- The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century ed. by Sven Beckert and Julia B. Rosenbaum
The American Bourgeoisie is a collection of fifteen essays by nineteenth century scholars in such varied fields as history, sociology, music, museum studies, art history, and American studies. It is the product of a two-day conference hosted by the editors, Sven Beckert and Julia Rosenbaum, in October of 2003. The book’s focus on class formation has only grown more germane in the years between the conference and the volume’s publication in 2010. If in 2003 American society seemed to be in the thick of a “second Gilded Age,” the excesses of the era appear all the more evident at a moment when political discourse turns on the wealthy as “job creators” and contrasts the influence of the “1%” with the “99%.”
The premise of the conference and subsequent book is that American elites of the nineteenth century blended more familiar forms of influence—economic and political—with “cultural clout.” While merchants, manufacturers, and bankers competed over issues such as the desirability of tariffs or infrastructure projects, culture provided a space of social cohesion where elite families could forge a common bourgeois identity. This melding of culture with class produced this group as a bourgeoisie. Thus, even as coherent interests remained elusive, wealthier Americans could still recognize themselves as a distinct class. Finally the editors argue, because of their cultural sway and the lack of a national aristocracy, “nowhere in the world did a bourgeoisie emerge as influential as that in American cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco” (1).
The book is split into three sections with five essays each. All of the essays focus on the urban north, and skew toward the late nineteenth century. The first section considers habits and manners; the second turns to networks and institutions; and the third looks at the American bourgeoisie in the public sphere. Many of the essays cover familiar ground: interior design, increased attention to lineage, women as social guardians, the European tour, elite [End Page 793] finishing schools and universities, and public arbiters of refinement such as art museums and concert halls.
The familiarity of the topics does not detract from their appeal. Mary Rech Rockwell’s examination of elite women, for example, takes us into the rarified drawing rooms and debutante balls of Buffalo’s grand families with a level of detail and social anxiety that evokes shivers of Downton Abbey. Alide Cagidemetrio offers a reading of Henry James through the lens of that famed literary character, “the snob.” To Cagidemetrio, the character of the snob was a necessary offshoot of the “need for the negotiation of a viable identity … all the more so in democratic environment such as the United States, where the denial of the existence of a bourgeoisie may enforce the intra- and interclass claim for the distinction of snobbishness” (46).
In practice the essays illuminate less how the bourgeoisie wielded cultural clout (how influential were they?) than how they produced (and reproduced) themselves as a class. The more compelling of the essays offer a sense of how these two processes operated together. In “Goodbye to the Marketplace,” for example, Anne Mendelson asks, how is it that culinary standards for American urbanites blossomed into an epicureanism so complex that simply reading a menu was a sign of cultural prowess, while flavor—the quality of the ingredients for such gourmand meals—plummeted? Mendelson links the shift to the decline of bustling urban food markets as a space where farmers and peoples of all classes mixed in search of savory morsels and the rise of specialized grocers in their place. On the one hand, urbanization itself advanced the change as it became harder to butcher a pig in Manhattan. But Mendelson illuminates a complex evolution of supply and demand in which industry and bourgeois desires fed off each other. “The age of gastronomic swank that dawned in the last...