Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America , 1929-1968, by David Stebenne (Scribner; 336 pp., $28.00).
I used the title of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as my grading rubric for your submission on the 20th-century American middle class. Your work recaps the period’s economic, social, cultural, and diplomatic history better than its predecessors. Your concise, clear prose never becomes dull or repetitive. I nodded vigorously in agreement when you concluded, “Being middle class is as much a state of mind as an economic or demographic reality” and when you described Lee Harvey Oswald as “a deranged Marxist.” This was all quite “good” and merited an “A.”
But a closer reading uncovers several weaknesses. While you referenced the period’s best source material, you leaned too heavily on David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear (1999) and James Patterson’s Grand Expectations (1996). Kennedy and Patterson synthesized cutting-edge monographs to produce award-winning works. Unfortunately, you just synthesized their syntheses, and your book didn’t generate much fresh knowledge about the middle class. And, while I just praised your conclusion, let me add that you should have stated your thesis in the same rigorous manner.