Social Prestige and the Modern Literary Mind
Email this review


 Despite alluding to George Bush and a few movie stars in his opening, Castronovo (English/Pace) is primarily interested in the literary representation of gentlemen, figures who either have prestige or lose it or are criticized for the way they acquire or exhibit it. After establishing the irony of class consciousness in a democratic society, Castronovo describes the European models for American gentility, the regional differences, the characteristic pleasures (fox-hunting, cricket) and values (honor, social service, fortitude, etc.), the schools where they are acquired, and the special places--the clubs and country homes--where they are practiced. He then traces the appearance of the gentleman in literature, mostly novels, methodically analyzing, comparing and contrasting, and usually accounting for its decline. The chapter on New York, for example, surveys Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy, and John Cheever, and concludes decisively with Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, according to Castronovo, shows the fate of the gentleman in modern life. The survey of the refined and more spiritual New England gentleman runs from Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry James to T.S. Eliot, J.P. Marquand, and Cheever again, concluding with Robert Lowell's Life Studies. Literary selections representing the southern gentleman, the provincial, and the western (the cowboy), enhanced by John Wayne and Joan Didion's essay on him, are equally eclectic, disregarding the sexual, class, regional, religious, or economic affiliations of the authors, the audiences for which they wrote, and even the growing decline of regionalism in literature that has taken place since the 50's, with the nationalization of media and therefore culture. Although Castronovo is very methodical, he fails to give his study a sociological framework or historical context, offering what is at best a pleasant exercise by a gentleman scholar, one of the few varieties of gentlemen he neglects here. (Illustrations.)

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1991
ISBN: 0-8264-0532-0
Page count: 216pp
Publisher: Continuum
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1991