“Rob Seguin’s Around Quitting Time makes a major contribution to discussions of class formation in the United States. His original readings of novels by Dreiser, Cather, West, and Barth brilliantly pursue the ghostly tracks of social and cultural change as they are rendered in fine narrative and linguistic detail within the domain of the literary. His mode of reading is as significant as his argument about the "classlessness" of the middle class. Indeed, Seguin demonstrates in exemplary fashion that it is possible to attend to literature as a social and political force without neglecting the specificity of its aesthetic work.”—Jan Radway, Duke University
Around Quitting Time: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fictionby Robert Seguin
Virtually since its inception, the United States has nurtured a dreamlike and often delirious image of itself as an essentially classless society. Given the stark levels of social inequality that have actually existed and that continue today, what sustains this at once hopelessly ideological and breathlessly utopian mirage? In Around Quitting Time Robert Seguin investigates this question, focusing on a series of modern writers who were acutely sensitive to the American web of ideology and utopic vision in order to argue that a pervasive middle-class imaginary is the key to the enigma of class in America.
Tracing connections between the reconstruction of the labor process and the aesthetic dilemmas of modernism, between the emergence of the modern state and the structure of narrative, Seguin analyzes the work of Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, John Barth, and others. These fictional narratives serve to demonstrate for Seguin the pattern of social sites and cultural phenomenon that have emerged where work and leisure, production and consumption, and activity and passivity coincide. He reveals how, by creating pathways between these seemingly opposed domains, the middle-class imaginary at once captures and suspends the dynamics of social class and opens out onto a political and cultural terrain where class is both omnipresent and invisible.
Aroung Quitting Time will interest critics and historians of modern U.S. culture, literary scholars, and those who explore the interaction between economic and cultural forms.
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Around quitting timeWork and middle-class fantasy in American fiction
By Robert Seguin
Duke University Press
Chapter OneClass, Middle Class, and the Modalities of Labor There is no permanent class of hired laborers among us.... If any should continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune. -Abraham Lincoln
"Is there 'class' in America?" asks Thomas Geoghegan in his alternately wry and despairing memoir of being a labor lawyer in Chicago during the Reagan years. "To me, it's such a stupid question, a hopeless question. Unfortunately, I'm obsessed with it." Geoghegan describes an unremittingly hostile environment both for workers and for his own efforts to represent them: capital was in flight, the steelworkers' and the air traffic controllers' unions had been crippled or smashed outright, and the egregious Taft-Hartley Act, a Cold War monstrosity that had lain dormant during the "labor peace" of the preceding two decades, was discovering whole new domains of application. Efforts to generate working-class cohesion were rendered virtually impossible, most often because they were simply illegal. Geoghegan nonetheless finds himself at once moved and puzzled by the sudden, fragile, yet vital forms of solidarity he sporadically encounters among the groupsof workers he represents, forms which often evaporate as quickly as they had arisen, vanishing, he imagines, into a kind of suburban black hole: "If I go to the Hancock, up to the 95th floor, I can look west over the city and see streetlights, in straight lines, blasting out into the suburbs, out to where the rank and file live.... Looking out from up here, I think maybe [history] is over. Looking at the lines, perfectly straight, I think of all the people out there watching TV." His lofty vantage point also figuratively encodes his own consciously acknowledged position of relative affluence and self-professed yuppie tastes, marking him in a certain sense as "outside" the very mystery of class he claims enthralls him.
Geoghegan's evocation of the long lines of streetlights heading out into the Chicago suburbs ineluctably recalls Dreiser's remarkable description early in Sister Carrie of the lines of streetlamps swaying in the wind, surrounded only by empty prairie. At this earlier moment, neither television nor even the suburb itself had yet arrived. Both scenes participate, however (by way, as we shall see, of a certain updating or refunctioning of an older pastoral discourse), in a similar production of what I call an essentially middle-class space. In this space-which is ideological, but also material, physical-class itself and the exigencies and investments attendant upon it are, I argue, at once produced but then occluded and rearticulated, to the point where the term "middle class" itself in effect becomes synonymous with "classlessness," an ideologico-practical inhabitance of the world wherein class has been putatively superseded, or at least temporarily suspended. This is a condition or feeling tone of daily life-whose latest systemic mutation would appear to be the sheer voluntarism of the field of "class as lifestyle," suggestively analyzed by Evan Watkins-that can afford people whose own economic status is tenuous at best, who have been used and abused by capital in a host of different ways, the opportunity to consider themselves middle class (and, from the opposite direction, so can wealthy stockbrokers). "Middle class" is then my partial, necessary but not sufficient, answer to the conundrum of class in America-where is it? why is it stubborn and fleeting at the same time?-that Geoghegan invokes.
This is, in one sense, a very familiar territory. The United States has, since the time of the Puritans, been variously conceived of as a providentially blessed nation that has escaped the burdens of history and social division, whose citizens enjoy a birthright of Lockean liberalism and, as implied above by Lincoln, readily achievable upward mobility. This is a set of discourses generally gathered under the rubric of "exceptionalism," great swaths of which continue to litter bookshelves and the brains of media pundits across the country. Exceptionalist discourse has, as Eli Zaretsky argues, "functioned throughout the nation's history to deny and absorb class conflict," and it constitutes an integral part of that ideological cluster recently addressed by Benjamin DeMott as the "American myth of classlessness," in his symptomatically titled book The Imperial Middle. Other ingredients of the myth include notions of limitless personal freedom, an indomitable self which is at once fluid enough to assume a wide range of roles, and the centrality of individual action and the fulfillment of desire. Some of this is quite pertinent in the narrative analyses that follow, for it turns out that many of the novelistic moments we will engage involve precisely the severe problematization of the self and of desire. That is, at the same time that these novels articulate some of the dynamics involved in the elaboration of what Loren Baritz terms the "subjective middle class," they work in different ways toward a (frequently fitful and uncertain) critique of this state.
In general, however, discussions of the forms of exceptionalism tend to be hampered by remaining at the level of ideas and ideologies, where the hegemonic power of the middle class and the commensurate weakness of working-class institutions and ideologies are explained in terms of Locke's greatness or the persistence of conservative strains of Christianity. Political (and religious) ideas and ideologies tend to be rooted in, and take as their presuppositions, the lofty and mystified realm of what Marx described as "political community," wherein man exists as "an imaginary member of an imaginary sovereignty ... infused with an unreal universality." My sense is, rather, that American novelists and their narratives have inhabited and drawn their vitality from the more profane sphere that Marx counterposes to political community, the sphere of crude economic competition and viscous daily life, namely that of civil society, in which man "acts simply as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to the role of a mere means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers." What therefore in part distinguishes my approach here is my effort to elaborate some of the material underpinnings subtending and informing what might be called the "semantic complex" of the middle class, the combined histories of narrative and socioeconomic change that converge in its emergence. I explore the middle class not so much as thing or idea, but more as a social-semantic structure capable of a range of investments, and supporting a range of practices and beliefs. The familiar and unassuming phrase "middle class" conceals an almost totemic or talismanic power, and beneath it lies a complex, multivalent, and sedimented history, a history to which certain modern American narratives afford us vital access. In addition, by framing the matter in strong terms, not as some mere weakening of class structure or easing of class tensions but as the felt elimination of these-a freedom from class altogether-I can attend more readily to the strong utopian investments in the middle-class complex (for a classless society is indeed a utopian wish) as well as to the ideological deformations and political scleroses it encourages.
These formulations perhaps risk overstating my case and my findings, though I sometimes think, in a dialectical spirit, that exaggerations often capture the truth of things more so than patiently delimited and circumscribed claims. Nonetheless, on a more sober note, it ought to be stressed that middle-classlessness, given the pressures and contradictions of the social forms we inhabit, can only ever be a limited and intermittent phenomenon. That is, it can never really wipe clean the slate of social class, as a traditional exceptionalist vision might have it. Thus I have no wish to deny, for example, that America has experienced more violent class struggles through its history than virtually any other industrialized country, generally at the instigation of American capital ("I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half," financier Jay Gould once tellingly put it). Nor do I contend in any way with Fredric Jameson's remark that "few countries are as saturated with undisguised class content as the United States." My emphasis, rather, is that, particularly during the last few decades, very little of this history and these conditions have been translated into public discourse or political common sense (and in that sense the narrative I over here might best be understood in genealogical fashion, that is, as the uneven emergence of something that has only become "full blown" in the contemporary period). Even if it is the case, as a recent antiexceptionalist study argues, that American workers do often perceive genuine class distinctions in society (as opposed, say, to mobile status differentiations), it remains evident that such perceptions seldom lead to a heightened grasp of structural inequality, or of social injustice or contradiction. Middle-classlessness, along with a host of other forces and possibilities, cuts across the domain of social conflict, disrupting the pedagogical potential of differential class perception. It subsists, finally, on the very boundary between reason and emotion, between knowledge and affect, providing perhaps an unstable sense more than a clear certainty of the diminution of class tension-hence my frequent turn in the pages ahead to a language of affect and desire.
* * *
I pick up the story, then, not with Geoghegan on the 95th floor of the Hancock (though doubtless with some of the same obsession), but precisely at that earlier moment, with Dreiser and a rapidly developing Chicago: not, in other words, when history has seemingly ended, but rather, following on the great Pullman strike of 1894 and concurrent with the growth of the Populist and Socialist parties, at a time when it was still very much in the process of being made. And so the figure of Carrie, leaving her small mid-western city, comes to Chicago to look for a job. As it turns out, Carrie arrives in the city just at the time of day when everyone else is getting off work, heading home to dinner and evening amusements (the "enchanted metropolitan twilight," as F. Scott Fitzgerald, a later and not unrelated connoisseur of such times, will call it). This is, as we shall see more fully, a magical time for Dreiser, full of hope and possibility, and is the occasion for some of his most intense displays of sentimental yearning. What I take to be Dreiser's point of departure here becomes our own as well, for it furnishes us with the first central contention of this study, namely that the middle-class space that Dreiser explores (allowing us to construct a kind of Weberian "ideal type" of middle-classlessness in the process) is crucially organized around the matter of work, or, more precisely, around an imagined zone of interface between working and not working. This space appears, in somewhat differing forms and with altered dynamics, in each of the novels under scrutiny here, allowing us to test this initial hypothesis in diverse ways.
By 1900, when Sister Carrie first appeared, the American working class had been thoroughly proletarianized, that is, brought into a regime of wage labor ("formally" subsumed, in Marx's terminology), which had not been the case in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century. During the first half of the century, the spheres of handicraft and agricultural production remained largely in the hands of artisans and small proprietors who owned their own means of production, and who were for decades the principal social stratum to which the dominant strains of exceptionalist pastoralism were functionally tied (an ideology that celebrated a kind of individual economic self-sufficiency and a freedom from burdensome work and the exigencies of the bourgeois market). As the century wore on, and large-scale capitalist industry spread, this stratum was relentlessly restructured by the imposition of wage work, effectively eradicating that supposedly naturally harmonious "middling" pattern of social organization, lacking extremes of wealth and poverty, so admired by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson. The "permanent class of hired laborers" invoked disbelievingly by Lincoln had at length come into being, and people now by and large worked for others rather than for themselves, or collectively-the fundamental power dynamic of capitalist society. This historical trajectory thus marks the story of middle-classlessness as essentially a twentieth-century one, as the production of a national imaginary that is no longer simply a kind of plebeian ideology, like labor republicanism (with its own "anticlass" rhetoric of white male unity), now expanded beyond its original context, nor, from the other side, simply the expression of a restricted bourgeois weltanschauung. It is, rather, rooted in material forms of daily life and (sometimes fitfully) practiced by disparate segments of the population.
Such an imposition of an exploitive regime of labor might well be taken as a possible definition of capitalism itself. More precisely, I tend to grasp this peculiar mode of production as something like a giant mechanism for the capturing of time via the necessity of wage work (a certain amount of time being just about the only thing we are vouchsafed upon entering this earthly realm). In a now classic study, E. P. Thompson showed how from its earliest days capital has been engaged in the ceaseless restructuring, regimentation, and compression of time, involving a steady increase in the time spent working for an increasing proportion of the population: a striking contrast from the medieval and even early modern periods, when in some parts of Europe feast days and holidays of various sorts made up almost half the yearly calendar. When Marx elaborated his fundamental theoretical categories, seeking to explain the nature of the economic process of capitalism, he too focused centrally on time, specifically the notion of labor time itself, as reflected most crucially in the category of surplus labor. Capital, considered in its purely economic aspect, from the perspective of its "concept" alone, posits the lived time of humans as labor time as such:
the working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours rest without which labour-power is absolutely incapable of renewing its services. Hence it is self-evident that the worker is nothing other than labour-power for the duration of his whole life, and that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and by right labour-time, to be devoted to the self-valorization of capital.
This is, of course, invoked at a fairly high level of abstraction, and the actual history of struggles over the working day has been complex and varied, with labor resistance in the industrialized core (together with support from some enlightened political and professional groupings) eventually succeeding in reducing average work time from more than eighty hours per week to about forty. But the long-term impetus of capital remains directed toward a longer working day, and recently economist Juliet Schor has drawn attention to the steady increase in working hours and decrease in free time for most Americans over the last fifteen years, as the (always imperfect) postwar social compact between workers and industry becomes increasingly unraveled.
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Meet the Author
Robert Seguin is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the State University of New York at Brockport.
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