The American Version by Joseph Epstein

by Claire Zulkey

21 August 2002


It Takes One to Know One

It takes one to know one. This is the recurring theme throughout Joseph Epstein’s searing, insightful, hilarious and bitter examination of one of our country’s most fatuous institutions: snobbery. As he examines snobbery through the WASP, college, celebrity, name-dropping, politics and more, Epstein continuously mocks his subject as well as himself and his audience. One moment the reader will be laughing at a person he recognizes only to read on and realize that he is laughing at himself. We are all snobs; the only thing that varies is about which and to what extent we realize it.

Epstein’s tone is perfect for his subject. Most of the time, his language lingers in the ether, highly intellectual and scholastic as he pokes and prods his points with sly insults and observations that would make Oscar Wilde proud. The most delightful moments, however, are when Epstein calculatedly takes off his verbal gloves and lets fly with what he really thinks, in no fancy vocabulary. One moment he will say, delicately, “The emotions, the values, the gambits of snobbery seem, in their indirectness, less than virile.” Then, he will describe intellectual snobs as those whom through “snobbery runs more rampant than bacteria through the kitchen of a Tijuana slow-food restaurant.”

cover art


Joseph Epstein

The American Version

(Houghton Mifflin)

Epstein seems to be in conflict at times about his own viewpoint on snobbery (by way of definition: “The snob—be he upward or downward looking—needs above all to feel superior.) He is quick to admit his own snobbery, especially the intellectual kind, but at the same time, he begs out. However, his very fixation on the subject shows his fascination with whom he considers beneath him, least of all those who would erroneously find themselves superior to him. He can’t resist dropping certain names or getting in his digs at popular culture and thus Epstein, perhaps the biggest butt of his own joke, may be the biggest snob in the book.

Epstein’s view on political snobbery, at least, veers to the right. He mocks the country’s fascination with the Kennedy family, the joys of claiming victimhood (of which he says “I have felt this small pleasure myself as a Jew in America”), and what he deems the ‘virtucrat,’ a thinly-veiled term for ‘liberal.’ “Those on the left have always needed to feel not so much that they are correct but that they are also good.” Despite Epstein’s ability to mock himself and his reader, he remains steadfastly, and perhaps proudly, a fuddy-duddy who pooh-pooh’s everything from the wealth of Donald Trump and professional athletes to environmentalists and those obsessed with Princess Diana. His favorite targets are those, most probably people he knows personally, “left-leaning, right-living intellectuals, happily safe atop a cloud of nearly celestial snobbery.” Epstein, the snob’s snob, can make fun of those who worship name brands or adore Madonna, but just let him enjoy his Burberry rain coat and Dunhill cigarette lighter in peace.

However, it is curious how Epstein fails to discuss women and snobbery to any great extent. It can be argued that in this day and age, American women carry the torch for snobbery. Let the men play golf in their Ralph Lauren and feel important, but in 2002, at least, women are setting the snobbery trends for where to live, what to wear, whom to see, what to drive and so on. In this summer’s voyeuristic The Nanny Diaries, blueblooded Park Avenue wives run the households, manipulate social ties and spend, spend, spend the money their distracted and bland husbands dutifully pump out. The most elite name brands (Prada, Gucci, Tiffany’s, Manolo Blahnik) cater first to women and then to men almost only as an afterthought. Epstein touches upon this sentiment as he says “In America, what has traditionally passed for (capital-S) Society has tended to be controlled by women,” but then he neglects to follow through on this train of thought. Female readers may find themselves nodding along to a certain extent of Epstein’s book until they realize that they in large part have been left out of the discussion. Even the most politically conservative female readers who agree with Epstein’s largely right-wing observations will notice this rather glaring omission, especially when he dedicates an entire chapter to the alienation of and snobbery of two particular minorities; Jews and homosexuals. Ironic or not, one feels that Epstein’s book would have been even more delightfully scathing had he examined the snobbery of this country’s fairer sex.

For a book that examines snobbery in America, Epstein touches base frequently on perhaps the origin of snobbery itself, Europe. His observations of those salivating wannabe Euros (you know, the ones who travel to Europe and complain about all the Americans) are witty, but at the same time, like most of his book, turn back to the reader and the author. Who hasn’t, least of all Epstein himself, felt themselves above the American hoi polloi? Epstein refrains from touching upon the redefining of Americanism after September 11, but perhaps it’s for the best; it’s difficult in such a short perspective to glean its effect upon snobbery. Epstein makes an attempt to suggest a cure for snobbery and after his thorough examination of snobbery, it feels a bit tacked-on and, in a way, depressing.

Snobbery can be mocked, but at its core, it is a weak, malicious vice that shows our worst. However, Epstein, for all his teasing, mockery, and, yes, snobbery, seems to take great pride in this country, snobbery or not, and that basic affection is the difference between a coldhearted treatise and a tongue-in-cheek mockery of one of society’s oldest, most unfortunate, and yet most humorous ills. Despite his superiority and criticism, Epstein admits, especially when challenged to snobbishly criticize his own country, “I find myself wanting to defend American culture to the last animal-fat-saturated fast-food french fry, and thus the jingo in me wins out, however briefly, over the snob.”

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//Mixed media