Snobs. Well, it all depends.

William Faulkner, the Mississippi novelist, once observed that everybody in Virginia is a snob, and there were plenty of people sitting around with time on their hands and nothing better to do than write him a protest.

One of them was Anne Churchill Berkeley of Goode, and Faulkner (for novelists have nothing BUT spare time) wrote her back, and that letter is a new acquistion of the University of Virginia's collection of Faulkner papers.

"You have shamed me," he said. "I meant a compliment."

Compliment, my eye. He meant nothing of the kind, but novelist are notorious for whoppers, and novelists of the better sort can usually write their way out of lies. As Faulkner did.

He said a snob was a fellow "so assured of his or her position as not to neen, envy or want anything of anyone else, so that when an outsider is lucky enough to be offered friendship he does not have to worry lest anything more than reciprocal courtsey will be expected or demanded of him."

That, of course, is a typically clumsy Faulknerian sentence, as well as a meaning of "snob" that neither Faulkner nor anybody else ever used.

Snob has meant several things, but never that. Perhaps the word he was fishing for was gentleman, since gentlemen rarely strike up friendships for ulterior purposes.

But faulkner knew perfectly well what snob means, and if he had been a Puritan, he would have stuck by his guns for his first opinion (that all Virginians are snobs) instead of weaseling out through the invention of a totally insane meaning of "snob."

A snob is one who, for no very apparent reason ususally, fancies himself superior to common clay and -- especially -- one who gives himself airs of a particular kind, especially airs of wealth, breeding, learning and class.

The word originally meant a cobbler's apprentice, and one does not run into it until late in the 18th century. Since cobbler's apprentices were usually not persons of high culture, the word soon came to mean a base fellow who did not read Jane Austen or Cervantes but instead read Willilam Faulkner, say, or Mickey Spillane. Or who watched television.

It was not until the middle of the last century that the word began to have the coloration of meaning it now has.

In the South generally it may be true -- and in Virginia it may expecially be true -- that people love to dwell on family connections of the 17th centuries. A 17th-century member of the House of Burgesses is worth, I imagine, at least two Confederate generals and four 20th-century bishops.

And yet never in my life was I anywhere where people were more conscious who other people were that the state of Mississippi, where Faulkner grew up.

"I tell you who she is," is a perfectly common second sentence to one in which the name of Timantha Piney, Birdie Tenchable or Amanda Lightwing comes up anywhere between Pass Christian and Holly Springs.

I once had a secretary, in the Tennessee-Mississippi border country, who invariable relayed phone calls with this preface:

"Buck Windowhammer is on the line. I tell you who he is. You remember Cletus Barndog, well his mother was sister of Buck's grandfather. They lived down at Bulldog Center, you remember that, all the Barndogs are from down there, and they lost a lot of money in 1900 from over-investing in land, but they got it back by being the first down there to irrigate for rice. Buck's wife is a Yellowhead from Vicksburh. They were carpet-baggers but married the Toddleighs and are quite something now. Here's Buck."

I always felt like beginning the conversation with Buck, or whatever unknown person was on the line, by asking how things were at Bulldog Center.

But my secretary was far from being a snob. She merely liked to fill you in on the facts, and she merely had a healthy curiosity (as well as an encyclopedic knowledge and memory) for tangled relationships. Instead of memorizing the Valois kings when she was in school, she memorized all the solvent folk of three states and knew an astonishing amount of detail such as what this one said at a barbecue years back or how it happened the Toddleighs got the Sloughworthy money , despite only one marriage there, and how old Sloughworthy in fact died, and my dear it was not as reported.

But that is investigative reporting, not snobbery.

I may also be true among some Virginians that they do not warm up awfully well to somebody blowing in from God only knows where with grace of an incontinent hippo. It formerly was not the thing in Virginia (though I think they have all pretty much died out down there as everywhere else) to talk about money, family, other people, religion, controversail political figures (most of them lower class), sex, science or Italy. It was permissible to speak of book, however, as long as one did not do so in a heavy pedantic or wearisome way and it was entirely permissible to speak of crops, the weather, bird dogs, and bass. You say they didn't have much to talk about. Ah, you never heard them.

There is no point pretending you can't read and write, you know, or that you grew up with the mice in the barn if you didn't and many Virginians frankly face the fact they are, well, better born or more representative people than some others. But that is hardly snobbery.

Besides, Virginians are not all well-born, so even if they were snobs it wouldn't be "all Virginians are snobs" as Faulkner said. There are people down there you can't place at all.

A snob, as I understand it -- and as the correct meaning is -- is one who usually is a Yankee to begin with and has a lot of money -- though that would not be held against him for one is tolerant and fluid in our democratic pluralistic society -- but who acts as if he belonged here. Bold as a brass monkey, usually. Has learned to play golf but doesn't know a redbone from a black and tan hound, can't begin to play bridge, makes comments about furniture and pictures when visits somebody, and has an accent and odd way of dressing that you may as well stop worrying about because he flat ain't going to do. And yet is bold as a brass monkey. That is a snob, and Virginia has very few of them, in my observation.

"A snob," Faulkner said, "has to spend so much time being a snob that he has little left to meddle with you, and so it's very pleasant here in Charlottsville ."

Acutally, they have plenty of time to meddle with you in Charlottesville, but it is indeed pleasant down there. They only meddle up to a point, you know.

There never was a less snobbisn place that I ever heard of than Charlottesville. A relative of mine down ther said that actually Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was rather nice, andI heard of someone else who spoke to the Kennedys when they had no other place to go to school and were accepted down there, though they were Boston Irish and their father was a pretty unsound about England during the war. But Virginians were very polite to them all, it is said.

There was an Eastern European family that moved in with an unpronounceable name, and at first nobody wished to barge in on them or make them feel self-conscious by inviting them anywhere. But the house caught on fire and word spread upward from the fire department that they were perfectly fine people, though they did cut down a lot of trees in their woods that Jefferson had known, and though they did raise the wrong kind of cattle. The butcher also spread the word that they paid their bills on time. The firemen said they were given hot chocolate and doughnuts after they put out a fire at the odd family's house, which everyone said was a sigh they could not be all that bad. What with one thing and another, it gradually became known they were in fact aristocrats and morever behaved flawlessly,just like people you knew, so in a few years this family was invited all over the county. An example of democracy in action and utter proof, ilf any were needed after the Kennedy's that there is no snobbishness whatever in Albemarle County.

Faulkner, needless to say, had never been so comfortable or so free in his life as in Charlottesville and Virginia generally, a thing that surprised nobody except Faulkner. Of course he came from the frontier, but everyone made allowances. And his letter to Anne Berkeley shows he had the instincts of a gentelman, even if at first nobody actually knew him.

I heard someone say, when Faulkner's name came up once, that for God's sake, man, the man could easily be taken for a Virginian. They say nobody ever brought up old skeletons like his being from Mississippi and not even the Delta but the hill country. Took him right to their bosoms, you might say. It helped, of course, that Faulkner virtually worshipped mules, horses, dogs and wasn't forever preaching some damned nonsense or other. Which shows you if a fellow is decent and plain and does not give himself a lot of idiot airs, he is entirely acceptable in Virginia, for snobbery (which might otherwise be a bar) is virtually unknown there.