As chronic unemployment grows and many who once seemed solidly middle-class are losing their economic footholds, the working class is getting larger and more frustrated. Both size and perspective make the working class more important than ever before.
So perhaps more than ever, Americans across the class spectrum have good reason to understand working-class culture and experience. As recent columns about film and television stories about working-class people make clear, popular culture too often relies on familiar narratives that blame poor and working-class people for the hardships in their lives. If we want to understand working-class culture, we need better stories – stories that reflect the complex realities of working-class life.
Working-class literature tells those stories. From poems about being a waitress to novels about the long-term social effects of deindustrialization to memoirs about growing up in working-class families, literary texts provide some of the most affecting and inspiring views of working-class life. Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship, family dysfunction, or limited options, working-class literature reminds us of the strengths of working-class culture: humor, integrity, hard work, and strong interpersonal connections, among others things.
Scholars of working-class literature are uncovering new and forgotten books and exploring the common qualities that define working-class literature as a genre. While our colleagues who study women’s literature and ethnic literature have been analyzing the literature of cultural groups for decades, working-class literary studies is just getting started. While a few studies of 1930s proletarian novels appeared in the 1960s, the study of working-class literature really begins with Paul Lauter’s 1982 article on working-class women’s writing. As with these other categories, working-class literary studies gained momentum through anthologies, most notably the several books edited by Janet Zandy in the 1990s, including Calling Home and Liberating Memory. The first comprehensive anthology of American working-class literature appeared just a few years ago (also by Zandy, with co-editor Nick Coles). Their work is defining the boundaries of the field.
At the same time, those boundaries are being expanded because of concerns about essentialism and the complexity of cultural identity. Many of those involved in working-class studies have also worked in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and LGBT studies, so we know very well the problems of claiming that only people who have a specific kind of experience have the authority to write about or critique literature about that experience. We saw how the shift from women’s literature to feminist literary criticism created new ways of studying literary representations of gender and sexuality. Having seen the productive directions fostered by that shift, working-class literary scholars resist establishing narrow definitions. Instead, we want working-class literary studies to provide similar critical openings.
Of course, a writer’s own experience and perspective matter, but we recognize the significance of representations of working-class culture by writers from more elite backgrounds. Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills may be the most commonly-studied example. Working-class literary scholars have long debated how to interpret her story of mid-nineteenth-century immigrant iron workers, but her intention of making working-class life visible and evoking empathy for workers is clear, even to those who note that the story is limited by its white, middle-class woman’s point of view. Regardless of whether we choose to label Life in the Iron Mills as “working-class literature,” it appears in several anthologies and is widely taught and analyzed. It matters, regardless of its author’s class position.
To avoid essentialism, working-class literary scholars have focused on describing the qualities of working-class literary texts, rather than policing boundaries that define who has the authority to write them. Janet Zandy, Paul Lauter, Renny Christopher and Carolyn Whitson, and William DeGenaro, among others, have identified qualities that make texts working class: a focus on work, accurate representation of the material and social conditions of working-class life, validation of working-class culture, resistance to existing power structures, rejection or critique of the standard middle-class narrative of upward mobility, and so on. Even as they focus on describing the qualities of working-class literature, these scholars have provided us with ideas around which we can frame critical questions about all kinds of literature.
The other complicating issue in working-class literary studies is intersectionality – the recognition that writers, readers, and characters all have multiple identities. We have at least one race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, and our experiences and points of view are shaped by all of those categories, not just one. Working-class literature, too, reflects the intersections among these categories, not just ideas about class. Consider some of the books widely viewed as “working-class classics”: Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio, Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, or Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Each of these novels has been claimed by other areas of cultural studies – women’s literature, ethnic literature, LGBT literature. Yet each also represents working-class culture, and viewing them through a working-class lens can reveal important insights. It’s become commonplace for scholars to acknowledge and wrestle with the multiple cultural categories that play out in literary texts. Indeed, to define any text as belonging only to one category seems old-fashioned and naïve. This, too, is one of the lessons working-class studies has gained from other cultural studies. We know the dangers of assuming that everyone who belongs to any group is the same. Of course the working class is diverse. But working-class literary studies doesn’t simply acknowledge that working-class writers have multiple cultural identities. It isn’t just that, as Zandy writes, “working-class literature is not white writing.”
Rather, working-class literary studies provides a tool for considering class elements in texts that have been read primarily as representations of race or gender. Working-class literary scholars like Michelle Tokarczyk and Michele Fazio, among others, are re-examining texts that have become part of the canons of women’s and ethnic literature, raising new questions about how class plays out in the work of writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie.
Working-class literary studies is just getting started. In two decades, the field has moved from excavating the long-buried texts of worker writers from the last three centuries to developing an ever-more complex understanding of the value of class as a critical tool for interpreting literature of all kinds.
Why does all of this matter to anyone except literary scholars? Because literature gives us stories about working-class life as seen by working-class people. Because working-class literary studies helps us understand how to think critically about representations of the working class, no matter who created them. Because stories matter. Because class matters.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies