Monday, June 18, 2007

The New York School of Elitism

Regional quirks have always interested me, being from the south. I’m accustomed to people asking, “You grew up in the South. Now what was that like?”

I have lived in New York now for over a year; it was my childhood dream to come here, live, star on Broadway, and frolic in Central Park. Looking back on those pipe dreams, I realize I wanted to live here because New York is anything but the real world. In fact, it is so much the real world that it has become a drag version of itself, a campy side-show freak of a city, where life is fast, fake, and the people are clichés upon clichés upon clichés.

One of my last afternoons at my internship that brought me to this city was spent discussing an article in The New Yorker, or, more generally, the politics of the magazine. I think it had something to do with Meghan O’Rourke marrying James Surowecki. A specific article was mentioned, that everyone in the room had read, except for me. One of the editors asked, “Do you read The New Yorker?” “Yes, sometimes,” I replied. “I had a subscription once. But I don’t, not regularly.” “Well, you should read it,” another responded, “simply to keep abreast of things if for no other reason.”

I should read it.

There it was. New York superiority. Well, you live in New York so you must read The New Yorker; you are part of the literary establishment now so you must read The New Yorker. You must.

A few days ago, my friend C. simply said, “I hate The New Yorker. Can I say that? Is that allowed? I hate The New Yorker.” Someone responded with, “I hate their poetry. They have the worst poetry. Wasn’t Sylvia Plath a New Yorker poet?” “Yes,” I was quick to respond, “but it took her seventeen submissions to be accepted.” As we spoke, we all looked up to the sky, as if expecting acid rain or imminent doom of some kind to befall us.

This little conversation coupled with the fact that I managed to mispronounce both the name of the artist Paul Klee, and the word “scythe” in less than one week in the company of Columbia graduates, got me thinking—who am I and where do I come from? I’m expected to be able to pronounce names that I’ve never heard spoken. Moreover, I’ve realized that I come from a place where Paul Klee is a name you just do not hear. I was reminded of the first time I ever saw the word “nausea” when I was young. I’d never heard of it, and I had no idea how to approach it. The worst, though, was my pronunciation of the word “nuclear.” Not until George W. Bush had so infamously mispronounced that word the way all Southerners pronounce it, had I felt ashamed that I wasn’t more fastidious in my mother tongue.

“Listen,” my friend J. said, “We’re educated here to impress people at cocktail parties. That’s what all those fancy words are for. If you think someone’s vocabulary is a reflection of his or her intelligence, you’re mistaken.” Is she right? I’d like to think so. I know I went to state school and public high school but I’m no slouch. I can quote Woolf from memory, of course, and I’m fairly well-schooled in the modernists, but this isn’t the place to brag. Quite the contrary, I started this post with no aim other than self-depreciation in mind.

My ex once said to me, “You’re too smart for me. I could never make you happy because I can’t talk about books and Virginia Woolf.” At the time, I thought, “how silly, how elitist he must think me—intelligence is all relative!” But is it? I find I turn my nose up at certain things—if someone’s never read Mrs. Dalloway, never seen Vertigo, if they mispronounce Yeats, well that really gets me going. But I tend to believe I value these superficial rules, these expectations of what people should know, because they are things that I hold dear to my heart. When I see VW’s last name misspelled it pains me; I literally wince at the page when someone confuses her for an ancestor of Thomas Wolfe. So perhaps it is all relative, all personal.

I’m going to continue my plight to become a human sponge and soak up as much information as I can whilst still breathing. Please don’t think that it shames me when people correct my grammar, my pronunciation, or my general understanding of les beaux arts—I simply blush a little blush, and move on. I appreciate those who’ve had that private, expensive education because they are furthering mine, whether they realize it, or not.

Until then, I'm off to mispronounce me some words and wrassl up some sweet iced tea.

5 comments:

L. said...

In Scotland, my boyfriend said in dinner conversation to some stranger ladies that he really "liked Jung" pronounced with the full J. I pronounced the word "confiscate" as "con-fist-i-cate" until I was 17. People laugh and think it's cute, but I know they're really cutting me out of jobs. Damn you, NYC.

Snobber said...

dude, i forgot about the "jung" one---jeez, that's one of the worst.

Jeff said...

Bless your heart-
You said "sweet iced tea". Either you've been in NYC too long or you are not really from Georgia, because y’all should know that drink is called simply "tea" (if with an all southern crowd) or "sweet tea" (if there’s a Yankee present).
I personally did not know it was served hot or without sugar until my teens.
I once stayed in a B&B owned by the nicest English people who treated me quite well until I ordered “ice tea” {no “d” required}. The owner looked at me blankly, so I asked her to bring a pot of tea with a large glass of ice and proceeded to make my own "GA Tea" {weak with enough sugar to scare diabetics a block away}.
She stared at me with a look of pity and horror……. And she treated me afterwards with cool reserve instead of the flirty banter we’d shared until that afternoon.
I’d suggest that you invite a genuine New Yorker to spend a few days in Georgia so they can experience the reverse elitism of the American South. I don’t know about your hometown, but mine often feels like China during the Cultural Revolution. We may not have “re-education camps”, but the profound suspicion of people who read hardcover books and discuss ideas is alive and well. I celebrate your escape and wish you the best of luck sponging off those Yankees.

jahfreedom said...

really just jeff again...but I ran across posting from your neighborhood
asking slut machine to "come by for some fried green tomatoes and sweet tea." Whole post was funny, but this line is about 1/2 way down the page at:
http://onedatatime.typepad.com/dick_liker/2006/07/re_other_things.html
From the July 2006 archives {if the link is truncated} entitled "Re: Other Things I've Put in My Mouth".
Enjoy!

Snobber said...

jeff,

thanks for the response! i suppose i have been in new york too long. yes, down in georgia of course we refer to sweet iced tea as simply "tea," and soda is just "coke."

and yes there is a reverse elitism in the south. once, when i told someone i was thinking of going to graduate school for "english," they said "but you already speak english."

yikes.