In an era obsessed with celebrity and glamour, sophistication ranks among the most desirable of human qualities, but it was not always so. The word “sophistication” was once a negative term, meaning falsification, speciousness, perversion, or adulteration. Now, it positively glitters, carrying meanings of worldliness and refinement. Through a series of close readings of some of the essential texts of sophistication, Faye Hammill explores the developments in taste and ideology that account for this striking change. At the same time, Sophistication demonstrates that traces of older meanings linger—that hints of “sophistry” persist in even our most modern conceptions of the sophisticated.
Spanning more than two centuries of “sophistication,” this lively account features rereadings of canonical writers from the eighteenth century to the present, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Fanny Burney, Austen, James, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Clyde Lampedusa. A complementary examination of lesser-known writers reveals that the development of modern sophistication is intimately connected with the evolution of middlebrow culture. From there, Hammill moves on to consider sophistication as expressed in contemporary magazines, films, and Web sites. Drawing on words and images from such diverse sources as Noël Coward, Vanity Fair, Sofia Coppola, and the New Yorker, Sophistication ultimately demonstrates that a preoccupation with—or a performance of—sophistication links unexpected works, disrupting the boundary between seriousness and frivolity.