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.
Thanks for this post — WASPS looks like a worthwhile read. I never associated WASP-dom with well-roundedness (l’uomo universale) as portrayed here. My exposure to it in my youth led me to think of it as a stifling and suffocating culture, certainly not one that took an interest in creativity. Coloring outside the lines, living, working, or praying differently (or not at all) were indeed frowned upon. That said, even as someone who fulfills three of the letters in WASP, I know my exposure was mostly peripheral and may have been unenlightened. And the fact that the fashions depicted on this book’s cover are of my great-grandparents generation, WASP-dom in the era my youth may have been a rather stale leftover.
…Upon closer examination, probably nearer great-great.
I recognize the second image. It is an image of Isabella Stewart Gardner on display at the Gardner Museum in Boston:
What an thoughtful and intriguing review! May have to pick this one up for a read.
“the artistic and creative contributions of the WASP are not highlighted. Anywhere.”
Oh goodness. This is like when my kids say “There’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, so why isn’t there a Kid’s Day!?”
I have to patiently explain to them that that’s because every day is Kid’s Day.
Maybe I am missing it. Can you please show me where the artistic and creative contributions of the WASP, not A WASP, are highlighted? – JB
Berkeley Breathes, I really appreciate your comment and *almost* completely agree. I’d leave an exception for any perspective that casts a different or new kind of light on the whole WASP thing, (knowing there can’t possibly be many shades left to cast on it).
I also believe that people should enjoy writing about the things that interest them: A quick look at Mr. Beran’s website begs the question, what on Earth else would this man write about?? Another question: To what extent does he have an ethical obligation to look at his subjects from the perspective of social justice? Just rhetorical — no answers on that from me, other than the fact that I don’t see it as a binary choice.
Hey Nevada, my two cents – he has no obligation to look at his subjects from the perspective of social justice. The book isn’t about that. – JB
Well there I go missing the point. Yes, cheers!
Ethical obligation to look at his subjects from the perspective of social justice?
Shiva H. Vishnu
I dunno. The book isn’t about that. I hear what you are saying, on the other hand, that’s not the subject of the book. – JB
It’s the ‘P’ in WASP that matters, culturally speaking.
And yes, Protestantism matters. A lot.
Fifty years ago, the decline of haute (High Church) Protestantism began. With every passing decade since the 1950s, fewer and fewer grandchildren and great grandchildren of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have returned to the vestry rooms, presbytery meetings, and sanctuaries for Holy Communion. They have opted instead for other pursuits, including hobbies and “spirituality.” And all sorts of silly endeavors, like modern art and wine collecting.
Without the High Church Protestants, there was no Brooks Brothers— indeed, no reason (at all) for a Brooks Brothers. And (thus) no J. Press. Without those tweedy English and Scottish Protestants— their hymns, their worship books, their liturgies and prayers—
— no Yale, Harvard, or Princeton. No Chipp, no Langrock, no Norman Hilton.
No uniform for Ralph Lauren to replicate for the rest of the world.
It’s no accident that the decline of Ivy style has coincided with the decline of old-fashioned a Mainline Protestantism. They’re intimately and eternally connected.
It stands to reason that, as Mainline Protestantism declines as a cultural (and political*) force, so will the old-fashioned Anglo-American Brooksy look spiral further and further downward. Until it’s such a minority voice that only a couple of outposts are needed— hopefully including the family-owned O’Connell’s.
* George H.W. Bush, David Souter, Claiborne Pell, John Warner…
Who are these unfortunate groups who have been striving and fighting for recognition only to be kept down and out by WASPs who already take up the space? Is not the space expandable? Is it a zero sum game? Could it be that you just dislike WASPs?
I’m an enigma. I enjoy wine collecting (well drinking), modern art collecting and, most importantly, the Glory of God.
White old Troy Shirtmakers Guild OCBD, olive flat front and cuffed Bill’s Khakis, BB blue tie with thin gold bars, Trafalgar belt with engine turned buckle, Omega on NATO band, Alden loafers and an ’80’s vintage 3/2 roll BB blue blazer. Thought I would include something ivy.
You are missing the point, or perhaps not missing it, that it is possible to take another position on an issue without referencing the people with whom you disagree. That is the flexing of civility. And a practice that leads to progress.
Interesting observation, S.E. As an Episcopalian, I can attest to the decline in attendance in most of our churches (my own seems to be an anomaly). Whether or not causal, it certainly does coincide with a decline in Ivy dress, as well as a lot of other traditions.
Will – Your kit sounds just about perfect. Gray glen-plaid, J. Press sack suit, 80s-era BB OCBD, ancient madder tie and cordovan longwings for me today.
Always a pleasure to see a reference to a white OCBD. They did, of course, precede blue OCBDs.
Thank you. Yours as well. I think we traditionalists have a difficult time making mistakes in our dress.
I’m not a fan of Protestantism, or khakis worn with a blazer, however Troy Shirtmakers Guild made outstanding OCBDs – congratulations on owning and wearing one.
Aside from the East Coast, where does WASP culture and identity flourish? Where else is it used as a dividing line?
I rarely hear the term “WASP” used to describe an individual’s or a group’s behavior in Texas. I also don’t think it’s used much in the Deep South and anywhere west of the Mississippi. Even then, it often has something in the East (“He comes from an old money WASP family on the East Coast”).
I wonder if this is because the brand of religion preached down here is often more strident or that some of the major denominations (Baptists and Methodists) are disconnected from their national leadership. We have a large number of independent “bible” and evangelical churches as well. And oh yeah, racial and ethnic discrimination looms over almost all of it.
However, none of that applies to the non-Confederate states. So what in God’s name is it?
Anyway, y’all carry on and I’ll attempt to learn something.
“Y’all carry on and I’ll attempt to learn something” = today’s mantra. – JB
There was a time when The Protestant Establishment ruled–not because they were especially talented or creative. Rather, I think it had much to do with a work ethic that rendered (produced) economy of effort, self discipline, and studiousness — traits/habits certainly shared people who self-identify as something other than White, Anglo Saxon Protestant.
I’ll venture a guess that Anglophilia, including but not limited to Donegal tweeds, Shetland sweaters, Irish Poplin ties, and English Flannel suits, will remain a feature of American life forever (even if a minority voice) as long as America honors-and-celebrates our genesis/origin stories, all of which entail the British Isles.* “The Brits” gave us our language, our major religions, our form of government (no Jefferson without Locke and Hume; no U.S. Constitution without the Magna Carta), and the sense of manifest destiny that’s undergirded the forward movement. I’ve long supposed that most Americans, like Hamilton, envy and privately invite monarchy. Or something resembling it. The proof is our acceptance of an ever-expanding executive branch.
The Brooks Brothers and their many campus shop imitators needed the Protestant Establishment — to buy the goods. It seems obvious that the decline of Mainline Protestantism, most especially the English and Scottish incarnations, would be accompanied by a shuttering of shops that catered to to Anglophile-ish tastes and sensibilities.
“As a Buddhist”
Maybe of the SF Zen variety, but that’s not Buddhism. In any case, this is a bizarre and unnecessary inclusion. Being attentive to the present isn’t copyrighted by Buddhism. And it’s not as though Buddhism can’t be future-centric either. Think of the coming of Maitreya in this world system and the promise of entering into the Pure Land of Amida Buddha at death.
It most certainly IS Buddhism. Because a system has an idea in the future tense, that does not make it future-centric. – JB
Thanks for this book review. I will be sure to pick up this book.
I would recommend Beran’s earlier book, The Last Patrician, very highly. Perhaps ironic given the earlier conversation regarding Protestanism being integral to Ivy Style and establishment, the last patrician who is the subject is Robert F. Kennedy. A good book about RFK and the demise of the establishment values around the late 60s.
The book arrived a few days ago. I’m beginning to probe the early chapters. The writing is as JB describes. For me, it’s not a book to be skimmed. There is too much depth per sentence, too much information, reference, and Beran’s style is very engaging. Recommended.
Check out Ali Wentworth in “Comedian’s in Cars getting Coffee” as she talks about WASP’s as my people. A great car as well, a 1970 Mercedes 280SE with a low grill.