WASP Country

A review of Michael Knox Beran's "WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy"

                                                  Michael Knox Beran
                                               Pegasus, 416 pages, 2021

The term “WASP” has an odd linguistic history. “Anglo-Saxon” appeared in the 19th century, when a word was needed to describe the sons and daughters of the British Empire all around the world. It’s an expression that stuck because it turned out to have political and cultural utility, to describe an ethnic and linguistic group. After all, an American might call himself “Swedish” or “Italian,” but no American since 1776 would say “I’m English.” So Anglo-Saxon filled the gap.

But it evolved in acronymic form to have specific cultural significance in the United States. In WASP, the W was somewhat redundant: Anglo-Saxon being used as code for white. It also developed a specific plasticity. Anglo-Saxon meant not Irish, not Catholic, but also came to include some not of British stock: one could be a WASP with some Dutch or German lineage. Its flexibility meant it developed into a term bringing to mind prep schools and white-shoe law firms. But it excluded too, even those who fit the dictionary definition. A WASP may be a Congregationalist from Rhode Island, but not a Southern Baptist from Appalachia.

Tidewater Anglicans seem to have been something of an ambiguous group. It is suggested that in the Civil War, the North had defeated the only group to compete with WASPS as the natural aristocracy in the United States: the Southern planter class. But this overlooks the extent to which those two networks were already intertwined. James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth Kortright, was of New York patroon heritage. Teddy Roosevelt’s mother was from a prominent Georgia family. It’s hard to draw a line to state clearly that some individuals were of one group and not the other.

For Michael Knox Beran, author of WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy, the central motivating WASP belief was a sense that their privilege “could be justified through meritorious public service.” Beran sketches an arc of WASP culture right up to the death of George H. W. Bush, detailing the sins and secrets of many a famed WASP family. The book is populated by statesmen, dilettantes, and various egoist and schemers. It is a spectacularly catty work, drawing upon not only the private comments many of the characters made about each other, but the author’s own view, which is often pretty harsh. Sara Roosevelt (FDR’s mother) is a “tightfisted old witch.” I think Babe Paley is almost the only one who gets by relatively unscathed.  

There’s a tension of course in this whole concept of a book about WASPS: that those who are focused on are taken to be both representative and simultaneously exceptional enough to be worth discussing. We’re not hearing so much about the less distinguished branches of the New England families who by this stage had to work for a living for multiple generations. Instead we have a cast—including many household names—who are emblematic of a certain level of wealth, if nothing else; agonizing about various neuroses is a luxury that working stiffs cannot afford.

Nonetheless, Beran is convinced of a spiritual and heritable commonality in this world of Cabots, Whitneys, and Lowells; Sedgwicks, Copleys, and Peabodys—the inheritors of a group of religious fanatics who headed for the new world, just as everything tipped over into Cartesian rationalism. The Enlightenment and industrial age cast some of their descendants adrift but allowed others to help shape a new nation. There seem to be as many contradictions as there are commonalities among this group, despite such essentialist claims as “WASPs are creatures of guilt and self-questioning, more likely to kill themselves than kill others.” A fear of winding up in the asylum is, we are told, a persistent one. Not that such a fear is immediately evident from some of the crashing bores, obnoxious snobs, and spoiled brats whose families are limned here over multiple generations.

There were improvers to be sure, thinkers and artists, and grand aspirations, like the origins of Groton school, that incubator for WASP men, of which the author is himself a graduate. But the high-minded seemed to fade in the face of the harsher realities of 20th-century social change.

This book is a portrait of the group, but also of a point at which the American polity shifted. A group who considered themselves to be a natural elite found themselves knocked off their perch by arriviste wealth and intellect. No longer could various waster nephews find a soft landing in a good bank or government office, while their more ambitious brothers got cabinet positions. Beyond the U.S., this has happened across the post-war West, as a reshaping of economies created a new meritocracy (which is itself in only two generations becoming lacquered on, with its own hereditary inroads and dynastic connections). The WASPS were early American adopters in a crisis one could describe as—borrowing from Peter Turchin—an “overproduction of elites.”

The WASPS themselves had emerged as a product of changing politics and vision—a replacement for the old aristocracy of Europe. In the English-speaking world they benefited from being in the right place at the right time, with the rise of industry in the West, the Protestant work ethic, and common-law legal systems.

This is indeed a detailed and dense text, part group biography, part social history. Some of the nuances were hard to grasp. I’m not sure I could put my finger on the difference between a Whig Country House and a Tory Country House, beyond the conversational themes. But Beran’s writing is vivid and in the later chapters we get to a level of participant-observer anthropology that is enthralling—including his own time at Groton—depicting a generation disillusioned with their place in society.

Indeed, in his description of the reversal of fortune for WASPS through recent decades, Beran describes how some are now reduced to essentially pimping connections, to offer nouveau riches access to exclusive clubs—much as over a century ago, the impecunious elite of Europe were selling off their real estate and titles to wealthy Americans keen to establish themselves.