By Joan O'C. Hamilton
The American Version
By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin -- 274pp -- $25
Who among us doesn't harbor the memory of a snob inflicting upon us what we would call a snub? Over matters big or small, grammatical, genealogical, or enological--in the best schools or in remote backwaters--snobs parade, lurk, smirk, and pounce. A few years ago, I was fishing in a remote part of Maine, and after hours of unfruitful casting with a local streamer pattern, I tied on a wet fly popular in California. I almost instantly landed a nifty salmon. A pipe-puffing local stomped (well, sloshed) over to me, demanding to see my lucky fly. "Some of these damn fish," he harrumphed, "will go after anything."
I believe essayist Joseph Epstein, author of Snobbery: The American Version, would agree that this wadered bloke needn't have been a Vanderbilt to qualify as a full-blown snob. In attempting to make me feel I had flung the piscine equivalent of a McDonald's Happy Meal on his sacred waters and deservedly caught the dumbest fish in the pond, he represented what Epstein calls "the essence of snobbery"--that being "arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people."
Epstein's book is about the origins, the essence, the nuances, and the modern variations on the age-old art of the scornful put-down, the superiority complex, and the exclusionary tactic. Its somewhat thin premise is that ever since the fall of classic snob accoutrements such as debutante balls, the society page, and other affectations of the WASPocracy in the U.S., snobbery has been adrift. It has settled in such realms as food, wine, fashion, education, and political correctitude, there to contend with ever-roiling currents about class and taste rather than being anchored to simple breeding.
There's plenty of artful writing and thought here, and Epstein's wit makes even the excess historical padding and linguistic hair-splitting palatable. The French, we learn, were already well-stocked with words to describe the pathetic mortals cavorting at the far, low end of an aquiline nose--parvenu, arriviste, nouveau riche. Later they embraced "snob" as well because, Epstein notes, quoting a French writer, the word had such a nice "impertinence monosyllabique."
But frankly, Epstein seems mainly to be seeking a venue to trot out all kinds of arch observations and delicious examples of a subject that has captivated him from a young age. The crown jewel of this collection involves a visit to Northwestern University by Diana, Princess of Wales. "Royalty in close proximity seems to make Americans lose their balance, if not get positively goofy," Epstein writes. He witnessed the university's president, "a smallish man in glasses" following Diana around chattering incessantly and reminding Epstein of "a chihuahua attempting to mount an Afghan hound."
Epstein says he has been a "statustician" since he was a schoolboy. He was born in Chicago to "culturally lower middle-class" Jews who he says weren't snobbish at all. He nonetheless writes: "Because I had in those days a superficial charm that allowed me to make friends easily, I was soon invited to join the best of the clubs and fraternities...." Geez, Joe, hate you already.
Preening aside, Epstein deserves a tasteful medal for bravery here. It's with no small amount of self-consciousness that you write or read--or, jeepers, review--a book on snobbery. But it's fascinating to me that while the book is self-referential and Epstein coughs up plenty of evidence of his own snobbish affectations (he likes Jaguars and well-fitting raincoats; can't stand music by Henry Mancini), he never admits to any behavior or deficit or preference that earned him a scorn that truly burned. He addresses anti-Semitism in the world of snobbery, for example, but seems most concerned with assuring the reader that he really didn't take one or two minor experiences, which he might even have imagined, too personally. Occasionally, his own snobbery is actually annoying. He fusses over his pleasure in his son's having been accepted at Stanford, for example, having already advised him that "you will at least not have to spend any further portion of your life in a condition of yearning, thinking to yourself, `Ah, if only I had gone to one of the better schools, how much grander my fate would have been."' I'm not sure how that droll rationale makes him different from every other school snob.
One glorious attribute of this book is that it doesn't take a mincing step in the direction of self-help for the snobbery-afflicted. It's more like a chorus line of wonderful observational one-liners--such as the description of a woman whose style of living was "Prada and two dogs," or the discovery that the International Croquet Assn. refers to any croquet set under $300 as a "children's set." Epstein also proffers perfect quotes the way Doc Holliday came up with aces, such as H.L. Mencken's definition of a wealthy man: a fellow who earns $100 more than his wife's sister's husband.
All these gems add up to a fun and funny read, ultimately more of an intellectual stand-up routine than a sociological treatise. Perhaps I could find more generous words for Epstein if he hadn't taken such a nasty swipe at my hometown of San Francisco and how "richly, profoundly off-putting" we natives are. Poor dearie, if only he'd been born here I might take him seriously. Hamilton now fishes exclusively in California.