We’re entering our spring break. The Freshman class has submitted its papers written in response to an essay called “Stupid Rich Bastards” by Laurel Johnson Black. (The piece was given to me by CUNY’s Eliza Darling some years ago; it appears as a part of a collection, This Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.) You’ll get a sense of the context from which Black is writing about class and education when you read a paragraph like this:
I worked summers at a resort in Maine, making beds and scrubbing toilets, earning tips and room and board. During the school year, I worked as a cook in a nursing home and as a maid for rich women who made me change sheets, crawl out on window ledges to clean glass, and scrub their kitchen floors on my knees. I had saved about five hundred dollars. I sent in cards to request material from any college that would send it to me. Every day, stacks of brochures and catalogues and letters awaited me when I came home from school. One or two that looked good–smiling students on the cover–I bought with me to work at the nursing home, and I read the captions while I ate my supper. The others I looked through at night for the cost to attend and the amount of aid usually awarded. When I filled out the financial aid forms, my father told me to put a zero on every line. I told him that no one would believe it. “Yah? So what? Think they’d believe thirteen dollars eitha? Put it down.” I did.
I thought of Black’s piece while reading Pankaj Mishra’s review of David Foster Wallace’s new book of essays, Consider the Lobster. Mishra faults Wallace for having a sense of moral indignation that is insufficiently grounded in history. Crucially for Mishra, Wallace also lacks an awareness of his own class. The examples that Mishra would want Wallace to follow are Robert Musil and H.L. Mencken. Their moralism, Mishra argues, also carried conviction. Which made me think of Black and of her students, who in their own small ways throw into question the courage and conviction of the comfortably morally-minded. Here is what Black says about her students:
I understand their fear of poverty, of sliding backwards, of not being as successful as their very successful parents. They recoil in disgust and loathing from the poor, from the working class, and that, too, is familiar to me. They insist that if we all just try hard enough, everyone can succeed. But until then, they don’t want to live with those who haven’t really made it, who haven’t tried. I understand how deep and visceral that fear of failure is. It keeps them in college and it keeps them from thinking about possibilities. They are in love with the status quo and terrified of idealism, of a vision and words charged with change.
P.S. I am glad that the NY Times Book Review has allowed a desi writer to review David Foster Wallace. Usually, folks of the tinted persuasion aren’t really expected to have any cogent views on the likes of John Updike or Philip Roth. J.M. Coetzee? Maybe. Zadie Smith? Sure. But, Jonathan Franzen? No! I’m also glad that Pankaj wasn’t tempted to list among the morally indignant Gandhi or Tagore (though, he should probably have reached for black writers in the U.S., especially those who from Hurston to Pryor drew upon a richly comic, performative tradition). There is a reductive way in which moral indignation has become the brown man’s or brown woman’s burden. It is perverse but possible that Indian lit. is considered more marketable today because we are considered somewhat preternaturally pissed-off, well-positioned to remind the West of the starving masses, fundamentalist rage, the avian flu, AIDS, the disappearing ozone, etc.