In our endlessly self-reflexive age, it is scarcely uncommon to come across a scholarly book that discusses the academy more than it does the literary or critical texts upon which it purports to focus, but Stephen Schryer's book contains more disconcerting implications than most in terms of the social value of higher education.
Fantasies of the New Class explores transitions within ideals held by academics in literature and the social sciences in the US during the post-war period. Many of those ideals echoed Lionel Trilling's view that a new class of professionals (from novelists to politicians and scientists) would speak to an unprecedentedly large university-educated audience and thereby mitigate the self-interest and acquisitiveness of US society.
Rather than forging a new ideal society, what the past 60 years or so have witnessed is a shift to an environment in which professionals and intellectuals have been increasingly cut off from opportunities to create change. They have come to see themselves more as part of a broadly cultured middle class, and have become preoccupied with self-preservation in shifting job markets.
Reading these passages, I reflected on the purely acquisitive types, the intellectual lightweights and dead wood I have encountered in UK universities, and imagined, mischievously, putting to some of them the idea that they should not only view themselves as intellectuals but also, in Schryer's ideal scenario, as "social trustees".
That historical thesis is placed alongside chapters on Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy and others, steering the reader through the continued failure of the so-called "New Class" to deliver anything resembling that which Trilling had hoped for and how this manifested itself in fiction.
Up until the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the New Class largely succeeded only in influencing effete and repetitive counter-cultural movements and would, as a by-product, kick-start the neoconservatism that sought to protect capitalism from the "eroding" forces of mass culture.
By the end of the book I was demoralised, and Schryer's closing statements that for the time being academics must either sell out or engage in a "quixotic, doomed conflict" seemed reasonable enough.
But as is often the case when critics argue that novels reflect historical changes, Schryer is prone to relying on the occasional remark or review by an author as evidence that she or he was influenced consciously or otherwise by those changes.
In this respect, the chapter on Saul Bellow is the strongest, as the links between the author and academics concerned with the impact of the New Class and the rise of neoconservatism are clear and well illustrated.
Chapters on Ellison and Don DeLillo, however, are less convincing. Schryer fails to mention the ways in which these authors have been shown to have been influenced, for instance, by the transcendentalist movement.
In arguing that Ellison's Invisible Man and DeLillo's White Noise both demonstrate an academy in which serious critical thought geared towards social change is unthinkable, Schryer perhaps overlooks the influence of American traditions of self-reliance and the idealised figure of the poet conceived by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who disparaged the idea that a university was the ideal environment for such activity. Perhaps Ellison and DeLillo simply pursue an American literary ideal, rather than kicking against specific historical processes.
Nevertheless, Schryer's argument that DeLillo's novel reflects a yearning for a revival of artisanal knowledge in a society dependent on partial knowledge and pseudo-intellectuals is refreshingly original, given that White Noise has recently been "done to death".
This is a well-written book that does not shrink from biting the hand that feeds it. One hopes it will make uncomfortable reading.
Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction
By Stephen Schryer. Columbia University Press 288pp, £55.00 and £18.50. ISBN 9780231157568 and 7575. Published 26 April 2011