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146 the minnesota review Fear ofFalling: The Inner Life ofthe Middle Class by Barbara Ehrenreich. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. pp. 292. $18.95 (cloth). Nothing, perhaps, is as cumbersome for the sociologist as the middle class. It resists any easy reading because people constantly enter and move around inside it, as often as they become entrapped or leave. With such fluidity, its most conspicuous trait is a mercurial identity no other class possesses. The more we question this identity tbe more diffuse our thinking becomes. Do middle-class people share the same values? Do their cultural values outweight economic ones? Can a person having middle-class career goals have another class's artistic tastes or political agenda? Add then the saccharine ¡mages with »vhich the media make a middle-class lifestyle seem desirable, and those with middle-clßss aspirations leap out of the woodwork. George Bush is one. He works hard at being middle class by pitching horseshoes, hosting barbecues, and hugging grandkids, without ever once losing his upper-class status. Oddly, he can mix with us but we aren't invited to his parties. Anyone with some education and a few correct possessions can appear middle class. Even the middle class. Only the intrepid sociologist would wrestle with such a subject. Answering the beU is Barbara Ehrenreich, searching for the middle-class's inner Ufe. To make the journey, the author has adopted the style of "decade-conscious" writing currently in vogue with many sixties radicals (Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, James Miller). The idea is to dig for clues to class consciousness in the 1960-1989 "retreat from liberalism" that the middle class has followed. "Even the names of these decades seem to tell a story that begins with a mood of generosity and optimism and ends with cynicism and narrowing self-interest" (3). Ehrenreich argues that this sixties- seventies-eighties time chunk has accumulated a consciousness, largely unscrutinized and subtly deceptive. Because the middle class's image has repeatedly been refashioned in the last thirty years, risking a definition based on the mirrors in which we perceive it is perhaps the only way to talk about it. Sharing with other authors who have written about personal experiences in the civil rights, anti-war, and women's movements, as well as the War on Poverty, Ehrenreich's assessment is a sort of bildungsroman: social analysis that becomes more enlightening because her experience as an activist is, as we sixties folk once said, relevant. That touch, that attitude, is most engaging in her work—not its obvious erudition and cogent arguments, but how her identity as a middle-class writer guides the material. I admire such a tack. Although Fear ofFalling contains few I-was-there experiences, the book presents its bias as an analytical value. The inner life of our class—we professional writers, activists, and teachers on the left—dominates our thoughts, Ehrenreich suggests, because we recognize that we are the ones who perpetuate both facts and fantasies about ourselves. Our needs, we say, are special and univesal, unknown and obvious, hoarded and abandoned. The result is an identity that borders on the neurotic, at once nurtured and defended , then rejected and scorned. Knowing ourselves has much to do with knowing our class. "Even those of us who come from very different social settings often find it hard to distinguish middle-class views from what we think we ought to think" (5). One useful distinction in speaking of a class's inner life is that for Ehrenreich the middleclass soul has no stasis, no radiant being. Rather, it is kinetic, unfixable, the transient flux of a historical dialectic. B*ut though its changing identity appears free, its very fickleness has brought about much economic and political injustice against other social groups. Fleshing out this injustice takes some rigorous analysis, which Ehrenreich provides. The biggest problem involves reading the images that those who hold the Power-to-Label others impose. Ehrenreich calls these label-giving elites the professional middle class, those with "capital" based not on property but education, the mid- to upper-end of roughly 20% of the population. Over the past three decades the professional...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 146-148
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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