I recently read Blake Bailey’s excellent biography of the great American writer John Cheever.
Cheever is best-known for his angst-ridden short stories, often depicting marital strife among gin-soaked WASPs. (Which is to say, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.)
Cheever once met a devoted reader, an Irish American New York cab driver named Patrick Coyne.
“I gather you are Irish,” Cheever said to Coyne. “‘Don’t ever wear an overcoat,’ my father often said. ‘You might be taken for an Irishman.’”
The Irish have been accused of many things by WASPs over the years. To be accused of excessive overcoat-wearing is not the worst thing, but that doesn’t make it any less bizarre a thing to say.
This all came to mind late last month when I read a long Wall Street Journal essay entitled “The Late, Great American WASP” by Joseph Epstein.
Epstein acknowledges the faults and flaws of the WASP ruling class, saying: “[I]t was exclusionary and hence tolerant of social prejudice, if not often downright snobbish.” However, he also thinks something profound has been lost with the decline of what he terms “the WASPocracy.”
“[T]he WASP elite had dignity and an impressive sense of social responsibility. ... Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life,” he wrote.
Well, it only goes to show that, given the passage of enough time, certain people will inevitably feel nostalgia for anything.
Since the Irish were a principal target of WASP bigotry (“tolerant of social prejudice” is an awfully wordy way to describe bigots), it is important to combat this type of misguided nostalgia.
It should go without saying that these dignified WASPs were able to practice such noble “social responsibility” mainly because they and their cronies made sure to keep the heels of their polished penny loafers on the necks of any minority group that dared to try and climb a rung or two up the social ladder.
If an overcoat was apt to raise suspicions, you can imagine what kind of reaction you’d get if you were, say, a member of the Knights of Columbus. Or the child of immigrants from anywhere.
Epstein does concede the Irish were a favored victim of WASPs. Apparently, this merely made the Irish jealous.
“In their exclusion, the Irish may have felt the sting of envy for WASPocracy more than any others. The main literary chroniclers of WASP culture – F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, or John O’Hara – were Irish,” he wrote.
Epstein then adds: “The Catholic Kennedys were the most notable example … true WASPs were too upstanding to go in for the unscrupulous business dealings of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. or the feckless philanderings of him and some of his sons.”
Well, perhaps had (most) WASPs not been so instinctively bigoted, outsiders would not have had to resort to “unscrupulous” practices. And, by the way, is it “scrupulous” to stack every deck in your favor, from elite universities to Washington’s corridors of political power?
As for philandering, Franklin D. Roosevelt – whom Epstein calls “the last unashamed WASP to live in the White House” – had a rather loose interpretation of his marital vows.
So did most of Cheever’s characters. Cheever himself cheated (with men and women) and drank himself silly, in part because his repressed homosexuality clashed with so-called “WASP ideals.”
But that’s the neatest trick about Epstein’s argument. Just because one is White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant does not mean one is a WASP.
“Neither Jimmy Carter,” Epstein writes, “nor Bill Clinton qualified.”
One assumes that neither ex-president is all that upset about their exclusion from this club.
If anything has been lost because of the decline of the WASP elite, and if it has been a little messy becoming a more democratic and meritocratic society, this is still a vastly better country for these transformations.
As for the glory days of WASPdom lacking “corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places,” one can simply Google various phrases such as “Tea Pot Dome scandal” or “Gilded Age” – not to mention “women’s suffrage” or “civil rights” – as an antidote to Epstein’s selective memory.
But what do I know? I’m just an overcoated Irishman.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)