Feature

Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend

Friend's beautifully written book offers a convincing argument for why WASP culture collapsed in the mid-1960s.

(Little, Brown, 353 pages, $24.99)

One way Tad Friend recognized that he was a WASP was that the term’s imprecision bothered him, but he was “too cheap to spring for another acronym.” He also had a sparsely provisioned fridge, an abhorrence of public displays of ineptitude, and a “concise and predictable wardrobe.” I will never, he writes, “experience the pleasures of leather pants.” What made his particular cultural inheritance undeniable, though, was his realization that “I harbored a feeling of disconnection from my parents, as they had from their parents, and their parents had from their parents.” Something in the bloodline, something in “the amassed weight” of his ancestors’ expectations, caused almost every member of the family to shy from engaging fully in even life’s most cherished relationships.

Friend may be a scion of this country’s faded elite, but “he has written a book for all of us,” said Jane Juska in the San Francisco Chronicle. Cheerful Money is jolly with “summer houses, maids, private schools, and ditsy relatives,” and it offhandedly offers a convincing argument for why WASP culture collapsed in the mid-1960s. But its broader theme is that “families are our fate.” Friend’s father was the president of Swarthmore College; his mother was one of those well-bred types who learned to wear a mask of “hostile” cheerfulness. Friend, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, doesn’t indulge in self-pity when examining where his own guardedness sprang from. “His account of losing his armor is straightforward, funny, and often moving.” What’s more, all of it is “gorgeously written.”

The very beauty of the writing “annoys me” to no end, said Melik Kaylan in Forbes. Friend is one of the few “transcendently gifted” prose craftsmen of his generation. Yet he’s used his first book to apologize for WASP culture, when he might have broken from the crowd to celebrate it. America wouldn’t be America without WASPs and their impulse toward stewardship, which Friend rightly describes as central to their ethic. In the author’s mind, though, it’s too late for fighting, said Jessica Joffe in Bookforum. WASPs were “the most American of people,” Friend tells us, but they were fated to fall because they “failed at the most American necessity: assimilation.”

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