Privilege Blog

Can We Care About WASPs, Or, The Subjective, Personal, Version.

When one reads books as oneself, one might think about, well, oneself.

I mean I think about myself. My apologies. High WASP language. Distance and all that.

Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money details the history of his family, along with the mannerisms and habits of Wasps. He calls us Wasps. I call us High WASPs. It’s the same thing. I read his book pen in hand. Felt strange to mark up a hardback book. But necessary. At 52 I can no longer remember paragraphs word for word.

I was looking for data points. Sharp pinpricks of recognition. Little snippets that denied or confirmed my own experience. It’s remarkable how much similarity I found. Or unsurprising, depending on one’s attitude towards information, patterns and coincidence. In any case, differences turn out to matter most.

Tad’s family made money in steel, coal, banking. Mine in banking for railroads. His ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence, as did mine. A Civil War flag hangs in one of his family houses, we have a sword. His relatives wandered through Asia, one of mine settled in Africa for a period of time. Documenting the Snake Tribes. His father is an academic, the former President of Swarthmore College, mine a professor and administrator at Stanford University. In fact, my father was in Tad’s father’s class at St. Paul’s. Both families have been known to enjoy alcohol. I envy Tad the family estate on Long Island. Our New Jersey equivalent, burnt to the ground in a fatal accident, has long since been turned into a country club and golf course. The Cape Cod summer house sold to some family with sufficient wealth to maintain three storeys of gray shingles through Nor’easter after Nor’easter.

I recognize the language. Of reserve. Things unfelt, unsaid. The subjunctive, “As it were. If I may? Should you care to…” Evoke. Yearn. So much meaning not understood. My brother (who was most likely at Harvard with Tad, now that I think about it) became a psychoanalyst, perhaps in reaction. Hard to get much more talky about feelings than that.

And yet.

One of the centers of Friend’s book is his mother. She went to school with Sylvia Plath, wrote poetry. Always the center of attention, expected to charm. This concept of the High WASP “grande dame” is entirely outside my experience. My family lacked for grandes dames. We are prone to sturdy, if sturdy can vibrate at a high pitch, that is. For example. My mother (attended Smith with Tad’s mother, as it turns out. Getting silly, isn’t it?) walked door to door for Fair Housing in the 1960’s. Had her only moment approaching a breakdown when, in 1961, she hid in the coat closet for 10 minutes, 3 young children calling “Mommy, Mommy,” outside the door. My Aunt Eve died at 75 when she asked to be taken off life support. She had broken her vertebra, falling from a jumping horse. Did 10 pushups on our living room floor 5 years before. Known for supporting Ethiopian refugees via her husband’s diocese.

For example. The women in my family feel a tidal pull to have and to care for babies. We don’t, as Tad’s mother did, look at our babies and wonder are we ready. We’re ready. We are, if anything, too ready, too devoted, and too in love with our children. Maybe it’s the New England nature-is-just-outside-the-door from my mother’s side, maybe the transplant to California, maybe just the workings of the universe. I can’t know.

My father follows the High WASP archetype more closely. Except. Once, in my direst straits, I called him on the telephone. I told him I was so ashamed. “L.,” he said, “Don’t be ashamed. You have worked very, very hard at any number of things. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Language can save what it threatens to destroy. Even those fond of the ellipse can sometimes speak directly to those they love. Give comfort.

Cheerful Money is still with me. It is many ways a funny book, but the not-so-funny stuck with me longer and harder. The ache and tremble of something just out of reach. A dry-eyed sort of sorrowish feeling, not one that leads to crying. I am far more apt to cry when I write about how much I love my family, how much they have loved me, how much we love each other. We might speak of it with some restraint, but it’s there. I have no doubt.

I wish I knew what made this true.

*Thanks again to Tad Friend for the opportunity to review his book. And get all sentimental about family and stuff like that.

19 Responses

  1. I think I'll have to pick up a copy of Friend's book! It is very interesting to ponder how connected many of us WASPs are, but it is also interesting to point out the differences, and you are right, many times the differences resonate with us louder than the similarities.

  2. Also, is that you in your photo leaning over the pram? Aren't those prams just the best? I rode in one as an infant, and now my brother uses the same pram for my niece – it is something I know we'll have for many generations to come! They're great, even on rocky country dirt roads, and you really can put quite a few kiddos in them – at max we had 4, but three was more manageable (we had the attaching seat for the bigger kids).

  3. v. interesting to read these two reviews back to back, the one attempting the objective perspective, the other featuring the subjective.
    Your ref to High Wasp grand dames and to the women of your family not fitting that stereotype resonates with something I've been reading in G. Agamben about the "whatever-ness" of things, and the relationship between the type/example and the individual. Generalizations are so useful, but also v. dangerous, and in many ways, untrue.

  4. Miss Muddy Paws, that's Porter Hovey:). I did have a pram for my son, my mother sent it to me. As well as my father's wicker bassinet. Mater, the degree to which the particular informs the general, well, yes.

  5. "Language can save what it threatens to destroy. Even those fond of the ellipse can sometimes speak directly to those they love. Give comfort."

    I simply love your way with words.

  6. I am always fascinated by your take on things like this. High WASP is intriguing, but I've always wondered about the disconnect emotionally. It sounds like, thru having devoted mothers in your family, you were very lucky. My family has New England roots and a lot of the WASP traits. But being Irish-Catholic, with 5 generations of New Yorkers, feelings have a tendency to "shine thru."

  7. I have to point out something. I don't walk around in a Pollyanna glow of oh everything is perfect and my family is so perfect. People are people, families are families. I wrote this as my reaction to Cheerful Money. I think I felt the book strongly, because of all the similarities, and then the strong rush of emotion brought with it gratitude for the type of pain Tad details so vividly that I didn't have to experience in the same way. Hence the ode to family. As for everyone, some days are better than others. Some times I wish I were a "grande dame." But then who would take care of the logistics?

  8. Buckeroo, thank you. Maureen, I can tell you grew up with feelings. What A Splurge – so glad you bought it. I think you will enjoy it.

  9. Your sentimental emotions have wrought some fabulous writing…Bravo, Chica!

    I'll drink to that! Although, I'm afriad, my enjoyment of alcohol still does not qualify me as a WASP. I want an acronym dammit! I'm a White Swedish/Greek Agnostic with a pronounced Debauched Side. I feel that is too unwieldy…don't you think?

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post!

  10. Thanks Jill. You can be a WSGADS. I am sure there is an abbreviation we can come up with. I love being called Chica:).

  11. "Some times I wish I were a "grande dame." But then who would take care of the logistics?" Isn't that the damnedest thing, it's been diluted to the point where *we* have to handle the logistics. (Heh-heh-heh. You know I jest about my own situation, would never presume to laugh about anyone else's.)

    This was tonight's big time splurge, reading both posts and then reveling in the truly luxurious indulgence of reading *all* of the comments. Bliss.


  12. So interesting – always with the parallels and recollections, for me. I am ethnically not a WASP – I include some of the above-mentioned Scando/Celtic strains among others, all Northern European – kind of once-removed, "as it were," from the A/S. But how vivid the memory of the navy blue/gold pinstriped metal English (well – I was born there) pram, complete with white tyres that I had (my mother kept it until I was 18) and the white wicker bassinet I remember all the younger ones in! I'd forgotten about that last thing.

    So odd…though not technically a WASP I grew up alongside many, and my mother being a native New Englander, we also forwent displays of emotion. What of the WASP who isn't actually a WASP? LOL!

  13. I can't wait to read it! I have to share with you the verbal scolding I rcvd from my mother the other day when I refered to Rosie in a post as my Nana's "girl". "You can no longer refer to her like that. What about 'Nana's Rosy' I asked? No. That still shows possession. There is a lot of guilt involved so now people over compensate with liberalism and you will offend." So we both decided on the PC "faithful helper" and that was that. XXOO

  14. Summer, the language of that era and this sub-culture holds so much social history…I can hear your mother's voice.

  15. I always find your posts fascinating. What I notice is that you know so much about your families history (which I don't about mine) I know vague stuff about my father and grandfather on the paternal side, and a little about my maternal side, but not much at all, and little about my mother as she died very young.

    There seems to be great pride in being a high wasp!

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