The first thing to say about this book is that it is very funny. It is worth it just for the intelligent entertainment it provides. But even though it was written in 1983 (and no doubt ably reviewed forty years ago), it is still informative: while things are changing things haven’t changed that rapidly.
What the book aims to do is clear from the subtitle: it provides a guide to the American status system. The American status system, in turn, provides many occasions for witty descriptions, and Paul Fussell takes them all. It is instructive if you are (like me) straight from the proletarian estate–one of the signs of which is that you live with a basic suspicion but no clear idea about class. So this book can save you from ignorance and unease. It provides a view of places you may have never been, such as the upper out of sight class, and a funny detached view of what you are familiar with. Nine classes are herein distinguished.
The problem with it is that it seems to examine human beings as if we are nothing but a collection of surfaces. Still, one of the points about the American status system Fussell wishes to make is how superficial it all is. The serious point this book assumes is that the unexamined life is not worth living, whatever your class. That is not a bad point, and being witty, clever sometimes, snide occasionally (though far less than you’d expect) is not an unwelcome way to make it. Mild to scathing social commentary can be gotten by way of fiction; but if the kind of social commentary you want is provided in novels which are otherwise unappealing, especially in terms of the spiritual atmosphere, you can at least read Paul Fussell until his book’s gradual transformation over time into a historical artifact is complete. Then the anthropologists will consult it.
The problem with Paul Fussell himself seems to be that he is a nominalist. He is not contemptuous of meaning altogether, but he is not serious about invisible realities. The book makes the point that the unexamined life is not worth living by poking fun at the prejudices each class displays in preference and behavior, but it then aims to lead the reader out of the class system by speaking of a class X (to which the author belongs, obviously). Class X he also calls bohemian, and while it appears to be free of some of the assumptions of preference and behavior of the various American (like t-shirts bearing inscriptions), it also seems free of some crucial aspects of morality and decent human behavior. The problem with Fussell is that his criteria for examining the unexamined aspects are the academic preferences and intellectual dogmas of his day. It contains a certain rigor of intellect, but not the needed proper feeling that informs sound judgment. It is a kind of cultivation without the means to maintain a healthy culture. Which is why I say he’s a nominalist.
I am sure the answer to my objection would be that the notion of proper feeling is a middle class idea. What could be more middle class than feeling that morality (at least modified by the adjective ‘traditional’) and decency are valuable considerations? I could counter that that was a perspective taken from the upper classes, telling, and not entirely unexamined; but I would not like to take that line. Morality and decency ought to characterize more of human behavior than Fussell allows. There are a lot of appealing things about his class X (starting with the ironical designation), but the irreligious and promiscuous aspects are not.
But that is the dilemma. Where does one get proper feeling from? How does one manifest it once one has a source, and how does one pass it along? How is what Fussell talks about more than another hypocritical prejudice? What transcendent criteria measures his standard? Whatever it is, it has to transcend class, doesn’t it?
Perhaps he wrote, continuing in the spirit of the book, with a lighter and more whimsical approach even to his own class and his suggestions about class. There is good reason to believe nothing is to be taken with a great deal of seriousness. The importance of not being earnest about anything at all comes to the fore. And there is a good point to that: if we human beings take ourselves too seriously we tend to get things wrong. We are small and limited creatures, and therefore comical. But it is important to remember that that is not all we are. Morality, in a certain way, can be said to arise out of the consequences of our choices, out of the fact that responsibility rests on us
for how we behave and what we chose; and what we chose is what we prefer. Some of those preferences are more important than others. I disagree with Fussell on the importance of some things he has relegated to lesser significance, and his book is the worse for those things.
On the whole, though, Fussell sticks to what is small and comical and gives us a clever view with useful information and higher entertainment value than many other things available. At least he has the decency not to be tedious. There’s a lot more than class, of course, to consider in life, but the word is vague enough to stretch and pull usefully over a lot of what happens to us. Fussell uses it to good effect.
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Appended Unscientific Observations:
It is interesting to consider all this when you think about religion in the USA. I think what Fussell points out gives one useful categories for explaining some of the otherwise random phenomena one from time to time witnesses.
It seems to me his idea of class X has been considered and has leaked out into inadvertent places like Target, to mention nothing higher, which means most everywhere except some Walmarts. Bohemian kitsch perhaps has seen its day, but it has had its day.