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Snobbery: The American Versionby Joseph Epstein
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 dont 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 fathers 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, hadnt 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 didnt 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 schools 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 didnt want it, I didnt 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 fraternitys 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 didnt 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.” Im 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 couldnt 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 ones financial or professional success, was to be rabble, just another commoner, a natural slave (in Aristotles term), out there struggling under the blazing sun with the only shade available that provided by Platos 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 doesnt 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; its 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 people think of it. Yet sometimes I feel myself unduly pleased with this car. It is not as vulgar as a Mercedes, I have concluded; it has none of the gaudiness of a Cadillac or the parvenu feeling of a Lexus. These are, of course, purely snobbish notions. The only questions that probably need to be asked of a car are: Does it do well what I want it to do and is it worth its price? But cars have long since passed the stage of being merely vehicles of utility and entered the murky realm of status.
Because I wanted to divest myself of the silly realm of cars and status, I used to make it a point to drive dull cars: Chevys and mid-sized Oldsmobiles. A case, this, clearly, of reverse snobbery: the chief mechanism in reverse snobbery is to find out which way that snobs are headed and then turn oneself in the opposite direction. Reverse snobbery — about which more later in this book — may be more difficult to shuck off than actual snobbery, for it proceeds in part from a distaste for snobs and snobbishness, but also in part from a wish to assert ones superiority to snobbery generally, which itself can seem suspiciously like a snobbish act.
I have, for example, a little thing about San Francisco, which, despite all the virtues of its climate and topography, is one of the great centers of snobbery in America. The boosters of the city, who seem to include everyone who lives there, imply by their manner that they above all their countrymen have found the secret of good living, and, with their insistence on their good taste in daily life, San Franciscans can be richly, profoundly off-putting. I find myself sufficiently put off by them to have come to think of their extolling of their own city as unbearable Bayarrea.
I have found that certain fads in dining, clothes, travel, hotels, neighborhoods, artworks, and other items and subjects that bring out the snob in people bring out the reverse snob in me. Sometimes all it takes for me to drop an enthusiasm is the knowledge that someone I think commonplace has picked it up. Twenty-five or so years ago I thought Humphrey Bogart a swell actor; the Bogart cult killed it for me. I mock — though never to their faces — people I know who buy what I think crappy modern art, pretending to enjoy it and hoping it will increase in value. If lots of what I take to be indiscriminate, and therefore nondiscriminating, people take something up, I can almost always be relied upon to put it down, at least in my mind.
Yet I continue to feel that snobbish sense of false superiority when, say, I stay in an expensive hotel, as I did recently in a suite at the Plaza in New York (at someone elses expense, let me quickly add), though a small superior hotel will set my snob glands flowing even more profusely. Wearing good clothes can also elevate my spirits. Ive not any food snobbery, I believe, and I have also managed to evade wine snobbery altogether, and think that spending more than thirty dollars for a bottle of wine an almost immoral act. But I am a sucker for the small fine things that a not really wealthy person can acquire: fine stationery, a splendid fountain pen, an elegant raincoat. I dont own an expensive watch, chiefly because Im not much for jewelry, and spending a thousand dollars or more for a wristwatch is not my notion of a good time, but I am not opposed to buying a knockoff of a Cartier tank watch or of a Bvlgari watch on the streets of New York or Washington, D.C., for fifteen or twenty-five dollars. (An André Knokovsky,” I say, if anyone asks what kind of watch Im wearing.) Snobbery, I know, still courses through my bloodstream.
Its time it be flushed out. My eldest son not long ago reminded me that, when he was applying for admission to college, I gave him the following advice: I want you to go to one of the countrys best schools, at any rate as the world reckons these things. What you will discover when you get there is that its not all that good, which is fair enough. But having gone there, you will at least not have to spend any further portion of your life in a condition of yearning, thinking to yourself, Ah, if only I had gone to one of the better schools, how much grander my fate would have been.” My son, a good student, went to Stanford, and he says that things have worked out just as I had prophesied.
But, pathetic truth to confess, I am also a little pleased that my son went to Stanford, for nothing better, I fear, than snobbish reasons. I am too often a little pleased with myself on other snobbish fronts. Allow me to present a few candid snapshots. Here I am giving a lecture at an English university — how nice! Here I am being praised in print by a writer I have long admired in a magazine of high status — splendido! Here I am being paid obeisance by the wealthy — and, lo, the world seems a just and good place!
Time to grow out of such thoughts. Time to extrude all such snobbish feelings. Time to see the world, as the philosophers put it, as in itself it really is, which snobbery, even in small doses, makes it all but impossible to do.
Copyright © 2002 by Joseph Epstein. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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