Religion, Nationality, and Race: Significance for Social Class

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Fame, Notoriety, and Social Class

What has achievement and fame to do with social class standing? The distinction can perhaps be made that an individual is notorious or famous, but a family belongs to a social class as a unit. Prestige of class belongs to a child even before he has a chance to show his worth to society. Children of very famous persons are frequently at a disadvantage -- those of high class, rarely.

The personal achievements of one individual sometimes have a definitive bearing upon the social status of his family and the generations that follow. For instance, if the achievement is in a field that can be taught to the offspring, as dramatics, those bearing that name (Booth, Barrymore) have a chance to capitalize upon the prestige of the forebear. If the achievement results in the accumulation of a fortune (as in the case of Cornelius Vanderbilt), the effect may be quite lasting upon later generations.

The family to which a famous person belongs only slowly, and usually only after one or two additional generations of achievement, enters into a class position equivalent to the greatness of the achievement-reputation. Lincoln, although a famous President, did not associate with the "best people" socially; his son did. Charles Edison is beginning to convert his father's reputation, and his own achievements, into social class. His children will be much sought after.

Notoriety is scarcely at all significant for social class. People are notorious for all kinds of things; for swallowing goldfish and eating phonograph records, for being Public Enemy No. 1, for hitting a baseball 467 feet.

Many famous men, renowned for their achievements, have had no appreciable influence upon the social class hierarchy, because they have left no descendants. Their careers are often at the expense of family obligations; there is no perpetuation of status. They are flashlight bulbs, illuminating their corner of the stage briefly but well.

Achievement, followed by achievement, followed by achievement, will make up for social contacts and status commensurate with the achievement. This is the story told by the Adams family, the Byrds, the Lodges, the Cabots, the Roosevelts. In the case of the Johnson family, the famous member was a president, the offspring unknown, their offspring unknown; achievement did not translate itself into status.

It is possible that a whole definition of class could be built around the word achievement. Such a definition would read: Any family whose line shows consistent non-achievement for three generations in terms of anything worthy of praise by its neighbors (such as cleanliness, industriousness, morality, or other socially approved values) is very low indeed. The social case records of charity organizations of long standing show many such families.

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65. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New Haven, 1937) p. 86.

66. Arthur W. Calhoun, A Social History of the American Family, vol. II (Cleveland, 1918) p. 283.

67. Extract from The Iron Furnace, by J. H. Augley, 1863, contained in Felix Plugel and H. U. Faulkner, Headings in Economic and Social History of the United States (New York, 1929) p. 421.