A Guide Through the American Status System

This is a review of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, 1983, Summit Books, New York NY.

[This review was written on April 8th, 1993, and the book itself was ten years old by then. You must judge for yourself if time has rendered Mr. Fussell's descriptions out of date.]

In his book, Fussell describes the American status hierarchy, both by defining characteristics and by diagnostic ones. He remarks that it is a remarkably touchy subject. "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.'"

He discusses various class taxonomies and adopts the following for convenience:

Top out-of-sight
Upper middle

High proletarian
Low proletarian

Bottom out-of-sight

Top out-of-sight were probably frightened into hiding by the class resentments of the Great Depression. Their defining characteristics, as I interpret Fussell, are that they live on inherited money and do not work, and thus are answerable to hardly anyone. As a result, they do not need to make ostentatious display, either to bolster their own self-image or to make favorable impressions on anyone else. This, along with fear of resentment, is another reason they are so invisible.

Their houses are never seen from the street or road. They like to hide away deep in the hills or way off on Greek or Caribbean islands (which they tend to own), safe, for the moment, from envy and its ultimate attendants, confiscatory taxation and finally expropriation. ... Now they hide, not merely from envy and revenge but from exposť journalism,... and from an even worse threat, ... foundation mendicancy, with its hordes of beggars in three-piece suits constantly badgering the well-to-do.

Upper often could live on inherited wealth alone, but has a vague feeling that one ought to do something, and so does something, but not much and mostly administrative. They do indulge in ostentatious display, as does every other class until you get down to destitute, who obviously can't. Of course, uppers can afford bigger displays. However, they do not expect compliments on their displays, because of course the display is superb and of course they are secure in their roles. (Then why are they displaying at all?...) Like the top out-of-sight, they rarely have a thought in their heads.

But it is, finally, by a characteristic the American upper class shares with all aristocracies that ye shall know them: their imperviousness to ideas and their total lack of interest in them. ... Their inattention to ideas is why Matthew Arnold calls them Barbarians, and he imputes their serenity specifically to their 'never having any ideas to trouble them.' Still, they are a nice class, and the life among them is comfortable and ample and even entertaining, so long as you don't mind never hearing anyone saying anything intelligent or original.

Upper middle is the American-dream class. It has to work for a living, and has little or no inherited wealth. Thus it has to care what people think. But it doesn't have to care too much, and it understands several principles of ostentation that escape the lower classes; prefer customs and products that are understated, archaic, organic, and inefficient. This all reduces to "expensive," of course. Never hint you need to watch your pennies.

As we move down a bit to the upper-middle class, certain features [of the living room] begin to enter the picture. Like the middlebrow "oil portrait" of the head of the household or his wife or issue.... If your living room has come equipped with more bookcases than you need, you can always respond to the ad of a company Books by the Yard.... In the genuine upper-middle-class living room nautical allusions will be visible somewhere, like a framed map of Nantucket, implying intimate familiarity with its waters.

Middle class is the bottom and most populous level of white-collar worker. They care passionately what everyone thinks of them, above, below, and beside them. Thus they are frightened off by anything controversial; it might offend somebody. But they also care about economy. Thus they are always betraying themselves (for they are always trying to pass for upper middle), by blandness, euphemism, and the cheap, imitative, and showy nature of their "good taste."

The most notable characteristic of middle-class decor is the flight from any sort of statement that might be interpreted as 'controversial' or ideologically pointed. One can't be too careful. ... Audubon prints on the walls are nicely nonideological, and 'wall systems' are popular because they are more likely to contain stereos and TVs than bookshelves, always a danger because they may display books with controversial spines.

High prole used to be lower middle, but have been impoverished by inflation. (That's why there's no lower-middle on Fussell's list of classes.) They are the blue-collar workers, and there is a sharp division here; they work with their hands and bodies, and often do dangerous things for a living. They despise the ostentation and snobbery of the middles and upper middles (thus displaying inverse snobbery) and freely indulge a taste for the gaudy and tacky.

One feature of the prole [mail-order] catalogs is the frequency with which the unicorn, of all things, appears. ... I've spent six months trying to figure out why, and I'm finally stumped. ...

The high prole bird is, of course, the tacky pink plastic flamingo. The class sport is bowling. (In fact, there is a general rule that the larger the ball, the lower-class the sport.) The class dress has loud labels all over it (the more legible your clothing, the lower it is), and is topped off with the "prole hat," a billed cap with an adjustable plastic strap at the back, so that, as Fussell put is, "One Size Fits All (Proles)."

Middle and low prole are skilled and unskilled labor. Unlike high prole, they work under close supervision and are understandably pretty bitter about it. Destitute, of course, have no work at all. Bottom out-of-sight have certain haunting resemblances to top out-of-sight:

Just as the tops are hidden away on their islands or behind the peek-a-boo walls of their distant estates, the bottoms are equally invisible, when not put away in institutions or claustrated in monasteries, lamaseries, or communes, then hiding from creditors, deceived bail-bondsmen, and gulled merchants intent on repossessing cars and furniture. ... In aid of invisibility, both classes feel an equal anxiety to keep their names out of the papers. ... And a further similarity: members of both classes carry very little cash on their persons.

Fussell points out that money, of course, has some correlation with class level, but there can be salary overlaps between adjacent classes. More important is how answerable you are to other people, by legal, economic, administrative, or emotional domination.

It's an interesting book, in an acid way. You can find something nasty to say about anyone, in any class, and Fussell says it. In fact, he refers to the class signs of dress, language, and decor as a "system of invidious comparison." The higher you go, the more drone-like and empty-headed. The lower you go, the more vulgar. The middler you go, the more pretentious.

For those disgusted with the hierarchy, he recommends the "X class." By this, he means ignoring the class structure. X people act a lot like top out-of-sight in that they do not let the opinions of others dominant them (though of course they don't have the inherited wealth).

The readiest way to describe an X living room is to say that anything recommended in a sound home-furnishings magazine will not appear there. The guiding principle will be parody display: there may be an elephant's foot umbrella stand and some unlikely manifestations of the art of the taxidermist -- stuffed cats and dogs, penguines, iguanas. Lots of campy fabric -- odd curtains, fringed shawls draped about, walls covered in museum cloth. The pictures on the walls will bespeak vigorous inner-directedness: there will be shameless nudes (all sexes and ages), and instead of the chart of Nantucket or Catalina Island favored by the upper-middles, a chart of Bikini Atoll or Guadalcanal. On the coffee table, 'Mother Jones' and 'Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.' The nearer you approach pure X the closer to the floor you find yourself sitting. The ultimate X living room displays no furniture legs at all, no sitting, dining or reclining surface being higher than twelve inches from the floor. The floor is either entirely bare wood or covered irregularly with thick rugs, always from uncommon places like Nepal or Honduras.

I notice that when he describes the X class in detail, it sounds a whole lot like the counter-culture. That is, it is guided much by what is fashionably shocking and conventionally unconventional; the middles and upper-middles have to supply it with something to flout. I think his X class is at least a superset of the counter-culture.

I cannot say, though, that I think X class / counter-culture is really a way out of the class system. I would think that the way out is to ignore it. Read the books you think interesting, not the ones you can brag of reading either to impress or (like X class) to shock. Buy the pictures you think pretty or interesting, not the ones that will be impressive. If your habits or appearance offend, why? Ask youself if the people you are offending really need to be offended. The guiding rule for the X class is, as my friend Jon Callas once said, "You can't be an anarchist if you don't wear the uniform."

All classes, including the X class, are parts of "a system of invidious comparison." If you want to get out of the class system, stop making invidious comparisons.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011