Top positive review
562 people found this helpful
Still current, still very funny
on September 28, 2001
I read this book some ten years ago, and it struck me as most humourous and overall correct.
Although I was born in South America, I have lived and studied in the US, and I have studied and worked in France and the UK. My experience in all these geographies supports Fussell's conclusions. It is true that the higher the social class, the taller and slimmer people tend to be. It is true that the traditional lower (rather than the underclass) and the higher classes have many things in common, among them a deeply ingrained conservatism and a fierce pride in their way of being. In the UK, working class men's clubs are fighting the same fight which was lost a few years ago by the gentlemen's clubs: the right to keep women away from at least some parts of their premises. Many working class people all over the world deride attempts by others of a similar origin to "pass themselves out" as middle class, and regard middle class dress, speech patterns and social habits as feminine and unsound. There is probably no significant difference in the prejudiced, deeply uncurious mindset of Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh and that of a pensioner his age living in Yorkshire. It is true that strident religious opinions, big hair of unnatural colour and painted nails, or toupees and poorly-fitting jackets are usually the predictor of lower-to lower middle class background, or that high professional qualifications, gym memberships, affiliation with environmental organizations and career ambitions normaly denote urban middle class.
It might be seen as cruel, even evil, to remark on it, but don't the following terms clearly conjure a mental image of a particular order of things? (a) barcalounger, (b) trailer park, (c) WWJD, (d) community college, (e) Tom Jones, (f) spam, (g) gin and tonic, (h) dinner jacket, (i) pesto, (j) 100% polyester, (k) white supremacy, (l) homemaker, (m) National Enquirer, (n) The New Yorker, (o) Nantucket, (p) Detroit, (q) credit card debt, (r) bodice-ripper, (s) short-sleeved dress shirt, (t) pocket protector, (u) hunting dog, (v) Armani, (w) Ivy League, (x) inner city, (y) Dairy Queen, (z) educator. Think of words like individual (pronounced "individjal") or expressions like people of colour. Those who disbelieve Fussell's arguments to identify social classes just haven't been paying attention, for there are signs everywhere that they are still alive and well.
Fussell is very perceptive on many points. He notices that English spelling and mock-old-English words (parlour, kippers, jolly good) are short-hand for the higher social orders, and that this is used by real estate developers to get homebuyers to pay more just to live in a posher sounding address. He sees that many people seem to believe that college education irrespective of the actual college places them on a par with Ivy League graduates, and he sees it as a cruel ruse on the gullible and insecure (this is true everywhere: in the UK, many years after the polytechnics and teachers colleges were turned into universities Cambridge and Oxford still top the lists and "a group of fewer than 20 universities attract 90 per cent of the resources available for research and take the lion's share of money for teaching", according to The Times; in France virtually the entire business, political and intellectual elite comes from a handful of institutes, notably ENA, HEC, Insead and the X), in spite of the fact that truly desirable employers, such as consulting firms only hire people out of a handful of institutions (for example, Accenture, with 70,000 employees, only recruits MBA graduates at 5 schools in the US and 3 in Europe).
He notices that most people confuse the more visible upper middle class (called in the US the Preppies, in the UK the Sloane Rangers, in France les BCBG, in Latin America la gente bien, o la gente fresa) with the much more reclusive upper class, which one rarely sees, perhaps luckily, for they tend to be troublesome and violent (cfr., "The House of Hervey", by Michael de-la-noy: party girl Lady Victoria Hervey has had a high profile dalliance with gangster rapper P. Diddy). He sees the clear difference between the upper middle class "Patrician" mindset, and the upper class "Aristocratic" one (in order to tell them apart, when you think of the upper middle class, think XIX century, Victorian, prudish, earnest, hard-working, dark, and when you think of the upper classes, think XVIII century, Augustan, idle, colourful, cynical: it's Dickens, Balzac and Jane Austen versus Lord Chesterfield, Boswell and Saint-Simon, or the Novel versus the Diary). This is indeed a key difference between the American North and South. The North's upper class (Saltonstalls, Cabots, Lodges, Ameses, Eliots, Adamses, Biddles) is distinctly Patrician, due to its deep Calvinist influence, whereas the South's (traditional California Land-owners or Alabama cotton-growers) is clearly Aristocratic (which is why only the South could produce William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom", and only the North could give forth "The Education of Henry Adams"). The US Civil War, seen in this fashion, is a re-play of the English Civil War between roundheads (Patricians)and cavaliers (Aristocrats).
Fussell also sees that economic development will not swell the ranks of the upper classes, but just create richer proles and lower-middle class people. While some people may think that because they are rich they are upper class, virtually no one else is fooled. Raul Gardini, formerly one of the richest men in Italy (who killed himself a few years ago), once said that he and Silvio Berlusconi were just very rich stiffs, whereas Gianni Agnelli was a prince. If we look at the people who benefitted the most from the bubble economy of the 90s (such as software experts, web designers, internet enterpreneurs, telemarketers, singers and dancers and sport idols), we will see that most of them don't even try to appear upper class by wearing Armani or Ralph Lauren clothes, driving Bentleys, taking up polo or hunting or buying a yacht. They are just happy to live it up, and don't much care to be seen as upwardly mobile.
Fussell was right when he wrote that Class was a very contentious subject in the US, that many more people thought of themselves as middle-class than was actually the case, and that simply discussing this matter was thought of as offensive. Reading some of the ratings for this book I have no doubt that this is the case. Some of the commentators appear personally offended by Fussell's opinions and think that "he's just a guy setting himself up as the standard for class, so we'll bring him down a peg or two". He does nothing of the sort. The only class with which he seeks to align itself is Class X, which is a bit like David Brooks' BoBos (Bourgeouis Bohemians), and he argues that only by stepping away from the class structure can we be totally free.
Some people may think that the social class structure is so undermined as to be nonexistent. That's not the case. Social classes are very robust, and, in way or another, manage to survive all economic or political upheavals (remember Milovan Djilas' book "The New Class", on the dominant bureaucrat/military class in Tito's officially Socialist Yugoslavia). In the US many people seem to think that money grants class. That is largely self-deception. As Fussell says, it takes at least three generations to produce a middle class person, and many more to produce an upper class one. Readers, do not berate the messanger for the message. To paraphrase Goldwater, "in your hearts you know he's right".