Edith Wharton on Facebook
I just finished reading The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich‘s 2009 book about the founding of Facebook. Putting aside the book’s literary merits (let’s just say the story’s compelling, at least), I was struck by the undercurrent of social and class mores that run through the book.
I grew up in a distressed area of a downtrodden city in the middle of Canada (okay, it was Winnipeg). In my family, the idea of going to university was as remote as going to Israel to live on a kibbutz – actually, the kibbutz probably was more likely. If it wasn’t for my own initiative, I probably never would have gone on to post-secondary education (about which the less said, the better).
So reading about the privileged asswipes (sorry, class consciousness getting the better of me here) attending Harvard in The Accidental Billionaires I couldn’t help but compare my own circumstances to those of these entitled Americans, even if I’m a couple generations off. These guys – whether Mark Zuckerberg or the Winkelvoss twins or any of other privileged clowns populating the book – are all pretty much walking a gold-paved road to the promised land, and were from the moment of birth on. It was hard not to hope one, if not all, of them would develop a nasty crack habit.
I suppose it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that audiences actually feel sympathy for these guys in The Social Network, at least enough to have made it a successful movie. I was less affected by the story (i.e., Zuckerberg’s betrayal of his friend Eduardo Saverin, his supposed ripping-off of the Winkelvoss twins) as presented in Mezrich’s book, however – probably because the actors, including Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, did such a good job of making them seem almost human.
But it is instructive reading Edith Wharton afterwards. In House of Mirth (1905), Lily Bart is forced, in order to stay afloat, to navigate the upper-crust of New York society in the early 20th century. What she goes through a century earlier is really not that different from Mezrich’s portrayal of Zuckerberg and Saverin negotiating their way in Harvard’s hierarchy.
Reading the two books back to back, I’m struck by a couple of thoughts. One, that the class system in North America, which has always been with us but seldom actually acknowledged, is finally a part of the greater conversation. And two: has the Facebook generation found its Edith Wharton yet?