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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Money and the Snob

By Thomas Sergeant Perry (1845–1928)

[Born in Newport, R. I., 1845. Died in Boston, Mass., 1928. The Evolution of the Snob. 1887.]

THAT money is to all intents and purposes now omnipotent, no serious-minded person will deny; and its new and raw possessor, as we see in countless instances, at once endeavors to adapt himself to a state of society in which aristocratic principles still flourish. He puts himself in the hands of a parasite who, for board and luxury, shall teach his patron to distinguish between Hochheimer and Johannisberger, between Médoc and more delicate clarets, and how to tell the different soups, the order of dishes at dinner, etc., without apparent effort. The mere possession of vast wealth is not alone enough, perhaps, to insure an inevitable advance; but the desire for social progress, combined with a little tact, will accomplish everything in time. What may be a little difficult at home, where jealousy and envy keep one’s neighbors’ memory in abnormal activity, becomes very simple abroad, where good society does not distinguish between foreigners, and smiles at these fanciful distinctions. There, any taint that may unfit him for success at home is not observed. He elbows the greatest, and enjoys every triumph. To be sure, the doors through which he so easily enters are like those attached to public buildings, and swing in both directions; but with those poor wretches who fall out we have nothing to do: those who stay in alone concern us. It is to be noticed, that they are gradually becoming aware that they are the real possessors of power; that taste, intelligence, ability, energy, exist but for their service; and that even the long-intrenched aristocracy is only a useful means of delight for the rich. Already a poor nobleman who tries to hide his nakedness with leaves from his family tree is a most despised object; power is shifting from lineage and title to wealth, and the possessor of this qualification will be sure to receive the respect which is always given to power. By its ready worship of mammon, the aristocracy is cultivating wood for its own guillotine. The change is perceptible to every observer who will notice the lessening of respect for mere length of lineage, and the common habit of regarding coats-of-arms and such symbols of antiquity as mere affectations. Especially is this true of America, where “daddyism” has long been laughed at, and pride of family is the coldest comfort and but a meagre support. That this form of vanity has existed and still exists, no one who knows the facts will deny; but the general tendency of the country is against it. It survives as a condition of respectability or gentility; but outside of what faint theoretic reverence it may extort, it has no practical value. The old helmet of a Crusader would be as valuable for modern wear as descent from him would be useful in money-getting.

It should be said, however, that if le monde s’américanise, as despondent European critics are prone to say, it will alter slowly, for one peculiarly American quality is its intense conservatism; it is not Anglo-Saxon for nothing, and it adheres with, on the whole, wonderful tenacity to what has won the approval of Europe. These questions, it seems, will rather be decided by the Russians, who appear to be destined to take the place long held by the French; that, namely, of becoming the Greeks of modern times,—in other words, the people who shall carry out their ideas in action, who put their theories into practice. We are least of all a nation that lives on ideas. There is scanty room for them here, with all our territory: it is in the application of steam, the invention of machinery, that we are interested; here we have no equal. Our excellence is in devising methods of saving labor, and the invention and promulgation of theories requires the severest toil.

As matters stand, it may be safely asserted that illustrious descent is, in this country at least, an interesting decoration, like a suit of armor in a corner of a hall; but it is the rich, no matter how obscure their origin, who are the real objects of interest and envy. To be sure, those who amass wealth adorn their acquisitions with various heraldic devices, as a matter of fashion; but it is not these coats-of-arms, or their newly bought family portraits, that inspire respect. Those, we feel, are but concessions to an expiring notion of aristocratic belongings; they are not an essential part of social position as they were in the past. The threatening problems of the present day are not those that concern a privileged aristocracy, but those that demand a settlement of the various claims to wealth. Mere aristocracy is a luxury for those who care for it; it is not a living question. The disposition to adorn people with extraneous majesty is practically extinct, or on the way to extinction; but the world is interested in the distribution of dollars and cents, and in those who have succeeded in acquiring this desirable art. They are the great of this world, before whom drawing-rooms and palaces are open, who are tempted by the offer of all that politics can present; who are, indeed, the masters of the world.

There is one advantage: there is no mystery about them, as it was supposed that there was about the aristocracy who enjoyed a monopoly of aquiline noses, eagle eyes, curved lips, glossy raven or curling light hair, as fashion swayed, almond-shaped nails, arched insteps, graceful gait, small hands and feet, and, above all, a somewhat scornful air, which was the despair of outsiders. This was what we call their uniform, which indicated a host of qualities no less imposing, and even more unlike the customary traits of human nature. They were intenser than most people, and far more serious, for they lived up to their dazzling exterior; they were as exempt from pettinesses as their lives were free from sordid care. They were always on parade, it seemed; and as a child imagines a king wearing his crown all day, perched upon a throne, with a sceptre forever in his hand, and even sleeping with several pounds weight of metal and jewels on his uneasy head, so the aristocracy of birth or genius was separated from the multitude, who were alone capable of being cross, unreasonable, bored, uncertain, and petty. The very vices of the great shared their magnificent superiority to customary sins, as we may see in the mysterious veil wherein Byron enwrapped himself while under the influence of gin, and in the wide-spread notion that there was something grand in the inevitable viciousness of genius. Indeed, the whole conception of genius as something that lifted its possessor far above the common herd by an inexplicable quality—an idea which was carefully nurtured by writers who had the ear of the public—was one that had wide ramifications; and demi-gods acquired full rights of citizenship in modern society. Genius became as ready and satisfactory an explanation of every form of conspicuous merit, as instinct of the actions of animals; and in the lordly company of those who possessed it the ordinary qualities of human nature appeared unworthy of contemplation. The great-man theory ruled triumphant in literature as in society, and snobbishness was one of the forms in which its recognition found expression. It was the perception of a mysterious quality which could be shared by all people of position, who were willing to accept its responsibilities; what these responsibilities were, fashionable life shows.

When a plutocracy is in power, this glamour disappears. Yet, of course, much of the machinery of former splendor survives, just as people use horses in the days of steam; but it lingers as a temptation to extravagance, and as a warrantable source of lavish expenditure, rather than as the impressive thing that it was in times past. The mystery is gone when robbing a bank will suffice to fit one for greatness, and the first question asked is how much a man can spend. With these altered conditions, snobbishness must change, and does change. It loses the side whereby it was related to the admiration of the dignity of life, and becomes a practical worship of the material side of worldly success. Whereas—although the habit of thus labelling and subdividing human qualities is most dangerous—the exaggerated worship of an aristocracy bore in the past some of the marks of pride, the ostentation of money-getters and -spenders is apt to degenerate into mere vanity, the idlest display,—possibly instances will suggest themselves to our readers,—and since this extravagance has a merely commercial measure, like so much lace or so many jewels, it becomes a subject to be treated by political economy, not one that appeals to even fanciful reverence. This is the position, as has just been said, that society is apparently beginning to take, or rather preparing to take, about it: all title-deeds are to be examined. Hence we may say, perhaps, that as snobbishness is the exaggeration, or, apparently, the evil application, of a way of looking at the world that has been full of fruit, so the present worship of money is at bottom a frank acceptance of things as they are, which is in many respects a commendable action. Whether the frank worship of wealth is in itself, however, a commendable thing, each one may decide for himself: the answer will be recorded by some future historian.