snobberyFirst published July 14, 2002

Have you read Epstein’s “Snobbery: The American Version”? No? Well, dahling, you simply must!

A fairly typical, if exaggerated, display of snobbery there. The probing query that leaves off the author’s first name, implying that everyone (who is anyone) knows which Epstein is referred to. The mock astonishment upon finding out the interviewee’s ignorance.

Then the kicker: the recommendation that puts both parties in their place, the one superior with knowledge and up-to-dateness for having read the book, the other much lower for being in the ignorant position of having to be told what to read.

One picks up Joseph Epstein’s new book with a burning question of one’s own: Am I a snob? The short answer is, yes, you are. But rest assured, everyone is to some degree, at least in the way Epstein defines the term. “The essence of snobbery,” he writes, elaborating on Virginia Woolf’s definition, “is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.” By that measure, even if you’ve only looked at someone else’s potbelly and thanked God yours wasn’t as large, you’re a snob.

Snobs, then, come in all shapes and sizes. There are upward-looking snobs (out to impress their betters) and downward-looking snobs (out to keep their inferiors down). Similarly, snobs come from every social class. There are name-droppers and status-seekers, wine snobs, food snobs, music snobs, clothing snobs, car snobs, school snobs, virtually-anything- you-can-think-of snobs. Epstein coins terms to name certain varieties of snobs: “Virtucrat” is one of my favorites, denoting “a man or a woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.” I know a few of these people.

At the roots of snobbery, Epstein writes, “is the snob’s hope that others will take him at his own (doubtless) extravagant self-valuation. It is his high if shaky opinion of himself that he needs to have confirmed, and at frequent intervals.”

While that may not sound particularly like anyone you know, every one of us probably has a strain of it running in our blood (blue or otherwise). Epstein quotes Groucho Marx’s famous remark — “I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” — to good effect here. Though admittedly amusing, and containing a kernel of truth, in the end its “truth quotient” isn’t very high. “However low our opinion of ourselves, most of us nonetheless would be pleased to have been found acceptable in certain quarters.” When all is said and done, we’re more like Sally Fields than Groucho, thrilled to find that someone likes us, really likes us, whether we deserve it or not.

Epstein’s approach makes “Snobbery” a smooth and witty read. A master of the so-called familiar essay (he has published several collections), he brings himself into the center of the discussion, admitting and examining his own snobberies. (He has a weakness for $70 bow ties.) Many of his other examples of snobbery come from observing friends, colleagues (Epstein is a university English professor) and people he once had dinner with. Dismissing the work of sociologists, he avoids academic discussion and academic writing. In fact, apart from his own observations, this book’s meat has been largely culled from a lifetime of voracious novel reading. Henry James and Edith Wharton are perhaps its most frequently quoted authorities.

Much of the book is devoted to examining the shape that snobbery takes today, in the wake of the collapse of the old WASP aristocracy. It ain’t what it used to be. With class lines ever blurrier, fashions dictated by street gangs, politics shaped by celebrities, and a truly multi-ethnic culture, the snob hardly knows which way to look anymore. If snobbery is the art of demonstrating one’s superiority, as Epstein asserts, it is easier to do so in a clearly hierarchical society.

Take name-dropping, for instance, one of the snob’s favorite pastimes. These days, the snob must match the name dropped to the audience addressed, otherwise he is likely to find that the name gets him nowhere. As someone who has dropped the name Zubin Mehta to blank stares, I know this to be all too true.

Accused of being a snob myself on more than one occasion (and thought one, no doubt, on many more), I turned to “Snobbery” for some answers and got them. It turns out that just because I am a classical music-loving, cigar-smoking, port-drinking, New Yorker-reading, golf playing, red meat-avoiding white male with one child, I am not necessarily a snob, appearances to the contrary. “Delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant,” Epstein writes, in a single sentence both getting me off the hook and slaying my enemies.

A good book, then, by my estimation, though not without its minor flaws. “Snobbery” does, at times, seem a little too bookish. An extremely agile quoter, Epstein can occasionally throw in too many (a form of snobbery in itself). Thus the author who once described essay writing as “taking a line out for a walk” can leave one wondering who is walking whom.

What’s more, an entire area of snobbery — reverse snobbery, a rampant disease — is almost completely ignored. Sure, a father who sends his son or daughter to Harvard may still score snob points with his buddies, as Epstein says, but the son or daughter who goes there will more likely run into reverse snobbery: They will be thought to have made it because of Daddy’s connections or money, or, if they are a member of an ethnic minority, because of affirmative action initiatives.
Ultimately, though, Epstein opens up the subject so widely, and writes about it so perceptively and entertainingly, that the reader becomes a snob-detector himself. It’s a book that will make you look at your neighbor in a different light. Be the first one on your block to read it.