Paul Fussell’s Class

My entirely accidental discovery of the late Paul Fussell was one of the high points of October, and his 1983 book Class: A Guide Through the American Class System kept me in good humour through what was an otherwise cold and dreary month. Fussell was an American soldier who served with distinction in the Second World War, earning both a Bronze Heart and Purple Star after sustaining injury in France. After the war, he returned to the United States to finish his education, earning a PhD writing on the subject of prosody in eighteenth century British poetry. Two relatively uneventful decades of teaching English literature at the university level were upended by the critical and commercial success of his 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory, which sought to trace the impact of World War I on British society through its representation in literary. That book’s monumental success – it won a National Book Award and a large, international readership – propelled Fussell to the status of public intellectual, and he seems to have spent his remaining years repaying that promotion with withering criticism, first in Class – which mocks America’s pretension of being a classless society, and later in BAD, written to oppose the “dumbing down” of American life.

I should state, from the outset, that Class is at once timeless and badly dated. Its observation that America is not only a classed society, but one with many more classes than is commonly acknowledged, seems to me still achingly relevant, as are Fussell’s characterizations of the behaviors and personality types of the various classes, but the markers of class status have changed dramatically in the nearly four decades since its publication. Nonetheless, the book is a witty and highly literate exploration of America’s original and still cardinal pretension, and of the extent to which class signalling still drives the behavior of the American public. Fussell quotes from de Tocqueville, who wrote, in Democracy in America, “Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation,” arguing that it is precisely that formal equality that makes aspirational striving so appealing. If, in a traditional society, class is a marker of breeding, in America it is the reward for success, and consequently Americans go to great lengths to demonstrate their class status.

Despite our public embrace of political and judicial equality, in individual perception and understanding – much of which we refrain from publicizing – we arrange things vertically and insist on crucial differences in value. Regardless of what we say about equality, I think everyone at some point comes to feel like the Oscar Wilde who said, “The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet’s dream: it is a most depressing and humiliating reality.” It’s as if in our heart of hearts we don’t want agglomerations but distinctions. Analysis and separation we find interesting, synthesis boring.

Fussell goes on to delineate a more expansive theory of the American class system than the usual upper, middle and lower distinctions:

Top out-of-sight
Upper middle
High proletarian
Low proletarian
Bottom out-of-sight

Both the highest and lowest classes share the dubious distinction of being largely invisible in America, the former by choice, the latter by necessity, but all are bound by a common anxiety: “If you find an American who feels entirely class-secure,” Fussell tells us, “stuff and exhibit him. He’s a rare specimen.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to an exhaustive cataloguing of how class manifests itself in behaviour, dress, speech, recreation and home decoration, and while many of the specifics of these insights have no doubt changed (do the wealthy still play bridge or backgammon?), the underlying class distinctions have remain unchanged. I was reminded of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which made similar efforts to distinguish, for example, the kind of television shows enjoyed by the upper and lower classes (HBO dramas versus reality television, for example), or the sporting events watched (Golf versus Nascar) or even the beer consumed (imported versus domestic), except where Murray sought merely accuracy, Fussell is frequently very funny, and constantly allusive, peppering his observations with quotations from the very literature he spent a lifetime studying and teaching, and no small part of the reader’s enjoyment is owed to this encounter with Fussell’s erudition.

Fussell passed away in 2012, leaving behind him a vast body of work, legions of appreciate readers, and not a few angry writers and pundits who felt the sting of his criticism. True to his reputation, Fussell is unapologetically fusty, a critic of high standards, and there were many moments of such withering criticism in Class that I confess to finding myself reflexively defensive, but like all great critics, he sets the same high bar before rich and poor alike, heaping scorn only on the richly deserving. His chapter on the capture of higher education by the American class system, and the status attached to the phrase “college graduate,” offers a novel and I think accurate explanation for the corruption of higher learning, and the lowering of standards: at some point universities came to the realization that a great deal more money could be made selling status rather than knowledge, and they could scarcely be expected to resist the allure of the market, now could they? Class is a witty, withering criticism of an enduring American blindspot, and no reader, however wealthy or well-bred, will find themselves spared by Fussell’s all-seeing critique.