restricted access Passing: Henry Green and Working-Class Identity
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Passing:
Henry Green and Working-Class Identity

We have many working-class writers who have come to know the rich man's life, no other rich man who has shared by function, not by slumming, the manual worker's life. Of course, it was a masquerade. . . .

—Angus Wilson on Henry Green's Living

It would seem almost anachronistic to talk of an aristocrat "passing" for a proletarian: have not both classes passed away? Yet the phenomenon of class crossing, if not certain class formations, is newly prescient given increasingly sophisticated theories on shifting identities in culture: from closeted epistemologies of sexuality and articulations of racial constituency to gender bending and cross dressing, there is no identity that is not always already transgressed, if not transgressive. The ambiguities of class affiliation or identification are not simply an adjunct to such discussions. In some ways, the radicalism of transvestism, Queer Theory, "race matters" (to borrow from Cornel West) and gay and lesbian culture lies in their break from, or supercession of, a reductionism in prior class-based [End Page 1] models; but curiously, perhaps, the problem of class and culture stubbornly highlights some unresolved and unresolvable reckonings in identity politics. Informed that Western culture is not only post-Cold War, but post-ideology and post-history as well, the diffused and defused nature of its working classes provides relatively little comfort. Even if "working-class identity" has the aura of a museum diarama (and representation, here, will provide the conceptual knot), intimations of class at all signify not so much categorical residue but more a sense that the whole issue might reinvent itself like some vast intractable compulsion.

Of course, the question of reinvention is doubly pertinent when considering Henry Green (1905-73)—author, industrialist, iconoclast, recluse—both because of the class positions he occupies and the modernist tradition to which he is attached. There is little doubt that the reevaluation of Green is becoming a cause célèbre: recently, two collections of his novels and his mid-life autobiography have been republished, a volume of previously uncollected works has appeared, a TV documentary on Green was shown, several important reassessments have argued for a Green revival (Kenner, Treglown, and Updike, among others) and a biography is clearly in the offing.1 It is not easy, however, to rescue modernists (still less "class") in a world that measures an aesthetic edge by the degree to which it curves towards "post."2 Nevertheless, that Green is rapidly becoming the hot ticket in modernist resurrection can be indicated by a snippet from Kirkus Reviews which has one eye on the market and the other on merit when it dares to ask: "Who knows that it won't be Henry Green, not Joyce or Woolf, that history finally will favor as the greatest English prose-extender of the century?"3

Whatever Green's status as canon-fodder, a general reassessment now seems possible for a variety of reasons including but not limited to the following points: the mode of modernist experimentation he championed is neither threatening nor scandalous (as Fredric Jameson avers of high modernism, "not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer ugly; they now strike us, on the whole, as rather 'realistic'" [4]); concomitantly, cultural theory now provides alternative forms of evaluative criteria than those which revel in the linguistic opacity of illusion and allusion, and which make a text an etymology of aesthetic angst and acuity; and, as class-based politics are reordered, or New World Ordered, certain modes of class identification and negotiation are thrown into relief in a typically Benjaminian "moment of danger." These elements only hint at the complex relations through which a re-reading of Green might proceed. I am [End Page 2] interested, however, in how Green, and particularly his 1929 novel Living, might now speak to the cultural politics of shifting identity, not just towards modernism and class, but also to the way these inflect on the task of the storyteller; in other words, how the author writes the other into subjectivity, and how this subject can "pass" for others.4

Why passing? At the linguistic level, much has been made of...


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