Elsewhere I’ve argued that the fair use of culture as an explanation in writing history would involve two obligations on the writer. First, he must show that the cultural behavior he is claiming is or was generally accepted as an imperative by the people of a particular culture. Second, he must demonstrate that a particular individual was at a particular time responding to this particular imperative. Individuals in all cultures are faced with a hierarchy of conflicting imperatives from which they chose a variety of culturally determined responses. At the very least, the author should show that the individual habitually acted on a particular imperative in in this way in similar situations. The use of social class as explanation could be similarly restricted. However, unlike culture, we are familiar with our own social classes, so class is not an alien concept. We can evaluate class from our own experience. It is not a deus ex machina, god from the machine, that solves problems when the writer has written himself into a corner.
If we hold different ideas about what it is, it might not prove too helpful as explanation. If I write ‘wagon,’ some of you might see a Conestoga while others see a child’s little red wagon. We need to define our terms. I’m currently reading a book, presumably of history, in which a protagonist came west in 1860 to Arizona by stagecoach. Unfortunately, this historical person may have come west by stagecoach, but it wasn’t a Concord. In 1860, it would have been a Celerity wagon. Concords weren’t seen in Arizona for almost another 20 years but that is what we see in the movies. In Arizona in the 1860s and 70s, a stagecoach might have been a dog cart, a Celerity wagon, or buckboard. We need to define what we mean and not make careless assumptions. The author of the book seems to go on to make his entire point the application of stereotypes to two historic individuals to disastrous effect. I’ll write about this again when I’ve read farther.
Like culture class presents imperatives to which the individual may respond in diametrically opposed manners. Each class seems to have its own challenges although individuals respond to them very differently. The upper class has a long tradition of the correct form of interaction with inferiors of various sorts. At its best the ‘correct form’ places obligations on the upper class to be generous and to lead. However, a hereditary upper class, like that in Britain, may also find its position so secure that it loses all sense of need for proper behavior and acts entirely boorishly as if it had no obligations at all. In this it begins to mirror the lowest classes in seeing no need to look to the future.
The United States has no real upper class in the sense that Britain does unless ‘old money’ may find itself so secure as to think itself hereditary. This may also apply to certain political dynasties that have been in power overlong. For the most part the United States has an extended middle class. This middle class contains three distinct groups. One is a class of business owners ranging from poor farmers to wealthy industry barons. The other is a class of managers who work for the owners controlling the activities of workers. The third is a class of government managers which includes college professors and school teachers. What these groups have in common is the patience and foresight to put aside present gratification in favor of future gain. As a group they tend to be fretful of their position, careful in their behavior to appear upstanding and trustworthy. This group seeks rectitude in behavior and looks down on those who don’t display appropriate manners.
The lower classes tend, on the other hand, to seek instant gratification and to care little how others see their behavior. They do not defer to the future. They live in the now. Since this class is full of just arrived immigrants, they are accepting of outrageous behavior and customs. They can also be the most hateful of other cultures and races when there is competition for jobs.
There are those in the lower ranks who look to the future and set aside instant gratification. These are people who want to rise into the middle class. Eber Jeffords, Tom Jeffords’s father, moved from the east to Chautauqua and from there to Ashtabula looking for a better life. He would spend many years on the docks, as would his sons, saving for a future day when he could buy a farm. Tom grew up surrounded by the working class in a community where labor was at a premium. He grew in contact with other cultures, rubbing elbows with Swedes, Germans, French Canadians and the Dutch. He and his brothers had middle class ideas of rising to be owners of property. Tom and James rose to be sea captains demonstrating trustworthiness and the ability to lead. On shipboard, Tom was at close quarters with working class men of many backgrounds. He needed to remain aloof but not too aloof. He couldn’t look down on them. He was in the difficult position of being friend and leader.
This set the stage for his later life. When not out searching for his fortune, he was in positions of trust. In this he was firmly middle class. He was also ready to accept other peoples and cultures and thus prepared to become fast friends and trusted ally of Cochise, the Chiricahua chief.