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

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

Synopsis

InThe 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.

Excerpt

”… 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 Te n 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 . . .

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