Class Depictions in Literature Analysis


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.

Class Mobility and Literature

In general terms, there are two different ways in which writers have depicted class in literature, each tradition roughly correlative to different attitudes about class in America. Though rarely considered a literature of class identity, the more popular of these traditions, the rags-to-riches plot, clearly demonstrates an affinity with Abraham Lincoln’s belief in class mobility and boundless opportunity. Horatio Alger, Jr., the best-known executor of this literary theme, wrote almost 120 popular children’s books in the late nineteenth century, all based on the principle that a struggle against poverty and temptation inevitably leads to wealth and fame. In these novels, and in others that followed, class appears as a momentary disability to be transcended rather than as an identity to be explored. Like childhood, class is universal but ephemeral.

While this plot has functioned as a mainstay of popular and genre fiction since Alger’s era, more canonical literature (that is, literature accepted as having high artistic merit) has also adopted this theme, reworking the rags-to-riches story through various contexts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is an early, almost paradigmatic example of literary class mobility. Charting Lapham’s rise from Vermont farmer to Boston businessman, Howells portrays the social difficulties of the newly rich. Three decades later, one of Howells’ protégés, Abraham Cahan, adapted this theme to the context of Jewish immigrant life. In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the title character loses not only working-class solidarity but also ethnic community in his rise from poor tailor to wealthy sweatshop owner. The apotheosis of this tradition, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), is similarly ambivalent about the legacy of class mobility. Jay Gatz’s struggle to become the Great Gatsby leaves him lonely, wrecked, and romantically unfulfilled. His failed union with Daisy Buchanan indicates the ultimate irreconcilability of class mobility and social acceptance. These canonical renditions of the rags-to-riches plot are less sanguine about class ascension, but, as do Alger’s novels, they portray class as fluid, dynamic, and ultimately unrestrictive.

Class Identity and Social Realism

Although less popular in both canonical and noncanonical spheres, the other literary tradition of class, social realism, has always been more invested in a cultural exploration of class identities. Borrowing from British realists such as Charles Dickens and French naturalists such asÉmile Zola, American social realists have focused on the interaction between classes rather than on the singular rise of a protagonist. Unlike Alger and his followers, realists such as Davis, Dreiser, Sinclair, and Steinbeck explore the permanent presence of class stratification in the land of plenty. For them, American class mobility was an economic circumstance for some, but to those politically opposed to class inequity, the absence of a class system in America was a promise yet to be fulfilled. America might still become an exception to the worldwide rule of class systems, but achieving this goal would require a literature that was realistic in vision and critical in attitude.

Rebecca Harding Davis

The first realist of note to comment on the developing conditions of class segmentation was Rebecca Harding Davis whose 1861 novella “Life in the Iron Mills” inaugurated the labor narrative genre in America. Clearly derivative of British novels about industry in general and of Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) in particular, “Life in the Iron Mills” nevertheless broke new ground in its attempt to find a literary language appropriate to the condition of wage labor in the antebellum United States. Davis’ depiction of a Welsh mill hand in a multiracial town on the eve of the Civil War demonstrates that American labor literature had to account continually for the conditions of both immigration and slavery. Anticipating women labor novelists of the latter nineteenth century, such as Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (The Silent Partner, 1870) and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (The Portion of Labor, 1901), Davis suggests that female cross-class alliance could resolve the multiple tensions of class, race, and ethnicity.

Although the major social realists of the postbellum era seldom acknowledged Davis’ precedent and explicitly rejected the sentimentality of “women’s fiction,” they nevertheless continued to explore many of the same political concerns and literary themes. In particular, authors such as Howells and Jacob Riis (author of How the Other Half Lives, 1890) focused on the problems and promises of cross-class relations. For Howells, who again provides a paradigmatic example, the issue of relations between the middle and lower classes would become a central literary motif. Soon after writing his relatively blithe portrayal of class mobility in The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells became alarmed by the judicial mistreatment of the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot. Morally chastened and politically inspired, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), a sprawling social novel about class relations in New York City. Although A Hazard of New Fortunes remains unconvincing in its resolution of class tension into moral doctrine, its concluding depiction of a strike and its sympathetic characterization of a working-class socialist greatly influenced social realists of the next five decades.


Howells’ immediate successors—Dreiser, Crane, Frank Norris, London, and Sinclair—followed his example by focusing on relations among classes, although they rejected much of his moral and sentimental message. For writers in the realistic tradition who came after Howells, class identity had little to do with morality and everything to do with the massive economic and social forces of the late nineteenth century. The social realism tradition of the nineteenth century often used moral and sentimental appeals; these later fell out of favor. Under the influence of such thinkers as Herbert Spencer, who took Charles Darwin’s theories of biology and applied them to society, writers in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century eschewed moralizing, preferring instead to depict the large social and economic forces that affect the individual. Faced with growing unemployment, immigration, and urbanization, these writers felt a duty to explore issues of class and identity using “objective” and “scientific” standards. In this respect, they were followers of the naturalist tradition. The results of this artistic strategy have often struck contemporary readers as overly reliant on clichéd images and well-worn plots, but the naturalists’ unblinking depictions of the streets, the ghettos, the shop floors, and the working-class home revolutionized the literary depiction of class. One of the first such texts, Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), exemplifies this new dynamic. Davis and Howells studied their subjects from afar, either reluctant or unable to enter into the world of another class, but Crane researched his first novel by taking up residence in New York’s Bowery district. Thus, although the novel’s plot is anything but original—charting the seduction, betrayal, and suicide of a working-class woman—its attention to detail, its focus on familial relations under the pressure of poverty, and its grim view toward its protagonist’s efforts to rise make it a singular achievement in the literature of class identity.

The 1930’s and Beyond

With the notable exceptions of Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906; King Coal, 1917) and David Graham Phillips (Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, 1917), social realism in its various forms waned during the first two decades of the twentieth century, replaced by the aesthetic dictates of the ascendant school of literary modernism. Writers generally did not return to the theme of class and identity until the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, when newly visible class injustice virtually insisted upon literary representation. For the realists of that decade—John Dos Passos, Meridel LeSueur, Steinbeck, Olsen, and others—the class structures underlying American capitalism needed representational critique; their efforts in this direction reformed the way in which class would be depicted in most subsequent literature. What differentiated their writings from earlier efforts was a greater understanding of the political dimensions of class identity and a fuller appreciation for the literary tools of modernism. Dos Passos, for instance, combined the realists’ concern for characterization with an entirely new sense of modern existence, surrounding the multiple protagonists of the U.S.A. trilogy (1938) with newsreel headlines, minibiographies, and stream-of-consciousness autobiography. The resulting literary aesthetic captures, without the sentimentality or the clichés of previous literary eras, the process through which economic and social factors construct class identity.

The other major literary development of the 1930’s was the influx of literature written by working-class writers. Agnes Smedley, Jack Conroy, Mike Gold, and numerous followers added a much needed personal perspective to literary explorations of class identity. In their mostly autobiographical novels and sketches, class was not an abstract category to be understood, but a lived set of oppressive relations to be struggled against. The legacy of such writers would later be occluded, but their model has effectively inspired a generation of contemporary writers attuned to class in America.


Suggested Readings

Blake, Fay M. The Strike in the American Novel. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Historical account of depictions of class struggles in the nineteenth and twentieth century American novel—an excellent bibliographic source.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. New York: Verso, 1987. Argues that representations of the working classes in nineteenth century popular fiction are multifaceted.

Dimock, Wai Chee, and Michael T. Gilmore, eds. Rethinking Class: Literary Studies and Social Formations. New York:...

(The entire section is 258 words.)