Middle class people bought “collections” of things, Fussell wrote, often under the mistaken belief that such mass-produced things purchased using catalogues will increase in value. (They will not.) The higher classes, in contrast, often inherited extensive qualities of things like thimbles or teaspoons, but didn’t display them in special stained cases purchased from Sears. They either used them or kept them in drawers, where they belonged. The middle class refers to a dwelling as “a home,” he explained. The upper and lower classes, two groups Fussell essentially respected for their basic honestly of presentation, called a house a house, and an apartment an apartment, and let it go at that. If perhaps he’s a little too easy on the American professoriate (who somehow occupy a separate, non-hereditary X class) he basically nailed it.
He later wrote BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America (1991), looking at other forms of pretention, particularly Americans’ enthusiasm for low-quality products. “Dismal food is bad,” he wrote. “Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word ‘gourmet’ is BAD.”
He was always finely aware of precise distinctions like this. In Class, for instance, “The Living Room Scale” invited readers to determine social class based on the contents of one’s living room. One earned many points (indicating higher social class) for publications like Town and Country, The New York Review of Books, Paris Match, and the Hudson Review. One earned only one point for The New Yorker (because it’s widely read and mainstream, presumably, though the point system isn’t actually explained), and lost points for publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, Scientific American, and Psychology Today.
He was critical, but no snob. The upper class, he explained, was just as silly as the middles; they were just silly in different ways.
No mere Andy Rooney-style whiner, Fussell’s critiques were usually on target. From class to World War II, though, his general take seemed to be merely anti-bullshit. There is no reason to say things that are untrue, Fussell seemed to believe, if the truth is perfectly evident. He seemed to have first come to this realization as a soldier. “Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,’’ he wrote. “Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends.” But this disgust over soaring national rhetoric seemed eventually to extend to virtually all forms of artifice. Looking at his whole career, it’s clear what he was really trying to do was just point out the lies that we were telling ourselves as a powerful civilization, whether that meant calling a trailer a “mobile home” or fighting a war in Vietnam for a decade and a half that our government knew we couldn’t win.
Apparently, before the war, Fussell originally thought of a career in journalism. That focus showed, because despite his career in academia, his first interest was always exposing the crap—whether exploitation, incompetence, or just bad taste—we as a society were trying to get away with. And that, ultimately, is the essence of good journalism.