Prole Like Me
About every thirty years for the last one hundred, a crusading journalist somewhere has gotten the same idea: Abandon the middle-class literary life (for a brief period), get a real job, gain firsthand experience in the underclass, go home and write it up.
Not surprisingly, most practitioners of the genre have been left-wing whistleblowers--notably, Jack London and George Orwell. London's 1902 book People of the Abyss chronicled the misery of urban and agricultural workers, plus the unemployed, in turn-of-the-century England. "Work as they will," he discovered, "wage-earners cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing about which they can do nothing. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it."
Already a renowned writer, London entered this new world of poverty and insecurity "with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of an explorer." Orwell's expedition, at the time of the Great Depression, followed in London's footsteps in the same East End neighborhoods, later ending up in Paris. Published in 1933 as an autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London records the author's experiences toiling under terrible conditions as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher, in the bowels of a great Paris hotel. In both cities, Orwell's narrator struggles to make ends meet--just like his co-workers and fellow tenement dwellers.
A plongeur is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. If plongeurs thought at all, they would strike for better treatment. But they do not think; they have no leisure for it.
T hree decades later, on the eve of the civil rights revolution in the United States, journalist John Howard Griffin was down and out in Dixie. His book, Black Like Me, featured the additional twist of an author trying to cross both class and racial lines. To find out, as a white, what it was like for African-Americans to live and work in the segregated South, the author darkened his skin and traveled about in the guise of what was then called (appropriately enough for Griffin) a "colored" person. Black Like Me had a great impact at the time because of the novelty of the author's assumed identity and the book's shocking (for many whites) account of the routine indignities and monstrous injustice of apartheid in America.
It took far less makeup for Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known socialist and feminist, author and columnist, to "pass" among the mainly white working-class people she met while researching Nickel and Dimed. Between 1998 and 2000, she took jobs as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a nursing-home aide and a house cleaner in Maine, and a retail sales clerk in Minnesota. Her trip across the class divide did require that she temporarily leave behind most of the accoutrements of her normal existence--home ownership, social connections, professional status, "the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life."
Retaining, as her private safety net, credit cards (to be used only in emergencies) and a series of "Rent-a-Wrecks" to make job-hunting easier, she set out to determine how a person with every advantage of "ethnicity and education, health and motivation" might fare in the "economy's lower depths" in "a time of exuberant prosperity."