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Megan Hustad on Class in America

Posted on Jun 12, 2009

By Megan Hustad

(Page 2)

She attends Byrn Mawr College and starts to wonder whether the culture of high-priced ennui is for her. “Only our failures marry” was the unofficial Bryn Mawr motto, but Pell—having been raised to think that words like failure simply didn’t apply to her set—is undaunted and she marries a young architect and heads west to San Francisco. Sacramento native Joan Didion once confessed that she didn’t really understand “The Great Gatsby” until she moved East; for Pell, the West beckoned as a place of myth and redemption where the demands of family and caste might dissipate.

The last part of the book offers a glancing overview of Pell’s immersion in early ’70s radical chic. She starts working with assorted anti-capitalists, joins the Prison Law Project and shares a brief kiss with Black Panther Field Marshal George Jackson in the visiting room at San Quentin. This account of Pell’s radicalism is made more compelling in that it didn’t require a fundamental shift of perspective—her world was not reimagined so much as flipped around. Pell at the revolution retained the strident elitism she was born to, only now black, brown and other oppressed peoples occupied the moral superior slots.


book cover


Losing Mum and Pup


By Christopher Buckley


Twelve, 272 pages


Buy the book


book cover


We Used to Own the Bronx


By Eve Pell


Excelsior Editions, 225 pages


Buy the book


Pell eventually realizes that she’s in over her head when a brick thrown through her window lands on her son’s bed. Satisfaction would have to be found elsewhere, and likely after dispensing with self-righteousness and resentment. To her lasting credit, “We Used to Own the Bronx” is a graceful object lesson in how perspective is gained not all at once but by accretion, the reward of years of methodical observation.

In a wistful prologue, Pell admits to lingering mixed feelings about her background. “My relatives include bigots, humanitarians, eccentrics, athletes, and ordinary people, most of them infused with a strong sense that they are aristocrats. Like them, I love it that our family used to own a manor in colonial America.” But “while the family forms a sort of bulwark against time, a base of permanence in a world of flux, it exacts a terrible price.” Her father, perhaps cruelly keen to put a fine point on his disapproval of her antics, disinherits her.

From the evidence assembled in his memoir “Losing Mum and Pup,” Christopher Buckley is entirely more sanguine about love among the ruling class. As the only son of William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley, Christopher grew up having to fight for oxygen with two outsized personalities. William F., a rapaciously productive writer and founding member of the modern conservative movement, was demanding and competitive. When Buckley sent Dad a copy of his latest novel, he received his thanks in a curt e-mail P.S. (“This one didn’t work for me. Sorry.”) His mother, Pat Buckley, was a “beautiful, theatrical, bright as a diamond” hostess who towered over rivals in New York society with her near 6-foot frame and cutting wit. “I’ve got the best legs in the business,” she’d chirp, all the better to preside over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Ball with. “She could have done anything; instead, she devoted herself heart, soul, and body to being Mrs. William F. Buckley.”

“Losing Mum and Pup” does not dwell on childhood. It zeroes in on Buckley’s parents’ last few months, respectively—they died within a year of each other—and how he held their hand as they left this “vale of tears,” to use one of Buckley pere’s preferred formulations.

Buckley did not set out to write a book about class or society, lower- or uppercase S. Yet if one were to take a red pen to all references to his family’s lifestyle—the homes, the boats, the winters in Switzerland—the end result would be far slimmer. “Is it namedropping when they’re your own parents?” he jokes in a self-conscious aside. To point this out is neither to fault Buckley’s skill nor his character; the story doesn’t work without the money.

But it also begs this question: If Pat occupied a different stratum of society, if you removed her from the Costume Ball and scratched her name off Mr. Blackwell’s best-dressed list, would she have been just another mean drunk? Buckley doesn’t detail many accounts of Pat’s alcohol-fueled spasms of unremitting obnoxiousness—if you’re looking for a Portrait of the Mother as a Real Bitch, stick to Pell’s story—but he is unambiguous about their frequency. He took to taking Pat to task in letters, letters that he later discovered she’d stopped opening. (One reads this and thinks he yelled via letter? As keeping up appearances goes, we’re approaching self-parody—or expert mimicry of Evelyn Waugh.)

Pat couldn’t stop herself from lying—a trait Buckley discovered when, age 8, he overheard his mother tell someone that when she was a child, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth would bunk at her family’s house whenever they breezed into Vancouver. As amusing as this anecdote is, indeed we’re told that Pat’s childhood home stretched to an entire city block. Royalty might not have supped there, but they could have; this subtext in Buckley’s book is rarely sub.

Before he spends the second half of the book discussing his father’s final months, Buckley pauses to grumble about the bill for his mother’s memorial service: $20,000 for audio-visual equipment alone. Never mind flowers, catering, or the bore of having to remind Henry Kissinger to keep his eulogy under four minutes.

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By Anarcissie, November 2, 2009 at 7:54 am Link to this comment

On the other hand, if class-based political analysis doesn’t explain personal political relations, as for instance orthodox Marxist analysis generally doesn’t (in my limited experience) then it’s obviously incomplete if not seriously in error.  Sexual, ethnic and other kinds of “identities” do affect people’s lives in important ways including political ones.  Failure to consider them may influence the neglected to cultivate mystical ideas like essentialism.

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By ardee, November 2, 2009 at 4:35 am Link to this comment

For those interested:

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By oyunlar, November 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So-called ‘identity politics’ with its fatuous mantra of ‘the personal is the political’ - which is but another variation on conservative individualism -  may well have done more to confuse the issues in a “socio-economic vacuum” and distract from constructive class-based praxis than rigid Rightest ideology.

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By MarthaA, June 19, 2009 at 10:47 am Link to this comment


The bourgeoisie is a Marxist term and represents the 20% Professional Middle Class toadies to the aristocracy.

I can understand your guessing, because President John F. Kennedy didn’t have any idea there was poverty in America.  When John F. Kennedy was young, he had no idea there was a depression until he was a grown man.  He didn’t know there was such a thing as poor people—he thought everyone was exactly like him until he read Michael Harrington’s book, “The Other America, Poverty in the United States” and learned there are other classes and cultures.

There is a class and culture schism in the United States, caused by differing classes and cultures living apart in their own gated communities, which is what the Elite Capitalist American aristocrats and the Professional Middle Classes and Cultures do, that allows them to claim ignorance, a convenient ignorance, because they wouldn’t live in gated communities to separate themselves from the 70% Majority Common Population, if they really wanted to know; therefore, the claim of a Columbus moment over any part of that which has been actively avoided is meaningless and contrived.

The ruling class is the aristocrats; ruling is about making law and enforcing law.  The aristocracy holds the power over the Professional Middle Class that makes the law and enforces the law, and it is the Common Majority Population that is subject to the law, that is promulgated and enforced without the Common Majority Population being represented. The 70% Majority Common Population is framed and marginalized as the poor in the United States, which doesn’t happen by accident, but is done so that the Professional Middle Class and the Aristocracy’s Elite Capitalist Class will be able to keep power and control; this is the reality of freedom and equality in the United States.

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By Anarcissie, June 18, 2009 at 7:13 pm Link to this comment

MarthaA—in my analysis, I use somewhat different terms, myself.  I see a ruling class consisting of the people who can substantially influence public policy, public decisions, even if its only about a stoplight or a school program.  Just guessing, I’d say that would not amount to much more than one percent of the population.  Surrounding them are numerous servants, family, friends, clients, agents and so forth, and that assemblage, which I call the bourgeoisie, might include 10 per cent although I think that’s on the high side.  Everyone else is really working class and/or poor, even when they have “professional” jobs.  Laughably, I’m supposed to be a “professional” because I write computer programs and don’t get my hands dirty except when I have to fiddle with the loose cables on one of my computers.  But as far as making my way in the world goes, I write the programs they tell me to write, just as the sanitation worker picks up the garbage he’s told to pick up.

It would be good to have a more precise, more detailed analysis of the present state of affairs, though.  As I say, I’m just guessing.

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By MarthaA, June 17, 2009 at 9:02 am Link to this comment


The Elite Capitalist Class as a class and culture includes family and friends, and is roughly equivalent to 30 million that fall in the Elite Capitalist Class and Culture category, the rough equivalent of a homogenous group, when you’re looking at a class, you are looking at a roughly homogenous group.

You will notice that George W. Bush never got below 29% in the polls, which means he never lost his Elite Capitalist Class base and kept most of the 20% Professional Middle Class toadies, which, also, means the percentages are correct. 

The U.S. definitely doesn’t want to talk about class analysis of the U.S. in both economic and cultural terms, because class and cultural analysis between the three distinctly different classes and cultures would bring out the lack of freedom and equality between the differing classes and cultures;  when the United States admits that the middle class does not exist as a singularity, they have admitted that we are not all a free and equal society with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with freedom and justice for all—there are 70% of the people existing apart from the middle class singularity, which if understood, could cause the COMMON MAJORITY to unite and bring constructive change without destructive purpose.

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By Anarcissie, June 17, 2009 at 7:42 am Link to this comment

MarthaA—I think 10% is a high figure for the elite capitalist class.  That would be something like 20 million adults.  While there are certainly that many relatively well-off people, I don’t think they can be considered a power elite—I think, if they make decisions about other people’s lives, they’re mostly pre-programmed decisions.  Unfortunately I don’t know of any good contemporary studies of the overall power relationships in American society, from which we could get a good class analysis of the U.S. in both economic and cultural terms.

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By Me, June 16, 2009 at 7:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Richie Rich writes a tell-all memoir.

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By MarthaA, June 16, 2009 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment

There are three diverse and distinct classes and cultures in the United States; the 10% American Aristocrat’s Elite Capitalist Class & Culture, the 20% New Professional Middle Class and Culture of toadies to the elite capitalists and the 70% COMMON MAJORITY CLASS & CULTURE, which includes everyone who isn’t sitting on a cushion; this post provides a small amount of insight into the 10% American aristocratic class and culture.  CLASS is a an entire group of persons alike in economic and living standards and CULTURE being that what classes and people do or have done that is passed down from generation to generation.  Each class and culture is a different society in the over all national society. 

You can find the culture that the aristocrat class, professional middle class and government pass down through control of laws and from licenses, fees, permits, and numerous taxes of the 70% COMMON MAJORITY CLASS; e.g., institutions, court houses, libraries, colleges, schools, water towers, highways, infrastructure, but all the common majority class and culture pass down is recipes, religion, consumption, working life, debt and ignorance, which is all they have to pass down, because the Professional Middle Class, the American Aristocracy and the class and culture of the government takes everything else, never the less, the 70% COMMON MAJORITY POPULATION is a class and culture.

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By Anarcissie, June 14, 2009 at 6:46 pm Link to this comment

Is it worth arguing with Thatcher on the no-such-thing-as-society idea?  It seems singularly dumb to me.  In fact, I imagine if I cornered Thatch and forced the question on her, she would say she misspoke herself.

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By P. T., June 14, 2009 at 5:00 pm Link to this comment

Apropos Lady Thatcher, society has a large capacity for negatively impacting the individual and the family.  A case in point is the unemployment resulting from central banks maintaining high interest rates in order to control inflation, protect interest-bearing assets, and weaken unions and the welfare state.

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By whyzowl1, June 13, 2009 at 6:18 pm Link to this comment

“The rich are the scum of the earth in every country.”
                  G. K. Chesterton

Never forget it.

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By Mary Ann McNeely, June 13, 2009 at 1:28 pm Link to this comment

In Fritz Lang’s film “The Big Heat”, gun moll Gloria Graham tells Glenn Ford, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.  Believe me, rich is better.”

These people would obviously agree.

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By Selby Anderson, June 12, 2009 at 8:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That should be *vale* (not veil) of tears, vale being a poetic form of valley.

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By P. T., June 12, 2009 at 6:36 pm Link to this comment

I have long wondered what ever became of the Pells.  Back in the 1600s, we were their neighbors.  We—the sachem Sowheag and son Tarramuggus—used to own the Connecticut River Valley from Hartford down to Long Island Sound.  The latter fellow’s daughter, Rebecca, married my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Beckley (he went native).

I remember reading in Dick Cavett’s autobiography that there were guys when he was going to Yale who could trace their ancestry back almost to the first lungfish that crawled out on land.  wink

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By ardee, June 12, 2009 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

Well, as I was born in the Bronx I guess I now know who my landlords were. I am no fan of aristocracy, or elitism of any kind actually. Entitlements are fine when the meaning is confined to social safety nets , but an accident of birth resulting in a life of parasitic leisure is the dream of far too many and the curse of many societies.

The Great Gatsby was a tragedy after all.

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By prole, June 12, 2009 at 3:59 pm Link to this comment

The boundries between family and society and the overlap of class on each are not always easy to limn - or to ignore. Whether or not Margaret Thatcher’s “pro-family” pronouncements” in a brief interview in Women’s Own magazine “have left a stain on the literary memoir’s reputation”, it’s unlikely that even Iron Lady was so brittle as to fully believe that “when it came to forging one’s way in the world, we were all mere products of our families—with no greater social forces to credit or fault for our successes or lack thereof.” In that Oct.‘87 interview, Thatcher’s own equivocation belies such easy conclusions. She was elected, of course, to counter what some had seen as a mushrooming welfare state, so she was in part appealing to her political base, for better or worse.  But at the same time, Thatcher wasn’t quite foolish enough to deny either “social forces” or government benefits.  As she explained in that interview, “...and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better! There is also something else I should say to them: ‘If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit’.”  And she contines, “But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society”. But she also added, “There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” Whether you call it ‘society’ or “living tapestry of men and women”, even the reactionary Thatcher knows there is something larger than a family out there. But in grappling with the dilemma, she was perhaps no more successful in articulating it than Pell or Buckley, all in their own different ways.  Instead Lady Thatcher lapsed off into inscrutable vagaries about how “we now realise that the great problems in life are not those of housing and food and standard of living. When we have got all of those… You are left with the problems of human nature, and a child who has not had what we and many of your readers would regard as their birthright—a good home—it is those that we have to get out and help, and you know, it is not only a question of money as everyone will tell you; not your background in society. It is a question of human nature and for those children it is difficult to say:‘You are responsible for your behaviour!’ because they just have not had a chance and so I think that is one of the biggest problems and I think it is the greatest sin.”  While this as well,  may show “how inadequate Thatcher’s conception of human agency is”, it may also show how inadequate too is Hustad’s characterization of Thatcher’s conception as being simply reducible to a curtly dismissive “families don’t operate in a socioeconomic vacuum” ‘ya know! But perhaps “without that layer of brash self-assurance”, Hustad’s review wouldn’t read so well. In fact, it might be better to remind many on the Left of this simple truth, rather than Mrs. Thatcher. So-called ‘identity politics’ with its fatuous mantra of ‘the personal is the political’ - which is but another variation on conservative individualism -  may well have done more to confuse the issues in a “socio-economic vacuum” and distract from constructive class-based praxis than rigid Rightest ideology.

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By Anarcissie, June 12, 2009 at 7:08 am Link to this comment

These books sound interesting.  Unfortunately, they are used here to reinforce the erroneous notion that a ruling class, specifically the ruling class of the United States, is necessarily hereditary.  There have been societies in which high birth was crucial to achieving great political power, but the United States is not one of them, and while having rich and powerful parents helps one climb up the pyramid, it doesn’t guarantee anything.  I would like to see a book that contained real class analysis of the United States, based on facts rather than anecdotes, but I don’t know of one.  These two books are, as the hung-over Marxist said, indeed conservative, and if we learn anything about the ruling class from them, it will be an inadvertent glimpse.

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