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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Gerald Howard’s “Never Give an Inch”
Note: This is a complete essay from Tin House’s 45th issue, Class in America, which should start appearing on newsstands nationwide September 1. Keep those peepers peeled!
I don’t suppose anyone has ever done an in-depth study of that interesting form of literary ephemera, the author dust jacket biography. But if they did, I’m sure they would notice a distinct sociological shift over the past decades. Back in the forties and fifties, the bios, for novelists at least, leaned very heavily on the tough and colorful professions and pursuits that the author had had experience in before taking to the typewriter. Popular jobs, as I recall, were circus roustabout, oil field roughneck, engine wiper, short-order cook, fire lookout, railroad brakeman, cowpuncher, gold prospector, crop duster, and long-haul trucker. Military experiences in America’s recent wars, preferably combat-related, were also often mentioned. The message being conveyed was that the guy (and they were, of course, guys) who had written the book in your hand had really been around the block and seen the rougher side of life, so you could look forward to vivid reading that delivered the authentic experiential goods.
It’s been a long time since an author has been identified as a one-time circus roustabout. These days such occupations have become so exotic to the average desk-bound American that they serve as fodder for cable television reality shows—viz., The Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, and Ice Road Truckers. Contemporary dust jacket biographies tend to document the author’s long march through the elite institutions, garnering undergraduate and postgraduate and MFA degrees, with various prizes and publications in prestigious literary magazines all duly noted. Vocational experiences generally get mentioned only when pertinent to the subject of the novel at hand—e.g., assistant DA or clerk for a Federal judge if the book deals with crime or the intricacies of the law. Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.
The dignity of work and its social efficacy is one of the core tenets of our democratic creed. In the absence of inherited social privilege deriving from European feudalism, it would be the willingness to work to tame a wild continent that would define, in Hector St. John Crèvecoeur’s phrase, “the American, this new man.” Yet if all men are created equal, as our Declaration of Independence so ringingly declares, all men are equally defined by the social class they are born into and often seek to rise above—and nothing more inexorably marks one’s class as the sort of work one does. This disjunction between the gospel of equality to which we pay lip service and the reality of social distinctions that we cannot escape makes the whole subject of class in America a tense and touchy one. Simply to bring up the subject in any context, let alone a literary one, feels discomfiting, as if some taboo were being broken or doubt being cast on our most cherished ideals (or illusions) about ourselves. As Alfred Lubrano, himself the son of a bricklayer from Bensonhurst who ascended the class ladder by way of Columbia and newspaper journalism, notes in Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams, “While race and gender have had their decades in the sun, however, class has been obscured and overlooked.” He then quotes an economist to the effect that “people would rather talk about sex than money and money before class.” In his introduction to Class Matters, the book that resulted from a multi-part 2004 series of articles in the New York Times, Bill Keller calls the subject of class “vast, amorphous, politically charged, largely unacknowledged” and describes within the paper an intense debate “between those who thought that class was the governing force in American life and those who deemed it pretty much irrelevant.” Only on the planet Times! We can be sure that such a charged discussion did not take place over two previous gotta-get-a-Pulitzer series in the paper, on race (2000) and poverty (1993). The pump of the Times‘s bleeding heart tends to turn off before it reaches the working stiff, one has noticed; whether this tendency extends to the way its coverage of literary matters regards fiction from and about the working class is a question worth pondering.
In any case, these blinders are of relatively recent vintage, as the postwar economic boom and the rise of a vast middle class has made it possible, even mandatory, to view American society as homogenous, socially fluid, and largely unstratified. Charles McGrath observes, however, in that same Times series, that “in the old days, when we were more consumed by social class, we were also more honest about it. There is an un-American secret at the heart of American culture: for a long time, it was preoccupied by class.” Work and class have certainly been abiding and central preoccupations of American literature for as long as we have had writing worthy of the name. Walt Whitman, the son of a carpenter, hymned the working man and woman in his “chants democratic”; when he “hear[s] America singing,” the music is made by a mechanic, a mason, a boatman, a shoemaker, a woodcutter, a girl sewing or washing, “singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” Its vast metaphysics of good and evil aside, Moby-Dick portrays with minutely observed particulars the dangerous and violent work of killing whales (The Deadliest Catch indeed) and reducing them to whale oil and other constituent products—a pursuit that incidentally created the first great American fortunes. As the forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization began in earnest to transform America from a mostly rural civilization, our novelists took careful note, producing “naturalistic” works that acutely registered the class drama of these epic social and economic developments.
The protagonist of William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham is a Vermont farm boy turned self-made paint magnate whose wealth cannot shield him from a disastrous collision with Boston Brahmin society. In Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths, a worker in a collar factory, is so desperate to rise above his class and marry the aristocratic Sondra Finchley that he is driven to murder his pregnant working-class girlfriend, for which he is condemned to death. Dreiser’s grimly deterministic vision in this and other novels, as well as the almost documentary realism with which such writers as Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair portrayed the lower rungs of American enterprise, put paid to the genteel tradition and left an indelible picture of American life as a Darwinian struggle in which classes and individuals are ever rising and falling.
The next turn of the literary wheel fell to the Lost Generation, a cohort that reacted against the plain naturalism of its predecessors to explore the techniques, styles, and subjects suited to the ascent of modernism. Yet even in the midst of such experimentation F. Scott Fitzgerald fashioned his own American tragedy from the attempt of a Midwestern farm boy to erase his humble origins in The Great Gatsby, and Sinclair Lewis anatomized with pitiless accuracy the class structure of the all-American town of Zenith in Babbitt. But it was the crisis of capitalism represented by the Great Depression that drew American writers to the creed of Communism as the only alternative to the bankrupt system of free enterprise, and thus the thirties became the literary decade of the worker, the figure who, as Marx had decreed, would serve as the agent of historical change.
As a result, the thirties became, in fiction, very much a star search for the writer of impeccable working-class credentials or at least the proper political point of view, the one who could produce the great proletarian novel, a much desired work of revolutionary struggle and ideological awakening. The critical arbiters of taste were all waiting for Lefty, and even Ivy League scribes were putting on proletarian airs, striding the picket lines and haring off to the Appalachians to report on the latest coal miners’ strike. But little of this work, by such dusty names as Agnes Smedley (Daughter of Earth), Jack Conroy (The Disinherited), Mike Pell (S.S. Utah), Mary Heaton Vorse (Strike!), and Grace Lumpkin (To Make My Bread), is read today, marred as it is by formulaic plots and a hectoring political tone. Of the fiction from this period dealing with the plight of the working class, only the novels of John Steinbeck are still widely read. Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, the critical bullyboy of The New Masses, survives as a portrait of Lower East Side Jewish tenement life; James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy serves similarly for the Irish of Chicago. Both Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs, praised by Edmund Wilson as “a work of literature that has the stamp of a real and original gift,” and Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men offer vividly rendered portraits of American life at the economic margins unmarred by agitprop and can also be read with profit today.
And then work, at least of the physical sort, and working people pretty much disappear from American fiction for the next three decades or so. Why? We can point to the long stretch of postwar prosperity that moved millions of Americans into the middle class and off the farms and assembly lines, while bringing a measure of security and affluence to those who remained. Literary fashion played its part, as serious American fiction became more inward looking, concerned with the problems of the individual rather than those of society. Nothing remotely like the rise of the so-called Angry Young Men, an eruption of literary voices from the working class in England, occurred in this country, in part because England has a thicker working-class culture with deeper historical roots, and even more so because our working class did not have that much to be angry about, protected as it was by a still-vibrant labor movement.
Most crucially, though, the whole concept of class came to be seen as almost a choice rather than a fate, as the powerful mechanisms of the meritocracy and the vastly expanded opportunities for higher education placed millions of Americans on the escalator of social mobility. Rightly celebrated as a great democratic achievement, this development nevertheless had some downsides that only became apparent with time. The children of the working class experienced a good deal of psychic stress and social discomfort as they negotiated their passage into the formerly alien precincts of higher education and the bourgeois, white collar world. This is the subject of Alfred Lubrano’s often poignant book; Richard Price, again in the Times series on class, wryly describes his culture shock upon arriving at Cornell, far upstate from his New York working-class neighborhood, and putting on a heavier Bronx accent than he ever had at home “to semiconsciously cultivate an exoticness about myself, probably as an ego-survival countermeasure.” Meanwhile their parents began to experience their own species of alienation, as their children ascended to levels of income and achievement formerly undreamed of and their core values of thrift, self-sacrifice, hard work, and patriotism began to seem retrograde in a culture increasingly focused on consumption, leisure, and self-fulfillment. Francis Fukuyama correctly terms the upheavals of the sixties and seventies “the Great Disruption,” and this is nowhere more true than in the gulf that opened up between the tradition-minded Americans famously termed “the silent majority” and the advanced youth (many of them their own children), the affluent, the left liberals, and the counterculture.
Two books first published in 1972, when that gulf hardened into what now seems like a permanent condition, provide complementary and contrasting views of the lives of working people at that tumultuous time. That they are both securely in print almost four decades later suggests that not all that much has changed. The first is The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, a painfully bien-pensant sociological foray into the inner world of the working class. The authors wear their compassion on their sleeves as they venture forth from Harvard Yard to interview working people in the greater Boston area, but, to this reader at least, discordant notes of self-congratulation and condescension often intrude. They state, quite accurately, that “the terrible thing about class in our society is that it sets up a contest for dignity.” This is a contest that their white working-class subjects are seen to be losing, as their ethnic enclaves dissolve, their children rise above (and look down upon) them socially, their traditional values are derided as reactionary, and the impersonal forces of finance capitalism erode their economic security. There is little of the once-vaunted “dignity of labor” to be seen in these pages, just suppurating “existential wounds” inflicted by “inner class warfare” as we work ever harder and consume at ever greater levels to heal our inner doubts about ourselves. The solidarity and fraternity that was once seen as the hallmark of working-class culture becomes an anachronism in an atomized, individualistic society. Most of the speakers struggle to articulate the reality of their situations beyond a generalized sense of bafflement, resentment, and injured pride.
All of which was no doubt there to be found, but Sennett and Cobb are blinkered and tone-deaf to the more positive aspects of working-class life that Barbara Garson found in abundance in her All the Livelong Day: a wised-up (if sometimes gallows) sense of humor, a toughness of spirit, and a capacity for acts of resistance both large and small. Garson had no preconceived theories or political axes to grind as she did her shoe-leather reporting to learn “how people cope with routine and monotonous work.” She found much that she expected to find—“speed, stress, humiliation, monotony”—in short, exploitation. But she also discovered that, in opposition to the petty and demeaning Taylorist practices applied in the name of efficiency, “through all this the workers make a constant effort—sometimes creative, sometimes pathetic, sometimes violent—to put meaning and dignity back into their daily activity.” Staunch lefty that she is, Garson can state that “there definitely is a managing class, and it is a lying class,” whereas “among ordinary people I find that self-serving lies are actually quite rare”—a thirties sentiment if I ever heard one. The labor she observes in her book is most definitely alienated, yet in a lumber mill slowly being mismanaged into the ground by its new corporate owners she also observes the pride that the mill hands take not only in their manual skills but also “their class skills in sticking together to see that they got their due from the bosses.” All of which serves as a useful counterweight to Sennett and Cobb’s portrait of working-class demoralization, equally real and far more refreshing to contemplate.
At just about this point in our social history a major American writer emerged to put the lives of the lumpen proletariat back at the center of our literature. That writer was, of course, Raymond Carver, and there is no more authentic and important working-class hero in contemporary American fiction than he. However, if we take a closer look at how Carver and his stories were received and lionized, we may find something disturbing in the way the educated literary class chose to view him and his putative working-class characters.
Carver’s working-class bona fides are unassailable. He grew up in Yakima, Washington, the son of a hard-drinking lumber-mill worker, and was raised in a close-knit milieu. He married his pregnant girlfriend, Maryann Burk, soon after graduating from high school and had two children before the age of twenty. As a self-declared “paid-in-full member of the working poor,” he supported himself and his family with a series of jobs that together would add up to one of those old-school author bios—mill hand, gas station attendant, tulip picker, hospital janitor, apartment complex manager—while he struggled his way to a college degree and a stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Angry creditors and the specter of bankruptcy dogged Carver, as it does so many working Americans just scraping by, and he had the typical bad habits of his class, alcoholism and heavy smoking. These facts only gradually became known to the literary public as Carver’s reputation grew, after he published some spectacular early stories in Esquire and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1977 for his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? But when serious fame burst upon him in 1981 with the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and a much noted profile in the New York Times Magazine, the difficult economic row Carver had to hoe became virtually his brand, and it remains so to this day.
Carver’s stories are spare modernist telegrams of despair from the ragged edges of American life, written in the plain, unadorned language of their characters, and they project a sense of spiritual defeat to equal the early Eliot. But because they are written in the stripped-down and elliptical modern style, actual social information about Carver’s characters is not that easy to glean. The men are often named Vern or Earl, and they work as mechanics or door-to-door salesmen or postmen, or they declare themselves “out of work” or “between jobs” in the opening paragraph, a state not soon to be remedied. The frequency with which hunting and fishing come up suggests a general location in the American west. Carver’s characters are baffled and nearly paralyzed by the conditions of their existence, often in ways that directly suggest that they suffer “The Hidden Injuries of Class” uncovered by Sennett and Cobb; God knows their dilemmas rise to the existential. They are the literary descendants of Sherwood Anderson’s isolatoes and rural misfits in Winesburg, Ohio, but rendered in a post-Kafka manner.
For all that this is so, one senses a rhetorical pile-on in the way Carver’s characters tend to be described. Here, in fact, is Carver’s own editor, Gordon Lish: “They just seem squalid. In every manifestation of human activity they seem squalid. They’re like hillbillies, but hillbillies of the shopping mall. And Carver celebrates that squalor, reveals that squalor, makes poetic that squalor in a way nobody else has tried to do.” It may be to the point here to note that Lish, a sophisticated Easterner, used his position of power as an editor at Esquire and later at Knopf to force Carver to accept radical surgery on his stories, much against his wishes. (But, I believe, much to his literary benefit. It’s complicated.) As Lubrano, along with Sennett and Cobb, points out, working-class people often find themselves at a loss in dealing with the subtle strategies and verbal indirection and power games of the white-collar world, whereas middle class people learn such things as their birthright. In any case, Lish’s comments, reeking of class disdain, differ only in intensity but not in kind with dozens of other socio-critical assessments. And this is emphatically not the way that Carver himself saw his characters. As he said, “Until I started reading those reviews of my work, praising me, I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad off. You know what I mean? The waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They’re good people. People doing the best they could.” You could search for a long time through the body of criticism of Carver’s work and not find anything as remotely generous of spirit.
But writing as powerful as Carver’s has a way of totally escaping its creator’s intentions, with unpredictable consequences. In Carver’s case his stories spawned an entire school of American fiction known variously as minimalism or K-Mart realism. The style took hold in graduate writing programs like pinkeye in an elementary school, and soon the graduates of America’s fanciest colleges were slumming at their word processors in the strip malls and trailer parks that in real life they gave the widest possible berth. Absent from this work was any hint of the compassion evident in Carver’s comment. A sort of poetics emerged in which the denizens of the lower middle class were given mean and sordid lives, with only a broken and ineffectual language with which to express themselves. We’ve come a long way from waiting for Lefty, and not necessarily upwards.
Raymond Carver’s work represents, then, a shining moment in our literary history, but it hardly provided the occasion for class solidarity, susceptible as it was to misconstrual and unconscious snobbery. His style proved easy to emulate, but his personal journey—from hardscrabble working-class origins to the heights of American fiction—remains, if not unique, still unusual. But the Republic of Letters can still be made to behave like a literary democracy of talent. Thankfully, working-class writers of great talent and unflinching vision still manage to squeeze through the class barriers to produce work both true to their origins and to the lives that so many Americans live.
Chief among them is Russell Banks, who grew up working class in the less fashionable precincts of New England and did time as a plumber, shoe salesman, and window trimmer before his writing career took hold. One of his early works is a suite of linked stories called Trailer Park (1981), whose title explains itself, but his masterpiece arrived four years later in Continental Drift (1985), probably the most Dreiserian novel in contemporary American fiction. A closely observed tragedy of economic circumstance, the book launches two characters—a New England boiler repairman down on his luck who migrates to Florida in search of a better life, and a young woman fleeing Haiti for the same reason—on a collision course that ends shatteringly for both. (Interestingly, something of the same plot trajectory informs Andre Dubus III’s Oprah-consecrated 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog.) Banks’s subsequent novels have continued to bring stinging and important news from the margins of American life.
Larry Heinemann grew up working-class in Chicago and had the ill luck or good literary fortune to be drafted into the Army right out of high school and sent to Vietnam, where he got a grunt’s eye view of that awful war. That experience gave him the raw material for his two remarkable Vietnam novels, Close Quarters (1977), often called the first work of fiction written by a Vietnam veteran, and the haunting Paco’s Story (1986), which received the National Book Award. In a long praise song for his work in the New Yorker, Veronica Geng wrote of Heinemann that “At heart, he’s a comic novelist of the post-industrial economy,” and noted how his “excited feeling for the language and detail of work became a distinctive style of observation; more than that, it became a way of interpreting what he experienced in Vietnam.”
Four strong women writers with roots in the rural working class have kept faith with their people. Bobbie Ann Mason emerged just shortly after Raymond Carver with her plainspoken stories of Kentucky country folk, from which she sprung, and is the other writer most often mentioned as an avatar of minimalism. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985), set in the rural South and the Maine backwoods respectively, each created a sensation upon publication and draw on a raffish and irreverent tradition of rural Americana that looks back to Erskine Caldwell and beyond. And Denise Giardina taps her family history of growing up as the daughter of a West Virginia coal miner to lend unassailable authority to her much praised historical novels, Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992).
Finally, but hardly exhaustively, three more fiction writers of note have mined their working-class origins for novels that are redolent, in style and subject matter, of those roots. Richard Price’s first two novels, The Wanderers (1974) and Bloodbrothers (1976), are tough, funny, and occasionally terrifying portraits of the ethnic street and domestic life of his native borough of the Bronx. His more recent works, from Clockers (1992) to Lush Life (2008), have run more to large-canvas police procedurals, but they are still informed by the street smarts and irreverent humor that are the legacy of an earlier life spent on asphalt. The late Gilbert Sorrentino, who died in 2006, is thought of as a dauntingly experimental writer, but he remains the postmodernist you would be most likely to have a boilermaker with; novels such as Steelwork (1970) and Little Casino (2002) are almost anthropological excavations of the speech cadences and worldview of the inhabitants of the working-class enclave of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (I know because I grew up there.) And Richard Russo’s sagas of working-class life in economically strapped upstate New York towns, most notably Mohawk (1986), The Risk Pool (1988), and Empire Falls (2001), are graced with the resilient humor of his sharply etched characters and are set in affectionately but precisely observed bars, diners, and workplaces that are their native habitat.
That brief survey offers a by no means complete list of contemporary fiction writers who have roots in the working class and have chosen it as their subject matter. But even augmented it would offer a slim enough roster when placed against the flood tide of novels and story collections that roll off the presses each year. As we’ve noted, the path to literary recognition these days runs through our most prestigious and expensive universities, and these are neither welcoming nor, increasingly, affordable places for the children of the working class. The price barriers speak for themselves, but it is the atmosphere of class privilege and a culture of secret handshake-like assumptions that may offer an even more demoralizing obstacle to the aspiring working-class writer. Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in a much commented-upon essay in The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” mounts a comprehensive attack on such institutions based on just this point. Finding himself tongue-tied before a plumber who’s arrived to fix his pipes, Deresiewicz contemplates how thoroughly an extended period spent in American higher education “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.” And he takes that indictment even further when he says this: “my education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class.” For all the brave propaganda about “diversity” in higher education, it seems that class snobbery is not only sanctioned in our ivory towers, but in certain unconscious ways encouraged and virally reproduced.
It goes without saying that the same privileged culture that produces America’s novelists and short story writers staffs its publishing industry. Its denizens certainly share Deresiewicz’s tied tongue when it comes to making small talk with the plumber, and they—okay, we—are a great deal more comfortable talking about a novel that deals with the wrenching problems of people in faraway Africa or China than with the struggles of our own working poor. As relatively modest as their salaries may be, people in publishing are still by birth and education and cultural assumptions members of the emerging American overclass, self-replicating and increasingly isolated from the conditions of American life outside the big cities and campus enclaves. Working-class people who pay the punishing financial price that going to college extracts these days are unlikely to be attracted to publishing, with those “relatively modest salaries” as their payoff. All of which means that voices from and on behalf of the working class have that much harder a time getting read, understood, and published. Absent some unforeseen cultural shift, they are likely to remain unfashionable.
I know that sounds pretty bleak when it comes to what I’ve called literary democracy. And yet the vitality and toughness of working-class life has a way of producing voices that demand to be heard. Fiction, of all the arts, is the one that has the strongest allegiance to a realistic depiction of the world as it is, however advanced the formal means by which that representation is achieved. The strongest talents in American fiction, the ones that have the most impact and durable staying power, tend to be rooted in place and local culture and informed by human struggle. Take, for instance, Ken Kesey’s almost overwhelmingly powerful 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey is best remembered today as the psychedelic superhero and culture warrior of the sixties and the author of the anti-authoritarian cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But Kesey was also as authentically working class as his fellow Pacific Northwesterner Carver, a son of dairy farmers who ended his gaudy days working that same family farm. Sometimes a Great Notion is an epic saga of a family of loggers whose slogan, in thought, word, and deed, is “never give an inch,” and whose sheer cussedness brings them into conflict with the entire community. Politically incorrect (the Stampers battle against the union to continue delivering lumber to the local mill) and formally innovative in the manner of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! the novel is imbued with the sort of mythic American intransigence celebrated in such events as the Alamo and the Battle of the Bulge. The Stampers are too big and brawling to display an ounce of the woundedness stressed by Sennett and Cobb, but they’d find good company in the unbowed workers in All the Livelong Day. The book’s famous master image—of patriarch Henry Stamper’s severed arm mounted on his home in such a way as to give the finger—to the rising river, to the striking workers, to anyone who cares to look—may seem overdetermined to certain literary tastes. But Kesey earns his image through his undeniable vitality and authority and the reader can’t help but smile.
As John Steinbeck famously wrote, in a different context, “We’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out Why, we’re the people—we go on.” It will be a very sad day for American literature if we ever cut ourselves finally loose from that corny but noble sentiment. A literature stratified by its subject matter and its practitioners risks become a mandarin exercise, and that would be, well, unAmerican. It behooves all of us involved in the enterprise of American fiction to make sure it doesn’t happen.