Past (im)perfect and the present progressive: time in Americans' class consciousness
My project investigates how American literature and film construct and contest American common sense about temporality and the class structure. Through this investigation, I argue that Americans redefine economic inequities as differences in time. Such a redefinition includes the American mythology of unlimited social mobility, Americans' proclivity for presenting poverty as an anachronism, and their desire to associate the future with class ascent. This way of thinking about class helps Americans negotiate the inconsistency between the nation's ideals of equality and its realities of radical class disparity because it permits them to imagine class difference not in terms of socioeconomic inequality, but as "an order of successions" (Bourdieu Distinction 164).I begin by examining how dominant culture has constructed Appalachia as "past" to legitimate economic inequalities between the region and America without admitting economic exploitation. Chapter One treats texts written about the region between 1870 and 1890 and argues that their nostalgic impulse to preserve the region's "pastness" originates in the precarious social position of the texts' authors and audiences, a declining elite whose cultural dominance is threatened by the incipient professional-managerial class. Chapter Two covers literature about Appalachia between 1890 and 1920 and shows how the upwardly mobile professional-managerial class who now produces and consumes texts about Appalachia imaginatively eliminates its "pastness" by inscribing the entire region into the kind of upward class trajectory usually reserved for individuals. In Chapter Three I trace how Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio and Meridel LeSueur's The Girl confront the bildungsroman's literary conventions of sequential development and the teleological progress of a single protagonist and revise those temporal conventions to make them more representative of working-class experience. My final chapter reads two 1994 movies, The River Wild and The Client, that both feature downwardly mobile middle-class protagonists interacting with "white trash." I discuss how the films work to consolidate current hegemony, and in conclusion, I try to detect the "good sense" in the films, those elements of Gramscian common sense that might be renovated and redirected towards a politics favoring a more economically equal society.
- English