I cannot remember the occasion, but I will not forget the voice—female, authoritative, and poised—that intoned a dismissal of the so-called yuppies as follows: “They oversee the distribution of toilet paper!” I was a bit thrilled by the superior attitude, being even then no young upwardly mobile professional myself. I thought about the matter and concluded that I was a downwardly undulant mobile professional, or “dumpy,” and there the matter rested, until I gave some consideration to David Brooks’s “bobos,” or “bourgeois bohemians,” and thought that he had a point about a transmogrification that was an historic shift.
He had quite a point indeed, but somehow, the absurdity of contemporary life was missing, or it was underdramatized in his account. I find it still shocking, even today, to apprehend the amount of gross self-contradiction that we routinely experience. Walking into an ordinary restaurant, I beheld a room of gray-haired adults who were all dressed as chubby five-year-olds, in T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers; I thought for a moment someone must have slipped me something psychedelic, or that I had perhaps wandered, in some fit of absentmindedness, into a home for the mentally challenged. When we are seated in such a place, therefore, I always make sure that the rock music is playing at full volume, or otherwise I can’t relax. I might have some sort of episode if I can’t balance one discourse (“I just can’t understand all the hostility to Senator Clinton!”) with another pertinent latest hit (“Whooo! Brown sugar—how come you taste so good?!”). And could I see that choice of vegetables again?
As we languish in our postmodern state and look back at the 20th century, we may note not only some social and economic changes, but changes in the representation of those realities. The middle class has detached itself from the industrial dispensation and from the values that had been understood to underlie modern civilization—and it is more graphic or at least more inherently interesting to track the process through literature than it is through the dismal sciences. In the case of literature, of course, there is always a question about the degree of alienation involved—is the angle of vision from within or without the situation depicted? Novels that have claimed a degree of realism and recorded the decline of the middle class have suggested a more radical vision than has ordinarily been assumed by the middle-class readers for whom they were written. If nostalgia is now unwarranted, then it never was, and the novels say as much.
One novelist who comes first to mind is Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), a professional, a chronicler of Indianapolis and Indiana and the middle-class family. The author of The Gentleman From Indiana was one such, and that stance centered him, propelled him, and limited him as well. His reputation has not been treated kindly, but he was a considerable writer who deserves more reconsideration than I can afford him here.
Tarkington’s aesthetic was that of Howells’ genteel realism, and his temperament was essentially liberal, humorous, and optimistic. He showed the rise and fall of families and businesses in The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), The Turmoil (1915), and The Midlands (1924). Tarkington rendered the dynamics of capitalism and the social change in the transition from horse to horsepower, the social consequences of industrial capitalism as it impacted on class and manners. But his best novel is probably Alice Adams (1921), because of his ironic rather than progressive view of a young woman’s adjustment to straitened circumstances and limited opportunities. In these works, one can learn much through the particular focus on the Midwest of the felt experience of the nation a century ago.
We can hardly be blamed for remembering something of The Magnificent Ambersons through the distorting and brilliant lens of Orson Welles’ mutilated film, perhaps his greatest even in its condition. Neither can we be blamed for remembering Tarkington through the filter of his indulgent Penrod books, not so much for their stereotyped characters as for the outrageous pastiche rendered in Penrod’s sensational melodrama about Harold Ramorez, the road agent. Strangely enough, the wildest flights of fancy Tarkington ever inscribed were over-the-top burlesques of his own childhood scribblings—a version, perhaps, of what Dickens did with his Mr. Dick. But we would be less likely to remember that Tarkington went through a painful divorce, a battle with alcoholism, and the death of a child. And less likely to remember that, in a fantasy of 1926, “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis,” Tarkington offered a war between the sexes occasioned by woman’s insistence on superiority, as opposed to equality. At the end, all perish in an apocalyptic inundation.
Fewer still recall that Tarkington once actually refused to receive Sinclair Lewis.
This last is a significant moment in American literary history, to my mind. Tarkington’s social rejection of Lewis was a cultural statement, for how could he have failed to sense that the object of Lewis’s satire or derision was the people he had lived among and limned? Tarkington’s rejection of an alien attitude was for him a recognition of what was to him the unacceptable—a line had been crossed. The gentleman from Indiana, or of Victorian rectitude, was not about to chat chummily with a man of opposing values. On the other hand, Tarkington was the author of The World Does Move (1928), and he knew the truth of the thought. He was an optimist but ambivalent about the “creative destruction” of capitalism and progress.
The Sinclair Lewis who gave us “Babbittry” in 1922 was the future knocking on the door, a door flung wide-open by the Swedish Academy in 1930, when he was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Literature offered to an American. I think it is fair to say that Lewis never recovered. Looking back at a long list of bad books, I do believe today that The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen (1928) is a work that, in its corrosive ventriloquism, is alive today. But in spite of his range as an author, particularly in generating sympathy for George Babbitt, Lewis the man did not have Tarkington’s balance of character. The point is that in and through Babbitt and Schmaltz, Sinclair Lewis incorporated his own limitations in bitter satire that co-opted modernist attitudes and repackaged them for the reading public that was, after all, the same middle class that was being subjected to attack.
John P. Marquand (1893-1960), an admirer of Sinclair Lewis, had a broad reach as a commercial novelist, but was at heart a satirist of the proper Bostonians of the upper-middle class. The Late George Apley (1937) has its parodic aspects, as does H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941). Marquand was not merely a social historian but a writer with range and wit. The unreliable narrator of Melville Goodwin, USA (1951) shades that discourse into the Jamesian realm. Sincerely, Willis Wayde (1955) is a novel that Dickens and Thackeray would have appreciated for its attack on the bitch-goddess success, on the emptiness of material achievement, and on Wayde’s ruthless rise from the lower to the upper-middle class. Marquand was no prisoner of the values that he knew; it hardly seems justifiable, though it does seem predictable, that he is so neglected today.
John O’Hara (1905-70) had a chip on his shoulder about his Irishness that today seems quaint, but it gave him an edge. He both saw through the image of “making it” and was fired up to do that very thing. His oblique view of society served him well but not fully—he wrote about “society” when the intelligentsia had dismissed the agonies of country-club snobbery, and his punishment was to be underrated. He was as sensitive to cruelty and waste as F. Scott Fitzgerald, though he lacked the poetic gift and lift of the latter. Even so, the language he wrote in Pal Joey (1940) suggests that a revaluation is in order. Besides that, Ten North Frederick (1955) suggests the emptiness of Vanity Fair as decisively as a 19th-century novelist would have done. Never respected by the bohemian crowd, O’Hara was a more dialectical and shrewd writer than he has been given credit for. His parroting of the materialism he analyzed, right down to the Rolls-Royce, showed that he lived what he knew; his books, the vice versa.
Yes, but these writers of the middle class for the middle class about the middle class were not, though they had their moments, visionaries or artists or aliens creating a new language. They were not Gertrude Stein or James Joyce or modernists and experimenters who took us to another level of reality. And they have paid the price for their limited sense of reality. The story of the century is today not the story of the discrediting of the middle class but its disassembly or division into warring parts. The culture that Babbitt scorned and yearned for has come back to bite him in the form of a multiple cultural revolution that has masked an economic or social one, for the image of the middle class presumes the primacy of the family.
Is there any aspect of the family that has not been subverted, inverted, or perverted, or any distortion that has not been reinforced by cultural leverage? The family is the enemy of freedom and individuality and sexual fulfillment. The generation gap, the war between the sexes, feminism—every centrifugal vector has been magnified by propaganda called art, so that, finally, art is propaganda and is sanctioned by the academic clerisy for that very reason. “Subversive” and “subversion” have been terms of praise in our universities for decades. The co-optation by government and big business of “subversive elements” is more than a sure sign of the cultural war in which we live—it is the war itself. And that war is expressed in all the arts as well as in government policies, community projects, church agendas, and so on.
The fiction of the 20th century that survives or is affirmed today is certainly more radical (in the obvious sense) than anything written by middlebrow authors such as Tarkington, Lewis, Marquand, and O’Hara. Even so, in popular fiction, Edna Ferber’s Giant is nothing if not subversive of the family it presents and represents, with the obvious targets of patriarchy, racial hierarchy, sex, “orientation,” and so on. If we think of the heavy-handed messages as a reversal of American history and as a prototype of government policies today, then we see where we are, or rather, where we have been and already were five decades ago, and where we are going, or rather, once again, where we already are.
The most remembered of modern American writers, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, are hardly to be seen as writers of the middle class, in spite of their backgrounds. If Gatsby is great, it is not as a patriarch that he is so, and Jake Barnes is an impotent priest of a private religion that is explicitly anti-American and antibourgeois. Raymond Chandler was called “petit bourgeois” by Billy Wilder, who ought to have known. But that quality does not register in his books, in which the middle class hardly exists. But an attitude does, one that is not friendly to the American middle class and its shaky construction. In the Los Angeles of 1949, the writing is already on the wall, as inscribed by the man whom Evelyn Waugh claimed was the best novelist in America:
The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the Lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. Out in the fancy suburbs dear old Dad is reading the sports page in front of a picture window, with his shoes off, thinking he is high class because he has a three-car garage. Mom is in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes. And Junior is clamped onto the telephone calling up a succession of high school girls that talk pigeon English and carry contraceptives in their make-up kit.
In that same year, that most individual of writers, the confirmed antibourgeois Wyndham Lewis (no American, he) was writing his third autobiography, Rude Assignment, and remembering the 1920’s and the changes after World War I. He saw the revolution under way from its inception:
The discrediting and dethroning of this feeblest and smallest of sovereigns, the little father of the family, in his squalid domestic “castle,” is one of the main features of the demasculinizing process. Many of the specifically masculine attributes would disappear at the same time as the loss of status.
Such is the political aspect of the transaction. But Big Business, as well as the politician, has for many years had the male principle under observation; both have their plans for its elimination. To think of the housewife, for instance, puts the modern economic planner in a rage. . . . The abolition of the Family as we have known it up to now is more than ever on the agenda of those who have the power to change what they want to change. It is not an idle or ill-founded prophecy to say that a third sex will ultimately emerge.
Lewis claimed that he approved of 20th-century developments for a particular reason: He thought the flattening out of all distinctions would put an end to war. He may have been wrong about that last part.
He was not wrong, though, about the systematic disassembly of the middle class and its replacement by a new order, including a new sexual order. We see that all about us. The will, the values, even the faith that has sustained and ordered what we have known of civilization in the era of the Protestant ethic has come to an end. The polymorphous dispensation has arrived, and we know it when men dress as children, and women dress as men. We know it when we reach for a familiar object with a familiar brand but find upon inspection of the small print that it is “made in China.”
Oh well, another job gone, and that is fine with the politicians and the corporations and the talking heads, David Brooks and the rest of them, who rationalize it all. What’s the problem? There’s plenty of paper money, at least for a while, though the Chinese seem to have an awful lot of that paper money. Maybe we should print some more paper money and adjust the interest rates! Meanwhile, there is always culture. There are so many channels on the satellite TV that we can adjust to every need. Masterpiece Theatre eliminates the effort to read all those ponderous tomes, but if you’re interested, there’s always a community-college lecture series on subversion in literature by women, and another on tolerance in our diverse community.