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Around Quitting Time:
Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction
Robert Seguin. Around Quitting Time: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 210 pp.
Robert Seguin's Around Quitting Time: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction makes an important contribution to the analysis of class in American fiction. Differing from most literary-critical treatments of class, Seguin's book focuses not on representations of working-class experience, but on the more expansive problem of what "middle-class" signifies in twentieth-century America.
The foundation of Seguin's argument is the vital notion that in order to understand the American experience of class, we must adopt a dialectical perspective which analyzes class as a fluid process rather than a category with determinate content. Keeping this distinction in mind throughout, Seguin examines how the notion of class in twentieth-century America has been imagined as its own negation in the polymorphous category of "middle class." In brief, he argues that the American way of imagining class has been to extend the rubric of middle-class so widely that it both includes everyone and signifies nothing; class disappears into the universal notion of "middle-classlessness."
In his delineation of this "ideologico-semantic matrix," Seguin focuses on the fusion of two consummately American tropes: the pastoral (a self-sufficient retreat from the marketplace) and the frontier (a self-sufficient movement ahead of the marketplace). The fusion of these two tropes in the imaginary matrix of middle-classlessness constitutes a distinctly middle-class (and hence American) vision of Utopia as leisure [End Page 488] (the freedom from work and hence from the relations of production which produce class difference) rather than the achievement of unalienated relations of production.
As support for these broad theoretical contentions, Seguin undertakes readings of Sister Carrie, The Professor's House, The Day of the Locust, and The Floating Opera. Each discussion brings into focus a variation on the Utopian fusion of pastoral stasis and frontier dynamism via concrete images of rocking-chairs, porches, and windows, though Seguin's trope of preference is that of the transitional time during which work and leisure bleed into one another "around quitting time."
His deft reading of Sister Carrie taps into all these tropes as it traces Dreiser's depiction of the initial imaginings of middle-classlessness at a crucial historical moment, one exemplified by the pre-planned systems of roads and streetlights in the as-yet unpopulated suburban areas of Chicago. Following the parallel paths of Hurstwood and Carrie, Seguin establishes the paradigmatic tensions, contradictions, and processes which will be worked out in increasingly complex (and familiar) ways as his discussion moves into the 1950s.
The Professor's House complicates the paradigm Seguin has set in place inasmuch as it depicts the emergence of the professional/managerial faction of the middle class. The elasticity of "middle-class" in this novel manifests itself as both St. Peter's research results and Augusta's hand-sewn dresses are commodifiable—if still resistantly artisanal— products of labor undertaken in the factory-like setting of the attic room they share.
Seguin's discussion becomes truly fascinating and compelling when he gets to the more fraught articulations of middle-classlessness and frontier/pastoral in The Day of the Locust. Taking the novel's setting at the edge of the now-exhausted frontier as his cue, Seguin considers the relationship between the increasing mechanization of Fordism and Sartre's conceptualization of serial culture to argue that the entertainment industry allows for the perpetual renewal of the frontier without disrupting the security of leisure (imagined as pastoral). This association becomes all the more compelling as Seguin moves on to argue that the rise of the entertainment industry continues to extend the liminal space "around quitting time" by making leisure pursuits a continuation of the production process more obviously associated with labor. The in-betweenness of Carrie's window-shopping and St. Peter's and Augusta's [End...