Archive for August 26th, 2010

I’m not a literary expert, so I have to take this essay by Gerald Howard at face value. And, it’s an excellent essay, discussing how discussions of class used to be common in American fiction, but no longer are. Here are some excerpts:

Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.

The dignity of work and its social efficacy is one of the core tenets of our democratic creed. In the absence of inherited social privilege deriving from European feudalism, it would be the willingness to work to tame a wild continent that would define, in Hector St. John Crèvecoeur’s phrase, “the American, this new man.” Yet if all men are created equal, as our Declaration of Independence so ringingly declares, all men are equally defined by the social class they are born into and often seek to rise above—and nothing more inexorably marks one’s class as the sort of work one does. This disjunction between the gospel of equality to which we pay lip service and the reality of social distinctions that we cannot escape makes the whole subject of class in America a tense and touchy one. Simply to bring up the subject in any context, let alone a literary one, feels discomfiting, as if some taboo were being broken or doubt being cast on our most cherished ideals (or illusions) about ourselves…

In any case, these blinders are of relatively recent vintage, as the postwar economic boom and the rise of a vast middle class has made it possible, even mandatory, to view American society as homogenous, socially fluid, and largely unstratified. Charles McGrath observes, however, in that same Times series, that “in the old days, when we were more consumed by social class, we were also more honest about it. There is an un-American secret at the heart of American culture: for a long time, it was preoccupied by class.” Work and class have certainly been abiding and central preoccupations of American literature for as long as we have had writing worthy of the name…

As we’ve noted, the path to literary recognition these days runs through our most prestigious and expensive universities, and these are neither welcoming nor, increasingly, affordable places for the children of the working class. The price barriers speak for themselves, but it is the atmosphere of class privilege and a culture of secret handshake-like assumptions that may offer an even more demoralizing obstacle to the aspiring working-class writer…

I know that sounds pretty bleak when it comes to what I’ve called literary democracy. And yet the vitality and toughness of working-class life has a way of producing voices that demand to be heard. Fiction, of all the arts, is the one that has the strongest allegiance to a realistic depiction of the world as it is, however advanced the formal means by which that representation is achieved…

A literature stratified by its subject matter and its practitioners risks become a mandarin exercise, and that would be, well, unAmerican. It behooves all of us involved in the enterprise of American fiction to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Much of the essay that I left out offers a survey of use of class in fiction. It’s a really interesting and welcome change of pace, at least for this reader. The budding political economist in me wants to point out that there must be positive feedback loops between literature and our economic structures, but I think the implications of that idea are obvious enough, so I’ll leave it be.


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