The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work

The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work

by Andrew Hoberek

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In The Twilight of the Middle Class, Andrew Hoberek challenges the commonly held notion that post-World War II American fiction eschewed the economic for the psychological or the spiritual. Reading works by Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others, he shows how both the form and content of

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In The Twilight of the Middle Class, Andrew Hoberek challenges the commonly held notion that post-World War II American fiction eschewed the economic for the psychological or the spiritual. Reading works by Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others, he shows how both the form and content of postwar fiction responded to the transformation of the American middle class from small property owners to white-collar employees. In the process, he produces "compelling new accounts of identity politics and postmodernism that will be of interest to anyone who reads or teaches contemporary fiction.

Hoberek argues that despite the financial gains and job security enjoyed by the postwar middle class, the transition to white-collar employment paved the way for its current precarious state in a country marked by increasingly deep class divisions. Postwar fiction provided the middle class with various imaginative substitutes for its former property-owning independence, substitutes that since then have not only allowed but abetted this class's downward mobility. To read this fiction in the light of the middle-class experience is thus not only to restore the severed connections between literary and economic "history in the second half of the twentieth "century, but to explore the roots of the contemporary crisis of the middle class.

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The Twilight of the Middle Class

Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work
By Andrew Hoberek

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12146-8



"... privileged and deprived, an American sort of thing." -Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997)

MORRIS DICKSTEIN POSES his recent study of post-World War II American fiction Leopards in the Temple (2002) as a corrective to the by now standard tendency to emphasize the cold war in accounts of this period. But while Dickstein takes the critics of cold war culture to task for what he sees as their oversimplification of both art and politics, he concurs with them on at least one major point. "If social suffering, poverty, and exploitation topped the agenda of the arts in the 1930s," Dickstein writes "neurosis, poverty, and alienation played the same role in the forties and fifties when economic fears were largely put to rest." The idea that postwar culture abandoned the economic for the psychological has likewise been central to studies of cold war culture, where it underwrites the argument that postwar culture was characterized by a (deeply political) rejection of the more overtly political concerns of the thirties. Thus Thomas Hill Schaub argues in American Fiction in the Cold War (1991) that postwar authors,participating in "the anti-Stalinist discourse of the new liberalism," prioritized "psychological terms of social analysis ... over economics and class consciousness as the dominant discourse of change." While they differ on how to interpret the shift from economics to psychology-from capitalism and class struggle to "psychological nuance and linguistic complexity" (Dickstein 20)-Dickstein and critics like Schaub agree that this shift is the defining characteristic of postwar fiction.

It is perhaps for this reason that critics of cold war culture themselves downplay the very questions of "economics and class consciousness" for whose omission they take postwar writers to task. We might expect these critics to see Dickstein's more neutral, and at times even celebratory, account of this shift as continuous with cold war triumphalism-a latter day version of Richard Nixon's economic boosterism in his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Kruschev. Yet when they mention the postwar economy, it is often in similar terms. In his account of the postwar vogue of wide-screen movies like Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments, for instance, Alan Nadel reads these films as visual analogues of "the expansive economic and technological growth of America in the 1950s." Nadel's brief mention of the economy is rare, moreover. Often critics of cold war culture simply bracket the economy, restricting their analyses to the political and cultural realms. Even the Marxist critic Barbara Foley succumbs to this tendency, arguing that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) engages in the red-baiting endemic to postwar anticommunism but nowhere addressing the economic framework within which-we might expect a Marxist to believe-the novel's politics are embedded. "If Ellison's own experiences with the left during the years represented in the Harlem section of Invisible Man was not one of unremitting bitterness and betrayal," she asks, "what then might have been the source of the novel's overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the Brotherhood?" (541). Foley's answer is political bad faith and careerism. While Ellison's successive revisions of the draft certainly support this contention, Foley does not consider that Ellison might also be responding (as I will argue in my own chapter on Invisible Man) to economic issues relevant to the world of the fifties rather than the thirties. Her essay on Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," by contrast, exhaustively describes the economic and class issues that rove New York City during the period of the story's composition. The implication is that such issues mattered during the antebellum period but were less important, or even unimportant, in the 1950s. Despite their helpful attention to the political backsliding of the cold war era, accounts like Nadel's and Foley's either explicitly or implicitly accept Dickstein's assertion that following World War II "economic fears were largely put to rest."

This book argues, by contrast, that economics and class remained central to postwar writing, belying our standard assumptions about the irrelevance of such matters in the postwar period. Of course, there is good evidence for these assumptions. Statistics compiled by the business historian Jeffrey Madrick make it clear that the postwar years were indeed prosperous ones, and not just in comparison with the lean years of the Depression. Along with the fact that "family incomes doubled ... between 1947 and 1973,

"By 1970 four out of five American families owned at least one car, two out of three had a washing machine, and almost all families had a refrigerator. About 65 percent of American families owned their own homes, and almost all had flush toilets and running water. The proportion of white males who had graduated from college rose from 6 percent in 1947 to 11 percent in 1959 and to about 25 percent in the 1980s. More than half of working Americans had a private pension, compared with only about 15 percent after World War II, supplementing Social Security benefits, which themselves were only a generation old.

As Paul Krugman and others have noted, moreover, the postwar economy not only grew at a remarkable rate, but its fruits were-by the standards of either pre-Depression America or our own time-remarkably evenly distributed.

Given such real and relatively widespread prosperity, the elision of economic matters in accounts of postwar writing seems understandable. As early as 1962, to be sure, Michael Harrington had called into question the assumption that "the basic grinding economic problems had been solved in the United States." In The Other America Harrington argued that postwar social criticism's focus on "the emotional suffering taking place in the suburbs" (1) belied the existence of an "invisible land" (1) inhabited by "the dispossessed workers, the minorities, the farm poor, and the aged" (17). But Harrington's objection to such criticism was that it disregarded those who remained on the margins, not that it misrepresented the mainstream. Similarly, recent accounts of the postwar period, such as George Lipsitz's Rainbow at Midnight (1994), Alan Wald's Writing from the Left (1994), and The Other Fifties (1997), edited by Joel Foreman, have turned from the mainstream to the various class and racial subcultures that existed during this period. But while such revisionist accounts usefully remind us that not everyone in the fifties had equal access to the fruits of the economic boom, they leave untouched our sense that those who did have such access somehow transcended the economic realm.

This assumption is reinforced by the fact that while postwar prosperity is generally associated with a particular class, it is one that is traditionally understood in the United States as classless. This idea of American "middle-classlessness" has proven especially compatible with our understanding of the postwar boom, as Jack Beatty's account of the boom suggests:

The expanding middle class had in it two distinct kinds of workers: white-collar and blue-collar. Back then, thanks to the wages won for him by his union, the blue-collar man (the gender specification is unavoidable) could live next door to the white-collar man-not to the doctor, perhaps, but to the accountant, the teacher, the middle manager. This rough economic equality was a political fact of the first importance. It meant that, in a break with the drift of things in pre-war America, postwar America had no working class and no working-class politics. It had instead a middle-class politics for an expanding middle class bigger in aspiration and self-identification than it was in fact-more people wanted to be seen as middle-class than had yet arrived at that state of felicity. Socialism in America, the German political economist Werner Sombart wrote in 1906, foundered upon "roast beef and apple pie," a metaphor for American plenty. The expanding middle class of the postwar era-property-owning, bourgeois in outlook, centrist in politics-hardly proved him wrong.

The myth of America as a classless-because universally or at least potentially universally middle-class-nation has a long history, as Beatty's reference to Sombart suggests. But in its current incarnation it is inseparable from what Krugman calls the "middle-class interregnum" that lasted from the New Deal thirties through the late seventies, and has been succeeded by a "new Gilded Age" characterized by a vast and growing gap between rich and poor. The postwar middle class, Beatty argues, "muted the class conflict that Marx had prophesied would one day destroy capitalism" by providing "a reproof to the very idea of class" (65).

We might expect accounts of the middle-class dimensions of postwar literature and culture to undermine this conception of the middle-class as a nonclass. Yet these accounts, while usefully skeptical about what Dickstein calls the "deep discomfort at the core of American affluence and power" (16), tend-by reading the middle class solely in the light of privilege-to affirm its putative transcendence of the economic. "This was a time," Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her 1983 study The Hearts of Men, "when the educated middle class worried about being too affluent." Jackson Lears, reading some of the same texts as Ehrenreich, argues that "'a new class' of salaried managers, administrators, academics, technicians, and journalists" achieved cultural hegemony in the postwar period by identifying its "problems and interests with those of society and indeed humanity at large."

Through frequently popular works of social and cultural criticism, Lears argues, this class falsely universalized its own concerns about "the bureaucratization of bourgeois individualism in America" (46-47), in the process rendering others' concerns "marginal or even invisible to the wider public culture" (50). Catherine Jurca, finally, imputes a similar disingenuousness to postwar accounts of middle-class "suffering" and "discontent," which she views as self-interested counterfeits designed both to ratify middle-class affluence vis-à-vis less fortunate groups, and to allow individual members of the middle class a sense of distinction vis-à-vis their less self-aware counterparts. While properly chary toward "exaggerated claims about postwar affluence" (139), Jurca is not chary about such claims as they relate to the middle class.

To a certain extent, these accounts all continue-from a perspective more sophisticated about race, gender, and, less decisively, class-the project of the social criticism they describe, which in the words of one intellectual historian was preoccupied with "the problems of prosperity." Thus William H. Whyte writes in The Organization Man (1956)-a locus classicus of postwar social criticism cited by Ehrenreich, Lears, and Jurca-that "it is not the evils of organization life that puzzle [the organization man], but its very beneficence."23 More concretely, Whyte argues that the comfort and security enjoyed by the members of the middle class blunt their ambitions and render them all the more susceptible to the pressures toward conformity that characterize the organizations in which they work and, increasingly, do almost everything else. While some critics continue to see the problems of prosperity as authentic, and others have redescribed them as strategies for achieving or maintaining cultural dominance, most concur that they were not "material."

Richard Ohmann's 1983 essay "The Shaping of a Canon: U. S. Fiction, 1960-1975" at first glance seems to belong in this category, although Ohmann departs from the consensus about the middle class's transcendence of the economic in a crucial way. Ohmann argues that middle-class gatekeepers in the publishing industry, the media, and the academy awarded "precanonical" status to fiction that translated middle-class insecurity into the narrative of individual breakdown that he calls the "illness story." He thus concurs with Lears that the middle class exercised cultural hegemony by falsely universalizing its specific concerns, which for Ohmann, too, have to do with the pressures exerted by society on the individual. But Ohmann understands the resulting cultural products not simply as an expression of privilege, but also as symptomatic registers of the middle class's less than fully dominant role in the postwar economy. The postwar middle class, in Ohmann's account, was a "subordinate but influential class" (397) that exercised control over the content of postwar culture at the discretion of the "ruling class" that actually "own[ed] the media and control[led] them formally" (386). Ohmann, to be sure, emphasizes the novel authority of the middle class-or what he calls, following Barbara and John Ehrenreich, the "Professional-Managerial Class" or "PMC"-at this juncture. In the Ehrenreichs' influential description, the PMC is the class of "salaried mental workers" that "emerged with dramatic suddeness [sic] in the years between 1890 and 1920" and that constitutes an authentically new class with interests opposed to those of both owners and workers. Drawing on the Ehrenreichs' essay, Ohmann insists that his account "turns upon class but not just upon the two great traditional classes" (387), though his own reference to ruling-class media-owners suggests that at least one of the two traditional classes was alive and well.

Moreover, with the demise of the postwar boom (which began faltering shortly before the mid-seventies end date Ohmann selects for his study), the members of the middle class have increasingly entered the other great traditional class of those who sell their labor. Beatty and Krugman both extol the postwar middle class in contributions to the crisis-of-the-middle-class genre that has been a journalistic staple (with the exception of a brief hiatus during the late nineties tech boom) for several decades. As such accounts suggest, this crisis has taken the form not simply of the disappearance of median incomes, but also of white-collar workers' new vulnerability to the sorts of workplace exploitation traditionally associated with those who work for a living. As Robert Seguin succinctly puts it, "with the recent downsizing of middle management, the increasing technological displacements of engineers and architects, and the sessionalization/detenuring of university departments, positions and locations once regarded as concrete evidence of Marx's errors are today under an intense pressure of proletarianization" (13). To say this is not, as Seguin hastens to add, by any means to deny the differences between the members of what is still called the middle class and the members of either the traditional working class or the new service class. To assert this would be absurd: it's still far better to work in an office than to clean it, and some people who work in middle-class occupations-lawyers, brokers, executives-still do quite well in the so-called New Economy. But even a New Economy booster like Robert Reich admits that the well-paid, nonhierarchical, creative jobs he ascribes to "symbolic analysts" coexist with the far less appealing kinds of work he categorizes under the headings "routine production services" and "in-person services." In addition to software engineers and cinematographers, the global economy employs (far more) data-entry clerks and phone-service representatives (and, as Andrew Ross points out, the hype over the former jobs helps to inculcate an ethos of overwork within the high-tech workforce more generally).29 There is, in this regard, a kind of false pastoralism in accounts of the postwar middle class as the embodied refutation of Marxism. If subsequent events have contradicted the circumstances that presumably proved Marx wrong, then perhaps we shelved our copies of Capital too early. The fate of the middle class in recent years if anything seems to confirm Marx and Engels' assertion that "society as a whole is more and more splitting ... into two great classes directly facing each other": those who own capital and those who must sell their labor at the former group's terms. The postwar middle class did well, but the fate of the middle class since the seventies suggests that this had more to do with the postwar boom and the redistributive policies of the mid-century welfare state than with the inherent nature of the postwar economy.


Excerpted from The Twilight of the Middle Class by Andrew Hoberek Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Rachel Adams
The Twilight of the Middle Class is a powerful, well-researched, and unique piece of scholarship that fills a gap in current approaches to Cold War era fiction by situating it within the economic framework that shaped it. Through perceptive and fresh readings of Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, and Saul Bellow, its author demonstrates that the era's fiction is preoccupied with the problem of the 'organization man,' who translates concerns about class into concerns about individual autonomy—and by doing so universalizes his economically specific complaint into a shared human condition.
Rachel Adams, Columbia University, author of "Sideshow U.S.A"
Sean McCann
This excellent book offers an original and highly provocative argument about a vital period of American literary and cultural history. Bold and often brilliant, its graceful expository style illuminates an impressively wide range of material without ever becoming scholastic. Most importantly, it proposes new and highly plausible ways of understanding the significance of a number of important literary works.
Sean McCann, Wesleyan University, author of "Gumshoe America"

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