As interesting and insightful as American Prospect reviewer Sarah Igo makes it seem, I am not going to read Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer.
According to Igo, Fischer is a “master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women . . . to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present.” And, she says, the book displays “sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.” As I will explain, the timing is perfect for such an effort. And even if many of the “broad generalizations” turn out to be too broad, or even flat-out wrong, they should be usefully provocative for anybody who is trying to understand current American culture and who believes, as I do, that past is always prologue.
But Igo critically (if too forgivingly) reveals a key premise of Fischer’s “synthesis” that makes me dismiss this social history out of hand. Fischer straightforwardly equates “American character and culture” with “middle-class culture” and makes no apology for doing so because, he says, “the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society.”
I’ve seen this before. In fact, it is still a widely accepted academic convention that, as the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life premised in the mid-1980s, if you understand the American middle class you understand Americans in general because “the middle class . . . has so dominated our culture that neither a genuinely upper-class nor a genuinely working-class culture has fully appeared.” Books like American Manhood and American Cool make similar claims, often admitting a certain narrowness in their prefaces, but then proceeding recklessly to treat their version of middle-class culture as synonymous with the distinctively “American.” Peter Stearns, for example, not only admits a middle-class narrowness in his introduction to American Cool, he further lets the cat out of the bag by granting that “[l]ike many studies of the middle class, it is biased toward evidence from Protestants in the North and West.”
I can see why publishers would not want more descriptive titles using unwieldy terms like American Middle-Class Manhood in the North and West, but this is more than a matter of deceptive marketing. The actual practice of excluding working-class culture from the discussion is what Benjamin DeMott has called “middle-class imperialism,” which is less about actual economic and political domination than it is about middle-class scholars simply mistaking a part (their part, our part) for the whole, thereby maintaining their/our cultural domination. The professional middle class in America is culturally dominant, in my view, even though we are economically subordinate to a ruling class and somewhat less politically subordinate but in a more complicated way.
Though I’m open to debate, I’m basically okay with the cultural predominance of the professional middle class. If we have to choose among cultures, I’d choose – indeed, I have chosen – the middle-class one. But middle-class imperialism that mistakes our part for the whole of American culture is the same kind of illusion as James Baldwin pointed to in the 1960s when he said, “If I’m not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is.” If working-class culture is not simply a discount version of middle-class culture, like hand-me-down clothes; if it has its own internal logic, constellation of values, and distinct history, as well as its own internal contradictions; if working-class culture influences middle-class culture as well as being influenced by it – then middle-class Americans misunderstand ourselves, as well as the larger society, when we mistake our part for the whole.
The concept of a “dominant culture” within a society presumes that there are other cultures different from the dominant one – Protestants in Italy, for example, or Catholics in England, Kurds in Iraq, or new and recent immigrants in all countries. You cannot understand a dominant culture by excluding reference to the ones it dominates, how and why it predominates, and how it influences other cultures even if you think they have no influence on it. What’s more, wouldn’t it be important in understanding middle-class culture to know what it is in the middle of – traditionally, between capital and labor, between a ruling and a working class? Isn’t this middleness fundamental to its character and culture?
The standard scholarly convention does not dispute these, or any other, notions of social structure. It just assumes that the other classes ain’t got no (genuine) culture that isn’t fundamentally defined by the middle class. I don’t know enough about the ruling class to say how “genuine” its culture is, but if Working-Class Studies has done nothing else, it has shown that there is a genuine working-class culture that is very different from the middle-class one. And as Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, Betsy Leondar-Wright and numerous others have argued, this culture has many valuable aspects that compare favorably to middle-class character and culture, as well as some that don’t. Most of us in the field, whether in our family lives, as teachers, culture workers or activists, have experienced the kinds of culture clashes that would be impossible if there were only one genuine “American” culture.
Made in America is an attempt to restore the kind of “consensus” view of American history that finds unity in diversity at the very core of our national character. The civil rights, women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s destroyed this view, aided in academia by African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, the New Labor History, and others who insisted that attention be paid to those who had been excluded from the official understanding of our world. This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could. That’s why I was looking forward to this book when I first heard about it. Though it is unfair to criticize a book I have not read, I know this isn’t the book I was looking for because you cannot find unity in diversity if you start out by eliminating most of the diversity – namely the majority of actually existing Americans who are not middle class.
Jack Metzgar. Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies