Delivering the 2013 Homecoming and Family Weekend keynote address on Saturday, Clifton Hood, professor of history and the George E. Paulsen ’49 Professor of American History and Government, offered an enlightening historical view on the pursuit of privilege in New York City. A distinguished scholar, Hood is a leading authority on issues central to the development of New York City, including wealth, transit, culture, and politics.
Held in Albright Auditorium, Hood’s talk, “The Challenges of Scholarship: Writing the History of New York City’s Upper Class,” was included with a panel discussion featuring students, and was hosted and moderated by President Mark D. Gearan. Patrick Carroll ’14, Sarah Fonts ’14 and Hannah Cooper ’16 had the opportunity to ask Hood about his work and share their own reflections.
Beginning with commentary about the efforts behind his forthcoming book, “In Pursuit of Privilege: New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of the City, since 1754,” Hood intertwined scholarly insights about the subject with discussion about his research and writing, and the importance of seeking criticism and suggestions from colleagues. Hood said his goal was to create new knowledge about elites in New York City, delivering an historical account that spans of more than 250 years.
“The preponderance of scholarship on the American upper class concentrates on the so-called Gilded Age of the late 19th century,” Hood said. “Historians have been drawn to the Gilded Age because in those years, the upper class was at its height because of its wealth and power, and was unequivocal about flexing its muscle.”
Hood said the problem with solely focusing on a period such as the Gilded Age – a time roughly coinciding with the American Industrial Revolution – is that it doesn’t present an audience with a complete picture of New York. Although focusing on a single period of the city’s history can be important for providing a particular snapshot, Hood said, it leaves out other critical happenings that could have had just as great an influence on the present.
The issue of elites and elitism in New York City, Hood said, became an ever increasingly complex matter beginning particularly around the late 1700s. With a democratic society and various economic factors, the initial upper class in New York that had modeled themselves on European norms found it challenging to maintain the exclusivity, he said.
“Throughout the city’s history, upper class New Yorkers have tried hard to create a separate and exclusive world for themselves,” Hood said. “But they kept being assailed by the forces of economic growth and democracy. The relentless pursuit of privilege is what makes them different, and their differences is what makes them an interesting subject of historical study.”
Hood said that by the 1970s, much of the European aristocracy had lost its allure and those individuals had adopted a more middle class outlook. He said the ability to transit between the upper and middle classes became more prevalent, but it merely camouflaged rather than resolve any underlying problems.
Following his remarks, Hood fielded questions from Gearan, students and members of the audience. In light of Hood’s scholarly engagement with students, Gearan asked how Hood’s teaching informs his work and how his work informs his writing. The students and members of the audience asked several questions, including the impact that elitism in New York City has historically had on women, particularly during the early 1900s, as well as what influence New York’s international allure has had on the upper class, particularly in light of globalization.
Gearan concluded the event by commending the commitment to scholarly excellence that was shared among the forum participants, an exchange of knowledge that extends to the Colleges’ faculty and students across campus and beyond.
“I hope for all of us to see the quality of our faculty and Clif Hood’s active engagement with our students, and modeling a level of commitment to excellence and scholarly pursuits in his own achievement in the classroom and with his scholarship,” Gearan said. “It’s certainly a benefit to the Colleges and one of the many reasons why it sets Hobart and William Smith apart.”
A member of the HWS faculty since 1992, Hood holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University, as well as a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University. Hood is currently completing his second book, “In Pursuit of Privilege: New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of the City, since 1754.” Courses taught regularly by Hood focus on American urban history, elites in America, U.S. environmental history and U.S. ethnicity and immigration. Hood served as a senior Fulbright Lecturer in Seoul National University in Korea. Hood has previously conducted two external departmental reviews.