Rags to Riches to Suicide: Unhappy Narratives of Upward Mobility: Martin Eden, Bread Givers, Delia's song, and Hunger of Memory.
Article Type:
Critical Essay
American literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Labor literature (Criticism and interpretation)
Proletariat (Portrayals)
Social mobility (Portrayals)
Working class (Portrayals)
Working class in television (Portrayals)
Christopher, Renny
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Name: College Literature Publisher: West Chester University Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Literature/writing Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 West Chester University ISSN: 0093-3139
Date: Fall, 2002 Source Volume: 29 Source Issue: 4
Canadian Subject Form: Labour literature
Named Person: London, Jack (American writer); Rodriguez, Richard (American writer); Corpi, Lucha; Yezierska, Anzia
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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A sub-genre of U.S. working class literature which I call "narratives of unhappy upward mobility" remained fairly stable throughout the twentieth century--and will perhaps, in the absence of substantial social change or the development of meaningful class consciousness, remain so in the twenty-first. The paradigm of this subgenre is the recounting not only of the struggles of a protagonist who originates in the working class to follow the myth of the "American Dream" along the line of upward mobility, but the ultimate homelessness with which the protagonist, who discovers the lie built into the dream, is left, and the writers' refusal to endorse the protagonist's arrival in the middle class as an unquestionably positive outcome. Thus these writers write against the grain of the myth in order to expose its bitter root: to rest happy with upward mobility, one must completely stamp out one's previous, working-class self, turn one's back on working-class consciousness, and embrace the oppressive values of the middle class without question. Rather than doing so, these protagonists, and the writers themselves through the construction of these narratives, emphasize the sense of loss that haunts upward mobility. While there are many more works in this subgenre, I will focus here on four writers: Jack London, Anzia Yezierska, Lucha Corpi, and Richard Rodriguez, whose works are representative of the genre.

Critical discussions of Rodriguez's work, in particular, have raised, but not dealt with, the salient features of this genre. W. Lawrence Hogue writes of Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez,

Hogue suggests (unconvincingly) that it is possible to create such a life through a postmodernist viewpoint, but for the purpose of examining Rodriguez's and other narratives through the lens of working-class literary theory (1) it is more useful to see Rodriguez's narrative as an expose of the permanent displacement that upward mobility creates; trying to displace that class experience onto an "ethnic" experience will not make the problem go away. For all of the writers examined here, "upward" mobility from the working class into the middle class produces alienation, despair, and impulses to suicide (2). The writing of these narratives which refuse the happy ending dictated by American myth is, then, a political act, through which these writers demand that a different discourse of class and class mobility be constructed, one which, instead of celebrating mobility, demands that we remember that mobility for individuals does not create social justice for all. The works show that upward mobility leaves wounds in the consciousness of those who undertake it without denying the claims of their past; the result is an unresolvable hunger. Hogue's facile suggestion that Rodriguez should try to create a life outside of the class structure is a measure of the denial of the power of social class; that denial is precisely what these writers are writing against.

Hogue criticizes Rodriguez for taking a modernist, rather than a postmodernist stance, which, he claims, traps Rodriguez into accepting the ideology which sets up "the middle-class American male as the norm and the only option for success" and which "denies the various forms of 'otherness' in the American cultural sphere--'otherness' that would give Richard the critical space to critique canonical Western literature, the middle-class American male convention, and the concept of the scholarship boy" (1996, 86). Hogue suggests that embracing a postmodern concept of "otherness" would provide a comfortable place in which Rodriguez could stand.

While Lucha Corpi's novel Delia's Song does employ postmodernist stylistics, and evidences oppositional politics, Corpi's autobiographical protagonist experiences the same result of her upward mobility as does Rodriguez: hunger and homelessness. No matter what political or philosophical stance the writers considered here take, whether they criticize dominant ideology or not, they remain alienated, hungry, and homeless. Critiquing the ideology and socio-economic structures that make them homeless does not make for them a home because the problem of alienation and homelessness created by social mobility is a structural one, not mitigated by personal attitude or political position. As long as social change fails to bring about equality for all--as long as upward mobility is an individual phenomenon--these upwardly-mobile working-class authors must chronicle the psychological cost of that mobility.

The Rags-to-Riches story, which takes its name from a novel by Horatio Alger, embodies a powerful American myth. But there's a catch to the upward mobility story: only the fortunate few can rise, while the majority must remain in the working class so that the fortunate few can join those profiting off of their labor. Upward mobility is available, in reality, only to a few; the structure of the economic system under which we live demands that this be the case. In reality fewer than one in five men in the U.S. surpass the economic standing of their fathers (Mantsios 1992, 83). Further, the gap between the rich and the poor is the greatest now that it has been since the government started collecting statistics in 1947, and the percentage of households earning a middle-income level has been falling steadily since 1967, with most of those households moving down, not up (Mantsios 1992, 76). Nonetheless, enough people (for example Bill Clinton and Colin Powell) do make spectacular rises so that the myth remains robustly with us in almost the same form as it existed in the nineteenth century. But the authentic Horatio Alger story always ends with the protagonist on the rise, rather than having arrived at success, because a curtain must be drawn against what happens next. The real ending, as opposed to the place where the traditional celebratory narrative chooses to stop, is never happy.

Martin Eden, the title character of Jack London's autobiographical novel, is so disillusioned by his education and entry into the world of the middle class, which he finds hollow, empty, and devoid of meaning, and so thoroughly loses himself in the course of his journey upward through the class structure, that he commits suicide at the end of the novel. He cannot rejoin his working-class world, nor find a place for himself in the middle-class world. A famous writer, he finds all he has worked toward to be a chimera, and he thinks first to run away to an island. "And he would forget the books he had opened and the world that had proved an illusion" (London, 1984, 421). The nature of the illusion of the middle-class world is symbolized in the novel by a painting. When he first sees it as an uneducated working class man and looks closely, he notices that up close the brush strokes don't add up to the image as seen from a distance. When he gets some education, he understands his "mistake" in thinking the painting an illusion, but then later yet finds that he was right in the first place it is an illusion. So he runs away. He finds himself a passenger, rather than a crewman, on ship. "Well, here he was, the great man on board, in the midmost center of it, sitting at the captain's right hand, and yet vainly harking back to forecastle and stoke-hole in quest of the Paradise he had lost. He had found no new one, and now he could not find the old one" (477-78). And the pain of this is so great that he drowns himself.

Andrew Sinclair writes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel that when it was first published in 1909, it was ahead of its time, because the

That idea is still revolutionary and unpalatable, and is what makes Martin Eden such an important beginning to the narratives examined here; Jack London is the anti-Horatio Alger, and the unhappy upward mobility genre might well be named "Martin Eden stories."

The novel chronicles Martin's rise, which parallels London's own, out of the working class and into the highest reaches of literary and monetary success. In doing so, it explores the way such a rise permanently displaces the person who undergoes it, and the pain that makes such a discomfiture unbearable. The novel opens with a scene which brilliantly explains the discomfort of Martin, the worker, in the middle-class home of the Morse family. "The wide rooms seemed too narrow for his rolling gait, and to himself he was in terror lest his broad shoulders should collide with the doorways or sweep the bric-a-brac from the low mantel" (London 1984, 31). His physical discomfort mirrors his social discomfort, but he is soon swept off his feet by Ruth, who seems to him a vision of a perfect world, and causes him to measure his own world negatively for the first time. He uncritically accepts the idea that everything in Ruth's world is better, more desirable, than anything in his. He believes he must accommodate himself to her world, rather than asking her to accommodate herself to anything about him: "he likened himself to a sailor, in a strange ship, on a dark night, groping about in the unfamiliar running rigging. Well, he decided, it was up to him to get acquainted in this new world" (41-42).

London provides eloquent descriptions of what an uneducated consciousness encounters when it wanders into the realms of the scholarly; not only does Martin feel like a sailor on an unfamiliar ship, he finds himself unable to comprehend the books he first attempts to read. "It was not that his brain was weak or incapable; it could think these thoughts were it not for lack of training in thinking and lack of the thought-tools with which to think. He guessed this, and for a while entertained the idea of reading nothing but the dictionary until he had mastered every word of it" (3) (London 1984, 91). He does, eventually, master book-learning, but the fact that it is constrained on every side by bourgeois culture eventually causes his "thinkmachine," as Lizzie Connolly, the working-class woman who loves him, calls it, to break.

Ruth, the middle-class object of his desire, is more interested in teaching Martin manners and "proper" behavior--forms, rather than substance--than in the content of his education. Martin struggles with not swearing, not speaking ungrammatically, brushing his teeth and wearing starched collars. He tries reading books on etiquette and concludes "that it would take all of a man's time to be polite, and that he would have to live a preliminary life in which to learn how to be polite" (London 1984, 79). But he concludes this in despair, rather than in critique of bourgeois culture. Ruth continually tries to tame him. When he is carried away with passion over the new ideas and skins he's acquiring, Ruth says to him, "You get too excited; but you will get over that with practice" (165). Ruth thus, as always, displays the absolutely stifling nature of her bourgeois culture. When Martin first reads to her a story he has written, he wants her to hear the heart of it: "Out of life he had captured something big and attempted to imprison it in the story. It was the big thing out of life he had read to her, not sentence-structure and semicolons" (166-67). But her reaction to the story is, "'Oh! It is degrading! It is not nice! It is nasty!'" (167).

After the first round of rejections of his writing, Martin reflects on the nature of his struggle. "'The first battle, fought and finished,' Martin said to the looking-glass ten days later. 'But there will be a second battle, and a third battle, and battles to the end of time, unless--'" (London 1984, 174). He goes on to remember a fist-fight he had as a boy, with an opponent called CheeseFace. It is his working-class willingness to fight that brings him, ultimately, into the middle-class world. It is too bad for him that the struggles didn't go on forever, since it is struggle he is best fitted for--fitted by the very working-class background he seeks to transcend. And therein lies the paradox of upward mobility: the fortitude needed for the struggle is fostered by working-class culture, but it is working-class culture one must abandon to achieve upward mobility and fit in to the middle-class world one has achieved. To do so is to lose one's working-class conscience, and to abandon the desire for justice for all, for to be truly middle class is to value the retention of the status quo, that is, to value a system which allows one to keep that middle-class status. Martin never comes to that political consciousness, although London himself does. Martin goes through the stage (as almost all narratives of upward mobility chronicle) of looking down on his origins. London, however, carefully does not stereotype or belittle the working-class characters of the novel. (If anything, he stereotypes and belittles the middle-class characters, in a direct reversal of the usual literary pattern).

Once Martin has succeeded, it's too late for him to go back to the working-class world, but until he has arrived at success, he can still visit it. When he meets Joe, with whom he goes to work in a laundry, he immediately likes him. "Martin knew the enormous gulf between him and this man--the gulf the books had made; but he found no difficulty in crossing back over that gulf. He had lived all his life in the working-class world, and the camaraderie of labor was second nature with him" (London 1984, 187). Martin's ability to cross back over the gulf is facilitated by his need to earn money. But he has become a different person, one who looks down on the world of his origins. The "small mental caliber" of his fellow workers "was depressing to him, and he was anxious to get away from them" (188). He conceives of the conversation of the workers not as the result of the limits of their world, but of themselves. He has almost begun to see through Ruth's eyes, although he himself can't read or study while working in the laundry, because he's too exhausted either to stay awake to read or to care

But people can't be defined outside a community. Martin takes himself out of his original community and joins no other. His intellectual friend Brissenden forms a society of one for him for awhile, but Martin fails to enter into the only society that might be suited to him: the working-class radicals to whom Brissenden introduces him. His failure to join their community ensures his doom through disillusionment and existential loneliness.

Martin has believed during his struggles to write and sell his work that his writing will sell for so many cents a word. He believes that so much work (writing) equals so much money, in the same manner as wage labor; he expects that a writer will be paid by the amount of work he does. But Martin himself becomes a commodity, and sees himself as one--the famous writer, invited to dinner by everyone. Had he seen his commodification when he was in the working class he might have developed the social consciousness that London says would have saved him; might then have joined the radicals. He tells Brissenden, "It makes life worthwhile to meet people like that. My mind is all worked up. I never appreciated idealism before. Yet I can't accept it. I know I shall always be a realist" (London 1984, 377). And thus Martin rejects the one thin lifeline that's thrown to him. Brissenden tries again to throw him a lifeline, taking him to a Socialist meeting. He tells Martin that Socialism "Hill give you a sanction for your existence. It is the one thing that Hill save you in the time of disappointment that is coming to you" (389). But Martin gets up at the meeting and speaks against Socialism, on Social Darwinist grounds. It is Martin's very struggle and success that cause him to reject Socialism. "He was appalled at the awful intellectual chasm that yawned between him and his people. He could never cross it and explain to them his position,--the Nietzschean position in regard to socialism" (402). It is his own correct but hubristic perception of himself as the working-class superman which makes him reject socialism, and perhaps reflects London's own ambivalences and contradictions in mixing Marx and Nietzsche. Earle Labor compares Martin Eden and Jay Gatsby, saying that "Martin is destroyed ultimately like Gatsby by the delusion that an ideal goal may be attained through material means and that success is synonymous with happiness" (1994, 122).

Martin believes that "class was extrinsic. It could be shaken off" (London, 1984, 230). He does not account for how much his experiences of class--both within the working class and through his move out of it--have shaped and molded him. He can make himself a new man, inside and out, but he cannot make himself into someone born into the middle class. Therefore he carries with him an experiential knowledge the middle-class characters don't posses. London, unlike Martin, clearly thinks that class is not extrinsic, something that can be cast off, but, as Richard Rodriguez calls it, "elemental." In other words, London believes that Martin Eden, or any upwardly mobile person of working-class origins, will carry their origins with them. Class origin may be escapable in external terms, but not in terms of personality formation.

Inevitably, as a result of his class-crossing, Martin develops a split identity. Joan Hedrick writes in Solitary Comrade that London "casts his story in the familiar pattern of the Ben Franklin/Horatio Alger parable of success, only to break that paradigm by insisting on a close look at what was ordinarily not scrutinized in the parable of success: the inner self" (1982, 200). She describes Martin Eden as falling "from innocence to class-consciousness," (202), and points out, in a convincing analysis of the novel, that

But Martin fails because in remaking himself into a middle-class man in the individualist (Nietzschean) mold, he has destroyed his previous, working-class self and the possibility that his class consciousness might lead him to Socialism, which he sees as collective and anti-individual. He has destroyed his old way of seeing, and now he sees himself through the eyes of others, having developed no reliable new eyes of his own. Seeing himself through the eyes of others accounts for his development of a split identity. None of his new middle-class acquaintances can see him as he was--the working-class man--but only as he is now--the famous writer. However, he has a need to continue to see himself as he was.

After he has begun to be disillusioned, shortly before he becomes a big success, he begins seeing visions of his old self: "He glanced about him at the well-bred, well-dressed men and women ... and at the same moment the ghost of his early youth ... stalked across the room. This figure, of the corner hoodlum, he saw merge into himself, sitting and talking with an actual university professor" (London, 1984, 291). The vision of his previous self continues to haunt him. After he's been advised by his sister Marian to give up his quest to become a writer and get a job, he thinks about his battles, and the vision of himself enters his consciousness. Then, "the vision underwent a swift metamorphosis.... The toughness went out of the face, the hardness out of the eyes; and the face, chastened and refined, was irradiated from an inner life of communion with beauty and knowledge.... And, as he regarded it ... he entered into the apparition" (319-20). The visions of integration of old self/new self represent what he needs but can't accomplish. His double-consciousness becomes habitual. At dinner at Ruth's, "He remembered it was at this table, at which he now sneered and was so often bored, that he had first eaten with civilized beings in what he had imagined was an atmosphere of high culture and refinement. He caught a glimpse of that pathetic figure of him, so long ago ..." (381). While he sees his old self as pathetic, he will not be able to reintegrate that self, its energy and class anger, into his new self and find a viable way of life.

Martin reflects that he has never found a place for himself. "He had fitted in sufficiently to satisfy his fellows but not to satisfy himself" (London 1984, 292). His upward mobility has not provided him with a fitting place, either. "He was disappointed in his goal, in the persons he had climbed to be with" (298). He realizes his misconception about people of the higher economic class: "Foolishly ... he had conceived that all well-groomed persons above the working class were persons with power of intellect and vigor of beauty.... And he had been deceived into believing that college educations and mastery were the same things" (310). He concludes that he will continue to rise, and to take Ruth with him, as "it was clear to him that he had been handicapped by his early environment, so now he perceived that she was similarly handicapped" (310). He is still blinded by his love for Ruth long after the scales have fallen from his eyes regarding the other members of her class. Eventually, he begins to see that she lacks creativity or any real appreciation for it. She objects to the realism in the dialogue of one of Martin's stories of the South Seas because "it is not good taste" (356). Ultimately he realizes that "he had not really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, an ethereal creature of his own creating, the bright and luminous spirit of his love-poems" (464). Everything he had sought for was, in fact, his own idealized creation, and when he finds it does not exist in the world he enters, he is lost.

Finally, the worst possible thing happens to Martin: he becomes a big success, which robs him of that which he's lived for: struggle. When he succeeds, his only friend, Brissenden, has died, and Ruth has left him. Martin dispenses largesse to all of his working-class friends, buying Maria Silva a dairy and Joe a laundry and sending Lizzie to night school. But he can't make any sort of connection with them; he doesn't want their company. He is lost because he has lost any sense of himself. "Money had no meaning to him now except what it would immediately buy. He was chartless and rudderless, and he had no port to make, while drifting involved the least living, and it was living that hurt" (London 1984, 412). The lack of struggle leaves him with nothing. "One day Martin became aware that he was lonely" (419). He has been all along, but he simply has been too busy to know it. He begins having visions of the South Seas (rather imperialist visions, actually), representing escape from his disillusionment. He plans to go to the Marquesas, where "he would forget the books he had opened and the world that had proved an illusion" (421). He has become an alien everywhere he goes. "He had exiled himself. He had traveled in the vast realm of intellect until he could no longer return home.... He had found no new home" (429).When copies of his first published book arrive, he doesn't greet them with the joy he once imagined, because it has come too late. "His book, his first book, and his pulse had not gone up a fraction of a beat, and he was only sad. It meant little to him now" (431).

In life, Martin can find no way to save himself. He can derive no satisfaction from fame, for he has no respect for "the crowd" that's made him famous by acclaiming him. He meditates on the difference between bourgeois valuation and proletarian valuation.

Thus he can find holism nowhere. The middle class values him for his fame; his former working-class chums value him for a self he no longer feels himself to be. He's haunted by the vision of that old self more and more. His split identity becomes untenable to the point that he believes he does not exist.

London said, "I am Martin Eden. Martin Eden died because he was an individualist, I live because I am a socialist and have social consciousness" (quoted in Whipple 1943, 97). He also said that Martin Eden,

Martin Eden says of himself that he is "an individualist. I believe the race is to the swift, the battle to the strong. Such is the lesson I have learned from biology.... I am an individualist, and individualism is the hereditary and eternal foe of socialism" (London 1984, 314). Martin certainly is the strongest, and he wins the race--but his ideology leaves him nowhere to go when he finds that it was a race not worth winning. London claims that he found somewhere to go--into socialism--but London himself died young, drowned, perhaps, in alcohol instead of the sea.

George Spangler points out that Martin Eden is primarily a

Spangler argues that misunderstandings arise through a failure to recognize that the "deeper reality of the protagonist is what K.D. Laing calls 'the divided self,' and the central fact of the text as a whole is a long series of dichotomies, or ... binary oppositions" (1983, 157). He concludes that the novel,

For Spangler, it is the divided consciousness of Martin, his "schizoid view of experience" which is the central theme of the novel, and Martin's collapse at the end is a signal to "attend to what really matters to author and hero alike, a signal provided at the cost of conventional esthetic and thematic coherence" (1983, 164).

I would argue that the novel's structure is paradigmatically that of the narrative of upward mobility, which is necessarily a narrative of divided consciousness. "Conventional coherence" cannot convey that experience, which is by its nature split and "schizoid." Further, "conventional coherence" is a term defined by the privileged. Perhaps it is part of the task of the working-class novel to defy "conventional coherence" in order to create a new discourse which allows for the discussion of class, which cannot comfortably be discussed within a traditional paradigm of "conventional coherence." Works like Martin Eden can and should serve to crack open the Horatio Alger myth, which attempts to exclude a discussion of class. Thus Martin Eden is not only the first working-class novel of unhappy upward mobility of the twentieth century; it is also the blueprint for the genre itself.


Sara Smolinsky, AnziaYezierska's semi-autobiographical heroine in Bread Givers, has, like many of the characters in Yezierska's novels and short stories, an insatiable hunger. Ellen Golub best interrogates Yezierska's use of the

As Sara says at one point during her struggle for upward mobility, "I hated my stomach. It was like some clawing wild animal in me that I had to stop to feed always" (Yezierska 1975, 173).

Golub goes on to describe Yezierska's heroines as speaking,

The similarity to Martin Eden is clear: his saddest moment is the same as theirs. Further, this insight points out one of the great problems with "the American Dream": it is one built of hope, but it is none too specific about what is to be hoped for. Any definition of a goal is going to be unsatisfactory, since the only attainable goals within American culture are material, and, as Golub points out, Yezierska's heroines, "with their bellies full ... hunger even more intensely. Still wailing their desires in the language of the mouth, they betray their longings to be more psychological than physiological" (1983, 54). Each of these heroines,

But nothing will ever satisfy these hungers, because the only real rewards in American culture, and the only ones American language is designed to describe, are material, not psychological or spiritual. Further, they are rewards granted only to individuals who, in order to achieve them, must do so alone, leaving behind the people they were once a part of.

The structure of the novel reflects the protagonist's upward mobility: Book I, "Hester Street," consists of chapters that describe the life of the family--the stories of Sara's sisters, into which Sara as a character (rather than as narrator) actually enters very little. This section of the book is situated in the collectivity of working-class life. It is the story not of an individual, but of a family, and that family's struggles with poverty, and the conflict between the old-world father and his new-world daughters. The focus of the narrative turns to Sara herself only in Book II, "Between Two Worlds," which describes her lonely struggle for upward mobility, which is achieved, but not happily, in Book III, "The New World." Thus the narrative goes from the family to the individual, from the working class to the middle class, from community to solitude, following the trajectory of the protagonist's life.

When Reb Smolinsky protests his wife's plan to take in boarders because it means he will have to give up having a room to himself to study in, she replies "Only millionaires can be alone in America," but it is precisely a desire for aloneness (perhaps first inspired by her father's desire) that impels Sara on her journey. When she tells her father she's leaving, he says, "'I didn't send you to work at the age of six like some poor fathers do. You didn't start work until you were over ten. Now, when I begin to have a little use from you, you want to run away and live for yourself?'" (Yezierska 1975, 137). This is precisely what Sara wants. She answers, "I've got to live my own life" (137). Her core value is possessive individualism: to break away from the collectivity of her working-class family and pursue her own self-determined goals. When she sets out in the city to find work, a room of her own, and schooling, she thinks, "I, alone with myself, was enjoying myself for the first time as with the grandest company" (157). Her quest for a room isn't easy: "For the first time in my life I saw what a luxury it was for a poor girl to want to be alone in a room," but she finally succeeds. "This door was life. It was air. The bottom starting-point of becoming a person. I simply must have this room with the shut door" (158-59). Once she starts school, she has to close that door and shut her surroundings out of herself; she has trouble concentrating through the noise of the building and the neighborhood, and tells herself she simply must "shut your ears to the noise,"--that is, isolate herself from the community (164).

This aloneness, a positive value for study, also costs her dearly, because it results in a permanent isolation and sense of outsiderness. Once, when her mother travels all the way in to the city to see her just briefly, she reflects, "How much bigger was Mother's goodness than my burning ambition to rise in the world!" (Yezierska 1975, 171), and when she says she can't come visit her mother because she has to study for college, her mother asks, "Is college more important than to see your old mother?" (171). Although Sara doesn't admit it outright, yes, it is more important to her, as she goes on with her solitary struggle and does not visit her mother for six years (242).

She's tempted when a man sent by her sister courts her; she's overwhelmed by him because, "My one need of needs, stronger than my life, was my love to be loved" (Yezierska 1975, 198). Yet clearly Sara's assessment of herself is wrong; she does not give in to that need, but rejects the suitor, because his values are purely materialistic. This disillusions Sara: "The man seemed to turn into a talking roll of dollar bills right there before my eyes" (199). Her father comes to castigate her for refusing her suitor. He says to her, "Why do you hold yourself better than the whole world?" (206), and although Yezierska seems to endorse Sara's answer, "I have to live and die by what's in me," (207), her father's perspective has truth to it. Sara does try to be "better" than the others of her world. When she finally returns to her family after her absence of six years, she wonders, "would they understand that my silent aloofness for so long had been a necessity and not selfish indifference?" (242). Why should they understand any such thing? When she returns to find her mother dying, her sister Fania asks her, "Was that what they taught you in college, to turn your back on your own people?" (246), and indeed, this is what she has been taught in college--to value middle class mores, materialism, and the habit of abstract thought over the close family ties she cut in order to achieve those things.

Yezierska emphasizes throughout Books II and III Sara's incurable aloneness. The title of chapter 15 is "On and on--alone." That chapter ends with these lines: "Knowledge was what I wanted more than anything else in the world. I had made my choice. And now I had to pay the price. So this is what it cost, daring to follow the urge in me. No father. No lover. No family. No friend. I must go on and on. And I must go on--alone" (Yezierska 1975, 208). In the next chapter Sara arrives in college, only, once again, to find out that she does not fit in. The other students are not poor immigrants, and she is always set apart from them. She reflects "Maybe I'd have to change myself inside and out to be one of them" (214) (50 years later Richard Rodriguez will echo this: "education requires radical self-reformation"). Sara does not succeed in fitting in: "I was nothing and nobody. It was worse than being ignored. Worse than being an outcast. I simply didn't belong. I had no existence in their young eyes.... Even in college I had not escaped from the ghetto" (219-20).

She does transform herself, however, and learns to devalue the person she was before, in the same way that Martin Eden learned. "I had learned self-control. I was now a person of reason;" which means that she's learned to distance herself from herself: "The fight with Father to break away from home, the fight in the cafeteria for a piece of meat--when I went through those experiences I thought them privations and losses; now I saw them as treasure chests of insight" (Yezierska 1975, 222). She makes one friend at college, the dean. One day she asks him "Why is it that when a nobody wants to get to be somebody she's got to make herself terribly hard, when people like you who are born high up can keep all their kind feelings and get along so naturally well with everybody?" (230). This is the closest that Sara comes to a class critique. What she is noting is the effect of privilege and lack of privilege, but she doesn't carry that analysis further than this single comment. The dean answers "All pioneers have to get hard to survive.... And you're going to survive" (231). His answer is misleading--pioneers blaze the way for others to follow; Sara, however, is pursuing individual mobility, blazing a trail for no one. All working-class people who become educated and "successful" do so without leaving a trail behind them for a large segment of the working class to follow, because to do so would be structurally impossible. Capitalism requires a working class and can allow some, but not all, to move out of it. The dean's metaphor smacks of the American myth, and Sara buys into it because, for all her oppositional consciousness, she doesn't really have a political analysis, any more than Martin Eden did.

The dean tells her she will survive. Survive, however, in what sense? She triumphs by finishing college successfully and returning to the city as a teacher, "changed into a person!" (Yezierska 1975, 237). That is, a "person" of middle-class manners, means, and education. For all her earlier rejection of materialism, this seems to be the main meaning of her upward mobility: she goes shopping for appropriate clothes for work, and for "the first time in my life I asked for the best, not the cheapest," (239), and when her mother dies, she defies custom by refusing to tear her clothes--the new suit she has bought. When Sara gets the beautiful room of her own she has longed for, it is, significantly, empty, as is the life she's worked so hard to achieve: "nothing but a clean, airy emptiness" (240). Even her attitude toward solitude, which she saw before as a punishment, has changed: "The routine with which I kept clean my precious privacy, my beautiful aloneness, was all sacred to me" (241).

The novel does not have a happy ending. Although Sara has achieved upward mobility, the ending is, as Gay Wilentz calls it, "a Jewish lament rather than ... a happy-ever-after" (1991, 35). Sara asks herself, "Now I was the teacher. Why didn't I feel as I had supposed this superior creature felt? Why had I not the wings to fly with? Where was the vision lost?" (Yezierska 1975, 269). Perhaps because she's discovered that teachers are not "superior creatures" after all--that the very idea of superiority is hollow and false. When she meets a kindred spirit in Hugo Seelig, the school principal, she tells him, "Years ago, I vowed to myself that if I could ever tear myself out of the dirt I'd have only clean emptiness," (277) and although what she's describing is her apartment, she is also describing her life.

Wilentz points out that most critics of the novel, in particular Alice Kessler-Harris and Carol Schoen, have interpreted the ending as representing reconciliation, "with Sara having it both ways." Wilentz reads it not as a "neatly packaged" happy ending, but as one which exposes the "elements of incongruity" in Sara's trajectory. Sara, like Yezierska herself, is uneasy in America, not accepted, as an immigrant Jew, as an equal. "Just as Yezierska herself never resolved the conflict, the novel also does not reconcile difference, although it appears to superficially. The sense of loss and the tone of lament which pervade the novel are not easily mitigated by Sara's triumphs at the end" (Wilentz 1991, 39). Further, he insists that even "mediated cultural assimilation inscribes loss throughout the novel, and dialectically, it is precisely in the apparent resolution of the last chapter that Bread Givers' 'fairytale' ending deconstructs" (39). I would suggest, further, that any reading of the ending of the novel as "happy" is simply a reading which overlays upon the text the fulfillment of the myth we've been so conditioned to expect in American narratives. But to read Yezierska's text in this way is to ignore the details of the text itself in favor of the myth. Wilentz goes on to quote the crucially important passage in which Sara looks at the people she's left behind, those still in the ghetto, still poor, still suffering:

In the midst of this reflection, Sara runs into her own father peddling chewing gum, thus emphasizing the fact that Sara's journey has been one of only individual upward mobility. Nothing of the hard world she left has changed. If "joy hurt[s] like guilt" for the narrator, any happiness imputed to this ending must be read into it over the evidence that the narrator presents most forcefully.

Wilentz points out that "Sara's lament for her people is not only for the cruelty of a system that locks people in poverty, but also for what one must leave behind to succeed" (1991, 40). Indeed yes. Thus Sara shares Martin Eden's problem--she was well-fitted for the struggle, but the end of the struggle leaves her unsatisfied with what she has achieved, leaves her lost and as metaphorically at sea as Martin Eden is literally at sea. When Sara goes home to her empty room, there are roses which Hugo has given her. "I didn't want them if they were only for me," she thinks, but of course they are only for her, because she's become an individual, a middle-class model of possessive individualism (Yezierska 1975, 282). And there is no happiness to be found in this state, when the ghetto still exists so nearby.

Thomas J. Ferraro writes that "In narrating Sara's life story, Yezierska seems to be as drawn as her protagonist to a conservative denouement: it is Yezierska, after all, who seems incapable of imagining for her any other solution to the disappointments of teaching" (1990, 579). I see this, however, not as a conservative ending but a radical one--a refusal to capitulate to the Horatio Alger myth (the novel might have ended with Sara's triumphant graduation, at which she wins a prize and receives the acclaim of her classmates; this is where a true Horatio Alger story would have ended), an exposure of the structural problem of individual upward mobility in a class-based society. A refusal of a resolution for the protagonists of both of these novels constitutes on the part of the writers a refusal of the American myth of happy upward mobility, and makes these novels oppositional texts which call for a different way of reading, and for a discourse which, contrary to the celebratory tone of the dominant American discourse, recognizes loss within "success."


Another variation on the theme of the unhappiness of upward mobility appears in the contemporary novel Delia's Song, which takes the act of writing itself as the only way to put together the dislocations of an upwardly mobile life. Delia's Song thus makes explicit what is implicit in London's and Yezierska's work, for the writers are not the protagonists despite the autobiographical nature of the novels. Through writing the novels the writers are making the protest the characters do not make. Delia, the main character of Lucha Corpi's autobiographical novel, finds a way of linking the two halves of her life--pre- and post-education only through writing her story. Delia suffers in the novel from what could be clinically diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. She has flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing, all major symptoms of PTSD. The most obvious cause for her mental and emotional disturbance is her participation in the student strikes for ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, where she was a student in the late sixties. But as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that it is the entire educational process and her movement from the working class to the intellectual elite, including working toward her Ph.D., which has so affected her.

The dramatic present of the novel is 1977, when Delia is struggling to finish a dissertation. She is, however, debilitated by her nightmares and her flashbacks to 1968-69, when she took part in forming the student organization which eventually became Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MeCha). When she entered college, Delia felt "ready to begin the journey that would take her to that place where there were no dreams, because reality was better than any dream her imagination could design" (Corpi 1989, 24). Delia finds no such place, but rather finds herself thinking, "Am I about to die Madness" (31; italics in original).

During her undergraduate career, Delia had acquired a mentor, Mattie, who eventually also becomes a friend. In her first meeting with Mattie, Delia's cultural dislocation is clear. During one of her first conversations with Mattie: "Delia wanted to explain what she meant, but refrained. She had never been able to talk back to anyone, even when anger made her head throb. Her parents had taught her that keeping still in the face of argument was better" (Corpi 1989, 16). The novel makes clear that the attitude taught to Delia by her parents is not one freely chosen, by them or by her, but rather one imposed by oppression (both classism and racism), and, in order to save herself, Delia must ultimately learn to talk back. Unlike Rodriguez, the perfect "scholarship boy," Delia wants to resist, to shape herself as much as she is being shaped, but she doesn't know how. "She felt better when she could just observe and judge things without having to become involved in them, but also disliked herself for her lack of assurance" (18). Delia is well on her way to losing herself almost as soon as she starts her college career.

While in college, Delia carries a terrible burden. For one thing, she feels she must succeed in order to make her mother notice her, because, after her brother's death, her mother has ignored her, continuing to grieve for her dead brother. For another thing, she feels she must prove herself to the middle-class Anglo world for the sake of her family and her race. "But you must You must prove to them that you can You owe it to your parents" (Corpi 1989, 17). However, Delia has no sense of choice, of control over her life. Her destiny has been created for her by happenstance, accident, and intervention. "She was at Berkeley because an Anglo nun in high school had managed to open some doors for her" (17). While she rightly recognizes the role of chance and luck in her life, she has not developed any sense of agency in relation to how she responds to what chance brings her, either. She also feels frustrated by the student movement she joins. She and Samuel, who recruited her into MeCha, "had wanted to be part of a dream and found themselves instead unwilling participants in a departmental conflict that was tearing all of them apart" (59). Later, when she is trying to finish her dissertation, she feels herself to be someone "who believed they would make a difference and had gotten lost in some obscure corridor of academia" (70). After she earns her degree, she still feels "I haven't accomplished much" (76). This is similar to Martin Eden's reaction when his first book is published: "His book, his first book, and his pulse had not gone up a fraction of a beat, and he was only sad. It meant little to him now" (London 1984, 431). This dulling of affect, the inability to experience enjoyment, can be seen as a symptom of PTS, and is a commonly-reported reaction in narratives of upward mobility. (5)

Delia's first experience with writing comes when she becomes the chronicler for MeCha. However, simply recording facts is unsatisfactory to her. "This says nothing Blood Tears Pain How Tell" (Corpi 1989, 44; italics in original). How to tell? That is, how to tell a story which defies the Horatio Alger myth, which tells a different story. What Delia wants is not to record facts, but to create something more poetic, something that will show the inner heart of her experience. She takes the first step in that direction when Mattie suggests she write down her nightmares, and she agrees, hoping "she could get to the cause of them" (62). Delia's most symbolic nightmare is one in which a man cuts out her tongue, but writing out the dream doesn't help her understand it: "All I know is that whoever pursued me had finally caught up with me and made me pay with my tongue whatever it was I owed, but I can't for the life of me, figure out what that is" (127). What she owes is the same as what Martin Eden and Sara Smolinsky owe--an unpayable debt to the working-class past which results in a permanent sense of displacement. She has wanted to make a difference, but the only difference she has made is in earning her own degree, her own upward mobility, and that can never be satisfactory in a world in which, in order to do so, one must leave behind family and friends still laboring under class oppression.

Again it's Mattie who propels Delia towards writing when she says, "I've always thought you had the imagination and the sensibility of a writer" (Corpi 1989, 77). Delia's first reaction is no, she couldn't be a writer, but the seed is planted and begins to grow when Delia finds a model closer to home--her aunt, telling her family stories. At her aunt's house, Delia begins to find a place in the world:

Of course that hope cannot be brought about under capitalism. And when Delia begins to write her own story, she cannot, at first, see it as beauty. "Everything I write is so personal And now to wait My life is one big waiting room Corny corny No one has to read it" (95; italics in original). And so, in contrast to Rodriguez's self-consciously public writing project, Delia's writing starts out as private. She can write only because she reassures herself that "no one has to read it." In this way her writing becomes her way of asserting the control she has never had in her life. "It was the writing that had become important. She alone lived in that world, had control over it, created chaos or order as she pleased, at times. At other times it controlled her, demanding every inch of space in her mind" (108). Thus writing gives her the sense of agency which she never developed in the course of her education, and which she has sought.

Delia finally comes to an uneasy peace with herself by finishing her autobiographical novel, and by showing it first to Jeff, her lover, as a way of letting him really know her. When Mattie asks why she wants to show it first to Jeff, Delia says, "Because I want my life. I'm tired of being what someone else wants me to be. I want to stop living my nightmares, being afraid of myself, always asking for forgiveness" (Corpi 1989, 190). So instead of being an "act of contrition," as Rodriguez characterizes his writing, Delia's writing is an assertion of herself as an in-between being--in-between worlds, in-between other people's expectations. She is now prepared to make demands--that her lover and her parents read her and accept her.

Yet even though Delia finds a voice with which to speak, the novel abandons the public sphere and retreats into the private. Rather than resolving her feelings about the political activity she engaged in, Delia turns her attention to the private sphere. As a whole, the novel moves from raising questions of public concern--class mobility, feminism, racial equality, the nature of education--and subsumes them into a traditional love plot. The primary question at the end of the novel is not how Delia will reconcile herself with her estranged family, or how she will put her education to use for the good of her community, but whether Jeff will accept her story, in the form of her novel, and continue to love her. This conclusion to the novel has simply replaced, rather than resolved, Delia's dilemmas, and is much less vivid and engaging than the earlier parts of the novel, which detail her struggles with politics and education. And since Delia's Song itself seems to be the work Delia is writing, the potential for a happy ending is less than convincing, and the novel places itself firmly within the genre of unhappy narratives of upward mobility.


To close this discussion of the anti-Horatio Alger story, I return to where I started, with Richard Rodriguez. His Hunger of Memory presents one of the more poignant portrayals of the split identity created by class mobility. That split is clear from the first page of the book, which contains the dedication. He begins by holding his parents up to the ridicule of his educated readership--"She tells people, her neighbors, that I am a 'Ph.D. professor.'" Immediately she is set up as the outsider, the one who does not know the language. Rodriguez clearly expects his readers to understand the incorrectness of the title his mother gives him. Yet, he writes, the book is for "her and for him--to honor them." In his dedication, then, he encodes all the pain and confusion that unfolds in the narrative as a whole. He further explains who his readers are when he writes,

In this paragraph he again acts out his contradiction: he wishes that working-class readers would read his book, yet he has written it in terms only the college educated could follow, ensuring that those whom he desires as readers will never be his readers. But he has been led to write this way because of the reformation education has enacted on him. "I didn't think that there was such a thing as minority literature. Any novel or play about the lower-class will necessarily be alien to the culture it portrays" (161). He has conspired, then, in the cutting out of his own tongue, so his guilt, his characterization of his writing as an "act of contrition," is both the highest level of self-awareness he reaches in the book, and the highest level of pain.

Norma Alarcon has characterized his "practice of aesthetic writing" as a "hyperindividualized project" (1995, 144), and Ramon Saldivar has described Rodriguez as feeling "himself capable of functioning only as an isolated and private individual, deprived of any organic connection with his ethnic group, his social class, and finally even his own family" (1985, 27). And while these claims do accurately describe the story Rodriguez tells, Shirley Rose's insight is perhaps more enlightening about what the project of the book actually is. She notes that Rodriguez "considers himself representative--representative not of the Mexican-American but of the middle class. And he identifies himself with the middle class culture most clearly when he adopts its myth that literacy is positive, for it gives one autonomy" (1987, 11). This is the same myth which Delia accepts in Corpi's novel. For Rodriguez, as for Delia in writing her story, the performance of Hunger of Memory is the enactment of that myth; it is Rodriguez's credential of belonging in the middle class. But such belonging cannot come without conflict for him because of the memory of what has to be rejected and expurgated to earn that credential, hence his title, "Hunger of Memory," which points to what the book both claims (in its content) and denies (in its form).

He entitles his first section "Middle-class Pastoral," and figures himself as a Caliban who has "stolen their books" (Rodriguez 1982, 3). In this he plays out a common theme in working-class literature: the idea that for a working-class person, getting an education is an act of theft (6). With his Shakespeare reference, he makes clear his own position as someone who has learned the language he is writing in and also makes clear to whom the book is addressed--those readers who will understand the reference. He places himself, now, within the middle class, and goes on to explore how that "pastoral" theme tears him, yet ultimately subdues him, when he can feel only nostalgia, a suspect emotion, for his working-class past.

He tells us that his parents "are no longer my parents, in a cultural sense" (Rodriguez 1982, 4) and goes on to address the falsity of the attempt to replace class with ethnicity: "Perhaps because I am marked by indelible color they easily suppose that I am unchanged by social mobility, that I can claim unbroken ties with my past. The possibility!" He thus firmly rejects attempts to deny class and replace it with race, and further insists on the cost of his own experience of upward mobility: "What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents is loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story" (5). Thus Rodriguez sets aside ethnicity as a primary category for his problems with identity (and thus outrages many of his critics (7)). He claims, instead, that class is the primary fact of his life, and his class mobility is the instrument which has caused him to be lost, and, further, that there is no way out of that lost-ness because it arises out of the real losses he has suffered.

"As racism rhetorically replaced poverty as the key social oppression, Americans learned to look beyond class in considering social oppression.... It became easy to underestimate, even to ignore altogether, the importance of class" (Rodriguez 1982, 149). Such ideas have caused Rodriguez to be accused of political conservatism, but, actually, his stance is more radical (and anti-liberal): he argues that affirmative action is an inappropriate policy for the Left to adopt precisely because it's not revolutionary (8) , "The revolutionary demand," he rightly notes, "would have called for a reform of primary and secondary schools" (151). He maintains that class, not race, is the primary factor of oppression, because "I do not think that all blacks are equally 'black.' ... All Mexican-Americans are not equally Mexican-Americans," and the dividing line is class (150). While all blacks may face racism, Rodriguez argues, it is much worse for those in the working class than the middle class. In this way he raises class to the status usually given it by Marxists (yet he is not a Marxist), and thus has raised a storm of controversy.

But it is the personal story of unhappy upward mobility which I want to explore here. Rodriguez writes that he "became a man by becoming a public man," and defines the middle class by the public nature of middle class life (Rodriguez 1982, 7). Thus, he fully occupies his middle-class position by writing his story as a book, an act which hurts his mother, who believes family stories are and should be private, a sentiment he attributes to the working class. He describes the experience of going to school and learning English as one of developing a public identity. He calls learning that he had a public identity, "the great lesson of school" (19). Much has been written about the public/private dichotomy Rodriguez erects (see especially Saldivar 1985), but it is usually analyzed as a split between Spanish and English; rather, Rodriguez delineates it as a split between working class and/or the educated intellectual class. For him working-class experience took place in Spanish, but he very clearly makes the claim that no child, including native speakers of English, can take private family language into the public realm. While this may be marginally true for middle-class children, it is true with a vengeance for all working-class children, regardless of their native language, because their native dialect is non-standard.

Rodriguez himself has addressed misreadings of Hunger of Memory in his essay "An American Writer," calling the "drama" of his life "not an ethnic drama, but one of social class.... The Spanish I had gathered at home was as different from conventional standard Spanish as Appalachian white English is different from the English used in the University of Virginia" (1989, 5). He further claims that the "writers who teach me best about the drama of my life are not American. They are British. (Perhaps in a society less racially diverse than ours, the British better realize that the greatest social division is economic)" (5). Yet, no matter that Rodriguez has made this position completely explicit, still it seems that he has a hard time making it heard, going, as it does, against our most cherished myths about ourselves--that class does not really matter in America, that the Horatio Alger story can be true, that upward mobility, once achieved, can be guilt-free and happy. Rodriguez insists that class not only matters, but matters most, that Horatio Alger is a liar, and that "success" is not happy if one achieves it (as must necessarily be) alone.

The reasons he lays out for his very controversial opposition to bilingual education are worth looking at calmly, apart from the longstanding furor they have created, because his basis for objection is built on his conception of class mobility as a necessarily disabling process. He writes,

The last line underscores his belief that the pain and loss he has undergone are the inevitable results of upward mobility. He, like Martin Eden, has learned that which keeps him from going back to the world he lost. Although he has re-learned Spanish as an adult, and is indeed bilingual, the Spanish he knows is as literary as the English he uses: "[I] read Garcia Lorca and Garcia Marquez at my leisure" (5). Having mastered the educated registers of English and Spanish, he finds himself trapped into them, unable to return to the "family language," the working-class dialects of his childhood, and thus is cut off from his parents and from his past. His upward mobility has closed a door. He cannot move between class cultures. He believes bilingual education simply denies the reality of class assimilation (not ethnic assimilation).

When he details his education, it becomes clear what has happened to him. He has remained a "scholarship boy." Despite his claim to have reached "the end of education," it is clear that his education has not freed him, but keeps him, still, entrapped (Rodriguez 1982, 73). He describes himself as "an imitative and unoriginal pupil" (44). He tried, in elementary school, to "keep separate the two very different worlds of my day" (44-45). Eventually, though, unable to maintain those two worlds, he gave himself over to being a student. He did not understand what had happened to him until he sat in the British Museum, unable to finish his dissertation, and found Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy and his description of "the scholarship boy," a category of working-class student who, like Rodriguez, is wholly changed by his experience of school. The scholarship boy, "cannot afford to admire his parents.... He permits himself embarrassment at their lack of education" (49), an accurate description of Rodriguez's own contradictory presentation of his parents in his dedication to the book. When people would say to Rodriguez, "'Your parents must be very proud of you,'" he would hide his true feelings: he was not proud of them (52). It is here that Rodriguez becomes lost, because he has internalized the values of the educated, middleclass world unquestioningly.

He describes his voracious reading in elementary and high school, and recognizes how he was trapped by it: "I was not a good reader. Merely bookish, I lacked a point of view when I read. Rather, I read to acquire a point of view" (64). Rodriguez portrays himself as the perfect subject for indoctrination, rather than education. In describing his Catholic school education, he writes that it emphasized memorization, therefore implying "that education is largely a matter of acquiring knowledge already discovered." He concludes that this was correct, for, "contrary to more progressive notions of learning, much that is learned in a classroom must be already known; and much that is already known must be learned before a student can achieve truly independent thought" (Rodriguez 1982, 89). Yes, but a student need not remain passive while learning what is already known, but may question, may challenge the very definitions of knowledge.

Rodriguez points out that "education requires radical self-reformation," (1982, 67) but fails to note that "self-reformation" suggests an active process in which a "self" takes part. In every description of himself as a "scholarship boy," he appears selfless, an empty vessel, waiting patiently to be filled. He is ultimately filled and reformed into someone whose only possible connection to his past is nostalgia, or anthropological analysis. "If," he writes, "because of my school, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact" (72)(9). What it had not given to him was a way of speaking to his parents. The heartbreaking ending of the book describes a Christmas dinner. At the end of the evening, Rodriguez's father "asks if I am going home now too. It is, I realize, the only thing he has said to me all evening" (195). What Rodriguez does not note is that he has said nothing to his father, either, and he does not give us the answer to his father's question, so his silence remains complete. Rodriguez remains an outsider at this family gathering because he has allowed himself to be remade by his education, taking no part in the process, never resisting or questioning, and thus finds himself mute in a way his siblings, who have also gotten college degrees (from state universities, not Stanford, like Richard) and moved into middle-class jobs, are not. They are able to move between worlds because they were not remade in the same way he was.

Critics have tended to focus on the ethnic dimensions of Hunger of Memory, rather than on its class dimensions. Barbara Frey Waxman writes that "his is an American story of upward mobility, but it is also a story of loss, of an increasingly cool indifference toward his Mexican origins" (1996, 210), thus conflating "Mexican" and working class in a way Rodriguez himself does not. Waxman goes on to say "I read his textual negotiations as fraught with conflict and guilt, at least over ethnicity, if not over class" (210), and, disagreeing with Paredes's and Saldivar's condemnation of Rodriguez's politics of assimilation, she says "I nevertheless read his text's voices as those of honest angst and regret-filled, though chosen, alienation, as well as of pride in making it into intellectual, cultured, middle-class America" (213). While it is clear that Rodriguez has that pride, he also practices a good deal of self-flagellation in the text. It is clear that he is profoundly uncomfortable with his class status, feels terribly conflicted over it, and guilty about it as well as proud of it, as do Martin Eden, Sara Smolinsky, and Delia. The first section of the book,"Middle Class Pastoral," is an exercise in just that duality. He recognizes what Waxman does not acknowledge: that "intellectual, cultured, middleclass America" is not superior to the working-class world of his parents; it's just different, and offers its members more power, but not more meaning or satisfaction. Waxman's characterization of Rodriguez's alienation as chosen is also off-base: he chooses to embrace and emphasize his alienation once he has it, but he moved into it unknowingly, as he details so painfully in his discussions of "the scholarship boy," just as Martin Eden, Sara Smolinsky, and Delia (and the creators of these autobiographical stand-ins) moved into the same alienation through their upward mobility.

Rodriguez's alienation seems to have remained constant. In "An American Writer," he writes that the purpose of autobiography can be "finding connection, healing the break in the discontinuous life" (1989, 8). Yet in his 1992 collection of essays, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, which Rosaura Sanchez sees as "a rebuttal of criticism to his earlier book, Hunger of Memory" (1995, 158), the alienation remains. (10) Rodriguez writes that "People believed that in California they could begin new lives," which is of course what he once believed (1992, xvii); Hunger of Memory is the chronicle of the failure of that belief, and Days of Obligation does not reinstate it. "Our parents came to America for the choices America offers. What the child of immigrant parents knows is that here is inevitability" (Rodriguez 1992, 158). Throughout the book Rodriguez presents Mexico and the U.S. as a dichotomy--as his own life has been a dichotomy.

He reports a conversation he had with his father when he was fourteen:

And he affirms that his father was right. "My father knew what most of the world knows by now--that tragedy wins; that talent is mockery" (219). Days of Obligation does not resolve the dilemma of Hunger of Memory. The hunger is still there for Rodriguez as it has been across the 20th century for writers of working-class origin who chronicle the necessarily unhappy experience of individual upward mobility.

As Lucha Corpi writes in Delia's Song, "One day, she hoped, they would not have to trade beauty for survival any more" (1989, 94). This line points to the paradox which all these writers confront: a desire for (illusory) beauty, for meaning, for something more (something usually undefined), impels these protagonists (and, indeed, the writers themselves) to undertake upward mobility in search of that which cannot be found within the working class, where they must "trade beauty for survival." These protagonists find only hollow outlines of what they were looking for when they achieve their upward mobility and are left focusing on their loss. As long as the road "up" is open only to a few working-class supermen/women, and they must leave behind their communities and their previous values in order to enter the middle-class world, "Martin Eden stories," that is, narratives of unhappy upward mobility, will continue to be written.


(1) See Christopher and Whitson (1999).

(2) There is no space here to examine the issues of ethnicity brought up by all of these texts (including London's, in terms of its white-supremacist imperialism). However, the main point I want to make here is that the experience of class mobility is strikingly similar across ethnic lines in these narratives. Richard Rodriguez has said in an interview with Bill Moyers on PBS that class is "more elemental" than ethnicity and within these particular narratives I find that to be true.

(3) Interestingly, this is precisely what Malcolm X describes doing when he first starts educating himself in prison.

(4) In yet another version of this passage, London wrote in a letter in 1910,

(5) Barbara Jensen has shown that working-class experience itself can cause the clinical symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Jensen's main work in this area has been in conference papers, particularly "Post-Traumatic Lives," but see also her article "The Silent Psychology"

(6) For another representation of a working-class person "stealing" an education, see Dorothy Allison's story "Steal Away" (1988) and the discussion of it in Christopher (1995).

(7) Norma Alarcon writes that his use of "public" and "private" is part of a noncritically acquired education that in effect leads him to the (unsustainable) refusal of ethnicity, except as a private phenomenon that is then opposed to his construction of a public persona" (1995, 142). While Alarcon is clearly right about Rodriguez's "noncritically acquired" education, her main point is that ethnicity, rather than class, is the only viable focus for a discussion of identity, a denial of the reality of class as a creator of identity, something upon which Rodriguez adamantly insists.

W. Lawrence Hogue points out that much of Chicano criticism of Rodriguez has taken an ethnic essentialist position, particularly that of Rivera and Saldivar (1996, 107-08). For me, none of the extensive criticism has paid enough attention to the issue of class, which Rodriguez himself foregrounds so prominently.

(8) Rodriguez's true political position is notoriously hard to pin down. Randy A. Rodriguez, in "A Conversation with Richard Rodriguez," notes that Rodriguez has accepted an award from President Bush

He is a man of political, ethnic, class, and sexual contradictions.

(9) For another representation of this same feeling, see Gloria Anzaldua's poem "Nopalitos" in Borderlands/La Frontera.

(10) Sanchez concludes that the book is

so clearly she doesn't find his "rebuttal" effective.

Works Cited

Alarcon, Norma. 1995. "Tropology of Hunger: The 'Miseducation' of Richard Rodriguez." In The Ethnic Canon, ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Alger, Horatio. 1985. Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward. New York: Penguin.

Allison, Dorothy. 1988. Trash. Ithaca: Firebrand Books.

Anzaldua, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/LaFrontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Christopher, Renny. 1995. "Cultural Borders: Working-Class Literature's Challenge to the Canon." In The Canon in the Classroom, ed. John Alberti. New York: Garland.

Christopher, Renny, and Carolyn Whitson. 1999. "Towards a Theory of WorkingClass Literature." Thought and Action 15:1: 71-81.

Corpi, Lucha. 1989. Delia's Song. Houston: Arte Publico Press.

Ferraro, Thomas J. 1990. "Working Ourselves Up' in America: Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers. The South Atlantic Quarterly 89:3: 547-81.

Golub, Ellen. 1983. "Eat Your Heart Out: The Fiction of Anzia Yezierska" Studies in American Jewish Literature 3:51-61.

Hedrick, Joan. 1982. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hogue, W. Lawrence. 1996. Race, Modernity and Postmodernity: A Look at the History and Literatures of People of Color Since the 1960s. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jensen, Barbara. 1999. "Post Traumatic Lives: Identity and Injury in the Working Class." Paper presented at the Youngstown Center for Working Class Studies Conference, June 1998, at Youngstown State University.

--. 1998. "The Silent Psychology." In Working Class Lives and Cultures, ed. Renny Christopher, Lisa Orr, and Linda Strom. Women's Studies Quarterly, 26.1/2: 202-15.

Johnston, Carolyn. 1984. Jack London: An American Radical? Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood University Press.

Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. 1994. Jack London. New York: Twayne. London, Jack. 1984. Martin Eden. New York: Penguin.

Mantsios, Gregory. 1992. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." In Rereading America. 2nd ed, ed. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Ortner, Sherry. 1991. "Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture." In Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, ed. Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Rodriguez, Randy A. 1996. "A Conversation with Richard Rodriguez." Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, 27: 35-50.

Rodriguez, Richard. 1992. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Viking.

--. 1989. "An American Writer." In The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford University Press.

--. 1982. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York: Bantam.

Rose, Shirley. 1987. "Metaphors and Myths of Cross-Cultural Literacy: Autobiographical Narratives by Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, and Malcolm X." MELUS 14:1: 3-15.

Saldivar, Ramon. 1985. "Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography." diacritics 15:3: 25-34.

Sanchez, Rosaura. 1995. "Calculated Musings: Richard Rodriguez's Metaphysics of Difference." In The Ethnic Canon, ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Schneider, Isidor. 1935. From the Kingdom of Necessity. New York: G.P Putnam.

Sinclair, Andrew. 1984. "Introduction." In Martin Eden, by Jack London. New York: Penguin.

Spangler, George M. 1983. "Divided Self and World in Martin Eden." In Critical Essays on Jack London, ed. Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Waxman, Barbara Frey. 1996. "Feeding the 'Hunger of Memory' and An Appetite for the Future: The Ethnic 'Storied' Self and the American Authored Self in Ethnic Autobiography." In Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders, ed. John C. Hawley. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Whipple, T. K. 1943. Study Out the Land. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilentz, Gay. 1991. "Cultural Mediation and the Immigrant's Daughter: Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers." MELUS 17:3: 32-41.

Yezierska, Anzia. 1975. Bread Givers. 1925. Reprint. New York: Persea Books.

Christopher is Associate Professor of English at California State University, Channel Islands, and a member of the National Advisory Board of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
The middle class ... is a source of
   tremendous ambivalence from a working-class
   perspective. Middle-class status
   is highly desirable for its greater material
   affluence and security, but undesirable
   for all the ways in which its patterns are
   culturally "other," and for the ways in
   which upward mobility would pull one
   away from kin, friends, or neighborhood.
   (Sherry Ortner, "Reading America")

   He had set out from the kingdom of
   necessity; he had found a way out, the
   escape from his class, only to find that,
   outside, he was homeless. (Isidor
   Schneider, From the Kingdom of Necessity)

His alienation from his own working-class background and
   from middleclass
   white Americans constitutes his subjective modern experience,
   goes unresolved in Hunger of Memory. Richard never attempts
   to define his
   own existence, to create a new life outside these two social
   (Hogue 1996, 85)


   The story of Jack London's rise to middle-class success
   is also the story of
   his failure to achieve a sense of belonging within lower-class
   culture. (Joan
   Hedrick, Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work)

myth of individual success through hard work still
   dominated American
   culture. Horatio Alger inspired, whereas Jack London
   depressed. The
   idea that hard work and success were self-defeating in
   an unlovely
   mechanical society was unpalatable, both to radicals and
   to Republicans.
   (Sinclair 1984, 18)

Martin's desire to become an artist has its inception in
   his newfound
   of class and of the barriers that class rears between
   experiences and
   their expression.... The contrast between his present and
   his past, between
   his immediate experience in the middle class and his former
   experience in
   the working class, evokes visions that become Martin's goal
   to express
   through art. (Hedrick 1982, 205)

Therefore they could not want him now for himself or for
   his work, but
   for the fame that was his, because he was somebody amongst men,
   not?--because he had a hundred thousand dollars or so. That
   was the
   way bourgeois society valued a man.... He desired to be valued
   for himself,
   or for his work, which, after all, was an expression of himself.
   That was
   the way Lizzie valued him. The work, with her, did not even count.
   She valued
   him, himself. That was the way Jimmy, the plumber, and the old gang
   valued him.... What they liked, and were willing to scrap for, was
   just Mart
   Eden, one of the bunch and a pretty good guy. (London, 1984, 444)

He drove along the path of relentless logic to the conclusion
   that he was
   nobody, nothing. Mart Eden, the hoodlum, and Mart Eden, the
   sailor, had
   been real, had been he; but Martin Eden! the famous writer,
   did not exist.
   Martin Eden, the famous writer, was a vapor that had arisen
   in the mobmind
   and by the mob-mind had been thrust into the corporeal being of
   Mart Eden, the hoodlum and sailor. (London 1984, 454)
   And so he is doomed. When he takes a ship for the South Seas,
   he slips out
   his porthole and drowns himself.

was an individualist. He was unaware of the needs of others.
   warned him that he would need socialism to handcuff him to
   life in the
   bad time coming. But Martin did not. And so he died. He
   worked, strove,
   fought for himself alone. And when disillusionment came, when
   love, fame, the worthwhileness of the bourgeoisie--all things
   failed, why there was nothing left for him to live for.
   (Quoted in Johnston 1984, 64) (4)

critical treatment of the American dream of success.... By 1909
   such critical appraisals of the idea of success
   had become a commonplace of
   American realistic fiction in the work of Howells,
   Frederic, Norris, Dreiser
   and others so that London's intended message
   could scarcely have taken his
   readers by surprise. Yet misunderstanding was common,
   and it has persisted. (Spangler 1983, 156)

is not a coherent text in the conventional sense of the word, as
   the long debate over the plausibility of Martin's sudden collapse
   and thus the esthetic unity of the novel makes amply clear.
   Nonetheless it does have its own distinctive consistency,
   the paradoxical consistency
   of its continuously binary vision. (Spangler 1983, 164)

central metaphor of her generation: hunger. For the promise of
   America, its language, its natives, and her rapidly Americanizing
   Lower East Side of New York, she has but one metaphor. For beauty,
   language, love, achievement--for all the desires she confronts
   in the immigrants' name, issues of the mouth color and define
   her prose. (Golub 1983, 51-52)

in a communal voice, of a fire that cannot be quenched in
   their souls, of a hunger that food cannot sate. Theirs is a
   permanent sense of alienation and aloneness. And though they
   insist on breaking down the barriers to their desire, their
   tragedy remains the paradoxical desire which is fed on hunger.
   ... The saddest moment [for these heroines] is when that dream
   is achieved and yields little more than longing for the old days
   when the heroine was young and hopeful. (Golub 1983, 53)

attempts to attach herself to America by filling her hungry mouth
   with American culture and language.... Those who hunger for
   beauty in Yezierska's world are twice as hungry as those who
   hunger for mere food. Theirs is a spiritual yearning of the heart
   and soul to possess an American aesthetic, to achieve the clean
   spareness which they deem patrician. (Golub 1983, 58)

But as I walked along through Hester Street towards the Third
   Avenue L, my joy hurt like guilt. Lines upon lines of pushcart
   peddlers were crouching in the rain. Backs bent, hands in their
   sleeves, ears under their collars, grimy faces squeezed into
   frozen masks. They were like animals helpless against the cold,
   pitiless weather. (Yezierska 1975, 281)

She was someone special there, but was also part of a larger
   family and of a community whose history in California was forever
   present. Like the cypresses with their twisted roots searching
   for nourishment, she and her family stood on the rocky shore.
   One day, she hoped, they would not have to trade beauty for
   survival any more. (Corpi 1989, 94)

You who read this act of contrition should know that by writing it
   I seek
   a kind of forgiveness--not yours. The forgiveness, rather, of
   those many
   persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be
   as a minority student. I wish that they would read this. I doubt
   they ever
   will. (Rodriguez 1982, 153)

[In bilingual education] there gleams an astonishing promise: One
   become a public person while still remaining a private person. At
   the very
   same time one can be both! There need be no tension between the
   self in
   the crowd and the self apart from the crowd! Who would not want to
   believe such an idea? Who can be surprised that the scheme has
   won the
   support of many middle-class Americans? If the barrio or the
   ghetto child
   can retain his separateness even while being publicly educated,
   then it is
   almost possible to believe that there is no private cost to be paid
   for public
   success. (Rodriguez 1982, 35)

"Life is harder than you think, boy."
   "You're thinking of Mexico, Papa."
   "You'll see" (Rodriguez 1992, 202)

Being an Individualist, being unaware of the needs of others, of
   the whole human
   collective need, Martin Eden lived only for himself, fought only
   for himself, and, if
   you please, died for himself. He fought for entrance into the
   bourgeois circles where
   he expected to find refinement, culture, high-living and
   high-thinking. He won his
   way into those circles and was appalled by the colossal, unlovely
   mediocrity of the
   bourgeoisie. He fought for a woman he had loved and idealized. He
   found that love
   had tricked him and failed him, and that he had loved his
   idealization more than
   the woman herself. Those were the things he found life worth living
   in order to
   fight for. When they failed him, being a consistent Individualist,
   being unaware of
   the collective human need, there remained nothing for which to live
   and fight. And
   so he died. (Quoted in Spangler 1983, 155)

(usually given to conservatives like Allan Bloom and Shelby Steele);
   speaks to Catholic leaders about the need to understand and accept
   supports the confrontational, high profile tactics of ACT UP (to
   direct attention
   to the AIDS crisis); works as editor of the left of center Pacific
   News Service; publishes
   essays for Harper's, Mother Jones and Dissent; and refers to himself
   as an "in your face" queer and a "queer in a sort of Noel Coward
   way. You know,
   reclining on the sofa with a long cigarette holder in hand."
   (Rodriguez 1996, 36)

not so much a disingenuous cliche-ridden, hodgepodge of
   clever-sounding, self-reflective,
   self-absorbed musings as it is a calculated compendium of
   geared, on the one hand, to assuage mainstream fears of diversity
   and, on the other,
   to set down directions for a more 'effective' incorporation of
   minority discourses in
   what promises to be a time of increasing upheaval. (Sanchez 1995,
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