Clifton Hood's In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis

Reviewed by Maureen Montgomery

In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis  By Clifton Hood   Columbia University Press, 512 pages

In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis
By Clifton Hood
Columbia University Press, 512 pages

This is an interesting time to be reviewing a history of New York’s upper class, especially one that discusses its members’ involvement in politics and the development of the city’s infrastructure, as well as their sense of civic responsibility and their self-fashioning as privileged. Privilege, rather than power, is the focus of Clifton Hood’s book and the form of privilege Hood focuses on is expressed in various exclusive practices and pursuits, and in the exercise of influence over local and national government for the advancement and protection of upper-class economic interests.

Hood’s In Pursuit of Privilege is a curiously structured book. On the one hand it is a long historical survey starting in the 1750s and ending in the 1970s, but it contains major gaps, particularly in the twentieth century. The author describes his approach as “essayistic” and not bound by “a decennial calendar,” but each chapter is defined by the decade(s) of its focus.

The eighteenth century is represented by two twenty-year periods, one dominated by the impact of the Seven Years War on a colonial port city that reflected “the primacy of empire and market” (5), and the other by the successful conclusion of the War of Independence and the rapidly growing city’s brief spell as the new nation’s capital. There is a useful symmetry here and Hood exposes the tensions between different groups in the upper echelons of society and delineates the potential of New York as articulated by William Livingston’s 1753 pamphlet and by the upper class’s sense of civic responsibility in the early Federalist period.

Four chapters cover the nineteenth century: one on the antebellum era, one on the Civil War, and two on the 1890s. Economic growth is central to each, as New York City rose to become the nation’s financial capital. Concomitant was the demographic expansion of the city’s elite with the rise of local merchants and bankers, as well as imports from other cities, notably New Englanders before the Civil War, and from a larger domestic catchment afterwards. This increase is registered through the membership of gentlemen’s clubs and militias, through the revolts of the nouveaux riches against exclusive practices of older families, and through various methods of claiming social distinction. It might well strike the reader as odd that the 1890s are allotted two chapters given Hood’s assertion that scholarship to date has tended to focus too exclusively on this period, and, moreover, that these two chapters do not add significantly to our knowledge of this decade.

Following four chapters on the nineteenth century that give us a strong sense of continuity, the reader is then vaulted into the twentieth century, bypassing much of the Progressive era and the 1920s, and is introduced to a new upper class, consisting of a corporate elite residing in the suburbs, populating country clubs, and creating family dynasties of Ivy League alums. An even greater sense of contrast comes with the final substantive chapter on the 1970s, with its study of the impact of the Rights Revolution on the self-presentation of the New York elite as congruent with notions of U.S. society as open and meritocratic. Meanwhile expressions of privilege, Hood demonstrates, become increasingly confined to private spaces. A hundred years after the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House, the predominant form of exclusive box seating is now in sports stadiums which are more associated with corporations than individuals of the upper class.

With such an idiosyncratic approach, there is a need for a stronger justification in the introduction. Given that the author stakes his claim to offering something different by offering a long-term study of over two hundred years, it would have been helpful to have a conclusion that reflected on the advantages of an extended historical approach. Moreover, the leap from the 1890s to the 1940s -- the largest gap in the study — is somewhat disconcerting, especially in view of the significant transformation from an upper strata at the fin de siècle dominated by bankers and the founders of corporations and major businesses to a mid-twentieth century upper class, which, as Hood shows, was far less conspicuous in its display of wealth and more geographically dispersed. Readers might well feel short-changed on the disjointed treatment of the twentieth century which might have been addressed in interstitial chapters. The danger is that a reader might come away with thinking that the upper class in the twentieth century is less worthy of study. The disparities in wealth, which increased in the latter part of the century, make it all the more important to analyse how the elite has continued to function and reproduce itself. In addition to this, there is also the changing ethnic composition of New York’s upper class. While the chapter on the 1970s focuses on upper-class appropriation of progressive rhetoric, the impact of the city’s financial crisis could have been discussed in relation to what Valerie Smith identifies as “the struggle of privileged white men to regain control of their city,” a struggle which later manifested itself in the response to the 1989 rape of a Salomon Brothers’ investment banker in Central Park. The “inflammatory rhetoric” against the alleged African American perpetrators, evident in the media and Donald Trump’s newspaper advertisements on the case (Not Just Race, Not Just Gender 11-13), would have made for an interesting comparison to the predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant upper-class’s demonization of African Americans and immigrants in the nineteenth century.

Hood’s study makes a significant contribution to the field of the history of New York’s upper class, without reconfiguring it. The use of the theories of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is light and based on an intermediary study of Bourdieu’s work. Nevertheless, the strength of In Pursuit of Privilege lies in the author’s prodigious acquisition and analysis of “masses of data” to fill out the historiography of New York’s upper class. Hood does not allow the quantitative data to detract from a highly readable narrative that proceeds back and forth between the particular and the general. The case studies of specific individuals or families illuminate the intersection of economic, political, social and cultural forces. The hard grind involved in cross-checking memberships of key clubs and associations is evident in the footnotes, while the text itself reads smoothly in clarifying the porous nature of the boundaries of elite membership and pointing to the complex nuances of shifting alliances prior to 1900.

Notwithstanding the gaps in the chronological narrative and the emphasis on men’s role in class formation, readers will find this a fascinating insight into the evolution of New York’s upper class.

Maureen Montgomery is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She has published three books, including Gilded Prostitution: Status, Money and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914, and Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton’s New York, winner of a New York Society Library book award.