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By Loren Baritz
318 pages, $19.95
THERE IS AN irresistible wrath that cuts through all the academic mumbo jumbo in Baritz's chronicle of the American middle class. It's fighting for recognition through the first 250 tedious pages until finally, in the last chapter, Baritz can hold back no longer.

The American middle class is spiritually bankrupt, dead in the water because its most cherished value is acquiring material goods, Baritz says. Exchange your culture and integrity for money. That's the middle-class Faustian bargain. Their "good life" is little more than an endless chase into the neighborhoods of materialism.

"Attainment of personal wealth has always been the middle-class definition of the good life," Baritz finally blurts out.

Men get an especially sharp skewering. The males coming of age in the '50s never rivaled the character and potency of their immigrant fathers, he says. Their lives became "a series of small calculations, stretched over the working lifetime of the individual to get ahead," he says. "A bureaucracy is no testing field for heroes."

The "market men" of the '80s, as Baritz calls them, men whose entire identity revolves around anticipating and manipulating the capitalist system, are more offensive but just as pathetic. Not only do they sell their individuality and self-respect for a ticket to the good life. They have eliminated intellectual curiosity, appreciation of beauty and all sense of proportion to make even more money. They are free from the past, free from all hierarchies except those based on personal wealth, the only ones that matter, according to Baritz.

"American men have been adjusting to dependency for decades," he writes. Compromising, posturing and ambivalence do not reinforce strength and independence.

This is compelling stuff, especially to those cataclysm-watchers and self-flagellants who enjoy plotting America's decline, and get an extra jolt from staying a step ahead. But these provocative, valuable statements come far too late to grab the casual reader.

Too bad. Baritz's view of the American middle class would make a fine companion piece to Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." While Kennedy outlines the end of American dominance in the political sphere, Baritz charts the decline of its people. But Baritz is more emotional about it.

By the end of the book, Baritz gets all worked up. Freed from poverty and its religious roots, the new American middle class "may enjoy the perquisites of status, and liberation from the obligations and limitations imposed by love. While a rose, an infant or a sonata does not produce advantageous cost-benefits ratios, the cold new world evidently does."

Extreme individualism turns into isolation. Extreme rationalism becomes callousness. "Commodity fetishism" (a great phrase) never is sated. But all these trade-offs convince the middle class to give up a sense of community and personal intimacy.

This powerful indictment comes on the very last page. Why did it take a back seat to Baritz's long-winded, intricate musings on the history of the middle class? This stiff narrative starts with the Puritans and lurches forward to include the 1920s, the '50s and the turbulent '60s. His themes pop out periodically, but he doesn't understand that the reader is looking for insight, not data. He should have dropped his tired college lectures and gotten right to the heart of the issue. There his original voice shines through.

"The cost of success, then, is a redefinition of pleasure, and thus also of pain," he writes in the last paragraph. "The fathers knew there was risk and pain in love and life. Fleeing this human adventure, the children calculated their progress toward a better life -- the contemplation of all that success may produce, life as work, the happiness produced by objects, the envy of strangers, and the freedom to float above the struggles of others, in warmth and comfort, alone."

That's the real story. By the time he gets to it, all that is waiting is a blank page. We're like the rest of the middle class he chides, on our own.

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