Poking idly about the overflowing tables in the Port Swiller library during the recent storm, Robbo stumbled across a book he had not noticed before: True Prep: It’s A Whole New Old World by Lisa Birnbach.

Heaven knows how this book came to be in the Robbo collection.  I’d heard of it before, but never had any particular urge to buy it.  I can only suppose, judging from some suspicious looking tape marks on the binder, that Mrs. R picked it up at one of the library used book sales which she is fond of haunting.

Birnbach is, of course, the author of The Official Preppy Handbook, which came out in 1980.  This latest opus (from 2010) purports to be an updated version of that immensely popular tome (at least amongst potential imitators) describing [insert Robin Leach voice here] the lifestyles of the old guard power elite.

Well, Robbo spent about five minutes idly skimming through it, which is about all he needed to form his opinions.

In the first place, “It’s A Whole New Old World” is just about right.  A social scientist, I think, would be mighty interested in the way in which this book illustrates the change in the societal power structure (or at least its perception) over the past 30 years.  Gone are the last vestiges of the old, low-key, stuffy W.A.S.P. ethics, values and tastes.  Instead, the BoHo’s now are running the asylum.  One sees throughout a tone comprised of a militant progressivism; a strident “anything goes” family/social structure; naked political pandering; exhibitionism not just in consumption but in philanthropy, career and other areas; and, finally, crass commercialization.  There also is about it a certain edge absent from the previous edition, a feeling that failure to embrace the “new” orthodoxy will land you in a reeducation camp faster than you can say “visualize whirled peas”.

Birnbach herself seems to heartily approve of these changes.  You may judge for yourselves what ol’ Robbo’s opinion might be.

In the second place, the book’s various lists of “musts” are remarkably shallow and, at least where Robbo is any kind of judge, seem to have been thrown together without much consideration.  (Full disclosure: This may be true of the first book, too, but it must be 20 years since I last saw a copy.)  Take the list of “must” reads.  The only Evelyn Waugh work listed is Brideshead, which is hardly emblematic of the rest of his novels.  And do people of this sort actually not see the strong religious message of the book? Or do they just ignore it?  (Or do they just buy the book because Jeromy Irons was in the teevee show but never get round to reading it?)  And who among the young bohos reads Buckley’s God and Man at Yale these days?  The entry for Tom Wolfe includes some of his old essays, together with My Name Is Charlotte Simmons, probably the weakest of his novels to date.  There are no entries whatsoever for P.G. Wodehouse.

In the third place, I noticed something about the various schools discussed.  Despite the fact that there are actually fewer such entries than last time around, an entire page is devoted to singing the praises of Hamster-Squidney Hampton-Sydney College.  This really rayther astounded Robbo.  HSC, at least when I knew anything about it, while priding itself on preserving the concept of the Southern Gentleman, was also one of the last bastions of recalcitrant Confederate sympathizers left in the country.   This hardly seems to jibe with the solid blue tone of the rest of the book.  Either the school has changed entirely in the twenty-odd years since I knew anything about it, or there must be some other force at work here.

Which brings me to two related stories.

The first has to do with Birnbach.  If you still have your old, dog-eared copy of TOPH sitting in the basket in your downstairs loo, you will see that among the many schools profiled, no mention whatsoever is made of Washington & Lee University, Robbo’s grad school of record.  (This I do remember.)  You might think this omission odd, as Dubyanell seemed to have every quality necessary for inclusion among the “elite”:  Strong social traditions, a storied past (both Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler are buried on campus), a reputation for heavy drinking, etc.  And many of its neighboring schools were mentioned:  HSC, Sweet Briar, Hollins, etc.  Well, the rumor that I heard some years later was that Birnbach was dating somebody in the Dubyanell administration (in the admissions office, I believe) whilst she was assembling that book.  The relationship apparently went south in a distinctly ugly manner.  Birnbach retaliated against the fellah by blackballing the school.  I’ve no idea whether this is true or not.  But I note that Dubyanell didn’t make the new book, either.  On the other hand, as I say, Squidney – its longtime rival – got a page all to itself.

Go figure.

Speaking of Squidney,  I may have mentioned this anecdote before.  Prior to coming to the Great Commonwealth of Virginny for school, Mrs. R was pure Long Island/Connecticut and knew next to nothing about Southerners.  The story goes (this was before we met) that one night, she and a group of her Sweet Briar friends road-tripped down to Farmville to engage in merriment with the local scholarly gentlemen.  Eventually, a bunch of them wound up in some good ol’ boy’s dorm room.  She tells me it had the requisite huge rebel flag hanging on one wall, along with various other books and odds and ends dedicated to the War of Northern Aggression.  At some point, the conversation came  around to that War, with the fellahs arguing about what would have happened had Stonewall survived Chancellorsville, if Longstreet had flanked Round Top on the right and other might-have-beens.  Mrs. R sat for some time in puzzlement over all this and then finally blurted out in an innocent tone,  “I just don’t understand why you guys keep talking about the war so much.  I mean, y’all lost!”

Apparently, this produced an absolutely dumbfounded silence amongst the other revelers.

How Mrs. R escaped campus, I do not know.   Chivalry not quite dead, I suppose.

I do know that she never went back.

 

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