From Colonial America's founding settlements through the Gilded Age to the present day, Gross traces the complex legacy of American WASPs—heir profound accomplishments and egregious failures—through the lives of fifteen influential individuals and their very privileged, sometimes intermarried families. As the Bradford, Randolph, Morris, Biddle, Sanford, Peabody and Whitney clans progress, prosper and periodically stumble, defining aspects in the four-century sweep of American history emerge: our wide, oft-contentious religious diversity; the deep scars of slavery, genocide, and intolerance; the creation and sometime mis-use of astonishing economic and political power; an enduring belief in the future; an instinct to offset inequity with philanthropy; an equal capacity for irresponsible, sometimes wanton, behavior.
Gross is a tickler of glamour’s dirty underbelly ... A horse of a different color ... Far from a party. It’s more like pulling down a few volumes of the old Encyclopaedia Britannica, their covers not blue velvet but red leatherette: useful enough as a gateway to other material, but slightly dusty and sticky.
Gross closes his illuminating history in the twilight of the WASP ascendancy, when hysterias that were once the luxury of the few pervaded the lives of the many. It is the virtue of his book that it brings the now defunct patricians to life in all their doubleness, begetters of American prosperities who drove themselves crazy trying to heal American hysterias.
The theory—though absorbing and debatable—isn’t the star of the show. The book’s real delight lies in its brisk biographies of the people who illustrate the ascent and descent of WASP hegemony ... Gross’ choices of biographical subjects are unexpected, even idiosyncratic. They will convince many readers of his overall argument, or send them on to further reading. Well-researched and well-written, Gross’ portrait gallery will, if nothing else, illuminate the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite and American history itself.