Thursday, December 2, 2010

December 2, 2010: A Touch of Class

As the first 27 entries of this blog have no doubt made clear, I spend a lot of time thinking about issues of race and ethnicity in American history and culture and identity; I do try to define those issues in such a way that they connect to and impact all Americans, but nonetheless, they are certainly a particular lens through which to view our national and communal and individual experiences. When I teach the American literature surveys, I think I’m pretty good at complementing texts and authors that highlight those focal points with ones that are more centrally concerned with gender, with religion, with politics, with nature and the environment, with philosophy, with romantic and sexual relationships, with multigenerational family identities, with the American Dream, and with a host of other topics and themes (to say nothing of the literary movements and styles and genres and elements they help us discuss). But the one theme that I consistently have to work to remind myself to include, to make a part of our conversations and perspectives, is class.
I’m sure there are personal, autobiographical, and possibly psychological reasons for that lack of emphasis, although I most definitely don’t want to use this space as therapy so I’ll leave them alone. But I also think that there are national reasons—part of our founding and ongoing national narratives is the idea that we’re a classless society, at least as compared to the very explicitly stratified and hierarchical societies against which we defined ourselves from the outset; and while I don’t accept that part of the narratives any more fully or blindly than I do any other, I do tend to focus on cultural conflicts and divisions and communities and relationships in my understanding of (for example) our past, our politics, and our best and worst moments. Reading (and blogging about) folks like Dos Passos, di Donato, Steinbeck, and Bulosan can help correct that blind spot; teaching Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), a novel I’ve taught twice and about which I’ll probably blog here some time, most definitely does the same. But no American writer or figure is better at forcing us to engage with the deepest and most divisive realities of class in our national community—even 111 years after the publication of his most penetrating work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)—than the Norwegian-American (second generation, born in Minnesota to immigrant parents, and there I go again with the culture) economist and cultural critic Thorstein Veblen.
I know that economists have a lot of issues with Veblen’s work, which was (in my limited knowledge of such things, mostly dependent on the perspectives of other scholars whom I trust) not particularly rigorous in terms of its economic analyses. But I think such analyses can sometimes lose sight of the social forest for the statistical trees, and Veblen’s work is perhaps the best I’ve ever read at describing and, where appropriate, eviscerating the forest. Leisure Class in particular is just a pitch-perfect observation, analysis, and, yup, evisceration of the new and growing class of super-rich Americans produced by the Gilded Age (Veblen overtly and consistently applies his ideas to “barbarian societies,” but is unmistakably and sarcastically developing analyses of his own society and era throughout); in every chapter of the book Veblen coins and defines phrases and concepts such as conspicuous consumption, trophy wives, and the need to emulate the most successful members of one’s class (keeping up with the Joneses) that, like his analyses of the roles that sports and higher education can play for a society’s financial elites, feel entirely relevant and fresh in our own moment. And Veblen’s most central thesis, that the members of this leisure class contribute nothing more than unproductive “waste” to their society, both served as a stinging rebuke to the Gospel of Wealth theories of entrepreneurs like Carnegie and Rockefeller and is worth revisiting in our era of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and their ilk.
There’s no question that Veblen’s across-the-board denunciations of an entire class of Americans were over-simplifying and demand critical readings of their own; if no awareness or recognition of class in America represents a blind spot, thoroughgoing attacks on the upper class don’t comprise a much more clear or productive vision. But it would perhaps be more accurate to say that Veblen was observing and critiquing a particular portion of America’s upper class, and more exactly still particular habits of mind and attitudes and customs that were becoming dangerously privileged (pun intended) in Americans’ collective understanding of what it meant to be successful. And I believe there’s still a central place for that work in our own era. More tomorrow, on the exclusionary and totalitarian laws that held sway for a short but striking moment in our first years as a nation.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      The complete text of Leisure Class:

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