Epstein on snobs: informed, charming

July 07, 2002|By Craig Nova | By Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

Snobbery, The American Version, by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Co. 288 pages. $25.

Reading this witty and informative book is an odd experience, since it says in public the things that one usually only says in private, and the accumulated effect of them is at once horrifying and exhilarating. Often you find yourself putting the book down and saying, out loud, "My god, he didn't say that, too, did he?" If nothing else, Joseph Epstein knows that if one is going to write a book about snobbery, the best tool is breathtaking honesty. And while Snobbery, the American Version is enjoyable, it is important, too.

Actually, the book is a variety of social history, in that when one tries to make sense out of what is happening now, it is important to know how we got here. And, of course, when looking at social history, Epstein includes not just the nuts and bolts of the rise and fall of various groups, but the surrounding expressions of such changes, such as clothes, fashion, how one sees one's children, schools and almost every other item that has to do with social class, prestige and snobbery.

Where Epstein really shines is in his examination of the literary and political snob. These people, one hopes, will never be the same.

Essentially, Snobbery, The American Version makes the point that, from a social point of view, we are in a muddle. Frankly, this is not such a bad thing, really. But whatever one thinks of it, Epstein is quite right in saying that we are in this particular condition because of the collapse of the last cohesive and powerful American class, which is to say, the collapse of the Wasps.

In the old days, which weren't so long ago, a handful of eastern prep schools and universities, and the families who sent their children there (er, make that boys), were in a position to set the standard for what was generally considered to be socially correct. This group, along with its social fetishes, such as coming out parties and the like, is long gone.

Epstein is certain that this is the case, as anyone with an ounce of sense would agree, but he is a little puzzled as to why this happened. My own theory is that they believed a lot of what some of those prep schools taught, such as fairness, honor, lack of materialism, etc., and so when new groups, that had been so obviously excluded came along, the Wasps had no spiritual or moral reason for resisting.

In any case, we are left with a kind of vacuum, which capitalism has done its best to fill. For instance, the social structure is more defined by marketing and shopping than it is by such old-line matters as dignity and manners. And, as Epstein points out, it is precisely in times like this, when everything is so vague, that snobbery is most prevalent.

In the absence of solid standards, the snob can get away with a lot more than he used to.

Take politics, for instance. Now the "virtucrat," as Epstein calls this new snob, holds sway in political life. This creature is "a man or a woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain." In short, the new prig, just as smug as the old Club Man, is that bore at a dinner party who distinguishes him or herself with lofty condescension to any who dare disagree. They are not more right than you, just better human beings.

Witty, clever and honest, Snobbery, The American Version is one of those books that are at once as charming as they are informed, and it is very informed indeed.

Craig Nova is the author of 10 novels, including The Good Son, Tornado Alley and Wetware, which was published in January. His Brook Trout and the Writing Life was published in 1999. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of The Good Son.

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