- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin, $25, 274 pages

In his jaunty and delightful "Snobbery: The American Version," Joseph Epstein tackles the very human inclination to condescend. Approaching snobbery from many of the quarters in which it thrives and sometimes chastens, he takes a breezily scholarly and very funny look at why and how we look down our noses.
After an opening in which he forthrightly describes his own background, a modest one Jewish, middle class, of parents lacking a college education and who favored Boston Pops over anything weightier Mr. Epstein presents an overview of snobbery in America, guided inevitably by his own biases and insights. The best parts of this book crackle with everyday observations on the sometimes unnoticed places where smugness lurks, reflected in the opening sentence of his chapter on food snobbery:
"When did my dentist begin using the word pasta? When did anyone? I have checked this with friends who grew up in Italian families, and in their memory the word of choice was inevitably spaghetti, sometimes macaroni. I'm not sure I can nail down the exact date when pasta came into currency, but around that time, my guess is, one can discover the beginning of food snobbery in America."
Beginning points [and end points] are important to Mr. Epstein as he charts the origins of snobbery in America and its dilution in our time. "One hears little about snobbery before the 18th century," he writes, and "until the nineteenth century, there was a ready acceptance of rank and social position." It was the spread of democracy that actually engendered snobbery by blurring distinctions in such a way that people invented their own. He notes that "the direction and shape that snobbery has taken in America since the close of WASP dominance is largely what this book is about."
That dominance, covered briskly here, ended meekly "WASPS surrendered with little struggle" the author avers. He attributes this retreat to the descendants of the Rockefellers at al, who got a taste of egalitarianism in the '60s. And Joseph Alsop's idea of heaven notwithstanding ("to be well dressed at an outdoor New England wedding"), a WASP-dominated social era with its prep schools and Social Register roughly ended when newspapers stopped running Society pages and shifted instead to "Style" sections. But after that many other forms of snobbery remained for everyone else to navigate.
If Mr. Epstein learned early that "shortstop was a more admired position than second base, and in football, quarterback more admired than interior lineman" (in grammar school he played both) he was able to observe over time what jobs were the best, what schools were the best and what cars were the best. He received an advanced degree at the University of Chicago and now teaches at Northwestern University, and his preference for cars is a Jaguar S-type. By his estimation Mercedes hold subordinate cachet.
Taste, status, the successes of children, particularly where they attend college (his son went to Stanford), the breed of dog one owns are all weighed and considered. To do this, Mr. Epstein employs what all snobs must because, according to the author, they can have only one standard: comparison. This university produced so many Nobel laureates; that one so many presidents. In the matter of taste, sometimes great things can be carelessly dismissed. He uses Vermeer as an example and also the work of Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese who were undervalued in their time.
As for the dogs, at a certain point King Charles spaniels "seemed the breed of choice for the dog owner with a social eye." There followed golden retrievers, a breed for which the author held the following fantasy: "I was only barely able to resist examining the chests of these amiable beasts to see if they didn't bear the logo of Ralph Lauren. Now I sense that there is yet another shift away from pure breeds toward mutts, half Lab, half you pick it.
In this book there is much that is clearly arbitrary. The way Mr. Epstein sees it, doctors have good professions, but doctors involved in research are at the top of the food chain. Engineers used to be valued for what they do but no longer are as fashionable. Neither are journalists who saw their heyday at the time of Watergate. High birth counts for a lot, but on the other hand, as Sigmund Freud said: "Better to be an ancestor than to have them."
The shape of this book, with its whirlwind of observations, apercus, and quotations seems whimsical even in its thoroughness. There is nothing here that is not carefully considered, but the book is something of a stream of consciousness lark by one smart man employing his prejudices to gauge those of others. The net effect is thought-provoking, stimulating but not conclusive.
Most of Mr. Epstein's observations seem absolutely on target, and for backup the former editor of the American Scholar enlists the aid of some of the all-time great arbiters of rank, taste and merit, these being for the most part literary men and women who themselves told very American stories of the attempts to transcend birth and class, sometimes with unhappy results. Their understandings of distinctions were keen, and their books a record of the struggle to advance one's social standing. He cites Henry James' "Daisy Miller," Edith Wharton's "Custom of the Country," Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
But in the end, what Mr. Epstein has written is basically a book that celebrates equality. Early on he writes, "People not content with their place in the world, not reconciled with themselves, are especially susceptible to snobbery. The problem here is that at one time or another, and in varying degrees, this may well include us all."
From start to end, it is the light touch that prevails. One need only examine the book jacket to find the first hint of playfulness, right there in a series of fake blurbs. Blurbs, the snobbish kissing cousin to name dropping, are here imagined to come from the likes of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust and Noel Coward.
Here is pretend praise from Noel Coward on Joseph Epstein: "Like most artists of the past hundred years myself not least among them Joseph Epstein's origins are in the lower middle class, that class always eager to get a leg up, if only to be able to place an ill-shod foot on the neck of those below and knee in the groin of those above."
Mr. Epstein has done his homework. One need only survey the list of books he cites as contributing to the writing of the book. They are the works of authors as diverse as Cleveland Amory, Jane Austen, David Brooks, Dominick Dunne, Emily Post, Marcel Proust, Ned Rorem, Frances (not Anthony) Trollope, and Thorstein Veblen, to name a few.
Happy stomping, Mr. Epstein.

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