The Class Project 2: Who I Am


When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about class.

This was partly because I was growing up in a quiet New England town where it wasn’t much of an issue. Pretty much the entire town was white middle-class folks.

I think I was also just a little slow to pick up on some of this stuff. I was in high school before it really registered that there were any ethnic divisions in town, for example. (The major division was Catholic/other; the Catholics then subdivided into Irish and Italian, and the others mostly into Armenian and Yankee, with a scattering of Jews, blacks, and other oddities (like an Argentine family I knew) who usually-but-not-always got counted with the Yankees.)

(If you’re not from New England it may seem weird that the small minorities got counted as old-line Yankees, but they did. Hard to explain if you aren’t familiar with New England attitudes, but it basically comes down to Yankees thinking of themselves as “everybody else,” the default, not part of a specific group, so that any isolated families, too small to constitute their own group, got included.)

(And all the divisions were very low-key, in any case.)

Anyway, I didn’t think about it much, and more or less accepted the “classless society” contention. In the 1950s that was more or less the official doctrine, at least in New England. That was what Sheckley’s story was mocking — and really, it was reading that story when I was about thirteen that I first began to understand that the U.S. is not classless, that even my hometown wasn’t. There’d been evidence before that, but it hadn’t really registered with me.

I was a little slow.

I’d known that my own family was considered a little weird, but I hadn’t thought of it in terms of class. In fact, I still didn’t think of it in class terms for years; if you asked me what class we were, I’d have said middle class without giving it much thought; going by income and status, that’s more or less correct. Going by other markers, it isn’t.

When I read Fussell’s Class — well, when I skimmed it, really, as I didn’t read it through — I concluded that we were “X-class.” After all, my father was a college professor, which seemed to fit, and we were all a pretty brainy bunch.

Except that when I was at Princeton I met some real X-class people. Again, it took me awhile to realize this, and to notice that the fact that they were not much like me and mine, and to draw any conclusion from that.

I also met real upper-class people.

It took awhile, but it eventually sank in that in a lot of ways I fit better with the upper class.

Oh, not perfectly. For one thing, my family didn’t have enough money anymore for me to have the full set of upper-class attitudes. But it began to seem as if any time I heard a discussion of class attitudes, I’d react to the upper-class position with, “Well, yeah, of course,” and the others with, “That’s dumb.”

I dunno, maybe I’m just a poseur. This is one of those things where it’s really hard to say; class is so nebulous in America. But there are things that I’d just thought of as normal that, well… aren’t.

Like the fact that we owned a mansion.

I mean, it’s not a very big mansion, and because of where it is it’s worth less than the suburban split level I live in now, but still, it’s a mansion. My great-great grandfather built it around 1840. It’s been rented out since 1939.

And there are other legacies still in the family. I have books on my office shelves that have been in the family for 150 years; there’s an Oriental rug in the basement that’s been in use for ninety. There’s a set of eighty-year-old hand-blown Carder Steuben dessert ware in the kitchen.

That’s just some of the stuff I walked off with; most of the family heirlooms wound up with my younger sisters.

And then there’s the fact that I went to Princeton. Which was not accomplished on the basis of grades; mine were okay, and my SAT scores were excellent, and I had some other stuff going for me, but the reason I was accepted is that my father went to Princeton, and his father.

It took me the longest time to realize that most people’s grandfathers didn’t go to college anywhere, let alone the Ivy League.

Let alone grandmothers. Mine went to Smith. Seven Sisters, rather than Ivy League, but for the Class of 1901 the Ivy League was all-male.

So it gradually sank in that my family had been upper class once.

They weren’t fabulously wealthy or anything; the family fortune was about a million and a half at the start of the 20th century. Uninflated 1900 dollars, so that was definitely rich, but we were never in Rockefeller’s league. Most of it went in the 1929 crash, though, and then when my father was orphaned he blew a big chunk of his inheritance putting himself through Princeton, getting a doctorate from Harvard, and buying a house straight out of grad school. Raising six kids took care of the rest; my share, when my mother died, came to about forty grand and a few shares of GM stock — and the mansion in Pennsylvania and a bunch of books and rugs and china and old photos and stuff.

So we weren’t rich. And for a long time I took for granted that that meant we weren’t upper class.

Except now I’ve reconsidered.

10 thoughts on “The Class Project 2: Who I Am

  1. further point: some of the things you mention making you upper class would just make you regular middle class where I am (Austria/Germany). I mean the rug and the table-ware and the books and stuff. Doesn’t everybody have that sort of thing lying around? Well no, but in “my circles” it seems like it. As in non-richt college-educated people.

  2. Remember, though, that most American families are descended from relatively recent immigrants, and haven’t stayed in the same area for very long. A few keepsakes from a generation or two or three back aren’t unusual at all, but it’s more likely to be Grandpa’s shotgun or a family bible than expensive glassware or 19th-century textbooks.

  3. By the way, thank you for providing the first evidence that anyone’s reading this. I took so long to post Part 2 because I was waiting for comments on Part 1.

  4. heh, no worries.

    just was a thought that occured to me while reading your piece. These cross-cultural things tend to interest me.

  5. …If, with 6 kids in the family, your ineritance still came out to $40k, a house, and some high-quality stock…

    Compared to the vast majority of families in the US, yours WAS rich. No, not Rockefeller rich, or Warren Buffett rich, or Kennedy rich, not by a long shot. But not-quite-a-year’s income for one child out of 6, and then a big house is considerable equity on top of that. This is a rough guess, not a detailed analysis, but my guess is that it’s a shoo-in your family is/was in the top 20% for wealth.

    When you consider the number of families which MUST have two steady incomes or lose where they live, or for whom medical insurance is entirely a make-or-break issue of solvency — you are in a very comfortable position.

  6. We were reasonably well off, yes.

    There weren’t six equal shares in the estate, though; one of my sisters was dead, and I was the only one who inherited a house. $40K, 40 shares of GM, and a bunch of personal property was one-fifth of the estate.

    That might have put us in the top 20%, I honestly don’t know. Top half, definitely.

    I don’t consider that “rich” by American standards, but “rich” is one of those tricky words where there’s no real agreement on where it starts.

  7. RE: being ‘rich’

    With that type of inheritance, and not thinking you are ‘that type of rich’ goes to show how wealthy you are compared to the lower 90% of Americans. You may not be a Rockefeller or Kennedy, but to someone scratching out 27-30K a year, who can barely pay for gas, I’m sure they’d take your type of rich any day.


  8. Again, we were well off, and I’ve never denied that. I just don’t consider that the same as rich.

    Median household income in the U.S. is around $48,000 — that is, half the population lives in households that make more than that. Admittedly, a lot of those are two- or three-income households, but I still doubt very much that 90% of Americans are “scratching out” a living under $30K.

    Two-thirds, maybe, but not 90%.

    I should perhaps point out that most of my $40,000 inheritance was my share of selling the family home in the suburbs of Boston; my parents never had anything like $200,000 in savings, but they’d bought a big, run-down old house in 1958 and fixed it up.

    There was also the fact that my father was able to buy a good-sized life insurance policy after he found out he had terminal cancer — it was offered through his employer and had no rule against pre-existing conditions. (I doubt any insurance company would make that mistake now, but they did in 1980.)

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