Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider, and Felice Yeskel, Eds, Class Lives: Stories from across the Economic Divide

By Soron, Dennis | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider, and Felice Yeskel, Eds, Class Lives: Stories from across the Economic Divide


Soron, Dennis, Labour/Le Travail


Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider, and Felice Yeskel, eds, Class Lives: Stories from Across the Economic Divide (Ithaca: Cornell Press 2014)

This accessible and emotionally affecting anthology, consisting of personal reflections by 40 writers situated at various points along the socioeconomic spectrum, provides testament to the ongoing relevance of class as a dynamic element in the ostensibly "classless" milieu of North American society. In spite of the increasingly stark inequalities that mark our world, Felice Yeskel asserts in her introduction, class largely remains a taboo topic--one given surprisingly little consideration in activist and academic circles, and one shrouded in a cloak of ignorance and denial in our personal lives. Collectively, she suggests, we have generally grown more attentive to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and other markers of identity and inequality, but we continue to lack any "shared language about class" (6) to even acknowledge, let alone examine, this crucial dimension of contemporary social life.

While insisting upon the need for a systemic understanding of class that goes beyond individualized explanations for economic inequality, this volume is very much centred upon individuals and how their felt experience of class is intimately entwined with their identities, relationships, aspirations, and everyday lives. While objective measures such as income, wealth, occupation, and educational level can help to map out the broad outlines of inequality today, they often fail to capture what Yeskel calls "the complexity and multifaceted nature of class and classism." (4) This is brought into poignant relief in the first section of the book, which is centred on the stories of people from "poor and low income" backgrounds. As these stories underline, poverty is characterized not simply by the physical experience of being cold, hungry, or in some other state of deprivation, or by the practical fact of being at the mercy of landlords, employers, and unsympathetic bureaucrats. Indeed, it is equally defined by the painful psychological experience of being symbolically marked as inferior in countless subtle ways, of fighting off debilitating shame and envy, and of feeling the pressure to continually mask key aspects of one's own life and history.

The second section of the book, focused upon those from an array of "working class" backgrounds, extends the first section's concern with how internalized classism can exert a powerful undertow throughout the course of one's life. The early lives of these writers were materially constrained and full of legitimate anxieties and grievances, to be sure, but afforded them a basic level of economic security, a foothold in the mainstream culture, and a certain amount of outward respectability. While lacking in the cultural capital needed to discuss great art in a museum or to properly eat an artichoke in foodie circles, their backgrounds lent them some sense of positive class identity based on values such as hard work, discipline, thrift, and competence, all of which affirmed their sense of being superior to the shiftless and dissolute underclass. The sense of nostalgic attachment they feel for some aspects of their early lives is undercut and shorn of romantic idealizations by the awareness that working-class family life can often be stifling, brutal, and replete with reactionary values.

For the upwardly mobile in this group, this conflicted relationship to working-class culture is amplified when their drive to succeed carries them into social, educational, and occupational settings dominated by more privileged groups. Uneasily balanced between the norms of their plebian upbringing and those of their more patrician peers and colleagues, they often feel like "straddlers" without any sense of stable identity or belonging. The education system, ostensibly a meritocracy designed to enable class mobility and curtail fixed social distinctions, features heavily in these stories as a place where deeply rooted class differences become painfully conspicuous. …

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