Stephen Schryer

 

On his book Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II U.S. Fiction

Cover Interview of May 09, 2011

In a nutshell

In the decades after World War II, the United States experienced an unprecedented boom in higher education.  This boom altered the demographics of American society, creating a growing, educated middle class that was essential to the nation’s knowledge-based economy.  In Fantasies of the New Class, I explore the impact of this demographic shift on postwar U.S. fiction and criticism.

Faced with an expanded audience who were, at least potentially, consumers of literary culture, writers envisaged themselves as educators with a special mission.  They believed that they could fashion an aesthetically-attuned professional class who would transform American capitalism from within.

Reading Don DeLillo, Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Marge Piercy, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lionel Trilling, and John Crowe Ransom, among others, I argue that this exalted belief in literature’s influence was a constitutive illusion of postwar literary culture.  This belief led writers to embrace a transformed conception of literary representation.  They conceived of social reality as a tissue of ideas produced by competing knowledge elites, and they reshaped the American novel accordingly.

More broadly, American writers’ belief in the power of literary education resonated with models of intellectual agency shared by scholars from a variety of disciplines.  Between the 1940s and 1970s, sociologists like Talcott Parsons, Gunnar Myrdal, C. Wright Mills, Daniel Bell, Alvin Gouldner, Irving Kristol, and others, believed that the professional or new class was in the process of displacing the capital-owning bourgeoisie.  Shaped by the anti-materialistic culture of the university, the new class would usher in a more humane capitalism, a prospect that these writers viewed with either cautious optimism or chagrin.

My book highlights both the promise and flaws inherent in this exaggerated belief in the efficacy of new class cultural politics.