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May 29, 2009

Dori Carter: Money, Satire and Edith Wharton's Mother

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger is Dori Carter, the author of We Are Rich, an interwoven collection of stories about a fictional California town where the nature of status is turned on its head over the course of six decades. She shares some insight into the book and explains a connection with Edith Wharton's mother. Dori is also the author of the novel Beautiful Wasps Having Sex.

Edith Wharton's mother once gave the young Edith a bit of advice on behaving in society: "Never talk about money, and think about it as little as possible."

Of course, Edith Wharton came from an old-moneyed aristocracy so she could afford to take it for granted. But I've always been fascinated by money and class. Probably because when I was growing up we had neither. I was raised in a middle-class community on the south shore of Long Island. In the 1950s, my father was considered eccentric for driving an old Volvo in a town where status was trading in your Cadillac every year. These were the same people who kept the plastic covers on their living room furniture. Our neighbors weren't well-traveled or well-educated, they were mostly second generation Jews who had moved to the suburbs from Brooklyn or Queens so their children could have back yards and attend good public schools.

The America of my childhood still retained a secure upper class whose members lived virtual worlds away from my hometown. These were the people who ran the banks and corporations and white shoe law firms. They belonged to private clubs and lived in exclusive communities that often didn't allow Jews, much less people of color. These were green, leafy neighborhoods firmly reserved for White Anglo Saxon Protestants --- mostly Episcopalians, who went to eastern prep schools and Ivy League colleges where their fathers and grandfathers had gone before them.

But the 1960s changed all that. Along with the Cultural Revolution came widespread use of the SAT. Admission to the elite colleges was now based on performance and intelligence, not lineage. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, and the rise of technology leveled the playing field even further. Within one generation America was becoming a meritocracy where anyone with brains and drive could make it. The children of parents with plastic covers on their furniture seized the opportunity to become America's New Ruling Class. The patrician image could now be purchased, courtesy of tastemakers like Ralph Lauren, ne' Ralph Lifshitz, himself a Jewish child of the Bronx.

We Are Rich is the story of Rancho Esperanza, a fictional California town where Old Money and New Money live in loathing proximity. Written as a collection of interwoven first person short stories, everyone has their say. Characters appear and reappear throughout the book, in revolving narratives and from different points of view.

The book begins in 1943 when Rancho Esperanza was the bastion of good, solid Anglo-Saxon Republican propriety. Over the next six decades, we see how New Money brings about a change in American values. New York Hedge Fund Managers, Hollywood producers and Silicon Valley billionaires take over --- and not everyone is happy about it. One character, a bit of a snob who finds the town besieged by trendy designers of ersatz Tuscan villas says, "They move here because they think it’s beautiful and then they tear down everything of beauty and replace it with their own atrocious taste."

The Old Guard finds itself becoming irrelevant; age and inheritance taxes have taken their toll. They are the last generation of rich white males who once ruled America --- dinosaurs doddering toward extinction. And their children --- the fourth generation of privilege, find themselves with diminished trust funds and diminished ambition to make it on their own. Some mourn this passing, others are oblivious or simply too busy making money to notice. The book ends in 2007 and foreshadows our current boom gone bust.

One critic wrote, "Carter frequently catches and releases the victims of her satirical wit. She skewers new and old money alike, but not without sympathy. We Are Rich is Upstairs, Downstairs meets Roshomon meets Brideshead Revisited..."

Apologies to Edith Wharton's mom.

---Dori Carter