Skip to main content

Class In America

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. By Paul Fussell. Summit Books. $13.95.

Social class is a touchy topic anywhere; in America it is more ticklish, for the United States prides itself on being a classless society. Rank and status are antithetical to the very idea upon which this nation was founded: that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nevertheless, Paul Fussell, who glares like a pugnacious bulldog from the back jacket of his Class: A Guide through the American Status System, insists that equality is a fable and that social class is a fact of American life; indeed, he distinguishes as many as nine different socioeconomic strata. A social and intellectual historian, Fussell appears to be one of those who habitually view others as types before seeing them as individuals. Class is a provocative, entertaining, and nasty book; it is bound to annoy many Americans who will find themselves caricatured in its pages. Ingenious as Fussell’s classification of the American social system is, it appears to derive from the perspective of an intellectual ivory tower rather than to emerge empirically out of experience.

As Fussell says, it is usual to think of only three classes— upper, middle, and lower. Such a tripartite division has served the British well enough for centuries. Sociologists often adopt a five-part schema: upper, upper middle class, middle, lower middle class and lower. Fussell’s nine hierarchical classes are: top out-of-sight, upper, upper middle, middle, high-prole, mid-prole, low-prole, bottom out-of-sight, and Class X—this last being the classless class to which Fussell assigns himself. Extremes meet, so that the classes at the top and bottom of the social ladder are alike in being virtually invisible. According to Fussell, the really affluent learned to conceal themselves and their wealth during the Depression and have continued to do so since; the destitute are hidden away in welfare or correctional institutions. Neither the rich nor the unemployed work for a living. Fussell’s social classes are categorized by how much money they have, how they make their money, how they are educated, their values, tastes, and style.

Among the upper orders, the very rich, being born into and accustomed to wealth, take it for granted; their lives are spent in elegant but inconspicuous consumption, while the upper classes, part of whose money is earned, are ostentatiously wealthy and acquisitive. The upper middle class is distinguished from uppers and “top out-of-sights” by the fact that it earns most of its money in law, medicine, real estate, oil, shipping, and sometimes trade. The operative principle here is one Ernest Hemingway proclaimed: the more one has, the less one needs to display it, particularly when one is to the manner born.

The class Fussell depicts at most length and caustically is the middle class, which is probably the largest. This writer’s detestation and contempt for the contemporary American bourgeois are atrabilious. He invokes Lord Melbourne: “The higher and lower classes, there’s some good in them, but the middle classes are all affectation and conceit and pretense and concealment.” Fussell dislikes what he views as the hypocrisy, snobbery, pretentiousness, and tastelessness of the middle class. He sees these qualities as stemming from the inherent insecurity of the middle class, poised between upper heaven and the prole abyss. Fussell regards members of the American middle class as cogs in America’s corporate machine; as such, they are interchangeable, rootless, nomadic, subject to “status panic,” forever putting on airs and trying to be other than they are. Fussell’s portrait of the middle class is so intemperate and intolerant that one thinks his social prejudice must be fueled by self-hatred.

In its lower reaches the middle class shades off into upper proledom, a manifestation of the “prole drift” Fussell detects in American society at large as a result of rampant mass production and the ravages of the inflation of the late 60’s and 70’s. Upper, middle, and lower prole ranks are graded according to the kind of work performed, the degree to which it is supervised and “the kind of anxiety that besets one as a result of work.” Fussell identifies high-proles as skilled workers and craftsmen, mid-proles as operators (bus and truckdrivers, for example), and lower-proles as unskilled laborers. At the bottom of the social heap, work is dirty, dangerous, and undependable. Or it may be simply soul-killing. Fussell quotes this poignant observation of an American working woman: “Most of us . . .have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” If, as Thoreau said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” some proles express noisy despair.

It is in cataloging the differing tastes and lifestyles of his classes that Fussell is at his best; again, though, many of his observations seem to derive from sociological texts rather than from rubbing shoulders with all kinds of Americans. As an historian of taste, Fussell examines the different physiques, physiognomies, sex roles, dress, milieux, houses and home furnishings, educational practices, culinary tastes, and attitudes to such things as travel, sports, and technology among the classes. The upper classes are distinguished by being, on the whole, thin and well exercised; they engage in classy sports (such as sailing, fishing, riding, tennis, and golf); they live in tasteful and elegant houses with ample acreages of well-landscaped grounds and carefully tended lawns. “Uppers” think, speak, read, and eat minimally, according to Fussell, and they dress understatedly. Clothing is designed to conceal, not reveal, sexual differences, being layered, tweedy, textured, even slightly disheveled or worn. In these classes, sexual roles are often reversed, the wife going out to participate in community activities or to work, the husband staying at home. Furniture and accessories are rich but modest, food and drink good but bland. The upper orders are always well but sometimes unconventionally educated; they travel frequently and first class. They are Anglophilic, nostalgic for the past, ill at ease before the contemporary and the technological. They major in the arts or humanities because these disciplines are past-oriented, useless, and breed only elegiac emotions. “Classy people never deal with the future, ” and “Science and technology have never quite made it socially,” Fussell observes.

Middle-class dress tends to be newer and smarter than upper-class and is often pretentiously labeled as well as worn; the middle class, like proles, wear what Alison Lurie calls “legible clothing.” Sporting Lacoste alligators, Calvin Klein jeans, or T-shirts, from which the faces of Beethoven or Virginia Woolf glower or smirk, like having the name of one’s university emblazoned in decal on the rear window of one’s automobile, or flaunting a bumper sticker declaring one’s empathy with small animals—all are symptoms of the middle- class desire for recognition and identity. The House and Garden mentality of the middle class causes it to elevate every house into a home and often to deck it with phony or pretentious knickknacks or doodads. Yet middle class homes are not homey but like motels, observes Fussell. Paradoxically, an eternal striving for status and ambience results in neither. Fussell agrees with Russell Lynes that middle-class tastes in food, drink, clothing, and furniture are essentially bland, inoffensive, and characterless. The favorite food of the middle class is “the customary frozen schlock, soft and tasteless and . . .prefabricated dishes warmed in a battery of microwave ovens, not by chefs but by a squad of heating engineers.” It is, however, in their use of the language, spoken and written, that the middle class most deeply offends Fussell. He concedes that middles, unlike uppers, do read, but what do they read? Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Psychology Today, how-to and Great Books—all objects of Fussell’s scorn. Seeking self-improvement and refinement, this class “opts for the showy, and in so doing takes a pratfall.” It assiduously cultivates the American habit of adding syllables in the fond hope that these confer added dignity or worth. Orwell held politics responsible for debasing the English language; Fussell holds the middle class responsible for the deplorable state of contemporary American English. “Its terror of ideology, opinion and sharp meaning . . .are the main cause of the euphemism, jargon, gentility and verbal slop that wash over us.” Fussell invites us to consider euphemisms such as “flotation device,” “motion discomfort,” “underachievers,” “mental illness,” “drug abuse,” “inner city,” “memorial park,” and such malapropisms as “perverting a strike” or calling in a priest to “circumcise a ghost.”

Nearing the bottom of the social spectrum, colors become louder; clothes, automobiles, and appliances, more artificial and garish; food and drink, sweeter, spicier, and more ethnic; speech, noisier, more colorful, repetitive, obscene. “Small ball sports,” such as golf and tennis, give way to “big ball sports,” such as football, soccer, baseball, basketball, and bowling. In sum, the lean yields to the obese, the laid-back to the showy, the Anglo-Saxon to the immigrant, the over- to the underbred, consumption to production, the arts and humanities to science and technology.

In a chapter called “The Life of the Mind,” Fussell exposes what he calls the great “college swindle.” He argues that, because the United States has no monarchy, nobility, prestigious clergy or military, here the university becomes the cynosure of value. Fussell defines the snob as someone who takes birth or wealth to be the sole criterion of success but is in danger of doing the same himself with education. While he exaggerates the power and prestige with which Americans generally credit education, he is right about the fraud being perpetrated in the name of higher education. He points out that, between 1940 and 1970, America’s college-going population increased 30 percent. Like many members of the university community, Fussell believes that a result of this broadening of the base has been a debasement of educational quality; further, that only a small number of America’s three thousand institutions of higher education really provide a good education. Nor do more than a handful of elite universities offer an open-sesame to the good life upon graduation. How can mass education be quality education? Higher education is not really democratic; “the effect of the whole system is to stabilize class rigidity under the color of opening up genuine higher learning to everyone.” Paul Blumberg in Inequality in an Age of Decline reasons that only the upper crust can afford to send its children to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford; this elite has appropriated higher education “to reproduce the class system and transmit inequality.” Fussell’s Class X sounds like the haven to which disillusioned intellectuals retreat when they have given up on academe.

That it is perhaps a figment of Fussell’s imagination, a country of the mind, is suggested by his thoughts on “prole drift.” The last two decades have required many upwardly mobile Americans to come to terms with downward mobility, as stagflation, lowered productivity, unemployment, and the kind of socioeconomic arteriosclerosis that afflicts advanced, postindustrial societies have made themselves felt, The American class system is becoming Europeanized, that is, more rigid and unequal. Fussell deplores the latter-day effects of what DeTocqueville prophesied would be the tyranny of the majority. As Ortega y Gasset says in The Revolt of the Masses, ” The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will”; the obverse of which is that “the mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.” Mass production, mass commercialization, mass communication and mass education enforce Roger Price’s first law: “If everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it.”

Paul Fussell’s latest book engages some of the complexities and subtleties of American society; but it drastically underestimates the mobility and variety that remain, beneath a dispiriting crust of uniformity and conformity, the yeasty, zesty ingredients of this giant melting pot. For those who have known others, this remains the closest to a classless society the world has ever known.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading