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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 1-11

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Introduction: Working-Class Fictions

Stephen Ross

The impetus behind this special issue of MFS Modern Fiction Studies comes from a special session entitled "Proletarian Fiction 1919-1939" at the 1998 MLA convention in San Francisco. In the process of organizing the panel, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of intriguing, engaging, and sophisticated contributions from scholars all over the world. I had not anticipated such an enthusiastic response to the call for papers and found myself in the difficult position of being at once blessed with an abundance of excellent contributions and cursed with having to choose but three for presentation. Nothing in the current scholarship had prepared me for such a response, and I began to ask myself, if there are so many talented scholars working on class issues, then why do class-based literary and cultural scholarship have such a low profile, especially when compared to the prolific fields of gender and race criticism?

Of course, the immediate response is simply that, with the end of the Cold War and the failure of communism in Russia and China, class has ceased to be a relevant feature of cultural determination. But this is to confuse class studies with Marxism; one need not believe in the teleological view that sees the proletariat as the motor of history to recognize that economic disparities persist the world over, and that the discursive and performative constructions erected on those material bases play an ongoing and crucial role in the daily lives of even the most hypothetically [End Page 1] (and ideally) classless society. Indeed, Al Gore's speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August 2000 returned so frequently to the categories of "middle class" and "working families" (while effectively ignoring the enormous underclass which is neither "middle" nor "working" but forms the precondition for both designations) that Bush communications director Karen Hughes was moved to decry his rhetoric of "class warfare" (qtd. in "Bush campaign"). Class again came to the forefront of political debate in October when Jean Chr├ętien kicked off his campaign for re-election as Canada's Prime Minister by casting himself as a defender of the poor who refuses to offer "tax breaks for the rich" because "[m]illionaires can look after themselves" (qtd. in McCarthy, A4). These two high-profile examples reveal that far from being made irrelevant by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, class continues to permeate mainstream political debate and to persist as a determining feature of cultural life.

One might reasonably object that "class" in these instances does not have the power it once had as a cultural rubric, but is simply being used as a shorthand for economic inequality. While this contention may hold up for Chr├ętien's vulgar delineation of the poor versus the rich, it falters in the face of Gore's subtle conflation of "middle class" with "working families." Gore's conflation points to the contrary conclusion that class is not simply about economics, but rather that economics forms the basis for the discursive construction of class as a matrix of attitudes, mores, mannerisms, accents, levels of education, and so on. His elision of the vast American underclass goes to show that the definition of class with which he was working had much less to do with average household income than it had to do with appealing to the traditional liberal constituency of the Democratic Party. As Gore's telling formulation reveals, it is not only money, but values that define class in the wake of the Cold War as it persists across lines of race and gender to construct discursively a community of individuals whose membership is not determined by economics alone.

Given this ongoing importance of class as a cultural category, its continued under-representation in studies of identity politics is all the more frustrating. Indeed, in light of the persistence of class in political discourse, the academic responses to "the mention of working-class representation as a significant component of cultural analysis" catalogued [End Page 2] by Peter...


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