Confessions of a Preppy Snob

Slate Magazine recently posted a long-winded and at times insufferable meditation on snobbery by a prep who came of age in the ’80s.

The author’s resumé would certainly suggest the presence of snobbery:

Mark Oppenheimer writes about religion for the New York Times. He is the author of a memoir, Wisenheimer; is an editor of the New Haven Review; and on Feb. 13 debuts Paper Trails, his new public radio show about books, on WNPR.

In fact, he reminds me a bit of Tad Friend, another smart and educated writer full of snobberies and insecurities, also prone to the public confessional, whose book “Cheerful Money” I wrote about here.

After 5,000 words, Oppenheimer doesn’t reach much in the way of conclusions, save that snobbism may be a vice but he can’t help himself. Here’s a condensed version with highlights in pink and green.

The author’s sense of superiority, that would later become realized in his Northeastern establishment/media elite/PBS-NPR moral superiority resumé (bolstered even more by his religious nature, putting pretty much 99 percent of humanity beneath him), began at a precocious age:

By the time I graduated from New North, I was preening about more than my verbal ability. I had become, in my mind, an aristocrat, my superiority evident in my bloodlines, my parents’ education, my clothes, my pronunciation of words, my taste in reading, and even my haircut (I had a goofy bowl cut, which I deemed nobler than my classmates’ buzz cuts or proto-Kid ‘n Play creations). Even though I was happier than before, I was, like all 10- or 11-year-olds, still very much unbalanced, unsure of where to plant my feet in the world. So I looked all around, and steadied myself with fragile certainties that whatever I did, it made me better than those around me.

In the following passage, Oppenheimer contrasts himself with a bow-tied pal:

Snobbery is the most self-aggrandizing of dispositions, but it is not self-centered. Somebody who truly does not care what other people think—we might call her an eccentric—is not a snob, even if she bears traces of elitism. My friend George, for example, is famous for wearing bowties and blazers everywhere, even to casual brunches. He attended all the fanciest schools, was a fencer in college, and is a partner in a white-shoe Boston law firm. But he is so clearly more interested in self-expression than in what other people think of him that nobody would dare call him a snob. He’s not trying to prove anything by how he lives; he just cannot imagine living otherwise. A man who wears a bowtie to brunch on a Sunday morning is almost inviting derision, and it is a sign of his supreme self-confidence that he persists in doing so. The snob, by contrast, can never quite forget what other people think of him.

Despite his innately patrician disposition, Oppenheimer is easily seduced by glossy magazine ads:

I fixed on the New York Times Magazine, in particular the lush advertising spreads that Ralph Lauren seemed to purchase nearly every week, in the expensive space before the table of contents. They were veritable guidebooks to a leisured, monied, Gentile fantasy world, where the country squires never went bald, only silver; where their wives were nowhere to be seen; where their daughters were honey-blond, freckled, and happy to walk the Irish setter; and where their sons, home from college, never looked better than with hair tousled, clothes rumpled, and leather satchels loosely slung. I fetishized these lovely, landed people.

Though his dad was a Yalie and he attended a private school, Oppenheimer learns about preppy style from advertisements, catalogs and retailers:

From those advertisements, I learned the preppy style. I began to see it all around me. I saw it on certain pages of the L.L. Bean catalog, which we received every month or so, and I saw it in the window of the Brooks Brothers store at Westfarms Mall in Connecticut, the mall where my mother took me shopping when she needed a skirt for a special occasion, when the shops at Enfield and Eastfield malls just would not do.

He soon notices that not everyone dresses like this:

On my street and those parallel streets to the south, one might spot a Polo shirt, or a pair of Blucher moccasins. But on all the streets to the north, beginning with Olmsted, just around the block, the uniform ran to acid-washed jeans, Flashdance-inspired leggings, hair-sprayed big-hair, and Reebok aerobics shoes for the girls, Nike basketball high-tops for the boys.

On my street, people dressed in the Ralph Lauren spirit, even if they could not afford his clothes exactly; on Olmsted, nobody dressed that way. I saw the correlation; it was quite apparent; it was undeniable. There was a uniform of civility and decency, and the people who wore it were likelier to be nice to me, and to one another. They were better.

The girl he likes is fond of wearing Benetton and Esprit, which, upon further reflection, makes her not so desirable after all:

And yet I perceived that there was something subtly déclassé about Benetton and Esprit, precisely because they were so of the moment. The Ralph Lauren ads, by contrast, announced the clothes’ archaism; even as they defined a kind of trendiness, they practiced a denial about that trendiness. Like all good totems of snobbery, they were for a defiant minority, definitely not for the majority.

We’re all impressionable when we’re young, and the author soon begins taking cues from the eighties’ most iconic (and only) young Republican television character:

Inspired by Alex P. Keaton, the preppy conservative teenager on the television show Family Ties (another nerd who found dignity in snobbery), I one day brought a briefcase to school, an old clunker my father had abandoned in our basement. “It’s for my important papers,” I told Mrs. Britt, our school-bus driver. But the stares I got in the hallways were too much, and I abandoned that project immediately—one more bit of evidence that I was not a true eccentric. My sense of superiority was too close to its roots of inferiority; I could not choose to stick out on purpose. Where difference was unavoidable—I could never have pulled off Air Jordans and acid-washed jeans—I made a virtue of my difference. But I soon was forced to admit that I couldn’t make a briefcase cool.

Inevitably, the poisonous tome is discovered. I mean, of course, “The Official Preppy Handbook”:

I found this 1980 book around 1989, I think the summer after my first year at Loomis, a reasonably well-regarded prep school in northern Connecticut, one that now might be described as producing good food writers: Corby Kummer of the Atlantic magazine and Frank Bruni, past restaurant critic for the New York Times, are both alumni. In my first year at Loomis, I had just begun to make sense of the welter of different fashions, codes, and shibboleths that constitute boarding-school style (it did not help that I was a day student, so definitely second-class). For example, I had figured out that there was something classy about leaving old lift tickets from ski slopes dangling from the tab of one’s parka zipper. I had quickly mastered that a certain amount of fraying of the cuffs connoted elegance. There was a premium on the appearance of age: nothing too shiny. And there was something special, I gathered, about wearing clothes bearing the names of prep schools other than one’s own: It suggested that your friends, whose shirts you gathered off the floor of one Maine cabin or another, also attended prep schools.

Later, that other poisonous tome is discovered:

At about the same age, my friend Derek’s father, a minister with a mischievous sense of humor who himself liked to observe, and indulge in, various benign snobberies, took me and Derek into a shopping-mall Waldenbooks and bought for me a copy of Paul Fussell’s Class, a crueler, funnier, and more intellectually penetrating improvement on The Official Preppy Handbook.

As an adult Oppenheimer eventually found his soulmate, someone to share all of life’s pleasures with, such as visiting the homes of people whose TV sets are too large or prominently placed (see Fussell, page 90), thereby allowing Oppenheimer and his wife to experience the simultaneous frisson of a moral superiority head rush, as well as a sense of romantic destiny:

I never feel more married to my wife than when we enter another couple’s house for the first time and, on seeing that the television is a bit too large, or too prominently placed in the front room, look at one another and—well, I was going to say “arch out eyebrows,” but of course we do not even need to do that. The mere look, the meeting of the eyes, does it all.

In the end, snobbism is a kind of Original Sin we are born to. Oppenheimer closes his essay with the following:

God—the universe—the perfect good—whatever you want to call the arbiter of moral truth—does not care whether my floors are parquet or covered by wall-to-wall carpeting. That I do care is a fact about me, best confronted and managed. It is not to be exalted, but it cannot be honestly denied.

Pray for his soul. Pray for all of ours, for that matter. We all have snobberies — some justified, some to bolster our own fragile egos — when it comes to the things we care about.

I, for example, have a very simple one: There’s the five percent of the population knowledgeable about classical music, and then there’s everybody else. — CC

This post was written while listening to Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Ballet Music for the Sun King.”

38 Comments on "Confessions of a Preppy Snob"

  1. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to find any traces of snobbery whatsoever in the article.

  2. So the author is being disingenuous? He failed in his undertaking?

  3. Hardly disingenuous. He’s simply been so brainwashed by the media that he sincerely thinks that anyone who believes in standards and civility is a snob.

  4. “Sunday Baroque” is on as I read.

  5. Well considering your email address is civilityanddecency@ABC.com, these concepts might be particular preoccupations of yours.

    If I were going to critique his concept of snobbery, I’d go after his conflating of personal feelings of superiority with it.

    But there are also different kinds of snobbism, such as social versus artistic. Some people are social snobs (e.g. social climbers), but utter philistines, while other people are highbrow aesthetes but full of goodwill toward mankind (at least in theory).

  6. Baker, I just switched over to that, too.

  7. Forgive my confusion, but isn’t ivy style
    (the clothing preference, not the blog) all about snobbery?

  8. J. Brooks, I offer you Richard Press’s, of J. Press “We are elitist to the extent that, as H.L. Mencken said ‘No one
    ever went broke underestimating the intelligence or taste of the American people’

  9. Sorry, clumsy fingers above should read Richard Press.

  10. Undoubtedly the article is pretentious. I did find the paragraph about Bow Ties interesting though. I’ve been working professionally for about 1.5 years now, and have only been brave enough to sport the bow tie once in this time. Although it was well received on htat occasion, I am continuously warned about the dangers of wearing a bow tie, and how it will increase my visibility in the workplace in a bad way. I am yet to feel brave enough to wear it again. Therefore is this article/paragraph saying that I’m a snob? Or that I’m not self-centred enough to not care what others think?

  11. Been listening to Lully non-stop for the last few weeks. Your last line really brought home to me that I was correct to read on through. Thank you.

  12. Quite a coincidence. He’s fairly new to me. I mostly listen to Romantics and early Moderns, but have lately been exploring more pre-Bach stuff.

  13. @C. Sharp

    But wasn’t that J. Brooks’ point:
    What some call “snobbery” or “elitism” is actually good taste.

  14. Patrick Murtha | March 20, 2011 at 8:37 pm |

    Oppenheimer’s snobbery vs. self-expression comparison is a sharp one. The bow tie guy does not want to fit in, not even with the elect; he wants to stand out. He is glad he is the only one wearing a bow tie, and does not give a fig whether there is a “social cost” in doing so. It occurs to me that a lot of the disagreements and controversies on the menswear boards and blogs are due to the unacknowledged divide between those into clothing as a form of snobbery, in Oppenheimer’s precise sense — a signaling device to those who share one’s particular standards, whether those be preppy, Wall Street, high-end Euro, or whatever — and those into clothing as self-expression. The latter recognize those like-minded to themselves not because they look the same, but because they look different.

  15. @ Rathbone: Forgive me, perhaps I am a poor student of the inferences of the article. But I don’t believe the snobbery mentioned by Mr. Oppenheimer or snobbery anywhere has anything to do with either standards and certainly not civility,those are admirable things and certainly not snobbery.However isn’t snobbery good breeding grown tyrannical? Doesn’t snobbery breed incivility by its very nature? There is also the issue of standards, standards are a good thing of course and more people should have them, however I do think that everyone with standards must be wary not to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else has the means to conform themselves to our standards.

  16. The author comes across less as a snob, but rather as someone deeply insecure about his personal identity. I honestly doubt any of his classmates really cared what he thought of them. All in all, I’d bet the guy with the bow ties is probably a heck of a lot more fun to hang out with.

  17. Oh, and with that attitude, I’d bet that he and his wife don’t get invited to too many peoples homes a second time. Hard to believe they have many good friends.

  18. Good point, Patrick. I think what guys want to see on the blogs and forums is their own particular taste echoed with a minor tweak to make it interesting. It’s reassuring. What often brings out the negative comments are photos of people clearly doing their own thing and not giving a damn. That can be very threatening.

  19. @Bradford

    ” The author comes across as someone deeply insecure about his personal identity.”

    Can’t the same be said of many/most of us Ivy-freaks?

    Either we think that clothing is the only way we have of asserting our identity, or we think that we can create an identity throught clothing.

    Insecurity about identity is a very human, widespread phenomenon.

  20. Let us not forget that though there are many of us who believe that there is something inherently civilized and urbane in trad/preppy/ivy style, there was a time when many of its adherents were frat-rat Animal House trash.

  21. I read his whole article. Describing it as insufferable is quite a generous understatement.

  22. St. Michaels' | March 21, 2011 at 8:39 am |

    I feel sorry for this guy….Jewish intellectual, always on the outside looking in, hence the insecurities…perhaps he narrowly avoided becoming a Portnoy at age 14 (really dating myself here) …don’t know him personally, though,….wouldn’t want to…

  23. Honest Ivy | March 21, 2011 at 9:40 am |

    I am stupified by the disingenuousness of the commenters who fail to admit that we are nothing but snobs in our our right and that we do not look down upon those who do not conform to our ideas about the proper way to dress. Apparently candor is not an ivy trait.

  24. The crack he makes about Australians was funny. Did he get paid for that confessional? Sounds like good work if you can get it. The piece is good example of how people define themselves as much by their foibles as their virtues.

  25. Honest Ivy,

    I will admit that I sometimes look down upon the slovenly, but mostly, I feel sorry for them. I also feel anguish for my culture and society, thinking that such base and unreflective clods will perpetrate not our culture, but a debased one of nihilism, self-absorption, licentiousness, and self-destruction.

    Does that make me a snob?

  26. P.S. to CC:

    Wonderful, well-written article. Much more readable and enjoyable than the original. The numerous comments should tell you that you picked an interesting topic and presented it well.

  27. Thanks, Henry. Presenting a variety of material is the best part about blogging. I enjoy surprising you guys.

    There’ll be a couple good ones coming up.

  28. Ditto, Henry. Great running commentary, Christian. I do that for fun with an articles that catch my eye in a certain way. Even have a name for it: interactive journalism.

  29. @C.Sharp,

    As an Australian, I found the crack about Australians in the article pretty degrading and a gross over-generalization. Firstly, the only time I’ve ever drunk Fosters was in England, and most of my friends have never tried it. In fact, you’ll find Australia has quite a large and diverse amount micro-breweries producing higher quality (albeit less marketed) beers.

    Regarding ancestry, it is in fact true that we sit around comparing heritage (i.e. I’m from English-Irish descent), but to think that all Australians come from convicts shipped over here a couple of hundred years ago is a pretty stupid comment to make. These 6th generation Australians are pretty rare these days.Yes! I know he’s trying to be funny! But I think you’ll find even that episode of the Simpsons that portrays a similar joke is quite offensive to most Australians.

    I know I’m being overly-sensitive here but I have found (from personal experience living in the US) that most Americans, including Oppenheimer, appear a bit uneducated about Australia. We may not have Ivy Leaugue universities, but we have preppies, and we love your site/blog!

  30. wait was this a scathing call-out, or quite praise? I don’t get it. Either it is the former, in which case it is ironic that a blog called “Ivy-style” would ream one of it’s own, or it is the other, and I must go back and retrace the steps.

    http://www.postmoderngentleman.com

  31. Scooby Dubious | March 21, 2011 at 3:57 pm |

    @ Yvan opined:

    “Either we think that clothing is the only way we have of asserting our identity, or we think that we can create an identity through clothing.
    Insecurity about identity is a very human, widespread phenomenon.”

    ___________________________

    True. There are some who base their entire identity (and hence self-esteem) around “being” or “calling” themselves something…such as Ivy. The majority of this image is obviously clothes. When their version of this identity is challenged, mocked, or (in their minds) somehow bastardized, their entire identity is perceived as being under attack by the unworthy.

    But then there are others who aren’t so attached to words and/or projecting some pre-constructed persona. They just like certain clothes and don’t care if they have an official moniker attached.

    Unrelated: i can’t see a man in bow-tie without thinking of that insufferable prick Tucker Carlson who used the bow-tie gimmick to advance his career. He has since dropped it, but his smug persona persists to occasionally foul my TV screen

  32. Ralph Kinney Bennett | March 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm |

    Another fascinating post, Chris. Nice marshaling of the essential Oppenheimer quotes and some interesting observations from the “audience” I thought willisA’s comments were particularly thoughtful, especially his definition of snobbery as “good breeding grown tyrannical.” I would emend that a bit, as I have seen plenty of snobs with bad breeding. As to snobbery itself breeding incivility, the point is well taken. And it is a peculiarly insidious incivility, disguised as it is in the very clothing of civility and (good?) manners — the carefully-modulated sneer, the smirk half-hidden by a smile.

    As to the role of clothing in all this, threading through Oppenheimer’s comments is an implication of how far Brooks Brothers has fallen and how Ralph Lauren has come to be perceived as the “keeper of the flame.” I say, good for Ralph Lauren, but I say it with a certain sadness that the flame needed keeping — that it could not or would not burn burn on unaided.

    That said, I would simply like to restate something I have “harped on” here before. The “Thing” we are all talking about here is rooted basically in a single idea — quality, chastely and quietly presented. This “style,” if it must be called that, is completely at home and at ease with itself. It begs from no one; it never falters, never fails; it just IS. Let me put it this way, I may have bad days, but at least my clothing never fails me. My clothes give me pleasure and a sense of well being. And that’s enough. By the way, I would never feel the least bit uncomfortable wearing a bow tie (regimental stripe, Churchill polka dot?) when the spirit moves me. Be kind, be gentle, be personable with everyone, and be comfortable in your clothes. Again, great post, Chris!

  33. Great post? Great comment, one of the most inspired in some time. You should expand that into an essay. Email me if you’re up for it.

  34. @ W.V.S. I think your self assessment of “…I’m being overly-sensitive ” is accurate. The authors remarks were so egregious that it became parody. Maybe if the material was presented by an Australian comedy troupe it would be more palatable. I regret that my comment stirred your nationalistic ire. I can assure you I have nothing but affection for the Australian people and their ancestor veneration. If I remember correctly one first generation scion took me on a pilgrimage to the Rocks. I can not say I paid any attention to the authors thoughts on beer. I am sure your comments on the state of the national beer industry are accurate, I would only beg your indulgence since it has been almost three decades since I have approached Australian Beers with any vigor. At that time I was a mere neophyte. I drank fourex which served the duel purpose of satisfying my palate and relieving me of the responsibility of having to know how to spell beer.

  35. Old School | March 22, 2011 at 9:58 am |

    Thanks for indirectly introducing me to “Sunday Baroque”

  36. Christian – I know I’m late to the party here; rss backlog. Anyway, your last comment really struck to the heart of the matter. I would offer that there are many who would say “there are people who are knowledgeable about NASCAR, and everyone else.” Although discussions of “human nature” are necessarily fraught with peril, the predilection to finding some way to elevate oneself over the “others” does seem to be persistent theme.

    Regardless, I’m glad you like Lully. Have you listened to much Rameau? Much of the same french baroque rhythmic and lyrical charm so evident in Lully’s works, often with richer attention to orchestration. I had a friend once who referred to him as the “forgotten, French Bach.”

  37. Yes, Rameau I listened to some time ago. Mostly I’m interested in more deeply exploring pre-Bach stuff, but always end up coming home from the library with more late Romantic stuff. Last time it was a bunch of lesser works by Saint-Saens that I didn’t already have.

  38. Many confuse “Elitism” with “Snobbery.” The Elitist believes in Good/Better/Best and Bad, too. Mozart’s better than Madonna. Shelley’s better than Maya Angelou. Moscow Art Theatre’s better than Mama Mia. I think we could use more elitism but not more snobbery.

    Food for thought from Joseph Epstein’s “Snobbery: The American Version” — “The novelist Jean Stafford once remarked that ‘the greatest snobs in the world are bright New York literary Jews’ … born to immigrant parents, came from insecure social positions…”

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