“Each social class has its own pathology.”

Going by the tide and subtitle alone, it would appear that this is either a book about the lies rich people tell each other, or a book transforming the jingle of coins into the crash of magical cymbals. Having read it through, I am happy to report that the latter is the case. Aldrich has, to use the late Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth, given us a poetic reading of the mystery of life from a certain interested point of view. His particular imponderable is inherited wealth, in which he is “interested” because he is himself “old money,” and proud of it. Surprise of surprises. In these days when Stanford declares it elitist to teach Plato, a proud rich man is rare indeed. And he is rare not just in his pride but in his capacity for wonder. For Aldrich, inherited wealth confers more than economic power. It involves its recipients in metaphysical drama.

This last claim is not as outlandish as it seems. Consider Aldrich on Senator Aldrich (1841-1915), his great-grandfather, onetime wholesale grocer become landed gentleman:

There was more to my forebear’s “innate class sense” than an appreciation of the imperative congruity of status and estate, the spatial dimension, so to speak, of one’s social standing. He had an equally fine appreciation of the imperative of a standing in time. . . . He was not an aristocrat, except perhaps in the “natural” sense. He was a patrician. . . .

Who else could have written with such confidence about the hidden workings of fortune than a child of fortune, a “privileged creature . . . attentive, indeed morbidly so, to the resonance” of his conduct? Aldrich is very nearly a poet of the American upper classes. Between generally-known historical detail and his own special knowledge he establishes ties that, for any other writer, would be all stitches and seams. He astutely records the unique mentality of the moneyed. There is the section whose chief joy is urinating in ladies’ reticules. There is Tommy Hitchcock, polo champion with a self-sacrificial longing—he died testing (unnecessarily) an early version of a World War II combat plane. And then there is Aldrich’s own class-driven psychology, that of the rich boy who taught English to elementary kids in Harlem, who sees a link between the independence of the wealthy and Huck Finn’s escape down the Mississippi. His is a unique vision of unique visions.

Yet Old Money is not simply a book on the psychology of inherited wealth. It proposes, first, to justify “old money” as a social force, and second, to evaluate its performance so far. To these tasks the charming poet is, regrettably, unequal.

His difficulty with the first task arises because his commendable desire to give inherited wealth a foundation other than fiscal finds support only in economic evidence. Thus, even as he claims that the rich do things for America that no other class can, he says they do it primarily because of their bank balances. Kennedy served with disinterested panache—because wealth mellowed his attitude toward life, allowing him, among other things, a jocular self-confidence. “Laughter is what the White House servants missed after the Theodore Roosevelts moved out, and laughter is what they said they welcomed when the Franklin Roosevelts moved back in.” The Boston Symphony lends gravitas to the national life—though without their cash, its wealthy benefactors would just as soon patronize Michael Jackson. Insofar as American society possesses stability at all, the rich provide it, distinguishing the top from the bottom, setting standards of right and wrong, of taste, of honor—yet no ideas or beliefs motivate the rich in this unceasing and thankless enterprise. According to Aldrich, they do it because “old money,” both here and in Europe, always has. The child of wealth nurtured by extended families on extensive estates, educated at severe boarding schools, socialized in exclusive clubs and at the summer places around Penobscot Bay, simply grows, like a plant, into his role as a preserver of culture, promoter of civilization, dispenser of gifts. In other words, the rather unenlightening message is that wealth, fed by wealth and watered with time, yields superman.

Aldrich surely does not intend such a conclusion, for he betrays a complicated sensibility in attributing his own noblesse oblige to something called pietas. I would like very much to define what he means by the word, but once again poetry works against him. Describing its effects—a reverence for grandparents, a sense of history, a vague belief in eternal recurrence—he seems to be transplanting ancestor worship from the temples of Tokyo to the mansions of Newport. It survives the journey, but emerges more muddled, if possible, than it is at its place of origin.

To distinguish, finally, between those who use money from those who merely possess it, Aldrich resorts to the pyrotechnics of contrast. He discerns a historic contentiousness between “old money” and its necessary opposite, “new money.” By “new money” he means the big-spending entrepreneur, promoted to wealth by hard effort of hand and mind. A recent arrival bursting with pride and appetite, “new money” denies obligation to society. Instead of speaking of the bottom line in hushed, somewhat embarrassed tones, “new money” flaunts wealth, elevating it to preeminence on the scale of human worth: a man is nothing unless he earns. The factions, of course, are bitter enemies, and never more so than at present. “Ronald Reagan installed an administration composed almost entirely of self-made men (men, indeed, who were determined to use their offices to make it), and by the end of his second term Reagan had fed a flock of torrent birds whose droppings nauseated patrician sensibilities as nothing had since the days of Richard Whitney.”

Now, Whitney went to Sing Sing for stealing from the trust accounts of persons as rich and well-connected as he was himself. As an example of errant wealth, the main virtue of his case has to be its relative recency (1938), because for sheer venality Aldrich might have—but of course would not have—chosen his own family’s grocer-patriarch of the Ocean State. When Senator Aldrich went to Washington in 1881, he was worth $50,000. Thirty years later, having engaged in no business but politics, that figure was $12 million. Bribery, apologizes his grandson, was an accepted practice when today’s “old money” was new.

In attempting to draw boundaries using dates of accession, Aldrich fails at his second project: weighing the success of “old money” as a social force. The difference, Aldrich perceives in the agnostic dimness of his Northeastern Republicanism, is ultimately intangible. “Patricians . . . know that life is never so fair, so meritocratic, as the entrepreneur would have it. . . . But it is in their interest to know, too, that while this unfairness can be ameliorated, preferably by them, it cannot be undone.” They know this even as grocers, for what Aldrich speaks of is the natural aristocrat—this time without quotation marks. For such aristocrats, who, as Russell Kirk has written, stand out in whichever human subgroup they find themselves, money is incidental. When present, however and whenever obtained, it is a vehicle for great deeds. But when money is absent, the deeds go on. The natural aristocrat performs dramas of heroic proportions whatever the size of his stage.

I refer to “agnostic dimness” because the remarkable thing about Aldrich’s argument, and the root of its confusion, is its Godlessness. The name of the Deity appears three times in the book, first in a joke, next in a child’s sentimental prayer, and finally, in a eulogy, as the essence of “the wind and the weather, the line of the shore—things one couldn’t do anything about.” Considering that his argument, and the social hierarchy it defends, are medieval, God should be writ large. God is the ill-defined source of strength in Aldrich’s pietas; God’s law, as they understood it, inspired the earlier American aristocrats to acts of splendid generosity; God’s grace (which Aldrich obscures by the generality “life”) set apart rich from poor. Without Him, Aldrich’s claim of “old money” superiority is at best mysticism, at worst arrogance.

It would be best to ask a theologian how the natural aristocrat subject to God differs from the vegetative aristocrat of Aldrich’s vision, an aristocrat to whom things simply happen and whose authority is his pocketbook. By way of summary, it is perhaps sufficient to say, using paradox in the manner of Chesterton, that the one retains his free will by losing it, while the other loses everything. For the Godless aristocrat of pure wealth, be his justification “old money” or “new,” cuts himself loose from the chain of being, from the Augustinian scheme of earthly existence that justifies—and ennobles—inequality by placing God at its apex. To God we are all unequal, yet by Him equally beloved.

Late in Old Money, Aldrich reprints word-for-word a touching address that he delivered at the funeral of his father. Nelson W. Aldrich (1911-1986) was an architect, a painter and, between times, trustee of Boston institutions public, private, educational, cultural. “He thought it was the task of one’s life,” said his only son, “to make the most of whatever one had. . . . He was blessed, and knew it. Indeed, there were times—when you were nearby, for example—when he felt he could bless.” If the late Aldrich was really like that, he was living proof why the poor hate the rich. They hate them for refusing to be humble. By accepting only so much of the medieval argument as is convenient, the rich pervert the myth that is their legitimacy. The myth becomes not an expression of wonder but an entangling web of lies, from which “old money” can buy no release.


[Old Money: The Mythology of America’s Upper Class, by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.; New York: Alfred A. Knopf]