Tag Archives: working-class culture

Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon

 

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Redefining Grit: New Visions of Working-Class Culture

A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us.  Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.

Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining  “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks.  You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.

Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all.  Quite the contrary.  She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people  to help them succeed.

Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s.  He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position.  That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge.  In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories.  When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.

Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive.  Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration.  Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity.  Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.

But surely working-class family values remain, right?  According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing.  For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy.  That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led  the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships.  They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids.  For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also  managing emotional challenges.

Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views.  Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else.  Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down.  They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant.  Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else.  Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy.  Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.

That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others.  It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits.  They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.

I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening.  The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient.  Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope.  She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.”  While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.”  Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism.  What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?

At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.

Work To Do

I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.

The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.

The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the sculpture. The piece matters, but we don’t take it too seriously. Dad named it “Employee of the Month,” which usually gets a laugh.

I say that my brother and I come from a working-class family, even though Dad’s salary as a clock-punching, union-protected, steel mill worker probably put our family financially in the lower middle class in the area of rural western Pennsylvania I grew up in. But culturally, we were working class. Dad worked in the Hot Mill Combustion department at the Armco steel mill in Butler, so the furnaces that melted the steel were his responsibility. His dad worked in the rail yard at the Pullman-Standard rail car mill across the street from Armco, and he worked a second job as a plasterer. Our other grandpa was a truck driver. Our uncle is a carpenter at a state university. The women in our family worked just as hard as the men, mostly as homemakers, and occasionally in the service industry.

I was raised to work hard. My dad’s dad shared stories about (mis)adventures navigating rail cars through the rail yard on his midnight shift at the mill, and then spending the following morning plastering walls and ceilings around town. I’ve helped—well, mostly watched—as my uncle built a porch for my grandparents’ single-wide trailer one Saturday morning. My dad went off to work wearing steel–toed boots, carrying his hard hat and lunch pail. On the weekends, my brother and I helped Dad clear our property, stacking logs as he ran the chainsaw.  Mom kept the house and clothes clean and always had a homemade meal on the table.

I was always good at school, so that’s what I worked at the hardest. But, while I was smart and determined, sometimes I got lost. I didn’t always know how to ask questions or where to go to get the information I needed.  When I encountered difficulties, my family wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to offer suggestions, but they encouraged me to ask questions and not to be intimidated by authority figures. I also benefitted from being a straight white male in a society that often subtly privileges that identity. Often I found my way only because when I was unsure who to ask, I felt comfortable asking everyone.

Then, one semester for a sociology class, I read the article “Moving Up from the Working Class,” by Joan Morris and Michael Grimes. They share interviews with sociologists from working-class families who identified two difficulties in their own experiences. The first was a deficit in cultural capital. Because of their cultural background, the respondents felt they sometimes lacked the social skills necessary to do well in academic settings. The second involved a contradiction: while their parents encouraged them to “do better,” which implied going to college and likely working a job that did not involve manual labor, the parents also advanced a culture that valued manual labor over other forms of work. Manual labor was acknowledged in a way that intellectual or managerial work was not. So, while they had attained good positions in their field, their work often did not feel real or legitimate.  Their stories gave me some perspective and provided some language for me to make sense of my experiences. It also helped me realize how useful sociology can be in helping a person make sense of how their individual opportunities are shaped by their social situations.

Back in college, I told one of my professors, Jim Perkins, about my dad working at the mill. He shared a story based on his experiences in a mill. The story begins at a local bar, when someone states that, “Professors have never worked a day in their life.” The protagonist of the story, like the professor in real life, accepted this as a challenge and spent his summer working in a local galvanizing mill. The rest of the story overflows with images of hard work and calamity, but he was ultimately welcomed into the group of mill workers with a round of shots at the bar after the last shift of his probationary period. I am motivated by the same forces, but in the opposite direction. He was working to show that a professor can be competent and capable in a mill, while also using the experience in his professional work to demonstrate the value of stories. I am working to show that a kid from a working-class family can be a competent and capable academic, while also demonstrating the practical value of academic lessons.

A friend pointed out that the maintenance of masculinity must play a role in how I think of work, and she’s right. Family members will make jokes about how soft my hands are or suggest that maybe I am “afraid” of getting dirty. So when I go home, I’ll do things like run the chainsaw and help my uncle with a project. Ironically, work rules at the university prevent me from actually hanging the sculpture on my office wall myself. This work will be done by a carpenter, someone with the same job as my uncle, not a professor.

When I go home, my family will make good-natured jokes about “the professor” lacking common sense or about academic work being easy. I counter their tales of hard work with my own. I describe the mental grind of preparing lesson plans, leading classes, grading papers, doing research, attending meetings, and advising students. One reason I am hanging this sculpture on my wall is because it expresses the cultural understandings of work I carry with me. I attempt to communicate between both worlds. I understand the accomplishment and pride of physical labor, but I also understand the persistent curiosity and mental tenacity necessary for academic work. When I am having trouble concentrating on reading, or struggling to find the words to write, I think about all the work that my family has done. I think about the clean laundry and homemade meals my mother made, as well as my grandfather driving another ten miles, my other grandfather changing clothes and heading off to a second shift of work, my uncle hammering nails, my Dad fixing a furnace. This sculpture reminds me that this office is comfortable, and that much of the work my family has done was not.

My brother and I were also lucky that our family trusted that we would make good choices about college and careers. It was only after I had lived for several years on a near poverty-level graduate student stipend, and my brother began working towards a Masters in Fine Arts, that our family really began asking about the risks we were taking. There are real risks. My brother and I have both taken on substantial student loan debt. We’re both pursuing advanced degrees in fields that have tough job markets. Neither of us has figured it all out. But we’re both making careful decisions about our career paths, and we’re both passionate about doing our work.

When visitors to my office ask, and sometimes even when they don’t, I’ll tell them about the sculpture and what it represents. And after discussing my family’s work, I’ll return to my own. I am only beginning as an assistant professor. I’ve got work to do.

Colby King

Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater State University who teaches and studies urban sociology and inequality with an emphasis on understanding place as a social structure shaping opportunities.

The Lunch Bucket Award

One of my grandsons won the Lunch Bucket Award on his high school football team a couple weeks ago.   And his father’s reaction to it and mine surprised me, especially for what it showed about class differences across generations.

The Lunch Bucket Award is given each week to the player who made the greatest contribution during practice in the week leading up to the Friday night game.   My grandson is a third-string running back on a state-ranked top 20 team, and he seldom gets into the game unless his team is way ahead – and sometimes, not even then.    He was proud to get the award and, as required, to carry a somewhat rusty lunch bucket to all his classes for the week after the game.   His father, my son, was dismissive of it, calling it “the tackling dummy award” and suggesting that it should have been humiliating to lug an old-time lunch bucket around for a week – signaling to all his classmates that he was not first-team.

My grandson is an exuberant, talkative, sort-of-flashy 16-year-old who both teachers and coaches have designated as “very coachable.”   He’s not that interested in academics, and school has never come easy to him, but he works hard and brings home good grades and is diligently prepping for his ACT test so he can “get into a really good college.”   As an athlete he has some natural ability, and he’s a really good wrestler, but his main assets even there are self-discipline, the ability to learn and improve, and his willingness to work hard so he can do a good job.

His job as a practice-squad running back is to learn the offensive scheme of each week’s opponent, and then run it as good as he can to prepare the first-team defense for what they will face Friday night.   It is potentially a highly confusing intellectual assignment, learning a new set of plays each week, followed by running hard and being tackled by the hardest hitting players at his school.   It seems like highly honorable work to me, where the “dummy” part of “tackling dummy” is clearly not appropriate.   But even more honorable is the grit it takes to do it at all, let alone to do it well “when nobody is watching” (except, of course, his teammates and coaches, who gave him an award for it).

Sports iconography is, of course, full of working-class imagery about “blue-collar” players who “simply show up for work and do a good job,” and who get little or no recognition for what they do – unless, of course, they do it badly.   The old-time barn-shaped lunch bucket is a particularly powerful symbol of this steady, reliable, just doing-your-part work ethic — especially when your part is dirty, distasteful, or dangerous, or maybe just monotonous in a way that middle-class people sometimes call “mind-numbing” or “soul-deadening.”  Most work that needs to be done in our society is like this.  Even though what is often called “unskilled work” almost always requires a wide variety of skills to actually do a good job, these jobs also require a daily kind of self-sacrifice that is hard, very hard, to do day in and day out – and that is actively disrespected in our mainstream culture with its celebration of the best and the brightest, the entrepreneurs and the innovators.  Sports is just about the only place in America that ever recognizes and celebrates the value of those who “simply show up every day and do a good job” at the kind of work upon which everything else, including all of us, depends.

My wife and I were raised in families that carried those kinds of lunch buckets to those kinds of jobs, and though once upon a time we did, too, for a while, we’re both glad we never had to find out whether we could have summoned the everyday courage, the true grit it takes to do it for a lifetime.

We were well on our way to becoming thoroughly middle class by the time our son was our grandson’s age, but even as well-educated grown-ups we didn’t know how to properly raise middle-class children —  in what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.”  Our son knows that and, while he’s very forgiving of us, he’s bound and determined to raise his children in that way – to make sure they have the education and skills they’ll need to avoid lunch-bucket jobs and to cultivate that never-settle-for-second-best achievement-orientation that so many middle-class people think is essential to living a good life.  He has a middle-class job at which he earns a very good living, but just as our fathers did, he hates both the work itself and the kind of work he does.   He wants better than that for his kids, and for him the Lunch Bucket Award somehow seemed to challenge that aspiration.

Our grandson needs no help from us in pushing back against his father.  When asked if he was demoralized at not getting much playing time, he said, “No, I’m a big part of this team.  On the practice squad I help the first team get better – and that puts me out there on the field even when I’m not actually out there.”   I got a little too emotional in trying to congratulate him for his Lunch Bucket Award by referencing my grandfather (his great-great grandfather) who, as he knows from family legend, walked out of a steel mill in 1916 “on his own” right after losing both arms in a rolling mill.  I said something like, “That’s an award for character, buddy, and that will be with you long after you can’t juke and jive anymore.”  He said, “Huh?”   Followed by a polite, though possibly comprehending, “Thanks, Pap.”

I understand that sky-high, you-can-do-anything aspirations — even when palpably illusory – can spur young people onward and upward in healthy ways.   I also understand why parents often fear low expectations for their kids.  But finding out what are realistic aspirations and expectations for ourselves and our children is a tricky business, and it will not help to believe that “you can never aim too high.”   Most of us are going to need some lunch-bucket mentality for some or all of our lives.  We’ll need the steady will to do what we have to do to earn a living and to have the personal integrity to do a good job even when we don’t feel like it and nobody is watching.  I loved my job as a teacher, but even on my best days at work I brought that mentality with me just in case I needed it — and because I couldn’t shake it if I wanted to.    My son is a maniac helicopter parent who hates his job, but he does it conscientiously and well more than five days a week.   His son undoubtedly has noticed that.

Sometimes, for both good and ill, parents teach their children less with what they say than with what they do.  For parents, somebody is always watching.  Congratulations, Max, for finally getting our family a Lunch Bucket Award.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman

Working-Class Renegades and Loyalists

I never had much time or sympathy for working-class renegades until I read Allison Hurst’s College and the Working Class this summer.

Hurst, a sociologist at Furman University, classifies first-generation college students as renegades if they “have learned to value what the greater society values, academic success, social prestige, and high class position.  They believe that moving away from families and assimilating into the mainstream are necessary for achievement.”   Loyalists, in contrast, are college students from working-class families whose “first priority is to their home communities and [they] are sometimes willing to forgo success if this is predicated on assimilation [to middle-class values and norms].”

As a lifelong (if sometimes unfaithful) loyalist, married to another loyalist, I’ve usually seen renegades’ headlong pursuit of middle-class life and culture as too often leading them to adopt extreme versions of what I see as the worst aspects of middle-class culture – a single-minded focus on personal achievement and publicly recognized accomplishments, which often leads to unreliable serial friendships (if any friendships at all) and a never-far-from-the-surface status anxiety.

Though in the early stages, renegades’ determined rejection of and flight from working-class ways can seem heroically self-actualizing, all too often it turns into phony resume-building, bitterness at being “left behind” no matter where they end up, and a guilt-ridden substitution of show for substance.  In late middle age this pattern can get particularly distasteful, regardless of class background, when the exercise of arbitrary power over others begins to compensate for real accomplishment, thereby spreading the misery.

Hurst’s exploration of today’s “first-generation college students,” however, reveals a historical situation so very different from the one I experienced that I have changed my mind.  Expressing a broad range of empathy for the variety of complex situations working-class college students face today, Hurst captures both the loyalists’ and the renegades’ worlds during a time when “finding yourself” can severely undermine the development of your “competitive advantages.”

Though also insightful about the problems of applying and paying for higher education today, Hurst’s analysis focuses on the clash of cultures working-class students experience in a variety of forms, a clash Barbara Jensen has so poignantly revealed at all levels of education (and life) in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.  Hurst draws on recent university research on “retaining first-generation college students” as well as on the more nuanced efforts of her colleagues in the Association of Working-Class Academics to argue for a wide array of practices that universities could adopt to help working-class students negotiate the nexus between everyday practical problems and more deeply rooted cultural issues.

What I found most insightful, however, was her creation of five composite characters – three loyalists and two renegades of diverse races/ethnicities – whose progress through the same state university is followed throughout the book.  These characters illustrate both common problems and complexly different ways of handling them.  Collectively, Hurst says of them, “This generation of working-class college students . . . shares some things in common with past generations of ‘scholarship boys and girls,’ but they are also unique in that they are pushed, not just pulled, into college.”

As someone who went to college in the 1960s at four different undergraduate institutions off and on for seven years and who was anything but a “scholarship boy,” I realize how much easier it was then.  College was an option, not a necessity for one thing – no push, all pull.  It also cost a lot less, and many community colleges, university extensions, and universities themselves had a vital sense of mission about expanding democratic values as well as economic opportunities.  And as the sixties progressed, more and more middle-class (and especially upper middle class) students were challenging the middle-class manners, mores, and values of the time.  Working-class life then exerted its own considerable pull, making the culture clash possibly more difficult in some ways than it is today, but there was also so much more space to mix and match, consciously adopting some middle-class ways while rejecting others – more ways to be a “straddler” and not go “all in.”   On both sides of college, working-class life is much less attractive today – more punishing at work, more insecure at home, and weaker as a proud and independent culture that can unselfconsciously scoff at middle-class ways.

My natural sympathies were with Hurst’s three loyalists, but fearing the economic consequences of their loyalties, I found myself hoping they would go “more all in” than they did – before realizing that there really is no more or less to “all in.”  As loyalists, however, they face culturally richer but more economically insecure futures in a job market that has only two jobs for every three college graduates.  One of Hurst’s two renegades, on the other hand, is fleeing a family that abandoned her in her mid-teens, and the other is motivated to be all in culturally because she sees it as a necessity for single-handedly lifting her mother and siblings from economic poverty.

As more and more working-class kids are pushed and pulled into higher education, Hurst is optimistic that universities will become more welcoming – as an administrative “retention strategy,” if nothing else.  But because she values working-class culture as much as middle-class cultural capital, she sets a pretty high standard: “Whether college responds by losing its middle-class character so as to better welcome these students or whether working-class college students will continue to be forced to assimilate to middle-class norms in order to succeed, is a question only future events can answer.”

If colleges and universities want to become more welcoming to working-class students, Hurst has checklist upon checklist for both easy and difficult things they can do.  But “losing its middle-class character” is not something we can expect until there is a stronger, more collectively active working class in the workforce and in the streets — as well as more working-class college students who organize on campus to undermine the narrow-minded self-confidence of a hyper-middle-class culture that, unchallenged, cannot imagine that theirs is not the only “right” way.

There’s much to admire in our middle-class’s aspirational individualism and achievement-orientation, but unchecked by a more rooted communitarian culture, it can turn toxic within individuals and seems to foster deadening institutions run by career-calculating conformists who like to make speeches about “innovation,” “transformation,” and “empowerment” while working to ensure that it’s hard for any of those things to actually occur.  Higher education in America needs a stronger, more vital working-class presence to save it from its own cocky cultural hegemony and its growing attraction to pleasing an increasingly crass Big Money ruling class.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

“By My Lights” and “Studies Have Shown”

Recently while writing an article, I found myself using an old-time expression I don’t think I have ever used in writing before: “by my lights,” which means something like “in my view.”  It’s an expression I heard a lot growing up in a working-class family decades ago and still hear among the old-timers of my generation.  Though I sometimes use it in conversation, I thought it might be obscure and/or too colloquial for readers, but the meticulous editor of the piece let it pass without comment.

Then as I read Barbara Jensen’s new book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, I thought about notions I’ve had for some time about a distinct working-class epistemology that is often more complex and sophisticated than the standard educated middle-class one.   Reading Classes lays out in detail what Jensen sees as competing class cultures, with special emphasis on how middle-class cultural imperialism in schools (from kindergarten to graduate school) makes life and learning more difficult for working-class students.

Though the book is rich in showing oppositions between categorically distinct working-class and middle-class cultures, Jensen’s effort is to put the cultures into dialogue with each other so that they can benefit from each other’s strengths and compensate for their contrary weaknesses.  Firmly based in a memoir of her own experience as a working-class girl who became (somewhat accidentally) middle class, Jensen draws on a wide range of social science studies to supplement her own direct observation as a counseling psychologist, especially of mixed-class couples and high school students.  In doing that, she brings together what I take to be contrary but potentially complementary epistemologies, captured perhaps by the expressions “by my lights” and “studies have shown.”

In my undergraduate classes, I have long warred against the usage “studies have shown” because of its passive-voice exaggeration of the certainty of conclusions drawn from social science studies.  I read a fair number of such studies, and I have yet to come upon one whose data would not support more than one interpretation, no matter how rigorous the research methodology.   I encourage students to use somewhat more awkward phrasing that acknowledges that fallible human beings are actively drawing conclusions from their study – e.g., “researchers [or even “experts”] who have made systematic studies of X have concluded that . . .” Studies do not “find” things or “show” things.  People do.

Systematic studies by people who are knowledgeable about what has been thought and said in their discipline or field of study should be given greater weight than my or my students’ off-hand impressions based on our direct observation and experience.  But, like our off-hand impressions, studies are products of creative human thought.  And one of my off-hand impressions is that one out of three times when the expression “studies have shown” is used it actually means “shut the fuck up.”  That is, it is an educated middle-class bullying tactic to close off discussion by an appeal to authority.

At least as it is reported in both mainstream and, especially, progressive media, this often seems to be the case with disputes about teaching climate change and evolution in public schools.  Without discounting the ideological power politics of local school boards, I don’t see why popular skepticism about scientific findings (even in the natural sciences) does not present opportunities for educating students about the values and procedures of scientific methods, let alone for the exercise and development of critical thinking.   In any case, dismissing and thereby disrespecting popular skepticism strengthens that skepticism – or, rather, has a tendency to turn skepticism into ideologically rigid resistance.   Thus, my war on “studies have shown” in undergraduate general education courses is part of gaining students’ respect for such studies by requiring them to think about the conclusions experts have derived from them – and not simply learn to repeat “what studies have shown.”

On the other hand, in my experience working-class adults have a strong tendency to give too much weight to their own direct observation and experience.  There is a clear strength to this, as they are often very complex interpreters of what they have seen and lived.  But it can often cause them to discount the value of “book-learning” and “abstractions,” and it can be difficult for them to articulate their interpretations of their direct observation and experience in a mixed-class, mixed-race, mixed-everything public setting.  On the plus side, though, “by my lights” is one of several expressions whereby people acknowledge that not only is their own observation and experience necessarily limited – that is, they know they’re only seeing or feeling one small part of a massive elephant – but that they also are bringing their own unique framework, their way of seeing and thinking, to their report/interpretation of that experience.  And, in most cases, the expression invites others to share how they see things by their lights while firmly asserting the value of one’s own lights.  That is, I fancy that there is a grassroots working-class relativism that thinks and lives within an experientially based subjectivity that claims a large space (often too large, in my view) for belief and faith, but that also sees a path to truth in inter-subjective dialogue – usually looking for confirmation, but existentially open to correction and refinement by how others read their different experiences.

The educated middle-class, on the other hand, while officially recognizing a thorough-going epistemological relativism (“observation interferes” even in physics), has a strong tendency to overestimate the number and certainty of “known facts,” to confuse “evidence” with “proof,” and to try to “escape” from belief through the use of rigorous methodologies that can overcome or get beyond “subjective biases.”  The whole project of the sciences (social as well as natural) is to design and implement methods that get researchers free not only of their own subjectivity, but of all subjectivity so that they can “find” objective truth.  These efforts can sometimes be quixotic and are often highly disingenuous, but over the past several centuries they have compiled an impressive array of “known facts” that could not have been derived from undisciplined sharing of beliefs and experiences.  Though the arts and humanities operate very differently, placing much more emphasis on the interpretation of direct experience, interior as well as exterior, we generally respect and pay deference to “scientific truth” without thinking that it is all there is.   But we too tend to overestimate how large what is known is and the degree of certainty with which it is known.

If I had my way, there would be more experimentation with putting these two contrary, but potentially complementary epistemologies together.  Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes is not the first to do that within Working-Class Studies, but it is the most thorough and comprehensive (and admirably risky) attempt so far.   There are more such efforts in progress.  Christine Walley, for example, who spoke at last year’s How Class Works conference, will soon publish Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago.  Walley calls it an “autoethnography.” The book begins with her childhood recollections of the day her father lost his job when Wisconsin Steel shut down forever, and Walley uses anthropological methods to understand the long arm of consequences deindustrialization continues to visit not only on her family and its neighborhood but on a whole world of meanings and relationships that extend well beyond.

By my lights, these and other working-class studies have shown that there is a lot more to life and learning than is dreamt of in an exclusively middle-class philosophy.  But that’s true of a working-class one as well.  Cross-class coalitions, besides being crucial to our politics going forward, have a vast, nearly untapped potential for cultural sharing — not just of information and ideas, but of different ways of knowing.   With Reading Classes and Exit Zero we are better able to tap some of that potential.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Calling All Stooges: Slapstick and the Working Class

The Farrelly brothers’ new film version of The Three Stooges opened in theaters 10 days ago to thumps and slaps by the critics. Many of the critics seem to really like the pseudo-violence, the bonky sound effects, and the topical stupidity of The Three Stooges, and they hoped that the movie would deliver satisfying Stoogification to hardcore fans everywhere.

With the return of the Stooges, it is worth revisiting a great, but largely forgotten example of television slapstick.  The ABC series about two slapdash carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, debuted fifty years ago, in September of 1962, and, after a rough start it won its time slot against another very popular show, Route 66. Sadly, it was canceled after one season, but happily, this spring, we can now enjoy the series on a beautifully curated 3-DVD set from Jim Benson, host of the blog and radio show TVTimeMachine.

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster features two carpenters who are also best friends: a bachelor named Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels), and his married friend, Harry Dickens (John Astin). At least half of the scenes take place at work, where the two friends compete for promotions, run into doors, and fall into vats of concrete. Most of the rest is set at the home of Dickens and his pretty wife Kate (Emmaline Henry), where the duo try to install a garbage disposal, patch holes in the drywall, and fix the kitchen cabinets, usually unsuccessfully.

The home remodeling theme is based on creator and producer Leonard Stern’s experience with his own house, when carpenters accidentally bricked a ladder inside the chimney. Stern was a long-time staff writer for The Jackie Gleason Show and, later, The Honeymooners. He also won an Emmy for writing on The Phil Silvers Show. By 1960 he was ready to strike out on his own.

The show was originally called The Workers, but ABC executives made Stern change it, afraid that if it went into daily syndication it might be called “The Daily Worker.” It is remarkable indeed that Stern was able to get a show featuring working-class characters on television in the 1960s. In the early days of television (1948-1956) there were a handful of working-class families featured in network sitcoms (The Life of Riley, I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Luigi, The Honeymooners and Duffy’s Tavern), but by the late 1950s most sitcoms featured suburban families who were decidedly middle class.

Stern’s carpenter comedy earned him the best critical reviews of his career. Life magazine declared it a “surprise success” about “of all people—carpenters.” After one season, though, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was just starting to beat out its time slot competition.  The TV critic Harvey Pack loved the show, and campaigned for it to be saved.  In the end it was canceled, but it retained many loyal fans.

It is not news to readers of this blog that workers, and especially working men, almost always look stupid, silly, fat, bumbling, poorly dressed, and unappealing on network television—no matter what era is under discussion. No one has argued this more forcefully than Pepi Leistyna, whose scathing documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, shows how cartoonish and buffoonish the representations of working-class TV characters have been, from riveter Chester A. Riley, bus driver Ralph Kramden, sewer worker Ed Norton, dock worker Archie Bunker, to nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson.

Dickens and Fenster fit the pattern. In the pilot episode, Fenster makes some carpentry errors that cause Dickens to run into a door and fall onto his backside. In an episode called “The Joke,” Dickens takes off his safety hat and two heavy items fall on his head. Fenster is also clumsy and hapless. He’s a professional carpenter, but somehow he can’t fix Mrs. Dickens’s garbage disposal or the magnet on her kitchen cupboards.

But the Class Dismissed critique overlooks the fact that many of these working-class shows, came from the slapstick or “burlesque” comedy tradition that has its roots in working-class culture. Burlesque comedy started in seedy strip joints in the 1920s as filler between the strip acts. It was often performed by a comedy team, a “straight man” and a “second banana,” who took turns ridiculing each other and/or the audience. Burlesque humor was full of sexual innuendo, malapropisms, insults, and loads of physical comedy.

When burlesque migrated to television in the 1950s, it continued the tradition of lampooning working-class characters.  Television comedies like Abbott and Costello, Amos n Andy, The Honeymooners, and The Phil Silvers Show featured stock lowbrow characters (gangsters, hoodlums, con-men, spiritualists, gypsies, corrupt landlords, intimidating bosses, pesky in-laws, and corrupt politicians), lowbrow activities (horse racing, boxing, card playing, counterfeiting, contests, insurance schemes, peddling phony medical cures and hypnotism), and lowbrow settings (bars, taverns, pool halls, fraternal lodges, soda shops, pizza joints, urban apartments, diners, and nightclubs). These shows were the polar opposite of those sweet suburban sitcoms where the conflicts were usually resolved when Ward Cleaver doled out a minor punishment to the “Beave.”

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster followed many of the conventions of lowbrow television comedy, but it also had some important differences that made the show interesting. For one thing, Fenster and Dickens dressed in a way that hinted at a subtle class difference between the two men. Arch Fenster always wore overalls loaded down with tools, while Dickens often wore a jaunty army jacket over a black turtleneck. Dickens was more uptight, and, hence, the straight man. He dressed and acted more “middle class.” Ironically, or, perhaps, pointedly, he was usually the one to buckle under pressure. When he was trying to get the job of foreman, he didn’t have the courage to ask his boss. Fenster had to do it for him. In a later episode, when Dickens was selected to read for a television commercial, he fainted, and Fenster had to take over for him, again. Most of the time, the “middle class” Dickens had to be rescued by the more “working class” Fenster, and, thus it was usually the “middle class” Dickens who was the biggest butt of the jokes.

The truth is that many television shows featuring working-class figures set them against some kind of authority—a boss, a landlord, or a friend with more power and prestige. The humor employed by I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and even today in the Farrelly brothers’ updated Three Stooges, has its roots in the American immigrant, turn-of-the-last-century working class. Peter Farrelly called the three stooges “working-class, blue collar, down-on-their-luck guys.” Slapstick humor is working-class humor. As Rob King has argued in his history of the Keystone Film Company, slapstick can reduce “authority to absurdity.”

Of course, in real life the working class today is getting walloped as never before in U.S. history, and it is anything but funny. Easing the pain of the cuts and bruises from the beating the working class is taking in our current culture will be more difficult, to be sure. But if you want to travel back in time to a moment of possibility when the working class could make fun of the middle class, if you want to laugh your tushie off like my eight year old son and I did when we were watching I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, order the three DVD set. These crazy carpenters and their critique of authority have offered me a few good belly laughs and some genuine relief from the depressing political and economic roller coaster that is our current moment.

Or, as Curly once said: “Is this work in competent hands?” “Coitainly—we’re all incompetent!”

Kathy M. Newman