The 1%’s Phonebook

                “They were not aristocrats, no Slothrop ever made it into the Social Register or the Somerset Club – they carried on their enterprise in silence, assimilated in life to the dynamic that surrounded them thoroughly as in death they would be to churchyard earth.” (Pynchon 28)

 

                This passage comes from Tyrone Slothrop talking about his family tree, and explaining how they were what can be considered “old money.” However, this wealth was not something that lasted and at the time Slothrop is thinking most of it is gone. The mentioning of two organizations in this passage then points to these organizations being for the most elite members of American society, or the Elect for Pynchon. A repeating theme throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, the Elect are shown to be those with power for Pynchon. Yet what are the Social Register and the Somerset Club specifically? One is an exclusive membership and the other an exclusive publication. Because the Slothrop’s are absent from both the publication and organization then they must be members of the opposite group, the Preterite for Pynchon. Today, these would be the 99% or the average American citizen.

                Weisenburger has a fairly large entry for this passage. The Register defines itself as “the definitive list of America’s most prominent families, serving as an exclusive and trusted medium for learning about and communicating with their peers” (Weisenburger 35). So it’s essentially a phonebook for the 1%, so that they can come in contact with one another. It is also a status symbol, as there are only so many families that can make into each publication. Of course this would be useful for plotting everything that Slothrop is paranoid about, and would allow easy communication between “Them”. The Somerset Club is a “Greek Revival mansion overlooking Boston Common that has served the inner sanctum for generations of Cabots, Lodges, Lowells, and their fellows” (Weisenburger 35). This club, which is an invite only for Boston’s top families, could have been founded as early as 1826. Both the Register and Somerset Club would most likely have many of the same names in it. For Slothrop however, the Social Register would have been specific to certain cities. Today it’s one publication including families from all across America, but before the 1950’s it was published in 13 major cities including Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York.

                In the Hillman Library copies of the Social Register can be found, and more copies can be found online. It reads fairly similarly to a telephone book, with names and addresses listed in alphabetical order by last name. At one point, it was considered the list of who’s who in cities. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as an “annually published directory purporting to list the socially prestigious members of society in 13 selected U.S. cities.” In the 19th century the Social Register Association was formed, this organization would come to be who produces the list and also were responsible for creating one national version instead of having them vary from city to city. Since the late 1970’s the Forbes family has published the Register. In 1993 Michael Kilian, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, described it as a list of who’s in and who’s out. Later, in 1997, Allison Ijams Sargent said that if someone wasn’t in it, then they weren’t known among the lofty social circles of the super wealthy in an article published in the New York Times. While these seem to be fairly outdated articles, the Social Register has not really changed in the time since then. In fact, other than becoming a national publication instead of just a regional one, it has kept the same form for many years.

Finding any information about the Register is difficult, but finding actual copies of it is easy. A quick google search brings up copies upon copies of eBooks and actual physical copies, yet very little information is to be found on any other aspect of this exclusive list. Most of this information is in newspaper articles, and even then it is only briefly mentioned. However, it was at one time a fairly well known publication. It was referred to as a blue or green book, and many businesses and homes would usually subscribe to it.  

For Pynchon the Elect are those who hold a large majority, if not all of, the power and wealth in a society or the 1% for us. However, the theme of the Elect is also about predetermination. Like the rockets, which once launched have a predictable arc and eventual destination, Gravity’s Rainbow also seems to have a predetermined “arc”. This is what Gravity’s Rainbow is, the path the rocket takes that seems unpredictable at first but is later seen to have a parabolic trajectory that can be predicted. It’s also what Gravity’s Rainbow is about, as all the characters seem to have some predetermined trajectory or path through the novel. Slothrop, who has been established to be not a member of the Elect, allows his “trajectory” to carry him throughout the story. Further, Slothrop seems to be predestined to have ended up where he has and constantly sees plots in everything around him. These machinations seem to have all been set up for Slothrop by his parents or someone they were close with to set Slothrop up for his obsession with Them and with Their rocket. While it seems that Slothrop can predict where the rockets are going to fall early on in the novel, his odd sense for the rockets can also be chalked up to predetermination. 

 

 

Works Cited

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Social Register (American Publication).”

Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

 

Kilian, Michael. “Real Or Faux Blue Bloods? Only The Social Register Knows For Sure.”

Chicago Tribune. N.p., 03 Feb. 1993. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

 

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Print.

 

Sargent, Allison Ijams. “The Social Register: Just a Circle of Friends.” The New York Times. The

New York Times, 20 Dec. 1997. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

 

Weisenburger, Steven. A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s

Novel. 2nd ed. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006. Print.

 

 

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2 Responses to The 1%’s Phonebook

  1. patriciafox17 says:

    It’s amazing in today’s society how the Register still remains so secretive. I personally find that plain old creepy, but also unnerving. It begs the question of why “They” want to keep it (not the names, but general information about it, as you pointed out) under wraps. It compellingly backs up your take on predestination in GR. How much exactly is going on without the 99%’s knowledge? Does the 1% exert that much control and influence over the 99%? Could the Elite be stopped? That list of names would be the perfect resource to organize a group to take control over people not in the Register, essentially. I never considered the Register as the “1%’s Phonebook,” but it makes Pynchon’s point all the more clear and downright chilling.

  2. Mike Wilson says:

    With regard to your initial point, I didn’t get from this passage that the Slothrops were old money, but I certainly got that they were longtime members of American society — albeit on a low rung of the social ladder. I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that they were of average means all along. However, as you said, I think their position in society established them as members of the Preterit rather than the Elect.

    I was intrigued by your work on the Social Register, and one facet of it that particularly piqued my interest me was its continued presence online. The first thing that pops up when you Google “social register” is socialregisteronline.com. At first glance it doesn’t look particularly modern or reputable, but its sponsors include upper-crust outfits like Christie’s (the famous auction house) and several law firms. The website also shares an address on Fifth Avenue in New York City with Forbes Magazine, and as you pointed out, the Forbes family is the current publisher of the register.

    If you click on the “Clubs” link on the site, it really tells the tale of who the Elect are today. The Somerset Club is still included, as are several other distinct groups. Some clubs that are listed have roots in the founding of the United States, for example, the Society of Mayflower Descendants or the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. There are also a litany of golf and country clubs listed, including three around Pittsburgh — notably in the old money suburbs of Sewickley and Fox Chapel. One telling link, though, is to the Huguenot Society of America, which serves as a reminder of the Social Register’s Calvinist roots.

    It’s interesting to look into these clubs and see what they say about the nature of America’s power structure. Overall, the Social Register’s list of clubs, especially the “Descendant” clubs, seems to depict the Elect as the first-come-first-served founders of capitalist America.

    This passage explains a lot about how Slothrop fits into the context of society, and I imagine what we learn from it could play an important role in establishing the powers behind the war as members of the Elect.

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