When Fussell wrote in 1982 (and published in 1983), he said that acknowledging the class divisions that exist in America exist was poor form and that doing so would likely lead to argument. Florence King writes, “The subject skims across our minds like a hair blown across the face: a constant ticklish irritation, invisible but very much felt.” Class distinctions are as alive as ever and the subject is as taboo now as then—our fierce egalitarian heritage guarantees this—but a certain amount of fun can be had in their study.
We’ll look at changes in the specific indicators that Fussell chose to characterize his class taxonomy, in the fine distinctions between tiers, of which he found three:
|1. Top out-of-sight||4. Middle||8. Destitute|
|2. Upper||5. High Proletarian||9. Bottom out-of-sight|
|3. Upper Middle||6. Mid-Proletarian|
|7. Low Proletarian.|
Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study. Class is only weakly correlated with money. New money separates upper and upper middle from top out-of-sight. The truism “money can’t buy class” explains why high “proles” like actors and pop singers are barred from the upper classes despite their wealth.
Where you lived, in 1982, was a reliable indicator of class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, “upstate” New York, Connecticut implied a higher class than those who lived in Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “Parma, Ohio, a city of 100,000 without a newspaper, bus system, hotel, or map of itself.” These locations have not remained static, as the uppers have discovered the West, at least for their vacation residences.
Like it or not—and we have seen that most do not—Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.
A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.
Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.
Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.
If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading
Handmade by Gertrude Willis
she’s middle-class. If the label reads
Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis
Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better.
In 1982, there was a greater emphasis on the university one attended. Harvard, Yale, the other Ivies, and Stanford indicated top tier. Attendance there is no longer a perfectly reliable class marker as these schools have significantly expanded their student bodies. However, the choice of school still matters.
The assumption that “a college degree” means something without the college’s being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of higher learning.
In other words, Fussell says, graduating from Syracuse, Seton Hall, University of Wyoming, or Virginia Tech (“a good basketball school”) indicate middle-class. Those universities, which until recently were colleges, and before that were normal schools or teacher’s colleges, are attended by proles.
Finally, Fussell tires of the traditional segregations and hopes that more people will voluntarily join “class X”, a group which has changed more than any other, and which can best be described as those who live in Ithaca, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, CO, or Park Slope, Brooklyn. Creativity, intelligence, independence, pleasantness, and willingness to engage in “experiments in living” were and still are reliable markers of this group.
In 1982, these folk were not as political as today, where they now comprise the vocal left. An enjoyable test of X-hood is to say to your subject that you noticed something on FOX news. If your listener, who is ordinarily lucid and tolerant, begins an excited, extended rant about that network being “reactionary”, then she is likely an X. More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.
Fussell argued that Xers rightly did not give a damn about class distinction, and this is still true but in a different sense. Just as Uppers believe they culturally superior to the upper middles, who are sure of their ascendancy over the middle-class etc., Xers are convinced they are more enlightened than everybody else.
This, then, is the overt reading of Class: a hierarchical strata of semi-permeable class boundaries exists. Escape from a stratum is unlikely: though it is easier to descend than to climb or to become an X. The struggle to better or to differentiate oneself determines most behavior. Not all neatly fit into a slot: for example, engineers of every stripe and physicians exhibit significant cross-class deportment.
Covertly, the work can be called a guide to proper behavior and style. Fussell writes approvingly of top tier demeanor and acerbically of displays by the middle-class and proles. He laments prole drift, which is the (inexorable?) tendency of culture to devolve. He says, for example, Princeton
used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.
Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.
Fussell proudly accepts the damning insult of elitist. But he doesn’t want us to interpret the word pejoratively. There are aspects of culture that are better than others. One painting can be superior to another (compare any Caravaggio with your best reproduction of it). A novel by Twain rates higher than one typed by Nora Roberts. Our system of justice is sounder than China’s. What really distinguishes the classes, Fussell says, is the ability to know and acknowledge these distinctions and to aspire to what is better or best.