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Book Review : A Poorly Done Portrait of the Rich

February 10, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Money and Class in America: Notes & Observations on the American Character by Lewis H. Lapham. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.85; 248 pages)

Despite his title, for Lewis Lapham the United States is all money and no class at all.

The thesis of his extended essay is that in our scale of values, money is not simply a good thing, but pretty much the only thing. Not--to our movers, shakers, taste makers and tycoons--as a material possession, but as a talisman, a sign of grace, and identity.

The American reverence for making money is religious, not materialistic, Lapham argues. Quoting De Tocqueville, he writes that Americans "clutch everything but hold nothing fast and lose their grip as they hurry after some new delight." Warning bells go off. Show me a De Tocqueville quote and I'll show you a journalist doing his pop meditation on the National Character. Sure enough, Lapham's thesis is terribly, terribly familiar.

Lapham took over Harper's magazine in 1983. He'd been editor there once before without making any major difference. This time, he turned the magazine right around, fashioning a voice that was sharp, quirky, off-beat and refreshing, and supplementing his editorial work with a monthly essay. As editor and essayist, he is a kind of William Buckley of the left. He is a Bourbon and dandified, but he manages to put his finger where we had not yet thought of scratching.

In the light of this, his "Money and Class in America" is a great disappointment. It is by turn a series of windy generalizations and details that are occasionally telling but more often twice-told. There is nothing in between. It alternates: Anecdote, speech, anecdote, speech, like a thin man and a fat man jostling in a stuck elevator.

The precise and epigrammatic Lapham, so effective in the rhythms and disciplines of his monthly journal, turns dropsical in the unmediated expanse of his book. Sometime ago, for example, he devised a splendid phrase for the compulsive status consumerism of wealthy New Yorkers. "The higher shopping," he called it.

In "Money and Class," the higher shopping distends into several pages of a labored comparison. Your rich American, going to the bank and the fancy department store, is in fact practicing an extended religious ceremony. Here is Lapham on bank tellers:

"Even the most junior tellers acquire within weeks of their employment the officiousness of hierophants tending an eternal flame," he writes. "I don't know how they become so quickly inducted into the presiding mysteries, or who instructs them in the finely articulated inflections of contempt for the laity, but somehow they learn to think of themselves as suppliers of the monetarized DNA that is the breath of life."

The bank tellers I know here in Boston tend to be matter-of-fact, reasonably cheerful and faintly skeptical. But that doesn't suit Lapham's conceit.

Scion of Rich Class

Much of the book is a depiction of how the American rich think about money and spend or don't spend it. Lapham, as he keeps reminding us, is himself a scion of the rich class.

His San Francisco grandfather helped to found Texaco, and once had a chance to buy the entire Monterey peninsula. If he had, Lapham would presumably have been much richer than he is. He doesn't tell us how rich he is, though he makes it clear that, having attended Hotchkiss, Yale and lots of good parties, he knows rich from the inside.

This being so, his reporting is pretty thin. There is the periodic anecdote about what some rich friend tells him, but most of the incidents could be gleaned from a close reading of New York magazine and the soft sections of the New York Times. Lapham is a Tom Wolfe without the legwork; and without the insane and fruitful passion to go beyond the generic to the absolutely precise and therefore absolutely original detail.

Occasionally, something more particular shines through. Listing the differences between new money and old money, he is good on servants. Old money tries to treat servants as equals, remembering the names of their children, and so on. New money can't avoid doing so. "The new money shouts, makes scenes and haggles over wages. The cook is still real."

Most of the time, though, Lapham's portrait of the rich is simultaneously vague, commonplace, patronizing and sentimental. Over and over he tells us that the rich, whether by inheritance or corporate elevation, are timid, frightened and sterile. This being so, and since power in America very largely lies with wealth, it means that our country faces stagnation and a blighted future. This may be so, but Lapham's pretentious and murky way of presenting his case is likely to make us resist it. If nothing else, his use of that imperialistic device, the specious "we," would kill his argument dead.

"We" consider books masterpieces according to the prices set for their paperback and movie rights, he tells us. "We" ignore scientific advances. "We," he insists, "feel the glory of revelation only when presented to the embodiment of unutterable wealth."

Who is this "we," anyway? It certainly can't be Lapham. And I know it isn't me.

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