Clifton Hood '72 takes fascinating look at a city's privileged subculture

Clifton Hood '72 takes fascinating look at a city's privileged subculture

"Upper-class New Yorkers like the Bradley Martins tried hard to create a separate and exclusive world for themselves, but they kept being assailed by the forces of economic growth and democracy and compelled to alter course. Their relentless pursuit of privilege was what made them different, and it is why the life they created for themselves can be considered a "foreign country." They had their own culture, their own practices, norms, and aspirations, and they were different not just from other New Yorkers but from other urban upper classes in other cities. Compared to other elites in the United States and Europe, upper-class New Yorkers have been more receptive to new people and ideas and much bolder in their quest for wealth, prestige, and power." — (x–xi, Hood)

Clifton Hood's '72 interest in American cities began at a very early age.

"I grew up in a steel town outside of Pittsburgh," he explained. "We would always go to Pittsburgh for football games and to go shopping, and I was always just fascinated by the big buildings, the hustle and bustle and just the mix of so many people in one place."

This fascination grew as he aged, cultivated by an enthralling course in urban history at Washington University in St. Louis and his life in New York City while he received his master's degree and Ph.D. in U.S. History from Columbia University.

"Being in New York was great for being in graduate school," he said. "It really was an education in itself. And for my dissertation, which became my first book, I looked at the history of the subway system in NYC."

His second book, In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of A Metropolis, hit the bookshelves in November of this year. The book takes a close look at the lives of New York's elite within a time frame of the 1750s to present day, a group that includes "the elite families and wealthy tycoons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries" as well as "the Wall Street executives of today."

It is a project he has been working on since the publication of his other written work, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York, which was published in 1993.

"I would say the writing took nearly 16 years," he said. "The reason it took so long was mostly because I teach. You do the writing and the research in the summers. So for a long time, the book really existed in my head and in my laptop. It's going to take a while to get used to seeing it in a book jacket on the shelf. I suppose I can get used it. It still feels surreal."

Hood holds the position of George E. Paulsen '49 Professor of American History and Government at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He specializes in the history of the elite, New York City, mass transit and historical memory. As a professor, what he looks forward to with this particular publication is the perspective it may provide his students.

"I really want my students to understand that if you really want to put your heart and mind behind something, you can create something that wouldn't exist otherwise," he explained. "We sort of stumble into projects like this. As you research, you find yourself in these new places, looking at new things and you realize, oh this is interesting. There's something to be said here."

You may think that a book such as this is written strictly for the academic crowd, scholars and specialists in history of New York City and the history of the elite. But this book, more broadly, was written for those with an interest in the past and its relevance in today's culture and events.

"I would say the second audience would be the vaunted general reader who is interested in American history, the history of NYC, the history of ideas, the history of the elite," he said. "The sort of person that we would like to think that WRA is training its students to be, no matter what field they pursue."

You can find a copy of In Pursuit of Privilege in the John D. Ong Library, a fact that delights Hood, but there is an even closer connection between his latest book and his alma mater.

"I dedicated this book to four teachers who made a difference in my life," he said. "The first name on the list was a teacher at WRA. Bill Westfall's first year was my last year. He was the first person I ever took a class with that had been a professionally trained historian. I was used to doing well in history class, but at first, I didn't do well in his. I had to up my game!"

It was Westfall that steered Hood to attending Washington University because of its outstanding history department.

"That really made a huge difference in my life," he said. "But the other tie to WRA is that I think of it as the place that really shaped me in general. I would hope that students there would know that there was a person who walked the same campus they're walking and know that writing a book is something that they can also do if they set their minds to it. They can do so much of what they choose to do."