Flight of the WASP The rise, fall, and future of America's original ruling class

Michael Gross, 1952-

Book - 2023

"Fifteen families. Four hundred years. The complex saga of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite in America's history. For decades, writers from Cleveland Amory to Joseph Alsop to the editors of Politico have proclaimed the diminishment of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who for generations were the dominant socio-cultural-political force in America. While the WASP elite has, in the last half century, indeed drifted from American centrality to the periphery, its relevance and impact remain, as Michael Gross reveals in his compelling chronicle of the WASPs in our history. From Colonial America's founding settlements through the Gilded Age to the present day, Gross traces the complicated legacy of American WASPs-their profo...und accomplishments and egregious failures-through the lives of fifteen influential individuals and their very privileged, sometimes intermarried families. As the Bradford, Randolph, Morris, Biddle, Sanford, Peabody, and Whitney clans, among others, progress, prosper, and stumble, defining aspects in the four-century sweep of American history emerge: our wide, oft-contentious religious diversity; the deep scars of slavery, genocide, and intolerance; the creation and sometime misuse of astonishing economic, political, and social power; an enduring belief in the future; an instinct to offset inequity with philanthropy; an equal capacity for irresponsible, sometimes wanton, behavior. "American society was supposed to be different," writes Gross, "but for most of our history we have had a patriciate, an aristocracy, a hereditary oligarchic upper class, who initiated the American national experiment." In previous acclaimed books such as 740 Park and Rogues' Gallery, Gross has explored elite culture in microcosm; expanding the canvas, Flight of the WASP chronicles it across four centuries and fifteen generations in an ambitious and consequential contribution to American history"--

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New York : Atlantic Monthly Press 2023.
Main Author
Michael Gross, 1952- (author)
First edition. First Grove Atlantic hardcover edition
Physical Description
x, 470 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 449-451) and index.
  • Author's Note
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Faith, 1609-1750, William Bradford
  • Part 2. Enlightened Self-interest, 1750-1789, Gouverneur Morris
  • Part 3. Oppression, 1773-1833, John Randolph of Roanoke
  • Part 4. Acquisition, 1790-1866, Lewis Cass and Nicholas Biddle
  • Part 5. Opportunism, 1846-1872, Henry Shelton Sanford
  • Part 6. Exclusion, 1869-1900, The Peabodys and The 400
  • Part 7. Entitlement, 1873-1900, The Rutherfurds and the Whitneys
  • Part 8. Malevolence, 1900-1937, Henry Fairfield Osborn
  • Part 9. Decadence, 1936-1995, Michael Butler
  • Part 10. Adaptation, Today
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Image Credits
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Gross (740 Park) delivers an immersive and nuanced group portrait of New England's elite from 1609 to today. Delving into the genealogy of 15 prominent white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant families, Gross describes how over time this old ruling class "has drifted from American centrality to the periphery." In addition to providing succinct assessments of well-known names like Morgan, Biddle, Peabody, and Whitney, Gross spotlights William Bradford, a Yorkshire-born shepherd and religious dissident who became the first Pilgrim mayor of Plymouth, Mass. According to Gross, Bradford was the first progenitor of an elite American line: his illustrious descendants include Noah Webster, Hugh Hefner, Julia Child, and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Gross notes a decline in the influence of these families after "patrician" class-traitor FDR effectively redistributed their wealth through the New Deal; and, while WASP families "tightened their hold on the reins of government again via institutions they created or controlled" under President Kennedy, by the time of (elite New Englander) George H. W. Bush's death in 2018, they "seemed entirely irrelevant." Gross takes detours into extended considerations of areas in which his subjects had a hand, such as the displacement of Indigenous peoples and the study of eugenics. Striking an expert balance between the big picture and intimate thumbnails, this is an enlightening study of American culture. (Nov.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A critical history of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant cohort of American society, once dominant, now descending. The first people to purchase enslaved Africans in Virginia were WASPs, but they were also among the first to launch coordinated abolitionist efforts. That diametrical division indicates that WASP society was not monolithic. Regardless, WASPs constituted "America's elite from the eighteenth century until today," writes Gross, author of Model and 740 Park. That elite remains economically powerful but culturally marginal. The author explains that its decline might be traced to the emergence of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president--though, he adds, Kennedy was culturally aligned with WASPs and served as "a symbol of how an inclusive aristocracy replenishes itself, absorbing and even embracing those willing to learn and adapt to its ways." That aristocracy was insular and to some extent inbred, though extraordinarily prolific: Were he alive to do so, a patriarch of the Bradford clan would have counted 11,272 descendants in just six generations, including Adlai Stevenson, Julia Child, Hugh Hefner, and Clint Eastwood. One thing is for certain: The American variety of Protestantism, whether "old school" or fundamentalist, proves Max Weber's linking of the Protestant ethic to a kind of "hard frugality" capitalism that in many important respects all but replaced religion with business. Interestingly, as Gross writes, politics was long considered beneath the elite, but the crusading Theodore Roosevelt in particular made public service seem attractive to many. In conclusion, the author notes, whereas many WASPs have since retreated to "posh suburbs, restrictive clubs, elite charities, and the powerful financial sinecures that still cocooned them," others are aligning themselves with a new America that many believe will become minority white by 2045. A book of pop history and sociology that runs wide but not terribly deep, though readable and engaging all the same. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.