Today we revisit this post from 2010 on the rise and fall of WASPdom.
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Very belatedly I’m finally getting around to a post on Tad Friend’s “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor,” which was released last year. Like the tribe of WASPs itself, Friend and his book have an even amount of vices and virtues.
Tad Friend is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a graduate of Shipley and Harvard. His father was president of Swarthmore, and his grandfather had received the highest grades ever in the history of Yale. His ancestors had done things like sign the Declaration of Independence.
Friend came of age in the ’70s when WASPdom was in the throes of decadence, a noble but faulted tribe that carried within it the seed of its own undoing. The closer he looked at his family and its milieu, the more he saw drunks, depressives and general pathology. For Tad Friend, the cost of being born privileged was 13 years of psychotherapy.
As a narrator, Friend is a mirror of the very problems that plague him. He admits to coming across throughout his life as cold, aloof, shy and untrusting, and in his memoir Friend first strikes you as the archetypal uptight and repressed WASP, a master of the punctilioes of social form but incapable of feeling or caring about anything. Friend shares equally in the vices and virtues of his clan, and they often trade places depending on context. Reticence may be tactful at a dinner party, less so when lying in bed with your significant other. His facility with English prose seems to build a protective wall around him more than it draws the reader in. Moreover, the first few words in the book’s subtitle are “me” and “my family,” a hint that the book is more of a self-indulgent exercise in personal therapy than a tome meant to entertain and inform the reader.
As a result, Friend’s general observations about the WASP class held my interest much more than the endless pages about him and his family. Like characters in a novel, you are either drawn in by the details of their lives or quickly bored.
Now for some of the book’s observations. Friend nominates 1965 as the year of the downfall of American civilization. He later writes, “I am drawn to what we had in great part because it’s gone — drawn to the ruinous romance of loss.” And elsewhere, “In a country built on growth and transformation, on the appetite for more, the ambition to preserve things as they were is peculiar to the modern Wasp.”
When it comes to matters sartorial, Friend writes of his “concise and predictable wardrobe.” While in prep school,
I quickly adopted the prevailing look of ceremonial outdoorsiness: Shetland sweater draped over my shoulders, ski tickets dangling from my down vest year-round. We wore duck boots and boat shoes though there wasn’t a large body of water for a hundred miles. Docksiders were superior to Topsiders, and Blucher mocassins from LL Bean best of all. These facts were simply evident, incontrovertible.
Mom gamely helped me shop to fit in, though her pride in me sometimes made the expeditions a trial: when I was seventeen, she took me to Jos. A. Bank and asked the salesman, “Do you have a pair of pants for a young man who’s going to Harvard?” As layering was also de rigueur, once I left home in the mornings I would slip one of my father’s way-too-large Lacoste shirts over an oxford-cloth button-down, flipping up the collar points to appear, in theory, studly.
Friend also differentiates between preppies and WASPs, though it seems rather obvious. “Preppy,” after all, comes from prep school, so by definition it will be associated with youth. Writes Friend:
This was the preppy look, regularly confused with the Wasp look. The confusion is understandable, as Wasps and preppies are often visually indistinguishable and can even interbreed, like horses and donkeys, though their offspring are usually sterile. The young of each species favor the preppy look: a vibrant effusion of pinks and yellows and greens blazoned with animal insignias such as the spouting whale. Older Wasps and preppies fade toward the Wasp look: dull, molting colors of khaki and battleship gray, and tweeds. (Though preppy men often have an Indian-summer flowering, in their sixties, into Nantucket-red pants topped by blazers in goldenrod or anise).
One reason for the confusion is that as Wasps began to vanish as a ruling class, they disappeared not from but into the culture, which produced perfect (and therefore imperfect) reproductions of their clothes and furniture, as well as armies of preppies to use them. The Wasp tastemakers of the twentieth century were neither Anglo, nor Saxon, nor Protestant. They were Jews, and to a lesser extent Catholics.
The real difference between preppies and Wasps is not couture but outlook. Preppies are infantile and optimistic, forever stuck at age seventeen; Wasps emerge from the womb wrinkly and cautious, already vice presidents, already fifty-two.
At one point, quoting Cleveland Amory, Friend offers this amusing short list of what makes one club material at Harvard:
… one must demonstrate “a healthy respect for the observation of Harvard’s social taboos. These taboos have always included, among other things, over-careful dress, undue athletic exertion, serious literary endeavor, rah-rah spirit, long hair, grades above C, and Radcliffe girls.”
Eventually, I ended up warming to Friend as a narrator, largely because of his self-deprecating humor, and ended up mildly cheering for him to get his life together. Though Friend may not make you wish he was yours, “Cheerful Money” is still a unique addition to the decline-of-WASPdom literary canon. — CC