Did Lisa Birnbach’s original ‘Handbook’ drive people lazy?
It is one of the great mysteries of publishing that, for decades after the astonishing success of the 1980 paperback, “The Official Preppy Handbook,” there was no follow-up. The gently comical tribute to the ways of the WASP not only did boffo box office itself but boosted a whole industry—making a fortune for Ralph Lauren, rejuvenating L.L. Bean and paving the way for J. Crew. Strangely, the book’s main author, Lisa Birnbach, waited 30 years to deliver a sequel, “True Prep,” which is now in bookstores.
You party. I’ll study.
The preppy moment the original Handbook inspired was hardly the first mainstream fad for the East Coast country-club aesthetic. When the Ivy League look was in vogue around 1960, even hipsters made the scene: Miles Davis sourced his tweeds and flannel suits at the Andover Shop in Harvard Square. That was a distant memory 20 years on, when Ms. Birnbach offered the masses khaki, madras and crocodile-emblazoned tennis shirts as a bracing tonic for the disco hangover.
The clothes may have been the most visible part of the preppy phenomenon, but they represented only a small part of the upper-class way of life Ms. Birnbach was championing (however cheerfully sly and subversive her advocacy may have been). Much of the book was devoted to a world-view that was casually aristocratic. Ms. Birnbach promised to make that outlook available to one and all. “In a true democracy,” she wrote, “everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut.”
How could the suburban teenager from Peoria or Pomona all of sudden be “upper class”? It was less a matter of pink oxford cloth and Kelly-green poplin than of adopting an aristocratic lassitude, an attitude that exuded privilege by treating effort with contempt. One simply mustn’t try too hard. A key principle of what Ms. Birnbach called the Preppy Value System was Effortlessness: “If life is a country club, then all functions should be free from strain.”
There’s no denying the seductive appeal of the old aristocratic disdain for those who strive. How much nicer (and, of course, easier) it is to adopt a blasé and boozy contempt for the grinds and geeks who put in effort than it is to compete with them. The original Handbook warned acolytes not to waste their college days studying “Professional majors” such as engineering, chemistry or mathematics, because they “all reek of practicality.” Nor, we were told, did the preppy go for intellectually demanding subjects such as philosophy or linguistics because, “they smack of an equally undesirable effort.”
And there’s the rub. Unless you actually have a fat trust fund to underwrite your nonchalance, an aversion to effort is hardly a strategy for success. Which may explain some of our national woes.
Over the last couple of decades we’ve seen the contempt for effort spread far beyond the original preppy demographic. Now it’s commonplace for middle-class kids to go to college and behave as though they are scions of the gentry—abjuring studies and indulging in the bottomless kegger that a recent book dubbed “The Five Year Party.”
Or take MTV’s “Jersey Shore” (please!). What does it show us but a curiously modern sort of aristocratically privileged polloi—young adults with no obligations or ambitions beyond partying and coupling, with nothing to do other than fuss and fight over perceived social slights?
The glib and privileged attitude that was once prototypically preppy has been adopted by those without the slightest clue how to pronounce “grosgrain.” Ironically (but not merely coincidentally) the upper crusty have responded by casting off their fashionable slough and embracing a crazy-ambitious work ethic.
The savvy well-to-do have turned their kids into super-grinds. Which is why so many Ivy League hopefuls are discovering it’s no longer enough to be valedictorian of your high-school class. Now you have to have written an opera or raised a million dollars to save children in Africa or have done original research on cancer. Yes, there are still “legacy” slots to be had for the children of generous alums, but even those are going to the ambitious and accomplished.
In “True Prep,” Ms. Birnbach notes this with something approaching despair. Parents now spend gobs of money on SAT prep for their progeny. She laments that one is forced to pay for such tutors “because all your children’s classmates’ parents have hired them.” So much for embracing the gentleman’s C.
And then there is the fact that the threadbare remnants of old-money fortunes are, frankly, no longer very impressive. Ms. Birnbach looks longingly at the Croesian piles of the Google crowd and struggles to give them a preppy gloss. She writes admiringly that they share with preppies an aversion to ostentation.
But that’s where the similarity ends (and not just because the Larrys and Sergeys of the world wear T-shirts and jeans). Unlike those who followed the path of aristocratic insouciance, unlike those who turned up their noses at anything reeking of practicality, they studied mathematics.
As we look for ways out of the Great Repression, there’s something to be said for the value system that celebrates effort over effortlessness.
Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704644404575481861760374480.html