cover image Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class

Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class

Michael Gross. Atlantic Monthly, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-802-16186-4

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.)