Benjamin DeMott is angry about America's pretense that it is a largely classless society. The author, who writes as well as you would expect the Mellon professor of humanities at Amherst College to write, lives in a lovely stretch along the Connecticut River known as Granola Valley, where the ratio of tax-and-tuition-and-inheritance-funded intellectuals to production workers may be as high as it is anywhere in the country except Washington. An aura of make-believe suffuses the apple orchards there.
A few years ago, DeMott's daughter spent two years living in Muncie, Ind., to make a documentary about blue-collar high school kids there -- a kind of inside version of "sex, lies & videotape," as it turned out. The heads of Xerox Corp. and the Public Broadcasting System, having funded the documentary, refused to air it on the grounds that it disparaged the kids. So the film, titled "Seventeen," went instead to theaters, where it received praise from reviewers. Now, DeMott has written a book, "The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class" (Morrow), to gain revenge on those corporate sponsors who didn't share his daughter's vision of class and to enlarge upon his own, as he explains in an extraordinary acknowledgment at the end.
And what a book! Intensely personal, endowed with a father's rage at mistreatment of a daughter ("Because they lacked knowledge of American working-class life ... they had to hang the messenger, had to call my daughter a liar"), "The Imperial Middle" argues relentlessly that there are social situations from which there is no way out, that assimilation and upward mobility are often a public relations smoke screen and that 15 minutes of genuine "talk back" -- from the likes of Jake LaMotta, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Pryor -- are worth 1,000 hours of "The Cosby Show" reruns. You can't make apples into oranges, he seems to say.
The entire book is dominated by this distasteful anecdotal image, which appears in its first pages: "Ten years ago, at Amherst College where I teach, a black freshman named Gerald Penny went down the hill with his classmates during orientation to take a compulsory swimming test. Rows of larking students -- mainly children of affluence -- dove one after the other into the pool, filling the lanes. Penny dove in with the others and, not knowing how to swim, drowned. The college's Black Cultural Center now bears Penny's name."
As interesting as DeMott's book is, there's a certain impracticality about it -- a massive indifference to the ways by which people learn to swim, or accidents happen, or persons are saved or not saved, the ways by which, in other words, things actually get done. DeMott is, for example, relentless in his assertion that occupation is not class, yet he is greatly incurious about what occupations mean, or how they have changed over the years. For example, at a certain point, he tells this joke:
"There was this star and director discussing a new starlet on the set and:
"Director: She's Polish.
"Star: Polish? Who says?
"Director: Gotta be. She's sleeping with the writer."
Notes DeMott, "Most ethnic jokes consist of class insult, ethnically masked."
But if you look more closely about what this joke is about, it turns out to be the distribution of power among occupations. You could almost say it is a joke about corporate consciousness, about the difference between inside and outside, between full-time and part-time, between staff vs. free lance. Its point is that directors and producers are powerful, that writers are not. But surely that's not a matter of class.
An alternative to DeMott's analysis might be to actually begin to make a map of the evolution of the American economy and society, of who works for whom, under what circumstances, and of what their work conveys in the way of social mobility. Olivier Zunz, a historian trained at the Sorbonne, who now teaches at the University of Virginia, offers a good example of how this task proceeds. In a new book, "Making America Corporate, 1870-1920" (University of Chicago Press), Zunz relates how America gave up its Jeffersonian self-image as a nation of yeoman farmers for the model of corporate organization that obtains today.
The straw man in Zunz's account is that famous critic, C. Wright Mills, leader of a generation of critics who saw white-collar workers as "passive prisoners in a system they did not attempt to change." Mills had said in the 1950s that American history of the last century "seems to be a series of mishaps for the independent man." And certainly a generation of novelists, playwrights and sociologists has embroidered this familiar picture: American executives as acted-upon but not acting, existing without beliefs, living only to sell and victims of a sick society.
Far from it, says Zunz. Starting with railroads, the early executives didn't so much react to a system as design one. They saw themselves as diminishing the role of class. Workers in those early corporations were defined by occupation, not lineage -- though the Du Pont family held on into the 1970s.
Whether creating organization charts by trial and error, building skyscrapers, or hiring clerks, white-collar managers believed they were off on a mission from God. They were not simply Yankees hiring immigrants, but rather tinkerers and theorists and willing architects, who built the modern corporate state, and they changed it in many ways not yet fully understood. "To the old 19th century dualisms (of rich and poor, city and country), they added new dichotomies of bigness and smallness, hierarchy and independence, homogeneity and diversity."
Today, even after a decade of battering in the 1980s, corporate organization is still the pervasive social mode in America, not the only form of organization, but still the dominant one. Indeed, corporate vs. noncorporate, big business vs. little business, has been the axis of much of the fiscal politics of the last decade. How these economic issues will play out in the future is far from clear. But certainly they will have as much to do with who gathers around that swimming pool at Amherst College as do questions of class. David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.