Snobbery: The American Version

Snobbery: The American Version

by Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin

In our allegedly egalitarian society, calling someone a snob has a power of insult approximately equal to that of calling him a racist. But Joseph Epstein, a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University and author of Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), is moderately comfortable in the admission that, yes, he is a snob, and is so captivated by the subject that he has decided to write a book about the issue. The disturbing truth is, however, that it may not be such a phenomenon after all. Snobs certainly existed in Thackeray’s time, prompting him to write The Book of Snobs (1848), a taxonomic account of those who think themselves worthy of the best possible company — “best” being a vague and continually changing qualifier.

But Thackeray lived in 19th century England, a nation that has often come under fire for its rigid hierarchical stratifications. Where does snobbery fit in with contemporary American ideals? What about equality and classlessness? As Epstein explains in his brief preface: “This is a book about snobbery, its perplexities and perils, its complications and not least its comedy. Behind its composition lies the perpetual question … of whether snobbery is a constituent part of human nature or instead an aberration brought about by a particular social conditions.” In other words, snobbery is very much alive in America today. What form it takes is another matter, and Epstein was at no loss for examples of snobbery (“like bacteria, [it] is found everywhere”), coming across materialistic snobbery, celebrity snobbery, health snobbery, education snobbery, the snobbery of victimhood (“my holocaust is greater than your slavery”) and a relatively new development called reverse snobbery (the snobbery of being vehemently anti-snob) while he was composing these interconnected chapter-essays of Snobbery: The American Version.

In his opening chapter, Epstein employs the grade school taunt “It takes one to know one” to make the case that he truly understands the mental machinations of a snob, as he has no further to look than himself. He describes how, at a young age, he inclined toward snobbery in spite of his humble, working-class Jewish upbringing by parents who took little interest in art and theatre, firsthand proof that one does not have to be rich to elevate one’s nose. Later, as a student at the University of Chicago, he developed his life’s fundamental maxim: “Other people might achieve success in life — I would seek significance.”

The book positively brims with wit and candor, humor and balance. Epstein’s analyses are pithy: “It used to be who you were, then it was what you did, then it was what you had, then it was whom you knew — and now it’s beginning to be how many people know you.” His sources of quotation are many: Proust and Balzac (of course), as well as Richard E. Grant, Henry James, George Santayana, Andy Warhol and scores of others. His topics are as diverse as there are varieties of snobbery: “The Celebrity Iceberg,” “Anglo-, Franco- and Other Odd philias,” “How Snobbery Works,” “Intellectual Snobbery, or The (Million or So) Happy Few,” and so on. Yet Epstein never once condemns the snob, never proselytizes on behalf of earnest humility, never wags his finger to shame the snobs among his readers who picked up the book only because it got choice reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. Following the model set by Montaigne, Epstein admits his shortcomings and then examines the possible motives behind them. What character flaw causes someone like him to be occasionally upward-looking? What insecurity would incite name-dropping in the company of others? What estimation of self would prompt condescension about, say, someone else’s children?

As a language snob myself, I can’t help but point out that Epstein’s straightforward style does invite a few sloppy grammatical errors, and he does make some unfortunately ill-timed citations and comparisons. Andersen Consulting, for example, is mentioned as one of the chic jobs of the moment (not so after the Enron scandal); Martha Stewart is checked off as a lasting middle-class fashion icon, though her empire is on shaky grounds after suspected insider trading). Epstein also runs through the naming of children, in one instance claiming that Scott no doubt stems from a status-seeking homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald. This, I think, is stretching the facts to fit a theory. Snobbery: The American Version also has a tendency to digress at times, particularly in terms of British snobbery, but I found these tangents far more valuable and entertaining than if the author had stuck unwaveringly to the primary theme.

This is an exceptional book, rare in its blend of intelligence and good nature, as well as its avoidance of pedantry and outrageous postmodern theory. More than just a clever discourse on an age-old affliction, it is also a useful account of America and its people on the cusp of the 21st century. So if Joseph Epstein is as much a snob as he says, then I am proud to consider myself the type. That is, of course, if my own relatively meagre status doesn’t preclude him from acknowledging me as one of his own.

Houghton Mifflin:

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