I think of the Boomer parents of the Wellesley student recently trolling all of us—their professional associates—for an “exciting summer job” for their daughter. All I had to offer was babysitting. Inquired the Wellesley girl: “Can you send me a job description?” I wrote back: “BABYSITTING! $12 an hour!” She took it.) By contrast, the life of the High Prole may start to look reliable, and good—have you seen what plumbers make? Can your Ivy League–trained nephew do that?
But perhaps these times of hardship will see a return of the true bohemian, as in the days when the Left Bank was actually squalid. Stylistically, some artistic people are returning to thrift chic (either Goodwill retro wear, or something akin to the party a girlfriend threw recently called “Bitch Swap,” where you trade around the rags you’re tired of). Surely now the honestly eco-conscious will lead a bold return to—gasp!—tap water. (Because what’s worse for the environment than drinking water … out of plastic bottles … flown in from Fiji?) As Starbucks stores close around us, what’s more nostalgically amusing than Folgers Crystals? To save gas money, I’d forecast a mass movement from cars to cruiser bikes, but for that you must live in a groovy, bike-friendly (expensive!) city. However, listen for poignant, witty Frank O’Hara stories about transformative experiences that occur on public transportation (in the rain), on This American Life. As Borders stores shutter, perhaps we’ll see a reflowering of public libraries. In any case, unable to secure those astronomical loans, more Xers will have to start rubbing shoulders with The Other, living in truly mixed neighborhoods, next door to such noncreative types as Kohl’s-shopping back-office workers and actual not-yet-ready-for-their-close-up-in-Yoga- Journal immigrants. More members of a once-creative class may now have to live like immigrants, if not 12 to a single-family home, at least with roommates, or other family members—and not necessarily one’s favorites. Speaking of which, even the self-actualized may not be able to afford the heady liberation of divorce. Get the Rick Warren tapes out! Enlightened women may have to stay not just married but in for the night—what with restaurants being so unaffordable, home life will be all about the hearth, the candlelight, the guitar (and not a vintage Les Paul).
This economic catastrophe is teaching the Xers that their prized self-expression and their embrace of personal choice leads to … the collapse of capitalism. Time to inculcate not those self-satisfyingly hip and rebellious values—innovation! self-fulfillment!—cherished by the creative class (a class, after all, that includes in its ranks those buccaneering entrepreneurs who’ve led us down the primrose path), but those staid and stolid values of the bourgeoisie: industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline, and avoidance of debt. Out with the grungy baseball cap (cheap on its own, but not so thrifty when accompanied by those other accoutrements of formerly affluent hipdom—the iPhone, the rain-forest-safari vacation, the richly appointed LEED-certified house) and in with the dowdy JCPenney suit. The age of narcissistic creative-class strivers has brought this country cool new neighborhoods and an infinitely better selection of coffees and greens, but it has also brought shameful social stratification and a consumer binge that our children’s children may well be paying off. The Xer is dead. Long live the burgher!