August 2, 2021

"In 1983, a literary historian named Paul Fussell wrote a book called Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Most of the book is a caustic and extravagantly snobby tour..."

"... through the class markers prevalent at the time. After ridiculing every other class, Fussell describes what he called 'X people.' These were people just like Fussell: highly educated, curious, ironic, wittily countercultural. X people tend to underdress for social occasions, Fussell wrote. They know the best wine stores and delis. They have risen above the muck of mainstream culture to a higher, hipper sensibility. The chapter about X people was insufferably self-regarding, but Fussell was onto something. Every once in a while, in times of transformation, a revolutionary class comes along and disrupts old structures, introduces new values, opens up economic and cultural chasms. In the 19th century, it was the bourgeoisie, the capitalist merchant class. In the latter part of the 20th century, as the information economy revved up and the industrial middle class hollowed out, it was X people. Seventeen years later, I wrote a book about that same class, Bobos in Paradise. The bobos didn’t necessarily come from money, and they were proud of that; they’d secured their places in selective universities and in the job market through drive and intelligence exhibited from an early age, they believed. X types defined themselves as rebels against the staid elite. They were—as the classic Apple commercial had it—'the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.'"

From David Brooks new article in The Atlantic, "How the Bobos Broke America/The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth. Instead we got resentment, alienation, and endless political dysfunction."

Fussell's book is great. I've read it twice. I've read Brooks's "Bobos" too. "Bobo" — I had to look it up — refers to bourgeois bohemians.

It really shouldn't be a surprise that the pursuit of progressive values led to resentment and alienation! The dysfunction was built in, wasn't it? "Bourgeois bohemians" are designed for destruction. You have to let go of one or the other — bourgeois or bohemian. If you cling to both, you'll make yourself unhappy. Pick one!


Ann Althouse said...

Amadeus 48 writes:

"Hi Althouse--I read Fussell’s book, too, and I found it interesting. The chapter about Class X was so smug, so self-regarding, that I have always been pretty sure that it was a send-up of everything else he had written in the book. It was a paean to the wonderfulness of the academic community and the academic life. It was rather like Changing Places or Lucky Jim without all the funny bits.

"As to Brooks, the bohemian life was never prosperous and rarely happy. It was Romantic, full of passion and heightened emotion, in a way that made dying of consumption seem a selfless and soulful act. The arts community tried to do that with AIDS (See Rent, that remake of La Boheme). They aren’t even trying with Covid-19. I guess the vaccines make a difference.

"The bourgeois life—that’s the ticket. One is willing to defer gratification because one believes in the future. The formidable Amy Wax observed that there is a fairly obvious way to have a happy and prosperous life—practice bourgeois values. For telling that truth, her dean and colleagues called her to heel.

"If we pursue false gods, there is a price to be paid."

Ann Althouse said...

Skeptical Voter writes:

"Well you sold me. I’ve ordered a paperback copy of Paul Fussell’s “Class”. I’ve read several of his other books, but not that one. But Paul Fussell is an interesting guy for more than that particular book. He also wrote a collection of essays entitled “Thank God For The Atomic Bomb”. Fussell was born to moderate wealth in California. His father was a partner at what became one of the two major law firms in Los Angeles. He went off to Pomona College in 1940—when the men’s dorms still had full maid service each day. But by late 1944 Fussell was an infantry lieutenant in France. He suffered a leg injury jumping out of the back of a truck. He was invalided home to the States. When he healed, he was slated for Operation Olympic—the invasion of Japan. But Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved him—and hundreds of thousands of other American and Japanese soldiers and sailors (and in Japan’s case women and children) from death. In his essay (probably written about 1960) he observes that various American pundits and commentators reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima was in inverse proportion to their distance from Japan in August 1945. John Kenneth Galbraith—safely ensconced in New York City in an Office of Price Control job at the time thought the decision to bomb Hiroshima was horrible. It’s been a while since I reread the essay, but if I recall correctly Fussell wrote that Stewart Alsop, who was much closer to Japan at the time, thought that bombing Hiroshima was the correct decision.

"After his discharge at the end of the war, Fussell returned to Pomona College to finish his B.A. He earned an M.A. then off to Harvard for a PhD. He taught at Connecticut College, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania. He married another Californian Betty Harper Fussell. Betty earned a PhD as well and both taught at the college level. Their marriage lasted for 32 years before ending in divorce. Betty’s memoir “Kitchen Wars” has some amusing passages on married and not so married college faculty life in the 1960s. Both of the Fussells were prolific writers on a number of subjects. They are well worth reading."

I'll say:

I'm sure you'll love the book. Very entertaining discussion of social class.

Ann Althouse said...

Washington Blogger writes:

""Brooks has some interesting perspectives, some insights I agree with and some things I wonder if I am missing the boat or he is (I vote for him).

"Brooks says the Bobo's migrated to the cities like it was some sort of undirected phenomena rather than the concentration of the educated due to the prestige of high status jobs and high salary. The tech industry coveted talented programmers and were ambivalent to their caste. It was simply a matter of enticing the young, vibrant, talented workers with chances at riches and relevance. It was the environment I was caught up in during undergrad education in the early 80's in Seattle.

"Don't get me started on his several paragraphs on openness and ease. I think he is developing a scab under his nose...

"Here are two things I like about what he said, but I fear Brooks might still not get it.

""When you tell a large chunk of the country that their voices are not worth hearing, they are going to react badly—and they have."

""Donald Trump didn’t win in 2016 because he had a fantastic health-care plan. He won because he made the white working class feel heard."

"Although I would leave the word white out of it. And maybe even working class, come to think of it. Maybe I would say all those in the out crowd, the non-bobos.

"I think he is totally wrong to say Bbos are more individualistic and the non-bobos are not. There is a huge cultural homogeneity required to be a part of that group and compliance is mandatory. THey are individualistic in the little things, only things that don't matter. They are hive mind on the big stuff.

"There is so much more I could say, but I just don't have time. I think the biggest miss on his analysis is the belief that the bobo's sort of stumbled into some sort of elitism rather than displaying it naturally it like every other group of people who gain power. How can someone miss one of the important aspects of human nature?"

Ann Althouse said...

Nancy writes:

"I think it’s possible to be bourgeois and have Bohemian tastes. At least I can recognize what I think of as Bohemian aesthetics. Bourgeois, in the US at least, is just conventional. Although I wonder if people rediscovering or simply discovering mid-century design is a bourgeois or Bohemian choice? I’d say its expensive boho."

I'll say:

Brooks keeps talking about the "creative" class, and I get annoyed at what's called creative. Liking stuff that was created by other people doesn't make YOU creative.

Ann Althouse said...

Portly Pirate writes:

"I haven't read Fussell's book myself, but he was included in one of Jan Winokur's Portable Curmudgeon books, which were digest-sized books of quotes by famous curmudgeons and misanthropes, typically sold at the checkout counter of Barnes & Noble stores as an impulse buy offering. I remember Fussell's theory being that of sports balls, with size correlating to class - - the larger the ball of the sport you followed, Fussell reasoned, the lower your class, so basketball and football fans were perceived as lower class than baseball and golf fans."

Ann Althouse said...

Ted writes:

“ Back in the very good, very early days of (before it turned into a hypocritical mess of clickbait gossip and self-righteous virtue-signaling), it frequently covered what writers called "the creative underclass" -- by which they meant the interns, assistants, freelancers, social-media managers, and other low- to mid-level staff who kept every creative industry going, while working long hours and getting paid virtually nothing. As someone who was a member of that class for many years myself (before I switched to a less interesting aspect of my profession that finally allowed me to cover my rent), I've always remembered that phrase.

“Part of the reason the film, publishing, music, fashion, and other similar industries were able to exploit a large component of their work force is that we actually thought of ourselves as "bohemians" -- we were happy to forgo a living wage for a chance to be part of the creative world. In a sense, we believed we were the sort of people Fussell and Brooks were writing about. But the fact is, we weren't. They were referring to executive editors and creative directors and tenured film professors -- people who knew the best Zinfandel to drink at their art-filled summer homes in the Hamptons. Meanwhile, we were living five to an apartment, and consuming cheese squares and Two-Buck Chuck at art openings because we couldn't afford to buy our own food.

“And if that life was bad then, it's worse now, when rents and home prices in every "creative" city are skyrocketing, yet the pay scale for these jobs is still pathetic. Yet there are still plenty of applicants for each one -- in part because young aspirants don't know, or don't care, how difficult it is to make the transition to a job that pays decently. (Or that these companies are run by businesspeople, who are happy to exploit the naivete of their younger workers.) So the creative underclass will always exist -- and they'll always be the ones who, at least in part, make it possible for Bobos and X-People to live the way they do.”

Ann Althouse said...

Amadeus 48 adds:

"These are great comments about Brooks and Fussell.

"Further to Fussell, his much-praised book “The Great War and Modern Memory” is a wonderful collection of essays on what we now call World War I, but they called The Great War. It was the event that brought modernism to the fore, according to Fussell, and the book itself is an extended exposition of literary criticism and social history. There is extended treatment of Blunden, Sassoon, Graves, and Owen, but his beginning notes on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and how Hardy anticipated the themes of the Great War, are astonishing.

"Fussell wrote a great essay in, I think, Harper’s, called “How I Found Irony in the Infantry” about his own wartime experiences. I heard Fussell give a talk late in his life at the Chicago Humanities Festival. He was a strange, emotional figure who wept openly at the lectern recalling his own experiences in World War II.

"This, I submit, is what the humanities should be all about—the study men and women and their responses to the world through literature, art, history, music. So much of the academy has defaulted to third rate sociology and called it the study of humanity.

"As one of the least abstract thinkers around might say, sad."

Ann Althouse said...

Fussell's X people? Do you consider yourself a member of any class?"

I'll answer: I haven't read the book in 20 years or so, but I think it deals in stereotypes that contain truth and humor and that are also by now outdated. Reading the book, who thinks they are one of the stereotypes? No... it's designed to offer you the door of escape from the system and it calls that X. I presume nearly all readers identify with X, whatever the specifics of X are. It's really back to the old question whether there are classes in America. You can identify with a class as you go about your life or break free of it. Some of breaking free is willful blindness. You have to maintain some realistic grip on where you belong, and in that sense, no one is X. Recognizing where you fit in is part of getting free, I suspect. Anyway, there is no question that I began in a middle middle class family. When I was in my 30s, I became upper middle class. I have no connection to the upper class or the lower class.

Ann Althouse said...

gpm writes:

"Have read Class at least twice, but the last time was probaby at least 25 years ago. Though I know more or less exactly where the book is on the bookshelf in my house up north. Assuming it had some validity back then, I wonder how the analysis would stand up to the current social situation. How have things changed?

"For whatever reason, the main point that sticks in my mind was a discussion of how the way two couples occupy a car is a class marker. If I'm rememberinc correctly, for the proles (don't recall whether he used that term), the husbands/boyfriends would both be in the front seat and the ladies (if you'll pardon the terminology) would be in the back. For the uptight lower middle class, which seemed to be the main subjects of his derisions, one couple would be in the front seath, the other in the back seat. For the upper middle class, which he didn't seem to despise so much, there would also be a couple in front and one in back, but they would switch off; guy from one couple and "gal" from the other in front and vice versa in back.

"Also some discussion of clothing with "messages." I've generally been of the school that I don't want my clothes to be explicitly announcing things. I think that may have put me in his upper middle class category (though my family background is decidedly not).

"If I thought about it, maybe I'd remember some more. As I recall, it was a fairly short book.

"Not familiar with any other books of his or his (ex) wife's.

"Read BoBos in Paradise once. Don't remember much at all about it, though I vaguely recall some discussion about far suburban reachs outside DC att being developed with the same chain stores, etc."

Meade said...

“ Not familiar with any other books of his or his (ex) wife's. ”

I can highly recommend The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell. (Unless you’re bored by food and/or history)

Ann Althouse said...

Joseph writes:

"I don't know if Brooks is using the term "creative class" ironically, but I definitely see the people he is talking about in that light. The bohemian attitudes these folks embrace have been typical of artists and intellectuals since the romantic era. The people in Silicon Valley and in the big cities are creating...what? Wealth, if they're hedge fund managers? Apps, if they're in high tech?

"Over the last 200 years or so, the act of being an artist has itself become some kind of ideal. You're a member of the clerisy. You're more sensitive, more intelligent, more forward-looking in your attitudes. The problem is that being an artist--with a capital "A"--has been expanded to include all manner of activities. Rock n' Roll musicians used to emphasize that they weren't doing "high art," or, at least, that the distinction between high, middle, and low art was meaningless. That leveling of the arts has resulted in everyone from sculptors to creators of greeting cards being defined as artists and becoming part of some ruling class--or so they think. And now that group seems to include people who aren't really artists at all, but have the sense of high calling, selectivity of association, and in-group superiority that seem to define, for some, what being an artist is.

"The people I know who are best at writing, playing music, and so on, don't really think about that stuff and just do their work. The least productive people I know in the arts are too busy projecting their status as artists to do significant creative work. In addition, they spend so much time thinking about the things that don't matter that they lack the sensitivity and moral purpose that real artists have. Sort of like the creative class Brooks is talking about."