A few weeks ago, while leafing through the latest Esquire, I came across the sad tale of the demise of Studio 54. “All the poor slobs that couldn’t get into New York’s hot disco are soon going to be let in,” the table of contents revealed. “And whom will they find inside? Themselves.”

This seemed too good to miss. Inside, the author, one Taki, explained that:

the bisexuals from the suburbs, the would-be beautiful people, the Biancas from the Bronx, the shameless celebrity spotters, and all the other twitchy-nosed nocturnal lowlifes who lay fruitless seige to the doors of Studio 54—to say nothing of the occasional full-fledged polyester duo from Cleveland or Atlanta—are about to have a pleasant surprise, followed by a not so pleasant one.

The good news is that their long vigil is over. Soon they will be able to join the freaks, transvestites, groupies, and professional gays who at present are masquerading as the in crowd at Steve Rubell’s version of capitalist decadence.

The bad news is that the truly in crowd, those people who do not rely on PR men to place their names in tomorrow’s gossip columns, has been staying away from the place as if it were Cambodia. . . . The news that a place is no longer in travels slowly. The change comes as subtly as the aging process. By the time the not so beautiful ones find out, the glitterati are long gone. Then the game begins all over again. Carrot, stick, hope, humiliation, and finally disappointment. Ironically, a disco makes its greatest profits when the slobs are all allowed in at last.

What struck me as I read this was how unremarkable it seemed—how smoothly such naked, nose-thumbing snobbery has slipped into the literary and cultural world. That same Esquire carried John Simon’s latest “Language” column, designed, like all the rest in the series, not to teach or inform, but rather to humiliate Simon’s chosen victim in the most pettifogging way. In this installment, Simon’s purpose was particularly ill-concealed, since his target was not misleading political rhetoric or mindless sociological folderol, but rather two books on English usage that were, Simon admitted, generally quite valuable. The authors of such works might have expected support from Simon, if concern about the language were really the reason that he writes. Instead, they too were subject to the brittle putdown.

This spring also saw a new edition of Nancy Mitford’s “U and non-U” (the publisher, perfectly, was Debrett’s Peerage). John Simon’s linguistic discriminations, while mean-spirited, are at least correct, whereas Mitford’s division of usage into U (upper class) and non-U (the sweating strivers) is entirely arbitrary, and therefore more effectively snobbish—and, while tongue-in-cheek on the surface, it is in deadly earnest underneath. H.B. Brooks-Baker, the managing director of Debrett’s, helpfully explains in the introduction to the book that “Being U not only means that one speaks with the right accent, but it also means that a person must choose the right word or phrase.” When “right” means meat course (from the American-U list) and “wrong” is entree (American non-U), or the English-U “expensive” trumps non-U “costly,” we have reached the soul of snobbery, where the discriminations not only lack common sense but are deliberately divorced from it.

But the greatest recent snob story was that told last February by The New Yorker‘s sainted John McPhee. His profile of the pseudonymous Chef Otto, who cooked the world’s finest meals from the fastness of his country-inn retreat, got more attention than any other story in the magazine in years, because with the story McPhee threw down the snob’s plainest challenge: I know a place better than the places you know. (A few weeks later, The New Yorker ran a William Hamilton cartoon, perhaps inspired by this very article, in which two urbane couples glared hotly across a restaurant table at each other, one of the men saying, “Look, Finnegan. The great meals you’ve had are no greater than the great meals we’ve had.”) The general response to the story was that of the retaliatory put-down; Mimi Sheraton of The New York Times finally ran Chef Otto to earth somewhere in Pennsylvania, ate one of his meals, and then declared—aha!—that he too could be put down: the food was no good. This kind of twist must have been particularly painful for the chef whom McPhee quoted in observations such as these:

“Waiters are contemptible unless they prove they are not.” This is McPhee speaking, who then quotes Otto. “‘The less he can afford the meal, the more hostile he’s going to be.’ Otto once tried to correct a captain’s pronunciation of ‘Montrachet.’ He said, ‘Both t’s are silent.’

“The captain said, ‘No. One pronounces the first t.’

“‘Are you French Canadian?’ said Otto….”

Otto says, ‘They want to eat boring things. They actually want to eat stodgy stuff. Marinated mushrooms, you know, are for nowhere people. I serve baked potatoes because I’m tired of people saying I’m too cheap to serve them. They bitch if you give them something else.’ He makes Swedish-fried potatoes, which are cut in ganglion strips and cooked in very hot fat, where they enmesh in a filament mass that comes up golden and crisp. Yet the nurdier clients want foil.”

Amid all the nurds with their foilwrapped potatoes and the slobs waiting outside Studio 54, there is a real question here: how the combination of the put-down and the fashionable pose became second nature in our modern cultural life. Calvin Trillin illustrated just how deeply those roots have sunk a few years back, in one of his New Yorker pieces collected in American Fried: “It is common for an American city to be vaguely embarrassed about its true delights. . . . In most American cities, a booster is likely to insist on defending the place to outsiders in terms of what he thinks of as the sophisticated standards of New York.” In terms of restaurants, this means that the visitor will be steered away from the local barbecue or chili joint that may offer the best food in town and instead taken to a fancy French restaurant. “Its name will be something like La Maison de la Casa House, continental cuisine. The food will be continental, but will taste as if the continent they had in mind was Australia. What is saddest about a visitor sitting in the continental cuisine palace and chewing on what an honest menu would have identified as Frozen Duck a l’Orange Soda Pop is that he is likely to have passed a spectacular restaurant on the way over.”

There is a touch of reverse snobbery even in the estimable Trillin (you top your friend’s tales of the unspoiled village in Bhutan with yours about the unspoiled burger joint in Omaha), but in general he is preaching a gospel that should be more widely heard: that it is worth making sharp, cruel distinctions among things, as the snobs do, but unlike snobbish put-downs, they should be based on differences in quality, rather than on the simple desire to sneer. If you want to eat good food in most American towns, you should head for the barbecue stand or the home-cooking restaurant, because the food is simply better there than the reheated frozen fish at La Maison de la Casa House.

A Trait Worth Suppressing

Snobbery, of course, did not suddenly spring into existence with Chef Otto or even John Simon; to read about the Buddenbrook family, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, or the social circles that Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Stendhal’s Julian Sorel strived to enter, or Raskolnikov’s mother in Crime and Punishment, is to know that snobs worse than those now commonly observed bestrode the earth before Nancy Mitford uttered her first fruity vowel. But so, too, in the person of the Marquis de Sade did an inborn weakness of human nature reach its full flower, and still we consider sadism a trait worth suppressing. If snobbery is not new, it is nonetheless destructive, and it is worth looking into the roots of its current recrudescence.

The particular brand of snobbery (and its close relative, the fear of the put-down) that has given us La Maison… etc., all over the country seems at least partly a side effect of post-World War II affluence. Before the war, most French and Italian restaurants in this country were what Greek restaurants are today, and Indian restaurants were ten years ago: places to get good and sometimes excellent food at cheap prices in unpretentious settings. With the beginnings of mass travel to Europe after the war, people began to discover that not all French food was the same, that there were such things as three-star restaurants in Paris and their even-more-exclusive rivals in Lyons, that there were good and not-so-good places to get Florentine lacquerware or to rent a villa in Spain. Americans who visited Europe finally understood what the Europeans had in mind when they wrote about the undifferentiated and unhistorical American nation, where every gesture was not imbued with twelve centuries’ worth of overtone and connotation, where people need not make their way by minute understanding of the gradations among families, places, cuisines. To understand these things was to know something that Mr. Normal back in Omaha did not know, and to take a substantial step toward one-upping your friends. In the forties in New York, an Italian restaurant named Barbetta’s was like many others, serving cheap, good Italian food. After the war, Barbetta’s daughter went to Vassar and then to Europe. When she got back and took over, she converted the place to “Northern Italian” cuisine, which no one had heard of before, and jacked the prices up a thousand per cent. (The same development is now underway in the Southwest. Within the last five years, most Mexican restaurants have had themselves redecorated, replaced the ceiling fans with central air conditioning, installed a piped-in music system, and switched from the Enchilada Dinner at $2.75 for a more refined and duller Chicken Mole for $10.)

This development in the world of the table coincided with a similar trend in the world of the mind. Much of the critical excitement of the late forties and early fifties, the sort generated by Lionel Trilling at Columbia and writers like Dwight MacDonald and Mary McCarthy at the Partisan Review, arose from the effort to reestablish distinctions, grapple with complexity, toughen up the lax critical standards of the previous years. Before this post-war movement, the meat-and-potatoes of American Lit courses had been Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents of American Thought, with its emphasis on good intentions and “realistic” effects, and its total abdication from distinctions about refinement or style. (“With aesthetic judgments I have not been greatly concerned,” Parrington wrote in Main Currents, “but rather to understand what our fathers thought.” He dismissed more ambitious sorts of criticism as “belletristic trifling.”) The New York Times Book Review of the late forties, under J. Donald Adams, gushed about works in the fashion of today’s Barbara Bannon reviews, its ambitions seemingly confined to encouraging authors and providing material for blurbs. (My high school library contained the abysmal novel Of Many Men, acquired on the strength of a 1946 Times review saying, “Not since Hemingway has the raw material of war been lifted so faithfully and completely unto the level of art. Of Many Men is unquestionably one of the really good novels of the war, possibly the best.” Much later I discovered a more perceptive English review of the same book: “Even when we have the overwhelming courtesy to accept Mr. Aldridge’s style as a means of communication, he appears to have nothing to communicate.…”)

While Trilling labored to raise literary standards above those Adams enforced in the Times, Dwight MacDonald railed against the debasement of literature and thought he saw all about him in the fifties. He said that TV and the demands of mass production were driving down the culture available to the average man, that real literature was being destroyed by “packaged” classics, such as the Great Books series, and attempts to “modernize” such works as the Bible by converting the poetry of the King James version into graceless, featureless contemporary prose. While denouncing the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, which discarded such concepts as “proper” and “colloquial” or “illiterate” usage in favor of the nonjudgmental “standard” and “nonstandard,” MacDonald quoted a linguist named Robert Hall as an example of the spirit behind the new “permissive” dictionaries: “A dictionary or grammar is not as good an authority for your own speech as the way you yourself speak.”

Invaluable as efforts like Trilling’s and MacDonald’s were, they brought in their wake two less healthy traits. One was the cult of complexity, an esteem for refinement and formal sensibility above all else. Trilling revealed this most plainly in his contempt for Theodore Dreiser. In “Reality in America,” the lead essay in The Liberal Imagination, Trilling took Dreiser and Henry James as the two poles in American literature, and his preference for the more elegant, more difficult, less obvious James was clear. He complained that Parrington-style criticism ignored James’ gifts because they lacked “any actual political use,” while it excused Dreiser’s stylistic crudities because of the social “realism” of his work. No doubt there is a human, and American, perception in James’ elaborate late novels such as The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl that eluded Dreiser’s grasp. But Dreiser’s insights, even though they were clumsy and obvious, were nonetheless true. Truest of all, for the America of the fifties, was Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with its blunt, powerful portrayal of the yearning for money and the struggle to move and marry up. It was a breathtaking victory of refined style over substance for Trilling to put down Dreiser when he did; The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950, appeared in an era whose tensions Dreiser helped explain at least as profoundly as James. The emphasis on art for complexity’s sake, on inaccessible works precisely because they yield up their treasures only to the serious student, ended up obscuring one of the main functions of literature, which is to convey basic truths about the society in which it is created.

A celebration of the complex also led to explanations that were needlessly obscure. In the introduction to The Liberal Imagination, Trilling said that “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” One wonders just what kind of “liberalism” it was that so dominated the country two years before McCarthy’s heyday, one year before God and Man at Yale. In the context of Trilling’s whole work, it is clear that he was talking about the absence of a conservative tradition in the classic, Burkean sense; but explained in this way, it repelled most readers, and rewarded only those who could congratulate themselves on understanding Trilling’s allusion.

In MacDonald’s case, the unwelcome element was his exultation in excluding the masses, the defining characteristic of the true snob. In his famous Partisan Review essay on “Masscult and Midcult,” MacDonald, the one-time Trotskyist, made a polite bow to the cultural potential latent in the most lowly members of the human family, but his real argument was that fine culture will always be limited to a happy few, who must fight like crazy to keep their standards pure. Trilling made the same point in a 1946 Partisan Review essay, saying that “in actual fact the occasions are rare when the best literature becomes, as it were, folk literature, and generally speaking literature has always been carried on within small limits and under great difficulties.” This argument led Trilling into the contortion of saying that Shakespeare, whose greatest gift is his accessibility, at different levels, to a universe of different readers, “had something of the aspect of the coterie poet.”

The Politics of Snobbery

American culture has turned itself over several times in the decades since Trilling and MacDonald wrote those words, but their underlying attitudes— the emphasis on refined and sophisticated poses, the lack of interest in communicating with “the mass”—have left their mark. Most particularly, they are revealed in the snobbish inclination of our writers and thinkers to use public issues as an occasion for striking a pose or putting someone else down, rather than making serious attempts to analyze, inquire, and explain. This style of discussion is snobbish because of its deliberate disconnection from the substance of an issue and from the people who might want to hear an answer; it is dangerous not simply for the poison it spreads but also because of the time it wastes.

Viewed with even a modestly fresh eye, there is a staggering disproportion between problem and response in our intellectual and political world. On one side, we have a system of government that seems to reduce all presidents to helplessness or deception and all congressmen to petty self-protection; an energy predicament in which we drift toward reliance on nuclear power because it’s the only fix available, and seem powerless to respond to the companies and nations that control our oil; inflation that is as immune to solution as unemployment seemed in the years before Keynes; a defense budget that seems to be determined by the whims of John Stennis, the dreams of Hyman Rickover, and the lessons of World War II, but not by hard analyses of the real threats to our security. On the other side, we have the professional thinkers and writers and politicians, the people who are supposedly in business to deal with questions such as these, but whose main interest in confronting them seems not to be to push for new answers or to evaluate the suggestions that are already on hand, but to use each new issue as a momentary platform upon which to display their deft cavorting, and from which to land a rabbit punch on someone else.

When loosing a bon mot against politicians in The New York Review of Books or chortling his way through a review of the current vulgar best sellers, Gore Vidal is more intent on turning the arch phrase than on presenting an idea; political ideas, especially, are for him mere excuses to display his exquisite moves. Garry Wills, who at times is one of the finest critics, too often seems to care more about including the extra quote and qualification that will prove his erudition than with making his meaning clear. (This is true, beyond point of parody, of William F. Buckley.) Nora Ephron, the literary equivalent of Steve Rubell, writes to demonstrate that she is one step ahead of fashion; ideas are as subsidiary to that purpose as providing warmth is to the outfits Rubell selects from the hordes in front of Studio 54. The political put-down artists—Emmett Tyrrell on the right, Alexander Cockburn on the left—can be vastly entertaining, but they care more about putting on a good show and blooding their swords than informing or understanding.

While writers like these are using politics and literature as ways of preening before an elite, those condemned to deal with the mass reveal snobbishness of a different sort. The assumption in politics and most massmarket journalism these days is that “the public” can’t understand an issue unless all the complications are stripped away and the question is reduced to a clear, simple slogan. For the right, the current slogan is balancing the budget and Proposition 13; for the left (in the person of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden) it is a rent-control initiative in California, which would come no closer to solving the housing problem than the balanced-budget amendment would to solving government waste. The main unit of political “thought” these days is the 700-word column, whose very design entices writers to raise problems and then kiss them goodbye with either a cliche judgment (Tom Wicker, Evans and Novak, Carl Rowan) or with the solemn observation that issues like inflation and energy are complicated, and the task of governing is difficult indeed in the post-industrial age (James Reston). The range of acceptable opinion in these columns is as depressingly narrow and familiar as that of the broadcast “confrontations” between Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden, or Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick, the tired slogans of the left matched against their equivalents from the right, every idea and argument utterly predictable as soon as the subject is announced. The resulting exchange is either baldly snobbish—with each paragraph designed to put down the dimwits in the opposing camp—or more subtly snobbish—flaunting the pundit’s ability to earn a living by dispensing the same banal wisdom your neighbor provides for free over the backyard fence.

When it comes to food and fashion, these attitudes do no serious harm; in the realm of literature, the pendulum will swing back and forth forever, periodically reassigning James and Dreiser their places of favor in the pantheon. But in public questions, of the sort most of these writers are discussing, the effects of the put-down and the pose can be grave. When most people write about war or money or energy merely to strut their stuff or indulge a sneer, we end up laughing— oh so cleverly, wickedly, taking our example from Capote and Vidal—as the society burns.

The Surrounded Outpost

I sometimes think of energy or inflation as a scene from World War II: the small platoon trapped in the jungle, surrounded by Japanese, searching for a way out. There is only one thought on the lieutenant’s mind, and that is to find the one right route of escape. To do that, he must understand the situation in every detail of its complexity: that there are more Japanese on his right but that the left is blocked by a ridge; how many of the enemy have come down with malaria and how quickly they might be reinforced; whether his own bombers might attack the Japanese without destroying his own men; how his weapons and ammunition match up against those on the other side. When he needs an answer, he will not try to fool people with a slogan; to tell the troops that now it’s time to separate the men from the boys will not help them escape. He will not make the situation needlessly complex, for he wants to draw on every single member of his platoon with a chance of providing an answer—but neither will he glibly simplify it, for an answer produced that way would be useless. The last thing he wants to do is use this as an occasion for sneering, for sneers would get in the way of survival.

That is what the lieutenant would do in the jungle. But how would some of our writers help him?

John Simon: With the gradual degradation of the gene pool, a fact these ferret-faced enlisted men make plain every day, it is hardly a surprise that vulgarities of language and thought grow steadily more frequent. One ill-favored corporal called the tree with a sniper in it a “goddam palm tree” when it was actually a subspecies of the tropical pineapple. When these tattered, greasy-locked men say “War is hell,” they seem not to know the difference between Inferno and Purgatorio; from the looks of their crania, they do not possess sufficient brain space to contain such a distinction.

James Reston: The sun rises and it sets, the tides ebb and flow, and tomorrow, we may be sure, the sun will rise on this tired planet, now feeling the warm breath of springtime, once again. The Japanese have been fighting the Americans, and many men are reflecting seriously on the implications for the world-wide balance, and for the future of the Atlantic alliance. Whether they reflect in vain this mere reporter dares not say.

Pat Buchanan: When is somebody going to speak up for the fighting men in this country, always caught in traps with Japanese divisions shooting at them, and stop pandering to the naysayers of this country who are out of touch with American life?

Tom Braden: What makes me sick about you conservatives, Pat, is your refusal to face the hard fact that Republicans and big corporations got us into war.

Any politician: I’ve come to share with you my most basic feelings, as your leader, and as an American. We meet in the’ present, but we are shaped by our past, and we look toward our future. To some, that future contains clouds of doubt. Will we be able to escape the emplaced mortars? Will we be strong enough to avoid the rain of death from the skies? Will we pass on to our children’ a nation as strong and noble as the America we know today? I say we can—and I know we will, if we form a partnership, based on our common dream for a better tomorrow, and our knowledge that America is the greatest land on earth.

New York Review (pick your author): One of the lesser known figures of the nouvelle vague, Pierre Bonnard (“Bonne” to his friends, tantalizingly reminiscent of Proust’s “Bonne Mere”) expressed his sarcastic but nonetheless existential view of the anomie of his days with his famous question, “Où sont les Japs?” It is a question Nietzsche might have asked Dostoevski, and been answered this way— “Die Japs sind in der wald”—on the laughable assumption, of course, that the language of Schiller and Goethe could be lingua franca between these titans of the psychology of obsession.

Elizabeth Drew: I woke up. There were a lot of trees around. They had leaves on the top and roots on the bottom. I had coffee with cream for breakfast and put salt and pepper on my eggs. I wiped my mouth with a napkin. “Ouch,” said one of the men when he bumped his head on a tree. “There are a lot of Japanese out there,” said a man whose opinion I respect. “Yes,” I replied.

Gore Vidal: Our slant-eyed friends lolled about the jungle doing whatever it is soldiers do to advance the interests of Dai Nippon. From the deliciously depraved glances they cast at each other’s biceps and well-formed bottoms, it was clear that these happy samurai had recaptured the secret of the Spartan army’s special snap. Alas, even the fondly remembered West Point of my boyhood (where my father was an instructor; by the way, I’m related to a lot of aristocrats) never overcame Empire America’s slavish devotion to the missionary position. Is it too much to detect a conspiracy behind this omission, linking the Wheelchair Wonder in the White House and his partners of the Property Class behind their charade of disagreement that deceived all under the age of six? Hop to it, junior sleuths.

Instead of all the posing, all the oneupping and the fancy turns, we could use a kind of discussion that would strive for an alternative to the slogans served up by politicians and columnists, that would, to begin with, distinguish between the significant and the trivial (unlike Drew, who in her recent New Yorker profiles simply dumps her notebook onto the page, and leaves the reader to sift the worthwhile material from the details she should never have included.)

Most of all, we need discussions that operate from a principle of inclusion and human empathy rather than the desire to thumb the nose. When Mary McCarthy was working the Vietnam war beat, she wrote with withering contempt for those who “associated themselves” with the war effort—even though, at that very time, her husband was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service. If this complexity had been faced, rather than concealed, what better opportunity could there have been to understand why people “associated themselves” with a policy they deplored?

And, as important as empathy for the people who are written about, is empathy for those the writer is trying to reach. Where the question now in the writer’s mind is “How can I screw my enemy?” and “How can I impress the reader?,” it might better be how to understand what’s on the other guy’s mind, how to use a form of prose that conveys the full, clear message, acknowledges every complexity, but imposes no needless burdens by its own form.

In his whimsical way, Calvin Trillin did some of this in American Fried, but it is too easy to imagine what the putdown world will make of his revelation. Three years from now, there will be a La Maison de la Casa Barbecue in Manhattan, with Steve Rubell grinning at the door.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.