I recently read a review of a new book on the 19th century writer Henry James. The book is The American Scene, written by James on his return to his homeland after twenty-some years in England. In this travelogue, James writes despairingly of America as a cultural and moral wasteland, due to its hopelessly middle class values and ideals.
I did not know of this book and had learned of Henry James, famous for his novels which turned the eye of a social elitist on his less refined countrymen, as a snobbish Anglophile scorning the “colonials.”
But when the reviewer pointed out that James saw American democracy as dedicated to “eligibility,” which can be made good only through acquired wealth, not “equality,” I associated his dissatisfaction with America with the many critiques of capitalism and the bourgeoise banality and mindless, self-satisfaction which elites had so frequently imposed on those in the middle class. The derivative disdain of the middle class, which the 19th century avant-garde inherited from aristocratic antecedents.
I wondered if it is fair to so associate capitalism with the cultural limitations of the middle class.
Is it not more insightful to associate the middle class with opportunity? Opportunity denied by aristocratic, landlord, rent-extracting societies? Opportunity afforded by enterprise? By middle class employment? By saving accounts, share ownership and buying houses? By public education, made possible by rising levels of GDP, generating taxes for governments?
My grandmother Morris, middle class by birth, but culturally seeking what James dismissed as merely “eligibility,” once told an English duke that in middle class America, more people went to symphony concerts, used libraries and visited art museums than in many of the old, high culture nations of Europe.
James was writing of an America newly industrialized, newly adorned with a very wealthy commercial and financial elite, the America of the Gilded Age of nouveau riche. The culture of that era largely followed the sociology and advocacy of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism – survival of the fittest – championed by men such as Andrew Carnegie. That cultural narrative and turn of mind presumed that we homo sapiens do not have much of a moral sense to guide us. Rather, we have mostly the will to power, to prevail, to survive and best those who cross our paths.
Change the presumption and your middle class might display more admirable ambitions and habits of mind and heart than the tawdry seeking wealth to finance “eligibility” for inclusion in proper society.
If Adam Smith and Mencius are correct about our human nature having powerful and elegant moral sentiments, then especially those in the middle class can aspire to moral excellence and cultural elegance.