[Paleopsych] NYT: (Class) In Fiction, a Long History of Fixation on the Social Gap

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In Fiction, a Long History of Fixation on the Social Gap
New York Times, 5.6.8
[11th in a series.]


    On television and in the movies now, and even in the pages of novels,
    people tend to dwell in a classless, homogenized American Never-Never
    Land. This place is an upgrade, but not a drastic one, from the old
    neighborhood where Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Donna Reed used to
    live; it's those yuppified city blocks where the friends on "Friends"
    and the "Seinfeld" gang had their apartments, or in the now more
    fashionable version, it's part of the same exurb as One Tree Hill and
    Wisteria Lane - those airbrushed suburbs where all the cool young
    people hang out and where the pecking order of sex and looks has
    replaced the old hierarchy of jobs and money.

    This is progress of a sort, but it's also repression, since it means
    that pop culture has succeeded to a considerable extent in burying
    something that used to be right out in the open. In the old days, when
    we were more consumed by social class, we were also more honest about

    There is an un-American secret at the heart of American culture: for a
    long time, it was preoccupied by class. That preoccupation has
    diminished somewhat - or been sublimated - in recent years as we have
    subscribed to an all-purpose, mass-market version of the American
    dream, but it hasn't entirely disappeared. The subject is a little
    like a ne'er-do-well relative; it's sometimes a shameful reminder,
    sometimes openly acknowledged, but always there, even, or especially,
    when it's never mentioned.

    This was particularly true in the years before World War II, when you
    couldn't go to the movies or get very far in a novel without being
    reminded that ours was a society where some were much better off than
    others, and where the class divide - especially the gap separating
    middle from upper - was an inescapable fact of life. The yearning to
    bridge this gap is most persistently and most romantically evoked in
    Fitzgerald, of course, in characters like the former Jay Gatz of
    Nowhere, N.D., staring across Long Island Sound at that distant green
    light, and all those moony young men standing in the stag line at the
    country club, hoping to be noticed by the rich girls.

    But there is also a darker version, the one that turns up in Dreiser's
    [3]"American Tragedy" (1925), for example, where class envy - a wish
    to live like his rich tycoon uncle - causes Clyde Griffiths to drown
    his hopelessly proletarian sweetheart, and where the impossibility of
    transcending his lot leads him inevitably to the electric chair. (In
    the upstate New York town of Lycurgus, where the story takes place,
    Dreiser reminds us that "the line of demarcation and stratification
    between the rich and the poor ... was as sharp as though cut by a
    knife or divided by a high wall." )

    Some novels trade on class anxiety to evoke not the dream of
    betterment but the great American nightmare: the dread of waking up
    one day and finding yourself at the bottom. This fear gets an earnest
    and moralizing expression in early books like P. H. Skinner's 1853
    novel, "The Little Ragged Ten Thousand, or, Scenes of Actual Life
    Among the Lowly in New York," which is pretty much summed up by its
    title. By the turn of the century, though, in works like Stephen
    Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" and Frank Norris's
    [4]"McTeague," about a San Francisco dentist who, unmasked as a fraud,
    sinks to a life of crime and degradation, the treatment had turned
    grim and unflinching.

    These books were frankly meant to shock their middle-class readers -
    to scare the daylights out of them - even as they played on their
    sympathies. They suggested that the worst thing that could possibly
    happen to an American was to topple from his perch on the class
    ladder, as happens to poor Hurstwood in Dreiser's "Sister Carrie." In
    his besotted pursuit of Carrie (who meanwhile trades on her beauty and
    charm to move up from her Chicago boarding house to the bright lights
    of Broadway), he loses everything and crashes all the way from
    restaurant-owning prosperity to scabbing for work as a trolley car

    The poor are noticeably absent, however, in the great artistic
    flowering of the American novel at the turn of the 19th century, in
    the work of writers like Henry James, William Dean Howells and Edith
    Wharton, who are almost exclusively concerned with the rich or the
    aspiring middle classes: their marriages, their houses, their money
    and their stuff. Not accidentally, these novels coincided with
    America's Gilded Age, the era of overnight fortunes and conspicuous
    spending that followed in the wake of the Civil War.

    To a certain extent James, Wharton, et al. were merely writing about
    the world around them, though in James there is sometimes a hint of
    aesthetic snobbery, a sense that refined writing required a refined
    subject matter. (In [5]"The Ambassadors," for example, he explains
    that the Newsomes made their fortune in manufacturing, but can't quite
    bring himself to be so vulgar as to tell us exactly what they made.)
    In Wharton and Howells, on the other hand, there is frequently an edge
    of satire, and sometimes a hint of seismic rumble.

    Wharton's most vivid characters are not the aristos, the sons and
    daughters of the great New York families, who are all a little
    bloodless and sexually underpowered, but people like Lily Bart, whose
    lifestyle outstrips her pocketbook and who winds up in economic
    freefall. And then there are the climbers and the nouveaus, people
    like Undine Spragg in [6]"The Custom of the Country," who arrives in
    New York from provincial Apex City, Kan., determined to rise up in
    society the old-fashioned way - by marrying, which she does not just
    once but three times, if you count the one that was supposed to be a
    secret. One of the messages of the novel is that in America new money
    very quickly, in a generation or less, takes on the patina of old;
    another is that the class structure is necessarily propped up by
    deceit and double standards.

    But to a generation of writers after Wharton that structure - the
    lives and mores of the rich, the well born and the climbers - proved
    endlessly diverting. Young men and women on the make, and older ones
    trying anxiously to cling to their perch, throng an entire bookcase
    full of American fiction.

    John O'Hara, for example, made a whole career of chronicling the upper
    and upper middle classes from before the First World War until after
    the Second, and no one ever observed more astutely the little clues
    that indicated precisely where one stood on the class ladder: the
    clubs and fraternity pins, the shoes, the shirt collars. J. P.
    Marquand pored over much the same territory and, like O'Hara, became
    both a popular and a critical success. Every now and then a racy book
    about lowlife - [7]"Tobacco Road" for example - would catch the public
    fancy, but for a surprisingly long time middle-brow fiction in America
    was about upper-middle-class life.

    What was the appeal? Vouyerism, in part. (It didn't hurt O'Hara's
    sales one bit that he saw it as part of his mission to inform us that
    upper-class people had very busy sex lives.) Fiction back then had a
    kind of documentary function; it was one of the places Americans went
    to learn about how other Americans lived. In time novels ceased to be
    so reportorial, and after World War II, moreover, as the middle class
    in America swelled in numbers and importance, the world of the upper
    crust lost some of its glamour and importance.

    The old kind of class novel - about striving and trying to move up by
    learning the upper-class code - is still being written. [8]"Prep," a
    first novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, about an ambitious scholarship girl
    who finds herself in over her head, smoldering with class resentment,
    at a school that closely resembles Groton, recently became a surprise
    best seller. But more often the upper class is portrayed these days as
    a little beleaguered and merely trying to hang on, like the members of
    the New England family in Nancy Clark's 2003 novel [9]"The Hills at
    Home," all failures in one way or another, who have retreated back to
    the ancestral manor, or like Louis Auchincloss's WASPy lawyers and
    businessmen, who have a sense of themselves as the last of a breed.

    Elsewhere in the fictional landscape, a number of young writers -
    short-story writers especially - are still working in the afterglow of
    our once very hot literary romance with the world of Wal-Marts and
    trailer parks, so vividly evoked in the writing of Raymond Carver,
    Bobbie Ann Mason and Frederick Barthelme, among others. But to a
    considerable extent novels these days take place in a kind of
    all-purpose middle-class America, in neighborhoods that could be
    almost anyplace, and where the burdens are more psychic than economic,
    with people too busy tending to their faltering relationships to pay
    much attention to keeping up with the neighbors.

    It's a place where everyone fits in, more or less, but where, if you
    look hard enough, nobody feels really at home. Our last great
    middle-class hero, someone who really enjoyed his vacations and his
    country club, was John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and he died a
    premature death. Nowadays when a writer like Richard Russo, Russell
    Banks or Richard Price comes along, with an old-fashioned, almost
    Dickensian vision of life among the poor and working classes, it's a
    little startling; they seem like explorers who have returned from some
    distant land.

    Novel reading is a middle-class pastime, which is another reason that
    novels have so often focused on the middle and upper classes. Mass
    entertainment is another matter, and when Hollywood took up the class
    theme, which it did in the 1930's, it made a crucial adjustment.
    During the Depression, the studios, which were mostly run by immigrant
    Jews, turned out a string of formulaic fantasies about life among the
    Gentile upper crust.

    These movies were essentially twin variations on a single theme:
    either a rich young man falls for a working girl, as happens in, say,
    [10]"Easy Living" to take one of many examples, or an heiress takes up
    with a young man who has to work for a living (in a number of cases
    he's a newspaperman, which was Hollywood's idea of a truly
    disreputable profession back then).

    [11]Joan Crawford made a specialty of the working girl role, in movies
    like [12]"Sadie McKee" and [13]"Dancing Lady" and also did the heiress
    in [14]"Love on the Run" and [15]"I Live My Life" But the great
    example of this genre is [16]"It Happened One Night" with Claudette
    Colbert and Clark Gable, who famously dispensed with wearing an

    "It Happened One Night" implicitly answered the question of what an
    upper-class woman got in return for trading down: great sex. In other
    versions of the story the upper-class person is merely thawed and
    humanized by the poorer one, but in every case the exchange is seen as
    fair and equitable, with the lower-class character giving as much as
    he or she gets in return. Unlike the novels of class, with their
    anxieties and sense of unbridgeable gaps, these are stories of harmony
    and inclusion, and they added what proved to be an enduring twist on
    the American view of class: the notion that wealth and privilege are
    somewhat crippling conditions: if they don't make you an out-and-out
    twit, they leave you stiff, self-conscious and emotionally vacant
    until you are blessed with a little lower-class warmth and heart.

    The formula persisted right up through movies like [17]"Love Story"
    and [18]"Pretty Woman" though it seems to be in disuse now that films,
    like novels, are increasingly set in an upscale, well-scrubbed America
    where WASP's are an endangered, pitiable species. Like the in-laws in
    [19]"Meet the Fockers" and [20]"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" they are
    still hopelessly uptight but not that wealthy anymore.

    Television used to be fascinated with blue-collar life, in shows like
    "The Honeymooners," "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son" and
    "Roseanne," but lately it too has turned its attention elsewhere. The
    only people who work on televison now are cops, doctors and lawyers,
    and they're so busy they seldom get to go home. The one vestige of the
    old curiosity about how other people live is in so-called reality
    television, when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie drop in on rubes in
    "The Simple Life," or when upper- and middle-class families trade moms
    on "Wife Swap" and experience a week of culture shock.

    But most reality television trades in a fantasy of sorts, based on the
    old game-show formula: the idea that you can be plucked out of
    ordinary life and anointed the new supermodel, the new diva, the new
    survivor, the new assistant to Donald Trump. You get an instant
    infusion of wealth and are simultaneously vested with something far
    more valuable: celebrity, which has become a kind of super-class in
    America, and one that renders all the old categories irrelevant.

    Celebrities, in fact, have inherited much of the glamour and sexiness
    that used to attach itself to the aristocracy. If Gatsby were to come
    back today, he would come back as Donald Trump and would want a date
    not with Daisy but with Britney. And if Edith Wharton were still
    writing, how could she not include a heavily blinged hip-hop mogul?

    But if the margins have shifted, and if fame, for example, now counts
    for more than breeding, what persists is the great American theme of
    longing, of wanting something more, or other, than what you were born
    with - the wish not to rise in class so much as merely to become
    classy. If you believe the novels of Dickens or Thackeray, say, the
    people who feel most at home in Britain are those who know their
    place, and that has seldom been the case in this country, where the
    boundaries of class seem just elusive and permeable enough to sustain
    both the fear of falling and the dream of escape.


    3. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/dreiser-tragedy.pdf
    4. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/norris-mcteague.pdf
    5. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/james-ambassadors.pdf
    6. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/wharton-custom.pdf
    7. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/caldwell-tobacco.pdf
    8. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/16/books/review/16SCHAPPE.html
    9. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/09/books/review/009ROBINT.html
   10. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=90257
   11. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=15681
   12. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=42544
   13. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=12101
   14. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=30358
   15. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=24070
   16. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=25509
   17. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=30317
   18. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=39093
   19. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=295804
   20. http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=261239

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