About a year ago, I shared a train compartment with a seemingly reticent Canadian fellow, a man heavily shielded by a newspaper, and I doubted I’d catch a syllable from the stolid moose. But after gobbling a handsome steak sandwich with yellow dressing and downing a pint, he eased into a happier frame of mind. And after another pint, and some small talk, he really softened and even got greedy for some proprietary information about my country: ‘Do you guys have some true old families over there or is just all celebrities now?’ he asked, in a sniffy sort of way, but not without a touch of good-natured asperity.
I really didn’t have a ready answer, and was certain to lose caste by admitting ignorance, not even to be saved by my cordovan shoes and perfectly disheveled bowtie. But what could I do? Feeling like a human jellyfish, I answered simply and squarely: ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘and I’m not sure anyone else does.’
Well, by some miracle, my reply seemed to please the Canadian, as if I’d contrived a witty getaway or something. But the whole rest of the ride, I brooded and pondered the matter, and was plunged in thought about it all the next day.
Do we still have old families who, say, keep up the expiring art of good talk? Does America have a proud class of people somehow connected with each other? If so, where does it stand in relation to the utilitarian habits of our age? Can it muster some disdain for the tastes and opinions of the time? Or have Democracy and Plutocracy swallowed them all up, not even bothering to heave a few sighs?
I know there certainly was a gilded stretch when America had a veritable nest of gentry of it own. It is well documented in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James and in old cartoons that taught children what crowded dinner tables and moonlight strolls were all about. Movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age never tired of exhibiting the old regime, probably adding a measure of gaucherie, but otherwise doing a decent job baring the lives of those who prayed to an Episcopalian deity.
I also know that in the years following the Civil War, there was a big change in personnel in our higher orders. It wasn’t anything so dramatic as when the Norman barons displaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, men like Cedric in Ivanhoe, but it left a lot of hurt feelingsall the same. In New York, for example, once lofty families like the Van Cortlandts, De Peysters and Van Burents gave way to the Gilded Age fortunes of Astors and Vanderbilts. The same devastation happened to the First Families of Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc. In Boston, I think, some families like the Hancocks and Otises managed not to topple from their perches for a while, but I’m not certain.
The First Families were markedly different from the arrivistes. They were often Doctors of Divinity or ‘Merchant Princes’ or even ‘Elders.’ They kept up a rather paternalistic civic-mindedness and considered themselves ‘Stewards of the Community.’ And they were not smitten with Conspicuous Consumption, not even a little. I’m not exactly sure what happened to them, maybe they withered away in the dusty halls of local preservationist societies as they fell off the Social Register.
(For those interested, the Social Register is a semiannual publication that indexes what we regard as patrician families. According to the Robb Report, inclusion in the Social Register ‘bespeaks old money, Ivy League, trust funds, privileges of birth, fox hunting, debutante balls, yachting, polo, distinguished forebears, family compounds in the Adirondacks, and a pedigree studded with 19th-century robber barons’.
The President of the United States and Vice-President of the United States are, by custom, always added.
Trump was not on it before but is now. This, like him or not, was maybe his biggest exploit ever.)
Anyways, the progeny of the Big Industrialists made up our High Society until about the middle of the last century. They also gave to our land a genuine Leisure Class, which was a good thing for all people, because it gave everyone to understand that the only point of tireless toil was the prospect of relaxing forever. Until the early eighties, limousines lined Wall Street at 3:00 pm on Fridays to take the bankers off to the Hamptons. (Today, black town-cars start rolling up around 8 pm, and keep coming till midnight, to ferry the beat stockjobbers home to bed).
But even in our finest hour, when we had fancy-dress balls and a real ‘servant problem,’ there has never been anything here to match the social pageantry painstakingly constructed in England over long centuries, withstanding the World Wars, Soviet infiltration of Oxford and Cambridge, the Reform Bill of 1832, and more recent socialistic legislation. In Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose Novels,’ it was said ofPatrick’s sadistic father that he ‘could have been Prime Minister’ and that in his world, ‘could have been’ was far better than being Prime Minister, which might betray a vulgar ambition. In America, it would be a Herculean labor to explain such a foggy notion to people, and you’d end up beholding the flabby pink of many lolling and bewildered tongues if you tried. Nobody has ever dwelt here who ‘could have’ been President!
Now we come to the present day.
Some scholars say that the concept of class is meaningless now. Everything is too jumbled. Before, professionals were reliably conservative, and these days they are usually progressive. There are Bo-Bo people (Bourgeois-Bohemians) who further turn everything upside down. Former classes have become so assorted, differing in politics, tastes and outlooks, that they have ceased being classes at all. And you can’t tell anyone apart anymore. A woman marketing manager may save her pennies and buy a Gucci purse and stop looking like a woman marketing manager at all. Meanwhile, laborers who used to be Democratic to the fingertips, have gone Republican over various social issues like gay-rights and other ‘Bourgeois Vices’. (This is how Trump got elected.) Other scholars scoff at these simpletons, sneering that class is thriving better than ever. These brush aside that the homme moyen sensuel today lives far fatter than a well-to-do fellow did 50 years ago. (He may even have an organic free-range chicken in his pot.) If you try and debate with these scholars, they will just repeat, again and again, something about the ‘top half of one percent’ owning everything. The basic idea is that rich people send their children to better schools, do this and that for them, so that they stay rich, while thwarting less blessed souls their fighting chance. Meritocracy is a mere cloak to veil who is doing what to whom.
My own opinion is that America has no upper-class today. What we have are Elites. An upper-class, through its families, transmits a broader culture from generation to generation, with the nourishing power of continuity. It passes along some manners, some aesthetic sensibilities, or the ‘unbought grace of life,’ as Burke called it. University schooling can form Elites, but it cannot make a class. Class is cultivated in the home.
Elites are specialized and often isolated from each other and cannot transmit culture over generations. In America, politics is done in Washington. The worlds of fashion and finance are in New York. The techies are in Seattle or Silicon Valley. The celebrities are in Hollywood. There is little cross-pollination between groups, partly because we lack a central city like London or Paris or Vienna. Elites may indeed pass enormous financial and educational benefits to their children, and even some civic sense, but their criterion for excellence is limited to tasks prized in a tiny corner of the universe. Technicians, even if billionaires, will usually be hostile to what was once called high culture.
Yet there is one place where ultra-monarchism really does thrive in America. In England, the manufacturer of a bogus coat of arms, by ancient law, would be docked an ear. But our armigerous hungers entirely disregard the London College of Heralds. You can, without leaving America’s shores, buy a Lordship of the Manor of the village of Tufton Bufton where the only thing left of the manor is a pile of stones and Tufton Bufton lies underneath a municipal car park.
Notwithstanding it being the most unspeakable social gaffe to claim such a title in England, everywhere one turns in America someone is descended from some Welsh marcher-lord or Scottish kinglet, and to whom crests are raised without shame. As such, many of our tourists returning from London should really be with one ear, not two. As late as 1957, an English Court of Chivalry fined the City of Manchester 100 Pounds for wrongfully using a coat of arms in an amusement park, despite not having sat for 220 years. Yet the Court of Chivalry has done nothing to stop our eager feudalists from proliferating mighty coats of arms, left and right. If all these gentry were found and fined, the United Kingdom would be so opulent, the whole Brexit debate would soon be superfluous.
Mark Mantel is a lawyer from Richmond, Virginia.
This article was published in the Summer edition of the Salisbury Review