Commentary Magazine


Birth of a Snob

Snobbery: is it innate, or learned? Snobs: are they born, or made? Perhaps the best way to begin answering this question is by adducing a case I happen to know fairly well—my own.

My social origins are a bit complicated: culturally lower-middle-class but with middle- and, later, upper-middle-class financial backing. Neither of my parents went to college. My father, who grew up in Canada, never even finished high school, while my mother took what was then known as “the commercial course” at a public high school in Chicago. They were both Jews but, as against the usual stereotype, evinced almost no interest in cultural matters apart from taking in the occasional musical comedy or, in later years, televised broadcasts of the Boston Pops. Magazines—Life, Look, later Time—and local newspapers came into our apartment, but no books. I cannot recall our owning an English dictionary, though both my parents were well spoken, always grammatical and jargon-free.

Politics was not a great subject of family conversation. The behavior of our extended family and neighbors, money, my father’s relations with his customers, these made up the main conversational fare—unspeculative, nonhypothetical, all very specific. Higher education was another subject of little interest; no time was spent discussing the differences between Amherst and Williams, for the good reason that neither of my parents had ever heard of such places.

My father, I believe, lacked the least speck of snobbery. It would not have occurred to him to want to rise socially in the world, and the only people he himself looked down upon—apart from crooks of one kind or another—were those who seemed unwilling to take measured risks in business. A distant cousin was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army: my father was baffled by the notion of a Jewish man so lacking in financial ambition as to settle for such a career.

It pleased my father to give ample sums to charities, many of them Jewish. In his later years, he also liked to travel to foreign countries—once, with my mother, to Paris on the Concorde, returning from London on the QE2. Above all, it pleased him to have earned enough money as a young man to establish his own financial independence, which he began to do at the age of seventeen, and to be of help to his family. But for him the realm to which money opened the door, the realm of status, style, and rank, was a mystery he felt no need to plumb.

My mother was also no snob, but she was much more aware of the phenomenon. She had an unashamed taste for what, by her standard, passed for luxe—big cars (Cadillacs), lavish furniture, furs, expensive dresses, Italian shoes, jewelry. But she was also made a bit nervous by people with more money than she, and tended to arrange her social life among her financial equals or inferiors. On the alert for snobberies turned against her, she sought out women friends who were goodhearted and generous, as was she. I never saw either my mother or my father commit a socially mean act: I never saw them put down anyone beneath them for reasons one would think to call snobbish, or fawn over anyone better off than they.

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How, then, did I, the elder of their two sons, develop so keen a sense, almost from the onset of consciousness, of the various arrangements that make for snobbery: social class, money, taste, attainment, status of every kind? Already as a small boy I sensed who was richer than who, noticed people who lived more grandly or more poorly than we, grasped what excited the envy of others, felt stirrings of envy of my own. Where all this came from I cannot say even now, but it was there, and it has never left me.

When people gathered in my parents’ apartment, I could not help registering that the wealthier men generally did most of the talking, or at least talked with the greatest authority and were listened to with the greatest attention. There was also a pleasant man named Sam Cowling, who lived nearby and made his living as a comedian on a popular radio show called The Breakfast Club: a certain allure attached to him, too. Money and celebrity, I early recognized, counted for quite a bit in the world, and certain sorts of work carried greater prestige than others—as, in baseball, shortstop was a more admired position than second base and, in football, quarterback than interior lineman.

In grammar school on Chicago’s north side, I was able to arrange to play both shortstop and quarterback. I also became fairly good at tennis, a sport whose emphasis on stylishness, which tends to vaunt appearance over reality, has endowed it with much snob appeal. And there was snobbery aplenty when I went on to Nicholas Senn high school, where status was at least as carefully calibrated as at the court of the Sun King, though the food was less good and the clothes a great deal less ornate.

The school had roughly 50 clubs, fraternities, and sororities, each with its own colorful jackets. Some sported Greek-letter names: Alpha, Beta, Delta. Some bore the names of animals, real or mythological—Ravens, Condors, Gargoyles—or names with aristocratic shadings such as Dukes, Majestics, Imperials, and Gentry, or neologisms like Raynors, Chiquitas, Fidels. The social character of each was distinct, and known to the student body at large: this club had the best athletes, that sorority the cutest girls, this fraternity the most fearsome thugs, that the dreariest nerds.

It did not take me long to crack the code. In those days I commanded a superficial charm that allowed me to make friends easily, and I was soon invited to join a club that had some of the best athletes and a fraternity that included the most socially fluent boys. The ease with which this happened may have left me a touch jaded; during my senior year, invited to join a male honor society called Green & White, I became the first boy in the history of the school to turn it down. I didn’t want it, I didn’t need it, and, besides, I already understood that turning something down can often confer greater status than accepting it. From a fairly early age, I was a cunning statustician.

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Because I was not a distinguished student, and because my family had no knowledge of the social and financial implications of attending one of the better American colleges, I went from high school to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, a school that in those days, for state residents, featured an open-enrollment policy and low fees (though it also flunked out large numbers of students). Illinois was one of the most Greek—that is, most fraternity- and sorority-ridden—campuses in the United States. With my talent for making myself acceptable, I arranged to be invited to join the best Jewish fraternity on campus. (I add—with a slight shudder of shame I cannot shake off more than 40 years later—that I left behind my two best friends, who were not similarly invited.) If I emphasize the word “Jewish,” it is not only to characterize the membership but to stress that virtually all fraternities and sororities in the mid-1950′s were segregated by religion: most discriminated against Jews, and some against Catholics.

Did being Jewish increase my sensitivity to the realm of social snobbery? Undoubtedly. Although an agnostic in religion, my father was adept at sniffing out evidences of anti-Semitism, having lived with a great deal of it among the Quebecois in Montreal when he was a boy and then, at a distance, through the nightmare of Hitler’s genocide during World War II. One of his few repeated admonitions to me was to be on the qui vive for anti-Jewish sentiment—which, he insisted, could crop up anywhere. “People might hate you,” he would say, “for no better reason than your name. Be careful. Stay on the alert.” And of course anti-Semitism itself may be the first and is certainly the longest-lasting and most virulent form of snobbery, one that, like racism, is always capable of turning into something vastly worse.

I never found myself much upset by the religious segregation practiced in the Midwest in the years I was growing up. That Jews were not wanted in Gentile fraternities at the University of Illinois was not in the least troubling to me. My insouciance may itself have been a form of snobbery—in this case, Jewish snobbery (who needs them!). But the fact is that I never felt it a serious social deprivation to be excluded from any fraternity or club, or from restricted neighborhoods and suburbs in and around Chicago, of which there then were quite a few.

In any case, the entire status system under which I had operated up to that point was about to change radically. After a year at Illinois, where I did well in my studies, I applied to and was accepted at the University of Chicago, which turned out to be an entirely different kettle of caviar.

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Mike Nichols, the movie director and former comedian, who was at the University of Chicago roughly four years before me, has said of it that everyone there was “neurotic, weird, strange—it was paradise.” I’m not so sure about the paradise part, but about the neurotic, weird, and strange no argument is possible. One of the strangest things about Chicago was that life there was not founded on any status system I had hitherto known.

At Chicago, I found, people were not ranked by physical beauty, or athletic skill, or wealth, or family connections. None of these things seemed to matter. What mattered was intelligence—or, more precisely, intellectuality, which I would define as the ability to deal in a sophisticated way with the issues presented by art, science, politics, and things of the mind generally. Since my own intellectual quality was then of an inferior order, my status at Chicago was commensurately low. Hiding my ignorance as best I could, I looked on, fascinated. Here was a new game, and one I wanted, still somewhat inchoately, to play.

As I was to discover, Chicago had its own built-in status system, although no one enunciated what it was. In this system, only four vocations in life were considered to possess any standing: artist; scientist (including medical researcher, but not some dopey physician treating people for the flu or for their urological problems); statesman (none was then thought to be extant); or—and here was the loophole—the teacher of potential artists, scientists, and statesmen. All else, no matter how great the attendant financial or professional reward, was regarded as worthless. One was just another commoner, a natural slave (in Aristotle’s term), raking gravel under the blazing sun.

Had I gone to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, I might conceivably have adopted snobbery of a more conventional, social kind—though, so barren of social distinction was the family I grew up in, this would have been no easy thing to bring off. But artistic, intellectual, and cultural snobbery gave me quite enough to do. As a would-be intellectual, I soon found myself comfortably contemptuous of the middle class (from which I happily derived), its values and style of living. As someone with declared cultural interests, I began to look down on businessmen, on cultural philistines, on anyone, really, who thought there were more important things in life than art and ideas. Other people might achieve success—I would seek significance.

For the most part, I kept these snobbish notions to myself, and I hope I never appeared as preposterous to others as I assuredly was in the inner drama I was then living. Still, I carried a heavy freight of artiness and intellectuality, all the while forgoing the more innocent affectations—material possessions, membership in favored clubs or groups, a socially advantageous romantic match—by which most people hope to establish their superiority.

This lasted for several years, at least until my thirties. Touches of it invade my thinking even today, as I sense my superiority clicking in whenever a friend or relative expresses admiration for a cultural artifact I happen to think beneath seriousness. Someone tells me that he considers Death of a Salesman to be a great play, and my mind goes, click!—what a foolish opinion, betraying a want of intellectual subtlety, a crudity of sensibility. (My own view of Arthur Miller’s play is close to that of the real salesman who, leaving the theater, is supposed to have said to his friend, “That New England territory was never any goddamn good.”)

What is operating here is the snobbery of opinion, or, more precisely, of correct opinion. A person who is not himself a snob is usually content to think a wrong opinion mistaken, and to let it go at that; the very fact that another person holds such an opinion is not regarded as an adverse judgment on his character. For the intellectual snob, a wrong opinion is more than stupid; it is an utter disqualification.

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The trick in judging the operations of snobbery, in oneself or in others, lies in the ability to determine a thing’s intrinsic value and then to weigh it against the value assigned by society. Behind every snobbish impulse is a false or irrelevant valuation. Like the cynic in Oscar Wilde’s famous definition, the snob knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Thus, I drive a Jaguar S-type: a fairly expensive car, costing roughly $45,000, that also happens to be very reliable and comfortable and handsomely designed, and a pleasure to drive. I bought it, I like to believe, for its inherent quality and not for what other people might think of it. Yet I sometimes feel myself unduly pleased with this car. It is, I have concluded, not as vulgar as a Mercedes; it has none of the gaudiness of a Cadillac; it is blessedly free of the parvenu air of a Lexus. Danger: snobbishness at work.

But it is not so simple as that. Once upon a time, thinking to divest myself of such silly games, I made it a point to drive only dull cars: Chevys, mid-sized Oldsmobiles, and the like. This, however, was just reverse snobbery, the chief mechanism of which consists in finding out which way the snobs are headed and then turning oneself in the opposite direction.

I have a thing about San Francisco, one of the great centers of snobbery in America. The city’s boosters, who seem to include everyone who lives there, work hard to convey the impression that they above all their countrymen have found the secret of life. Their voluble insistence on their own good taste—Bayarrhea, I prefer to call it—can be richly, profoundly unbearable, bringing out the reverse snob in me as quickly as it brings out the snob in others.

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Reverse snobbery, being a compound form of the phenomenon that proceeds from the exceedingly snobbish determination to assert one’s superiority to snobbery itself, may be even more difficult to shuck than the original disease. It can also be punishing, depriving one of certain on the whole innocent pleasures. Certain fads in dining, clothes, travel, hotels, neighborhoods, artworks—no sooner does the reverse snob learn that they have been picked up by people he regards as commonplace than he drops them at once. Twenty-five years ago I thought Humphrey Bogart was a swell actor; the Bogart cult killed my enthusiasm. I mock (to myself) people I know who buy what I think of as crappy modern art, and who pretend to enjoy it while hoping it will increase in value. I won’t own an expensive watch, although I am not opposed to buying and wearing a knockoff of a Carrier or Bulgari on the streets of New York for fifteen or 25 bucks. (“It’s an Andre Knokovsky,” I say smugly, if anyone asks.)

Yet I also remain susceptible to snobbery of the more traditional sort. I continue to feel that delicious sense of false superiority whenever I stay in an expensive hotel (preferably at someone else’s expense); good clothes elevate my spirits considerably. Though I don’t think I’m a food snob, and have managed to evade wine snobbery altogether, I am a sucker for things like fine stationery, a splendid fountain pen, an elegant raincoat.

The pathetic truth is that I am a little too pleased with myself for snobbish reasons. Here I am, giving a lecture at an English university—how nice! Here I am, being praised in print by a writer I have long admired in a magazine of high status—splendid! Here I am, being paid obeisance by the wealthy and powerful for my cultural attainments—and, lo, the world seems a just and good place!

Time to grow out of such thoughts? Time to see the world as, in the philosophers’ phrase, in itself it really is? Alas, snobbery, innate and learned alike, makes that easier said than done—at any rate, in this life.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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