The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class
Money Income and Poverty Status in the United States 1989: Advance Data from the March 1990 Current Population Survey, Bureau of the Census
Most Americans will agree that this country has classes. Remarks about the poor and the homeless make that clear, as do ruminations on the rich and famous. But whether we feel we have a class system, let alone a class struggle, is another matter. So while admitting that classes—of some kind—exist, most of us do not want to push the notion too far. Better, for example, to speak of “blue collar” employees than to worry about whether we have a “working class.”
This reluctance disturbs Benjamin DeMott, a professor of English at Amherst College, who has chosen to subtitle his book Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class. In his view, class lines comprise a central reality of American life, and he asks, Why doesn’t the public face up to this fact? DeMott’s answer is that powerful forces, particularly the press and television and movies, have duped the public into swallowing the “distortions and lies” which maintain “the myth of classlessness.”
Most of The Imperial Middle is given over to describing “the rationalizations that help to suppress consciousness of social differences.” Marx called these illusions “false consciousness,” and much of DeMott’s analysis has a Marxian ring. Thus he posits that “the substance of class in contemporary America concerns differences in people’s actual physical, mental, [and] imaginative activity as workers.” He makes clear, for example, that class is not about purchasing preferences, such as wine versus beer, or what pictures you hang on your walls, but about the jobs people hold.
Virtually all of the data in The Imperial Middle comes from DeMott’s monitoring of the press and television and the movies. Along with reading and clipping newspapers, he has been a regular watcher of The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Cagney and Lacey, as well as Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Cartoonists like Jules Feiffer and William Hamilton are cited, as are movies ranging from Raging Bull and Pretty in Pink to Terms of Endearment and Working Girl. Real people—Gary Gilmore, for example, and Mary Beth Whitehead—are seen largely as artifacts created by the publicity given them. So the book is based mainly on homework. There are few references to sociological studies, which is no great loss, and none to interchanges DeMott may have had with members of the public.
The Imperial Middle never really names the main classes of American society. If bourgeoisie and proletariat no longer apply, it would nice to know why. (After all, those terms merely mean owners and workers.) DeMott argues his case largely from examples. He cites a Boston newspaper story which reported that the Copley Plaza told its maids they could no longer use mops: henceforward, they must scrub bathroom floors on their hands and knees. Their union filed a grievance, and the mayor canceled a large party that had been scheduled for the hotel. A management spokesman didn’t see what the fuss was all about: “A maid is a maid and this …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.