Book Review: Fussell On Class

Summary and commentary on Paul Fussell's "Class: A Guide Through The American Status System"

I.

Paul Fussell wants to talk about class.

(well, wanted, past tense, it's a 1983 book, we'll come back to that later)

He recognizes this might not be the most popular topic. When he tells people he's writing a book on class in America, "it is as if I had said I am working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals." America likes to think of itself as a classless society. Sure, there may be vast wealth inequality, but at least there's no nobility; beggars and billionaires are the same type of citizen.

Paul Fussell will have none of it. He believes America has one of the most hypertrophied class systems in the world, that its formal equality has left a niche that an informal class system expanded to fill - and expanded, and expanded, until it surpassed the more-legible systems of Europe and became its own sort of homegrown monstrosity. He says he prefers the term "caste system" to "class system" when describing America, conveying as it does a more rigid and inescapable distinction, and that he uses "class" only out of respect for conventional usage.

He says...a lot of things, really. Sometimes it's hard to know whether to take him seriously. What is one to make of paragraphs like:

Anyone imagining that just any sort of flowers can be presented in the front of a house without status jeopardy would be wrong. Upper-middle-class flowers are rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis, and roses, except for bright-red ones. One way to learn which flowers are vulgar is to notice the varieties favored on Sunday-morning TV religious programs like Rex Humbard's or Robert Schuller's. There you will see primarily geraniums (red are lower than pink), poinsettias, and chrysanthemums, and you will know instantly, without even attending to the quality of the discourse, that you are looking at a high-prole setup. Other prole flowers include anything too vividly red, like red tulips. Declassed also are phlox, zinnias, salvia, gladioli, begonias, dahlias, fuchsias, and petunias. Members of the middle class will sometimes hope to mitigate the vulgarity of bright-red flowers by planting them in a rotting wheelbarrow or rowboat displayed on the front lawn, but seldom with success.

Or:

Those who sell executive desks and related office furniture know that they and their clients agree on a rigid "class" hierarchy. Desks made of oak are at the bottom, and those of walnut are next. Then, moving up, mahogany is, if you like, "upper-middle-class", until we arrive, finally, at the apex: teak.

Or:

Destitutes and bottom-out-of-sights eat dinner at 5:30, for the prole staff which takes care of them wants to clean up and be out roller skating or bowling early in the evening. It eats, thus, at 6:00 or 6:30. The family of Jack and Sophie Portnoy ate at 6:00, an indication of the prole pull on them despite his having a middle-class job, barely, that of an insurance salesman...The middle class eats at 7:00 or even 7:30, the upper-middle at 8:00 or 8:30. Some upper-middles, uppers, and top-out-of-sights dine at 9:00 or even later, after nightly protracted cocktail sessions lasting at least two hours.

The meat of Class is ~200 pages of rankings like these, delivered authoritatively, and in almost Talmudic dialogue with other authorities who give slightly different lists. Someone named H.B. Brooks-Baker claims that saying "tux" is lower-class and "tuxedo" higher-class. But actually "tuxedo" is middle-class and real upper-class people say "dinner jacket". Someone named Rozanne Weissman tells social climbers to seek out invitations to embassy parties, but "that is pitiable, embassy parties being close to the very social bottom".

Many of these didn't make sense to me (full disclosure: by birth and profession I'm probably what the book considers middle-to-upper-middle class, but by nature I'm not a very classy person). That's fine. I don't think Fussell claims that people actually think "being upper class, I will make sure to plant rhododendrons but not chrysanthemums". I think the claim is that those are the flowers people will end up planting, using reasoning that doesn't seem to refer to class at any point. This was where the book started to get spooky.

For example, apparently Super Bowl parties are a working-class custom. And apparently it's an middle-to-upper-middle-class custom to make fun of Super Bowl parties, either throwing them ironically or not at all. Even in 1983, Fussell describes "the satiric anti-Super Bowl party" among the middle class, where people deliberately get together on Super Bowl Sunday to conspicuously not watch sports and feel superior. This hits a little closer to home than the rhododendrons. Or: contempt for clothing with obvious brand names on it (eg a jacket that says ADIDAS in big letters) is apparently a middle-class reaction to a working-class preference for this sort of product. Or: your list of "grammatical pet peeves" is a suspiciously good match for the differences between the upper-middle-class dialect and the working class dialect (whether you keep a distinction between "less" and "fewer", for example). Also, I regret to inform you that the dead hand of Paul Fussell is reaching out all the way from 1983 to tell you that your contempt for people who overuse apostrophes is a class signaling game.

(it's even called "the greengrocer's apostrophe"! How much more blatant can you get?)

All of these preferences and opinions seem totally reasonable on their own. But I notice that everyone I know has them, and that people spend a completely unnecessary amount of time talking about how they have them and how they could never ever understand someone who has the opposite opinion, and it starts to feel kind of suspicious. There are many things to dislike about cruise ships. But when you notice that every time you talk about tourism, someone goes on at great length about how they could never take a cruise and how they can't understand how someone could enjoy “such a cookie-cutter style of vacation”, it becomes relevant that Fussell describes cruises as the working-class vacation par excellence, and griping about them as a popular form of middle-class signaling.

So fine. Let's read what Fussell has to say about class, and see whether we should all be uprooting our geraniums in favor of rhododendrons.

(or possibly "gerania" and "rhododendra", but Fussell says that "pseudo-classical plurals are a constant pitfall" of the middle class, and I'm feeling pretty self-conscious right now)

II.

Class separates people into three social classes with various subclasses.

The upper class is old money. The people you think of as rich and famous - tech billionaires, celebrities, whatever - aren't upper class. However privileged they started off, they still had to put in at least a smidgeon of work to get their money, which disqualifies them. Real uppers inherit. Even famous people who come from old money usually aren't central examples of upper class; the real upper class has no need to seek fame. They mostly just throw parties - but not interesting parties, because that would imply they have something to prove, which they don't. They live in mansions - but not awesome mansions they designed themselves with some kind of amazing gaming room or something, because that would imply they have something to prove, which they don't. They live in meticulously boring mansions and throw meticulously boring parties. They have the best and classiest versions of everything, but it's a faux pas to compliment any of it, because that would imply that they were the sort of people who might potentially not have had the best and classiest version of that thing. They fill their houses with Picassos and exquisite antique furniture, and none of them ever express the slightest bit of satisfaction or praise about any of it. You have never heard of any of these people, although you might recognize the last name they share with a famous ancestor (Rockefeller, Ford, etc).

The middle classes are salaried professionals, starting with the upper-middle class. Jeff Bezos, for all his billions, is only upper-middle-class at best. So are many of the other people you think of as rich and famous and successful. The upper-middle-class likes New England, Old England, yachts, education, good grammar, yachts, chastity, androgyny, the classics, the humanities, and did I mention yachts?

The middle class is marked by status anxiety. The working class knows where they stand and are content. The upper-middle class has made it; they're fine. And the upper class doesn't worry about status because that would imply they have something to prove, which they don't. But the middle class is terrified. These are the people with corporate jobs who say things like "I've got to make a good impression at the meeting Tuesday because my boss' boss will be there and that might determine whether I get the promotion I'm going for". The same attitude carries into the rest of their lives; their yards and houses are maintained with a sort of "someone who could change my status might be watching, better make a good impression". They desperately avoid all potentially controversial opinions - what if the boss disagrees and doesn't promote them? What if the neighbors disagree and they don't get invited to parties? They are the most likely to be snobbish and overuse big words, the most obsessed with enforcing norms of virtuous behavior, and the least interested in privacy - asserting any claim to privacy would imply they have something to hide. Their Official Class Emotions are earnestness and optimism; they are the people who patronize musicals like Annie and Man of La Mancha where people sing saccharine songs about hopes and dreams and striving, and the people who buy inspirational posters featuring quotes about perseverance underneath pictures of clouds or something.

Proles do wage labor. High proles are skilled craftspeople like plumbers. Medium and low proles are more typical factory workers. They have a certain kind of freedom, in that they don't have status anxiety and do what they want. But they're also kind of sheep. They really like mass culture - the more branded, the better. These are people who drink Coca-Cola (and feel good about themselves for doing so), visit Disneyland (and accept its mystique at face value), and go on Royal Caribbean cruises. When they hear an ad say a product is good, they think of it as a strong point in favor of buying the product. They feel completely comfortable expressing their opinions, but their opinions tend to be things like "Jesus is Lord!", "USA is number one!", "McDonalds is so great!", and "Go $LOCAL_SPORTS_TEAM!". They are weirdly obsessed with cowboys (Fussell says cowboys represent the idea that poorer people are freer and more authentic than rich office-worker types, plus the West is the prole capital of the USA) and with unicorns (Fussell: "I've spent six months trying to find out exactly why, and I'm finally stumped"). When they have unique quirks, they tend to be things like "collecting lots of Disney memorabilia" or "going powerboating slightly more often than the other proles do". There's also a sort of desperate prole desire to be noticed and individuated, which takes the form of lots of "Personalized X" or "Y with your name on it", and also with making a lot of noise (see: powerboating). Fussell describes the most perfectly prole piece of decor as "a blue flameproof hearthrug with your family name in Gothic letters beneath seven spaced gold stars and above a golden eagle in Federal style".

It’s impossible to tell when Fussell is serious vs. joking. The section on the physiognomy of different classes has to be a joke, right? But then how did he come up with the Virgin vs. Chad meme in 1983? Also, why does my brain keep telling me these are John McCain and Donald Trump?


A friend urges me to think of these not as "rich/successful people" vs. "poor/unsuccessful people", but as three different ladders on which one can rise or fall. The most successful proles are lumber barons or pro athletes or reality TV stars. These people are much richer and more powerful than, say, a schoolteacher, but they’re still proles, and the schoolteacher is still middle class. Likewise, a very successful middle class person might become a professor or a Senator or Jeff Bezos, but this doesn't make them even a bit upper class.

(I'm not sure it's possible to be a more or less successful upper class person; being successful would imply having something to prove, which they don't).

Fussell tries to come up with some general principles about what sorts of things are more likely to be upper vs. lower class coded. They don't quite explain the geraniums vs. rhododendra, but they're helpful for a couple of other things:

1. Anything artificial is lower-class, anything natural or organic (derived from a living thing) is higher-class. The most prole piece of furniture is "folding chairs made of aluminum tubing with bright-green plastic-mesh webbing". The most prole fabrics are nylon and polyester, especially if worn with pride because they're "high-tech". Plastic or particleboard furniture is low-class, "real wood" furniture is upper-class. This applies even to yachts, where the average yachters uses a fiberglass boat but the very classiest use all-wood boats (which have no advantages, but are much harder to maintain). Upper-class fabrics are wool, silk, cotton, and linen; upper-class buildings and furniture are built of wood and stone. Lower-class foods are "processed" (read: made with technology), upper-class foods are "organic" and "all-natural".

2. Closely related: the more technology something has, especially weird gimmicky "Space Age" technology, the lower-class it is. So a gadget watch that tells the "the time of day in Kuala Lumpur, the number of days elapsed in the year so far, or the current sign of the zodiac" is prole-coded; a "simple elegant" watch with hour and minute hand only is upper-class ("some upper-class...will argue that even a second hand compromises a watch's class, implying as it may the wearer's need for great accuracy, as if he were something like a professional timer of bus arrivals and departures.") Truly upper class people might benefit from technology, but it will usually be a servant who uses it. They may have shockingly poor technology compared to middle-class people; a middle-class person might need a good refrigerator for their own convenience; an upper-class person will usually have fresh food anyway - and when they don't, the task of interacting with refrigerators will fall to the staff.

3. The more convenient something is, the lower class. The more it obviously requires a staff of servants to maintain, the better. So bronze doorknobs are upper-class, because they will quickly get covered with unsightly fingerprints unless polished everyday. Mirrors are upper-class because they need lots of dusting. And folding chairs are lower-class not just because they're a cool modern invention made with technology, but because they imply you have so few rooms in your house that you might need to change one from being chaired to being unchaired in a hurry.

4. Foreign things are high class, especially British things. Paul Fussell is very insistent on this point; in his "What Class Is Your Living Room?" quiz, he offers you one point for everything you have referencing the United Kingdom. He was apparently employed as a class consultant for someone designing an upper-class neighborhood, and gave everything British names with apparently good results:

Knowing how important [this project] was for the self-respect and even mental health of his clients, I sent him a list immediately, which started like this:

Albemarle
Berkeley
Cavendish
Devonshire
Exeter
Fanshawe, etc.

All he had to do was add such terminations as Street, Court, Circle...and his house-buyers would be spared the shame of living on McGillicutty Street or Bernstein Boulevard or Guappo Terrace. When I reached the end of the alphabet - passing through Landsdowne and Montpelier and Osborne and Priory - I couldn't resist 'Windsor' for W, and today there's some poor puzzled fellow wondering why success is so slow in arriving, since for years he's been residing at 221 Windsor Close instead of living on West Broad Street.

5. If you have to be in the United States, some places are classier than others. The best places are "those longest under occupation by financially prudent Anglo-Saxons, like Newport (Rhode Island) Haddam (Connecticut), and Bar Harbor (Maine)". The worst are places like Akron and Tampa, but why? Fussell is always somewhere on the border between serious and joking, and I worry he completely loses the plot here. He says you can measure the unclassiness of a place in bowling alleys per capita, megachurches per capita, or (perhaps), some kind of joint bowling alleys plus megachurches index. Getting serious again:

Where then may a member of the top classes live in this country? New York first of all, of course. Chicago. San Francisco. Philadelphia. Baltimore. Boston. Perhaps Cleveland. And deep in the countryside of Connecticut, New York State, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. That's about it. It’s not considered good form to live in New Jersey, except in Bernardsville and perhaps Princeton, but any place in New Jersey beats Sunnyvale, Cypress, and Compton, California; Canton, Ohio; Reno, Nevada; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Columbus, Georgia, and similar army towns.

Then he lapses back into probably-joking, talking about how you can't live in any city that an important assassin came from - "Evergreen, Colorado, because John Hinckley lived there, and Dallas, because - among many other good reasons - Lee Harvey Oswald lived there." I find this topic interesting and I wish Fussell could be serious for one second while he discussed it.

6. Education is classy, up to a point. The true upper classes don't care for it, because getting an education would imply they have something to prove, which they don't (also, they might not get into the best colleges, and they don't want to play any game not rigged in their favor). But the upper middle class loves education. Their favorite subjects are impractical and stuck-in-the-past - so history, classics, and philosophy. Once you get to potentially-useful subjects like STEM, you're firmly in the middle class or below, and 100% practical subjects (with engineering and business at the top, and hospitality and agricultural studies at the bottom) are or high-prole.

Fussell says that "having a university degree" used to be a good signal of being in the middle class, but that around 1960, various places that would have previously called themselves colleges, training schools, and vocational schools rebranded as universities. This had a big effect on the number of people in the demographic category called "people with university degrees" and no effect on the underlying class structure or on anyone's ability to get ahead. From a class perspective, he recommends considering the top few dozen universities "real universities", and every other "university" a scam that promises its graduates the cultural cachet of a university degree but won't actually deliver. Or rather, it will deliver the physical degree, but not any cultural cachet.

Regardless of their degree status, proles are marked by believing dumb things. So along with bowling alleys and megachurches, Fussell judges the prolishness of a town by the prominence of the astrology column in their local newspaper. These are also the people who consume tabloids, conspiracy theories, and TV shows about how It Was Aliens. Of course, that lends contempt for all these things a healthy element of class signaling.

(this was another one of the sections where I had trouble figuring out where Fussell was and wasn't joking. He talked about how upper-middle-class people will name their cats things like "Clytemnestra" or "Spinoza" to show off their classical education. I was making fun of this to a friend who's the classiest person I know, and she admitted one of her classy friends has a cat named Spinoza.)

7. True upper class foods are bland, both out of some allegiance to an idealized idea of Anglo-Saxon cuisine, and because eating good food would imply these people have something to prove, which they don't. Upper middle class foods are your typical "fusion cuisine of Northwestern Malaysian noodles with Jamaican jerk chicken slow-cooked in..." and so on and so forth. Middle class foods are a transitional zone. Prole foods are heavily-processed pizza, heavily-processed cheeseburgers, anything microwaveable, and anything sold at a fast-food restaurant. Not only are proles much fatter than other classes…

…but they are less ashamed of their weight and more likely to wear clothes that flaunt it rather than disguise it. The middle-class does the typical middle-class thing of desperately worrying how other people will view them and trying really hard to diet. The true upper classes are effortlessly svelte - maybe it's the bland British food.

III.

The last chapter of Class is one of the weirdest last chapters of anything I've read.

Fussell has spent the previous eight chapters pillorying everyone from every class. They're all pathetic in their own way. Everything everyone does is a class signaling game. It's hard to figure out what class Fussell himself is in, but clearly he's a cynical old bastard who's not afraid to laugh at himself.

But in Chapter 9, Fussell posits the existence of a "Class X". Class X are genuinely good people. They like art that is truly beautiful, food that really tastes good, neighborhoods that are liveable and attractive according to their own quirky aesthetics. They believe things because they are true.

Although you wouldn't expect them to have any consistent aesthetic, Fussell gets weirdly specific about them. They buy their clothes from L.L. Bean and Land's End, and tend to dress in down vests, flannel shirts, and hiking boots (which apparently "conveys the message [that] I am freer and less terrified than you are"). They enjoy touch football (because it is actually fun, unlike other sports which are just class signaling), and carry their infants around in slings or papooses (because these are the objectively simplest ways to convey infants). They read British, French, and Italian periodicals (because this is objectively the best way to keep abreast of world affairs), and live in cute old houses in unusual locations. Their front yard may be gravel (because they have transcended the class signaling of lawns), and their furniture includes "parody displays" like "an elephant's foot umbrella stand" and "campy fabric". "Instead of the chart of Nantucket or Catalina Island favored by the upper-middles, a chart of Bikini Atoll or Guadalcanal. On the coffee table, Mother Jones and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists." Their TV preferences are for "classic reruns like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy" (apparently the objectively best TV shows).

Am I being unfair? I'm trying my best to convey in a short paragraph the feeling of disorientation I got reading Chapter 9 of Class. Other chapters were written on the border of irony and sincerity, but at least as far as writing style is concerned Chapter 9 is 100% serious. Fussell has taken what I can't help assuming are his own personal tastes, and enshrined them as The Things That Indicate You Are A Perfect Pure Cinnamon Roll Who Has Transcended Class:

X people constitute something like a classless class. They occupy the one social place in the USA where the ethic of buying and selling is not all-powerful. Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others...in some ways they resemble E.M. Forster's "aristocracy of the plucky", whose members are "sensitive for others as well as themselves...considerate without being fussy." [...] If people with small imaginations and limited understandings aspire to get into the upper-middle class, the few with notable gifts of mind and perception aspire to disencumber themselves into X people. It's only as an X, detached from the constraints and anxieties of the whole class racket, that an American can enjoy something like the LIBERTY promised on the coinage. And it's in the X world, if anywhere, that an American can avoid some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many.

This sudden change of tone is incredibly jarring. I've previously found Fussell intelligent and trustworthy, at least when I can figure out how serious he's being. What’s going on here?

Maybe my negative reaction comes from being a 2020er reading a 1983 book. Here's my theory: the class structure Fussell points to and lambasts is that of the hyperconformist monoculture typically associated with the 1950s. By the 1980s, that monoculture was starting to fray. Its enemy was the counterculture, the people Fussell describes as Class X. The counterculture were the only people with remotely modern norms. Compared to the hyperconformist society Fussell talks about, they really were as superior as he thinks they were.

The theory continues: the upper-middle class likes signaling intelligence and sensitivity. Since all the genuinely intelligent and sensitive people were joining the counterculture, the best way to signal those qualities was adopting the symbols and habits of the counterculture. They succeeded at this and ate the counterculture alive. Now everything Fussell lists as counterculture signals sounds like generic upper-middle class signals.

Fussell talks about how Class X tends to dress in comfortable clothes because they don't feel like they need to impress anyone with suits. This fits the fables of Early Silicon Valley, where you could wear a hoodie to work because people only cared about how bright you were and not about how you conformed to cultural norms. But (the fables continue) at some point this ossified into a thing where you had to attend interviews in exactly the right kind of hoodie and comfortable jeans, or else they'd identify you as "not a culture fit" and "out of touch with Silicon Valley norms" and deny you a job. Back in 1983, Fussell would have seen someone wearing a hoodie and comfortable jeans to work and gone into raptures about how alive and nonconformist they were. Today it just means they're performing class successfully.

But that sounds a little too reductionist. So my second theory is that the counterculture won and the hyperconformist monoculture fractured into many different subcultures. Nobody is quite as conformist as the monoculture was in the old days, and all the subcultures adopted some of the counterculture's symbols, so that right now most of them sound like you're signaling being Y sub-sub-species of hipster instead of Z sub-sub-species of hipster. There is no longer anyone as heroically able to transcend their society as the counterculture of Fussell's time, just because there's no monoculture to serve as a foil - it's just different levels of hipsterdom all the way down.

IV.

But I also don't want to dismiss Fussell's class system as entirely irrelevant today. Assuming some parts of it remain, how do they resemble/differ what Fussell talked about in 1983?

Class gives us a hint: it urges us to watch for "prole drift", the tendency of lower-class signals and behaviors to become higher-class over time. I was surprised by this - I would have expected the opposite, where lower classes gradually catch on and learn how to ape their betters, and their betters need to invent new signals to replace the compromised ones. But I can't deny that Fussell has a point too - witness rap going from an underclass phenomenon to a middle-class one to one where the Harvard Crimson can't stop raving about Hamilton.

This kind of matches my low-key impression while reading the book. Even though I'm a doctor from a family of doctors (and so ought to be solidly upper-middle-class), my family better matches Fussell's description of middle-class aesthetics and behaviors. My extremely classy friend who knows the Spinoza cat gets classified as upper-class by everyone I know, but is closer to the book's description of upper-middle.

Something weird happens around the book's description of middle class and high-prole. I can very clearly pick out something that looks middle-to-upper-middle class, and something that looks more prole/working-class, but a lot of the in-between subdistinctions seem vaguer. This could be because my eye isn't as keen as Fussell's. But it could also be the "hollowing out of the middle class" everyone talks about.

Fussell's prole classes really don't seem to be doing well these days. He has a passage about which yachts different classes will have, which includes a typical working-class yacht (Chris-Craft, if you're wondering). But it seems obvious to him that successful working-class people can have yachts if they want. Likewise, there are typical working-class vacations (cruises), gadgets (those watches with all the dials), and so on and so forth. None of these seem too weird on their own, but taken together they suggest a picture where lots of working-class people have lots of money and go on Caribbean vacations all the time.

I think this is also accurate to the time period. Spotted on Twitter:

The Simpsons were a prole family who absolutely seemed rich enough to take frequent cruises and maybe even save up for a yacht if they got lucky. This puts the recent rise in wealth inequality in a new and starker light than I'd thought about much before.

One thing I noticed when reading Class was that its descriptions of dress and decor aged less well than its descriptions of education, speech, and taste. Seems like a suspicious thing to happen in an age when social media is replacing face-to-face interaction as a venue for class signaling! What happens when you take a rich class system based on subtle gestures and what kind of watch you wear, and try to compress it through a text-based channel?

Fussell said at the start he would avoid discussing politics and religion, because:

Religion and politics, while usually chosen, don't show, except for the occasional front-yard shrine or car bumper sticker. When you look at a person you don't see "Roman Catholic" or "liberal": you see hand-printed necktie or "crappy polyester shirt".

Our era is the opposite: when you read someone's social media account, you can't tell what shirt they wearing, but you can scroll down and see every political position they've ever endorsed or condemned.

I would kill for somebody as keen-eyed and trustworthy as Fussell writing about the 2021 class system. I don't want to speculate about particulars here, because I feel like I'm at a lot of risk of bias. But I think it would involve a lot more politics and education, and a lot fewer rhododendra.

(or less rhododendrons. Whatever.)