Among the Rich
Money and Class in America.
by Lewis H. Lapham.
Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 243 pp. $18.95.
“Old Money”: The Making of America’s Upper Class.
by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
Knopf. 297 pp. $19.95.
Each of these books is by a representative of the patrician, aristocratic, or equestrian class—the choice of term being a function of which part of which book is under scrutiny—and each author expresses at least some degree of dissatisfaction with the value system in which he was schooled. That concludes the catalogue of their similarities.
In Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s, has written what purports to be an attack on money. It turns out to be an attack, first of all, on the people who, like Lap-ham’s San Francisco forebears, have had money for generations. It then becomes an attack on people who have new money. The attack broadens to include all Americans, who are assumed to be obsessed with money. Then it broadens further, into an attack on the human race. Well, not quite the whole human race. Though he scans the globe and history for useful tidbits with which to season his accusations, Lapham exempts from criticism those societies America opposes, like the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, the Sandinistas. He hints, though never quite saying so, that his compatriots would do well, as a first step toward redemption, to allow themselves to be purged by those they foolishly consider their enemies.
Lapham’s disillusionment with mankind was first engendered, he says, by the way the Hotchkiss School, an academy for the sons of the elite, tried to fit him into a money-mad, class-obsessed society. It was deepened in later life by the public spectacle not so much of tragedy, high crimes, misdemeanors, or fallings from grace, as of some fairly trivial misfortunes, missteps, and breaches of taste which he regards as socially significant. His sources for these include gossip columns, information gleaned over the lunch table, newspaper and television reports, and dialogue emanating from events like the Tonight Show. There are occasional sorties into History, with a capital H, which offer a chance to hurl glancing blows at the diplomacy of George III, Marie Antoinette, and the black pearls of Anne of Austria.
The mortal sin of these last-named personages, as of all old-rich, new-rich, and never-rich Americans, is avarice. Yes, Lap-ham’s is another in the chorus of contemporary attacks on greed. The idea that Ethiopians are hungry because some New Yorkers eat at Lutéce is of course not new with Lapham (Armenians starved, my mother suggested, because I lingered over my spinach), but he does take it one or two steps further. Specifically, he perceives a moral connection between Third World poverty and the treatment of coins in San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club, of which his father was a member. It seems the club’s kitchen staff had to wash all coins proffered by members in exchange for cigars and other sundries; only after being scrubbed and rinsed were they replaced in the cash drawer, fit to be given into members’ hands. By this parable, Lapham means to implicate the “criminal nakedness” of the American effort to hide, by means of charitable donations to African countries, the fact (for so he regards it) that famine in those countries has been caused by American policy.
Lapham’s discussion of social class in America is equally inspired. Though money and power do sometimes overlap in the United States, Lapham ignores the fact that not all possessors of great wealth are members of its leading or most prestigious families; nor are all Americans wealthy who enjoy first-class status. Lapham also ignores the fact of American inter-class mobility. His purpose is to deprecate not only established possessors of wealth and position but arrivistes as well, and in the process to deprecate, especially, the middle class.
The three classes Lapham does notice—the old rich, the new rich, and the middle class (which he believes is eating its heart out to join the other two)—are lumped together by him under an idiosyncratic rubric of his invention, the “equestrian classes.” That he should coin a term that is itself essentially obsolete can be taken as a broad hint. He wants us to know that the present-day middle and upper classes are, or should be, as obsolete as horse-ownership.
What, then, would he like to see replace them? Apparently, a new class, uncorrupted by the absurd preoccupations of the post-industrial capitalist world. One cannot help wondering what would happen to Lewis Lapham himself in such an eventuality. Perhaps he thinks the triumphant revolutionaries of the post-industrial world will excuse from retribution those who can give evidence by their writings of having repudiated their class origins prematurely. Good luck to him.
Nelson Winthrop Aldrich, Jr. comes to the typewriter as the member of the fourth generation of a family that has been as prominent in the Eastern Seaboard establishment as the Lapham family was on the California coast. His great-grandfather, the first Winthrop Aldrich, a poor boy from a long-established New England family, became a U.S. Senator and retired from Congress with far more money than he could have assembled honorably. Indeed, the Senator was a prominent target of muckrakers, having sponsored legislation that fortified the position of the Sugar Trust at the expense of American consumers and having invested the proceeds in street railways, greatly to his own and his descendants’ financial benefit. He also built the family stronghold, a baronial estate in Rhode Island. His daughter, the author’s great-aunt Abby, married John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Aldrich’s attitude toward his namesake and family progenitor is a likable mixture of shame and affection. He wonders how the Senator bore the attacks the righteous leveled at him (he seems not to have considered that the elder Aldrich may simply have found them irrelevant); and he sympathizes with Winthrop I’s sense of dynasty. Nor is this the only place in his book where Aldrich acknowledges the pleasure and pride he takes in his family. At times he expresses a nostalgic fondness for the scenes and objects of his childhood that reminds one of Vladimir Nabokov’s memories of St. Petersburg.
A dogged classifier, Aldrich divides the Old Money class into two groups, Patricians and Aristocrats, the first more serious than the second, more public-minded and devoted to good works. Boarding schools are also divided into two groups: St. Midas and Academy. The first consists of places like Groton and St. Paul’s, which concentrate on character; the second, comprised solely of Exeter and Andover, on achievement. (These distinctions have faded, Aldrich acknowledges, as the “synecdochic Harvards” into which the various schools feed their products have intensified their own intellectual and academic requirements.)
Aldrich’s greatest problem is to define what exactly he means by Old Money. He starts with families whose fortunes are entailed, governed perpetually by the terms of some remote ancestor’s will, like the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice. But this does not get him very far. Ultimately he comes up with two alternative formulas. One is that the family be subject to what he calls the Hemingway Curse. The reference alludes to an often quoted conversation between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which Fitzgerald alleged that the very rich are different from the rest of us, to which Hemingway responded, yes, they have more money. But Old Money people are also more than money, Aldrich insists, and his second criterion is an attempt to account for the “something more.”
Old Money people, Aldrich tells us, are distinguished from other Americans by not being market-oriented. This gentle and thoughtful writer reserves some of his harshest words for market orientation in general and for the neoconservatives in particular—people who, in his fantasy of them, believe that everything should be marketable and valued at the price buyers and sellers put on it. Market people, Aldrich imagines, insist not only that everything has a price and should have one, but that the value of a man is properly set not at what he is but at what he does or can be bought for.
Leaving aside Aldrich’s ignorance of what neoconservatives think about these matters, it is understandable that a chronicler of Old Money should get nervous about anything remotely resembling a market test of human value. After all, many descendants of Old Money families do nothing at all. Lucky are they, Aldrich writes, who come into a fortune that is tied up in an enterprise; but even that is changing, as fewer and fewer one-family enterprises in this country remain solid enough to guarantee heirs a significant role in management. How then are Old Money people to express their transcendence of market values?
War, Aldrich points out, has historically provided opportunities in which Old Money can be a service to society. And indeed the Old Money class encouraged America’s entry into World War I and in the course of it scored some of its highest achievements as a class. But then came the postwar period, which saw a widespread disaffection, including within the Old Money class itself, from the values historically associated with it. This loss of confidence in the entire principle of noblesse oblige, which is after all the main rationalization for the existence of a privileged caste in a democratic society, has continued to this day, and Aldrich, for one, wonders whether it has any applicability at all in the circumstances of contemporary life.
The answer would seem simple enough. In a country without an established church, Old Money families, call them patricians or aristocrats, are, or were, the primary custodians of traditional moral values. This is a role which in the 19th century they fulfilled with a certain distinction, most strikingly in the abolitionist cause. But in our century, Old Money families have repeatedly failed to provide moral leadership of any kind. In domestic affairs, when slavery was replaced by a legal system that in the 1920’s and 1930’s ground down Americans of color, hardly a word of protest was heard from Old Money. An honorable exception were members of the Phelps-Stokes family, who established a foundation dedicated to encouraging equality for blacks, but for the most part the initiatives came from elsewhere: from Henry Phipps, a new-money man who set up a foundation to provide urban housing for Negroes, and from Jewish merchants like the Rosenwalds and the Spingarns. In the 1960’s and 70’s, too late, some of the more alert members of the Old Money class awoke to embrace the mathematical formulas for solving the problem of the underclass which their former indifference helped to create.
In international affairs, the ongoing crisis posed to our country and our culture by the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism, in all its various guises, has been, to the Old Money class, a matter of indifference or worse. Indeed, it is sad to report that Aldrich himself dismisses those who are opposed to totalitarianism today as people fearful of modernity and uneasy at the prospect of change.
Is there no hope of moral leadership from this class? Thinking of the energy that came into the family when Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.’s great-aunt married John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one concludes that what Old Money families need most of all, whether their name is Aldrich or Lapham, is a continuing and incessant infusion of new blood.