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

The wide angle

As a Canadian who specializes in American literature, I’ve always been fascinated by the weakness of the U.S. welfare state compared to that of other first world nations.  The reasons for this weakness are many and cannot be comprehended in a study of the post-World War II novel.  Among other things, any complete account would need to look at the role that the labor movement played in pushing for the welfare state’s creation and later failing to demand its expansion.

However, one of the reasons for the American welfare state’s anemia is the evolution of the new class after World War II.  In the early twentieth century, during the Progressive and New Deal eras, members of this class were at the forefront of social movements for the expansion of social welfare.  As Steven Brint documents in In an Age of Experts, this class embraced an ideology called social trustee professionalism—one that envisaged professional expertise as a public good.  Later in the century, the new class embraced a narrower ideology that Brint calls expert professionalism—a conception of expertise as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.

How did this shift take place?  In approaching this topic, I was guided by the assumption that literature—especially fiction—provides cultural historians with a complex understanding of the ideological divisions within the society that produces it.

Fiction is especially well-suited to addressing the ideology of professionalism, since writers, with varying degrees of comfort or discomfort, belong to the new class.  In the post-World War II period, in particular, writers were becoming ever-more-closely associated with the university—the new class’s central institution.

My book begins in the 1940s by looking at two groups of literary critics who grappled with the new class’s impact on the production and consumption of literature: the New York Intellectuals and New Critics.

The latter group, in particular, played a crucial role in institutionalizing literature within the academy.  These two groups cultivated the belief that literary education would instill an aesthetic appreciation of complexity within the new class, eventually pushing American capitalism away from the narrow materialism of the capital-owning bourgeoisie.

This was an idea that both groups ultimately derived from nineteenth-century culture critics like Matthew Arnold.  Both the New York Intellectuals and New Critics embraced this cultural politics as an alternative to the more ambitious progressivism of the New Deal era.  Literary intellectuals need not push for the traditional goals of social democracy; to do so would be to fall prey to the temptations of instrumental thinking.

From there, I move on to a variety of novelists from the 1950s to the 1980s who embraced some version of this cultural politics.  I show how this politics shaped the work of writers whom we associate with all sides of the political spectrum—from the 1960s New Left to the neoconservative right.

Throughout, I argue that postwar writers’ emphasis on anti-instrumentalism was congruent with the expert professionalism that became dominant by the 1980s.

The book concludes with a reading of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which I read as a reductio ad absurdum of new class politics.  In that book, expert opinion has penetrated the fabric of American social life, to the extent that common sense activities like eating and drinking have become subject to professional scrutiny.