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  • Men without Work:White Working-Class Masculinity in Deindustrialization Fiction
  • Sherry Lee Linkon (bio)

The classic image of the American working-class person pictures a white, male manual laborer, most often an industrial worker. Many fictional and popular examples spring to mind: Thomas Bell’s steelworkers in Out of This Furnace, packinghouse workers in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the muscular men in Lewis Hine’s black and white photos, and more recently the commercial fishermen, truck drivers, and motorcycle mechanics of work-centered reality television programs. These representations do not simply reflect the imagined associations of industrial work with white masculinity; they represent the real social, economic, and psychological resources for constructing masculinity that industrial work made available for most of the twentieth century. While the work itself was often boring, unpleasant, and dangerous (accidents were common, and former industrial workers sometimes battle work-related diseases and injuries for the rest of their lives), the mythology surrounding productive labor, with its associated benefits of the family wage, labor solidarity, and physical prowess, has long played a key role in defining working-class and masculine identities.

The American working class has never been solely male or white, of course. While women have always worked in factories, and many representations of the working class feature women, for working-class women, identity has often been defined by and enacted primarily within the family. Think of Tillie Olsen’s Anna and Mazie from Yonnondio, or Dorothea Lange’s famous photo, “Migrant Mother.” Family roles have mattered for men, but they have been [End Page 148] more central to working-class femininity. People of color, including new immigrants who had not yet “become white,” also worked in factories and mines and made up a large portion of the working class during the industrial era (and continue to do so now that working-class labor is more likely to involve service rather than manufacturing). Yet the problematic, contested history of the intersection of race and class has encouraged white people generally to imagine themselves as not being raced, even as it complicated the construction of working-class identities for people of color. The result is that despite the diversity of the working class, and even though some popular texts do offer more diverse representations, the iconic image of the American working class remains white, male, and industrial.1

For well over a century, the physically demanding, often dangerous productive labor of manufacturing and mining provided economic and social resources that were central to white working-class masculinity: a decent wage that helped secure men’s position as head of the household, arduous and sometimes risky activity, appreciation for physical strength, pride in producing the materials and goods that defined American economic dominance and prosperity, and shared experiences that created masculine networks not only at work but also in neighborhood settings—bars, union halls, football fields—where workers’ relationships extended into social life. Blue-collar work helped to create working-class communities and cement white men’s roles as producers and providers within those communities. As Valerie Walkerdine and Luis Jimenez have suggested, those patterns became the embodiment of masculinity, “sediment[ed] over time to be simply what one needed to do,” passed down “from father to son, . . . central to community survival” (94). Their phrase—“what one needed to do”—reminds us that industrial [End Page 149] labor was a necessity of working-class life. Men worked to support their families, but these jobs produced more than income. The physical challenges and dangers of the job became part of the cultural mythology of working-class masculinity.

However, as Marc E. Shaw and Elwood Watson note in their introduction to Performing American Masculinities: The Twenty-First Century Man in Popular Culture, “Masculinity is not a solid, immoveable construction. . . . [F]rom moment to moment, forces redictate, replace, and reimagine its reconstructing” (1). Since the last decades of the twentieth century, economic restructuring has been a powerful force transforming economic and social conditions in ways that require the reconstruction of white working-class masculinity. Deindustrialization did not simply put many working-class men out of work; it undermined the resources that they relied upon to construct their identities. As...


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pp. 148-167
Launched on MUSE
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