“Snobbery,” by Joseph Epstein

From Ivy League colleges to the rarefied readers of the New York Review of Books, a social critic examines the American style of snootiness.

Topics: Books,

Snobbery is a very complicated behavior.

In Berkeley, Calif., where I used to live, snobbery was political; those of us who sent our kids to public school and brought our own mugs to the coffee shop felt mildly superior to private school parents who tolerated single-serve containers. On the Upper East Side of New York, site of my current digs, snobbery is about places and things; every restaurant, every dog breed, every pair of shoes has a precise snob quotient. In the American South, snobbery still revolves around your ancestors; a Southern friend recalls grown-ups trying to place her by asking, “Sugar, who’s your daddy?” In New England, reverse snobbery is the order of the day; celebrities summering on Martha’s Vineyard like nothing more than going to the town dump and scavenging, then bragging about their finds at catered cocktail parties. (Within hearing of the wait staff, for whom cruising the dump is a lifestyle necessity, not a lark.)

It is exactly this sort of complexity that Joseph Epstein tries to capture in his frustratingly uneven “Snobbery: The American Version.” Epstein’s idea, a good one, was to describe the state of snobbery in this country from the decline of the WASP meritocracy to the present day. If he’d stuck to that, he might have written a punchy piece of social criticism. But this prolific essayist, college teacher and erstwhile editor of the American Scholar tries to cover so much territory, and cram in so many puns and aperçus and quotes from everybody from de Tocqueville to Kurt Andersen that a reader feels bludgeoned instead of enlightened.

“Snobbery, like religion, works through hope and fear,” writes Epstein, but unlike religion, snobbery hasn’t always been with us. The phenomenon, he argues, was more or less nonexistent before the early 19th century, despite the proliferation of kings and dukes all over the map. Snobbery feeds on social uncertainty, and in a rigidly organized society with clear and mostly hereditary class distinctions, no one could hope for upward mobility or fear the loss of status failure.

Counterintuitive though it may be, snobbery is the dark underbelly of democracy. A fluid, theoretically egalitarian society allows you to rise and then to despise and conceal your origins. (This, after all, is the plot of great American literature from “Daisy Miller” to “An American Tragedy” to “The Great Gatsby.”) Epstein thinks snobbery was rare in the early days of the Republic — though in a snit John Adams called Alexander Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar [sic].” But by the last half of the 19th century we began to see a brisk trade in aristocratic husbands snagged by enterprising and moneyed young American women — a phenomenon Epstein can’t resist calling the “title search” (a little academic joke). It was from these unions, and from Fricks and Carnegies and Morgans marrying one another, that American capital-S Society coalesced. That society was rigid and exclusive precisely because there were lots of people trying to get into it, which set the stage for snobbery on a grand scale.

As epitomized in New York by the 400, Society was the breeding stock of the 20th century’s WASP aristocracy. It was their Anglophilic manners, taste and lifestyle — the boarding schools, the sons whose names trailed Roman numerals — that served as the benchmark for snobbery in America for half a century.

And there things stood until the 1960s, when — for a variety of reasons that Epstein glosses over (but that David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise” analyzes in fascinating detail) — the WASPocracy collapsed and the Society Page was replaced by the Style Section. We now live in an era when snobbery is more rampant than ever, Epstein says, but absent a class system, nobody’s sure what to be snobbish about. These days we have to go to strangers — to stylists and critics and magazine articles that rank everything from colleges to handbags — to find out what’s hot and what’s not. We’ve had to invent food snobbery, job snobbery, fashion snobbery and all the various petty forms of discrimination that make up our social landscape.

Some of Epstein’s chapters, especially those on subjects where he has a personal stake — like Ivy League snobbery and writers as snobs — are sharply observed and funny. He takes a pretty dyspeptic view of American higher education, reckoning that kids emerge largely uneducated from all institutions, including Yale, Harvard and Princeton (“dear old Yarvton,” Epstein calls it). Yet he advised his son to shoot for one of the “best” schools, on the grounds that he’d be disappointed in the education but never have to wonder if doors had been closed to him because his school lacked cachet. Still, Epstein cops to the guilty pleasure of mentioning that his son goes to Stanford, when someone has just said her daughter is studying photojournalism at Arizona State.

Epstein’s own colleagues, the writers of the world, come in for their share of attention, being at once the most finely tuned snob detectors and the worst of snobs themselves. The chefs de snobisme are, predictably, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, all of whom Epstein cites repeatedly and impersonates in his jacket blurbs. (A “faintly amusing little book,” Proust observes, astutely.) Modern writers fare less well. Gore Vidal, for instance, plays “the patrician trying to save a country so dreary as scarcely to be worth his efforts, though against his better judgment he continues to try.” And Susan Sontag’s wildly inflated reputation as a novelist must rest entirely on her status among book-prize judges as a contributor to the New York Review of Books, “journal of choice for those happy few (hundred thousand) left-leaning, right-living intellectuals, happily safe atop a cloud of nearly celestial snobbery.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly enough of this tart and entertaining name-calling; too often Epstein lapses into flabby, Andy Rooney-like observations on the order of, “Trendiness and fashion have by now become so intermingled that they can scarcely be separated,” or, “Any social circle, club, or university that allows everyone entry cannot hope to maintain its prestige.” Much of his chosen territory has been well mined by others. The food snobbery of arch waiters who compliment us on our entree choices or wince at an order for well-done salmon, the hipper-than-thou snobbery of NoHo, TriBeCa and SoHo — all this has been fodder for journalists for what seems like forever. In the end, “Snobbery” is neither outrageous enough to be fun, nor insightful enough to be thought-provoking. It’s an adequate beach book, but the subject deserved more.

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.

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