Why Working-Class Literature Matters

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

The Myth of the Benevolent Boss

Following this year’s Superbowl, viewers who stayed tuned to CBS were treated to the premiere of the network’s new series, Undercover Boss, in which COO of Waste Management Corp., Larry O’Donnell, dons coveralls to go undercover in his own corporation.

The premise of the show according to CBS is that

Each week a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their company. While working alongside their employees, they will see the effects their decisions have on others, where the problems lie within their organization and get an up-close look at both the good and the bad while discovering the unsung heroes who make their company run… O’Donnell’s mission is to garner an up-close look at his company and workforce to see how and where improvements can be made from both an operational and morale standpoint.

In the premier episode, O’Donnell, alias “Randy,” cleans toilets, picks up trash and sorts recyclables alongside his workers, and in so doing he comes to realize that… wait for it…manual labor is hard! Randy is also surprised to learn that, unbelievably, when trash collectors are followed by supervisors in conspicuous white pick-ups, they feel as though they are being spied on and that when his company eliminates positions, the work load is shifted onto remaining employees who receive no additional compensation for their extra labor.

In the blogosphere the show has already attracted much attention, mostly negative, and largely deserved.   The New York Post reported that unlike a “reality” show, for which participants are paid, the network has labeled the show both a “docu-narrative” and a “formatted documentary,” which CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler tells Josef Adalian “…hits all of the same visceral high points of our scripted shows. It’s emotional, it’s funny, it’s compelling, it’s full of surprises…”

And it’s also a bargain for the network because as “documentary” CBS is not bound to pay any of the participants as it would with scripted or “reality” shows. Responding to TV Squad’s reports of the uncompensated appearances, a CBS spokesman said, “No one in the company is being paid for participation in Undercover Boss. Neither the employees, the executives, nor the companies receive compensation for participating in the show.” The blog reports that the workers in the program signed releases to be in a documentary film, which means it is not covered by the television actors’ union, thus eliding the requirement for minimum payments for TV appearances.

As incredible as the irony of a “docu-narrative” that chronicles the plight of workers without paying them might be, equally disconcerting is the meta-narrative that drives the series, described by Tassler as “aspirational…it’s wish fulfillment and it’s a new form (of reality).”

Randy/Larry rides along with a female trash collector.  When he learns that under the watchful eye of the aforementioned supervisor surveillance truck, she is reduced to urinating into a tin can rather than compromising productivity by taking a bathroom break, he appears visibly shaken., Undercover Boss suggests that O’Donnell’s experience will lead to better policies, as O’Donnell tells NPR’s Linda Holmes:

I was out working a residential route, and I then found out that one of the policies that I had put in place was actually causing a lot of frustration out there in the field. So we’re working right now on improving our communication and our coaching between the supervisors and the drivers.

When pressed by Holmes to reveal “tangible” changes in corporate policy, O’Donnell responds with non-specific corpo-speak about motivational videos and better communication instead of actual policy shifts.  The white truck isn’t going away anytime soon, probably because it is part of a strategy to save the company more than $100 million and increase divided to stockholders, as outlined in the company’s most recent annual report.The episode focuses on five “unsung heroes”—the trash collector, a cancer-survivor field office worker performing three jobs (due to corporate streamlining of positions also noted in the annual report) to support her family and hang on to her home, a dialysis patient who blows O’Donnell away with his positive attitude, a plant worker who must race back from lunch to avoid what appears to be an illegal pay docking policy, and a toilet scrubber who makes his job “fun.” While the first two voice complaints about corporate policies, all perform their jobs with capability and aplomb, and each (save the trash collector) is tangibly rewarded: the field office worker is promoted to a salary position, while the dialysis patient and the toilet scrubber are given temp gigs as in-house motivational speakers.  Meanwhile, the middle manager responsible for enforcing the time clock policy is roundly taken to task by O’Donnell, although O’Donnell later tells NPR the whole issue was a “miscommunication.”

Absent from the narrative is union representation, which is perhaps not surprising given Waste Management’s troubled history with the Teamsters that culminated with a lockout of workers in 2007 and has resulted in at least one settlement with the union over its practices toward organized labor.

Instead, even as the show glorifies the unsung worker, it also perpetuates the myththat all workers need to improve their lots is a positive attitude and a benevolent COO, a mythology that ignores some of the stark realities of corporate culture.

Media promote that mythology, perhaps unwittingly, through a recession narrative  that valorizes workers’ willingness to sufferithe necessary indignities of work life because they are, and should be, grateful just to have a job during the economic downturn.. Such stories tend to ignore the contradictions of the narrative in favor of the media friendly package.The narrative says that companies are struggling, but a recent Sagework analytics study shows that waste collection is among the industries experiencing the largest sales growth over the last twelve months.

At the same time, overall worker productivity rose 7.2 percent, according to the most recent Labor Department statistics, as employers wring more labor from existing workers and, in many cases, engage policies that CNN’s Peter Walker notes “would have been seen as too radical, or too likely to antagonize unions, before the crisis.” , Indeed, pri.org charts a rise in wage and worker’s rights violations during the same period.

The goal of the CBS program is, in itself, laudable: to connect the disparate dots between top-level policy and the daily lives of workers. But by perpetuating the “feel-good” narrative over the more complex contingencies of the real story of workers and bosses in a tough economy, the show engages in nothing short of myth-making, which as John Drakakis notes, is born of an impulse to produce

…a series of essentialist meanings which function to transform a sequence of historical and political events into a series of permanent, one might say almost literary truths, which can when deployed by the powerful constituencies, deflect resistance or challenge by framing the historically contingent as a ‘tragic’ necessity…

While Drakakis is referring specifically to instances in which pundits evoke literary frames for politically complex realities, his thoughts are relevant for cultural productions like Undercover Boss, that in mythologizing the corporate narrative, reduce complexities to what Roland Barthes has called the “depoliticized speech” of myth. The idea that bosses value their workers and care about their needs enough to change company policies is, sadly, more a myth than a reality.  It reinforces another problematic myth: that labor unions aren’t  necessary.  If workers do their jobs the best they can, then the boss will respond to their needs.

Perhaps CBS is banking on the appeal of these myths in producing Undercover Boss, but skeptical viewers will recognize the truth in the smirks of O’Donnell’s management team when he explains that the company’s policies make workers unhappy.  And the strategies outlined in Waste Management’s annual report remind us that profit always matters more than people.  So much for the myth of benevolent management.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

Oscar at Work

No one was surprised to see Avatar and Up in the Air nominated for Oscars.    What is surprising, perhaps, is that these two films offer unusually direct commentaries on the current political economy.

Avatar, at first glance, is a classic tale of colonial invasion.  A white hero, a Marine named Jake Sully (one-time bricklayer, the Australian actor Sam Worthington) who lost the use of his legs in combat, agrees to be part of a “Blackwater” type military operation on the planet Pandora.  Pandora, a place of fantastical, tropical beauty, is peopled by a race of gorgeous ten foot blue human-like aliens with long braids, called the Na’vi.  A rapacious military operation is destroying their planet in pursuit of a priceless rock called “unobtainium.”

Sully joins the science mission on Pandora, which allows him to inhabit an avatar body and live among the Na’vi people.  A beautiful young princess, Neytiri (African American actress, Zoey Saldana), teaches Sully to hunt, speak, and ride giant dragons.  They fall in love, and the film climaxes in an epic battle between the literally tree-hugging Navi people and the metal-bound, corporate thugs who want to destroy them for profit.

Is Avatar a bizarro mashup of all things politically correct? Avatar has riled up conservatives across the globe.  The  Chinese government recently halted the showing of the 2D version of Avatar, where popular Chinese bloggers pointed out the connection between the displacement of the Na’vi by humans and the displacement of the Chinese people by the Chinese government and real estate developers.

The Weekly Standard attacked the film for “its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe ….its hatred of the military….and the notion that to be human is just way uncool.”  The Vatican slammed the film for promoting the worship of nature (as opposed to God).

But beneath the colonial exploitation and the eco-worship, however, lies Cameron’s critique of the American government’s failure to provide adequate healthcare for veterans.  Jake Sully, who is paralyzed from the waist down after a military tour of duty in Venezuela, joins the Pandora mission in large part because he wants a new pair of legs.  Back on earth doctors have the technology to make him walk again, but Sully can’t afford the procedure.  Sully’s mission commander promises him that if he betrays the Na’vi people and helps the mission get the unobtainium that he finally get his legs.

At the end of the day Avatar is not particularly radical, but it is surprisingly political for a blockbuster of such magnitude. Cameron makes a broad  plea for economic as well as ecological justice.  In addition, with the crudely drawn but still sympathetic Jake Sully, Cameron hints that our recent wars in the Middle East are class wars, in which working-class soldiers trade their limbs, and, sometimes, their lives, for financial security.  It hardly seems fair—not in 2026, and not now.

Up in the Air is Jason Reitman’s recessionary romantic comedy about a people who spend a lot of time breathing in the recycled air on jumbo jets. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is more at home in first class at 30,000 feet than he is in his barren apartment in Oklahoma.  Bingham works for a company that fires people for a living.  He spends a good portion of the film sitting across from nicely dressed, white-collar workers, telling them to see their layoff as a chance to finally pursue their dreams.  It’s a hollow message, but Bingham insists that if people have to be fired, he might as well do it with dignity.

Bingham also flirts with dignity, as he pursues Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman who similarly spends her life on the road.  Bingham also develops a mentor relationship with a young co-worker, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick).  A know-it-all fresh out of Cornell’s business school, Keener wants to turn Bingham’s job into a virtual one.  She thinks that people can be fired just as easily with a video conferencing system.  Bingham sees his air born freedom under attack, and he takes her up in the air to show her the importance of firing people face to face.

And here’s where the movie made me cry—for real.  When Bingham and Keener sit across the table from about-to-be-laid-off workers, the human suffering of the recessionary economy comes to the surface.  Reitman used real-life laid-off workers to play these roles; he put classified ads in newspapers in St. Louis and Detroit and invited recently laid off workers to participate in a documentary.  He asked them to “re-enact” their firings, and he selected some of them to act in the film.  Their reward?  About $800 (the daily minimum for an actor set by the Screen Actors Guild) and the privilege of getting fired by George Clooney.

Cozy Bailey, a laid-off Styrofoam technician from Missouri, said that it “sucks to get fired, it doesn’t matter by who.”  But she also confessed that the whole experience was “cathartic.”  Another laid-off worker in the film, Kevin Pilla, was pleased that he was able to say the sorts of things on camera that he hadn’t thought to say in the moment because he was in “such shock.”

For Reitman, talking to these workers was an education. “The astonishing thing is,” Reitman said, “if you had asked me before I made this film, ‘What’s the hardest part about being fired?’ I would have probably said the loss of income…. But what I came to realize, at least when it came to the people, and I talked to a lot of people, it was the loss of purpose. The reason to get out of bed in the morning. The thing they would say that scared me the most was ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’”
Reitman has come under fire for what some see as cynical choice to use real laid-off workers.  Dana Stevens at Slate magazine complains that “there’s something instrumentalizing about the way these interviews are shoehorned in for dramatic effect, especially when Reitman seamlessly cuts from the faces of out-of-work Americans to the familiar comic mugs of J.K. Simmons or Zach Galifianakis, playing out-of-work fictional characters.” Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth makes a similar charge, arguing that these “sequences never accrue a sense of purpose beyond mere lip service to social trends.”

Reitman can fairly be accused of mixing high and low, reality with slick unreality, and economic heartbreak with romantic fairy tale.  But the film ultimately sides with the laid-off workers and not with the company that has made a business out of routinizing termination. Up in the Air is about the value of human connection and the ways in which our closest relationships give us purpose.  The simple truth that the workplace can become a legitimate source for those relationships is not lost on the people losing their jobs, or on the audience.

We’ve been hearing a lot of numbers talk about the recession, but relatively little narrative.  The nightly news might focus on an individual family here or there or show some footage of foreclosed homes with yellow tape around them, but where do we go for the real stories?  We certainly wouldn’t expect to find some of the most moving and persuasive tales about the recession in Hollywood, but anyone who can afford to plunk down $10.00 to see Avatar or Up in the Air might, indeed, get more of an economic education that they were bargaining for.  Neither of these movies will encourage anyone to organize a rally or go on strike, but if it is becoming a “social trend” in Hollywood to put a human face on this devastating economy, I’m all for it.  And it seems that Oscar is, too.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

Beyond Precious: Real Change for the Urban Poor

Last month, I received an email inviting me to vote for films nominated to receive an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) image award. The email stated the film Precious had been nominated for a NAACP image award in several categories, including best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, and best director. “Image, advancement of a people; advancement, image; image, advancement,” I thought.

Like many, I have questions about the film.  Does Precious further the advancement of “colored” people–or better yet—the advancement of all people, regardless of color? Or does the film merely shock viewers, while leaving existing social, economic, and political arrangements unquestioned, unchallenged, and thus intact? What images of a past, present, or future does the film present that might inspire people to work for social changes that will advance not just “colored” people,” not just poor people, but all of us?

Through their endorsement of the film, the film’s producers—billionaire talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and multi-millionaire actor, writer, producer Tyler Perry—imply that the film enlightens and thus uplifts many.  But I am not fully convinced of this. Indeed, I am troubled by many of the images projected in the film:

  • Images of Precious (a 16 –year- old girl living in poverty-stricken Harlem in the 1980s) being brutally attacked by her mother, repeatedly raped by her father, and impregnated twice by him
  • Images of Precious giving birth to her daughter, who is actually her half-sister, on her mother’s apartment floor— a child whom Precious calls “Mongo,” which is short for Mongoloid or someone with Downs’ Syndrome
  • The image of Precious stealing and then eating a bucket of chicken all at one time, without sufficient exploration of  how feelings of desperation and deprivation generated by poverty and others’ indifference to its effects would drive some people to gorge food to the point of making themselves sick
  • Precious’s deferred dreams seem to “just sag like a heavy load,” as Langston Hughes wrote,   even as she receives an “A-” in English when she can barely recite the alphabet – a story line that gestures toward but doesn’t fully explore how the school has arguably perpetuated Precious’s illiteracy.

Most troubling for me is the film’s underlying message of “individualism,” which is conveyed through the omission of certain historical events, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in poor urban communities in the 1970 s and 1980s. How could a film covering life in poverty- stricken Harlem in the 1980s fail to cover such things? The loss of manufacturing jobs under de-industrialization had a devastating effect on employment, family structure, neighborhood resources, and neighborhood cohesion within these communities, as William Julius Wilson has documented so well. Without this historical information, viewers are left with only Precious’s individual characteristics to focus on —her abuse, illiteracy, obesity, family dysfunction, self-loathing, self-isolation, and personal blame and guilt. These conditions, devastating as they are, reflect social problems, not just personal ones.

My fear is that such intense individualism will encourage the idea that the best thing others can do to help  people like Precious is to leave them alone to resolve their personal problems on their own. Such beliefs uphold the status quo and overlook systemic factors that continue to limit the life chances of the urban poor. Consider how our understanding of Precious’s story would be different if the film acknowledged these systemic factors:

  • The loss of supermarkets, which has been linked to the urban poor’s declining health
  • Transportation constraints that make it difficult for the urban poor to travel to and from school, the doctor’s office, and to jobs located in suburban or rural areas.

To move beyond the shock and discomfort that many said they felt when viewing Precious, to feel empowered and provide empowerment, we must eliminate these and other systemic constraints within America’s poor urban communities.  And then, in subsequent years, we may collectively receive an award for best performance, and maybe one for best image. But awards that come at the expense of the dignity and advancement of America’s urban poor do not represent a fair or ethical trade and should be seen as what they are: empty platitudes.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies