Respond to this Article June 2002

In a Snob-Free Zone

Is there a place where one is outside all snobbish concerns--neither wanting to get in anywhere, nor needing to keep anyone else out?

By Joseph Epstein

By the late 1960s, the old Wasp social ascendancy in American life, after showing many cracks, was beginning to break up in earnest. The Ivy League colleges, as Nicholas Lemann has shown in The Big Test, had begun to turn from places where students were admitted by ancestral right into meritocratic institutions that looked to SAT tests to direct their admissions policy. The old Society page, with its news of old-family weddings, cotillions, and charity balls, began everywhere to be replaced in newspapers by the Style page, a very different thing. The Social Register became the subject of jokes. The Episcopal Church, once a bastion of Wasp life--an Episcopalian, the old joke had it, was a Presbyterian who lived on his investments--turned sentimental leftist. How many heterosexual Episcopal priests does it take to elect a bishop, a new joke asked. All three, the answer is. Soon one began to hear reports that many children of established Wasp families--Rockefellers and others--were feeling guilty about their inherited wealth, and looking for ways to redistribute it in the larger society.

The Wasp old guard put up the white flag without a shot being fired. Suddenly bars began to drop: in formerly restricted neighborhoods, in previously elite country and city clubs, in once white-shoe bank, law, and investment firms. Once-snobbish institutions loosened up, opened up, disappeared. The closest thing to an aristocracy that America had known was now most prominently in evidence in the magazine ads of a small grey-haired Jewish designer named Ralph Lauren (né Lifschitz). Perhaps the best analogy to the Wasp self-divestment of power is that of the British giving up their empire. Both may have felt that the need to do so was inevitable--and quite possibly it was--but each came away diminished, disliked, even a little despised for having done so. To this day in America, the Wasps are the one group about which--in a politically correct atmosphere--jokes can be made with impunity.

One might have thought that the steep decline, if not the complete demise, of the Wasps would have put a powerful crimp in snobbery itself. Quite the reverse. What in fact happened is that snobbery became open to everyone: One could claim an essentially snobbish superiority on the basis of one's ethnicity, one's status as a victim, one's children's achievements, one's good taste, one's with-it-ness, one's culture, one's knowledge of wine, grub, or movies. We were all free to be snobs now, and the temptation to act on newfound freedom is never all that easily resisted. Who among us, after all, doesn't, not so deep down, feel rather superior to the next person? And yet, might there be a place where one could be outside all this madness?

Envy League Graduates

Is there a snob-free zone, a place where one is outside all snobbish concerns, neither wanting to get in anywhere one isn't, nor needing to keep anyone else out for fear that one's own position will somehow seem eroded or otherwise devalued? A very small island of the favored of the gods, clearly, this snob-free zone, but how does one get there?

To be well-born is a start. To be blessed with ample talent cannot hurt. To have been fortunate in one's professional, marital, or personal life will provide a genuine boost. To have won the lottery on an $80 million payoff week would be a serious help. And the easiest way into this zone may be not to care at all, to feel no aspiration, envy, resentment, anger at social arrangements, to live contentedly within oneself and be shut off from the whole damn social racket. Yet this last, the cultivation of sublime indifference, may not be the easiest but the toughest way of all into the snob-free zone.

Let me attempt to draw the portrait of a man (one could do something similar for a woman) who might have a chance for a life in the snob-free zone. I would begin by placing him on the lower edge of the old upper class. The poet Robert Lowell seems to have been in this condition: a Lowell, but not one of the inner circle of Lowells--those Lowells who spoke only to Cabots, and of course, we all know the only grand party to whom the Cabots spoke. I imagine him, then, to have upper-class family connections, but not be quite of the upper class, lest he seem to share too completely in that class's dreariness and likely snobbery. He should be slightly of the upper class, in other words, but not enough to be tainted by it.

His schooling ought to be mixed, public and private. All private might make him seem too privileged, too lucky. A taste of public schools--perhaps through grade school--would show him not to have existed exclusively in cushy surroundings; it wouldn't do to make him look as if he's had too easy a ride. Having gone to public school, too, will give him a democratic touch--in a democracy, not a bad thing to have. (Paul McCartney and his wife sent their daughters to public--in the American sense of the word--schools, which could be interpreted as a brilliantly snobbish move.) He will have been a respectably good student, but not a great, off-the-boards astonishing one.

I would have him go to Andover or Groton, thence to Harvard or Princeton, and put in a year at Oxford or Cambridge, the last to Anglicize, cosmopolitanize, and polish him a bit. I don't believe any of these places is so wonderful, please understand, but the world seems to believe they are, so if our man is to enter the snob-free zone, he must do so in terms the world recognizes. Besides, having gone through such institutions, he will come to understand that the world, in its estimates, is often stupid, and never more than in recent years, when everything has begun to break down, especially in education. Having gone to what are thought very good schools, he will have taken their measure and never have to think--yearningly, in part snobbishly--as so many people seem to do, how different his life would've been had he only taken thought to have got Œa better education.' Unlike, say, poor Jay Gatsby, he will not have to falsify an educational résumé.

He'll require money. "A man may be despised," said Balzac, "but not his money." Our man doesn't have to be a billionaire, but he ought to have enough to take him out of the financial wars, so he need never do anything despicable for reasons of money alone. Being in possession of serious money--"holding," as they used to say at the racetrack--will give him freedom in other ways, not least by cutting down on his longing, which in turn reduces his susceptibility to material snobberies of various kinds, from cars to summer houses.

He will have earned his own money. At . . . what? Something for which he has an inherent skill, or a craft he learned by sedulous application of his talents: He could be an artist of some sort, possibly an architect, or maybe he has begun a business, manufacturing or selling something useful and well-made. His work gives him pleasure and no cause to believe his days misspent.

His wife, unlike him, is Jewish, a pediatrician perhaps, also happy in her work, physically attractive, a respectable money-earner, kindly, large-hearted. They have two children, a son and a daughter, good enough at school, with no known hangups or other problems or disabilities.

The family is never put to any of the tests of snobbery. They are never excluded, everywhere thought to be winning and always wanted; and, because so confident are they of their own quality, they have no thought of excluding anyone else. Such clubs as they join--a tennis and swimming club, for their daughter is an ardent tennis player, their son a swimmer of promise--are joined for their utility and pleasantness alone. Status is never a first, nor even a last, consideration. Such judgments as they make about persons, places, and pleasures are made on the basis of intrinsic and therefore genuine merit, never on that of being the right social, professional, or political move. Happy family, I would say, lucky family. Let us hope there are a few such in America, while remaining free to doubt it.

Yet perhaps this is all wrong, and the person who is in the snob-free zone is more likely to be a half-black, half-Hispanic man in dreadlocks who is young, bisexual, and a painter of terrifying pictures of childhood abuse, from which he is known to have suffered, but for which he is everywhere acclaimed.

I can think of a man who lived in a snob-free zone in whom snobbishness, though never justifiable, might have been understandable. He happens to have been a cousin of mine whose name was Sherwin Rosen and who was an economist at the University of Chicago. He was supposed to have been in line for the Nobel Prize in economics before he died, of lung cancer, in 2001, in his sixty-third year.

At his memorial service and at a dinner afterward, I was impressed not only by the range of people who spoke on my cousin's behalf but by their varying personal styles. None seemed particularly elegant, handsome, suave. Neither, for that matter, was my cousin. He was instead immensely winning without any of these qualities, and in part because he didn't seem to care about status at all. He enjoyed owning sporty cars--a white Audi sports coupé was his last--and drinking good wine and listening to classical pianists and playing jazz piano himself, but he made no fuss about these things. He made no fuss about anything, in fact, except economics. He judged his colleagues by their skill at their discipline, and, apart from their characters, nothing else. My guess is that he judged himself by the same criterion.

He once told me that he was offered something called an Albert Schweitzer Professorship in New York, which would have almost doubled his salary, but he said that, even though he could have used the money, he couldn't accept it. He couldn't because he needed the bruising intellectual combat that his colleagues at the University of Chicago Department of Economics gave one another. It wasn't pleasant, but, he felt, he needed it. When one of his best students did not land a job in one of the better-regarded universities, he told the student that it was a good thing, for it would take him outside all the worry about prestige and throw him back on his talent as an economist, which, if his devotion was such as to bring out his potential, would in the end result in his being made offers by better schools. Which, the student said, is exactly what happened.

My cousin Sherwin's way into the snob-free zone was simple enough: Care only about one's work, judge people only by their skill at their own work, and permit nothing else outside one's work to signify in any serious way. View the rest of the world as a more or less amusing carnival at which one happens to have earned--through, of course, one's work--a good seat. Judge all things by their intrinsic quality, and consider status a waste of time. One of the reasons I liked him so much is that he brought all this off without any contortion of his essentially kind character.

Higher Yearning

Now in my seventh decade am I, at last, anywhere near the snob-free zone? I think it fair to say that I haven't much interest in the social climb. When I think of people for whose company I yearn for, I find the majority of them no longer alive. I have a weakness--a snobbish weakness?--for people who exhibit style, but style with the strong suggestion of substance behind it. From the previous generation, I should have liked to have known Noel Coward, Audrey Hepburn, George Balanchine, Marcello Mastroianni, Vladimir Nabokov, George Marshall, Edmund Wilson (when sober), and Billy Wilder. Of people still in full career, I find that, among public figures, I admire Pierre Boulez, whom I met once and found both haimish and winning; Mikhail Baryshnikov, who surmounted the obstacles of being born to wretched parents in a miserable country to go on to become a prominent artist with a selfless devotion to his art; and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who seems to me not only the most talented person in political life but the only one with whom I'd care to sit down to lunch.

On the other side--people with whom I wouldn't care to sit down to lunch--I include almost all current university presidents, present members of the U.S. Congress, most contemporary writers and painters, actors, athletes, and anyone vaguely known as a socialite. I came upon 21 men and women whom Absolut Vodka featured in an ad in a recent issue of Vanity Fair, all photographed by Annie Leibovitz, ranging in age from the architect Philip Johnson to the choreographer Mark Morris, and including Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Spike Lee, Helmut Newton, Sarah Jessica Parker, and other of the usual suspects. They were in this ad because they were supposed to be avant-garde, hip, fascinating; add accomplished, revered, successful. And yet I find I do not long to meet any of them. (My guess is that they can do nicely, thank you, without meeting me, but that is another matter.) I feel about them as the Jews of Russia once felt about the tsars: They should live and be well, but not too close to me.

Does my list of people I wish I had known suggest its own snobbery? Possibly. I prefer to think that I have a bias toward people whose stylishness is informed by an unpredictable but subtle point of view, fine tact, and generosity of spirit. In this line, I have always admired a man named Walter Berry, who was the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Paris and who shows up in the biographies of such people as Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust, and Bernard Berenson. Edith Wharton conceded that she ought to have married Walter Berry: "He had been to me in turn all that one human being can be to another, in love, in friendship, in understanding." She arranged to be buried near him in the same cemetery in Versailles. Proust immediately recognized him as a man of quality, and Berry once wrote to Proust telling him that, when asked if he had read Proust's novels, he always replied: "Yes, but they have a grave defect: they are so short."

Not yearning to go socially any higher than I am now--content, that is, with the friends I have--I am, in this regard at least, in the snob-free zone. Not so, alas, in other regards. Much as I like to think myself the democrat, I find myself doing a certain amount of snobbish looking down on, in Lyndon Johnson's all too mortal phrase, "mah felluh Amurikuns." On the Outer Drive in Chicago, I am behind a car on whose back window is a decal reading "Illinois State University." My view is that one oughtn't even to have a sticker that reads "All Souls, Oxford," but Illinois State? Of course, the thought is a perfectly snobbish one. The guy driving the car is pleased to have gone to Illinois State; maybe he, or his son or daughter, is the first person in the family to have gone to college; possibly he completed his studies at great financial sacrifice. Still, I almost reflexively look down on that decal.

I do not look down on any of the current American pariahs: cigarette smokers, the overweight, the aged, the unhealthful food eaters. I rather cherish some among them and feel sorry for others. But I do look down on certain selected people--preferably, it's true, from a distance and until now unbeknownst to them. Yet look down I do, usually with an uncomplicated feeling of satisfaction.

I am at a concert at the Ravinia Summer Music Festival, in Highland Park, on the North Shore outside Chicago. It is a Pops concert, with Erich Kunzel leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a group, made up of six Englishmen, calling itself the King's Singers, since all were once at King's College, Cambridge. Normally, I shouldn't have gone to this kind of concert, but I had to miss another concert date, and in the exchange of tickets this was all that was open to me. I didn't think much of it. Listening to the great Chicago Symphony play the movie and television music of Henry Mancini felt to me like getting into a Rolls-Royce to drive around the block to take out the garbage. The King's Singers weren't much, either. Why, I wondered, am I here?

Bored, I look at the audience of which I am a part in the Ravinia pavilion. It is an older crowd, lots of comb-over hairdos among the men, a fair share of blue rinse among the women. Very suburban, I think: thick-calved younger women, men wearing pastel-colored clothes. They seem happy hearing this stuff, the musical equivalent of chewing gum, which left my mind wandering. The bloody snobbish truth is, I prefer not to think myself part of this crowd. I think myself, if you want to know, much better--intellectually superior, musically more sophisticated, even though I haven't any musical training whatsoever and cannot follow a score.

In part these feelings were justified: The music was terribly thin, leaving no residue, better listened to, if at all, while driving across town on an errand. But why did I have to establish my superiority to my (mildly) detested fellow listeners, even if only in my own mind? Why not simply note them and think about other things? Because, alas, the snob cannot bear to think himself a nobody, even in his own mind, and he certainly doesn't want to think himself included in an audience of what he sees as dull people, who have, as W. H. Auden once said to Nicholas Nabokov about a bureaucratic group in the U.S. Army, the "wrong ideas about everything and belong to that group of people neither you nor I can possibly like or condone." And rather than sit back and enjoy this concert, unmemorable as it was, I had to make plain, if only to myself, that I am a much more serious person than these people sitting around me, and serious in a way that deserves recognition, even if (again) only to myself.

Why do those thoughts play in my head at all? Why did I need to assert my superiority, even to myself, when no one was contesting it? Why cannot I, even so late in the day, grow into one of those admirable fellows--reasonable, tolerant, generous-spirited, honorable--that Jefferson called "natural aristocrats" and that a liberal arts education is supposed to form but almost never does?

Strange. And ridiculous. Snob-free zone? Haven't myself yet arrived anywhere close. Perhaps in the next life. Or possibly the one after that.

Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, teaches writing and literature at Northwestern University. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, Snobbery: The American Version.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here