Friday, August 31, 2007


The book I'm currently reading (which I expect to finish and review no later than this weekend) has gotten me thinking about class in America, the original "classless society." (That's technically not the same as a society with "no class," although sometimes it turns out that way.)

As far as reading is concerned, there seems to be more genuine drama to be found at either end of the class spectrum, especially as the ends seems to be expanding while the middle gets "squeezed." Some of us are ambivalent about reading about middle-class drama; we may be able to relate easily, but that's because we're living it, so why would we need to read about it?

The drama of the "underprivileged" comes from lives that are full of insecurity, in a material sense, and often hanging by a thread. This week, the news is full of articles commemorating the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's strike on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and of the people and places devastated by the storm, many of which are still unlikely to recover. Some of these articles remember to mention that the areas most affected were full of people who didn't have much in the first place - it's a poor, and poorly-educated, region - but when you lose what little you have, that's losing a lot, and the everyday struggles to care for and house self and family provide enough challenge, suspense, and quandaries that there's not much time for other life drama. Yet sometimes, as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's excellent book Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx describes, the ways that people answer these challenges - crime, drugs, teenage parenthood - just increase the drama. And there's the case of people like Jeannette Walls' family, as she describes them in her memoir The Glass Castle,
whose choice of a precarious existence is fascinating, if difficult to understand. I've been offering examples of real-life "lower-class" drama because, aside from The Grapes of Wrath, I'm having trouble thinking of fictional ones, although I'm sure there must be many more. Whether or not these stories come from real life, though, I think one of the reasons that we're drawn to them is that they help us appreciate not living with that kind of drama. We are intrigued by the details of lives different from ours, and wonder how we'd manage similar circumstances. We may come away feeling more grateful for what we have - even if much of it comes by virtue of having been born in a different time and place (as one of my book-club members noted during our recent discussion of The Kite Runner), and not through anything we've actually done - and, perhaps, more enlightened about those who don't have as much.

My current read falls on the other side of the class line - it's a drama of the "over-privileged." In thinking about this, I find that a sizable amount of my preferred fiction reading seems to fall into this category. The characters in this type of drama don't have to worry much about meeting their physical and material needs - and one often finds references to the makes, models, and quality of their possessions, as well as their drive and desire to possess more of them (although if that's too big a focus, you'll lose me quickly - I'll look at catalogs if that's what I'm interested in). But even more than that, they're the ones who can and do confront the existential dilemmas, rather than those of day-to-day existence - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (the rights to which the original U.S. Constitution would have applied only to the privileged anyway). They have the time and the energy to devote to what they want, rather than what they need, and the resources to pursue it. They can have adventures. They can agonize over the emotional consequences of infidelity more than the practical ones (whether they can afford a lawyer and how to support their kids). They have better opportunities, although they don't always make better choices, and so their drama often comes from that - lives that look full from the outside, but feel empty. The details of these lives intrigue us differently, and seeing that people who seem to have much more than we do still have problems is another thing that helps us appreciate what we don't have to live with.

Here in the middle, many of us aren't struggling as much with the basics of life - today, anyway. Thanks to the desire many of us have to live like the over-privileged without fully having the means to do it - which society no longer seems to discourage - we're running up credit-card balances, buying houses without equity, and not putting money away for the proverbial rainy day, and we may be a lot closer to the under-privileged end of the spectrum than we really want to think about. We may need two incomes to provide for our families, but be managing on just one, whether due to single parenthood or the choice to have one parent at home - which brings to mind that the "mommy wars" are a media-fueled middle-class conflict and probably not an issue for the women at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum. (And here's a perspective on that particular "choice," via A Daily Dose of Zen Sarcasm - no comment, just sharing.) But these matters aren't taking up all of our energy - we're still concerned about our relationships, our work, our communities, and all those other "quality of life" things too, and being pulled in all these directions is what defines us as being in the "middle." That's our drama. We're living it, and we're sharing it with each other (offline and on)...and when we want a break from it, I think we look to either side for the more "extreme" varieties.

I tend to function best with a minimum of drama in my life, and that may be why I find it in the stories of others. But I know there are plenty of people who - consciously or not - have a need for drama and will create it for themselves if it's lacking; they can look to either side for ideas.


  1. There's a lot of food for thought in this post.

    I found myself reading a few books about the over-privileged a while back, and had similar thoughts. It brought to mind a conversation I had with my husband in which he relayed something learned from a sociology course: historically, most of the forward motion in social welfare has come not from protests and social action on the part of the oppressed and underprivileged, but from action taken by the privileged - the ones with the leisure to think, as you note, and the ones with the power to make it happen.

    The poor among us don't necessarily like this. As if what we have is a gift from those who have more. Nor do I think that, in our society, it is as true as it was 400 years ago. There are now mechanisms and procedures in place to protect the underclasses. Still, it's an interesting thought.

  2. MaryP - I finally finished the novel that got me started on this train of thought, and it has been an interesting one. What your husband learned in his sociology course makes a lot of sense - as does the reaction that you mention. I agree that things do operate a little differently now.

    It's nice to know that I'm not the only one whose mind goes off on these tangents. :-)


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