Monday, October 26, 2009

_Class: A Guide through the American Status System_ by Paul Fussell

Picture from the Amazon page for the book

Mr. David Cramer recommended this to me a while back. I had it on my list for a long time before I finally got a copy from the library.

This is an interesting book for its exploration of class signifiers and its acknowledgement that Americans don't want to admit they have class distinctions. It was hard to read, though, because Fussell is disparaging about the habits of every class, and it's unsettling to view everything in your life through the lens of class. In some ways it was one of the most depressing books I've read, aside from David Simon's The Corner.

I know I should list some specific details from the book, but now I don't have it handy to refer to. Many of the class signifiers were out of date, and of course they change with each generation, but it was still an eye-opener of a book. Oh, I know: he analyzes the style of each recent president in class terms. That was fun.

I checked out too many books this time, and this was one I had to return before I'd quite finished with it. Also lost in that shuffle was a thick tome about genocide and several books about the Middle East. I've been abusing the library's hold system and it caught up with me.


  1. You know that abusing any kind of hold system . . .

    wait for it . . .

    Can lead to blindness.

  2. -The book reminds me of Ruby Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." Payne's description is very popular in education; she helps teachers better understand students who are victims of the "immediate satisfaction" mentality. Years ago, I went to Austin to hear Ruby Payne you remember? I met you, Tanya, and BABY Ethan for lunch at Chili's by that hip mall...Anyway, I think you'd find the book interesting. Tanya may have already had to read it for one of her classes...

  3. I read this book and then gave it away. I found the datedness rather tedious, and wished for some insight into use of newer technology such as mobile phones and the internet (e.g., the MySpace vs. Facebook divide).

    A couple of factoids that stuck in my mind:

    * Class determines the typical seating arrangement when two couples go somewhere in one car. For LC, it's men in the front seat, women in the back; for MC, it's the owning couple in front, guests in the back; members of UC couples sit with the opposite gender member of the other couple.
    * One behavior that is respected across classes is the car-rear-window college sticker. People may mock the behavior ("Starfleet Academy"), but never someone else's actual sticker.

  4. Tara, great tip, I'll look for that book.

    Janet, I found the book to be relentlessly negative to every class. Sheesh, I wonder if it would have been MORE painful if the fashion etc was up to date?

    In some ways reading it was like looking at the painful secrets of the universe...about which one can DO very little.

    The main effect on me of reading it is probably going to be to make me even more uncomfortable when I find myself, as I have twice recently, a hired entertainer at an event for folks of a different class. Maybe I can use the insight to become more comfortable. So far it just makes me more aware of differences.

  5. Janet,
    For an updated set of examples, see but they drop the class framework and just make fun of upper middle class, liberal white people so it's not as interesting.

    If you want some really dated examples, see Veblen's _The Theory of the Leisure Class _ (which Fussell explicitly references), published in 1899.

    Fussell's real problem is that he doesn't have a notion of different kinds of capital (e.g. economic v. cultural), so he thinks he's found a "way out" at the end when he's really just moved to with more cultural than economic capital and privileged the cultural capital.

  6. Aaron,
    Actually the book should be liberating by revealing the absurdity of the whole system (just don't buy into the last part of the book where Fussell fools himself).

    I read it in the early 90s, so the examples were only a little dated then.

  7. I am embarrassed to have dropped such a lame joke into one of the few post threads that invited serious input. By multiple people no less.

    I haven't read Fussell's book. In the labor history classes I took in graduate school, I recall being largely convinced by the argument than in American society, distinctions based upon race have long been used to trump or at least blunt recognition of class differences and encourage minority racial groups to vote as blocks while discouraging lower class whites from voting in their own economic interests. This was the model for the antebellum and Reconstruction South as well as a key factor in many urban areas throughout the country.

    Today it seems to me that ideology, particularly in the form of secular humanism vs. religious evangelicalism, has largely supplanted race as the concept that blinds people to how significant class distinctions are in our society.

    So my blue-collar neighbor with four adult children who did not attend college, who works on the railroad and thus belongs to a union, can't conceive of voting for a Democrat who advocates working class issues because he puts his religious beliefs first.

    Whereas I (with an advanced degree and a white-collar background) can't bring myself to vote for an upper-middle class Republican engineer who wants to cut my property and income taxes because he promotes spending public funds on Ten Commandment monuments.

    Put the four of us in a room to talk and I wonder how we'd gravitate based on educational and economic background. (Okay, I can talk to anybody. But in general.)