Different From You and Me

The last thing New York needs is a book commemorating how important it is, but I’ve had more fun than I expected flipping through The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, a collection of historical essays published by Cambridge University Press last May. (A similar collection on Los Angeles comes out later this month; nothing on Chicago or Washington, D.C., is in the works, unfortunately, according to a CUP publicist.) Martha Nadell delivers a brief survey of Brooklyn literature that’s useful for people like me, who know the borough only as an abstraction; Daniel Kaye‘s essay on the intersection of New York punk musicians and poets makes clear that Patti Smith‘s and Richard Hell‘s literary pretensions didn’t come out of nowhere. My favorite piece so far, though, is Caleb Crain‘s “The Early Literature of New York’s Moneyed Class,” an entertaining and too-brief look at what the impossibly wealthy wrote about in the 1850s.

What were their concerns? Among other things, fashion; the unfortunate narrowness of the average New York townhouse; and the corrosive effects of polka dancing on young women. In the case of Charles Astor Bristed (grandson of John Jacob Astor), the right way to mix a drink was high on the agenda too. He fictionalized the lives of himself and his peers in his 1852 book, The Upper Ten Thousand, but unlike most novels about the upper class there’s no Wolfe-ian satire involved. Crain explains:

It does not seem to have occurred to Bristed that readers who happened to lack a trust fund might find his tone off-putting. “There is something peculiarly disagreeable in an American crowd,” he complained, when Masters and Ashburner visited a racetrack, “from the fact that no class had any distinctive dress. The gentleman and the workingman, or the ‘loafer,’ wear clothes of the same kind, only in one case they are new and clean, and in the other, old and dirty.” It is so vexing of the poor to resist wearing something nicely distinctive, like sackcloth.

Best as I can tell, The Upper Ten Thousand is more a collection of fictionalized sketches than a proper novel, which makes sense—what kind of conflict could somebody with such a friction-free existence come up with? Writing about money without writing about the class distinctions it inevitably generates isn’t just unusual, it’s practically un-American. (This may explain why Louis Auchincloss‘ death last January was dutifully noted by obituary writers but not dwelled on much by essayists. Who could relate?) And strictly for the purposes of fiction, writing about the wealthy out of any larger context may make a reader wonder why you’re bothering. That’s a point William Skidelsky makes in the Guardian discussing Jonathan Dee‘s new novel, The Privileges, which is set among New York’s moneyed class. Dee tells Skidlesky that The Privileges wasn’t meant to be social commentary. But if it isn’t that, then what is it? “As Dee says, conventional tales about the greedy rich getting their comeuppances are boring,” Skidelsky writes. “But his book does have a slightly high-handed feel, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to get into the mucky business of deciding what to admire and what to dislike.” I haven’t read The Privileges, so I’m not sure how valid that assessment is, but it seems sensible. It may be more an issue with our culture than our fiction, but stories about the non-wealthy can afford to avoid discussing class; fiction about the rich doesn’t have that luxury.