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On the Touchy Subject of Class in America

The Fussell book that detonates most forcefully, in my mind, at any rate, has always been “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” (1983). There are few books like it in this country’s literature.


Paul Fussell in 1980.

Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives, NYP Holdings Inc., via Getty Images

Each year there are many volumes, most of them dead to the touch, about social class in America. The authors pace professorially around their subject, dribbling on statistics and polling data. Fussell, on the other hand, plunged into the topic as if he were carving a turkey.

“Since we have them,” he remarked about social classes, “why not know as much as we can about them? The subject may be touchy, but it need not be murky forever.”

“Class” is not for the easily offended. Fussell intends to draw blood, and does. Reading this book — especially if, like me, you grew up middle-class and never gave the matter much thought — is like getting one of those massages that pulls each of your bones apart before snapping it back onto your torso.

For the tyro reader, Fussell dispatches early the notion that class has much to do with how much money you have. Those who’ve paid any attention “perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensable criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation.” Donald J. Trump is an instructive specimen in this regard.

Fussell draws thick dividing lines before drawing thin ones. He suggests, for example, that “you could probably draw a trustworthy class line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by a family, making allowances for the number of children in the household.”

A prickly observer of language, he notes that “an important class divide falls between those who feel veneration before the term executive and those who feel they want to throw up.”

His book investigates how Americans talk, how we decorate our homes, how we dress, how we read. This book is nearly 35 years old, and some of its examples are out of date. It is less and less true, for example, that “top-class food resembles British, being bland and mushy, with little taste and no chances taken.”

He investigates the social language of flowers. He speaks of what he calls “the college swindle”: the notion that a degree from a third-rate university will give you much of an advantage in terms of income or anything else.

If you are not secure in your fondness for professional sports, back away from Fussell now. “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.”

One of his fundamental points is how rigid, though invisible, America’s caste system is. “We’re pretty well stuck for life,” he writes, “in the class we’re raised in.”

More depressing is his sense of how difficult it is for classes to genuinely combine. Speaking about two people, one who regularly uses double negatives, and one who doesn’t, he writes: “The two can respect each other, but they can never be pals. They belong to different classes, and if they attempt to mix, they will inevitably regard each other as quaint and not quite human.” I don’t fully agree with that observation, but to dismiss it entirely would be folly.

The line between wit and cruelty is always a fine one, and that’s especially true in “Class.” But it’s not an insensitive book. Sensitivity is, in fact, among its themes.

In one of his final chapters, Fussell posits a way out of the class cages he has so ruthlessly described. You can escape them by becoming what he calls an “X person.” He writes: “You earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable.”

I know readers who have thrown this book across a room, thus illustrating the essential truth of one of Fussell’s contentions: “If you find an American who feels entirely class-secure, stuff and exhibit him. He’s a rare specimen.”

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