Dr. Paul Fussell, professor emeritus of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is best known for his study of the literature and mythology of World War I in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), which received both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
In Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983), Fussell offers a witty analysis of class distinctions in what is often described as a "classless" society. This passage, from chapter three of the book, considers one of the more visible signs of social class: clothing and other belongings "with messages on them you're supposed to read and admire." Notice how Fussell introduces several specific examples as he explains why people "feel a need to wear legible clothing."
from Class by Paul Fussell*
There are psychological reasons why proles feel a need to wear legible clothing, and they are more touching than ridiculous. By wearing a garment reading SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or GATORADE or LESTER LANIN, the prole associates himself with an enterprise the world judges successful, and thus, for the moment, he achieves some importance. This is the reason why, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May, you can see grown men walking around proud to wear silly-looking caps so long as they say GOODYEAR or VALVOLINE. Brand names today possess a totemistic power to confer distinction on those who wear them. By donning legible clothing you fuse your private identity with external commercial success, redeeming your insignificance and becoming, for the moment, somebody. For $27 you can send in to a post-office box in Holiday, Florida, and get a nylon jacket in blue, white, and orange that says, on the front, UNION 76. There are sizes for kids and ladies too. Just the thing for the picnic. And this need is not the proles' alone. Witness the T-shirts and carryalls stamped with the logo of The New York Review of Books, which convey the point "I read hard books," or printed with portraits of Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, which assure the world, "I am civilized." The gold-plated blazer buttons displaying university seals affected by the middle class likewise identify the wearer with impressive brand names like the University of Indiana and Louisiana State.
Selected Works of Nonfiction by Paul Fussell
- Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, 1965
- The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975
- Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, 1980
- The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, 1982
- Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, 1983
- Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, 1988
- BAD: or, The Dumbing of America, 1991
- Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, 1996
- The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, 2003
* Source: Paul Fussell's book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System was published in 1983 by Summit Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. It is currently available in a paperback edition published by Touchstone (1992).