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The Good Life: The Meaning of Success for the American Middle Class.

The Good Life: The Meaning of Success for the American Middle Class. Loren Baritz. Knopf, $19.95. Probably the best way to get to know a place quickly is to read the fiction that is set there. When my family moved to Westchester County, New York, a couple of years ago, I turned to the work of John Cheever, the "Chekhov of Westchester," for help in understanding our new home. Cheever's publicity during the last few years of his life (he died in 1982), in which he was always portrayed as a contented suburban squire, had given me the expectation that his work would be a celebration of the life of the bourgeois, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant commuter. Actually reading it for the first time was a shock-Cheever's vision is an unrelievedly dark one, in which almost all characters are profoundly alone, unable to find a rewarding connection either to the society or to other people. And now we know, thanks to the recent publication of Cheever's letters, his biography, and a memoir by his daughter, that his life was as melancholic as his work.

Cheever surprised me sociological ly as well as temperamentally. We now have a picture of the suburbs in the fifties, Cheever's best-known setting, as having been prosperous and optimistic, if marred by excessive conformity, racism, and sexism. Yet the great economic theme of his work is downward mobility. A few peripheral characters are participating fully in the post-war boom, but most of the fully drawn, empathetic figures can't maintain the standard of living (Manhattan apartments, summer houses, private schools, servants) in which they were raisad. The men have vague, unsuccessful careers. The women are oppressed by the burden of housework that their mothers didn't have to do. Bills go unpaid. Heirlooms are sold off. There is too much drinking.

Several of Cheever's stories have endings in which die protagonist, after having journeyed to the lower depths of despair, has a redeeming vision of the beauty and goodness of life in Westchester. These endings are supposed to demonstrate that Cheever's outlook was not entirely bleak-that he found it possible to make one's peace after all-but I find this theory unconvincing. For one thing, happy endings in Cheever always seem tacked-on and inconsistent with the body of the story. For another, consolation usually comes from the beauty of nature, rather than from the human world. In "The Country Hus"The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light." To use Philip Rahv's famous partition of American literature, Cheever is a Paleface in terms of his subject matter, but he is at heart absolutely a Redskin. His vision of the good is anti-order and anticivilization, and most of his heroes deep down would prefer to follow Huck Finn's lead and light out for the territories, only they've got families and mortgages and it isn't clear where the territories are any more.

Some of Cheever's discontents can be traced to his own situation as a bisexual (and by late middle age, homosexual) man who had resolved to remain in the role of husband and father. But there is a more general point that his work illustrates, which is that even at this late date American literature and thought have not yet made their peace with middle-class life. The middle-class literary protagonists who are happy with their lot usually lack moral and psychological awareness. Works whose aim is the glorification of the middle class nearly always seem second-rate; think of the long-forgotten novels of James Gould Cozzens, which were lavishly praised when they were published.

A new book by Loren Baritz, a professor of history at Amherst, shows that at least as far as intellectuals were concerned, the middle class in this country has always been in a state of crisis. Because it tries to cover a vast subject in 300 pages, The Good Life has an all-over-the-place quality, but it is quite useful as what academics call "a review of the literature" on the middle class. No sooner did the middle class become securely established, which didn't happen until after the Civil War, than it began to feel culturally imperiled by the influx of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, whose own destiny in the middle class was unimaginable at the time. The immigrants themselves had to undergo the agonies of assimilation. After strict quotas put an end to the chaos of immigration, the development of a national consumer culture and the emergence of a generation of rebellious youth in the twenties caused futher convulsions in the middle class's existence. Then came the Depression and World War II. Simply mentioning the names of the leading chroniclers of the supposedly paradisaic middle-class life of the fifties-C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Erik Erikson, Paul Goodman, William H. Whyte, Arthur Miller-ought to bring to mind how bad that time seemed to the thinking classes. Anyway, the fifties were, it's now obvious, an interlude, followed by a spirited attack on middle-class values.

American life since the sixties isn't yet far enough in the past for us to have gotten a good fix on it, but a few points are becoming clear. The OPEC embargo set off a period in which our faith in the perpetual rise in the standard of living evaporated. The emergence of the underclass has undercut an important part of the American twentieth century creed, the idea that poverty is a temporary condition usually lasting one generation at most. The excessive conformity that all the analysts of the fifties worried about has given way to an almost opposite problem, in which we have put such a premium on personal gratification that pulling together as a nation seems to have become impossible. The middle class, in other words, is still in the dock.

Baritz points out that in spite of its never-ending conceptual problems, the middle class has never had trouble attracting members. For decades, nearly all Americans have, when asked by pollsters, identified themselves as middle class.

So why, to judge from the evidence of books, are we discontented with the way most of us live? The easiest answer is to blame th"opposition culture" of intellectuals-that is, to say that the whole picture that we have of the woes of the American middle class is simply the result of a pose that American intellectuals decided to strike at around the time of World War I and have stuck to ever since. There is something to this, but it doesn't suffice as the entire reason. How to explain someone like Cheever or, going back a century, the first important Westchester County writer, Washington Irving, both of whom seem to have truly wanted to present a picture of a glowing, pastoral, contented America, but somehow couldn't?

Baritz notes in his introduction that "America has not yet found its Flaubert or Thomas Mann," meaning, I think, that our leading novelists have yet to accept the existence of the middle class as a given, so that in American fiction there lurks the idea that middle-class discontents might be healed simply by leaving the middle class. Indeed, most middle-class Americans still have non-middle-class family memories; the existence of the middle class still seems like a development recent enough that intellectuals are required to take an editorial position on it. Also, the American middle class, more than the middle classes of other countries, is obsessed with the possibility of bigtime success-of getting to some place high above the middle where life is defined by wealth, glamour, fame, or freedom. Because of this, comfortable middle-class life seems somehow pallid, compromised, and insufficient. Real-estate-industry propaganda to the contrary, the American dream is not ownership of a single-family home, but something more frustrating and unattainable.

The idea of an American culture that actively celebrated middle-class life seems pretty dreary, but if, instead, we learned merely to accept it, the operation of the country would become easier. At the level of every day life, people would probably save more money, uproot their families less often, and spend less time at tanning salons and EST weekends, Intellectuals and artists could devote the efforts now expended on rebelliousness to something else. Makers of government policy could get away from the frontier-town tone that the debate over issues so often assumes. In exchange for this new civility we would surely lose some of the energy generated by a mobile society.

Would it be worth it? The question is academic. There is a tendency to interpret all of American culture as simply a function of how old die babyboom generation happens to be. Therefore, it's common these days to hear that the national life is going to slip into a middle-aged mode in the 1990s, with everyone sitting at home with pipe and slippers. I don't believe it. The United States is extremely young compared it other industrialized countries, and it has just completed a period of rapid economic change, major internal population shifts, and heavy immigration. The Redskin is still at large in the culture; discontentedness with middle-class life will be with us for a long time.

-Nicholas Lemann
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1989
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