Those who study the role of class, or economic or social stratum, in American culture face an essential dilemma. For many Americans, past and present, class has seemed a foreign concept, more applicable to the European nations, which have a history of feudalism, than to North American social structures. In its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence of the United States clearly condemns the stifling class structures of Britain and the European continent. Those who founded the United States envisioned a future full of economic and social opportunity. Despite slavery, a disparity of income, and the presence of wage labor during and after the nineteenth century industrial revolution, many Americans have agreed with Abraham Lincoln’s optimistic description of American economic and social mobility: “The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”
Since the mid-nineteenth century, however, rapid industrialization, an influx of unskilled immigrant workers, and the full development of market structures have provoked challenges to the belief in America’s immunity, always more an ideal than a fact, from class segmentation. There has always been a dissenting tradition of intellectuals and writers who warned of America’s propensity to mirror the class structures of Europe; they have more recently been joined by labor unionists, social scientists, and members of the working classes, who insist upon the reality of class identities in American culture, literature, and history. For writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mike Gold, John Steinbeck, and Tillie Olsen, what America lacks is not class structures but class consciousness. According to these authors, the pervasiveness of the false understanding that America has no class structure has prevented Americans from understanding the way in which their identities have been influenced by socioeconomic forces.