cover image Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929–1968

Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929–1968

David Stebenne. Scribner, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0270-8

A large, prosperous, and politically moderate middle class shaped the American century, according to this judicious and informative debut history from Stebenne, an Ohio State University history and law professor. He explores the revolutionary impact of New Deal social insurance programs, housing subsidies, and labor laws, as well as the WWII-era G.I. Bill, in turning America’s hardscrabble working class into a middle class of well-paid, often unionized (mostly white) workers with cars and suburban houses, who watched bland comedies about middle-class families on TV. The result, Stebenne writes, was a “middle class [that] was as much a state of mind as an economic and demographic reality... sharing a national pride and purpose,” along with centrist politics and a family-friendly middlebrow culture. Stebenne also analyzes limitations that undermined the middle class, including a manufacturing sector that grew overpriced and sclerotic compared to foreign competition, racial discrimination, favoritism toward male breadwinners that left women frustrated, and a political and countercultural revolt from the left and the right. Stebenne’s account is well-researched, evenhanded, and illustrated with sketches of the life stories of representative middle-class couples. This concise, lucid account offers a solid overview of mid-20th-century social history. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim & Williams. (June)