by Paul Fussell
Class is an accurate, entertaining, and often humbling analysis of social status in America. I almost didn't read it since it's close to twenty years old. How much of this sort of analysis could be valid after two decades, I asked myself? The answer is: almost all of it -- the kinds of class distinctions that Fussell describes will probably be valid for another fifty years. However, the book is dated in other ways: a preoccupation with status seems somehow very 1980s, and he quotes The Preppy Handbook a few too many times.
Fussell divides Americans into nine classes: top out-of-sight, upper, upper middle, middle, high proletarian, mid-proletarian, low proletarian, destitute, and bottom out-of-sight. He doesn't have a lot to say about the top or bottom out-of-sights, but he has plenty of sharp-eyed observations about the other classes: what they look like, what they wear, how they talk, and, more interestingly, what makes them tick. I didn't always agree: there were scattered paragraphs and even whole pages that I thought were crap (for example, Fussell claims that the upper classes are better looking because of selective breeding, without even mentioning that better nutrition and health care might also be factors) but for the most part this book is right on.
Class is a serious book in the sense that it's a frank discussion of an important aspect of American society, but it's also very funny. I had a slight problem with the fact that the bulk of Fussell's cracks are directed at the middle class. It's not that the middle class doesn't deserve every ounce of abuse, but rather that they're such an easy target that I would have enjoyed seeing him expend more effort skewering the other classes.
While reading this book I grew uncomfortable with the notion of pigeonholing people into nine categories. I know plenty of people who meet the superficial requirements for being middle class (income, type of house, mode of speech) but who are not insecure about their status or frightened of trying new things -- Fussell assures us that these are two of the most important characteristics of the middle class. Likewise, not all proles believe in astrology, not all upper middles drool over the prospect of being in the social register, and not all uppers are intellectually boring. In the final chapter, Fussell answers these concerns by proposing a new category consisting of people who somehow shed their classhood. These are "X people": curious, creative, talented, irreverent, and self-sufficient; they don't care what classes people come from and don't care what people who aren't their friends think about them. I like this, and it corresponds amazingly well with the hacker culture described in The New Hacker's Dictionary. However, I don't agree with some of Fussell's minor conclusions. Even if one just doesn't care about social classes there's no way to escape from them in the sense that the vast majority will always look at people in terms of classes. Also, I don't see any reason that the number of X people should keep growing: most people, no matter what class, are most comfortable in a world where they know their place. Still, it's a nice vision.
One of the tests of a really good book is if it makes you look at the world differently. Class is like that: since I started reading it I've been seeing indications of social classes everywhere. Highly recommended.
copyright © 2000 John Regehr