December 29, 2012

"It’s almost always a mistake to read only a first-rate writer’s masterpieces."

"A great deal of Fussell’s best, most perceptive and, frankly, most hilarious work arrived in books like 'Class: A Guide Through the American Status System' (1983). The idea of talking about social class is so taboo in America, Fussell reported, that when he explained his book’s topic to strangers, they reacted as if he had said, 'I am working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals.' It’s a book that, especially if you are uncertain of your own class status, can still draw blood."

Ha. Well, I loved that book.


tim maguire said...

I've noticed with any artist that the serious fans' favorite piece is always one of the less well known works.

Who else is tired of all the talk about how Americans don't want to talk about class? We talk about it constantly. What we aren't iterested in is ignorant agenda-driven rants by communists who lack the courage to openly declare themselves.

Ann Althouse said...

@Tim But that book isn't another lefty econ analysis kind of thing. It's very funny and detailed about the kinds of things people in particular classes do/say/wear. And it talks about breaking out of those stereotypes.

Shouting Thomas said...

Discussion of class in the U.S. is completely crushed by PC. Since class is heavily determined by ethnicity and race, you only expose yourself to condemnation and ridicule if you speak truthfully about it.

This leads to a lot of preposterous nonsense.

The most potent form of class expression in the U.S. is to pretend sympathy with the violent lower social classes, while structuring your life to avoid all contact with them.

Extra points for assuming a sanctimonious posture and condemning anybody who actually does associate with the violent lower social classes, and dares to speak truthfully about that experience.

Johanna Lapp said...

Bad is also fascinating. America enshrines and celebrates the worst of everything. See the 30-year history of the Golden Raspberry awards and the career of drama critic Leonard Plinth-Garnell.

Carol said...

Ann was that book the one where he says the more stuff a guy wears on his belt, the lower his class? If so I read that one too.

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann was that book the one where he says the more stuff a guy wears on his belt, the lower his class? If so I read that one too."

If it was in Kindle, I'd buy it just to be able to search for stuff like that... even though I still have my old paperback and actually remember where to find among the many shelves (and piles) of books in this house.

Pogo said...

I've read several of Fussell's books. All excellent. As mentioned, BAD – Or, The Dumbing of America is wonderful.

His greatest gift was Thank God for the Atom Bomb. Should be required reading in high schools, but it violates the lefty narrative.

Class was an eye-opener to me as a young man. Funny but very very true.

Shouting Thomas said...

The tradesman wearing those tools on his belt is making more money and is more financially secure, than the desk jockey.

Somebody has to unplug your sink and fix your car.

Paper pushers are not essential.

My daughter is married to one of the tradesmen. She's very lucky. Down to earth family guy.

edutcher said...

That applies to Poe and Saki, not so much to Kipling.

Pogo said...

ST, you should read it.

It'll probably piss you off, but one's social class is independent of income or utility.

St. George said...

Try and force yourself to read the collected works of Robert Frost, Whitman, or Allen Ginsberg, much less those of Melville or Hemingway or (gasp, shudder) Faulkner. Much of Emily Dickinson's work is completely incomprehensible, but in a weirdly fascinating way.

A lot of the stuff is dreck. It may not have been crap then, but time is cruel to many literary works. Who would fardels bear?

campy said...

Never read anything of Paul Fussell's that I can recall.

I did read his son Samuel Wilson Fussell's memoir of his 4 years as a bodybuilder.

Molly said...

The best thing about the Fussell book is the "living room test," or whatever it's called. How many old worn Persian rugs and books do you have in your living room? etc.

somefeller said...

The writer of that essay suggests that "Class" was a good book, but not one of Fussell's masterpieces. I disagree, it was a masterpiece. And the X chapter was as much a prophecy of where a lot of American culture was going as it was a description of current phenomena.

somefeller said...

Douglas Coupland supposedly named his book (and thus an entire generation) "Generation X" after the X chapter. But I think he just ripped off the name of Billy Idol's old band but wanted to sound more literary.

David said...

Made me buy it, Althouse. Through the portal.

Mumpsimus said...

Fussell is one of those people -- Thomas Wolfe is another -- who really wants to believe that class is just as important to Americans, and important in the same way, as it is to Europeans. Why? Maybe if you aspire to be a European-style intellectual, like your heroes, you need a European-style society to work with.

Mumpsimus said...

Tom, not Thomas.

Carol said...

Thomas, Fussell was talking about the guys who keep key rings, knives, and cell phones hanging on their belt all the time. Not tradesmen's tool belts.

creeley23 said...

There is a lot to be said for attending to the range of a few artists' work, rather than touring only the masterpieces of many.

Usually the masterpiece is the best or one of the best, but it becomes a richer experience in the context of the other works.

I'd hate people to think they know Salinger based only on Catcher in the Rye without reading Nine Stories or Franny and Zooey, or even Seymour: An Introduction.

A Moveable Feast is still one of my favorite Hemingway, though it is lightweight and downright nasty in spots.

And boy, the worst mistake a reader can make is to parachute first thing into Ulysses because some list said it was James Joyce's masterpiece.

Sam L. said...

ST, only if one is not a progressive, They can complain about anyone, diss their class, and it's all because their hearts are pure. Anyone else is a raaaaacist!

From Inwood said...

Prof A

I know that your main point is stated in your 8:07 reply to TM, but I wrote the folowing to a slobbering Lindsay lover some years ago:

... Below are three books about Mayor John Lindsay.

A famous sneering description of faded patrician Lindsay & many of the members of his Administration & his cheerleaders claimed that these snobs liked only the very rich and the very poor.

In this regard, Paul Fussell, in his devastating but smarmy & cutesy intellectual look at & pop psych put-down of Americans: Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, 1983, described three categories of American: upper, middle, and prole, each of which he further divided into three subcategories. He finds those at the very top & very bottom to be similar in that one rarely sees them (the über top at the ends of very long driveways, the untermenschen in shelters or prisons); they tend to be less than bright; & they think very little about class.

As another critic has noted:

"Fussell, perhaps terrified of the assuredness of the taxonomy he's created, adds another category: Category X. "Some Xs are intellectuals," Fussell writes, "but a lot are not: they are actors, musicians, sports stars, 'celebrities,' well-to-do former hippies, confirmed residers abroad, and the more gifted journalists, those whose by-lines intelligent readers recognize with pleasant anticipation." In other words, Fussell and his friends!

"His X category is presaged by an exchange between Martin Amis' brother Louis and their father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, recounted in Martin's memoir, Experience: "—Dad. —Yes. —What class are we? —We aren't. We don't buy that stuff. —Then what are we? —We're outside all that. We're the intelligentsia."

"It's to Fussell's credit that, like the adult Martin Amis, he realizes this Category X business is sustained by wishful thinking. Nobody is outside the class system, and in fact Category X people are a cliché unto themselves.

"The problem, of course, is that after a while the snobbery game, like any game played consistently over many years, becomes quite serious. Just as there are no true "recreational" golfers, there is after a while no such thing as a recreational snob. The judgmentalism moves to the fore, and the snob really begins to see people as mere butterflies, objects for classification."


But these snobs, with Lindsay as their front man, knew they could run NYC & run it far, far better than the middle muddle that was running it.

The same for the Obamaoids

gpm said...

"I did read his son Samuel Wilson Fussell's memoir"

Wow, I have both of those books and read them many years ago, without ever realizing there was any such connection.


Lawyer Mom said...

This post reminded me of NY Magazine's Fussell-wannabe piece on NRO cruise (which you linked to earlier) and an old 60s book on decorating (which I couldn't find on my bookshelves).

Somehow I ended up watching Queen of Versailles. It opens with the husband driving happily through his driveway's "hollowed" gates. Meh. Call it clever foreshadowing. Besides, Joe Scarborough tweeted that Norman Schwarzkopf was a welcome anecdote after the Vietnam War, so we won't be fussy.

Anyway, Queen of V is free if you've got Amazon Prime. Well worth watching. Great antidote to boredom. Great supplement for perspective.

halojones-fan said...

I remember reading Fussell's book and being amused at how well his "classes" lined up with white stereotypes (rich WASP, middle-income white-collar, and poor rural Southern.) No indication of what you do Americans who have the temerity to not be white.

I kind of prefer Likko's "Tennessee Taxonomy", which suggests that the three American classes are "capital", "labor", and "entitlement", the distinction being how you think money is acquired.