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

A close-up

I hope that readers will begin with my introduction, which lays out the basic terms of my argument.  However, casual readers might prefer to start with one of the chapters on the better-known novels that I work with: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

My reading of Invisible Man juxtaposes the novel with Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 sociological study of U.S. race relations, An American Dilemma.  Ellison imagined his fiction as being at odds with the sociology of race.  He wrote a review of An American Dilemma in which he argued that Myrdal oversimplified black culture by reducing it to a reaction to white racism.  This review became one of the key texts that many black intellectuals drew on to express their distrust of damage sociology like Daniel P. Moynihan’s The Negro Family—a government study that argued that centuries of race discrimination had damaged the black family.

I argue that the relationship between Ellison and Myrdal is much more complex than previous readers have imagined.  Both writers embraced similar versions of new class cultural politics.  Myrdal’s argument was that the American race problem arises from a conflict in the white psyche between an egalitarian American Creed embodied in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and various local prejudices rooted in economic concerns.  He believed that a project of national therapy was needed to resolve this conflict.  The professionals were most suited to this; their education supposedly made them more attuned to the American Creed.  Ellison, similarly, believed that racism was a series of cultural rituals founded on a conflict between ideals and prejudices, and he envisaged the novel as a force capable of healing the divided American psyche.

However, Ellison also complicates this cultural politics in the only novel that he published in his lifetime, Invisible Man.  In this book, Ellison tells the story of a young, would-be black professional who tries to find a path through various American institutions: a segregated college modeled after Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the white-collar business world of New York, and a political organization modeled after the Communist Party U.S.A.  In all of these institutions, the invisible man encounters a cynical opportunism at odds with the idealism that Ellison believed was embodied in the best American novels.  This opportunism is rooted in the economic uncertainty of professionals, especially black professionals—the fact that they are dependent on outside patronage.

For Ellison, in other words, what Myrdal refers to as the American Creed cannot be located in any specific class or institution, certainly not the new class of the 1940s and 1950s.  In spite of his attraction to new class fantasy, in my book Ellison emerges as the figure who most clearly sees the economic underpinnings of American professionalism.