The Pequod Review:
Class is Paul Fussell’s most sustained work of genius, a razor-sharp and bitterly savage exploration of the class rigidities of our supposedly classless society. Fussell’s humor and intelligence shine through nearly every carefully-considered page, but here are a few highlights:
In [Vance Packard’s] A Nation of Strangers, he writes cheerfully, ‘In 1940 about 13 percent of college-age young people actually went to college; by 1970 it was about 43 percent.’ But no. It was still about 13 percent, the other 30 percent attending things merely denominated colleges. These poor kids and their parents were performing the perpetual American quest not for intellect but for respectability and status… One of the saddest social groups today consists of that 30 percent that during the 1950s and 1960s struggled to ‘go to college’ and thought they’d done that, only to find their prolehood still intact.
You reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a rung or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic to come up: the more attention paid to the matter the better off they seem to be. Proletarians generally don't mind discussions of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity. Thus the whole class matter is likely to seem like a joke to them – the upper classes fatuous in their empty aristocratic pretentiousness, the middles loathsome in their anxious gentility. It is the middle class that is highly class-sensitive, and sometimes class-scared to death.
Despite our public embrace of political and judicial equality, in individual perception and understanding – much of which we refrain from publicizing – we arrange things vertically and insist on crucial differences in value. Regardless of what we say about equality, I think everyone at some point comes to feel like the Oscar Wilde who said, ‘The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet's dream: it is a most depressing and humiliating reality.’ It's as if in our heart of hearts we don't want agglomerations but distinctions. Analysis and separation we find interesting, synthesis boring…. Those who sell ‘executive desks’ and related office furniture know that they and their clients agree on a rigid ‘class’ hierarchy. Desks made of oak are at the bottom, and those of walnut are next. Then, moving up, mahogany is, if you like, ‘upper-middle class,’ until we arrive, finally, at the apex: teak.
The World Series and the Super Bowl give every man his opportunity to perform as a learned bore, to play for the moment the impressive barroom pedant, to imitate for a brief season the superior classes identified by their practice of weighty utterance and informed opinion.
When an X person, male or female, meets a member of an identifiable class, the costume, no matter what it is, conveys the message ‘I am freer and less terrified than you are.’
Fussell occasionally exaggerates his case (which comes with the territory of such books), and many of his examples are now out of date. But otherwise this is extraordinarily lively social criticism, with subtle and detailed arguments that make it far superior to more respected (and more boring) academic studies. And read this book if you want to understand how Donald Trump (and his High Proletarian status markers) earned the immediate and instinctual scorn of blue-bloods from across the political spectrum.