Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Class Traitor?

Little hussy with no sense of family identity or loyalty to “her people”

This is probably one of the worst things you could imply about a person in the American South. A recent, inconsequential Facebook exchange, involving a reflection on my middle-class upbringing, provoked a most unexpected, vituperative and, thankfully, private--or else all my Facebook “friends” would be having a good laugh at me now--email. The offended family member wondered how I could consider an upbringing that included trips to Europe “before adulthood!” “exclusive” private schools and membership “from both sides of my family!” in “the most exclusive country club in Atlanta” middle class?

My entire life I considered myself a member of the middle class. Was this a false delusion? Was I, in fact, a class-traitor--a phony and a hypocrite who wouldn’t recognize the American middle class if it were two feet from my nose?

Why middle class? To begin with, in the US, you can’t be upper class without money. Whatever financial resources my antecedents possessed, had mostly disappeared by the time my cousins and I came around. It’s not that the money was completely gone—it helped pay for my sister’s and my private schools, summer camps, or trips to Disneyworld or cruises with our grandparents. However, money had ceased to be a comforting presence you could count on, with an air of nonchalance--described by “The Preppy Handbook,” as “the golden retriever snoozing by the fireplace: nice to have around, but not exactly something you make a big deal about.”

Ironically, the family’s most recognizable “middle class” trait, reinforced by its increasing distance from the flush days, was the need to demonstrate that we occupied a better plane of existence than the ordinary mass of humanity (whom we greatly feared sinking back into). This tendency manifested itself in little observations such as: so and so is “as common as pig’s tracks,” “country people don’t eat lamb,” “fine bone china,” “leaded crystal,” “cradle-born Episcopalian,” “the Junior League,” “debutante,” “all the men in our family are SAEs”, “only tacky people (whose marriage we haven’t been invited to) get married during Lent,” etc.

On the contrary, my limited experience reading about, and interacting with the Personages of this World (or, more frequently, their children)—where my presence was as remarked upon, to borrow a phrase from Neal Stephenson, as “a mouse turd in the pepper”--is that the upper class does not need to point out to you that they occupy a better plane of existence. This fact is blindingly obvious.

"Wait ‘till I get my money right"

Love the refrain from "Can't tell me 'nuthin" by Kanye West. The origin of my improved circumstances, in the plumbing of the Internet, is obscure enough not to attract much attention outside the middleware ghetto. In fact, the one moment of maximum public awareness was when a Personage—I’ll call him Genghis Khan—did take sufficient notice of my husband and our company to upgrade us from “mouse turd in the pepper,” to “mouse,” and, consequently--attempt to squash us. Surviving that and fading back to obscurity has been a good thing.

Growing up among inconsequential provincial snobbery, cradled in a family mythology emphasizing our participation in Great World Events and our proximity to Great Personages of this World--sometimes based on fact and, barring that, convenient coincidence--has somewhat immunized me to my current, improved circumstances. Like the French comedian, Coluche, I don’t consider myself a “nouveau riche,” but rather an “ancien pauvre.” Whatever penny-penching or profligate habits I may have, they, like my identity, were developed long ago.

I hate the word “networking”: cultivating people because you feel they can be of use to you. Thankfully, no one tries to flatter me; I would respect them less if they did--to be so deprived of self-respect to flatter somebody as inconsequential as myself. As for the occasional person who tries to cultivate me to get to my husband (or rather my husband’s money), the irony is that I spent the greater part of my career trying to shield people from my husband. If they get to him, they get what they deserve—he has very specific opinions about fools.

There’s a French expression: “pour vivre heureux, vivons caches.” This translates to “To live happy, live hidden.” The family’s picaresque repertory contained many cautionary tales, where instances of extraordinary success were reduced by unfavorable World Catastrophes—the French Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban Revolution (less mention was given to latter generations’ propensity to coast off the prior generation’s success, and spend down the capital). Of all these stories, my favorite was the tale of René Madec. Madec began his career as a humble cabin boy in the French East India Company; fought for the French in their ill-fated attempt to establish a foothold in Pondicherry; sometimes French corsair, sometimes British corsair; taken prisoner by the British, he deserted from the Bengal army and became military instructor to various Indian princes, rose to rank of Nawab and, later, king of Deccan, in the service of Great Mogul Shah Alam II. He accumulated great wealth, married a "descendant of Genghis Khan," before returning in triumph to his native France. Alas, as he was transporting a portion of his treasure back to France, his boat encountered a storm and was sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Mostly I’m grateful to my family their role in my sense of identity, however twisted it might be, and for their story-telling ability. One day, I hope to perfect this art myself. In the meantime, I’m off to learn more about l’Emmerdeur, the incomparable Jack Shaftoe, and his lady love, Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm and Arcachon in "The System of the World," book three of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.

Quotes: "The Story of your life is not the story of your life, it's your story." From my sister-in-law, Carmela, would be grateful to anybody who can help me source this one.

"Success is a complication in the disease of ambition"--attributed to her father by JS Van Buskirk in Facebook update, possibly source-able elsewhere, as well.

3 comments:

Bill Burke said...

Nat, I think you'll know whether or not you're "middle class" by the reaction you get from your family because your new circumstances.

aya said...
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Anonymous said...

John Barth wrote: "the story of your life is not your life; it's your story" (although he was quoting an adage). http://tinyurl.com/kqxfxu