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I've been trying to tease out the kinds of snobbery and class consciousness working in books like Sons and Lovers, Howards End, and Brighton Rock (and thinking about ways in which the different levels of bourgeoisie are depicted in Joyce and whether those stand against or with the visions of class in these other books) -- there are resonances among them, but the class distinctions that matter vary from case to case.
There is a common interest in the class that falls at the lower, scrabbling rank of gentility, or the upper, still scrabbling, rank of what was once the peasantry. The best name for it is perhaps the clerkly class, or a subset of it -- which abuts both the cultured classes and the true working classes, or at least the violent, sensual fantasy of them to be found in Lawrence or the inarticulate and frowsy version of them to be found in Forster, a variation that raises its head again, in combination with a vague fantasy that this inarticulateness has an earthy kind of glory when it is taken to its furthest extention, particularly in a country setting, in C. S. Lewis' social novels of science fiction.
The members of this class aspire -- sometimes tragically, sometimes pathetically, sometimes repellantly -- to culture, and fail to attain it. They may read the tabloid newspapers or sentimental cheap novels. They may even read Ruskin or some other author of value, but never, somehow, in quite the right way. They may fail to understand it, or fail to distinguish it from the worst Robert Lewis Stevenson, or, more subtly and perhaps more damningly, cling to it too tenaciously, mistaking bookishness for literariness. Their manners are a strained burlesque of the natural mores that operate among their betters. They may spend too much money on clothes. (William's fiancee in Sons and Lovers is an interesting example of a kind of class aspiration that operates alongside but orthagonally to the clerkly aspiration for intellectualism: she dresses and speaks and behaves in a way all the Morels recognize as inaccessibly fancy, but cannot read a word.) They may be superstitious, like Greene's Ida -- and how different, and how much less respect-worthy, that superstition is than whatever Margaret Schlegel is celebrating when she tells Mrs. Wilcox that she loves superstition and all kinds of folklore. They admire clothes and gestures that they think are high-class and which we as readers are meant to recognize are no such thing. Their eye for quality is undependable and cracked.
Okay, then -- but what is the class locus of this condescending, or sympathetic, or self-indicting, vantage? And how does the poor but college-educated schoolmaster Stephen Dedalus, who has the additional identity complication, of course, of being Irish, or the real-life scholarship boy D.H. Lawrence fit into it? Margaret Schlegel thinks entrée into this cozy group can be best remedied by an infusion of cash. Only in the absence of financial anxiety, she thinks, can a true culture grow. But then, clearly, money alone is not enough to place one in the ranks of the "intellectual" class that John Carey groups together in The Intellectuals and the Masses. The upper classes and upper eschalons of the middle classes are often in these novels portrayed as hard, cruel, indifferent to the arts, insensitive to nuance -- in these ways perhaps more aligned with the threatening masses than with the authorial and presumptive readerly intellectual.
Part of the issue is that membership is only part a matter of social class, itself imperfectly congruent to, though strongly correlated with, economic status, and as much a matter of belonging to a sort of spiritual elite -- the proportions of the two varying more or less widely depending on who you ask. The other difficulty is that the kind of class that we are talking about here does not quite fit neatly into the hierarchy of class in which low shades through the middle into the upper branches. For the best sense of the parameters of this group, I think it's useful to look at Paul Fussell's hysterical and squirm-inducing 1983 book Class. Though this study purports to provide a synchronic survey of the American class system at the time of its writing, it also provides a vision of a kind of intellectual pseudo-class that wants to sit off to the side of -- and yet is quite dependent upon -- the basic hierarchical ranks. What it inadvertantly, and most vividly, presents is a portrait of class anxiety and pan-economic snobbery in that group. The basic hierarchy Fussell sees at work in late twentieth century America is as follows:
Top Out of Sight, who are so wealthy that they can afford to remove themselves entirely from the public eye;
Upper Class, the millionaires, usually with inherited money, who do not need to work;
Upper Middle, who are the wealthy professionals, like surgeons;
Middle Class, who form the great American majority, or its vision of itself;
High Proletarian (or "prole"), mainly skilled manual laborers, who may make more money than many in the middle class;
Middle Prole, the middlingly skilled manual laborer like waitresses and house painters;
Low Prole, the unskilled workers of a lower level;
Destitute, the working and non-working truly poor;
and Bottom Out of Sight, the street people and other deeply destitute people who are largely invisible, with no voice, influence or voter impact.
Fussell spends the entire book lovingly cataloguing the characteristically horrible habits and affectations of each class, until any reader is surely ready to leap out of his or her own skin with anxious self-loathing. No matter what class or blend of classes you suspect you ally yourself with, you are sure to be a nasty creature, both snotty and craven, full of appalling tics and quirks. And then, finally, at the end, he offers a (highly self- and reader-indulgent) reprieve: you might just be a member of "Category X"!
What about us, indeed? What class are we in, and what do we think about our entrapment there? A useful exercise is to ask of [Kingsley] Amis's poem ["Aberdarcy: The Main Square"], what class is the speaker in it? Not a prole, we know, because his grammar is unexceptionable. Not middle-class either, because he notices that something's deeply wrong with the public caricature of Aberdarcy and has no fear of starting controversy by criticizing it. And he can't be upper-class because he's speaking in verse, which requires talent, learning, and effort. His sharp eye, satiric humor, and complex comic sympathy for poor middle-class Evans and Mrs. Rhys, in addition to his artistic sensitivity, suggest a special identity [emphasis mine]. Let's say that the speaker is not in a class at all but is rather a member of category X.
Well, that sounds dandy! All the more so when he goes on to propose that
"X" people are better conceived as belonging to a category than a class because you are not born an X person, as you are born and reared a prole or a middle. You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering you can become an X person you find the only escape from class. (179)
This is, surely, in no small part a fantasy. (The implication that Kingsley Amis might possibly be anything but a raging snob is perhaps beside the point, but amusing.) This "unmoneyed aristocracy," as he later describes it, is not unmoneyed on the whole; when members of it are poor, they can usually expect this condition not to be permanent. And the notion that one is never born and raised to it is off-base too. But there is a part of truth to it, and a great deal more than part, I think, if we are taking it as a type of the way that the modern intellectual class (or group, or category, or population) imagined itself.(literature) | Comments (1)
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