This summer, touring “Mendips”, the carefully restored Liverpool house where John grew up with his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi Smith, I could see why people struggle to understand his background. The house is a modest duplex (in American terms) on a busy street. I mean, good grief, his Aunt was a former nurse who, once widowed, took in boarders to make ends meet. Surely these people were working class? By the standards of today’s wealthy, this was squalid poverty.
But looking at Aunt Mimi’s house through my postwar British eyes, there’s no question that John was right. His house and family would have seemed “posh” to practically everyone else in Liverpool. An owned (not rented) semi-detached house (duplex), no matter how modest, and his well-spoken aspirational Auntie, no matter how self-taught her diction, screamed “lower middle class.”
Looking at the world through the lens of class is hard for many Americans. I know that when I arrived in California from Britain as a teen, I struggled at first to understand the role that class played in the U.S., especially because so many of the people I met in interpreted society through the lens of race. But in America, it seemed to me, you couldn’t understand one without the other.
One of the challenges I am finding as I age is to recognize how hard it is for people–including historians, including myself– to understand times and places of which we have no personal experience. But throwing in the towel and simply representing everyone in the past in 21st century terms isn’t an option. It concerns me that a successful and much-lauded recent historical novel for middle grades just kind of made it all up, and that was on a time and place that’s still within living memory. This barely generated controversy. Call me crazy, but I find that disturbing, a mass agreement that thinking historically isn’t worth the effort. John Lennon took pains to undermine the narrative being constructed around him of “working-class hero”. In doing so, he firmly acknowledged his own privilege as a middle-class lad. Maybe that privilege is hard for most people to see in Lennon’s troubled childhood, but he was right: It was there.
Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.