The Wasps

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America

by E. Digby Baltzell
Random House, 429 pp., $6.95

Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment has many virtues that lift it above the level we have come to expect in works of contemporary social and cultural analysis. It is clearly and convincingly written in plain English, rather than journalese or the jargon of social science. It is a real book: neither a collection of miscellaneous essays jostling one another between the same covers nor the mistaken result of an editor’s advice to inflate a magazine article. Perhaps most admirable of all, Baltzell does not hide behind the conventional mask of “objectivity.” He tells us at once what he is doing and how he feels about it.

A crisis in moral authority has developed in modern America largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant establishment’s unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks…I have focused on the problems of anti-Semitism largely because the present position of the Jews in this country best illustrates the nature of the conflict between the social forces of caste and aristocracy, which is my central theme.

This statement, or something like it, recurs at regular intervals throughout Baltzell’s book. (I might add that a tendency to repetitiousness and an occasional lapse into the banal are its only faults of style or presentation.) Perhaps such reiteration is even wise at a time when readers and reviewers skim rather than read, and careful distinctions are often lost in the process. Baltzell wants us to know that he does not preach ordinary egalitarianism: he approves of aristocracy and an establishment and believes them necessary to a well-functioning democracy; what he does not like is caste in the sense of an elite closed off by criteria which no longer apply to the realities of contemporary society.

Thus his historical chapters—which occupy more than half the book—are largely devoted to tracing how a once open establishment became a closed one.

From the nation’s founding and roughly through the first half of the nineteenth century, positions in the establishment were open to all white men, regardless of ethnic origins…And this same pattern of accepting men on their merits and manners and assimilating their families into the establishment was followed…in the case of the Jews.

Because the change occurred only a century ago, the problems Baltzell is dealing with are relatively new, and have become acute only in the past generation. He finds that the decisive decade was the 1880s, when the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps) reacted to the threat of mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe by establishing the protective associations that have since characterized our social landscape—the exclusive preparatory schools, the “restricted” suburbs, and the ubiquitous clubs which serve so many other purposes besides the ostensible ones of playing golf in the country or eating lunch in the city. In the 1920s this sort of thing was at its height: the gin decade was also the classic era of the social blackball and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.