Snobbery is the pornography of ambition—gratification devoid of achievement. As the author of more than a dozen books, including Ambition: Secret Passion (1981), Joseph Epstein, who has established himself as a leading American essayist, knows something about the aspiration to excel. The inspiration for his latest book is a pathology of ambition, the craving for reputation regardless of accomplishment.
Though he acknowledges Europe’s primacy in the cultivation of snobbery, Epstein concentrates on the condition’s peculiarly American manifestations. His witty, self-effacing prose elevates the author in the reader’s esteem even as he concedes that snobbery is a malady from which he, like the reader, is not immune. In a droll personal anecdote, Epstein recounts how, mistaken for the relative of a Mafioso, he was given special treatment in a restaurant in Chicago. Careful not to correct the host’s erroneous assumptions, he returned repeatedly to avail himself of his extra hospitality. Epstein thus simultaneously mocks himself (an ordinary diner, he had no mobster pedigree) and suggests his superiority to coddled gangsters and fawning maitre d’s.
Epstein notes five possible etymologies for the word “snob.” It might be derived from a Scandinavian word denoting “idiot” and connoting imposture, or its source might be an abbreviation of the Latin phrase sine nobilate, which was appended to the names of commoners to distinguish them from nobles. “Snob” might also have originally been the antonym of “nob,” someone with genuine status and power, or it could be an elision of “c’est noble,” the way a French peasant would identify something as belonging to the upper class. “Snob” could also have come from “snub,” though “snub” could as easily have come from “snob.” In any case, Epstein defines the snob as someone preoccupied with status, whose self-esteem is dependent on others’ judgment. Out to impress those higher in the social hierarchy and depress those below, the snob is driven by both hope and fear: hope of ascending to an unassailable position above the rabble and fear of falling back into the mass of hoi polloi. Precariously perched in an unsteady middle, the snob gazes upward with presumption and downward with disdain.
Epstein argues that snobbery is a particularly modern phenomenon, facilitated by the democratic revolutions that followed the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The ancient regimes, where social rank was clearly demarcated and widely accepted, might have been rife with sycophancy and pretension, but snobbery per se, which feeds on instability and anxiety, was rare. “The social fluidity that democracy makes possible,” notes Epstein, “allowing people to climb from the bottom to the top of the ladder of social class in a generation or two, provides a fine breeding ground for snobbery and gives much room to exercise condescension, haughtiness, affectation, false deference, and other egregious behavior so congenial to the snob.” If the Horatio Alger story, the possibility that an individual from even the most humble origins can manage to make it to the top of the heap, is the quintessential American Dream, then the United States is, despite avowals of egalitarianism, fertile soil for snobbery. While obscuring the demarcations of class, democracy has not destroyed envy or contempt. It has encouraged everyone to be a snob.
American culture, suggests Epstein, is haunted by a nostalgia for aristocracy, and what has made snobbery in the United States particularly mercurial during the past half-century has been the decline of the American ruling class, the Protestant white establishment. Epstein attributes this not only to a rise in ethnic pride, on the part of every ethnic group except WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but also to a loss of self- confidence by the “WASPocracy” itself. Symptomatic of this is the fact that, during his presidential run in 1988, George H. W. Bush felt compelled to disguise his New England patrician pedigree and instead campaign as a “good ol’ boy” from Texas, partial to country music and pork rinds. The WASP ascendancy once set the tone and standard for American culture. Its disappearance unmoored snobbery, forcing it into dramatic new directions that form the subjects of Epstein’s book.
Snobbery: The American Version is not a sustained argument but rather a series of...
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