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Four Middle-Class Groups: A Study of Life in America

November 24, 1986|HARRIET STIX

SAN FRANCISCO — Frances FitzGerald was teaching a journalism class at UC Berkeley in 1978 when the mayor of San Francisco dropped in at the annual Beaux Arts Costume Ball.

"The mayor going to a drag ball . . . I thought, 'This is not just interesting, this is really interesting,' " she recalled. She was equally astonished that what seemed quite odd to her was so taken for granted by the local press that it did not even rate a mention.

A Foreign Experience

The following year, while she was lecturing at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., a colleague took her to Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist Church. "I had never been to a fundamentalist church before," she said, adding that as a New Yorker and an Episcopalian she found it both foreign and familiar; once again, she had "a kind of shock of non-recognition."

FitzGerald, 46, describes herself as a historian and a journalist. "I am," she said, "always looking for new ways to describe what is going on in this country." In "Fire in the Lake," her Pulitzer Prize-winning first book, she examined the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Her second book, "America Revised," was a critical analysis of American-history textbooks.

A Deeper Look

Both San Francisco's gay community and Falwell's church deserved a deeper look, she decided, not because they were exotic but because they were in fact in many ways representative of "what was happening in the larger community at the time."

Here were these two very different groups, "right in the middle class," and yet they were largely unknown, she said, pointing out that at the time, attention was largely focused away from the dominant white middle class and on to issues of race, ethnicity, gender.

"I thought that probably this country is divided in ways no one has ever described before," she said. "I decided to look for groups that are concentrated essences of our differences."

Eventually, she found four middle-class communities with widely different visions:

- The homosexual Castro neighborhood of San Francisco where gays, in part reflecting the wider revolution in sex and gender roles, were deliberately overturning social categories, "partly for fun, partly because they seemed purely arbitrary."

- Falwell's separatist Thomas Road Church, which one local resident described as being in but not of Lynchburg.

- Sun City, an affluent retirement community 25 miles from Tampa, Fla., whose 8,500 residents "created something new under the sun, with a whole new way of looking at the problems of aging, death, what it is like being away from your children."

- Rajneeshpuram, a New Age Commune of middle-class professionals in Oregon with a resident Indian guru, whose members picked up on just about anything trendy from acupuncture to Zen.

FitzGerald has written about them in "Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures" (Simon & Schuster, $19.95). The title is taken from John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who said, "We must consider that we shall be a City Upon A Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."

FitzGerald spent time in all four places, and said "they all liked the press," and were eager to talk to her. Indeed, she made a number of friends--when she visited San Francisco recently, several people she had met in the gay community threw a party in her honor.

But she remained a detached though sympathetic observer and commented that, "personally I am not a joiner, and also, I think politically." Her mother, Marietta Tree, was an ambassador to the United Nations in the 1960s. Her father, Desmond FitzGerald, was deputy director of the CIA.

At first, the four communities she describes would seem to have little in common. But FitzGerald pointed out that all of them "came out of the shaking up of the social structure of the '60s and '70s." Sun City, for example, reflects the "weakening of the links between generations," while "the gay community could not have been formed if there had not been questioning of what families are about." All of them are in what she regards as the American tradition that it is possible to "come out" or be "born again" and in the process create something new.

Impulse to Join

What interested FitzGerald even more than the specific movements was "the impulse to join groups like these. What is it that in certain periods makes whole lots of Americans do this sort of thing, and to take up all sorts of causes? There is no parallel in Europe."

Indeed, she finds these groups peculiarly American--after all, she said, it is hard to imagine "Parisians creating a gay colony or a town for grandparents." She suggested that in Europe, people's cultural identity is much stronger. "Here, it seems to me we are much less stable, culturally speaking," she said. "We come from such different backgrounds, we are such a mobile society in every way."

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