An Elegy for the Working Class

Examining the working-class artists in Cynthia Cruz's The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class

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in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez

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Before COVID drew a curtain over Broadway, the Public Theater in New York produced an improbable play about a real-life tragedy. Billed as a work of documentary theater, Coal Country told the story of a deadly explosion that tore a hole through the Upper Big Branch Mine and the lives of families in Montcoal, West Virginia. The play derived much of its power from first-person accounts of survivors and family members in the rural, working-class community. These were gleaned from interviews that playwright Jessica Blank and her husband Erik Jensen conducted with families of the 29 coal miners who were killed in the actual explosion in 2010. Coal Country cast a pitiless eye on the corporate insouciance and unheeded warnings that paved the way for the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in 40 years. (In 2016, Upper Big Branch’s chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was sentenced to prison after he was found guilty of violating safety standards at the mine.) An unforgettable song cycle was performed by Steve Earle, whose haunting lyrics evoked the feeling of turning a radio dial to different channels of grief. Men and women took turns recounting the experience of living in the bardo between a working-class life and a preventable death. One refrain about working as a coal miner went: “You’d work your fingers to the bone, couldn’t show a thing / You shifted coal to Friday, drew your pay and then / You’d walk down to the company store and give it back again.” In its verbatim drama, Coal Country was not so much a play as an omnibus obituary for Appalachian coal miners.

Coal Country was also a departure from the usual Broadway fare. Theaters, on and off Broadway, don’t have a stellar track record of centering the working-class in their productions. In 2020, the year the play premiered, those working on construction and extraction in mines earned just over $23 per hour, or $48,480 per year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, 55% of national theater patrons had an annual household income of more than $100,000 in the 2017-18 season, the latest season for which data is available. A new book, The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class by the poet Cynthia Cruz, goes even further and argues that overt reference to the “working class” has all but vanished from the cultural lexicon — and seeks to rescue it. The intervention is in some ways justified, but the way it is carried out is perplexing and occasionally aggravating.

As evidence of the term’s evacuation from public discourse, Cruz cites “an Ivy League-educated professor” who tells her in graduate school that “there are no classes in the US.” To this, Cruz offers the humble rejoinder that she comes from a working-class family “and that, in fact, the majority of Americans are working-class, if not working poor, struggling to live paycheck to paycheck.” She is flatly told she is wrong, feels shame about being put down, and experiences a “kind of shock, a form of trauma.” She also internalizes a vitiating doubt that shades into self-censorship — lethal to creativity: “I was told repeatedly by my classmates and my professors that my poems made no sense [. . .] As a result, I deleted large portions of my writing. It took me decades to recognize that the very things I was erasing in my writing were class-based, which is to say that what my classmates and teachers were unable to comprehend was my worldview.” The Melancholia of Class is partly Cruz’s attempt to take back control of her own narrative. The personal, however, sits uneasily with the polemical, and the book never fully resolves what it would look like for the working class to embrace an emancipatory politics and claim an autonomous place for itself in art or literature.

For Cruz, there are two options facing the working-class artist who wants to “become someone”: assimilation or annihilation. Cruz chooses the former, though it is a Pyrrhic choice: “In order to survive, I understood I had to kill myself off,” she writes. According to this view, the working-class artist who disavows her origins to become part of the middle class ends up becoming “nothing, nothing but a shell, a kind of armor she constructs.” A specter is haunting America — the specter of the working class. For Cruz, the lumpen artist is “symbolically dead,” “ghost-like,” “existing between worlds,” like Sophocles’s Antigone. She goes on to say “Slickness […] suggests that the artist has herself become slick; that she has forsaken who she was for a shiny, alternative version of herself.” The passage is a useful illustration of Cruz’s methodology: she proceeds inductively, extrapolating from personal experience to make sweeping claims.

Sometimes, these are ballistically off the beam. The trouble starts as early as page 2 when Cruz makes a point about her terminology: “throughout the book I use the terms middle class, bourgeoisie and ruling class interchangeably.” Similarly, “neoliberalism” and “capitalism” are fungible terms in this book. This is scholastically sloppy and leads her to make such easily refutable points, like the notion that the middle class “is the only class represented in the media.” The fact that works like Hillbilly Elegy and Educated, to give just two prominent examples of narratives with working-class protagonists, have vaulted to bestseller status would seem to disprove her point. For all their suspiciously neat and linear narratives about bootstrapping their way out of poverty, sales figures of those books indicate that there is very much an appetite for such tales about those from the working class. Carlos Lozado, the Washington Post‘s book critic, has even averred that “many memoirs, histories and investigations have been written on America’s white working class in recent years, probably too many.” We now have not only memoirs, but economic studies: Last year, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton shone a spotlight on white members of the working class succumbing to “deaths of despair” — suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related illnesses. “Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life,” they wrote in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. “Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.” Moreover, Black Lives Matter, which saw a surge of support last summer and was widely covered by mainstream media, applied a much-needed racial overlay and underscored that there can be no racial justice without economic justice.

There’s further reason to doubt Cruz’s contention — central to her project — that the working class has been steadily hollowed out of the cultural conversation. According to Google Ngram, references to the “working class” have actually increased over the last eight years. A quick search reveals that it also tracks with a rise in the use of “caste” — a term that has arguably chaperoned class and race into the wider discourse of late, making it more permissible to talk about socioeconomic inequality in certain circles, but which is nowhere discussed in Cruz’s work. Witness, for instance, the publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling Caste, an aggrieved account of the continued caste discrimination that members of the Black community experience as part of an immutable and enduring system. If it seems that we speak less about “class” today, one reason might be that we collectively suffer from a kind of semantic satiation — we’ve become fatigued with using a term sandpapered into thinness from overuse. Yet this by no means indicates that we longer have public conversations about socioeconomic divisions tout court — just that we have adopted a different grammar, applied a different lens. To conclude, in the face of all this, that the working class has failed to register in any of the recent “reckonings” is to betray a cloistered worldview or a stunning lack of attention to recent events that have conspired to bring about an exfoliation of the term we hear about almost everywhere.

Even if Cruz wants to make the point that the cultural discourse has become a homogenizing gruel of middle-class references, this could have been done without conflating all classes other than the working class. The problem is that she doesn’t amass anything like a critical mass of sources to persuasively prosecute her point. Enacting a kind of citational fort-da, she returns to the same handful of artists over and over again and repeats herself frequently within chapters. We hear twice, within six pages, that the musician Charlyn “Chan” Marie Marshall, who hailed from a working-class background and opted to assimilate into the middle-class, “became the muse of designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs” and “appear[ed] as a rehabilitated version of herself: in Chanel clothing, her long hair styled sleekly.” In such moments, the material and distributional consequences of being an erstwhile member of the working class get subsumed by affective ones. In such passages, too, the book’s pretension to be a manifesto recedes further from credibility. Melancholia is ultimately, as its title would suggest, a work that deals thoroughly in attitudes and anecdotes. Statistics and studies make themselves scarce. There is a deafening silence around how to transform the deep structures of inequality or address the inequitable distribution of resources.

I’m being a bit unfair: Cruz acknowledges that as class is razored out from discussion, “at the same time, the very structure of class is enacted in all instances of our lives.” Those of the working class, to whom Melancholia is explicitly addressed, will always, for better or worse, be lassoed to their working-class origins: “Like the undead that we become as a result of our attempts to vanquish the pasts, our origins haunt us, spirits pressing up against the windows of our unconscious.” The working class, then, roam in a kind of eternal purgatory. In the realm of art, their stories become “a blank slate onto which middle-class writers project themselves.”

Cruz directs much of her scorn at critics, invariably a middle-class cohort and shallowly depicted as unable or unwilling to reckon with the working-class background of many artists. In a chapter called “Death Shuttle Into the World,” Cruz discusses Wanda, a 1970 film by Barbara Loden about a working-class woman from a mining town “who attempts, by attaching herself to various nomadic men, to escape her fate.” The film critic Pauline Kael, Cruz notes, derogated the “minor” film when it came out for taking as its subject “a sad, ignorant slut.” Yet Cruz misdates Kael’s review (it was published in the March 20 edition of The New Yorker rather than the March 13 edition, as Cruz writes), and errs in offering only a partial picture of Kael’s assessment. Despite panning the film as “unresourceful and monotonous,” Kael also saw merit in it, allowing that Loden “shows a gift for imagery” and conceding that “there’s nothing coy or facile in her approach, and she’s doing things the hard way rather than falling back on clichés. It’s an exploratory first film, and one respects the director’s strength.” Above all, as Richard Brody has noted, Kael “judged the film as drama, rather than as a conception of the world.” Yet it is precisely this consumerist orientation that Cruz thinks we need to resist. As she writes, “One would imagine contemporary writers and critics would have a better understanding of the plight of the working class, and therefore, of Barbara Loden’s film.” Well, maybe not. If the working class is “symbolically dead,” a chalk outline in place of a living body, what hope is there of reading class back into the film? More importantly, why should we have to?

An overdetermined reading is similarly at work in Cruz’s discussion of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. A notoriously elusive writer of mystical and beguiling fiction, “hurricane Clarice” was constantly reaching for “a word that has its own light,” as she wrote in her novel Água Viva. For Cruz, Lispector is an exemplar of the writer who managed to preserve some essence of her working-class origin even as she married a diplomat, effectively becoming a part of the middle class. With her “melancholia” and voluminous writing about the poor and disenfranchised, she remained a cipher to her middle-class acquaintances. “They are unable to comprehend Lispector because they are unable to see beyond the confines of their own social class,” Cruz sniffs. The implication is that only an understanding of the working class enables a full understanding of her work: this is literature as lock-picking and class, the skeletal key. Cruz also sees in Lispector a writer for whom the “idea of a ‘crushed innocence,’ ‘an anonymous misery’ is the axis upon which all of Lispector’s work revolves” — a reckless overgeneralization. A sense of innate dissatisfaction does propel many of her novels and short stories, but they are also about erotic desire, writing, obedience, disobedience, the conscience of animals, the limits of expression, and many other themes that exceed the two Cruz proposes. There are also strands of criticism that see Lispector’s work as fitting into a tradition of 20th-century existentialism and feminism. Yet Cruz engages with none of this, and her insistence that “Lispector never abandoned her origins” produces some stilted readings, especially of The Hour of the Star. She does, however, make a persuasive point that the treatment of Lispector’s work by middle-class critics has occasionally evinced their own class privileges. Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, revealed her class bias in characterizing Lispector’s artistry as “self-taught” and “primitive.”

Middle-class critics, in Cruz’s conception, are doltish not only in reviewing films and novels but also in assessing the work of working-class musicians. On the critical reception of Cat Power’s first albums, Cruz fumes: “Middle-class critics [. . .] tended to consider the work inferior, claiming it was ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘depressing.’ Not surprisingly, this is also what middle-class critics see when they look at the unfiltered lives of the working class.” Yet a few pages earlier, she uncritically, even approvingly, invokes A.O. Scott, reviewing in the pages of the upper-middle-class paper, to describe the avant-garde creations of another musician, Benjamin Smoke. Middle-class critics are always blinkered and misguided. Except when they’re not.

The most mystifying lacuna in the book is race, a concept that gets completely sidelined. At several points, Cruz seems at polemical pains to avoid discussing the stratifying and debilitating effects of racial discrimination — even when doing so might fruitfully help her clarify a point or develop it further. For instance, she writes about the dread agony of taking on a middle-class persona when teaching: “for many years, when I taught, I was aware that I couldn’t teach as I was, a working-class writer, that I had to somehow appear to be something else.” This is code-switching for class instead of race. Yet Cruz is bent on siloing race from class, or more precisely, making class a palimpsest for race, which impoverishes her account. All of the artists she writes about are white, and her choice of examples conveniently allows her to avoid examining how structural racism can compound the sense of exclusion that members of the working class often feel. It is a nontrivial point that Black mortality rates are higher than white ones, even taking into account the rising “deaths of despair” among members of the white working class. At the same time, one can see why Cruz elides racial realities in her work, the frank consideration of which would prove destabilizing to her framework. To be a person of color is, often, to feel not so much a ghost as all too visible: the kind of visible that gets you stopped and searched, profiled and arrested, shot and killed.

If assimilation for the (white) working-class artist comes with insurmountable problems — making one feel “alive but not living, a double; a contradiction” — then the alternative, annihilation, comes with a different set of obstacles. One figure Cruz invokes here is the anorexic artist. She is embodied by Amy Winehouse, a singer from a working-class background who was uncommonly uncompromising in her life and art. To the end, she refused to bleed her lyrics of references to the working-class milieu in which she grew up even as her star rose in the pop-cultural firmament. Yet, Cruz has trouble disentangling her heroization of Winehouse the artist from the mental illness she suffered. Though Cruz acknowledges that anorexia is an illness, her writing undercuts her point, and the condition achieves the hallowed status of metaphor for the working class when she writes: “This state of extreme compression is a language: complex, unruly, a vernacular that stands for and articulates the working class trapped in neoliberal society.” The idealizing of thinness intensifies a few lines on: “the anorexic body, itself a compression of desire, is constructed of [libidinal] energy. It is the libido in its unadulterated state.” Winehouse, she continues, exudes “not sensuality and sex but, instead, a fervor, an unremitting energy. You can sense this energy as it becomes stopped and jammed-up within her tiny body, an infinite energy dictating her mannerisms, movements, and music.” Cruz’s valorization of anorexia reaches its egregious apotheosis when she writes that “the remaking of one’s body into a language of No [is] a fierce and powerful rebellion against culture, against the violent forces that insist she turn her will over to that culture’s ideals. The sheer force of will it takes to transform a healthy body to what amounts to a cadaver is something to be reckoned with.” By her lights, the act of minimizing oneself is also a maximalist gesture of refusal. This makes for uncomfortable reading for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder — a flagrant example of editorial malpractice that is only partially excused by the acknowledgment that arrives as an afterthought: starving oneself is not a sustainable strategy. Winehouse, after all, died from causes related to her anorexia and bulimia. (According to reports from the coroner, Winehouse’s death was linked to alcohol though her brother, Alex, has contended her eating disorder was central to her death). “To suffer from an eating disorder and come from a working-class background is to be caught in a double bind,” Cruz hastily concludes.

In a recent review of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Gregory Hays writes about the “paradox of melancholy”: “Any account of the experience must be constructed later and with hindsight. It is thus potentially a falsification, creating structure where none exists, significance where none is to be found.” How much greater, then, must the potential for falseness be when one presumes to write for a whole class — an “undercommons” of working-class artists? The Melancholia of Class strains to impose a twisted structure of feeling on a whole group of people for whom culture is a boot perpetually stamping on their unwashed faces. As Cruz writes: “The majority of artists I write about suffer from melancholia and/or produce work infused with it. Most are dead. Faced with no other possible option, the majority use drugs or alcohol to create an alternative exit, a phenomenological space in which to exist.”

Each page is a sharp little twist of the knife. A charitable reading would see this as part of the point: it’s not possible to live authentically as a member of the working class without self-annihilating or folding oneself into the straitjacket of the middle class — either way, the collateral damage is the integrity of one’s art. In the absence of hope, the “collective melancholia is a humming” that goes on undiminished. The book’s terminal pessimism would have resonated with the coal miners in Coal Country who sang about black lung never getting any better: “Every breath a little bit harder to draw / Shotgun loaded in the corner / Reckon I’m a’ lie here and die of black lung.” Though it garnered favorable reviews when it premiered in early March 2020, Coal Country, like the rest of Broadway, prematurely shut down. The stories of the working-class miners and their families are still waiting to be heard. •

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Rhoda Feng is an editor and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She has published or forthcoming work in The Baffler, The White Review, Chicago Review of Books, The Hedgehog Review, The Guardian, Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, HuffPost, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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