Business and American Literature

17 October 2011 at 10:21 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

Thanks to Shawn Ritenour for the pointer to Algis Valiunas’s National Affairs piece, “Business and the Literati.”

The business of America may be business, but the business of American literature in the past century has been largely to insist that the nation is, in pursuing business, wasting itself on unworthy objects. In the eyes of most novelists and playwrights who deal with the subject, business is not an honorable vocation, but rather an obsessive scramble for lucre and status. Tycoons are plunderers. Salesmen are poor slobs truckling to their bosses, though most of them aspire to be cormorants and highwaymen, too. The mass desire to strike it rich has launched a forced march to nowhere. In short, American literature hates American business for what it has done to the souls of the rich, the poor, and the middling alike.

Right-thinking people now take it for granted that, in criticizing business, American literature has saved (or at least elevated) the nation’s soul. But after a century of slander, that assumption needs revisiting.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Classical Liberalism, Myths and Realities. What Do Boards Really Do?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael Marotta  |  19 October 2011 at 8:55 am

    Deirdre McCloskey’s essays and books on “Bourgeois Virtue” make the same point.

    I just read Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and I had no interest in more. Algis Valiunas’s tout for Mildred Pierce did not inspire me to go back. I do take the point, though. Very little in literature deals with business as a normal life course. The overwhelming disdain for enterprise is counter-balanced only by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which, ultimately, may be as unrealistic as the muckrakers’ complaints.

    Von Mises addresses this in his Anti-Capitalist Mentality. The intellectuals complain that murder mysteries outsell “serious” works, but the marketplace only rewards the delivery of what people want to buy. Thus, we have the paradox of Michael Moore becoming a millionaire by denouncing capitalism.

    McCloskey offers Benjamin Franklin as the paradigmatic bourgerois – contrasted to the aristocrat Achilles and the peasant Saint Francis. Franklin’s “The Road to Wealth” is quoted at length in Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. We forget that Franklin was a scientist (FRS and collaborator with Lavoissier to debunk Mesmerism); and we forget that Thomas Edison was a millionaire. In our time, however, we accept the reality of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Perhaps the paradigm is shifting.

  • 2. Michael E. Marotta  |  19 October 2011 at 11:49 am

    If I may be allowed an addendum:

    Reading this morning an anthology of works by and about Karl Popper, in an essay by J. C. Eccles discussing the consequences of writing, that author reflects this same anti-capitalist bias:
    “There is undoubtedly a feeling of bathos in the uses to which this marvellous discovery was put initially. Mostly, it was used for business documents, contracts, inventories, deeds of sale!”

    That was written in 1974, based on the then-recent work of Sir Leonard Woolley (1965). Since then, the marvelous work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat has shown that this inventorying indeed led to the invention of large numbers such as 4, 5, and 6, and thence to writing. Her latest book When Writing Met Art reveals the subtle and profound effects that these first business documents had on our representations of the world.

  • 3. vpostrel  |  23 October 2011 at 3:39 am

    Sarah Skwire, who knows quite a lot about both literature and market economics, has written a response to this article that is well worth reading:

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