Anyone who mentions reading a book about WASPs is likely to be asked, “The insects or the people?” Michael Knox Beran’s new history focuses on the storied aristocrats who dominated American culture from roughly the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. Yet there is something almost entomological about Beran’s new book. Under his glass, we see his subjects beyond their propensity for silly nicknames and membership in the Skull and Bones club, and we look more closely at what made a WASP a WASP.

This is familiar territory for Beran, an exquisitely gifted writer and the author of “The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy” and “Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.” Seventy pages of footnotes attest to the research he invested in “WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy.” But his fluency and command feel like products of full immersion in his subjects’ lives and psyches — the books they read, the heroes they worshiped, their affinities and proclivities, achievements, affairs, shames and disappointments.

A warning, though: The reader hoping for something of an American “Downton Abbey” is in for a surprise. At its center, “WASPS” is a think piece, a colossal essay that assumes a measure of sophistication about the topic on the part of the reader.

Beran begins by acknowledging the slipperiness of defining his subjects as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The term gets it wrong, “betraying the sociologist’s inclination to use a term like Anglo-Saxon when simply English would do.” That’s just the beginning of the problem, as Beran sees it. WASPs were an American phenomenon, not English, and not always Protestant. Who might be considered a WASP turns out to be subjective, but Beran makes the case that the famously Catholic John F. Kennedy checked a lot of the boxes.

The defining qualities of the WASP were typically found at the intersection of patrician bloodlines, political and cultural influence, and a desire for completeness, which Beran describes as “a developing of all sides of one’s nature to satisfy some longing in the soul.”

And then there is the neurosis. One of the book’s through-lines is the concept of “neurasthenia,” an old-fashioned term describing a collection of symptoms including headaches, listlessness and low-grade depression.

Early on, we meet artist and East Coast transplant Francis “Duke” Sedgwick (father of actress and Andy Warhol muse Edie), who paraded his impressive, half-naked physique around his California ranch but suffered from having failed to live up to the Ivy League expectations of his family. As a class, WASPs considered themselves better than the riffraff and responsible for lifting America to achieve its potential. Sedgwick didn’t have it in him.

“Once they had known how to make their desires productive, and bred leaders like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt,” Beran writes. “Now, in characters like Francis Sedgwick, they were becoming headcases, Mayflower screwballs, the poet Robert Lowell called them, fit only for the asylum.” (For the record, the middle-aged Sedgwick comes off as sexually predatory in “WASPS,” which, if true, would have made him more than simply a “headcase.”)

Edie Sedgwick inherited the family’s mental health vulnerabilities and died young. Beran cites other notable neurotics, including lawyer and essayist John Jay Chapman, who in a fit of romantic despair punished himself by putting his hand into a fire; poet George Cabot Lodge, who suffered a mental breakdown in Paris; novelist Louisa May Alcott, who evidently contemplated suicide; and historian Henry Adams, an admirable character in Beran’s narrative, who is nonetheless described as a “functioning neurasthenic.” Even Theodore Roosevelt is said to have dedicated himself to strenuous exercise partly in reaction to the weakness, sickness and anxiety that blighted his childhood.

If WASP living bred restlessness, it also contributed to the culture. Groton, the Massachusetts boarding school for boys founded in 1884 by Endicott “Cotty” Peabody, is a recurring character here. Beran (a Groton alum) charts its original values of spartan living, hard study and a communal atmosphere. The school became a thing of legend and educated a Who’s Who of success stories, including philanthropist William Payne Whitney, writer Louis Auchincloss and a multi-generation passel of Roosevelts. It also reflected hope for that ideal of the betterment of society.

Good writers tell us what happened; greater writers make meaning of what happened. Beran is a great writer who seeks to connect dots others wouldn’t see. Too often, though, this effort slides into peripatetic wandering. In a passage delineating Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 announcement of a plan for a New Nationalism at a cemetery in Kansas, readers get this sentence to gnaw on: “With the annunciation at Osawatomie, Roosevelt became at once the leading progressive in the country and the hero of such reformist WASPS as Learned Hand and Gifford Pinchot, an early environmentalist whose niece, Mary Pinchot Meyer, would become one of John F. Kennedy’s more memorable girlfriends before she was murdered on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Georgetown in 1964.”

That sort of structure is prevalent and can make it easy to lose track of the point. This was, for me, more than a small hurdle to overcome.

Still, there is much to love in “WASPS.” At the start, Beran mentions how difficult it is to know the imaginations of his subjects with real intimacy, yet the rest of the book makes great use of the historical record to do just that. So it comes as a surprise when, toward the end, Beran introduces an especially beautiful section that follows two of his Groton contemporaries from the late 1970s and early ’80s. “Rob” and “the Cid” (and Beran himself) experience the best of Groton’s traditions at a time when the boarding school “ceased to be a shaper of the governing patriciate.” We follow as the Cid goes to law school, and then we learn much more about Rob — Robert Bingham, who became a successful fiction writer (his debut collection, “Pure Slaughter Value,” made a mark with critics) before succumbing to the existential despair inherited from his wealthy WASP forebears. Bingham died at 33 of a heroin overdose. In this section, Beran writes with the intimacy that observation and memory allow. It is a poignant way to drive the history toward closure.

From the vantage point of 2021, so much about WASP culture seems mockable. The WASPs themselves didn’t particularly invite us to regard them as ordinary mortals, but viewing them as such is the very thing that makes them interesting.

WASPS

The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy

By Michael Knox Beran

Pegasus.
530 pp. $29.95