Class is a shifty thing on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a shifty thing in a lot of places, but is anyone still claiming that the U.S. is a classless society?
Class grabbed me as an issue long before I knew what it was. Many Sundays when I was growing up, my family went to my paternal grandmother’s house for dinner. Outside, the house had an imposing brick façade, its elegant door flanked by columns looking out over lawn and field to the main road. Inside, accessed by a narrow stairway from the big country kitchen, were servants’ quarters, with a bath and two very small bedrooms. The house I grew up in and the houses of my friends looked nothing like this.
My grandmother was no cook. Sunday and holiday dinners were prepared and served by Jessie, wearing a white uniform. I never had to ask for more water or another roll; they just appeared. Hanging out with Jessie in the kitchen was more fun than hanging out with the adults. Sometimes Jessie’s husband, Frank, would be there too. He was in the merchant marine and was the first guy I ever saw with tattoos.
My grandmother didn’t have much maternal instinct either. Jessie had pretty much raised my father and his two brothers, living much of the time in the servants’ quarters. If any of my friends’ parents had been raised by a housekeeper-nanny, I didn’t know it. In the more formal era of the 1950s and early ’60s, Jessie was also the only adult I was allowed — expected, even — to call by her first name.
Sorting all this out took years. My own upbringing was middle/upper-middle class in most ways, but it made a difference that both sides of my family had been sliding downward from the WASP gentry, New England on my father’s side, Virginia on my mother’s. When I started studying U.S. history, quite a few of the names belonged to my ancestors. U.S. history was my history — until the women’s liberation movement called my attention to the absence of women, and I started identifying with others who had also been left out.
I came to the Vineyard in 1985 from the highly politicized women’s (read: lesbian, feminist, and often lesbian-feminist) community of Washington, D.C. Years before the word “intersectional” was coined, we read and talked a lot about the interactions of sex, race, class, sexuality, age, and disability. On the Vineyard at the time hardly anyone was talking about any of it, so I started looking for clues.
Class, I knew by then, was not just a matter of money, though money did count, nor of what one did for a living. As an ice-breaker question “What do you do?” was frowned upon. The carpenter might have a Harvard degree, the line cook might front a rock band, the cleaning lady might be famous for her quilts. People seemed quite proud that “we” didn’t pigeonhole people by their occupation.
Summer people tended to be richer and more professionally accomplished than year-rounders, but that distinction got downright blurry once you realized that plenty of longtime year-rounders were the offspring of summer people, often working as, well, carpenters, line cooks, and cleaning ladies. That was my story too, after all.
Race made a difference too. The island’s African-American summer community dates back to before the First World War, but as an occasional summer visitor in the late 1960s and most of the ’70s I knew nothing about it. My introduction was Dorothy West’s 1948 novel The Living Is Easy, which was reprinted by the Feminist Press during my D.C. days. To my astonishment, this Dorothy West turned out to be the same Dorothy West who wrote the Oak Bluffs column for the Vineyard Gazette.
I’d loved my job as book buyer for D.C.’s feminist bookstore, so once my savings started to run out, I applied for a job at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and was offered one, but it paid considerably less than my D.C. job and didn’t include health insurance. I’m pretty frugal, but I was going to need a car if I stayed on the Vineyard and I couldn’t see pulling that off at what the bookstore was paying.
Eventually I wound up at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which paid better than the bookstore but where hardly anyone on the editorial or production side was living on what the paper paid: most of them had access to another source of income through spouse and/or family. I learned to pay attention to who could afford to do what jobs and under what conditions.
When I moved to the Vineyard, it was to work on a novel I’d started a couple years before, working title Coming Around, about — wait for it — a 30-something woman who chucks her publishing job to move to the Vineyard and manage a small horse farm. I quickly realized that I didn’t know half enough about the Vineyard to set a novel on it. What I wrote was poetry, and press releases for a local theater group, and reviews and features for the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
When I finally did get down to working on what became The Mud of the Place, I’d been living here, listening and observing year-round island life, for about 12 years. I was more than half convinced that I’d never be able to complete anything more than 40 pages long, but I surprised myself. I’m still pretty pleased with it, not least because it pays attention to the economic challenges of living here, and the variety of people who manage to make it work, at least for a while.
I am and probably will always be interested and often angry by the notion of class. Agree that race is an even more challenging obstacle in life. But class, however, sticks to you. Regardless of the super job they land, the money they make, the latest model of car they drive or the fancy house they live in, few people leave their social class behind. I cannot. I make more money than my parents did and live a more comfortable life than I did as a kid and a teen, but I will always belong to the working class. Great post, Susanna, as Martha Vineyard reflects these different classes in such a small microcosm.
Wow! What a terrific read and personal journey. Thank you, Susanna. I can’t imagine writing to this depth and extent for the entire A to Z challenge.
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Me either! 🙂 Not least because I’m getting close to the end of draft #3 of my novel in progress, not to mention completing revisions on a play script I’m working on and trying to meet my editing deadlines. Some topics have been swirling in my head for as long as I’ve lived here, but getting them into publishable (postable?) form and this one could have gone on for a couple more days. Writing “D is for Dogs” was a lot easier, plus I could use pictures!
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I am impressed. Way to go, Susanna! Sounds like this challenge is getting your head and heart onto paper. That’s a good thing. I just read D and loved it!
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I’d been losing interest in both my blogs. My writing energy has been going into the novel in progress and another big project, and I couldn’t think of anything worth blogging about. But this challenge has given me a whole new perspective on Martha’s Vineyard — or maybe it’s offered a way to access ideas and experiences that were gestating in the back of my head but couldn’t find a way out. Whatever, it’s working!
As someone who grew up in the South (in the 1960s and 70s), I have always been keenly aware of class. I think Southerners have always been more aware and honest about class divisions than individuals from the Northeast where money matters more than in the South. I really enjoyed your observations and ruminations. One of the great things about the Vineyard is it seems that so many aspects of American life are distilled into a size that is more comprehensible. It is also populated with so many people who are more than what they “do” to pay the rent. P.S. I loved the poem in your “B” entry. -Lynn
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“One of the great things about the Vineyard is it seems that so many aspects of American life are distilled into a size that is more comprehensible.” This is exactly it. 🙂 So many people think the Vineyard is unique, but I am not one of them. My take is that understanding the rest of the world helps one understand the Vineyard better, and understanding the Vineyard helps one understand the rest of the world. This post really wanted to be a 4,000-word essay. Maybe when this challenge is over I will write it!
I’m heading over to Amazon to order The Mud of the Place… I enjoyed reading your back story-
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Thanks! If you have any trouble, I keep a stash here and you can order from me — and I’ll sign it too. Give me a call when you’re next on MV. I’m in the book!
Ooh, if I had known that! I immediately ordered on Amazon. Hoping to get it today – love your writing, you have a gift! We will be there again in July – I’ll let you know as the time approaches!
Excellent — and I mean it! 🙂
I think we all get fooled into thinking there are few class problems in the U.S…. but now that I am “of a certain age” and nearing official Old Woman Status, I see that I have been played for most of my life. I can’t tell you how many times I took employers at face value for not being “able” to pay me more when they were perfectly able, just not willing. I can’t tell you how many “#metoo” times I had to leave a job whose exit could not be explained but which cost me in my “reliability” reputation. I can’t tell you how many times I have had my skills exploited because “everyone else” thinks that those who labor in the arts should do so for free…
But I can tell you I didn’t like working two jobs and living in my car in my twenties. And I can tell you I don’t like people who get all up in my face to tell me I should hold a “real” job or should have “worked harder” to not-be where I am. Class is indeed a problem in the whole of U.S. society. And I can only imagine how it feels to minorities and immigrants who are repeatedly baffled as to why they cannot figure out how to “make it”… Neither can I. But I can see my own gullibility all the way from 1978…
I remember standing outside the “Open Door”club on the corner of Cooke and Tilton Way when I was a kid listening to the “African American” people singing. I used to speak with the owner Mr.Smith but don’t ever recall being invited to visit. My grandparents lived on Tilton Way and my grandfather was friendly with Mr Smith though I don’t think they socialized. Would love to get together and talk Island History. Hope you can come visit when I’m at the Lewis Cabin for June 14th until the 28th. Miss seeing you!
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I will for sure! Remind me when June gets closer. I haven’t been down to the pond in ages, and I love that cabin (even though I cleaned the windows with Linda a couple of times — that was a job!). This post didn’t develop the way I wanted it too, mainly because what I wanted would have taken 4,000 words or so and when the word count threatens to approach 1,000 it’s time to wrap it up. Maybe some other time . . .