By on May 24, 2012

A credit to my parents (among many); they turned everything into a “teachable moment”. A new addition to my vocabulary came with a lesson on the root word, and whether it came from Latin, or French or Greek. A new song came with a quick history of Manchester  80′s New Wave, or Delta blues. My allowance was paid after chores and before a lesson on budgeting. A new car magazine had to be read and not just scanned through for pretty pictures.

And so came one of the lessons that ended up changing how I viewed the world. I was in my early teens, and had just discovered Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, when my father suggested I read Paul Fussell’s Class. “It’s even got some car stuff in there; he talks about how people buy SUVs to look like they’re rich enough to have a country home. Just read it. You’ll like it.”

I devoured Class, as well as Bad, which I considered the advanced, up-to-date version, and never looked at the world in the same way. Not many books have done that. To explain both would take another essay entirely, but both books do a wonderful job of deconstructing consumerism, advertising, marketing and most importantly, how all three prey on people’s insecurities relating to social status. Read them and you will feel both immune to “aspirational brand” marketing and also wondering about the class signals given off by friends, peers, people you interact with – and yourself.

Paul Fussell died today at age 88, and while his body of work is incredibly important in an era where class and money no longer have anything to do with one another, and the push to define ourselves through consuming goods has never been stronger. I leave you with the passage below, from Class, where Fussell ruthlessly dissects the semiotics of the automobile (and also perhaps, shows some indirect Panther love – remember, this book was written in the early/mid-80s)

“If your money and freedom and carelessness of censure allow you to buy any kind of car, you provide yourself with the meanest and most common to indicate that you`re not taking seriously so easily purchasable and thus vulgar a class totem. You have a Chevy, Ford, Plymouth or Dodge, and in the least interesting style and color. It may be clean, although slightly dirty is best.

You may not have a Rolls, Cadillac or a Mercedes. . . . The worst kind of upper-middle-class types own a Mercedes, just as the best own elderly Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Chryslers, and perhaps Jeeps and Land Rovers, the latter conveying the preppy suggestion that one of your residences is in a place so unpublic that the roads to it are not even paved, indeed are hardly passable by your ordinary vulgar automobile.”

And of course, some wisdom from my own mother, upon seeing the first $399/month lease deal for a BMW 320i

“Anyone can have a BMW now…and [redacted, her billionaire godfather] drives an old, beat up Buick.”

Two teachable moments, expressed in slightly different ways, updated for our times. Go out and buy the books. For the cost of a couple spark plugs, your outlook on the world will never be the same.

 

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46 Comments on “RIP Paul Fussell: A Tribute To The Man Who Informed My Perceptions On Luxury Automobiles...”


  • avatar
    ajla

    What Buick does the godfather roll in?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I have read Paul Fussel’s “Wartime” some years ago and it left me somewhat puzzled on several levels. He seemed to have a very unrealistic view of life and of people, too many points to delve into here, but suffice it to say he was a good writer, some of his writing, though, left me feeling I wanted to toss his book and never read his work again. So far, I haven’t.

    EDIT: Perhaps he would have been happier living in Russia. How do you pronounce “Marxist”?

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Waingrow

      Mr. Zackman: You might want to give “The Great War And Modern Memory” another go. Neither your brief criticism nor the EDIT regarding Marxism has much to do with the book as I remember it. I believe it’s more about the way the First World War’s horrors disabused many of the fantacies about bravery and honor and all the other ways that war had until that time been glorified. But perhaps I’m mistaken in what I recall??

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        My Marxist comment is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as Fussell, in “Wartime”, appeared to me to be either very naive or sheltered, and felt personally violated when the realities of the war hit home and thought of himself intellectually above it all.

        That’s his only work I have read, as I haven’t had the opportunity in recent years to do much recreational reading, but I’ll keep your suggestion in mind.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    Purchasing choices really can express an awful lot about one’s character, but interpreting such things is not always easy or straightforward. An old beater, for example, might be the expression of genuine indifference about such things, but it could just as easily be the affectatious expression of a desire to ‘appear’ unconcerned about such things.

    Maybe I’ll get around to reading his stuff one of these days–so little time and so much to read….

  • avatar
    jmo

    So, most old beaters are driven by secret billionaires?

    “just as the best own elderly Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Chrysler”

    That may have been true back in the days when most of the rich were coupon clipping rentiers – that’s no longer the case.

    • 0 avatar
      Skink

      So, most old beaters are driven by secret billionaires?

      “just as the best own elderly Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Chrysler”

      Can’t tell if you’re serious or trolling. Since, ‘So, most old beaters are driven by secret billionaires?’ is in the context a non sequitur.

  • avatar
    AoLetsGo

    I will have to put him on my reading list. I know I like to think about the cars I want to buy and my dreams always about powerful and expensive cars and trucks. But I always talk myself down by reasoning that I have a limited income and I want my cars and trucks to serve me not for me to slave away to support the machine. It is also fun to put H3 wheels on my old Canyon which look good, cost $25 apiece used and make fun of the Hummer drivers. Also added angel eyes headlights to poke fun at the BMW drivers.

  • avatar
    WaftableTorque

    It’s hard to believe that book is 30 years old. After I read it, I started looking for evidence for it, and that’s where it shows it’s age.

    The book may be correct up to the 1970′s, but you can blame the baby boomers for co-opting such an orderly system. I think Paul’s error is the same as anyone who studies socioeconomics: they think that it’s hierarchical when really its just stratified.  People are identity seekers, not necessarily status seekers, otherwise you would see consumption patterns among the bourgeois seeking to emulate the upper ranks. I actually see people clustering into lifestyle cliques because their ego is more in tune with the horizontal than the vertical. Eg. A German manual diesel station wagon enthusiast is not to confused with a French manual diesel station wagon enthusiast.

    Speaking of upper ranks, I think there’s 3 parallel ones. First, you have the upper class of the US and UK. This is the Old Money elite club of family names; “my great great grand father is better than your great great grandfather” one-upmanship; antiques; and country club estates. They have political power far out of proportion for their size. Think Hillary Clinton, G. Bush, G.W.Bush, Ivanka Trump, Bill Ford, and the families that own VW/Toyota/BMW. This group drives boring cars, maybe because their entire family are kidnap risks. Their stanchest defenders are proles, the sour grapes failures who couldn’t cut it into the meritocratic upper middle class.

    Then there’s the upper middle class. People get confused by semantics because most people think that upper class outranks upper middle class just like jumbo shrimp is supposed to be bigger than a pygmy whale. This is the New Money Ivy League and Tiger Mom crowd. It’s a meritocracy that values authority. Think M.B.A., L.L.B., M.D., sales professionals, Wall Street, and entrepreneurs. Think Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Carlos Ghosn, or Howard Hughes. They have economic power out of proportion for their size. They drive flagships,  luxury sedans, and SUV’s.

    Finally, there’s the super proles. Its over representated by entertainers (A-list actors, celebrity athletes, rap stars), but also includes oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs, and media tycoons. They have cultural capital far out of proportion for their size.They keep LVMH, Richemont, Bentley, Ferrari, and Rolls Royce in business. This New Money group also gives New Money a bad name: gold plated Lamborghinis, Escalades with 10,000W stereos, hooped earrings, Ugg boots, bling, and Range Rovers with dubs. Think Paris Hilton, the Beckhams, Mike Tyson, Malcolm Forbes, or insert-reality-tv-”star”-here. 

    Now that I think of it, the super proles really are the most interesting car purchasers.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      “They have economic power out of proportion for their size.”

      The other issue is that much of that old money has been divided so many times that their really isn’t all that much left. They might have a $10 million inheritance, but with a 3% withdrawal rate that’s only 300k a year. That’s police detective married to a CPA money – it’s not living in opulence. Private school for the kids and the property taxes on the summer house they inherited, could very well mean they drive regular cars because that’s all they can afford.

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re in the mood for some really heavy lifting on the topic find a copy of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. The details might be similarly dated, but the underlying social dynamics are timeless.

      http://www.amazon.com/Distinction-Social-Critique-Judgement-Taste/dp/0674212770/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1337883418&sr=8-1

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Hillary Clinton is not from “old money.” Her family was reasonably well-to-do (they owned a small business), but they weren’t extremely rich, nor were they descended from socially prominent ancestors.

      Paris Hilton is as much “old money” as Ivanka Trump is. Her great-grandfather, Conrad Hilton, was the founder of Hilton Hotels. If anything, she is more “old money” than Ivanka Trump, as her great-grandfather was quite famous in his day, and one of great uncles was the first husband of Elizabeth Taylor. The Trumps weren’t that famous before “The Donald.”

      And, as jmo notes, not everyone from an “old money family” is rich today. If the family hasn’t worked to increase the total amount of the family fortune, it gets steadily reduced through inheritances and spending to maintain a certain lifestyle. Some of the Kennedy grandchildren, for example, have the name, but not that much money.

    • 0 avatar
      Philosophil

      There is clearly stratification, but it is certainly not neutral. That such stratification is also accompanied by value hierarchies of various kinds (e.g. wealth, power, prestige and so on) seems difficult to deny. These value hierarchies may not map perfectly to one another in a one-to-one relation, but they certainly overlap in important ways.

      • 0 avatar
        CA Guy

        It is somewhat risky taking too seriously any writing about “class” in America, at least in the sense that Fussell wrote about it. Too much a moving target in the last few decades with the structural changes in the US and world economy. The old political power elite seems to hold up better over time though the sources of money and influence are changing as well (e.g., from the Pamela Harrimans to the Oprah Winfreys/Hollywood power elite). By the way, if you really want to be disillusioned about Paul Fussell, read his ex-wife Betty Fussell’s memoir, My Kitchen Wars (no, it’s not a cookbook). I don’t think his reputation will ever survive that book. As JFK said of Nixon, “No class.”

      • 0 avatar

        “As JFK said of Nixon, “No class.””

        Considering JFK’s and his father’s foibles, he should have known. FWIW, JFK was rich but he wasn’t old money. It’s tempting to say that Joseph Kennedy couldn’t buy class, so he pushed his sons into politics.

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        CA Guy

        As noted above, I haven’t read Fussell’s work and so am not basing my idea of ‘class’ on his account, but on other kinds of things I have read and studied over the years (as well as my own reflections on the topic).

        Interesting points, however, and I actually agree about the “moving target” thing, at least for many of these groups.

  • avatar
    genuineleather

    Class is a satire; only a fool would take every word seriously. There are, however, a fair amount of societal truths in its pages. Fussell declares that rich people have a fetish for all things antiquated and British, that sports with smaller balls indicate a higher social class (golf and squash> basketball and football), and that lesbians prefer drinking at working-class bars while gay men prefer eating exquisite food in exquisite clothes at a gorgeous table with “cleverly immoral” guests.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Satire it may be, but stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

      You forgot Polo…the sport, not the shirt.

      “Class” can also be defined as to how you carry yourself, your decorum, moral standards, but not thinking you are better than anyone else – humble, but with a sense being secure in your own skin, regardless of what others may think, but not delusional. I grew up in a working-poor family, but we lived on a higher level of moral standards than many of our peers and above. Those standards saved me lots of grief when I was young and I continue to maintain and even improve on them as I get older.

    • 0 avatar
      snabster

      Yep, the real joke is on people who read as gospel.

      He did predict the rise of Range Rover. Pretty much everything else on cars was dead wrong.

      I’m wearing two polo shirts today in his honor.

      Old money means you were scared enough by the depression to hide your money throughly.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    “Bonfire of the Vanities’? The best Tom Wolfe stuff was all written between 1965 and 1974. “Tangerine Streamflake Baby” and “From Bauhaus to Our House” are pretty much mandatory for anyone interested in culture. For whatever reasons his non-fiction is far superior to his fiction. Warning though, reading Tom and PJ could lead you down the evil road of libertarianism, and that just ruins all your dreams of social justice….

  • avatar

    Back in the 80s, Los Angeles Magazine did a piece on how to tell new money from old money. Here’s what they had for cars:

    New Money: Red Mercedes-Benz 560SL

    Old Money: Midnight Blue Honda Accord Sedan

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Maybe on the West Coast. Old money in New England always drove Volvo wagons or Saabs. Though if you go back 20 years, Peugeot wagons were HUGE with the old money crowd. And now that Volvo doesn’t make wagons, I don’t know what they are driving. I’m not really a part of that world anymore, though I grew up in it.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        @krhodes1:

        Quite true. One of my uncles was a very prominent St. Louis lawyer, and he and my aunt lived a very low-key life in a fairly modest home, albeit in an exclusive suburb of St. Louis. He drove a Buick Special 4 door sedan – pretty much the equivalent of a Chevelle 300 sedan back in the ’60′s.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree here in new england old money always drove understated (but slightly odd) cars like rovers peugots and into the 80′s with Audis. Most of them now seem to drive toyota land cruisers and lexus es nice but not showy. I work in the marine world and meet these people all the time (I was up at Hinckley a while back) Its funny when the guy with the 10 million dollar boat drives a 10 year old land cruiser and his wife shows up in a genesis.

  • avatar
    mitchw

    My own reading of Fussell began with Wartime. The contrast between the bu//sh+t propaganda of the authorities and the devotion of the grunts on the ground to each other isn’t completely detached from the idiot hoity-toity facades Fussell critiqued in books like Class. It’s usually striking to see the decrepit creatures that emerge from today’s most prestigious cars, or to drive behind some timid professional as they creep through some entrance ramp in their ultimate preening mobile. Mostly for show, and it’s getting tiresome.

  • avatar
    nikita

    “in an era where class and money no longer have anything to do with one another,”

    In the US, they never did. Class is an Old World concept. I get so tired of political references to the “Middle Class” that was created by 20th century industrialization. GM and the UAW did not create a class, it may have created a wage and benefit scale, thats altogether different.

    Nonetheless, you have peaked my interest and I will probably read those books. Educated as an engineer, I still love to read books about the marketing side of business.

    • 0 avatar
      Philosophil

      I’d have to disagree with this. While the U.S (and Canada) certainly don’t have an aristocratic tradition in the European sense, I would argue that there is definitely something akin to a ‘new’ aristocracy here. Class is alive and well in North America, and I think it would be very hard to dispute that.

      • 0 avatar
        snabster

        Can you please explain billy bush (st George’s 90) then?

      • 0 avatar
        Philosophil

        Sorry, but I don’t understand those references (honestly).

      • 0 avatar
        WaftableTorque

        I feel that most would agree that the political dynasties of the Bushes would qualify them as an upper class from birth. The advantage of being upper middle class is the potential for your kids to be upper class, because of privileges available to them through schooling and networking.

        Paul’s work may have been satire, but he nailed it with the observation that different tribes can’t stand each others’ tastes. Bravo for him to put his observations to print.

      • 0 avatar
        nikita

        I was mostly making the point that middle income does not in any way equal middle class, in the Old World sense. A well paid assembly line worker or cop usually does not live the same way as a teacher, for instance. The teacher may in fact make less money, but have a piano in the living room. I grew up middle income, not class. My father was middle income, but grew up poor on a farm and was not educated in the arts, etc.

  • avatar

    When I was in college at Tufts where my parents taught, one day I was driving my father’s 6 year old Ford Falcon wagon around the campus. I stopped to talk to a friend of mine. He says, “Is that the DaveMobile?” in a tone that says he’s impressed that I have a car. No, I say, it’s my father’s. “You mean the head of the economics department drives around in that THING,” he says, his tone implying (correctly) that the Falcon is a POS.

  • avatar
    LennyZ

    The big difference between the out-of-sighters and the nouveau riche is that the nouveau care what you think of them. They will drive expensive cars to show people they have money whereas the OOS don’t care. When you care what the man on the street thinks it is because you are part of that class.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Despite his high opinion of himself, JFK had style, not class.

    • 0 avatar
      kkt

      And Nixon had neither.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s kind of ironic that JFK said that. To begin with, Jack, his brothers and his father used women and were serial philanderers. Joseph Kennedy was a terrible person who resented the fact that as an Irish Catholic whose own father was a bootlegger he’d never be accepted in old money high society. He lived out his social climbing ambitions through his sons (well, when he wasn’t boffing Gloria Swanson or another of his mistresses). Jack also cheated on his wife, in the White House, abused drugs, and just might have burnished the war hero thing (he managed to get his PT boat cut in half in the first place). Mary Jo Kopechne is unavailable, sadly, to comment on Ted Kennedy’s class.

      Richard Nixon may have been a venal politician, but the guy actually had a lot of integrity in his personal life. A remarkably complex character and not the caricature many of us have accepted. I think Nixon was the most fascinating president of the modern era. Opened up China, detente with the Soviets (which probably led to the USSR’s collapse – well, along with Reagan, Thatcher and a couple of Polish guys), started the EPA and a lot of the growth of government, no liberal but no ideological conservative as well. Just a fascinating political person.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    I know I’m going to get crap for this (and I realize I’m stretching the classical sense of the term somewhat), but if we think of class as marking various kinds of value hierarchies among social groups, then I think the clearest example of a ‘class’ distinction in the U.S. (and I would include parts of Canada in this), is along racial lines. The historical differences in the way people are regarded, treated, and so on, and the advantages, disadvantages of belonging to one racial group vs. another (and I’m speaking of multiple groups here, not just two), is still very palpable. One could argue as well that there’s one along gender lines, but that’s another can of worms.

    Other kinds of classes exist as well, but as other posters have pointed out, many of these tend to be constantly shifting and hence less ‘enduring’ than the kinds of class distinctions one might find in Europe. That doesn’t make them any less real, only less ‘traditional’ when compared to the European notion of ‘class.’

    I’d say a good indicator of class distinctions is social mobility. Wherever social mobility is restricted or constrained in ways the make it difficult for a person from one group to enter into another, then you have something akin to a class distinction (as a general rule, now, not as a strict one).

    • 0 avatar
      nikita

      I think you are correct, but it is much less now than in the last century. Jews were pretty much the example of middle class, but WASP society kept them out of the upper crust. You could be a rich banker, but not join the Country Club.

      • 0 avatar

        So Jews made their own country clubs, and when Jews were kept out of particular industries or trades, they started new ones (cf. Hollywood, the scrap industry).

        The GI Bill after WWII opened up the academic world to Jews, Italians, Poles and others that had been kept out of the elite colleges by actual quotas or more “gentleman’s agreement” situations. Colleges had to compete for students’ tuition money paid for by the GI Bill. Also, I don’t recall the his name, but the president of Harvard at the time decided that the school could either be a school for rich kids or a school for the intellectual elite and he chose the latter.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I haven’t read the book, but I’d already gotten the lesson. I’d been told in the early ’80s that the rich drove Chevys and the well to do drove ten year old Chryslers. My father (born in 1907) told me that in the late ’40s, it was Chevys/Fords for the rich, ten year old Packards for the well-to-do. My dad remembers the early ’30s before FDR when the rich didn’t drive – they were chauffeured in Pierce-Arrows, and the well to do drove three year old Nashes. The pattern remains, only the models change.


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