restricted access The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew Hoberek. The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. 158 pp.

From the title alone one might expect The Twilight of the Middle Class, with its elegiac echo of Nietzsche, to be engaged in a vigorous poststructuralist revisionary Marxism. Andrew Hoberek, however, will have none of that. He uses instead a vigorous and unapologetic classic Marxist class analysis to contest the view that "postwar culture abandoned the economic for the psychological" (1). Focusing mostly on work from the 1950s, he aims not so much to deny the evident cultural importance of the psychological as to reframe its cultural significance and cause. In this regard, his book is quite successful; it is well researched and documented, and it makes a strong case for factoring class into our critical understanding of postwar fiction.

Among others, he references Morris Dickstein's recent Leopards in the Temple (2002) as an example of the current critical view that accepts too easily the cold war focus on threats to the individual. Hoberek argues contra Dickstein and most of his peers that behind these narratives of psychological threat to individuals "economics and class remained central to postwar writing" in part because the American postwar period "constitutes a tipping point in the history of the middle class," a class, he argues, that achieves cultural dominance in this period (2, 8). Consequently, for Hoberek the "discourse of constrained agency is best understood as a product of the transition from small-property ownership to white-collar employment as the basis of middle-class status" (8). The "constrained agency" he is talking about alludes to all those angst-ridden, other-directed organization men popularized by postwar social criticism in works such as David [End Page 888] Reisman's The Lonely Crowd (1950), C. Wright Mills's White Collar (1951), and William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), and Hoberek references these works throughout as touchstones against which he productively contrasts his own class analysis.

While threats to the agency of the individual remain crucial to the period even within Hoberek's argument, these threats are understood in a classic Marxist economic view as created by the middle class loss of access to capital. For his class analysis, the economic prosperity evidenced by the rising incomes of postwar white-collar professionals and managers only masks the economic insecurity of these workers; they are insecure because, in order to get these rising incomes, these workers had to trade in their previous security and marker of middle-classness, their "property-owning autonomy" (10), for salaried positions of mental labor in large institutions. In the postwar transition from small property owners to white-collar employees, the American middle class became vulnerable and consequently anxious to the extent that it lost control over capital. Hoberek claims that this economic vulnerability helps explain why so many narratives of "constrained agency" emerge at this time; for if economics is the root cause, then these narratives are less markers of existential isolation and ahistorical classlessness (as they were then understood to be) than signs of a pervasive economic class anxiety. In straightforward Marxist terms, when 1950s middle-class professionals (and this includes most writers) became in effect (relatively well-paid) proletarians, the narratives they produced more often than not showed a deep anxiety but also elided the class roots of their problem.

For Hoberek the only things new about the apparently new postwar class formation of white-collar workers (who surpassed blue- collar workers as a percentage of the work force in 1956) are the specific ways in which this class mistakenly aligned itself, not with "those already outside the magic circle of capital"—in other words the proletariat—but through "narratives of dispossession" with the very forces of capital that oppressed it (32). White-collar workers in general, and writers in particular, failed to see that they were "members of the middle class [who] have increasingly entered the other great traditional class of those who sell their labor" (5). While Hoberek is clearly aware that there are differences between those who work in an office and those who clean it...