British Association for American Studies


Book Review: American Snobs: Transatlantic Novelists, Liberal Culture, and the Genteel Tradition by Emily Coit

Edinburgh University Press, £24.99.

Emily Coit’s American Snobs: Transatlantic Novelists, Liberal Culture, and the Genteel Tradition explores elitism within academia and its influence on academic discourse, especially the ‘transatlantic’ variety imported from Europe into the United States during previous centuries. Coit addresses an academically-minded audience with a working knowledge of the western canon, with emphasis on such literary heavyweights as Edith Wharton and Henry James, but also more obscure persons of interest such as Charles Norton and Charles Williams Eliot, turn-of-the-century President of Harvard University, et al. In the Acknowledgments, the author offers a deprecating full disclosure that simultaneously characterises her book as a meta-examination of the prejudices and biases within academia, specifically those originating from the colonialism of the British Empire and thus, US history: ‘I became interested in studying certain elitisms and racisms because I’d always lived with them; this book is an effort to learn more about how these ways of thinking developed before I met them in their latter-day forms’.[i] Refreshingly, this is the extent of anything resembling moralism or apologia, with the bulk of the text concentrating on understanding the implications found within social networking (letters, lectures, criticisms of works, secondhand accounts, etc) of the artists and ivy league gatekeepers whose understanding(s) of what comprised education steered western cultural progression. 

American Snobs is divided into two parts; ‘Cultivation After Reconstruction: Impossible Educations’ and ‘The Remnant at Harvard: Whiteness, Education, and Democracy’. Part I discusses east coast liberalism and its tensions with latter 19th-century ideas about race and gender, taking a deep dive into Henry Adams’ writing. The intelligentsia of the time was grappling with the ideas of liberalism and equality put forth by John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, and Coit explores the contradictory nature of these being lauded in a society with heavy segregation along lines of race and class. The conversation then shifts to Henry James but continues with the debate about the meanings of ‘human’ and such ambiguous phrasing as ‘We the People’ in the Constitution. Coit uses the contours of these debates about terminology to illustrate conflicting attitudes within circles devoted to the same ostensible cause. The third section of Part I fuses these two discussions when dealing with Edith Wharton’s Valley of Decision and the impact of Henry James’ counsel on her work. James’ directing her toward a realist depiction of Manhattan is complicated by the idea of a male Master and a female subject, and Wharton’s concurrent obedience and rebellion; an adherence to determinist Old World liberalism and a draw toward independent New World liberalism. Gentility enters the debate as a contradictory term, with Coit linking it to ideas surrounding democracy: ‘Wharton’s realist response to Norton’s idealism is[…]an early iteration of what later becomes the narrative[s][…]about the genteel [as] themselves progressive and democratic, and they assail something undemocratic or antidemocratic; in these later iterations, genteel idealism is the moribund opposite of a vital realism inseparable from democracy. In such later accounts, this idealism is a feminist sterility, and this realism enacts a masculine vitality’.[ii] Coit deftly shows the intersection of tensions present in these debates: race, gender, intellect, fledgling democracy, and the concept of noblesse oblige as understood within ‘gentility’. The reader is encouraged from the start to see the defining terms of the larger debate as malleable, and the idea of liberalism as a rapidly changing construct with influences from many quarters.    

Part II concerns itself with the idea of ‘the Remnant’. Though never explicitly defined, after contextualizing, I understand it as a Biblical self-reference of the elite as a small group of ‘survivors’—in this way, the academic elite sees itself as guardians of an older tradition in danger of being lost, as having a duty to teach others how to uphold a functioning society as part of a cultural inheritance. This is at odds with the idea of liberalism as a democratisation of European gentility and the attendant debates on who can or should be educated. To the present day reader, this parallels the current rift in academia between equity/diversity/inclusion and merit as admissions criteria, among other things. Most of Part II discusses the ‘American scene’ and Boston in particular, especially Harvard University, the intricacies of Eliot’s presidency and his interaction with the ambient intellectual turmoil surrounding transatlantic liberal ideals. The final chapter of Part II brings it back to Wharton and offers an intriguing, scathing look at her particular snobbery; e.g. her veneration of the French contrasted with her disdain for the original Puritan settlers’ ascetic lifestyle. This will again resonate with the present day reader; academic dismissal of devout religious belief as uneducable by its very nature. The author astutely points out Wharton’s hypocrisy: her adherence to the liberal arts ideal of education as a wholly encompassing experience of different possibilities, while also buying into Old World ideas about inherited ability (along racial and even gender lines, admonishing herself as a woman), not unlike religious belief in the Elect. The book as a whole juxtaposes the competing attitudes of the day as European traditions and prejudices being filtered through new American philosophies, both reintegrated and gradually understood as obsolete. Coit also includes correspondences with voices that are usually seen within the discipline as more relevant to the twentieth century, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and this underscores the ongoing nature of these discussions.       

One shortcoming is a missed opportunity to engage with the title of the book itself, in particular its provocative use of the word ‘snob’. The rest of the text interacts extensively with the other terms in the title, namely ‘liberal’ and ‘genteel’, but does not give ‘snob’ the same treatment, engaging most directly at the very end of the text: ‘American snobs know each other: especially Northern, East Coast snobs, and especially snobs affiliated with Harvard.[…]there, as at Newport, London or Paris, walls and gates enclose spaces where the powerful gather and exchange the ideas that then, noticed or not, help to form the stories that shape the ways we read’.[iii] This encapsulates the focus of the text neatly but does not give much explanation to the word itself. 

American Snobs is a helpful guidebook to a specific time and place, acquainting the reader with the push and pull between the aristocracy and democracy within a group that sees itself as an intellectual aristocracy, if not by birth, and consumes itself with the debate of whether the ‘common man’ can or should be recipient to their wisdom. The explorations of Edith Wharton’s attitudes were especially interesting and showcase the limits of white feminism and, simultaneously, the need to understand such figures as being of their time period. I recommend American Snobs to anyone with an interest in late 19th-century literature or in the current debates rocking academia.

End Notes:

[i] Coit, Emily.  “Acknowledgments”. In American Snobs: Transatlantic Novelists, Liberal Culture, and the Genteel Tradition.  (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh UP, 2021), viii.

[ii] Coit, Emily.  “The Professor and the Mob in Wharton’s The Valley of Decision”.  In American Snobs: Transatlantic Novelists, Liberal Culture, and the Genteel Tradition.  (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh UP, 2021), 81.

[iii] Coit, Emily.  “Conclusion”.  In American Snobs: Transatlantic Novelists, Liberal Culture, and the Genteel Tradition.  (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh UP, 2021), 251.