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American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1211-1221

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Class, Culture, and the Working Body

New Working-Class Studies. Edited by John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. 288 pages. $45.00 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).
Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. By Janet Zandy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 240 pages. $21.95 (paper).

I imagine that most scholars working in American studies would agree that U.S. culture promotes a deep denial about the determinative power of class as an economic, social, and political category. American public discourse and the mass media continue to advance the exceptionalist notion that the United States is a resoundingly middle-class, even "classless," society. And as the 2004 presidential elections confirmed, mainstream politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to couch their appeals to the middle classes, but almost never to the working classes or the poor. What may be more surprising to many American studies scholars, however, is that this public silence about class has for the most part been echoed in the American Studies Association. According to a survey of conference programs by Janet Zandy, one of a handful of literary scholars who has steadfastly championed working-class studies over the last two decades, class has been a marginal category at recent ASA meetings. In 1999 in Montreal, only 3 of the 196 sessions contained titles that either listed "class" as a term or suggested a primary focus on class; in 2004 in Atlanta, the same was true for just 6 out of 275 sessions.1 Panel titles are, admittedly, inadequate indicators of the overall consciousness about class at the conferences, yet the striking absence of class in those titles suggests that although the category has for several years been a primary axis in the "race, gender, and class" triad, it has all too often been at best a secondary concern for most Americanists.

However, some signs—including the two rich and multifaceted books reviewed here—suggest that new economic, social, and intellectual forces may be challenging the long-standing elision of class from civic dialogue and academic study. As the insecurity brought about by corporate downsizing and the casualization of labor spreads across the economy, the language of class [End Page 1211] may be on its way back into the public sphere.2 In fact, one recent poll by the New York Times found that a majority of people self-identified as members of the working class.3 Perhaps emblematic of an emerging public interest in—or anxiety about—class is a recent series of front-page articles in the New York Times that underscored the pressing realities of class inequality in contemporary America. The series takes as its starting point the notion that, despite the thick myth of classlessness, "class is still a powerful force in American life. Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways."4

In the academy, the relative silence about class is being challenged by the emergence of contemporary working-class studies, to which Sherry Linkon and John Russo's New Working-Class Studies and Janet Zandy's Hands constitute decisive contributions. Building upon the groundbreaking labors of scholars such as Zandy, George Lipsitz, Michael Denning, Manning Marable, bell hooks, Lizabeth Cohen, David Roediger, Paul Lauter, and others who have long argued for the saliency of class in American history and literature, the new working-class studies is a collaborative project of scholars, activists, and artists who are dedicated to putting working-class culture at the center of American academic and political discussion.5 The institutional heart of the field is the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, where Linkon and Russo teach. Founded in 1995, on the heels of a Working-Class Studies conference that has now become biennial, the Youngstown Center, in conjunction with other sites such as the Center for Working-Class Life at SUNY Stonybrook and the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies, has expanded to serve a growing national and even international...