Saturday, April 3, 2010

Prep Personae

This might be a shameful admission, but I am delighted to learn about plans for an update to The Official Preppy Handbook.

I still have my copy of the original, which I bought when I was in 7th or 8th grade. Then, I had only the foggiest notion that the book was satire. There are actual check marks penciled in on page 59, “The Basic Reading List,” which listed “books about Prep schools, books read in Prep schools, books by Preppies, books about the joys and miseries of being Prep.” The two titles leading the list – The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, both of which I considered my favorite books at the time – seem to say more about being an adolescent and feeling out of place. I mean, I just knew that I would be much happier attending a boarding school in New England than mixing with the hoi polloi at a suburban high school in New Jersey. (I tell you, Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep captures truths that are not often spoken.) In New Jersey, I stayed.

By the end of my time there, however, I had become practiced in the kind of sarcasm and irony that occasionally rises to wit. Or at least I started to recognize it in other sources, like The Official Preppy Handbook. In my mind, I was Dorothy Parker stuck among mall rats. Or at least I knew who Dorothy Parker was. (Who was, I believe, not a preppy and certainly is not included in “The Prep Pantheon” features on pages 196 to 199.) Eventually, I attended one of America’s 20 preppiest colleges where I met actual preppies and still other wonderful, interesting, and clever people. (Including StraightMan, who other people assume is an actual preppy, in part because it is true that Brooks Brothers seems to have proportioned their trousers and shirts to fit him exactly.)

I think that my early interest in The Official Preppy Handbook alerted me to thinking about “class” in the United States as not wholly or even significantly defined by money – which I find that my students, as an example, will assume. To which the preppies raise their bloody Mary’s in agreement. On the other hand, I am not talking uncritically about that other notion of “class” as good breeding and so on.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu made the study of “class” and its reproduction in education and in language central in his life’s work. Is it possible to engage in a productive consideration of class in the United States a la Bourdieu?

Apparently, the new book, to be called True Prep, will include material on gay prep life and black preppies (e.g., the Obamas). I think it will be interesting to see what will be the so-called preppy take on changes in American life between 1980, when The Official Preppy Handbook was published, and today. It seems safe to say that there have been changes in the climate or environment of humor – I wonder how that will affect the production and consumption / reception of True Prep as satire? What can we say about "class"?

To be continued.


  1. I loved the Preppy Handbook, too! Must be a NJ thing. My hometown was included on the preppy list (Basking Ridge), my family skied in Stowe every February (and I even wore a ski hat from Moriarty's), and I donned more kilts and boiled wool jackets in my youth than I care to admit now.

    What a hoot! I can't wait to check out the sequel.

  2. Oh, and welcome to the blog-o-sphere, Sallie! I look forward to following along.