Marianna: I think fiction is a better source of knowledge about the American class system than non-fiction, because even men have trouble writing books without women in them. And women often symbolize the class aspirations of men.
If I were a college teacher, I think it would be fascinating to teach a course looking at the American class system through fiction.
Anything by Edith Wharton or Henry James
Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (of course). If Daisy Buchanan is not the upper classes personified, I don't know who is.
Dreiser: An American Tragedy
Wouk: Marjorie Morningstar (How a nice Jewish girl becomes a nice pearl clutching Anglo-Saxon suburban Jewish girl)
And not to miss: Marge Piercy's expose of the life of the daughter of an important Senator: The Third Child. The most important fact in her life is that her father is an important man.
I might include Didion's *Where I was From,* because it illuminates the class system as California girls of our age experienced it. The right sorority, a nice set of pearls, cashmere sweaters, reasonable but not flamboyant good looks, Anglo-Saxon forebears: that would get you the right kind of husband.
This is a pretty rich source of lore, when I come to think of it.. Maybe I should write a serious essay about this. Ideas are popping into my head as I write this. I would start with Gertrude Atherton, who invented the California girl. In one of her novels, two girls are set against each other: a "Spanish" girl from San Francisco, cloistered by her father, pretty except for being dark haired and (alas) of sallow complexion, and her friend, rosy skinned, blonde, liberated and so on, who is the "new woman." (I'll look the title up some time but must do yard work today.)
This is way more fun than reading boring old sociology, isn't it?
We have emphasized poverty and the elimination of poverty as our #1 class issue. Maybe we need to be looking a little more at who we are and where we come from before we make so bold as to put ourselves above class systems. We risk turning into and "us" and "them" society if we do not define for ourselves where we stand on the class spectrum.
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This is a very nice start:
I'm younger but that's what I was officially taught, also. Or it was what I didn't learn, and I have some guilt about not living up to that expectation.
M: Z: You changed the rules. Instead of understanding college as the place to go to find the right kind of husband, you took your education seriously and became a professor. I, frankly, I had to "game" the system to get what I wanted . (This was the 50's, after all.) What I did would make a good piece of fiction. It involved a lot of invention. One of the themes that comes to mind here is that of inventing oneself, which is an act of fiction. Look at Susan Sontag, an L.A. girl from a family perfectly indifferent to ideas, inventing herself as a European intellectual and taking a great class leap upward into celebrity! Her tools were paperback books and LP records (!!!!)
What confused my situation was that both of my parents' families had fallen out of the middle class during the Depression, and my parents had only managed to struggle back onto the rungs of the lower middle class, helped by the GI bill. But family aspirations and education were high, far higher than our means. I was what I now hear referred to as a "red diaper baby," the child of "declassed" (is that a word) poor leftist students in Berkeley. For many, this was a path upward, although it did not work for us. There is a lot to say here. It is little wonder that class preoccupies me so much.
Barrett: Louis Auchinloss is good on class and supports the view I have on American systems. For one thing they're easier to deconstruct than those in the UK. We're no longer concerned with aristocrats as the gradual dismantlement of the House of Lords implies. Class, for us, is defined by the icons members of the middle class (a domain I have worked sedulously to enter) bear into the world as a means of flagging the stratum they aspire to: a whole textbook could be written about the role different makes and models of cars play in all this. In America things are much simpler: old money vs. new money, although the boundaries between these two states would be difficult to arrive at empirically. I await a novel concentrating on the moment when new money legitimately becomes old. Ah, where are you now, Henry James, when your country needs you?
Marianna: One thing that has lodged in my mind about the British class system is Margaret Drabble's recounting of using the trappings of bohemianism to break into the upper middle and upper classes. I forget which novel it was in which she went into this in detail. Auchincloss is not read any more, but I will look up his novels, paying particular attention to the role women play in his work. In The Waterfall the pregnant and abandoned heroine imagines herself as a romantic heroine in order to ignore her sad fate. Her rescuer (the prince) gives her some thrills, but he is a dubious prize after all, and she ends up in bed with her (female) cousin.
My aunt is visiting me right now. She is a rich source of material about the class struggles of my father's family in California. The theme is of early adversity truimphantly overcome through a combination of grit, brains, hard work and a few lucky breaks. No princess she, but a hard-working worthy family builder.
The theme of her life is survival, which is the main reason she's lasted so long. Her chances were not great starting out, even worse than mine. She tells the same kind of stories that I do about neglect and near death in childhood. In her case, the trauma went on for years and years, So it was all about being indomitable and surviving the worst that life can throw at you.
Listening to her helps me to understand the dilemma of the elderly white people who came through the Depression and are now quite bewildered by the ascendence of groups that they had always felt were safely in their place in the good old days before radicals gave them all those bad ideas. I kept trying, as we discussed her experiences running a chain of nursing homes, to get her away from talking about the many Black nurses and nurses aides that she supervised and thought of as her charges, to whom she was always good and just. She has recently noticed mixed race couples in the sheltered enclave of Sonoma County where she now lives and marvels that they are perfectly at ease walking down the street holding hands and showing other signs of affection without, as she puts it, "a care in the world." She talks about how racist everyone she knew always was, and how she defended Blacks in terms that can only strike my ear as patronizing. Now, of course, she is very upset about Oakland, which she describes as "perfectly safe" and she could "go anywhere," When she was a girl but is now too dangerous. "I would never go there any more," she states. I would, though.
I conclude that she was happy with an idealized or imagined class situation that put Blacks and Whites into a congenial relationship with each other in which Whites were clearly superior but kindly and Blacks were willing to work hard and express gratitude for White largesse. This is a big help to me in thinking about how race and class would be regarded by certain people and how poorly equipped they are to understand contemporary America.
A complicating factor in her life has been a grandson whose mother is African-American, evidently the result of an affair her son in law had, although she says not. She championed this boy in the family, and he has done well in life. But she probably exaggerates her positive effect in this situation, as she was by no means the only person involved in his upbringing, and these others did not have her problematic notions toward race. It may be partly because of him that she is so obsessed by race matters and really can't stop talking about race.
It does not seem possible to talk about class in America without talking about race.
Marianna: Along slightly different lines: What about the role of the romantic heroine? What about a class system built around the central character, who is the young sought-after woman? Her supporting cast would be her retainers, such as her mother, less favored sisters, servants, lesser classes, lesser races? Is the romantic heroine perhaps at the apex of the class system as it applies to women? She is the princess. Many little girls imagine themelves to be princesses and suffer a lot of disappointment when they find out they are just ordinary little girls.
The grown up romantic heroine or princess is not lucky either, though. She may be abused. She may be set aside for various reasons. Her admirers may turn against her. At best, she will be the hero or prince's consort. She may become a queen, but that is an exceptional fate. She has nowhere to go if she can't change.Leave comments at firstname.lastname@example.org