It seems fitting—poetic, really—that Beverly Cleary’s death should occur as the throes of the pandemic and its effects continue to rage on (despite what the “officials” might try to declare with their attempts at “rosy” depictions; people will say anything to keep the wheels of capitalism turning, after all). For this is the generation of children slated, arguably, to be the most “fucked up”—or at least the one with the most amount of PTSD potential in recent memory. Cleary did not dabble in the specifics of this kind of trauma. But her writing, which put a then-rare spotlight on the childhood experience of the middle class, was a staple of growing up millennial (and, yes, growing up Gen X, too—the group so often forgotten in the conversation about being traumatized by the time you were born in).
While accused of being nothing more than “echo boomers” for their self-involvement tantamount to that of the so-called “Me” generation, the millennials of the middle class that Cleary speaks of actually had far less anguish and upheaval to deal with during the cush years of a 90s childhood. One in which distant thoughts like “the internet” or “bombing in Kosovo” remained just that: distant (perhaps because news and media were much easier to keep out of reach of one’s children during this era). Yet Ramona Quimby still represents that “universal truth” for anyone growing up: wanting to, well, grow up faster. Believing that adulthood can never come soon enough. Because there is a sense every child has that if they can transcend into an adult, not only will they be “in” on the secret of that seemingly arcane world, but they will finally fit in and be taken seriously, rather than written off as a result of their inherent puerility. Alas, we must all learn the hard way that being a kid is usually the easiest we’ll ever have it (at least from the middle-class standpoint of being located in the Western world).
In the seminal Ramona Quimby, Age 8—the sixth book in the Ramona series—that reality couldn’t feel further from the truth to our eponymous protagonist, going through more emotional growing pains than ever. Having to deal with a school district restructuring, Ramona, now in third grade, ends up being among the ranks of the “oldest” kids in this primary school. Yet having “seniority” doesn’t stop her from being abused on the bus (otherwise known as Bully City) a.k.a. getting her eraser—shit, at least it wasn’t her iPhone—kifed by a boy Ramona later refers to as the Yard Ape. Again, these are mild, inconsequential middle-class problems, yet Cleary conveys them so well that it’s impossible even in the present climate of nonstop contempt for white folk to begrudge these stories for not only what they still mean, but the gentleness and dignity with which they’re told. For even the bland “nobodies” of the U.S. deserve someplace in literature, do they not? Someplace where they can still see themselves—or at least the way their forebears used to live. Then again, if there are no descendants of the middle class left, the books of Cleary will eventually become nothing more than part of some kind of anthropological study.
For, as time wears on, that necessary buttress between the lower and upper classes has steadily diminished, as they’re the ones most unfairly taxed (to the point of being taxed right out of existence). The ones expected to carry the burdens of not quite being fully on either side of the spectrum of wealth. In so many respects, there are far more ways to pity the middle class their banal existence—always trying to strive for not losing everything they worked their whole lives to attain, while also forever clinging to the idea that they might hop into that higher tier of an income tax bracket that would actually make them less taxed. While the middle class of the twentieth century was able to live comfortably at a certain point (complete with the postwar boom that allowed so many suburbanites the luxury of a bomb shelter for every home), as the decades passed, they began increasingly to fall upon bleaker pastures. Suddenly, the American dream wasn’t an easily fulfilled fantasy that could be secured with a mortgage and a two-car garage, but had become something more like a prison—and a very difficult prison to pay for, at that. Of course, Ramona knows nothing of these things in any of the guises we see her in. And it will be a long time before she realizes she’s doomed to become just another April Wheeler type. And, speaking of Mrs. Wheeler, one could say Beverly Cleary is like Richard Yates for kids.
Through the lens of retrospect, one has to wonder if the middle class is supposed to be endeared or horrified as they glimpse into a window of themselves. A window provided at a formative age thanks to Cleary’s prose being geared toward the eight to twelve demographic. That Beatrice’s (a.k.a. “Beezus” and Ramona’s older sister) primary source of contempt for Ramona is that she’s “ill-mannered” speaks to the quality of certain members of this class wanting everything to be staid and “proper” so as to seem worthy of ascending into the next echelon. Or at least being accepted by kids who are richer than them because they’re supposed to be impressed by “manners” (in case no one got the memo: rich people are the most uncouth of all).
The concluding scene to the aforementioned book, among the most beloved in the series, finds the Quimby family at Whopperburger (incidentally, Ramona’s favorite “restaurant”). The fact that it’s such a great excitement for this–a fast food chain–to be the pinnacle for them in terms of “getting out of the house” and “doing something special” addresses just how low the standards actually are for most families in America—simply trying to get by with a bit of “flash” and “pizzazz” every now and again to delude themselves into thinking being part of the rat race is all worth it. That if they keep their nose to the grindstone of “hard work” (which translates, ultimately, into “time surrendered” in a workplace), they will continue to climb higher and higher—be rewarded as they were consistently indoctrinated to believe they would.
Or, if not them, then at least their various spawns could have a better chance than they did with this leg up in the middle-class stratum. Yet it is this intrinsic aspirational nature of the middle class that so often made it a bittersweet portrait to behold (particularly when rendered to a book or film format). Sure, Beezus can go to an art class after school every Friday, but, in the end, it will come to nothing. She’ll continue the same struggle her own parents began in just trying to sustain “a certain lifestyle.” An obsession only established and furthered by the accommodations and ideas their parents imbued them with from that middle-class perch.
Yet that lifestyle as we once knew it has disappeared as the twenty-first century hurtles us ever-forward into what seems like a non-tactile abyss focused more on realizing the class divide in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And the quaint concepts of a little girl riding her bike through the streets with rabbit ears on or annoying her older sister by playing a harmonica off-key are decidedly the emblems of a twentieth century existence that can no longer be. Apparently, it was as Madonna in the titular role in Evita said, “Screw the middle classes! I will never accept them!” It seems that is precisely what the twenty-first century has decreed, anyway, with its added bane of a lack of emphasis on the carefreeness of a “no frills” childhood (and “no frills” cannot mean staring at a screen all day, to clarify), among other lacks that were more easily stamped out in the preceding epoch. Thus, with the death of Beverly Clearly officially dies the American middle class and childhood as it was once known in the twentieth century.