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x marks the class

Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide through the American Status System is a tongue-in-cheek, but also serious, look at the markers that reveal our class: the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the magazines on our coffee tables, whether we have a coffee table, our houses and yards, even how we sit in cars, and much more. Fussell asserts the existence of 9 classes in the United States:

Top out-of-sight
Upper
Upper middle
—————–
Middle
High proletarian
Mid-proletarian
Low proletarian
—————–
Destitute
Bottom out-of-sight

He claims that though money is important as a class marker, “it’s less money than taste and knowledge and perceptiveness that determine class.” That is the purpose of the lines in the above scheme; they delineate a more general class designation: “highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow” (I’m not kidding). Included in the book is a “quiz” you can take to help you determine what class you are in (just in case you’re not sure). The quiz is a little dated (1983), but you’ll still get the idea.

In addition to the nine classes, Fussell posits a “category X”—a non-class for those that “discover” that they can “escape from class”; i.e., he is saying you can opt out of the class system in our country if you do the right things. The examples of “X people” he mentions are mostly artists, scientists, and academics, among which, it shouldn’t surprise you, Fussell claims membership.

Despite the sometimes offensive generalizations and the pat on the back to those intelligent, creative, and courageous individualists (please insert as much irony as possible here), who, like himself, have rejected class, the book deserves props for talking about class at all. It’s a difficult topic in a society that frequently considers itself “classless.” In addition, I think the nine classes Fussell creates make sense, although I wouldn’t necessarily keep his names for them. Finally, his point about attitude and style being at least as important as money in determining one’s class is an important one. It certainly rings true in my personal experience and it is extremely salient as we think about the impact of class in our daily lives, our educational system, and our society as a whole.

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