“We’re pretty well stuck for life in the class we’re raised in,” Paul Fussell wrote in his 1983 book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Surely Fussell would have applauded Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit character Montague Tigg, an amusing petty street chisler who morphs into Tigg Montague upon becoming an obnoxiously wealthy insurance swindler.
You can escape poverty. You can’t escape yourself.
Paul Fussell died Wednesday at 88. The quickie obit initially posted by the New York Times failed to mention Class, perhaps an understandable omission given that the subject had authored and edited more than twenty books, earned two Purple Hearts during the Second World War, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. He was even the villain of My Kitchen Wars, in which his author-exwife details bearing put-downs from her literary-figure husband as she pursued a writing career, entertaining patronizing professors as a faculty spouse, and catching her partner in marriage partnering with a student.
Hell hath no fury like a fiftysomething woman scorned for a twentysomething man.
Isn’t the gutter decadence of the student-teacher liaison, and the ensuing poisoned-pen revenge, just so high society?
Paul Fussell didn’t quite say that in Class. But he did say that “navy is the upper-middle-class color” and “purple is the prole equivalent.” He instructs that “fishing in fresh water is classier than in salt.” He informs, “Upper-middles like to show off their costly educations by naming their cats Spinoza, Clytemnestra, and Candide.” He insists that young middle-class men say “no way” instead of “no.”
According to Fussell, the curvature of one’s driveway, the flowers displayed in the front hall, the proximity to a bowling alley, and the layering of one’s clothes all advertise a person’s public position. The pages even display drawings illustrating class physiognomy (delicate, pointy noses and squinty eyes for the upper crust; oversized facial features for the blue collars).
Class is one man’s prejudices strung together to form a book. The randomness of its observations, such as the idea that there are nine classes in America, seemingly come out of nowhere. Fussell really didn’t say anything therein save that he was proud of being a snob.
The boorish book even makes the reader long for Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class at least directed its venom at an exclusive club of the rich. The 1899 treatise excoriated duels, dead languages, walking sticks, estates, etiquette, and other pastimes and possessions of the wealthy the way Fussell went after gauche trucker hats and the bourgeois affinity for prominently displaying The Great Books of the Western World. Veblen’s ’80s-era imitator’s equal-opportunity, cross-lineage-mocking demonstrated that snobs can be egalitarian, too.
One understands why a wealthy American would seek to construct a rigid hierarchy based on trivial matters of taste. The New World’s greater economic fluidity than the Old World’s made wealth a poor barometer on which to gauge one’s social status. Surely the masses couldn’t look upon the likes of Kim Kardashian, Mark Cuban, and Paris Hilton as their betters?
More puzzling is why this wealthy American would seek to construct a rigid hierarchy based on trivial matters of taste. Fussell, despite leaving the world this truly terrible book, entered it without having to accomplish much to be considered a success. Yet, he valiantly fought the Nazis in Alsace. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. And he transcended the babbling academic ghetto to write the accessible 1975 commercial and critical success, The Great War and Modern Memory. His admirable achievements, rather than his affluent origins, could have served as a reminder of his apartness from the mob.
Alas, where he came from, rather what he did, defined Paul Fussell. He at least fit his Class narrative.
Paul Fussell has now moved on up to that great classless society in the sky. Heaven must be a hell for the status-obsessed scribe.