Our ‘Economic Status’

We never bothered to have a serious conversation. Badinage in passing was our specialty, with the result that I never learned from Broyard who were his friends or his enemies, did not know where or when he had been born and raised, knew nothing about his economic status in childhood or as an adult, knew nothing of his politics or his favorite sports teams or if he had any interest in sports at all. I did not even know where he was presently living on that day when I offered to buy him an expensive pair of shoes.

I enjoyed this open letter Philip Roth wrote to Wikipedia to correct a mistake on the Wikipedia entry on his novel, The Human Stain, which erroneously stated that the book was allegedly based on writer Anatole Broyard (it was based on Melvin Tumin, a sociology professor at Princeton who uttered an unfortunate sentence during roll call one day—the Wiki entry is now corrected because of this published letter, of course).

Roth explains how much he actually knew about Broyard, which wasn’t very much (pre-Internet days means he couldn’t Google-stalk Broyard), and I was struck by the above line that he “knew nothing about his economic status in childhood or as an adult.” How many people have you come across in your life and learned their “economic status?” I realized that I actually don’t know the economic statuses, past or present, of a lot people whom I consider friends. I don’t know if they grew up wealthy or poor or middle-class, but can only vaguely guess by piecing together conversations we’ve had. Maybe I’m extrapolating it incorrectly, but it seems to me that if Roth and Broyard had went beyond witty repartee in passing conversations, economic status would have been something that they would have discussed—and what an interesting conversation that would have been.

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