“Look, Muffy, An Obituary For Us”: Prep is Dead
A: I read them because Lisa Birnbach told me to.
According to my sixth grade scripture, The Preppy Handbook, The Catcher in the Rye and Love Story were both recommended reading in a course of study that would lead to perfect preppiness. (As was Louis Auchincloss, too, but I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read him.) They were easily located on my parents’ bookshelves, and I studied them intently. Although both books ostensibly reject the trappings of preppy life – Holden goes AWOL, Oliver marries an Italian-American – both also confirmed my sneaking suspicion that preppiness was about more than alligators. It was about class, a word I heard for the first time from Fat Albert (not Prep) in a joke about school in the summer, and the second time from my mother.
The Preppy Handbook may have been written with tongue in cheek, but it was bought with heart in mouth by people very much like me and my parents, who in the early 1980s found themselves with far more money than their parents had had, and no real road map for what to do with it. My parents grew up in New York City apartments, so a house in the suburbs was the first step, but what then? Of course, thankfully, no one in my family took the Handbook nearly as seriously as I did, but Birnbach’s timing was perfect. In the next few years, we acquired varieties of car, dog, and summer home, all of which passed muster in those pages. Coincidence? God, I hope so, but maybe not, as this 2005 essay by one of the Handbook’s authors attests.
Back to that conversation with my mother, who tried to help me navigate the minefield of summer resort social relations by explaining, “Not everyone with money has class; it’s not what you have, but how you act.” To my mom, the daughter of the Democratic district leader for the Upper West Side, class was a code of behavior, not a birthright. But my reading – Segal, Salinger, The New Girls by Beth Gutcheon – told me otherwise. From what I gathered, if you were really upper-class, you could fuck up to beat the band, and nobody could touch you. If you weren’t, all the Topsiders in the world weren’t going to walk you back in the door – if you’d ever crossed the threshold in the first place.
I marvel today that I managed to get the wrong message from all of these stories. I wanted Holden to go back to Pencey. I thought Jenny Cavilleri was a wiseass. Ever read Edie: An American Biography? I looked at her picture at uber-preppy St. Tim’s and thought, “You’re pretty, rich, and your family has its own graveyard. How the hell did you screw that up?” And that’s the heart of the illusion, right there. It’s not about money, or connection, or prestige. It’s about safety, or rather, what looks like safety to those of us on the outside. The sort of safety Fitzgerald told us 85 years ago could be found only in nostalgia, but we were too busy throwing Gatsby parties to listen (or to make it to the end of The House of Mirth).
So where are we now? It’s safe to say that the Tea Partiers have proved this whole “post-racial” thing a flop, but are we post-Prep? The success of Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2005 book suggests otherwise. There’s still something we want from that world, although I would argue that it’s not a perfectly battered barn jacket, or any other item of regalia. We want the comfort. We want the consistency. We want the knowledge that we are like our parents, and our children will be like us – ergo, our children will be like our parents, and they will marry people who are like our parents, and like us, and everyone will have something to talk about around the fire at Christmas. As opposed to my family, and I imagine most families, where someone is trying to explain her doctoral thesis to someone who really hopes to see CATS before it closes on Broadway, and there is no fire, unless someone bumps into the centerpiece with a cigarette.
Those of us who caught boats way later than the Mayflower – or didn’t actually choose to come here at all – will never “catch up” to our fake forefathers. Howard Zinn was right. We’re not all the same, and we know it. We’re not safe, and we know it. And so, we’ll never really be Preppies. But don’t expect any apologies from the Preppies That Be for this culture/class wild goose chase. Like love, Prep means not ever having to say you’re sorry.
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