On my way home today I observed a street scene that might have come straight from the pages of Henry Mayhew. A somewhat dishevelled man wearing an eye patch was engaging in toothless japes with a hunched, walking-stick wielding man wearing rudimentary ear muffs. I expected to see a mudlark and a crossing sweeper at any minute, as our omnibus swerved to avoid the itinerant costermongers. But then I remembered that everyone in America is middle class. And then I thought of England, where society is supposed not to exist. Silly me.
In the introduction to Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties, the author reluctantly confessed that his education, the fact of his professorial status, had made him upper-middle class. Marwick assumed that the democratization of social opportunity had nevertheless left the old social framework intact, but following contours of intellect rather than wealth. His was a class system based on merit, but a class system nonetheless. His reality no doubt gave him good reason to think this, for he was among the first generation of modern levellers, and assumed a place that assuredly looked, felt, and smelled very much like the upper-middle class of yore. Yet the idea was becoming unpalatable. Those scholars who followed him might have expected to be ridiculed, if not stoned, for asserting their implicit social superiority, however reluctantly. In fact, they actively cast off the mantle and quickly swapped white for blue collars. Marks of distinction disappeared among the distinctly Marxian. Elitist aspirations, including those founded on intellect, became an outmoded embarrassment. Now we find it appropriate only to be ordinary – such an unpalatable collective – or else ‘public opinion’, like a Leviathan Bounderby, will point a chubby finger and accuse us of wanting to be fed turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Hard Times indeed. Intellectuals should know their place: a dark, underpaid corner of unimportance, diminutively apologizing for not being of the ‘real world’.
Actually, the haute cuisine and lustrous utensils sound rather appealing, taken metaphorically. The truth is that we still sort ourselves out, even though social deference is dead, and humility is an endangered species. As I sat watching the Victorian apparition today I knew that for all the world I was not of that scene, and to a like degree those characters were not of my intellectual commute. This does not signify any sense of entitlement on my part, nor any social chagrin on theirs; merely that worlds apart are not wont to meet. Were not these distinct orbits more inclined to overlap in days before our undoubtedly noble motives led us to deny that difference exists?
I pose the question sincerely: how does one be a gentleman in an age that looks poorly on distinction?
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