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with 6 comments

Several years ago–I don’t really remember when–a short article ran in the National Review magazine that argued that an old-fashioned aristocracy by birth was much better than an aristocracy by merit, because the aristocrats of the first always felt as if they didn’t quite deserve what they had, while the aristocrats of the second always felt as if they’d earned their position and were objectively better than everybody else, and therefore had the right to run everybody else’s lives.

I probably should have taken more than a single sentence to outline that premise.


For those of you who don’t know–National Review is not just a conservative magazine, but the grand daddy of all American conservative magazines.  It was founded in the Fifties by William F. Buckley, Jr, as his first shot in his war to make Conservatism once again a considerable force in American politics. 

Obviously, he won.

The other thing about NR, though is that it is definitely in the “elitist” strain of conservatism.  It promoted higher standards for education, high culture over popular culture, decorum and following the rules over rioting in the streets against the war in Vietnam.

At any rate, when I first read this article I did a lot of eye rolling.  If there has been one thing about the changes in American culture over the past century that I have definitely always been in favor of, it has been the relentless movement from inherited status to status based on “merit.”

I’ve got the scare quotes over merit for two reasons. The first is that Thomas Sowell is right.  We do not have a system based on merit.  We have a system based on performance. 

It’s an important distinction that we ought to pay more attention to.  It’s the reason why I do not support “equal pay for ‘comparable’ work.”  Equal pay for equal work, yes, but the other thing assumes that there is some mysterious intrinsic quality that we can discern from the outside (“merit”) and then forcably apply to everybody and everything. 

Usually, of course, feminists who want the world to move to a “comparable worth” standard want to install those standards they think everybody else OUGHT to value–usually those standards they meet easily (women get far more college degrees than men, but significantly more often in “soft” fields than “hard” ones) but that are not rewarded highly in the real world.

In a world where “merit” decided who got rewarded and  how much, almost any fiction would make more money than those endless Twilight novels.  In a world where performance decides, more people are willing to spend $7.99 on a Twilight novel than are willing to spend it on something by Cynthia Ozick, and that takes care of that.

I’m not trying to be deliberately snarky here.  I’m just trying to point out that we don’t really have a firm idea of what we mean by “merit,” while we do have a very firm idea of what we mean by performance. 

One of the more interesting things about rereading Too Big To Fail, the nonfiction book about the 2008 financial crash I’ve touted here before, is the recognition of just how many of these guys started out in no better than the middle class.  One of the big guns at Treasury had a father who worked servicing jukeboxes.  At least two of the big names at Goldman Sachs grew up on farms in the midwest–and family farms, not agribusiness ones. 

Virtually all of these people got where they were going because they were able to deliver exceptional performance–to get the firm to a certain earnings level, to handle crises when they happened, to do what needed to be done to keep the clients happy and the firms healthy.

To the extent that there were objective measures of what constituted success–to the extent that there are such measures in the real world–I don’t think we have much of a problem calling what we’re doing a “meritocracy.”

Where the problem comes in is in those areas where the definition of “success” is largely arbitrary.

Eck.  Maybe that’s not the way I should put it.

Defining “success” as “getting a college degree” is certainly to give that definition an objective criteria by which it can be judged, but that criteria has very little to do with anything solid in the real world.

For one thing, there are all kinds of colleges and all kind of degrees, and they are not all equal.  For another, the college degree per se doesn’t connect to anything solid except in some very particular instances–and then it’s not the degree that matters, but the content of it.

Getting a medical degree certainly correlates to some very solid things, but that’s because what we want is not the degree, but the specific knowledge the degree symbolizes.

We have, however, erected a huge edifice of degrees whose entire purpose is to indicate that the holders of them are “smart.” 

I’m looking, now, not at the low end of the educational totem pole, but at the high one.  What graduation from an Ivy League/Seven Sisters/Little Three/Public Ivy/Top Twenty school does for its graduates is to stamp them as “smart,” with the unstated implication that the graduates of lesser places, or the people who have not graduated at all, are…stupid.

Or at least stupider.

And it is this, I think, this assumption that some people are being official labeled “smart” and others “not” that causes all the trouble, from all the quarters from which it comes.

On the part of the people who do not so qualify, there is natural resentment on a number of counts.  Not least of these is the implication that some people are simply born better than others. 

“Smart” is not the same thing as having done well at school.  Having done well at school is a matter of performance, and even people not born into the very top percentale of the IQ chart can do better than those who were, by working harder. 

“Smart” is something you’re born with, or not.  And to brand some people officially “smart” is to return to the idea of a natural aristocracy.

What’s more, if you look at the behavior of the people who DO qualify by this criteria–okay, by a minority of them, but a significant minority–what you see is the kind of thing that is most clearly explained by a sense of their own natural aristocracy.

They do not only think that their fellow citizens are wrong in what they think or want or do, they think their fellow citizens are incapable of being right if left to their own devices.

Their fellow citizens are not “smart.”  They know that because their fellow  citizens did not go to a Top Twenty school.   People who are not smart cannot think well.  Therefore, it’s not only justifiable, but imperative, that smart people think for them.

We need, I think, to begin to insist on the distinction–this is not a meritocracy, but a performance-ocracy.

Okay, that was a terrible word coinage.  Egregious.

But I think we need to divest the entire country of the idea that we are operating on something called a “meritocracy,” where some people possess inborn, inherent superiority over everybody else, and being rewarded for it by both money and power.

Performance is a much better standard, for more reasons than I can count.

It is inherently democratic, where the “merit” idea is not.

It is much more in tune with the reality of the world.  In the real world, beauty is as beauty does–and so is smart.

And it will be less likely to give people the idea that they’ve got a right to tell the rest of us what to do.

It’s actually cold here.

And I’ve got work to do.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Undine Spragg

with one comment

A couple of days ago, I set out to write about Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country, and I got sidetracked.

I’m now halfway through with this rereading of the book, and I’ve got some notes.

1) This is not a Victorian romance.  It’s a book more in the tradition of Vanity Fair, The Portrait of a Lady,  and Middlemarch–a novel about the career of one particular woman.

2) The woman, in this case, is Undine Spragg, child of a midwestern businessman who has come to New York specifically to launch her.  

Wharton has a lot more to work with by keeping most of the first two thirds of the novel in the United States.  There’s more going on here, in terms of clashes between classes, than was going on in Europe.  Henry James, Wharton’s idol and mentor, never could see it.  His American-set novels always shy away from dealing with the enormous chaos and variety of the fight between “old money” (people whose ancestors signed the Declaration), “new money” (like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, only a generation or two old, and made through industry), and “western money” (what was coming out of the regions outside of the Northeast).

3) Wharton does not shy away from these things, and because she doesn’t she manages to have a somewhat more balanced view of the world she’s looking at than either James or Trollope do.

Both James and Trollope mourn the passing of the old system, the gentlemanly lives and behavior of people of sensitivity and taste.  They do that even when they are forced to acknowledge–as Trollope is in The Way We Live Now–that the present representatives of the Old Families are a thoroughly useless lot.

Wharton can see, with clarity, that the society of the families of the Signers has become largely passive, and that passivity, no matter how gentile, cannot build a country. 

She doesn’t admire the men of the west–and she really doesn’t admire the equivalent of the Vanderbilts–but she also doesn’t think any injustice is being done when they win that particular war.  They are, after all, actually doing something.

4) Undine Spragg–like Becky Sharpe before her, and Scarlett O’Hara to come later–is a kind of force of nature, the pure distillation of the new order of ambition and energy.

And like them, she’s an utter and unabashed sociopath. 

I think it’s interesting that such disparate writers all conceived of the spirit of the spirit of the new industrial age as being not immoral, but amoral–a relentless drive to get what you want as you want it, with no thought (or even knowledge) of any other scale of values.

There are certainly people like that in the world.  My father used to say that anybody could get rich if that was all he wanted to be, and I finally figured that out when I hit middle age.

In my experience, however, people aren’t usually that simple, and it was definitely the case that the old robber barons weren’t that simple.  Carnegie founded libraries and universities and gave all his money away. 

Of course, the answer may be more simple than I’m making it.  The representatives of the robber barons someone like Edith Wharton was likely to have met would have been their children and grandchildren.  The family founders tended to have little to no use for “society,” and to have chosen their wives as good partners in the drive to make good. 

5) The tendency for all these novels to be written about “society” is, I think, not an indication that the writers thought “who got invited to whose party” was particularly important in itself, but a result of the fact that novels were mostly bought and read by women.

In an era when women had limited areas in which to exercise their ambition, “society” provided an arena for combat where no other could quite serve. 

This is especially the case in the lives of those women for whom public esteem was high on the list of what they were ambitious for.

And don’t say it’s trivial.  It was as true of many of the men as well, including many of the men who built great industries.  The Greeks built a whole society on the fact that men lusted after the esteem of their societies.

Undine Spragg cares about getting invited to the “right” parties–but her ideas of what makes “right” are her own, which is why she has so little respect for the Marvells and their ancestral connection to the Founding.

Wharton leaves it up in the air, though, as to whether this lack of respect is a good or a bad thing.   The Founders, after all, Did Something.  They went out and made the country.  The Marvells and the Dagonets are doing not much more than sitting home, being sensitive, and priding themselves on who they don’t know.

6) Wharton published this novel in the year that she divorced her Very Old New York husband and went to live permanently in Paris.  It was 1913, and she would be there–she lived until 1937–throughout the entire “lost generation” of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.  She would never be part of it.

It interests me that she wasn’t. 

My first instinct is always to say “age,” but Gertrude Stein was also younger than the new writers, and still very much a part of the Paris expatriate American literary scene.

Maybe it was just a matter of literary focus and literary style.  Wharton wrote “old fashioned” novels, rather than dabbling in the new currents of experimental writing. 

For whatever reason, it was just, as we say, not her thing, and there seems to be very little indication that she even met any of the people who made up that enormous scene.

Maybe she was just too thoroughly brought up to be Old New York, descendant of a Signer.

It’s hard to tell.

7) One of the things I like about this book is that it does not assume that we know everything and everything is fine as soon as we see our heroine safely married.

Edith Wharton’s married life was apparently a complete hash, and she sees no happily ever afters for Undine or anybody else.

I don’t know if that makes her books better or worse.

It certainly makes them interesting.

Written by janeh

June 14th, 2011 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

It’s a miserable, dark morning here, and the only real bright side is that it’s reasonably cool.  Reasonably.  I could still use the air conditioner.

I was going to spend the day today talking about Edith Wharton and a character called Undine Spragg, and I’ll get around to it this week, because I’m having a very good time.

But first, I’d like to be clearer about what is meant by the phrase “educated upper middle class,” and then I’d like to recommend another book.

“Educated upper middle class” is not my phrase.  I didn’t make it up.  It’s from sociology, and constitutes one of the “class” categories in the United States when sociologists do studies of class.

There are five or six criteria–and maybe more–but what I remember are the most important ones:

1) a member of the EUMC has a class status dependent on what he does for a living AND

2) what that is must REQUIRE a university degree, and probably a graduate degree or two  AND

3) he must be paid in six figures AND

4) he must have significant control over the work he does and the way he does it.

If I go beyond the sociologists to what I can observe in real life–I mean, I was brought up in Fairfield County, CT, which is practically the EUMC’s home territory–I’d say Anna had hit something very important.

One of the prime attributes of members of the EUMC is the belief that work is more important than personal life,  and if one has to be sacrificed to the other, it’s the personal life that has to go.

EUMC parents expect their children to leave home, often for places far away, and to be too busy to have lots of contact.   If there’s a crisis at home, a family illness, that kind of thing, they expect to handle it on their own and not “burden” the children with it.  Older people are taken care of by professionals, in institutional settings.

It should be obvious, looking at the core criteria, that the poster children for the EUMC are high-end medical professionals, people with “serious” specialties like cardiology and oncology. 

Nobody gets to be a cardiologist without going to medical school and training hard after that.  The education is absolutely necessary to the occupation.

Because one of the other things about the EUMC–at least, in my experience on the ground, so to speak–is that they’ve turned scientism into a high art.   They are desperate to claim that whatever it is they do is “science,” because they see “science” as having the only really legitimate authority in society.

That leaves a fair number of them in a fairly difficult position, because the kinds of jobs that pay the right amount, give you lots of autonomy in the workplace (set your own hours, set your own projects), and are actually scientific are few and far between.  And they require a lot of math.

Still, there’s a lot of fudging going on.  Lawyers (or at least expensive ones) count as EUMC, and they don’t care about the science.  Psychologists and psychiatrists count as EUMC if they have degrees and make enough money. 

If you’ll note, all these people tend towards being in “private practice” and therefore being the boss of themselves. 

But most “therapists” don’t qualify, not least because, in most states, there are no licensing rules at all for who can call himself (or herself) a therapist.  The degrees are not necessary to the work.  And the work often doesn’t pay all that much.

There are other people, however, who come close to the ideal here, and get to count:  high-end tenured university professors are a biggie. If the professor is not high-end, he’s not making enough money.  If the professor is not tenured, he doesn’t have much control of  his work environment.  But the Full Professor of Anything at Harvard has all the requirements–he HAS to have the degrees, he has control of his work environment, he makes six figures–although he’s sometimes a little declasse if he doesn’t have the science.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, almost none of these people are government employees.  And the EUMC doesn’t tend to recognize government employees as part of its own–unless the employment you have is Cabinet Secretary, when they’ll take you.

Government employees almost always have their work schedules mapped out for them by their superiors.  They’re told what time to get into work and what time to leave, when they can have vacations, what projects they have to work on. 

A fully fledged member of the EUMC gets to decide all that thing for himself, although the decision may be driven by the reality of the market.

And being an elected official won’t get you into the EUMC, either.  There are no educational requirements for holding public office in the US, with the exception of a few specific state offices (like state Attorney General) that have had requirements tacked onto them.

You can run for President of the US, or for Congressman from your district, or for Senator from your state, without ever having attended the first grade.

Of course, some elected officials do start out as members of the EUMC, since a lot of them start out as lawyers.  And we tend to like to elect members of the EUMC.  That, I’m not sure of the reason for.

I would like to point out, however, that there is a class of people who are in fact over the EUMC, and over the elected officials and hired guns at the tops of institutions. 

They consist of the men and women–well, okay, mostly men–who can ignore all the rules the EUMC and their attempted look-alikes in public agencies erect. 

For instance:  when a member of the EUMC has a son and wants that son to go to Harvard, he works very hard to get the kid into great private high schools and to SAT prep courses and everything else necessary to make it in.  He does that because he has to.  If the kid has grades in the toilet and terrible board scores, he gets rejected.

If Bill Gates has a kid who wants to go to Harvard, he’ll just go–nobody will turn him down.  And if Gates has a kid who doesn’t want to go to school at all, he’ll still get almost any job he wants.

Government workers can set standards for things like smoking in private offices, but they can’t keep the company from pulling up stakes and moving the offices overseas.   They can erect EPA rules to keep the company from developing a piece of land next to its main offices, but they can’t keep the company from shutting down US operations wholesale to find a place that will accommodate it.

In the end, the people with the real power in the long term over all of us–and over the EUMC and its wannabe types in government especially–are the people who determine IF we’ll be working next year.

And it’s important to remember that this is something the EUMC people never, never, never forget. 

But the Bill Gateses of the world do forget it.  They forget it all the time.

And that, you see, was how I got to thinking about recommending a book.

The book is called Bobos in Paradise, by David Brooks, and it’s about a specific end of the EUMC. 

The book is short, and sort of funny, and not bad as these things go, but what I remember very strongly about it are a few pages toward the middle where Brooks describes the typical relationship between the “Bobos” (bourgeois bohemians–basically EUMC types who work in “creative” fields like computer software design, or as high-end reporters on high-end newspapers or television) and the people who run things like GM, Google, and Goldman Sachs. 

At any rate, “middle class” is the right designation for both the EUMC and the government-types who staff the agencies, because there is indeed a class above them that can in fact do quite a lot to control them.

It’s just that that class doesn’t have to worry about BEING controlled in the ways that affect the rest of us, and they don’t care.

It’s going to thunder storm.

I’m going to go get some serious work done.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2011 at 6:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Class Acts

with 4 comments

So, I’m sitting here, reading through the comments from yesterday, and being thoroughly astonished–yes, of course, on one level and in one very small segment of the world, “social class” is about who gets to go to which parties–

But social class in the real world is about who gets to be Secretary of the Treasury, and who, born into poverty, makes his way out of it or gets stuck there.

Or, for that matter, who, born into a “good” family, ends up bombing out instead of making a good family of his own.

Or her.

I’m being grammatical today.

I think what happens in the US is that we tend to think of social class in one of two ways, both of which are largely wrong:

First, we think of social class is money.  If two guys have a million dollars, they’re both “upper class.”  If two families live in the same trailer park, they’re both “lower class.”

This has the virtue of being sometimes sort of true–if you were going to make odds, that’s the way you’d bet, because a larger percentage of each group would belong to the social class they seem to on the surface.

There are reasons for this that have nothing at all to do with chance. The higher up the social scale you get, the harder families work to insure that their children simply will not fit into any of the classes below them.

This is less a matter of snobbery than it is of protection.  Class is a set of attitudes and assumptions about the world, and as such it steers children into some sorts of behavior and not in others.  Middle class parents expect their children to attend class, be polite to their teachers, get their homework done, and have a job at least in the summer to show they have a decent work ethic.  They want those messages reinforced, not sabotaged by kids who think the world owes them a living or that school is for chumps on their way to making chump change.

A family whose parents work two jobs (at things like lawn care worker and convenience store clerk) each to keep the kids in parochial school, who show up at every parent-teacher conference, who  make sure their kids do their homework, who push college and scholarships at every turn–those people are middle class, whether they live in a nice development somewhere or in a trailer park.

It’s not about the money.

What it is about, though, or sort of half about, is the style–social class is distinctly about styles, because styles is the shorthand by which we recognize each other. 

And it’s the style that causes the problem.

Go back and listen, sometimes, to liberals talking about George Bush or conservatives talking about John Kerry–listen to just how much of it is not about substance but about style.

Think of that infamous ad during the 2004 elections about how we don’t want your brie-eating, wine-tasting, New York Times reading snobs out here in Iowa.

I had people on this blog defend that ad–and defend the idea of categorizing people by their tastes–as a good way of telling one side from the other.

The problem is, it’s only half a good way to tell one side from the other. 

The personal taste side of social class is essentially superficial.  It does not really connect to any of the core issues in class.  Both Ann Coulter and Bill Maher–who, by the way, dated each other in college–are “educated upper middle class” in tastes, habits, and assumptions about other people,  and they don’t agree on just about anything that would matter in electing them to office.

What we call the “culture wars” in the US is basically a war of class–of the middle class vs the educated upper middle class, to be precise.  We like to call the educated upper middle class the “elites,” but when we do it we’re using “elites” in a way that’s new. 

The way liberals responded to Bush–not in opposing his policies, which is sane, but in being driven nearly crazy by the very sight of him–was a result of the fact that Bush was so solidly, uncompromisingly middle class in superficial tastes. 

Bush may have gone to Andover and Yale, but he talked, walked, ate and responded to things like books and movies as if he’d gone to John F. Kennedy High and Missouri State. 

Bush opponents do not respond that way to Ann Coulter, for instance, because in spite of her political ideas, she’s as solidly educated upper middle class as they come.

In fact, at the moment, the educated upper middle class has a lock on the professions, from law and medicine and college teaching to administrative jobs in government, banking and major institutions.

That does not, of course, mean that somebody whose superficial tastes are otherwise cannot get where he wants to go in those areas.  It does mean that such a person will have a harder time than somebody who walks the walk and talks the talk.

And, in general, if you don’t have the superficial affect, you’re going to have a much harder time getting anyplace in those particular areas of work and life.

That’s what college is for for a lot of poorer kids–it’s a place they go where they can be initiated into what they have to look like in order to be accepted as what they want to be, in the careers they want to have.  You don’t walk into an interview with a law firm–or a good law school–in a mustard stained t-shirt talking about yo mama.  You could be a cross between Jesus Christ and Clarence Darrow and not seal the deal.

People who do seal the deal without the superficial trappings of taste tend to do it outside the institutional structures of official organizations.  One of the best contrasts of class I’ve ever seen comes in that movie I’ve been on about, Too Big To Fail, when Hank Paulson calls Warren Buffett to ask his advice.  Paulson is dressed in Upper Middle Class Impressive.  Warren Buffett is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and is in the middle of buying his granddaughters ice cream at Dairy Queen.

If you want another good example, look at the characters of Charles van Doren and Herbert Stempel in the movie Quiz Show. 

Books about social class tend to concentrate on the superficial aspects of taste because those are the most visual markers of the issue.  They rely on things like who goes to which party because those are the most immediately dramatic possible events in stories about the issue.

But the issue itself isn’t about taste, or about parties.  It’s about how someone navigates a change in his own class status. 

And it is, I think, the quintessential subject of American culture.  Warren Buffett at the Dairy Queen.  Mark Zuckerberg forcing himself into a jacket to go to dinner with President Obama.  George H.W. Bush trying to eat pork rinds and then not knowing the price of a gallon of milk.

Of course, I don’t know the price of a gallon of milk at this moment, but that’s because almost everybody in this house is allergic to it.

Written by janeh

June 12th, 2011 at 8:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And Now For A Word…

with 3 comments

A couple of days ago, I started to write a post for this blog on the subject of V.S. Naipaul and Edith Wharton.  For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, V.S. Naipaul is the ethnically Indian, Trinidad-raised, London-resident novelist who won a Nobel Prize in Literature a few years back, and who has recently gotten himself in a lot of hot water for saying that he looks at women writers and just knows that they’re not his equals.  Even Jane Austen isn’t his equal.  She doesn’t see the wider issues.  And she’s never been master of a house.

I’d go find a link to the actual interview, except every time I try I seem to cause another thunderstorm.  We’ve had a lot of weather around here lately.  Wednesday afternoon there was an enormous storm, not bad just where I am, but really horrendous a few towns over.  The friends who do this web site for me had a tree come down on one of their cars and bash in the roof, the hood, one of the sides…and last I checked, they hadn’t got it all dug out yet.

So I’m a little nervous about looking for the link.  The other thing about the weather is that it was a hundred degrees a few days in a row.  And I do not do well at a hundred degrees.

Still, the V.S. Naipaul thing struck me, on a number of levels.

The first is the obvious–no, he isn’t as good a writer as Jane Austen. 

If we’re dealing with his fiction, he isn’t even as good a writer as Daphne du Maurier. 

His fiction tends to be suffocatingly depressive, written about immigrant communities in London–especially his own, but not limited to that–and filled with characters who obsess endlessly about their social status, their perceived social status, the humiliations of being poor (like, appearing badly dressed in front of richer people).

If you want a look at Naipaul as a first class writer, you go to his nonfiction.  There, he can hold his own with anybody.  He is, in fact, the world’s best writer on the subject of tourists at the revolution, and he has an uncorrupted and apparently uncorruptible bullshit detector on the subject of Western “progressive” fantasies about revolutionary authenticity.

You’d have to be schizophrenically delusional to read one of his “travel” books and come out believing in the noble savage.

But I’ve talked about Naipaul’s nonfiction before, and that’s not what’s on my mind now.

Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t respond to that interview by spewing All The Usual Rhetoric.  Enough people did, however, to make me wonder if there was a cabal of academic feminists whose only purpose in life was to try to prove Naipaul’s point about women writers.

Mostly, that sort of thing just made me tired, and proved to me again that the present day practice of the Humanities in college English departments does more to disable people from understanding their world than give them insight into it.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Naipual is a “self hating” other trying to suck up to the dominant White Establishment.  I think he fully feels himself superior, fully experiences his life as of being one of those superior beings–and that if you don’t understand that that’s what’s going on, or that such a perception could be fully true for a London writer who happens to be dark-skinned, then you’re never going to know what’s going on here.

But fascinating as a foray into Mr. Naipaul’s psychological make-up might be–okay, maybe not–what really struck me about his remarks is that they were almost identical to the kinds of things people said about women and the writing of fiction when I first marched off to college at the end of the 1960s.

In fact, it was the standard take on “women writers” for most of the sixty years prior to that.   Even Jane Austen herself was considered…well…not really first rate, because–well, because she wrote about getting married and domestic problems and that kind of thing.

Adventure was declasse, of course, but the marriage worries of middle class virgins were even more so.   A woman writer could only become a writer of the first rank if she–well, no, she actually couldn’t.  She was always going to be too housewifey.  It was her nature.

All of that sort of thing fell about in the early 1970s, of course, and when it did a great many women writers of fiction were catapulted into the curriculum.  Most of these writers–Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolfe–were what I think of as “good enough.” 

They were interesting and technically accomplished writers.  They sometimes had interesting things to say.  Most of them seemed to me to be “minor” in the way that word was used about fiction at the time.

The one exception was an American writer named Edith Wharton, who wrote close to the beginning of the twentieth century.  She was born into an old-money New York family.  She wrote about old money New York and, even more so, about the collision between the socially ambitious upstarts and the “society” they wished to enter. 

Towards the end of her career, she spent a fair amount of her time writing about the collision between newly rich Americans and the European societies that wanted to exploit them.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.  It’s the same subject matter that concerns Henry James.  And Wharton was a great admirer of James and his work. 

In fact, when she started out, she consciously attempted to model her work on James’s.  To American literary critics–academic critics, not reviewers–she was treated as a James wannabe, and largely dismissed as unoriginal and derivative.

But she’s not.

In fact, of all the women writers hauled out of attics and steamer trunks when feminism hit the English departments in a wave, Edith Wharton is problem the only one who was an undiscovered and unsung genius.

Her prose is considerably cleaner and more direct than James’s, and her observations about people are clear and insightful.  She gets the tone of that world and that time so clear that I don’t really care if it was accurate–I can feel it, and I can live it.

I have no idea if Wharton was ever “master of a house,” as Naipaul explained as one of the reasons women couldn’t be really good–although a sillier thing to say, in this era of single mothers, I can’t imagine–

Anyway, I don’t know if she was ever master of a house, but I do know she was master of her milieu, at least on paper.

And all that leads up to saying that I have just unearthed The Custom of the Country from one of my book stacks, and I’m going off to read it.

There’s about to be more weather.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2011 at 8:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

with 2 comments

It’s just possible that I got enough sleep last night.  I say it’s possible because, although I got up at two thirty, I also went to bed very early, and I seem to be functional.  I did not get enough sleep the night before last, however, and that’s how I ended up watching a bunch of episodes of Bait Car.

I need to be honest here:  I watch a fair amount of true crime on television.  I am not, however, enamoured of most true crime reality shows.  Cops bores me, largely because it feels like the same thing over and over and over again.  Apparently, most everyday police work consists of trying to get people who spend all their time drinking to stop doing whatever they shouldn’t be doing when they drink. 

And these people do a lot of things when they’re drinking, too.  Mostly, they drive cars.  This is not a good sign.

What kept me glued to Bait Car for half an hour was that, next to the people on Cops, the ones on Bait Car–no, I can’t finish that sentence.  If you’ve never seen Bait Car, the premise is fairly simple.  Police trying to catch car thieves put out a nice car somewhere near where there have been other car robberies, leave the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, and wait.   The nice car is equipped with technology that will allow the police to lock the doors and shut off the engine once the thief starts to drive it away.

Now, I feel about the people who go for this sort of the way I do about the people who get caught on To Catch a Predator.   I mean, come now, really.  By this time, most of these guys must know that the fourteen year old in the chat room probably isn’t a fourteen year old, and most of the guys who get caught on Bait Car must know that a shiny new Ford Escalade left often with its keys in the ignition in a bad neighborhood is probably a bait car.

This would not take all that much to figure out if these people would, you know, think about it.   These shows remain on the air because these people don’t think about it. 

But what utterly fascinated me about Bait Car was that I was surprised, half the time, that the thieves managed to steal the car even with all that help from the bait car police.   One duo couldn’t figure out how to use an automatic transmission gear shift–that’s automatic transmission.  It took two and a half minutes of air time for these guys to figure out how to put the car in drive.  They ended up yanking at the thing until it popped by simple force majeur.   If it hadn’t, they’d probably still be there, wondering why they couldn’t get the car to go.

I don’t usually have a lot of patience for complaints about entrapment in things like this, but here I could see it.   No matter how larcenous the hearts of these guys were, some of them wouldn’t have committed a crime for the simple reason that they wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to do it. 

Which, you know, says something.

The other show I found myself drifting into was this thing called Southern Fried Stings, which seems to be dedicated to proving on video that the whole dumb hillbilly Southerner stereotype is absolutely true.

My favorite one of these was a clip of an arrest that had originally been filmed by a local TV version of Cops, called County Law, that followed around behind the county Sheriff’s department. 

The cops drive up to this one house, nice little ranch, to arrest a woman on outstanding warrants.  The door is answered by the woman’s mother, who looks at the cameras outside and yells, “County Law!  Am I on County Law?”

Having been assured that this is, indeed, being filmed for an episode of County Law, the mother gets so happy she can’t stand it, racing around the place yelling “County Law!  I’m on County Law!”

In the meantime, one of the policemen is inside arresting the daughter, while the second one keeps trying to get some information. 

Which doesn’t happen, because the mother keeps racing around the room yelling “County Law!  I’m on County Law!  County Law!”

From the back you hear the daughter:  “Mama, will you shut up?  I’m being arrested here.”

“County Law!  County Law!”

The policemen were having to work overtime not to crack up.

Okay, I’ll admit.  I rather liked the old lady.  I think the cops did, too.  She didn’t seem to be doing anybody any harm, and she was having a lot of fun.  She also had an accent out of The Beverly Hillbillies. 

There are a lot of these shows out there, shows whose entire point seems to be highlighting stupid people or people exhibiting stupid behavior.  There are several versions of a thing called World’s Dumbest–criminals, daredevils, partiers,  I don’t know what else.  There’s Southern Fried Videos. 

I’m forgetting titles, which probably means I am tired. 

The theme is always the same, though–many of our fellow citizens are complete idiots, and it’s fun to watch them screw up.

When I get really, really tired, I think this is depressing. 

Yes, stupid is always with us, and sometimes stupid is very funny to watch.

But you’d think I could come up with better uses of my time.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2011 at 4:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment


I’m having my annual allergy-season eye infection, so I can’t really see.

But this


showed up on ALDaily this morning.

And it’s interesting.  And Menand writes well.

The only thing I’d say is this–I think there are really THREE theories of college education, not two, because the two parts of his secondary theory are inherently contradictory.

But, you know, YMMV.

Written by janeh

June 1st, 2011 at 6:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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