Book Review

Book Review: Cox On The American Bourgeoisie

Review of Sven Beckert and Julia B. Rosenbaum, Editors, The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History, Palgrave Macillan: New York City, 2011.

Reviewed by Nicholas P. Cox
University of Houston

“Who in the world today, especially in the realm of culture, defends the bourgeoisie?”
-Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976)

If Sven Beckert and Julia B. Rosenbaum, editors of The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century, do not propose to defend the American bourgeois, then they do at least advocate for a greater scrutiny and recognition of the impact that bourgeois Americans made—on the production and consumption of culture, the gradations of taste and manners, and the role of the bourgeoisie in the founding of seminal cultural institutions from art museums, symphonies, and elite university alumni organizations.

Not surprisingly in a volume that collects fifteen conference papers subsequently elaborated for publication there are just as many definitions of bourgeoisie as there are contributions to this volume. Definitions of who were the bourgeois range from my personal favorite for its brevity and inclusiveness “Americans who distinctively wedded culture to capital” (from the editors’ erudite introduction) to a series of satisfactory and functional definitions. These others are less about taste shaping or cultural production and more about consumption as the definition of Bourgeois experience. The essays in this volume touch on a broad range of topics such as culinary arts, miniature portraiture, travel memoir, and orchestra patronage. Consequently it is inevitable that each contributor’s idiosyncratic definition of who was bourgeois and the boundaries of their studies begin to conflict, abandoning any effort at precisely looking at the same class or behaviors. One of my concerns is the fluidity in which the bourgeois become less distinguishable from more conventional definitions of the larger middle class—a group with a work ethic that dignified the accumulation of wealth combined with a moderate regard for ostentatious displays of consumption. That definition of the middle class has much in common with this volume’s consideration of the bourgeois, which sees the leisure ethic of both the extraordinarily wealthy and the depressingly downtrodden as sharing the same stubbornness against dignified labor and thriftiness, if not sharing, of course, the same financial position. For the purposes of the examination of the bourgeoisie, then, this class often includes people of extraordinary wealth, clearly having transcended the middle class, such as the industrialists-turned-philanthropists like a Carnegie or Rockefeller. The Scottish immigrant and the Midwestern Sunday school teacher expressed middle class values of hard work, thrift, and sobriety and yet, their unparalleled wealth in combination with these values made possible the emergence of a bourgeoisie in the United States. In general, in this essay collection, it is not income or property that defines class, but manners and the Protestant work ethic.

The contributors to this volume do not note historian John Thomas’ assessment, in Alternative America (1983), which sought to explain why Midwestern anti-capitalism, from men such as novelist Theodore Dreiser and labor organizer and perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, sought to put the brakes on the taste making and cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie: “Liberals in all the professions suddenly realized that their most urgent task was educating middle-class Americans by helping them to adjust their preferences for the fluidity and individualism of an agrarian social order to an industrial one in which these values seemed dysfunctional.” Indeed, the bourgeoisie in the pages of this volume are seeking to transform an agrarian rural hinterland and a growing, increasingly immigrant, industrial proletarian class into middle-class Americans who appreciate music, meals, architecture and furniture that accord with bourgeois taste. In the classic Arnoldian battle between low-brow and hi-brow, it is the bourgeois who are mediating—and who are evangelizing their view of taste.

Defending bourgeois campaigns to establish “distinction and identity” in the 19th century U.S. is entirely another matter. As cultural critic Daniel Bell pointed out after the tumultuous 1960s, no one seriously defends the notion that upper-class or middle-class preferences are superior to those of the democratic mass in the classic Dwight Macdonald-style jeremiads against demotic art, music, or popular entertainments; nor does anyone seriously defend the relatively bullying methods that the bourgeois shaping of culture was a necessary part of training the working class and immigrants without acknowledging the denigration of an already financially subordinate group. If an edited collection of essays can be said to have a thesis, then the most central shared argument Is that, rather than fight these cultural wars again, the contributors to this volume wisely avoid making overtly judgmental or praiseful commentary on the practices of the bourgeoisie, but instead uncover, through close scrutiny of social practices, just how the bourgeoisie shaped the development of modern American culture.

Essays by Anne Verplanck, Francesca Morgan, and Paul DiMaggio stand out for their close attention to the role of the bourgeois in early 19th century Philadelphia, in the aristocratic pretensions of genealogical societies, and of late 19th century Chicago. Verplanck’s reading of the brief ascent of miniature painted portraits before the advent of photographic portraiture traces out the privileging of artisanal skill and patronage networks that facilitate the production of gorgeous miniature paintings, unfortunately swept away by the cheaper, quicker, and more democratic demand for photography. Morgan’s study of bourgeois fixations on aristocratic, Mayflower, or Revolutionary genealogical family lineages demonstrates the aspirations to cultural elitism that motivate the same clubbing and memorializing that would become ubiquitous in the turn of the century as Sons of This and Daughters of That sought to create restrictive but elevating social clubs. In a volume that is almost entirely preoccupied with the activities of a small class of northeastern urbane cultural consumers and producers, DiMaggio’s wonderful essay reminds us that the Midwest had its own form of bourgeois taste making where new business-generated wealth fashioned a civic culture distinct from the seaboard bourgeois of Boston, New York or Philadelphia.

The volume includes another dozen essays of relatively similar interest and talent, rounding out a volume that will be of interest to scholars across disciplines, but especially with regard to class identity formation or art production and consumption. There are essays on the habits of shoppers in a transitional moment from street vending to shop-keeping, on the stories of Henry James (of course…), on interior design, on patronage of museums and symphonies, higher education, and other related bourgeois experiences. In addition to the breadth of topics, the interdisciplinary range of the contributors is also rather remarkable with scholars of U.S. history and literature, as well as American Studies, but also from fields of museum studies, public affairs, sociology, art history, music history and culinary history.

There are, however, a few disappointing concerns, none of which are easily dismissed. First, my friend Daniel Wells (Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 2003), I am certain, would like me to remind scholars that there was a southern middle class in cities such as Baltimore, DC, Charleston, Louisville, and New Orleans and consideration of any of the bourgeois experiences in these southern cities would have added to the geographic range necessary if this volume intends to describe the American experience. Second, the absence of working class, immigrant, and African American considerations in the essays is surprising. Certainly, a defense could be fashioned that these subaltern populations were often not bourgeois taste-makers, but they were the intended consumers. Some thought on their reception or rejection of bourgeois intensions seems worth consideration. And as labor historian E. P. Thompson and sociologist Daniel Bell have noted, and for that matter Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx predicted, the subaltern’s combination of their own democratic cultural production with their rejection of bourgeois cultural prescriptions is precisely the location, for good or ill, of post-bourgeois 20th century cultural production. This collapse of bourgeois influence, so taken for granted by Modernists, avant gardists, beatniks, and the others in the first half of the 20th century, made possible the assumptions behind Bell’s statement that bourgeois values are indefensible. And yet, the persistence of middle class values, bourgeois arts, and working class aspirations toward bourgeois living persist despite the efforts of the avant garde. What of this persistence in the 20th century?

Decent libraries everywhere should stock this volume while I unhesitatingly encourage scholars of a wide range of interests to take the time to read the excellent introduction and the essays relevant to their own work; indeed, reading this cover to cover is reward in itself for its commitment to speaking across disciplinary boundaries. I sincerely hope that an inexpensive paperback edition follows quickly for widespread course adoption.