We Americans have strange ideas about social class. In study after study, the vast majority (often more than 80 percent) self-identify as “middle class,” suggesting that for some people identity is aspiration and for some illusion. When social scientists study class distinctions based on measurable factors such as income, it turns out unsurprisingly that 1/3 to 1/2 actually belong in that category, depending on the factors considered (check out this chart, for instance).
We pay obsessive attention to people slotted into the upper class, trailing through their houses via video camera, inventorying and caressing their possessions with our eyes. But what about the remaining category: working class?
The writer Tillie Olsen died on Monday, two weeks shy of her 95th birthday. The obituaries that are just now coming out tend to describe her either as “feminist writer” or (the edgier ones) “working-class writer.” Her most famous work was her first published book, the collection—a novella and several stories—entitled Tell Me A Riddle, on the strength of which she received a Ford Foundation fellowship, a Guggenheim, and most of the other honors reserved for writers of great stature. The first story in that volume is “I Stand Here Ironing,” a mother’s lament for the toll life in an unjust society has taken on the teenaged daughter from whom she is estranged. Olsen is revered for her pairing of beautiful, spare prose and the themes of social justice and personal disappointment that drove her writing.
Olsen’s literary position was slightly ironic. While she felt deprived, in terms of ratio of output to praise, she was one of the most highly recognized writers, often mentioned in the company of other notable “one book” authors such as Henry Roth, J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison. What’s more, the second thing she was known for is the years she spent not writing: her 1978 book Silences treated the obstacles of race, class and gender she saw as stopping the flow of writing that might have been.
There are some things about Tillie Olsen that sidle right up to my own biographic facts and pull their pigtails. Olsen belonged to my parents’ generation, but her birthday was just a few days away from mine. She grew up in Nebraska, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants like my own family. Her father, Samuel Lerner, was a painter and paperhanger, and so was mine. Her parents were socialists, and so were mine. She describes the pain of encountering class and cultural differences in school, of realizing that her difference made her something less in the eyes of others, and that was my story too. From high school, she took working-class jobs—waitress, factory worker—while I stood behind department store counters, helping customers choose gloves and hosiery.
Our differences were notable too, perhaps chiefly this, that while she raised four children, believing child-rearing to absorb the time that might have gone to her writing, my quite different choices have meant that I’ve been required only to raise myself, a much less time-consuming project.
Nevertheless, just as Americans who have second homes and servants find a way to identify as “middle class,” expressing an affinity and a personal comfort zone more than the sum of a financial calculation, some of us—uncannily, both Tillie Olsen and myself—identify as “working class” even though our lives have brought us resources and opportunities undreamt-of by our forebears.
Of course, we have meant different things by “working class.” Olsen came up in the old left; she was protesting after the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. All her life, she practiced that type of activism, marching, carrying placards, picketing. In an interview available online, she said, “I was proud of my class—because of growing up with Socialist parents and having sat on Eugene V. Debs’s lap and given him red roses. And hearing him. I remember how he said passionately, ‘You are not heads to them, brains that can think. You are not hearts to them, that can feel. You are hands.’ And he held up his hands. And he started, you know: ‘Cowhands, farmhands. . . .’ I was impressed again by the power of language.”
Olsen’s idea of class thus incorporated obstacles she saw as incredibly powerful, perhaps too powerful to overcome in her time and place. Here is her dedication for Silences: “For our silenced people, century after century their beings consumed in the hard, everyday essential work of maintaining human life. Their art, which still they made—as their other contributions—anonymous; refused respect, recognition; lost.”
What I tend to mean is almost the opposite. I like to remind people that intelligence and ability are not attributes of class, that even someone without a heritage of privilege and formal educational attainment has something of value to say, deserves to be heard. I understand what Eugene Debs was saying and know that it contains much truth. But what amazes me more is that in this society, people arise from every social class to bloom like flowers despite those obstacles. I like to say I am working-class even though, while my father toiled with a paintbrush, my handiwork is at a computer keyboard, because I too am proud of this heritage. I am delighted with the scope of life it has afforded me: not silenced and suppressed, but seeing what may not be evident to someone with a different background, standing up on my own two feet, making my way even though I haven’t obtained the imprimatur of gatekeepers, saying my own words right out loud.
I honor Tillie Olsen for her literary achievement, her strong principles and her embrace of life. If there is a next world or a next life, may it afford her a comfortable room of her own and unlimited time to write. Rather than “rest in peace,” I think the operative blessing here is “write in bliss.” May it be so.