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Steve Fraser: On writing personally about class in America

... If class is embedded, often undetected, in the marrow of the national experience, then it should show up in the everyday lives of ordinary people as well. I am an ordinary person and I show up in my own book, in every chapter, but not at too great length or too obtrusively, I hope. This was an odd decision for which I may one day pay the consequences. I cannot claim that I came up with the idea of something so rash on my own. The editors at Yale were the first to suggest this approach, alluding to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. At first, I laughed and dismissed the idea out of hand. Like most historians, I suspect, the idea of inserting something about oneself into an otherwise disinterested depiction of the past, seemed weird to me.

It still does. Yet digressing from the historical record to explore how class might have influenced my own life began to appeal to me. Maybe this could function as a passway between the global aspirations inherent in a book about why class matters and that homelier ground-level of the personal, or the personal as political, where lineaments of class first come together. On the one hand, I was a kid in mid-century, white, middle-class, suburban America whose life conformed, more or less, to the conformist momentum of that era. When I grew up, however, I spent a good deal of time as a political activist. And there is no question in my mind that my subsequent life as a historian has been inflected by the concerns—the class divisions in America prominent among them—that once compelled me into the streets. So it is that I make an appearance in each of the six chapters. I’ll focus on two here.

Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev traded boasts about who would bury whom at a world’s fair in Moscow in 1959. Nixon used a high-tech kitchen in a model ranch house at the American exhibit to exemplify the new age of American abundance which presumably had done away with class hierarchies in the New World. I grew up in one of those kitchens. But even at an early age I sensed the place I was living was not quite like what the vice president was describing; my family’s social standing was precarious, and the town’s racial underground was disquieting. Some more detail here might illuminate the connection between my own childhood and the tidal forces of history.

While our community was an affluent one, we were not quite rich enough to mimic the lifestyles of our friends and neighbors. My parents’ commitment to hang on meant that eventually we moved into more modest housing. I was aware, of course, that this was happening. My friends all went away to summer camps. I stayed home and played in the Police Athletic League. When I went to play at friends’ houses, it was fairly common that a live-in maid/domestic worker loosely monitored what we were up to. Their parents belonged to private swim and tennis clubs. I played at public courts and swam at the public pool. And so on. This is hardly a tale to sob over. Nonetheless, it alerted me that suburbia, my suburb anyway, was not so socially seamless as the vice president would have it....

Read entire article at OAH Process blog