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Dean's Column
By Dean Samuel H. Preston

Philadelphia Gentleman

In the preface to his book Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, Professor E. Digby Baltzell, W'40, Hon'89, wrote that "[k]nowledge about things is no substitute for an acquaintance with them. Most meaningful knowledge is highly personal, and theories about the meaning of facts are rooted in one's autobiography." Digby was a member of Penn's sociology faculty for his entire career--from 1947 until his retirement in 1986.

Born into an old-line Episcopalian family of Proper Philadelphians, he spent his life studying the social contours and customs of the upper class--from within. For much of his life he lived just three blocks from his birth place. He was a preeminent analyst and acute observer of what he knew best: the city's, and the nation's, white Protestant aristocracy. He coined the acronym WASP when he tired of writing, over and over, "White Anglo Saxon Protestant" in his book The Protestant Establishment. Other scholarly works include Sporting Gentlemen and Philadelphia Gentlemen.

Educated at an elite prep school and Ivy League universities, Digby was the very embodiment of the WASP patrician: tall, ruggedly handsome, and impeccably dressed, usually in a tweed jacket or blazer with a handkerchief arranged in the breast pocket and a bow tie. He was an avid sailor and loved tennis.

The moneyed elite, according to Digby, was an integral part of democratic society. Its well educated and well bred members had long been the source of political and economic leadership, moral authority, and social achievement in America. He didn't view the upper crust as hereditary but as open to the best and brightest offspring of any class.

In perhaps his most provocative argument, Digby contended that the egalitarian tradition of Quaker Philadelphia, which permeated the city from colonial times, discouraged aristocrats from rising above their peers to assume positions of leadership. Philadelphia has never produced a leader of national stature because the Quaker ethos lacked what he once called "the arrogance of authority." Conversely, the Puritan culture of the Boston Brahmins, which is hierarchical and authoritarian, has spawned US presidents, Supreme Court justices, renowned statesmen, and legions of academic and literary greats. Benjamin Franklin, Digby was fond of pointing out, grew up in Boston.

More than a scion of the upper class, Digby was in a class by himself. Some called him a maverick. Many of his views were anathema in the 60s and 70s. A committed, if unconventional, scholar, he spoke his mind freely and cared little for who might be offended. He taught a course on social stratification whose content was so far outside the received wisdom in the field that the department eventually renamed it Sociology According to Digby Baltzell. Under any title, it was one of the most interesting and popular courses offered in the School of Arts and Sciences.

He was not a reclusive academic but loved the hurly-burly of life: conversation, sports, theater, art, politics. He could often be seen pacing the sidelines of Franklin Field during football games or pedaling a bicycle--nattily garbed in blazer and bow tie-in downtown Philadelphia. To him, my most impressive attribute as sociology department chair was the fact that I held season tickets to Quaker football. His humor was barbed, and the press delighted in calling him "the WASP with a sting." People who met him did not soon forget his ebullience, and he conveyed that infectious enthusiasm to students in the classroom.

When I meet alumni today, Digby's name comes up more than any other member of the faculty as someone who has influenced their thinking and who is beloved. He is a favorite of former students, they tell me, because he was witty, supportive, and iconoclastic--and he opened their eyes.

Digby was a fervent believer in noblesse oblige, the obligation of an enlightened ruling class to render honorable and generous public service. He lived long enough to see the authority of the Protestant establishment, and the Philadelphia gentry into which he was born, ebb away. He died in August of 1996 at the age of 80. At his retirement dinner, when asked to sum up his life, he quoted the poet W. H. Auden:

The class whose vices
he pilloried was his own,
Now extinct, except
for lone survivors like him
Who remember its virtues.

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