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Megan Hustad on Class in America
Posted on Jun 12, 2009
By Megan Hustad
This grousing is expertly relayed and entirely disingenuous. Buckley’s delight in his family’s social position is palpable. The service was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s
Losing Mum and Pup
By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 272 pages
We Used to Own the Bronx
By Eve Pell
Excelsior Editions, 225 pages
The second half of the book is genuinely moving. Buckley takes unalloyed pleasure in his father’s professional accomplishments, his energy and drive. Buckley has faced criticism for spilling intimacies which his parents might have preferred kept private, but “Christo” has done right by them in this respect: “Losing Mum and Pup” asserts that even when they acted badly, it was more finely articulated bad behavior than that indulged in by lesser mortals.
Asserting that only a grand [read: monied] scale is sufficient to contain its subject’s ambitions and appetites is, of course, what every memoir that originates in the American upper classes does. It’s as if being rich isn’t enough—one must, as Buckley says of his mother’s habit of mendaciousness, be “really, really good at it.” In a talk about the book at the 92nd Street Y, Buckley jokingly referred to himself as the “Frank McCourt of Park Avenue” before suggesting that no one should feel too sorry for him, and indeed, after the fifth mention of Henry Kissinger, one doesn’t.
That Buckley found sufficient consolation in his family’s elite status while Pell could not tells us something about their individual personalities and something about their families. It also tells us how inadequate Thatcher’s conception of human agency is; families don’t operate in a socioeconomic vacuum. Health and wealth can absorb hurt, mistakes, gross errors in judgment, even render chronic alcoholism relatively consequence-free. There are exceptions, of course—and again, Pell’s book offers the clearer picture of the price exacted by extreme status anxiety.
“My grandfathers were the best of the best in their league of the well-born,” Pell writes, tongue-half-in-cheek. One closes both memoirs with the creeping sensation that such feudal fictions were handed down because they proved absolutely necessary. Without that layer of brash self-assurance, those boarding school uniforms didn’t wear so well.
Megan Hustad, the author of “How to Be Useful,” is writing a book about class in America.
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