Paul Fussel, Class: A Guide through the American Status System (Simon & Schuster, November 1983)
Reissued in paperback by Touchstone in 1992
Called "a fine prickly pear of a book" by Wilfrid Sheed in The Atlantic, Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System is an irreverent, uppity and generous survey of American class distinctions. Drawing from scholarly texts from de Toqueville, Whitman, Orwell, Terkel and scores of others, as well as his own fastidious and uncompromising notation of Americans' habits of dress, manners, attitudes and pastimes, Fussell issues a systematic analysis of American classes that is informative and, if you're not offended by blatant snobbery, enjoyable.
Although he gives credit to older two-, three- or five-class systems, Fussel proposes nine American classes, which he divides into three subgroups: Top out-of-sight, upper and upper middle in the first, middle, high prole, mid-prole and low prole in the second and destitute and bottom out-of-sight in the third. Almost everyone in America, he proposes, wants to be upper middle, whether they admit it or not.
Fussell's method is to observe and categorize Americans of different classes to the minutest detail: "when you look at a person you don't see 'Roman Catholic' or 'liberal': you see 'hand-painted necktie' or 'crappy polyester shirt'; you hear parameters or in regards to." What follows are long descriptions of, for example, the importance of natural fibers to the upper middle class, the middle-class love of compliment giving, and the tendency of high proles to associate with brand names. Fussell also turns his discerning eye to high profile Americans at the time like Ronald Reagan or Dan Rather.
Paul Fussell is an English professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the author of several books, including BAD or The Dumbing of America (1991), Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (2002) and, most recently, The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 (2003). His The Great War and Modern Memory won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award in 1976.
Received well upon publication in 1983, Class is an eye-opener and a fun read. As Sheed notes, "anyone who reads it will automatically move up a class."
December 5, 2002 review of Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear in Philadelphia Citypaper
February 1997 Atlantic interview and review of Fussellís memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little, Brown, 1996)
August 2, 1989 Chicago Tribune review of Class