“Talking with Michael Knox Beran, author of Wasps: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy”

From an interview on city-journal.org in which Daniel Kennelly talks with Michael Knox Beran, author of the book Wasps: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy:

Q. In the preface of the book you write of the inadequacy of the term “WASP”—in particular the “Anglo-Saxon” and “Protestant” parts of that formula. What threads tie together the wide array of figures in this book, if not merely heredity or religion?

A. Louis Auchincloss hated the term WASP: a ridiculously imprecise way to describe the class to which he belonged—a class defined less by Protestantism or Anglo-Saxonism than by ties of kinship and institutional pedigree. My working definition of an Auchincloss-style WASP is someone who is (a) connected to one or more of the following: Henry Adams, the Porcellian Club at Harvard, Skull and Bones at Yale, the Knickerbocker Club or the Colony Club in New York, the Somerset Club in Boston, the St. Grottlesex Schools or Seven Sisters Colleges; and (b) who is related by blood or marriage to a few dozen others persons affiliated with these figures or institutions and who summers on Fishers Island, Mount Desert Island, or in some similarly preppy place. I should add that after, say, 1970, the definition ceases to be airtight, as the WASPs’ institutional monopolies erode under the pressure of meritocracy….

Q. What remains of their legacy? Where do we see their influence in America today?

A. The civic humanism of the WASPs was closely tied to their faith in liberal arts education, which they saw as an unrivaled way to unlock human potential. They endowed professorial chairs and gave handsomely to schools and colleges, institutions that, in theory at least, carry on the old humane traditions of educating the soul.

But the animating vision of the WASPs is pretty much dead. The liberal arts survive today not because anyone really believes in the civic humanist culture that they once underwrote, still less because we have confidence in their ability to prepare the mind for the active work of life: the charade is kept up only because the more selective colleges look upon liberal education as you might the tarnished silver service your grandmother left you—a hoary heirloom you don’t really need but can’t bring yourself to put on eBay.

Q. Who among the lives you sketch do you find most personally compelling?

A. Henry Adams and Franklin Roosevelt are perhaps the two dominant figures in the book. Adams was, I think, the largest intelligence among the WASPs, a man whose high intellectual culture unsuited him for the public career he sought as a young man. FDR was, in powers of practical calculation and skill in directing affairs, much the cleverest of the WASPs: he had very little intellectual culture….

Adams and Roosevelt knew one another in Washington. Adams was by this time an old man, Roosevelt a rising public figure. When, over lunch in Lafayette Square, Roosevelt spoke of his political hopes, Adams disparaged them as so much futility. “Young man,” he said, “I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House across the square come and go, and nothing you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long.”

Q. What’s your favorite book on WASPs?

A. The Education of Henry Adams is the best book on the origins of the particular strand of WASP culture I describe in the book. The best book on its practical culmination doesn’t exist: The Education of Franklin Roosevelt never got written.

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