“Preppies: The Last Upper Class?”
By Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.
Atlantic Monthly, January 1979 (excerpts)
“Preppie” is a catchall epithet to take the pace of words too worn or elaborate for everyday use, words such as privileged, ruling class, aristocrat, society woman, gentleman, and the rich. Ideological struggle is too shaming to talk about these days. Lifestyle rivalry is the new engine of history. In this sort of society, Preppies pass for an upper class.
There are two sorts of Preppies, the self-made and the hereditary. Hereditary Preppies will have a Preppie parent or two — a parent, that is, who went to a prep school. But the purest of the type will go to the same prep school as his parent.
Contrary to widespread belief, most students at prep schools are not hereditary Preppies.
Historically, of course, most Preppies have been privileged WASPs. The Preppie ideal is therefore indelibly stamped with a certain privileged WASPishness.
WASPishness may be defined as a particular squeamishness. WASPs are readily revolted by the following facts of life: physical flabbiness, homosexuality, enthusiasm, Archies, cynicism, fearfulness, salesmanship, flamboyance, money, self-assertion.
More positively, WASPishness may be defined as a certain bravery in the face of other facts of life: disease, demonstrative women, impotent men, accident, disgrace, and physical hardship (especially when suffered, or inflicted, in the name of a civic virtue such as patriotism).
* * *
Whether or not they are in fact rich, all true Preppies act as if they were. But there are many ways of acting rich. Misers act rich by acting as if they were poor. Spendthrifts act rich by openly impoverishing themselves. Technicians of wealth merely get rich, by knowing how to use money. All these ways of being rich manifest a belief that riches are important. The Preppie way of being rich is to act as if riches had no importance at all.
Preppies are not abnormally obtuse. They know that people are generally valued according to the work they do, and that the work they do is generally valued according to the money that’s paid for it. Nevertheless, all prep schools and many Preppie parents go to some lengths to cultivate in their charges an unfeigned indifference to money. The indifference will be either high-minded or careless. High-minded indifference leads to ambitions of public service, in which case the Preppie may easily attain a place in the top 5 percent income bracket. Careless indifference leads to careers in arts, letters, and leisure, in which case the Preppie’s indifference will soon be tested by poverty. Usually he flunks the test, and ends up putting a very un-Preppie-like value on money.
Inherited wealth is widely believed to offer the best base from which to cultivate high-mindedness or carelessness with respect to money. This is correct, as a general rule. It is a great mistake to conclude, however, that all high-minded and careless Preppies are hypocrites enjoying the benefits of their trust funds while also enjoying feelings of warm superiority over their rivals, the striving City Kids or the anxious Archies.
In the first place, while wealth does not confer Preppieness, prep schools do, and attendance at a prep school is expensive, around $5,000 a year.
Like all ideals, the Preppie ideal represents a collective yearning; with respect to money, it is a yearning for a triumph — of class over income, of grace over works, of being over doing. The City Kid, of course, represents a yearning for more worldly triumphs. Archies worry too much to yearn for anything but peace.
* * *
Preppie clothing is so uniform that it betrays a group consciousness as distinct as that of investment bankers or arriviste Arabs. A list of articles in the Preppie wardrobe would be tedious, but the following are some of the more familiar items: LL Bean boots, Top-Sider moccasins, tasseled loafers; pure wool socks, black silk socks, no socks; baggy chinos, baggy brick-red or lime or yellow or pink or Pulitzer trousers, baggy Brooks Brothers trousers, baggy boxer underpants; shirts of blue, pink, yellow, or striped Oxford, sometimes buttoned down, some made for a collar pin, usually from Brooks or J. Press or The [name of town or college] Shop; jackets of tweed, corduroy, poplin, seersucker with padless shoulders, a loose fit around the waist, and (if tweed) a muddy pattern; a shapeless muddy-patterned tweed overcoat, its collar lopsidedly rolled up under one ear, a shapeless beige raincoat bleached by years of use and irresistant to rain; no hat, a cross country ski cap, a very old snap-brimmed felt hat, a very old tennis hat.
Thus the male preppie wardrobe.
It is true that Preppie women are alone in all the world in their devotion to Fair Isle sweaters, while Preppie men are alone only in their devotion to a particular ensemble. Nevertheless, the most remarkable aspect of Preppie attire is that males and females, lacking any difference in size or form, could help themselves to each other’s clothes without any embarrassment whatsoever.
There are peculiarities of fit in the Preppie costume. On Brooks Brothers trousers, for example, the crotch invariably floats midway between the Preppie crotch and the Preppie kneecaps. Alternatively, the trouser crotch is where it belongs, near the Preppie crotch; but in that event, the trouser cuff will float midway between the Preppie instep and the Preppie calf. The reason for this characteristic float is that at fittings, Preppies always repel too intimate a calculation of the inseam length of their trousers.
Preppies are made squeamish by other aspects and articles of clothing, too. They never wear anything made of acrylic fibers, or double knit. They always eschew the display of any totemic figure on their sport shirts, unless, at the farthest limit of the permissible, it’s their own country club’s totem. An alligator worn on the breast of an otherwise Preppie-looking fellow indicates either an incomplete emergence from Archieness or an imminent collapse into it.
Like bankers and Arabs, Preppies occasionally enjoy stepping out of sartorial type. When they do, it is with exquisite prudence and calculation. With regard to clothing, as with most human performances, the Preppie is a connoisseur of marginal differences. The most vital difference is the one he guards between himself and the Archies. Yet Archies, unlike the vaguely Italianate City Kids, have no distinctive uniform for Preppies to avoid. Fortunately, however, there are certain costumes they would never wear. An Archie would never dress like a farmworker or a lobsterman, for example, or a City of Londonman either in the city or enjoying a four-day weekend. Thus, Preppie deviations always run in vaguely aristocratic directions, toward nature’s noblemen or what he thinks of as Europe’s. Preppie women are even more cautious in their deviations, always wearing a modest pin or earrings with their jeans.
The Preppie’s connoisseurship is most rigorously tested when he is still in prep school or college, for then he must decide what to wear as a Preppie among other Preppies. For this audience, most Preppies select margins of differentness so subtle as to be invisible to anyone else. This intense rivalry of small differences is experienced by almost all real Preppies as oppressive; only would-be Preppies or late converts engage in it happily. Yet the oppressiveness has one great virtue; it provides the necessary circumstances against which a few Preppies may act out thrilling dramas of costume rebellion. And the fact that most prep schools still enforce dress codes, albeit less rigorously than do banks or construction firms, contributes a whiff of real peril to the fun.
With respect to most other aspects of appearance — straightness of teeth, of nose, healthy complexion, and so on — Preppies are no longer distinguished, if they ever were. A more general prosperity has put these good things in the grasp of all but the poor. But with respect to the appearance of youthfulness, Preppies still cling to an advantage over their life-style (or, if you will, class) rivals. So important to Preppies is the obligation to seem young that two of the most egregious qualities of their costume are contrived to that end. One is the amazing stability of the Preppie style, which, having changed scarcely at all in forty years, enables Preppies to wear in middle and old age the inimitable clothing of their youth. The second is the odd Preppie palette. Preppies of all ages and both sexes demonstrate an unwavering taste for luminescent pastels and hard primary colors, a taste evidently designed to evoke the infantile gaiety of the nursery or the youthful certainties of Playskool.
* * *
Preppies are not the only class of people in society to acknowledge the value of charm, but they’re the only ones to cultivate it. Preppies work on their charm the way City Kids work on their wits, and the way Archies work on their golf game.
Preppies tend to think of their charms as virtues. Perhaps they are some of them. It is virtuous, for example, to put people at their ease, which is what many of the Preppie charms aim to do. Still, Preppies think of their charms as “working” or “not working,” and this is not the way people ordinarily think of virtues such as goodness or courage. The Preppie charms, then, include discretion, modesty, self-restraint, deference, gratitude and grace. All grow out of the principal characteristics of prep-school life, its harshness, competitiveness, and unending publicity, its hierarchies of winners and losers, and its quality of constant performance.
Discretion. In social situations, Preppies seem to be guided less by their intelligence than City Kids are, and less by convention than Archies. They move instinctively, and the instinct most alive in them is discretion.
Discretion is alertness. The Preppie is exquisitely alert to the most delicate reverberations of his own impact on a social situation, and of everyone else’s. Discretion is a sense of occasion. Preppies mete out their feelings and thoughts and gestures in discreet performances, chosen and shaped for their appropriateness like a daub on a pointillist’s brush.
Modesty. The essence of Preppie charm, to those who aren’t wholly contemptuous of it, is that it is disarming. It’s meant to be. Preppies know that they are seen as privileged and on that account are envied. Much Preppie charm, especially modesty, is calculated to disarm envy.
Modesty is the economy of egotism. Its first rule is to honor the claims of others to a share of the audience’s time, if only so that they may make fools of themselves. Its second rule is to be aware that in the perspective of history (with which the Preppie fancies himself on special terms), all feats are soon undone, surpassed, or shown to have had evil consequences. Thus Preppie modesty downplays all accomplishments, not just one’s own.
Deference. Deference is the ghost of chivalry that hides in every Preppie’s closet. It is learned at boarding school through the experience of unremitting subordination — to the headmaster, to the faculty, and to boys and girls older and better than you.
Deference, moreover, is not only an expression of eager subordination; it also expresses a faith that society may really and truly be composed of hierarchies of excellence, that America is a landscape of natural pyramids. Thus, a son who shows deference to his father, or a student to his teachers, or an associate to his senior partners, or an adviser to the President of the United States, is not only granting to paternity, knowledge, seniority, or high office the authority that in the Preppie view they deserve; he is also reinforcing his belief that paternity, knowledge, seniority, and high office still continue as the chief organizing principles of society. Therefore, deference is a Preppie charm in the quite literal sense that it makes the world seem a place in which Preppies get what they deserve, and where those who get more than others do deserve deference as well.
Gratitude. The wealth of the Preppie is measured in “contacts,” not in bank accounts. Some of them come to believe that contacts count for everything in the world, in which case gratitude is the essential element in their Preppie modesty. None of them ever believes, or is ever allowed to believe, that “he made it on his own.” Archies and City Kids can be self-made men; Preppies can only be grateful.
Grace. Of all the Preppie charms, grace is the hardest to achieve. Grace is what separates princes from frogs and hobgoblins (or Preppies from Archies and City Kids). Grace is a sign of legitimacy; Grace is the ultimate favor in the gift of the Great Contact on High.
With the charm of grace, the Preppie enters the very heaven of social ideals. All his other charms are distinctive and difficult and rare. But gracefulness in word and deed, sprezzatura, désinvolture, nonchalance, a manner that embraces carelessness, negligence and arrogance, a manner that’s languid and easy, proud and indifferent, reckless and uncalculating — such a charm lifts the Preppie from time-bound figment of social imagination to myth. Which naturally enough, is where he’d like to be.
With the charm of grace, the Preppie is the envy of the world, a reminder of the strange workings of Fortune, which is unmoved by solicitations, prayers, merit, intelligence, violence, or any of the other things that people usually have to rely on to get ahead in the world. To Archies and City Kids, the graceful Preppie is a rebuke to effort, a living portent of the fundamental injustice of the universe.
For the Preppie, on the other hand, gracefulness is less a gift than a standard, something to measure up to, a performance. The delight of the thing comes from the knowledge that it’s all contrived, that the effect of effortlessness requires a good deal of strain, that negligence requires attention, that indifference requires concentration, that simplicity and naturalness require affectation. The most delicious “in” joke of Preppiedom is the anxiety everyone feels about being carefree.
* * *
Life after prep school is for most Preppies a lengthy process of learning the dead spots in the various auditoriums where they’re called upon to perform. Not only are whole groups of people — policemen and bureaucrats, for example — unmoved by their charms, almost everyone fails to be charmed at one time or another.
One explanation for these failures is that Preppies often operate from an inadequate theory of social life, according to which the division of society into Preppies, Archies and City Kids corresponds to older triparite divisions such as aristocrats, bourgeois, and commoners, or capitalists, managers, and proletarians, and these divisions are fixed. In this scheme of things charm is a quality of manners, and manners are a dramatization of differences in status, and status is a perfectly intelligible matter of one’s place in the social structure. Thus everyone has manners and charm, so long as everyone stays in his place. Moreover, everyone’s place is such that within his own class there will always be someone above and below him, so that no one will be deprived of the gratifications of subservience, and the pleasures of mastery. This theory, if believe in and acted upon, causes the whole auditorium to go dead.
A more adequate theory for the effective exercise of Preppie charm is one that sees society in the image of a cruise ship. The ship has a number of classes of accommodation, which have no congruence with the Preppie, City Kid and Archie classes. The theory recognizes, moreover, that a substantial minority of the passengers do not feel comfortable in their assigned accommodations. Accordingly, for as long as the cruise continues, there’s a good deal of running around as the people push, work and bribe their way into cabins where they think they belong.
How the Preppie acts on the basis of this theory depends on whether he decides to stay in his cabin or join the others running around all over the ship. Many Preppies never emerge from their suites, but pass away the time giving parties. These deploy their charms on each other, and are consequently soon bored. Other Preppies, remembering their prep school competitiveness, “get out there and fight,” “join in,” and soon begin running around the ship looking for better quarters of their own. These Preppies learn quickly to think of their charms not as semaphore of a status already arrived at, but as tools with which to acquire status, or to defend it once acquired.
So far the theories assume an intelligible society. What happens when it ceases to be intelligible? Now everyone is running around looking for better quarters. Now the scene has none of the qualities of a contest, with formal boundaries, agreed-upon rules, and recognizable trophies. Now everyone keeps score in his own way, counting two units of happiness as the equivalent of one million dollars, or good health as the equivalent of a son in medical school, or a house in the country as the equivalent of a satisfying job. Now the great group competitions break up, too, as Preppies and City Kids find the game too complicated to play anymore. As this happens, the conflict becomes unmanageable, at once limitless and instantaneous, like an endless series of random murders in the corridors. What good is Preppie charm in a society like that?
The answer is that Preppie charm must then become frankly a branch of situational theater, with this difference: Theatrical workers never aim to deceive, only to create an illusion that everyone knows to be an illusion. Charm-workers do aim to deceive. Their lives depend on it. They create order and status by creating an audience. In the new world of the free-for-all, Preppies many have a better chance even than City Kids, for they’re nothing if not trained for performances.
* * *
There were once two readily distinguishable sets of Preppie ideals.
One set was preached and occasionally practiced at those schools that had been established on the model of the English public schools. They were known as the “St. Grotlesex” schools. The chief characteristic of St. Grotlesex idealism was that it was self-consciously aristocratic. The good life was a life of service and of heroism, preferably in war but if necessary in one of its moral equivalents. The text adumbrating these ideals were to be found in the more martial passages of the Old Testament, especially the story of David before he became king, and in Malory and Tennyson. An aristocratic kind of egalitarianism was preached, as when people feel about each other, “Why, you’re as good as I am.” And this style affected to despise the acquisitive life in all its forms, except the collection of beautiful objects.
The second set of ideals — preached and occasionally practiced at schools such as Exeter, Choate, Hotchkiss and Milton — was more bourgeois than aristocratic, more Congregational or Unitarian than Episcopal, more New England than old, more industrial Victorian than sentimental Victorian. It seldom preached the doctrine of service, except in the utilitarian sense that he helps all who helps himself, and instead of the heroism of battle, it emphasized the heroism of hard work. Self-consciously democratic, it encouraged the sort of egalitarianism that says, “I’m as good as you are.” Though these schools were as scholastic in tone as the St. Grotlesex ones were athletic, they produced as few intellectuals and perhaps even fewer artists. The acquisitive spirit was held, if not in honor, then certainly in respect.
In the past 10 or 15 years [1964-1969], under the influence of coeducation, the commingling of students of different backgrounds, and the attrition of the older teachers and headmasters, there has been a certain convergence of the two sets of idealism. And with the convergence it has become difficult, as it never was a generation or two ago, to tell what ideals, if any, are inculcated at prep schools. Among the students, there is a certain reaction against the relentless competitiveness of Preppie life, in the name of cooperation. And out of this reaction, some prep schools have tried to create an odd set of ideals compounded of Christian, Maoist and Rogerian elements that many of the students seem to find affecting, if not yet soothing.
Just discernible in this new Preppie idealism is a wish, barely disguised as a fear, that the era of economic growth may really be finished, and that a New Dark Age may be upon us. In that event, the prep schools might at last find their historic mission and in the fullness of time redeem the uselessness of their past. For in a world of rapidly diminishing resources, the prep schools — compact, highly organized, egalitarian societies that they might be — could finally become the models of the way we must all learn to live.