The present foundation of Anerican class structure both is and is not similar to that of the British Empire which has given rise to so many good tales because Brit class offers so many social precipices to fall over. Someone asked in a recent review why there were no good tales of American class structure and asserted that “class” was certainly there. There has been a taboo on admitting it, but more than that, it’s changing so quickly it’s hard to bring to consciousness. And our fault lines are likely to tangle with each other.
The first new schism is between those who are computer-savvy and those who are not. They live in quite different worlds.
The second is between people in high population density places and those in low population places. Urban versus rural are subsets -- there are sharp differences between a city in a high density place or a rural area in a high density place with the urban and rural in low density places. Often this is a matter of ecology, which throws in another variable for the construction of subsets, though in truth ecology and history are what originally create low population density as compared with high population density. Montana versus Connecticut.
A third schism might be those who are xenophobic versus those who are at least international and possibly accepting of human difference in a Star Trek uber-anthropologist manner. I call racism a xenophobia. Maybe all stigmas, which amount to a rejection of the humanness of others are xenophobia.
A fourth break is probably moral differences, by which I mean method more than content, particularly sexual. Some folks are phobic of anything their parents didn’t do (in some cases, barely enough to produce children) and at the other end of this continuum people who have had the opportunity and energy to explore the farthest reaches of experimental subculture, thus becoming foreign to their own parents. Possibly to themselves. In between are a lot of people watching cable television with their mouths hanging open, hoping that no one finds out. While on YouTube (I just discovered by reading a high-end publishing blog post that referred to this vid), people frankly watch a “monkey fucking a frog” -- though it was really a juvenile chimp masturbating with a toad -- as though they were three-year-olds. What class is THAT? And how patronizing am I? Is that because I’m “higher class?”
Another factor (I think we’re up to five now) might be religion: those who accept a pre-determined system and rationalize it or compartmentalize it or reject it as best they can, versus those at the other end of the spectrum (movement along the spectrum often being experienced in terms of conversions or break-downs) who want to be amorphously and shiveringly “spiritual.”
Sixth I would put science, though these elements are not arranged hierarchically. I mean, this is not sixth in terms of importance. And maybe seventh is the concept of “learned professions” as a class distinction. (Not the idea that cosmetologists should look “professional,” for God’s sake!.) Education is also best considered through method rather than content -- there is a huge gap between those who still think education should be industrialized: a matter of facts, obedience and punctuality. The paradigm shift this time has gone so deep that university divisions, disciplines and departments are thrown to the curb. I see this paradigm shift itself has become my marker of "high class." Hmmmm.
The writer who wishes to consider “class” in America must then choose a domain, preferably one they know well enough to convey the material culture, the emotional assumptions (“A person I love will know what I think and if they love me they will do what I want.”) and the pitfalls and triumphs of the specific sexual (um) “positions.” Consider the influence of all these class schisms on something like prostitution. A “low class” person might be an old-fat-dirty-infected-female street creature who performs next to a dumpster with a customer who only understands friction and domination. A really high class provider might not even be female, probably is in a megacity or a high-end resort, someone found only through networks, with a material culture that includes very sophisticated objects (how ever you want to define them -- decorations or implements). Such a person might marry royalty. Has. Why do the Brit movies know so much about this? They’ve been dealing with class for a long time, dahling. And consider what running an empire can do for your experience level.
One of the domains of great usefulness in the UK but maybe less so in America is that of crime. Political and financial crimes are easily forgiven in both places (one of the markers of class) but what do you do with J. Edgar Hoover in a fancy dress except comedy? The American idea of comedy is generally at the level of frat boy flatulent slapstick, which the Brits also do better. Not that I like it at all. (I’m too classy. But not particularly coherent, maybe.)
In my life I’ve been a clumsy player on the social staircases, which means I’ve accumulated a lot more observations than those who glide easily upward. It’s not a matter of having no ambition. Rather it’s an internal gridlock between my Scots diligence heritage and my Irish go-to-hell attitude. On the one hand I want the time to virtuously sit reading worthy material. On the other hand my attitude is that it’s far better to get out into the world and sashay around. But no danger please. This inner opposition of forces is one of the things Tim and share, except that he has Dutch where I have Scotch, and he accepts deadly danger. When writing about American social class, unless you’re writing about Native Americans, the shadowy influences of pre-immigrant days are still in play. (Don’t think Indians are all alike -- there is enormous variation from one place to another.)
Money is a lubricant, but probably overrated, particularly if it is hoarded, which is the same as not having it. The intriguing thing about the stories of the Edwardian gentry who married American “buccaneers” for their inherited industrialist fortunes is that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the women understood the terms, but only rarely did the men understand whether the women understood the terms -- so it became “don’t ask, don’t tell” until the terrorism set in. Probably the American end has not been well enough explored despite Edith Wharton.
In the end writing about class well depends -- as always -- on the skill with which it is done, the clarity and meaningfulness. Even the usefulness in our own lives. It should “ring true” whether or not the facts are exact. The important word is small: “so?” A good novel answers that question.