Book reviews are so predictable. They start in one of two ways – either with the author’s take on the subject and then a segue into the book (if you want my take on the subject read WASPS by John Burton – KIDDING there is no book like that) or with a quote from the book. And then something like: “…..” is how Michael Knox Beran begins WASPS, 2021, Pegasus Books… etc.
So let’s do something different. A few completely random sentences from WASPS. I will flip open the book, but my finger down, and show you what I get:
“Failure, then, is the WASP’s epitaph. But it was an illuminating failure.”
Take two –
” ‘You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be president too!’ So the Irish gardener said to the boy Henry Adams at Quincy, the homestead south of Boston that served Adams’s president grandfather, John Quincy Adams…”
Take three –
“Most people, it has been said, die with their music still in them. WASPs saw this as a tragedy; not only for those who died without having flowered, but for the places in which they lived, they might have benefited from the blossoms.” (ok ok that as not random)
So the first takeaway here is this Beran can write the club collar out of a sentence. I spoke with Mr. Beran, who is a thoughtful man for sure. But also a funny one. The book – not so funny. But Beran? Funny.
This is a tough time to be writing about WASPS. Out of favor, catching shrapnel and on the fringe of anachronistic, the WASP is not a subject one picks for the money. But this book is unanticipated in so many ways. The subject is not one that is approached absent agenda. But the book throws curves. The WASP who reads the book because the future ain’t gonna be what the past was – you are in for a balanced study – this is not nostalgia. The book is not a slide show of old vacation pictures where you forget how bad your parents fought. The Pile On reader – patrician culture is wrong and we all get that but if you are looking for a book that has a slogan painted on an expensive gown at an opening, you are going to be disappointed. WASPS is, as much as anything, about the pursuit of beauty and service. The History Buff – you are getting the meat and potatoes but, and thank god for this, Mr. Beran is too kind as to deprive us of his really smart analysis. So you read not only the What, but also a powerful thesis as to the Why.
That said, Mr. Beran tackles the subject, as I say, unexpectedly. WASPS is less morality tale/cautionary tale and more explanation. You were looking for a hubris story, right? That the WASP was John Forsythe (a Dynasty reference…) and the generational wealth stopped because there was no inclusion, right?
Wrong. There was a vision here, one that echoes in Ivy fashion. As a Buddhist, I am drawn to the present, as a population using memes as moral compasses, we are drawn to the simple. Be here now. The only thing you have is today.
WASPs, according to Beran, were future-centric. If I had written the book with Beran’s premise, my first sentence would have been “Build it and they will come.” Beran doesn’t write for the web. Here he describes the vision on an individual level: “High WASPs strove in their own lives to avert failure, to realize what Jacob Burckhardt… called the “highest individual development,” a regimen in which the cultivation of the “powerful and varied nature” and a mastery of “all the elements of the culture of the age” would combine to produce the “‘all-sided man,’ ‘l’uomo universale.'” They believed that this sort of development, if carried out on a wider scale, could regenerate the waste spaces of their country.”
This book is as much about beauty as it is about power and wealth. Maybe moreso. As a writer and musician with the last name Burton who went to a Protestant undergrad, I can tell you this: the artistic and creative contributions of the WASP are not highlighted. Anywhere. Except in WASPS. And it is a welcome and novel approach supported by doctorate thesis levl research and the prose of a novelist. A good, good novelist.
It is hard to go further without robbing you of the journey yourself. So I will tell you this. Read the book. You will find the familiar characters (I will say there was one point where I asked myself if FDR was the only WASP ever), but you will find them in the higher pursuit of an aspirational future. And you will find that this aspirational future which you can see from the 10 yard line, which is apparently where the WASP turned over the ball, is based on art, thinking, literature, civics, education, excellence, ethics, and the intuition that self-respect i not an accessory, it is a fundamental.
The same pillars as my white OCBD.
Buy the book.
Michael Knox Beran’s previous books include Forge of Empires and The Last Patrician. The Last Patrician was a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the National Review.