The ‘A’ Word


I was born into the Northeastern WASP establishment and have never quite stopped pretending that I wasn’t. One word in particular has always dogged me unpleasantly. My parents both had charm and humor. In short, they were attractive. Their house was attractive and everything in it was attractive. That was the point of being a WASP: to be attractive. The laws were coded into my metabolism at an early age. Gaudy clothes and flashy cars were out. Understatement was in. A sweater the color of oatmeal was as attractive as you could get. I was careful never to be seen in a green jacket or tan shoes, or to use the wrong terminology. I said “curtains,” not “drapes.” I said “rich,” not “wealthy.”

Still, attractive as I was, I hated the word. It was a marker of class boundaries. “Is he attractive?” or “Is she attractive?” my mother or my sisters would ask when I talked about someone I had met. “Why don’t you ask if they’re interesting? Or smart?” I would snap, crabby as an old socialist. But the word has never stopped following me around.

Nor has the incessant naming of names. When I run into my WASP friends I know I’ll soon hear the tinkle of tribal connections.

“You’ll never guess who I saw last week. Muffy Pratt! She knew your sister at Smith and her sister Moo-Moo was my roommate at Saint Tim’s. Wasn’t her brother Buz in your class at Deerfield?” Even if he was I don’t admit it. I deny all knowledge of the people mentioned in those conversations.

I went to Princeton, another WASP cocoon, but left during World War II to enlist in the army. I had no desire to be an officer, and the army obliged me in that populist whim. As a GI in North Africa, I got my first exposure to “otherness”—the Arab world—and it entered my veins like a narcotic, making me a lifelong traveler to places like Timbuktu and Yemen and Java that weren’t on anybody’s Grand Tour. I also made friendships with men I would otherwise never meet. I spent an entire winter in a tent in Italy with a housepainter from Toledo and a policeman from Jersey City.

Home from the war, I was expected to join my father in the 100-year-old family shellac business; I was his only son. Instead I listened to my boyhood dream and got a job with the New York Herald Tribune. At that time newspapermen were a somewhat disreputable social class; nobody actually knew any newspapermen. I liked being an outsider and have since enjoyed making my own luck as a lone cowboy, following my own journalistic trails.

And yet … Who am I kidding? My origins leak through every effort to conceal them. I look like an old WASP (horn-rimmed glasses) and I have the habits of an old WASP. I always wear a jacket and a tie in the city and on trains and planes. (The jacket comes from J. Press.) If I see a photograph in the newspaper of a businessman without a tie I just know I wouldn’t want him handling my business. I always wear a hat. I have very few clothes. I don’t own any electronic gadgetry except the computer that I write on. I drive what my wife calls “an incredibly self-effacing car.” I’m punctual. I never make a scene in public. I write personal letters by hand.

I’m aware that WASPs are a dying class. They are the only ethnic minority that other Americans may safely deride. But I also know that no class has so deeply imprinted its values on the national character: honor, hard work, rectitude, public service. By today’s standards of civic and corporate governance those values look good, and I’m proud to be associated with them.

Today I often recognize fellow WASPs of my generation on the sidewalks of New York, a city they no longer own. They are always “nicely” dressed—old men and women facing the day with vigor and good cheer, disregarding the infirmities of age as they hurry to their next hospital board meeting or school tutoring session or fundraiser for some underfunded worthy cause. There’s something about them that’s—well, attractive.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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