I met Amanda Fortini last month, when we were on the same panel at a conference at the University of Montana. She was very insightful and super nice to me, despite the revolting biohazards that spewed from my every orifice that day. After reading this fantastic personal essay about Harvard and wealth envy that she wrote for Elle, I suspect she is insightful and nice all the time. And she lives in Montana, where all the best writers live. Check out this fine passage on the connection between money and the life of the mind as it appeared to her when she was a Harvard freshman:
Indeed, I trained my teenage fantasies of living a more cosmopolitan life on the wealthy young women I was meeting. Their cashmere sweaters and Gucci loafers were not only aesthetically pleasing objects; to my mind, they were evidence of a glitteringly superior existence. One where politics and ideas were discussed at dinner parties or in the sauna at spas, where boarding schools hired writers-in-residence to teach, where young people “took a year off” to travel. Obviously one’s ability to purchase Italian cashmere is wholly unrelated to how cultured or literate one is. But you couldn’t have told me that at the time.
Fortini is right: literacy and acculturation don’t relate to wearing an expensive sweater, but in our America they appear to correlate. How many poor people live the life of the mind? Plenty, you would think, since devoting yourself to writing or art in this economy virtually guarantees you won’t make money. But the genuinely poor—people who worry about having enough money to pay rent and give their children lives superior to their own—tend to eschew intellectual pursuits out of necessity. In theory, there’s no reason the near-broke should watch TV instead of read a book, or follow football instead of modern art. In practice, bohemia tends not to be a style of poverty but a posture of the rich.