Sample text for Snobbery : the American version / Joseph Epstein.

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

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Social status United States, Snobs and snobbishness United States