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Seagull Island

On class in America.


As the boat approached the island, we saw the house. But we saw the birds first, and smelled them: thousands of seagulls, who appeared to have turned this islet in the middle of a ten thousand-acre lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan into a kind of offshore perch cannery. Somewhere beneath the flock, just beyond the house, was a Bobcat tractor, seemingly abandoned. A more fanciful imagination (my oldest daughter’s, for example) might believe that both the building and the equipment belonged to the birds.

Our companions told us the real story of Seagull Island, as it’s called by the locals (including the summer-only residents, doctors and lawyers from Chicago who are ignorant of its origins). A few years ago a man who owned an excavating business in the next town over somehow purchased the island; in the middle of winter he had driven his tractor across the frozen lake, cleared about half an acre’s worth of trees, and built the cottage. But he had not reckoned on the birds, who in the spring almost immediately descended upon the island, where, far from their natural predators and embowered by their own prey, they were monarchs of all they surveyed. The owner soon gave up on the project. He never returned for the Bobcat.

Having grown up about twenty miles from the lake (where I once caught an almost nine-pound smallmouth bass—my father forgot to bring it to the taxidermist and it ended up sitting in our garage freezer for more than a decade), I hope it doesn’t sound absurd for me to suggest that Seagull Island and the improvident exuberance it represents is a potential skeleton key to America’s class system.

Nearly forty years after its publication, Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System remains the best introduction to its subject. Americans, Fussell argues, are frequently loath to discuss class, and when they do, they tend to reduce it to a question of income or of education. In place of the familiar triad of lower, middle, and upper, he proposes ten distinct classes, among them “high prole,” his designation for contractors, electricians, plumbers, and others who exhibit many of the cultural signifiers of the working class but whose incomes are frequently higher than those of upper-middle-class professionals. 

It is impossible to make sense of the politics of the last half-decade or so without understanding the significance of the high prole. What populists on both the left and the right generally frame as an ongoing conflict between the working class and so-called “elites” is really an intra-elite conflict between the professional and managerial classes—not only doctors and lawyers but people employed in consulting and so-called “human” resources—and high proles. Unlike the first group of elites, whose social status has less to do with income than with their ability to control institutions and the exchange of information, high proles could not do Zoom work in 2020; lockdowns meaningfully affected their livelihoods. It would have been helpful if our debates about the efficacy of anti-Covid measures during the last two years had acknowledged the class basis of our varying assessments of risk.

High prole has an even wider application in helping us to refine our understanding of American political geography. One could argue that what really makes a place “rural” is not its population density or its proximity to major airports but which class establishes the social and cultural norms in a given community. Sleepy Hollow is small but not rural because drywallers and plumbers do not comprise the social and cultural elite there as they do in truly “rural” parts of the country like the Upper Peninsula, where all culture is high prole culture, at least aspirationally.

The high prole is right wing but mostly uninterested in traditional religiously inflected social conservatism. The most important issues for him are taxes, the Second Amendment, and a somewhat more nebulous grouping of cultural issues (e.g., perceived lack of respect for the American flag, which he proudly displays in multiple locations, though he does not bother with Eagle Scout rules about how it should be folded). If he is religious, his is an inchoate cultural Christianity unmoored from doctrinal questions or, in many cases, regular church attendance. The high prole is heedless about costs, at least outside his business. He is generous with his neighbors, but in a feudal manner, and is fond of grand gestures of goodwill. His refrigerators—there are always several of them on the property—are well stocked, and he is free with his beer. With his peers he is relentlessly competitive—if his friend puts up a second pole barn for his new boat, he builds a third one with a bar and an upstairs apartment for guests. “Toys,” as in motor vehicles, occupy a great deal of his attention—the latest craze is for “side-by-sides,” the utility task vehicles also used by Ukrainian soldiers to shoot missiles. He enjoys being outside but not nature as such. He is as incredulous at the idea that he might go for a walk through the hundred acres of trees that surround his home as he is at the notion that anybody would be unwilling to work for eight dollars an hour.

Like his retirement portfolio under the last administration, which he distinctly prefers to the current one, the high prole’s cultural stock is soaring. Many of the small business owners in rural America Fussell might have identified as middle class—the proprietor of a family diner, for example—are now firmly high prole. Thanks to decades of tax cuts, small business incomes are higher, but their owners’ cultural horizons are narrower than those of their aspirationally minded parents and grandparents. The owner of a trucking company whose grandparents might have signed his sister up for oboe lessons now poses with his own granddaughter in pink hunting camo; the nephew of a stolid Presbyterian churchwarden who rarely drank will display a “Buck Fiden” flag on his seventy-five thousand dollar pontoon boat. The Steinbeckian image of farmers that captured the imaginations of celebrities and politicians as recently as the 1980s—remember Farm Aid?—is now as quaint as the Joads’ Hudson. Today the median household wealth of a commercial farmer is three million dollars.

It would be tempting to say that in the middle of the Upper Peninsula, where about two dozen teachers work in a school district larger than the state of Rhode Island—the largest east of the Mississippi—the most obvious difference between high proles and the working class is that the former pay cash for the trucks and snowmobiles that the latter buy on credit. But there are other discrepancies that are both amusing and instructive. In Michigan, which has required a monetary deposit on cans and bottles since 1976, the working classes and the upper middle classes are assiduous recyclers, the latter because it would be vulgar not to recycle, the former simply because they need the money. The high proles throw away their cans, garbage bags full of them, both because they don’t care about getting their deposit back and because they want to show their contempt for environmentalists; the harried middle classes often do the same, though they are embarrassed by this and would not want those they see as their social superiors to know that they do so. (Instead they try to remember to bring recyclable tote bags to the supermarket.)

The day after my excursion to the island, I was standing in a pole barn talking with Robin, a woman in her early fifties who knows the master of Seagull Island well. Robin is a smoker who doesn’t mind an old-fashioned American macrobrew, or six, especially when the only vehicle she will be driving home in later is a boat. If you asked Robin—and she would let you ask her anything—what class she belonged to, she would respond that she doesn’t want to remember how long ago she graduated high school.

But Robin is very definitely high prole. She is also very insightful, especially about the economy of the region, and very candid. After complaining about Biden’s gas prices, she freely admitted that they hadn’t meaningfully affected her life or, as far as she could see, anyone else’s. In fact, she said, tourism up there was better than it has been since the big fire in the summer of 2007.

I had noticed the same thing. Everywhere was busy—the bar on US-2 I had last visited in May 2020, when one elderly woman and her granddaughter had been running it by themselves; the restaurant two towns over where a boy had run in a few winters ago without a coat saying his mother and her boyfriend had abandoned him; the hotels with quaint signs advertising “Cable (HBO)” and “Microwaves” (you have to go further northwest in to the Copper Country to find the establishments still blazoning forth “Color T.V.”); the state parks with long lines out front, even the little gas station-cum-grocery store run by one of Robin’s sons, where she works for free in the winter.

“The problem is,” Robin said, “no one wants to work.” This was also something I found evidence of everywhere: motels booked to capacity couldn’t find people to clean the rooms; packed restaurants couldn’t get servers or hostesses; even babysitters were a tricky proposition. “It’s been a problem ever since COVID, when they got all that money,” she said.

By “they” she meant, among others, the local share of the more than two million women who have left the workforce in this country since 2020, many of them possibly for good. Lockdowns brought working-class women back into the home, either because the businesses that employed them were closed  or because they had to take care of children who were no longer in school. Stimulus payments showed these women that a few hundred dollars was the difference between frequent wage labor and being able to take care of their own children. The savings—from daycare, reduced gas consumption, lunch at the office, less frequent temptations to eat out after a long day at work—has been undeniable. It was a way out of what Elizabeth Warren once referred to as the “two-income trap.”

When I asked Robin about this essential tension between the old-fashioned family values she espouses and the inevitable labor shortages that have resulted from women no longer working, she was thoughtful. “You make a good point. Good for them, I guess. We’ll all figure it out.” She was more concerned about her own “kids,” as she calls the residents of the nursing home—a charming place run out of an actual converted house with a hand-painted sign in front—she has owned for almost three decades. “Some of these people are getting thirteen hundred dollars a month to live on. You can’t just charge them that or leave them with twenty five bucks a month.” I asked her what would happen if those benefits went away. “You got me there. But somebody’d take care of them. Somebody needs to.”

The next day, I took our oldest back out on the lake, this time in a kayak, to explore another island. We—mostly I—paddled in a desultory fashion while she talked about the romance we had just finished reading. We were about fifty yards away from the island when we saw a dark shape emerge from the water. (“It’s Gollum!” she screamed, only, I think, half-jokingly.) It was a large rock, no native geological specimen but something that had been put here. As we got closer, I saw that there were dozens like it, forming something that resembled a broken line.

Later I asked my uncle about it. Apparently in the remote past—no one quite remembers when, but certainly before there was such a thing as the Department of Environmental Quality—a man attempted to build a somewhat primitive road through the lake to an island he owned, but nature refused to cooperate. Like Seagull Island, the place was empty.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp.

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