Cover image for Snobbery : the American version
Snobbery : the American version
Epstein, Joseph, 1937-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 274 pages ; 25 cm
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HN90.S6 E67 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
HN90.S6 E67 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Joseph Epstein's highly entertaining new book takes up the subject of snobbery in America after the fall of the prominence of the old Wasp culture of prep schools, Ivy League colleges, cotillions, debutante balls, the Social Register, and the rest of it. With ample humor and insight, Epstein uncovers the new outlets upon which the old snobbery has fastened: food and wine, fashion, high-achieving children, schools, politics, health, being with-it, name-dropping, and much else, including theroles of Jews and homosexuals in the development of snobbery. He also raises the question of whether snobbery might, alas, be a part of human nature. Snobbery: The American Versionis the first book in English devoted exclusively to the subject since Thackeray's THE BOOK OF SNOBS.

Author Notes

Joseph Epstein was born and educated in Chicago, where, since 1974, he has been a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University. From 1975 to 1997 he was the editor of The American Scholar. He is the author of many previous books, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, Commentary, and other periodicals

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Noted essayist and former American Scholar editor Epstein, having enlightened us on ambition (Ambition: The Secret Passion), now turns to its companion, snobbery. The topic is ripe with promise, but Epstein's observations are less revelatory than entertaining. Underneath their pretentious exteriors, he writes, snobs are insecure people who have latched onto arbitrary measures of status to prove they're worthier than those around them. It's natural fallout, he says, in a world where complete fairness is nonexistent. The best antidote to snobbery, Epstein suggests, is to treat people the same, regardless of their circumstances, and to value things for their intrinsic worth rather than their cachet. Epstein shares his own snobbish tendencies and biases at the outset. From childhood, he writes, his snob radar was fully operational, and by his senior year in high school he was already "an impressively cunning statustician." Epstein goes on to deal with a range of past and present pretensions relating to class, work, democracy, possessions, parenting, college, clubs and intellectualism. In one delicious instance, he describes an American reaction to visiting royalty. "Princess Diana, not long before she died, visited Northwestern University, where I teach," he writes. "The spectacle of the university president, a smallish man in glasses, following the Princess about the campus, yapping away, reminded one of nothing so much as that of a Chihuahua attempting to mount an Afghan hound." The chapter on name-dropping is particularly sharp, citing a variety of ways people exploit connections to well-known individuals for social profit. Epstein has a wickedly wonderful sense of humor and keen observational skills, both on display in the firsthand anecdotes scattered throughout this essayistic assemblage. (July 9) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Critic Epstein attempts to define snobbery in the US and analyze the thinking and actions of the nation's snobs. In two dozen highly personal chapters, the author expresses his belief that the decline of the old, established social hierarchy has provided fertile ground for snobs, i.e., those who for many reasons consider themselves superior to others. Epstein builds his examples around everything from his own experiences as a self-proclaimed snob to broad national generalizations. His oversimplification of European history and politics--he admires the British and dislikes the French--is striking as he compares them with the US past and present, which he usually finds wanting. At the same time, nothing intrigues Epstein more than providing individual examples of snobbery, particularly in the recent past. He is an excellent observer of today's foibles, if not one with whom everyone will agree. Not intended primarily for a scholarly audience, the book ought to receive a wide general readership. C. K. Piehl Minnesota State University, Mankato

Booklist Review

Man-of-letters Epstein does precisely what a reader hopes for with a topic as prickly yet slippery as snobbery: he grasps it firmly, holds it under a bright light, and merrily dissects it. Believing that snobbery didn't come into its own until the advent of democracy and an insecure, in-flux society, Epstein traces the evolution of American snobbery with the help of various novelists, "our keenest sociologists," and entertaining confessions of his own snobbishness. He wittily defines downward-and upward-snobbery, reverse snobbery, "with-it" snobbery, and the fuzzy alignment of taste and social class; analyzes the fall of the WASP aristocracy; and observes the way children have become the favorite game pieces in the perpetual tournament for bragging rights. Epstein also takes on the "snobbery of intellectuals" and political snobbery, coining the word virtucrats for those who believe that their views are not only correct but also morally superior. Every bracing page is a mirror in which readers can't help but recognize themselves, and each offers a quotable quip--"Snobbery, like bacteria, is everywhere" --and much to think about. Donna Seaman

Library Journal Review

This readable but serious work examines the nature and place of snobbery and its various manifestations in America, from the country's founding to the present. Epstein (English & writing, Northwestern Univ.) defines snobbery as the practice of making oneself feel superior at the expense of others and argues that as long as people are seeking self-affirmation, it will long live on. He writes of snobbery in the workplace; of its presence in evaluating education, taste, dress, wealth, and race as factors in determining "class" inclusion; and of the snob factors involved in ranking one's status and prestige in all walks of life and situations. He identifies celebrity-level requirements in today's world, compares his own snobberies with those he discerns in others, and overviews Americans' interactions with the cultures of England and the European continent. While Epstein's argument is quite witty and thoughtful, the scant bibliographic references and conversational tone will limit this book's appeal in academic libraries. It is, however, highly recommended for all general readers and public libraries. Suzanne W. Wood, SUNY Coll. of Technology, Alfred (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 It Takes One to Know OneRather than imply his superiority to his subject, the author of a book about snobbery ought to set out, fairly briefly, his own experience of snobbery. He ought to let his readers know if he has been a victim of snobbery, and of the sorts of snobbery to which he is susceptible, to allow them to judge his own relationship to the subject. Perhaps the best way for me to begin, then, is to explain my social origins. These are a bit complicated. They seem to have been culturally lower middle class but with middle- and, later, upper- middle-class financial backing. Neither of my parents went to college. My father, growing up in Canada, in fact never finished high school; my mother took what was then known as "the commercial course" at John Marshall (public) High School in Chicago. They were both Jewish, but, against the positive stereotype of Jews loving culture and things of the mind, my parents had almost no cultural interests apart from occasionally going to musical comedies or, in later years, watching the Boston Pops on television. Magazines - Life, Look, later Time - and local newspapers came into our apartment, but no books. I dont 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 fathers relations with customers at his business, these made up the main conversational fare - unspeculative, nonhypothetical, all very specific. Education was another subject of little interest; no time was spent, say, discussing the differences between Amherst and Williams colleges, for the good reason that neither of my parents had ever heard of such places. My father, I believe, hadnt a speck of snobbery. It would not have occurred to him to want to rise socially in the world, and the only people he looked down upon - apart from crooks of one kind or another - were people who seemed to be without the ambition to take measured risks in business. We had a distant cousin who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and my father was baffled by the notion of a Jewish man settling for a career in the regular army. It pleased my father to give ample sums to charities (many of them Jewish charities) and, in later years, to travel to foreign countries - once, with my mother, to Paris on the Concorde and back from London on the QE2. Above all, it pleased him to have made enough money to help out his family and be able to establish his financial independence, which he did at the age of seventeen. But he barely acknowledged the social realm in which snobbery takes place. For him the world of status, where style, rank, and social climbing were central, was a mystery he felt no need to fathom. My mother, though no snob either, had a greater awareness of snobbery. She was on the alert for snobberies used against her, and could be vulnerable Excerpted from Snobbery: The American Version by Joseph Epstein All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Part 1
1. It Takes One to Know Onep. 3
2. What Is a Snob?p. 13
3. How Snobbery Worksp. 20
4. The Democratic Snobp. 28
5. Snob-Jobberyp. 38
6. O WASP, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Lingp. 47
7. Class (all but) Dismissedp. 62
8. Such Good Tastep. 73
9. In the Snob-Free Zonep. 83
10. The High, Fine Nuttiness of Statusp. 91
Part 2
11. To You, I Give My Heart, Invidiap. 103
12. A Son at Tufts, a Daughter at Taffetap. 115
13. Dear Old Yarvtonp. 121
14. Unclubbablep. 133
15. Intellectual Snobbery, or The (Million or So) Happy Fewp. 142
16. The Snob in Politicsp. 153
17. Fags and Yidsp. 162
18. The Same New Thingp. 172
19. Names Away!p. 184
20. The Celebrity Icebergp. 194
21. Anglo-, Franco-, and Other Odd philiasp. 203
22. Setting the Snob's Tablep. 215
23. The Art of With-It-ryp. 227
24. A Grave but Localized Diseasep. 241
A Bibliographical Notep. 255
Indexp. 259