Class: A Guide through the American Status System

Class: A Guide through the American Status System

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by Paul Fussell

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In Class Paul Fussell explodes the sacred American myth of social equality with eagle-eyed irreverence and iconoclastic wit. This bestselling, superbly researched, exquisitely observed guide to the signs, symbols, and customs of the American class system is always outrageously on the mark as Fussell shows us how our status is revealed by everything we do, say,…  See more details below


In Class Paul Fussell explodes the sacred American myth of social equality with eagle-eyed irreverence and iconoclastic wit. This bestselling, superbly researched, exquisitely observed guide to the signs, symbols, and customs of the American class system is always outrageously on the mark as Fussell shows us how our status is revealed by everything we do, say, and own. He describes the houses, objects, artifacts, speech, clothing styles, and intellectual proclivities of American classes from the top to the bottom and everybody -- you'll surely recognize yourself -- in between. Class is guaranteed to amuse and infuriate, whether your class is so high it's out of sight (literally) or you are, alas, a sinking victim of prole drift.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Chicago Sun-Times Highly amusing....a witty, persnickety, and illuminating book....fussell hits the mark.

The Washington Post Move over, William Buckley. Stand back, Gore Vidal. And run for cover, Uncle Sam: Paul Fussell, the nation's newest world-class curmudgeon, is taking aim at The American Experiment.

Wilfrid Sheed The Atlantic A fine prickly pear of a book....Anyone who reads it will automatically move up a class.

Alison Lurie The New York Times Book Review A shrewd and entertaining commentary on American mores today. Frighteningly acute.

Product Details

Dorset Press
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Chapter 1

A Touchy Subject

Although most Americans sense that they live within an extremely complicated system of social classes and suspect that much of what is thought and done here is prompted by considerations of status, the subject has remained murky. And always touchy. You can outrage people today simply by mentioning social class, very much the way, sipping tea among the aspidistras a century ago, you could silence a party by adverting too openly to sex. When, recently, asked what I am writing, I have answered, "A book about social class in America," people tend first to straighten their ties and sneak a glance at their cuffs to see how far fraying has advanced there. Then, a few minutes later, they silently get up and walk away. It is not just that I am feared as a class spy. It is as if I had said, "I am working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals." Since I have been writing this book I have experienced many times the awful truth of R. H. Tawney's perception, in his book Equality (1931): "The word 'class' is fraught with unpleasing associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit."

Especially in America, where the idea of class is notably embarrassing. In his book Inequality in an Age of Decline (1980), the sociologist Paul Blumberg goes so far as to call it "America's forbidden thought." Indeed, people often blow their tops if the subject is even broached. One woman, asked by a couple of interviewers if she thought there were social classes in this country, answered: "It's the dirtiest thingI've ever heard of!" And a man, asked the same question, got so angry that he blurted out, "Social class should be exterminated!"

Actually, you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a rung or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic to come up: the more attention paid to the matter the better off they seem to be. Proletarians generally don't mind discussions of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity. Thus the whole class matter is likely to seem like a joke to them -- the upper classes fatuous in their empty aristocratic pretentiousness, the middles loathsome in their anxious gentility. It is the middle class that is highly class-sensitive, and sometimes class-scared to death. A representative of that class left his mark on a library copy of Russell Lynes's The Tastemakers (1954). Next to a passage patronizing the insecure decorating taste of the middle class and satirically contrasting its artistic behavior to that of some more sophisticated classes, this offended reader scrawled, in large capitals, "BULL SHIT!" A hopelessly middle-class man (not a woman, surely?) if I ever saw one.

If you reveal your class by your outrage at the very topic, you reveal it also by the way you define the thing that's outraging you. At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people grant that money has something to do with it, but think education and the kind of work you do almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style, and behavior are indispensable criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education. One woman interviewed by Studs Terkel for Division Street: America (1967) clearly revealed her class as middle both by her uneasiness about the subject's being introduced and by her instinctive recourse to occupation as the essential class criterion. "We have right on this street almost every class," she said. "But I shouldn't say class," she went on, "because we don't live in a nation of classes." Then, the occupational criterion: "But we have janitors living on the street, we have doctors, we have businessmen, CPAs."

Being told that there are no social classes in the place where the interviewee lives is an old experience for sociologists. "'We don't have classes in our town' almost invariably is the first remark recorded by the investigator," reports Leonard Reissman, author of Class in American Life (1959). "Once that has been uttered and is out of the way, the class divisions in the town can be recorded with what seems to be an amazing degree of agreement among the good citizens of the community." The novelist John O'Hara made a whole career out of probing into this touchy subject, to which he was astonishingly sensitive. While still a boy, he was noticing that in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up, "older people do not treat others as equals."

Class distinctions in America are so complicated and subtle that foreign visitors often miss the nuances and sometimes even the existence of a class structure. So powerful is "the fable of equality," as Frances Trollope called it when she toured America in 1832, so embarrassed is the government to confront the subject -- in the thousands of measurements pouring from its bureaus, social class is not officially recognized -- that it's easy for visitors not to notice the way the class system works. A case in point is the experience of Walter Allen, the British novelist and literary critic. Before he came over here to teach at a college in the 1950s, he imagined that "class scarcely existed in America, except, perhaps, as divisions between ethnic groups or successive waves of immigrants." But living awhile in Grand Rapids opened his eyes: there he learned of the snob power of New England and the pliability of the locals to the long-wielded moral and cultural authority of old families.

Some Americans viewed with satisfaction the failure of the 1970s TV series Beacon Hill, a drama of high society modeled on the British Upstairs, Downstairs, comforting themselves with the belief that this venture came to grief because there is no class system here to sustain interest in it. But they were mistaken. Beacon Hill failed to engage American viewers because it focused on perhaps the least interesting place in the indigenous class structure, the quasi-aristocratic upper class. Such a dramatization might have done better if it had dealt with places where everyone recognizes interesting class collisions occur -- the place where the upper-middle class meets the middle and resists its attempted incursions upward, or where the middle class does the same to the classes just below it.

If foreigners often fall for the official propaganda of social equality, the locals tend to know what's what, even if they feel some uneasiness talking about it. When the acute black from the South asserts of an ambitious friend that "Joe can't class with the big folks," we feel in the presence of someone who's attended to actuality. Like the carpenter who says: "I hate to say there are classes, but it's just that people are more comfortable with people of like backgrounds." His grouping of people by "like backgrounds," scientifically uncertain as it may be, is nearly as good a way as any to specify what it is that distinguishes one class from another. If you feel no need to explicate your allusions or in any way explain what you mean, you are probably talking with someone in your class. And that's true whether you're discussing the Rams and the Forty-Niners, RVs, the House (i.e., Christ Church, Oxford), Mama Leone's, the Big Board, "the Vineyard," "Baja," or the Porcellian.

In this book I am going to deal with some of the visible and audible signs of social class, but I will be sticking largely with those that reflect choice. That means that I will not be considering matters of race, or, except now and then, religion or politics. Race is visible, but

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Meet the Author

Paul Fussell, critic, essayist, and cultural commentator, has recently won the H. L. Mencken Award of the Free Press Association. Among his books are The Great War and Modem Memory, which in 1976 won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award; Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars; Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War; and, most recently, BAD or, The Dumbing of America. His essays have been collected in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations and Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. He lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Class: A Guide through the American Status System 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is even a sort of aristocracy amongst the working class people whom Fussell generally refers to as proles. Fussell's sharp eye has found and catalogued an amazing array of signs that indicate class in America. Try to spot these signs at your next social gathering, or even subject your own living room to the survey at the end of the book (frighteningly accurate way to determine one's class)! This is a book based on pigeon-holing people, and that is probably what most annoyed readers can't stand about Fussell. But class distinctions do exist, like 'em or not. The middle class hope to rise in class by sending their kids to Harvard or Yale, the Proles hope to do the same by getting more money. Lucky "X Class" people don't give a hoot about such climbing, and fortunately more of us are just veering sideways into that final category which Fussell charts as a kind of class alternative. Actually, the book could also be a helpful guide to those with a need to temporarily masquerade as a member of a given class... Unfortunate but true that you will get better service at a jeweler's or other tony shop if you dress not so much "up" but into the highest class you can accurately manage. And if you want to blend in at the truck stop, there are plenty of hot tips to be gleaned from this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best overview of the class system in the US that I've seen. He sees all the complexities...that class is about more than money, or one's job (or lack thereof), etc. He sees the class implications in everything from the sort of house we live in (not so much what it costs but what style we choose), the clothes we wear (no, more expensive isn't automatically higher class), how we speak (no, florid language isn't aristocratic), etc. Also hilariously funny. I read it in one day and couldn't put it down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being an immigrant, Class provided an insightful view of American class system. The book is both amusing and intruiging. I was unable to put it down. I even got my mother, who is not an avid reader, to read the book. We both still refer to it in a jocular way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quite funny and often true. Very enjoyable to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Though a bit dated, this is a wonderful book (i have the 1989 paperback edition, so i don't know if he has updated the book). I love the tongue-in-cheek humor that Fussell uses throughout the book. Especially dealing with the middle class. You'll find yourself laughing out loud. And the book is surprisingly relevant. You'd think that a 20 year old book about class in America wouldn't be relevant, but there is a lot to be taken from this book. Like I said, it is a bit dated, but any intelligent person (which most of you reading this book are) can make the changes. And after reading most of the book, and you can't seem to figure out which class you belong to, Fussell introduces, in the final chapter, the 'X' people. Those that don't belong to any class, or create a category of their own. Yeah, not all 'X' people fit all the criteria of Fussell's, but then part of being an 'X' person is that individuality, and not necessarily filling every 'criteria.' This is a great book, if not for Fussell's social statement on America, at least for the humor he uses.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Oh, my, this is an insidious little book. Fussell pulls America's caste system apart like a loaf of twisty bread; he doesn't suffer fools nor brook any nonsense. I thought of Evanston, Illinois' imminent decay when it lost the last grocery store that delivers (Fussell is a careful observer of such conveniences). I think of the insane job-title inflation that turns a sales rep into a regional rep or even an 'acccount executive' (like s/he has that kind of power!). Fussell goes so far as to say that there aren't any more American universities than there were before World War II. The new ones just call themselves that; they are 'universities' (so their graduates can get a job as 'account execs,' I guess). For Fussell there is no lower-middle class, there are 'proles.' My reading group read this book for a lark but--I warn you--at some point this book will draw blood when it hits YOUR case, so beware! Funny as all get-out and beautifully written (Fussell is an English professor), 'Class' came out in the mid-eighties but still remains--and deserves--popularity today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I originally began to read this book for my english class, but i found it so good that pretty soon i was zooming ahead of the assigned reading and i eventually finished the book in a week. It gives a detailed satirical description and overview of the class systems and criteria in america in such a way that a normally uncomfortable topic is made hilarious.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book excellantly deciphers the class or 'caste' system in America that seperates the best from common society. It gives you guidelines for climbing the ladder as well as descending it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It forces you to perform a self examination, to dot your I's and cross your T's. Most people are afraid to acknowledge that classism is extremely prevalent in the U.S. The upper classes because they don't want anything to change, the insecure middle class because they are afraid of slipping a notch and are envious of the uppers, and lower classes (proles) because they have accepted their fate and are envious of the middle class. Since only 4% of Americans read more than 1 book a year (they're too busy watching TV), and far fewer than 1% will read this book, you can use the information in this book to move yourself up a notch and no one will notice. It will be your own little secret.....