August 6, 2001
Book review:  Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

I ordered a copy of Class based on a recommendation on the Internet few weeks ago.  One of the funniest, most thought-provoking books I've come across in quite some time.

The class system in the US may not be written into law as, say, the Indian caste system is, but it's definitely present on an unofficial level, and while few people like to discuss it, everyone thinks about where they stand in society.  Fussell breaks up the American class system into the following:

Fussell has very little to say about the top-out-of-sight class, as they just aren't very interesting.  Billionaire Howard Hughes was a good example of this class.  Bill Gates, although the richest man in the world, would not qualify, as he works a full-time job and is quite visible (we will see that money is not the only indicator of class, and probably not even the prime indicator).

Nor does Fussell say much about the bottom two classes.  The people who make their home at the Union Rescue Mission shelters and behind the dumpster at Shoney's would be the destitute.  The residents of our prisons and psychiatric hospitals would be the bottom-out-of-sight.

So how do you discern the remaining classes?  Many people would say that their employment status is the best way to tell (although Fussell seems to indicate this is only one of several factors).
     Uppers as a rule can afford to not work at all if they choose.  Yet many do anyway, often serving on corporate boards of directors or similar ventures.
     Professionals--doctors, lawyers, etc. are found in the upper middle more than any other group.  Their income often matches or exceeds that of the uppers, but is more likely to come from actual work, whereas the majority of the uppers' income is from investments.
     The stereotypical middle-class job is a white-collar, 40-hour-a-week office job.  Middles are more likely to feel enslaved by their boss and their company, and would like to move up to the upper middle by sending their kids to good colleges, or through marriage.
     High proles are typically found in the skilled trades--plumbers, auto mechanics, and such.  Their income often exceeds that of the middle class.
     Mid-prole jobs don't carry the status of the high proles, but are still a notch above minimum wage--driving a forklift in a factory might be a good example.
     Low proles can usually be found in the $7 an hour and under range (given the current minimum wage of $5.15).  Examples would be crew members at Taco Bell and grocery baggers.

Now, having listed the "typical" jobs for each class, I will once again make the argument that employment is not the best indicator.  Fussell lists many other giveaways--clothing, interior and exterior of one's house, and so on--that are too numerous to go into here.  Read the book for the complete rundown.

But, in my opinion, attitude more than anything else is the best guide to a person's class status.  Let's revisit each class and examine their dominant beliefs.
     Uppers, according to Fussell, don't have a whole lot of ideas, as they have already "made it" in the world and therefore don't have to work hard.  (I don't know if I totally agree here.  I know a couple of people who clearly qualify as upper but are very much idea people.)  Perhaps most importantly, because they've made it, they don't feel the need to impress people.  If they have fancy cars, fine wines, etc., it's because that's what they happen to enjoy and not that they're trying to make a show of it.  But if they happen to like dirty Chevrolets and wine-in-a-box, that's fine too.
     Nothing is more important to the middle classes than being well thought of.  If you hear someone say "it's important to keep up appearances," they are most surely upper-middle or middle.  Upper middles spend their life desperately trying to be members of the upper class--trying to get their picture in the society pages, attending events such as the opera and the symphony that they see as marks of the elite, looking to marry well--but they betray themselves by trying too hard.  Middles are too far removed from the upper class to pretend to be them, but they envy the uppers and the upper middles.
     Upper middles and middles live in constant fear of criticism.  Fussell mentions that spotless is a favorite word; they must keep their homes spotless so visitors won't think badly of them.  Not that they can afford to take it easy when away from home, because, as everyone knows, you're judged by your luggage.  The middle classes prefer not to be interesting if it means being controversial; better to be boring and polite.  Their food tends to be the blandest of all the classes; to sell food to the middles, label it "mild."

Uppers and upper-middles often live in the same neighborhoods and have the same income ranges.  Here are a few tricks to help you discern one from the other.
     Do you know anyone who owns a Jaguar?  If they refer to it as "the Jaguar" or "the Jag," they're upper-middle (they might even be high-prole if it has ostentatious add-ons like gold rims).  If they refer to it as "the car," then they're upper.
     Uppers and upper-middles make up the memberships of country clubs.  If someone belongs to a country club because, well, that's just how people spend their leisure time, then they're most likely upper.  If they joined the country club to enjoy the status that comes with being a member of a country club, to find suitable marriage partners for themselves or their children, indeed to feel as though they have joined the ranks of the upper class, then they're upper-middle.
     Know anyone who dresses up for air travel?  If their rationale for doing so is, well, of course, this is what I normally wear, then they're upper.  If, on the other hand, their reasoning is that you're judged by how you look when you travel, then they're upper-middle or middle.  (They might also be upper if they're dressed way down in ratty clothes, as uppers tend not to worry about what others think; but then you have to watch closely and observe whether they are upper or X).

As you read Fussell's book, you'll find yourself constantly trying to apply the class indicators to yourself and those around you.  I recently went to Le Chardonnay, an upscale cocktail lounge in Midtown, with a couple of female friends.  My friends ordered one of their signature wood-fired pizzas, which they proceeded to eat with fork and knife.  I didn't ask why, but I'm assuming they felt it improper to eat with one's hands at a fine restaurant (I've never seen them whip out the fork and knife when Pizza Hut delivers), a perfect example of upper-middle behavior.

The book confirmed what I had always suspected: that I was brought up in a middle-class home.  Before visits to the orthodontist, I always had to brush my teeth especially thoroughly--not because it's important to practice good dental hygiene, but because it was important not to make my mother look bad in front of the orthodontist, as though we should give a rat's ass what he thinks as long as the sizable checks he received from us didn't bounce.

Enough about the middle classes; on to the attitudes of the proles.  Conspicuous consumption is popular among the prole classes.  The Super Bowl may look great on that big-screen TV, but it's also there to show their friends that they can afford a big-screen TV.  You're exhibiting prole behavior if you buy a Lexus on your $25,000 annual income, or if you spend $300 to get your hair weaved and then stop on the way home to buy groceries with food stamps.

Advertisers love the proles, especially higher ones with discretionary income to burn.  The prole view is that the public is always right.  One of my former students explained that he chose AOL for his Internet access because "that's what everyone uses, and so it must be the best," which is prole reasoning at its finest.

Grammar is not the proles' strong point.  If you see a sign advertising "BAKE POTATOS" or "CHICKEN SANDWICH'S," you can be sure a prole created it.  They also have trouble with proper use of quotes; I recently saw a flyer that read, " 'TIRED OF RENTING' OWN A HOME TODAY!  CALL 555-5555."

Yet proles do have a lot going for them.  They tend to be down-to-earth, simple folk, and generally all you have to do to get along with them is be yourself.  People you can hang out and drink a six-pack of Bud with, watch a football game or a WWF match.  There's not a need to impress as there is with the middle classes.  And I much prefer the hot wings and spicy fries of the proles to bland middle-class food.

Fussell's final chapter deals with Category X, people who choose to live outside the unofficial American caste system as much as possible.  X people tend to live life according to their own rules.  They tend not to like 8-5 jobs, and for that reason are often artists, entrepreneurs, professors.  They tend to live in interesting, unconventional locations rather than cookie-cutter apartment complexes.  They eat when they get hungry, rather than falling into the habit of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at regular times.  X people dress for comfort rather than concern about being judged on appearances.

While Class is, for the most part, hilarious and accurate, I will offer a couple of minor criticisms.  First of all, it was published in the early 1980s, and some of the material now seems dated.  Fussell mentions The Official Preppy Handbook as the bible of the upper-middles, and notes their tendency to layer several Izod shirts on top of one another.  Ah, memories of junior high...I always wondered how my friends could layer a white Oxford shirt over a green Izod shirt over a yellow Izod shirt in 90 degrees...not that I was the poster child of high fashion in my Pac-Man T-shirt, but at least I wasn't sweating to death.

Also, Fussell's personal bias toward Category X is apparent throughout the book, and he takes an almost condescending tone toward the other classes.  That doesn't bother me personally, as I would probably be categorized as someone who was raised middle but migrated to X.  I have a feeling my upper-middle and middle class friends would probably find the book somewhat offensive, though.

Overall, I highly recommend the book.  At the end of the book there's a quiz on identifying class which is a riot.  The chapter on Prole Drift is particularly amusing, as are Fussell's comments on the class aspirations of male homosexuals and lesbians.  Class may not be politically correct, but it will make you laugh and it will make you think.

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