The literature of “neoconservatism,” which has built up in magazines like Commentary and The American Spectator over the last half-dozen years, deals at one level with public policy, but its emotional power springs from another source. Whether the stated object of discussion is racial quotas and ‘affirmative action,” nuclear versus solar power, or America’s response to the Soviet military threat, the real object of attack is the “adversary culture” that has somehow convinced the nation, or at least much of its political and intellectual leadership, to be ashamed of the values that have been most basic to America’s historical success. America’s essential industries have come under attack because (according to this version) privileged young people are, like indolent heirs, scornful of the grimy systems of production on which their affluence rests. The U.S. is afraid to use—or even rebuild—its military power, ceding that option to its enemies, because of an exaggerated sense of guilt and self-hatred over its efforts in Vietnam. American governments have listened supinely as terrorists and left-wing dictators deliver lectures about “justice” and “equality” because we have lost confidence in our own achievements and therefore are susceptible to the notion that other countries are poor because we are rich. And so on.

At the heart of all these arguments is an imputation of anti-Americanism, in the sense not of disloyalty but of decadence. Only people who have never fought their way up from the Lower East Side tenements or the Appalachian coal fields would dare criticize IQ tests and other ingredients of the American meritocracy. Only those who, as children of the Spock age and as college students in the era of license in the 1960s, took their freedom entirely for granted could ever romanticize such non-libertarian groups as the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Sandinistas, or the Black Panthers of yesteryear. No matter where they start, most of the neoconservative writings end up at this point, even if that means traveling a considerable distance. Last year, for example, Commentary published a review of Tom Wolfe’s story of the astronauts, The Right Stuff. In the space of a few hundred words, the reviewer demonstrated that anti-Americanism lurked even in a book that less watchful readers might have considered the most wholeheartedly pro-American document imaginable.

Although neither Tom Wolfe nor the man he immortalized as the first specimen of “radical chic”—Leonard Bernstein—is a member of the sixties generation, there is a clear generational aspect to the neoconservative cause. As a class, the neoconservatives tend to be the parents of the generation that, having grown up in privilege, lost its sense of proportion during the 1960s— or else members of the children’s generation who felt estranged from their contemporaries during the goings-on. Thus the extraordinary venom of the neoconservative articles about John Lennon’s death, seeing in the near-canonization of Lennon another indication of the young people’s infuriating belief that they were somehow special and different. And thus a curious facet of the State Department’s decision to vote against the infant-formula resolution at the United Nations last spring. The job of explaining the vote fell to Elliot Abrams (who, as it happens, is the son-in-law of the central neoconservative couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter), who was a student at Harvard in the late 1960s and at odds with the “spoiled children” taking part in the uprising. A man who knew him at the time said, “That [infant formula] vote was really a vote against the occupation of University Hall.”

Joseph Epstein’s Ambition, published last year, is a book in this tradition, which is to say that the enemies it obliquely attacks are more important than the argument it raises directly. Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar, is an intelligent writer whose previous books, especially Divorced in America, carried less of this freight and, perhaps coincidentally, were more carefully considered works. The message of this book is, once again, that a spoiled class of Americans has turned its back on one of its precious values:

“Ambition, to the educated class, has come to seem pointless at best, vicious at worst. Ambition connotes a certain Rotarian optimism, a thing unseemly…. None of this, of course, has stopped the educated classes from attempting to get their own out of the world—lots of the best of everything, as a famous epicure once put it…. To renunciation is thus added more than a piquant touch of hypocrisy.”

Epstein says that he asked his students at Northwestern what they wanted out of life and heard them answer about service to mankind and peace with their souls. What about influence, money, fame? he asked them. Yes, they said, that would be all right, too. Why, he asks, would none of them dare volunteer such answers? My question to Epstein is, where did he find these kids? My experience with college and graduate students has been just the opposite. However reticent they may once have been about listing power, position, and security among their goals, they’ve overcome that hesitation. Perhaps the students in the literature class, not yet knowing what line their professor would be taking on ambition, were saying what they thought he wanted to hear. In any case, Epstein’s response to their attitude was to write a defense of an under-appreciated virtue.

Judged simply as a work of prose, the book is a tremendous disappointment. It has the distinct look of an obligation that the author had to complete, for contractual or other reasons, rather than a message he deeply wanted to convey. The parts of the book that actually advance an argument represent no more than a fourth of its contents. The rest is summary biography, taken from other books, of figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and Henry Ford. Every few pages, under the heading “Curiosity Shop,” comes a brief vignette of modern life, featuring people who are almost never identified but spoken of only as “the man” or “she,” in the fashion of Ellen Goodman’s newspaper columns (“They were in their forties and had known each other for more than thirty years,” one begins).

“Curiosity Shop,” which apparently is based on events Epstein has seen and jotted in his notebook, is as close as the book gets to “reporting” or real facts. Everything else comes from the library—the story of the du Pont family, the reflections on ambition in the works of Theodore Dreiser. This library-essay approach to social analysis, perhaps born of the academic’s disdain for journalism, is also typical of the neoconservatives, and it has an important effect on their outlook. It gives their theories a greater purity than would be possible if the ideas were subjected to the contrary details of the real world, while also denying the theories the richness they would certainly gain if people as intelligent as the authors confronted additional facts. (Tom Wolfe’s writing, which is based on phenomenal reporting, is the best illustration of the potential richness.) In Ambition, the armchair approach means that Epstein’s evidence about ambition in modern America consists of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (which proves that liberals hate corporate ambition), the actor Richard Dreyfuss’s inability to cope with his success (based on an article about Dreyfuss in Esquire), and Michael Korda’s rules for getting ahead—taken, of course, from his books.

Moreover, the places where real passion can be felt in this book arise from the things you do see on your way from the magazine office to the library. These often have to do with the aging radicals of the “new class” who once sneered at ambition. Some of Epstein’s “Curiosity Shops” involve the former hippies of the sixties, now sitting in restaurants where they discuss real estate and compare their knowledge of fine foods. There is nothing even remotely as intense or as closely observed about the meanings of ambition at other levels of American life—among small businessmen, say, or country boys yearning to get out (unless described by Sherwood Anderson), or even those former hippies as they understand themselves.

The source of his passion may explain why Epstein never makes a central, even obvious, distinction. Redefines ambition as “the fuel of achievement,” but at no point does he distinguish between ambition to be and ambition to do. One is the desire for place; the other, the desire to perform. Bianca Jagger is ambitious, and so was Abraham Lincoln; but no word that applies to both of them is very useful. The early Truman Capote, who actually wrote, combined the two kinds of ambition, as opposed to the later Truman Capote, who seems to retain nothing but the ambition to be.

Epstein refuses to countenance this difference. For example, he suggests that mere decadence made some members of the later generations of the Rockefeller family less comfortable with their money than the original John D. had been. Is it not equally possible that, as a general human truth, the person who has achieved something himself is more at ease with his reward than those who simply inherit it? Would this not apply with extra force if the heir were, yes, an ambitious person? Such an explanation does not fit into Epstein’s world, because he seems less intent on explaining ambition than on attacking its supposed enemies.

Jilly Cooper’s Class is a piece of fluff compared to Ambition, but it is strong in the very areas where Epstein is weak. Cooper is an English newspaper columnist who means to mix humor with social commentary. Her book is a usually funny rundown of the ways you can tell the classes apart—what they say, how they eat, how they get in their digs at each other. It has the kind of sharp detail about a number of the classes that Epstein’s book totally lacks.

Although Cooper’s details are so completely English that the nuance sometimes gets held up in the language barrier, the book, reminded me of how similar the American class system is to the English—and how different. It is similar in the social distinctions: when Cooper describes the kind of wedding party that Jen Teale and her husband Bryan (of the lower middle class) hold for their daughter, versus the very different taste of Gideon and Samantha Upward (the uppermiddles), the American parallels come quickly to mind. It is different in its sense of permanence: however rigid the American social structure may be, however different the prospects for a doctor’s son and a laborer’s, the country is far less bound by hereditary advantage than England. The phrases “marrying up” and “marrying down” pop up constantly in Cooper’s book to indicate people who have married out of their class. The phenomenon is not unknown in American society (to use Joseph Epstein’s approach, consider Clyde Griffith in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy), but it is far less pronounced in a country where people’s class can be determined more by their education and occupation than simply by their birth.

The main defect of Cooper’s Class is that, for all her mockery, she totally buys the system she describes. For one thing, she presents as differences in taste what are really differences in means. The upper classes “prefer” natural fibers to those tacky polyesters. I bet a lot of nonaristocrats have also figured out that wool is nicer—along with pearls, big houses, fine restaurants, and handsome cars. All those things happen to cost money. She also describes as an upper-class virtue something that should really be independent of class standing. Time and again in the book, she gives us illustrations that the upper classes can afford to do what they please. The lower-middles are absurdly genteel in their language, for fear of giving offense; but an earl pisses into a chamberpot at a party. “The true aristocrat is a law unto himself,” Cooper says. if by aristocrat she had meant not those born with money but anyone willing to carry out his goals without the fears of the Jen Teales, she would have been on the money—and would have helped explain the ambition to do.

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.