The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work, by Andrew Hoberek. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2005.
ISBN 0691121451. List price $55.00.
Reviewed by Julian Hanna, Department of English, University of British Columbia
Andrew Hoberek’s first book is a concise and timely account of the rise of corporate America and its effect on white-collar workers, as reflected in the postwar fiction of four major American authors. Taking in turn Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Flannery O’Connor, Hoberek argues for the relevance of economics and class to an understanding of 1950s literature, contrary to the prevailing scholarly opinion that psychological and existential concerns replaced economic and political ones in the great decade of American prosperity. As he suggests, ‘perhaps we shelved our copies of Capital too early’ (5-6).
The authors chosen for this study represent a broad range of resistance to the ‘organization man’, a spectre that haunted America in the fifties. First there is the ultra-individualist Rand, whose owner-managers celebrate the market as a levelling and liberating force, rather than a source of inequality. Then there is the complex case of Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), in which the standard critique of middle-class corporate conformity is recast with an African American protagonist. Hoberek interprets this retelling as Ellison’s rejection of the romanticisation of non-whites by, among others, Kerouac and Mailer. This re-examination of identity politics continues in the chapters that follow. Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie Marsh (1953) is the main point of reference in a discussion of the emergence of the Jewish novel after WWII and its unique situation as a product both of and apart from the mainstream. In the final chapter, O’Connor’s short stories are used to trace the origins of identity politics in the South.
As Hoberek makes clear at several points in the book, the situation of the American white-collar worker in the 1950s has contemporary relevance for ‘mental laborers’ today, particularly within academia. Fears surrounding income and job security – the rise of the sessional lecturer and decline of tenured jobs in American universities, for example – are all too real in the present environment. American white-collar workers in the fifties may have enjoyed greater job security, but, as the literary case studies illustrate, there was widespread anxiety about loss of autonomy, ‘middle-class proletarianisation’, and ‘downward mobility’, as the middle class experienced a shift from being small property owners and entrepreneurs to being employees of large corporations. Hoberek finds traces of these anxieties in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), with its heroic portraits of old-style capitalists like the robber baron Hank Rearden. According to Hoberek, the novel provides, at least in part, a ‘Walter Mitty-esque fantasy for white-collar workers who can eat shit at the office while imagining themselves as steadfast Hank Reardens’ (45).
In addition to the excellent analyses of Rand, Ellison, Bellow, and O’Connor, there is a very original reading of Nabokov’s Lolita (1958) contained in the Introduction. This reading, which discovers a feminist message in a book that purports to be pure style, serves as an enjoyable shortcut to Hoberek’s thesis, and is a highly rewarding essay in its own right. The book as a whole is recommended to anyone interested in postwar American literature and society.
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