A Reviewers Notebook: The Businessman in American Literature
MARCH 01, 1983 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
We do make some progress. Just when TV is being charged with perpetuating the ancient stereotype of the businessman as Con Man and Scrooge, Emily Stipes Watts, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, has discovered a new attitude toward business among American novelists. Her evidence, presented in considerable detail in her The Businessman in American Literature (Athens, GA, The University of Georgia Press, 183 pp., $16.00), depends on a corporal’s guard of novelists—Stanley Elkin, James Dickey, Ken Kesey—who are hardly household names; and “corporate capitalism,” as something distinct from small business, gets few plus marks even from a new breed of writer that has turned against the socialists. But the air, in Emily Watts’ pages, is cleared of a lot of cant as she moves toward her conclusion that “private capitalism provides the framework for a pluralistic society in which the individual and the civitas are suspended in a paradoxical but healthy relationship.”
To be sure, American writers for long periods of time have not been concerned with business as such. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick describes the whaling ship as a factory for killing and processing whales, and greed is undeniably a motive in financing the whale-catching voyage of the Pequod. But Melville was only incidentally concerned with the utilitarian worries of whale ship proprietors. What really interested him was the metaphysical monomania of his Captain Ahab. Melville, along with Thoreau and Emerson and the Transcendentalists of the pre-Civil War Golden Day, was troubled with larger questions of Good and Evil in a world in which Sam Slick, Johnson Hooper’s rascally character, could anticipate pragmatism with his “It’s good to be shifty in a new country.”
Authorship, in pre-industrial times, had been bound up with aristocratic patronage, and the writer in America was faced with a make-do situation .simply because there were no noble lords in a new society to pay a scribbler’s way. Mark Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells, the Big Three of post-Civil War times, did the best they could in an insensitive world. Twain was a tramp printer; Howells got his writing start by producing a hack campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln, which led to a political appointment as consul. Twain had his fun with business villains in The Gilded Age, but he was personally entranced with inventors and with the Yankee ingenuity of his Connecticut mechanic who visited the court of King Arthur.
Henry James, the novelist who wrote like a philosopher while his brother William, the philosopher, was writing like a novelist, did not hate business as such. He merely deplored the fact that in its native form it left Christopher Newman of The American (1877) very little time for culture.
As for Howells, his ethical preoccupation led to an early dalliance with Edward Bellamy-style socialism. What bothered Howells about his entrepreneurial Silas Laphams and Jacob Dryfooses, millionaires, was the atrophy of their generous instincts in pursuit of success. What escaped Howells was the fact that Silas Lapham’s paint had both utilitarian and esthetic uses that justified the business that produced it, and what escaped James was the circumstance that Christopher Newman had first to earn the money that enabled him to take his cultural Wanderjahr in Europe.
Signs of Envy
The American fiction writer was anti-bourgeois before he was pro-socialist. Writers belonged to Grub Street, and if they could not catch on in journalism their natural habitat was the garret where idealism had to struggle to repress envy. Naturally they saw business largely from the outside. Dreiser could be both fascinated and repelled by the amoral energies of Frank Cowperwood, his fictional traction magnate of The Titan, but he missed the point that it was a truly responsible man, Thomas Edison, who had brought electricity to the cities and made the five-cent fare possible even in spite of monopolistic financiers.
The anti-bourgeois writer easily went over to socialism. Upton Sinclair saw only a vicious spirit of competition in the Chicago packers who disassembled hogs without hearing “the hog- squeal of the universe.” Sinclair changed the law as it affected sanitary conditions in Packingtown, but he was not satisfied with that. Frank Norris, in depicting the Southern Pacific Railroad as an “octopus,” tried to take solace in the fact that the wheat of the San Joaquin valley got to market despite the railroad robber barons. But he was troubled by the gambling element involved in marketing the wheat once it was out of the grain elevators and off the trains.
With Sinclair Lewis, who had gone to college in the muckrake era, the derogation of the businessman took on a Menckenian finesse. Babbitt believed in go-getting, and he skirted the edge of sharp practice. But he had his pathetic side. He was not the heartless capitalist of the proletarian novels, and he was aware of the shallowness of his life. He could return from his fishing trips in the Maine woods with new resolutions which he quickly forgot.
Gertrude Stein’s Influence
Emily Watts, with an ear for nuance, credits Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway’s mentor, with a most influential defense of private capitalism in the mid-Thirties. Writing in the Saturday Evening Post, Miss Stein asked a simple question, “Is Money Money or Isn’t Money Money? . . . . When you earn money and spend money,” she said, “anybody can know the difference between a million and three. But when you vote money away there isn’t any difference between a million and three.”
That put Gertrude Stein in the anti-Keynesian, anti-Marxian camp, and it seemed to pull other ex-radical writers (E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos) with her. The fictional businessman Merton was provided with some quite convincing lines by Edna St. Vincent Millay in her long poem, “Conversation at Midnight.” With Gertrude Stein pointing the way, the “lost generation” managed by degrees to find themselves on the side of common sense. The businessman in fiction became as other people, a human being to be judged in terms of his own sensibilities, which might be those of any professional faced with the necessity of both making a living and discharging his duties as a citizen.
Emily Watts is a deft researcher and excellent summarizer, but she has overlooked some points. She sets Willa Cather down as anti-business on the basis of Cather short stories, but it was a businessman, Fred Ottenburg, who pushed the operatic career of Thea Kronborg in Cather’s The Song of the Lark. And one looks in vain in Emily Watts’ book for the name of Garet Garrett, who, in addition to his purely economic writing, gave us some remarkable novels about business. Garrett’s The Driver, a novel based on the life of E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, was surely worth a glance. And ditto for Booth Tarkington’s The Plutocrat.