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Writing Personally about Class in America

A photograph shows Nixon and Khrushchev standing on opposite sides of a microphone. They appear to be in heated debate.

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev debating at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959, part of what came to be known as the Kitchen Debate. Photograph by Thomas J. O’Halloran

I have spent most of my career as a historian writing in one way or another about how class and class conflict figure in the larger story of the United States’ evolution. So naturally I said yes when Yale University Press asked if I was interested in writing a book about why class mattered in America. In the weeks and months that followed, however, what had seemed to me a book that might write itself proved trickier. After all, there are so many ways to approach such a project. For me, at first, there were too many ways. I floundered trying to resolve key thematic, formal, and substantive questions, shuffling alternative ways.

Although I’ve written a fair amount about class in contemporary life, I decided that I would not try to pose as a social scientist, deciphering the codes of our class-inflected society, even though I do believe our public and private lives today are inscribed with such codes. Yet I subscribe, as we all do in the history profession, to the William Faulkner adage about the past infusing the present. So I resolved that although there would be a certain present-mindedness to my book, most of its pages would be about history.

That decision had consequences. Present-minded history writing can be a snare that subtly or not so subtly distorts the past. There’s that somewhat less well-known adage of Harold Pinter (borrowed from a British novel) about how the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. Watch out not to conflate the past with the present. This cautionary reminder led me to make a basic thematic choice.

Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion is built around an underlying theme: America has been engaged, if not uniquely then more emphatically than most other modern societies, in a life-long denial that class matters. There are moments in American history—like today—where this has been less true and many others where the creedal faith has been that the nation was either free of the class divisions that discolored the Old World or soon and inevitably would be. Stories of denial, central to the American narrative, might establish an important connection to our present condition without violating the integrity of those tales of bygone ages.

But what stories should I include? Perhaps the obvious choice was to discuss some of those memorable moments of class conflict that lit up the social landscape: the Haymarket Massacre, the Flint sit-down strike, the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the New Deal, the Populist upsurge, or so many others that might be selected from a long history of the many against the few, the masses against the classes, the 99-percent taking on the 1-percent. I have written about a fair number of these confrontations, their political and cultural origins and outcomes, as have a lot of other historians. These all make the case that class has mattered.

I was fishing for something else, however. The case for denial could best be made, I thought, by exploring precisely those iconic moments in national life that seem, on the surface, to be free or largely free of any tincture of class, when class didn’t matter, didn’t figure in any decisive way in shaping the country’s purposes and ideals, but did, as the subtitle of my book suggests, contribute to its delusions. The six chapters of Class Matters are essays about those “moments” or what might be better described as cornerstones of the American mythos: the first settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown, the battle over the adoption of the Constitution, the social and political origins of the Statue of Liberty, the hero-worshipping of the cowboy, the apotheosis of a class-free America in the Cold War “kitchen debate,” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I might have chosen others, but I think most would agree that these six live in popular memory as testaments to a certain kind of American utopian vision where class went to die.

Arguing that class plays some significant role in these six cultural landmarks won’t be news to historians, especially to those working on any of these specific subjects. Indeed, much of what I write about in my six chapters is based on what other historians have published (although, of course, their purposes were different than mine). But I think it will be news to more general readers and perhaps scholars not so well versed in these matters and their students. Whether it is or isn’t new to readers, I have tried in writing about these “iconic six,” if you will, to be clear that my aim is not to write an exposé, to transform these stories so utterly that they become defined by class and class conflict. That would distort their meaning, riddle the text with anachronisms, and turn history writing into some kind of programmatic endeavor, offering up a tendentious present-mindedness with a vengeance. Rather I’ve attempted only to rescue and refresh the class dimensions of these tales, and to thereby shed some light on how and why the American saga has been, among other things, one of denial.

If class is embedded, often undetected, in the marrow of the national experience, then it should show up in the everyday lives of ordinary people as well. I am an ordinary person and I show up in my own book, in every chapter, but not at too great length or too obtrusively, I hope. This was an odd decision for which I may one day pay the consequences. I cannot claim that I came up with the idea of something so rash on my own. The editors at Yale were the first to suggest this approach, alluding to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. At first, I laughed and dismissed the idea out of hand. Like most historians, I suspect, the idea of inserting something about oneself into an otherwise disinterested depiction of the past, seemed weird to me.

It still does. Yet digressing from the historical record to explore how class might have influenced my own life began to appeal to me. Maybe this could function as a passway between the global aspirations inherent in a book about why class matters and that homelier ground-level of the personal, or the personal as political, where lineaments of class first come together. On the one hand, I was a kid in mid-century, white, middle-class, suburban America whose life conformed, more or less, to the conformist momentum of that era. When I grew up, however, I spent a good deal of time as a political activist. And there is no question in my mind that my subsequent life as a historian has been inflected by the concerns—the class divisions in America prominent among them—that once compelled me into the streets. So it is that I make an appearance in each of the six chapters. I’ll focus on two here.

Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev traded boasts about who would bury whom at a world’s fair in Moscow in 1959. Nixon used a high-tech kitchen in a model ranch house at the American exhibit to exemplify the new age of American abundance which presumably had done away with class hierarchies in the New World. I grew up in one of those kitchens. But even at an early age I sensed the place I was living was not quite like what the vice president was describing; my family’s social standing was precarious, and the town’s racial underground was disquieting. Some more detail here might illuminate the connection between my own childhood and the tidal forces of history.

While our community was an affluent one, we were not quite rich enough to mimic the lifestyles of our friends and neighbors. My parents’ commitment to hang on meant that eventually we moved into more modest housing. I was aware, of course, that this was happening. My friends all went away to summer camps. I stayed home and played in the Police Athletic League. When I went to play at friends’ houses, it was fairly common that a live-in maid/domestic worker loosely monitored what we were up to. Their parents belonged to private swim and tennis clubs. I played at public courts and swam at the public pool. And so on. This is hardly a tale to sob over. Nonetheless, it alerted me that suburbia, my suburb anyway, was not so socially seamless as the vice president would have it.

Racial awakening arrived more rudely. Directly across the street from my spacious backyard (“backyard” hardly captures its expanse and arboretum-like variety) was a road called Lee Avenue. Never was a street more improbably or ironically named. Lee Avenue was not an avenue or even a plain road: it was a dirt lane that turned into dust or mud depending on the weather. It wasn’t even flat, but rutted and rock-strewn, dotted with hardy weeds that eked out a life from the sandy soil. Black people lived on that unappealing landscape. They lived in shacks, some with rickety front porches, doors half off their hinges, paint peeling like bark on a tree, perched precariously on a short rise above the “avenue” so they wouldn’t get washed away when rainwater coursed down the road. Sometimes garbage floated by. Inside the homes were dingy and ill lit. I became more familiar with these dreary interiors later when I was old enough to become a newspaper delivery boy and came by weekly to collect. But I knew what the insides were like much earlier than that because I made friends with a boy who lived there. We were buddies, but I also sensed we were different from each other. And I don’t just mean because he was black, but also because he was so damn poor.

Lee Avenue was one of several byways sprinkled here and there throughout what I like to think of as my Gatsbyville where the servant class of that bygone era was consigned. Precincts like that were customary enough in the upper-middle-class world where I grew up. Not so in the “new world” of Nixonland where classes and castes of all kinds went to die.

I write about that and how a bit later the enormous, if subtly deployed, pressures to buy into the Nixonian version of a trouble-free American utopia produced in me the opposite reaction: a comic if also mean-spirited hijacking of a class at Barnard College. Perhaps the greatest pleasure my disaffected friends and I derived from this endeavor was the collective writing of lectures for Professor Billshot (our name for the one of us chosen to play the role of the professor) during the days and nights leading up to the next class. These might have been written by “Professor” Irwin Corey, a hilarious comic at the time known as the “world’s foremost authority,” whose specialty was a kind of professorial buffoonery, a profundity consisting of torrential downpour of rainforest-dense nonsense. The stunt was designed as a poke in the eye to the notion of “mass society,” to the whole opaque fabric of the suburban consensus, to the closing of the political and social horizon, to the infantilizing and psychologizing of social malfunction. You could think of this as my pre-political coming-out party. Alas, the registrar went hunting for the real professor’s missing class. We were found out, but forewarned by a co-conspirator in the English department in time to make our getaway.

However, I had embraced something more subversive of Nixon’s utopian denial a year earlier.

Serving as a volunteer in Mississippi during the now legendary Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 was without question the most profound political experience of my life. A year earlier Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered what many believe to be the most stirring oration in American public life, second only perhaps to the Gettysburg Address. This last story in Class Matters is about the interweaving and breaking apart of movements for class and racial liberation. Telling a bit about my own motivations for volunteering and about my subsequent encounters with the realities of American apartheid may shed some further light on that complex relationship.

Years ago I was interviewed by an undergraduate doing a senior thesis about the Freedom Summer volunteers. Thanks to her research, I have a copy of my application to join the campaign. The essay that accompanied the application is a study in youthful moral earnestness, white guilt, and militant determination to end Jim Crow. I imagine it was much like what others were writing. But it also expressed another commitment or objective: to unite white and black workers against racism and economic exploitation, or Lee Avenue translated into the idiom of what I conceived to be the country’s political dilemma.

That idiom was not foreign to King’s speech or to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Nor was it foreign to my own experiences in Columbus and Starkville, Mississippi, that summer of ’64. The systemic harassment, jailings, beatings, shootings, and all-around atmosphere of intimidation—terror really—that we have all read about were part of my daily life, the lives of the other one thousand volunteers that summer, and, of course, the lives of generations of African Americans. So too was the abject poverty of those we were trying to register (and largely prevented from registering) to vote. In Starkville’s poorest neighborhoods people were still living in slavery-era shanties. Stunning in the face of all this was the extraordinary capacity and courage to resist, to risk life and limb and livelihood.

A through line of my work as a historian was born in this moment: Why do people put up with the continual oppression and exploitation that, after all, constitutes the norm of everyday life for multitudes? But on the other hand, why, given all that is apt to be lost, the heavy odds against success, the armature of state and extralegal prohibition, and the way all that insidiously worms into the character structure of ordinary people, do those same people throw off that deadening weight and rebel?

I continue to search for the answer. But my experience in Mississippi reinforced what had affronted me on Lee Avenue. Winning the franchise was vital in ways too obvious to enumerate. But unless the economic roots of that bottomless inequality were addressed, both in the South and up North, the American dilemma, the dilemma of American capitalism, would persist. This was still a living if fading feature of the March and the Speech. Soon enough, however, what had once been the self-evident link between racial and class oppression during the Great Depression and into the immediate post-war era would die away. My final chapter explores the reasons for that fateful separation.

Will all this meandering into my personal life in fact enrich or undermine the intellectual purposes of my book? That’s a question I can’t answer. I respect and do my best to honor the cannons of historical scholarship. Scholarship without a point of view, however, is illusory for reasons that have been well-rehearsed in the literatures about methodologies. Class Matters is not an argument that class is all that matters. It would be as ludicrous to maintain that about my own life, much less about the metabolism of American society. That metabolism, however, has in my view functioned to conceal what needs more exposure. And my personal experiences have helped alert me to that.

Inserting my life into the pages of Class Matters may not invent a genre (it may foreclose one instead). I can only hope that those put off by the effort will still find the other pages worth reading.

Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor. In addition to Class Matters, he is the author most recently of The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (2015) and The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (2016). He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.