A curious collection of essays was published last year under the auspices of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a London-based organization dedicated to broadening the public understanding of a free economy. Titled The Representation of Business in English Literature, the collection contains a foreword by John Blundell lamenting that capitalism has received “three centuries of bad press” from writers of fiction. To demonstrate this negative bias, he works his way through the dictionary for adjectives to describe how he believes writers portray businesspeople: “…abnormal and antagonistic; corrupt, cunning and cynical; dishonest, disorderly, doltish, dumb and duplicitous; inhumane, insensitive and irresponsible; ruthless, unethical and unprincipled; and villainous to boot.”
To temper such antibusiness characterizations, Blundell proposes sending emerging writers to “a factory or similar capitalist institution” and offering financial incentives for novelists who treat business as “an honourable, creative, moral and personally satisfying way of life.” He even entertains the idea of endowing an Oxbridge Chair of Literary Capitalism.
Poor Mr. Blundell. Someone should tell him that character and conflict are the stuff of stories, and polemic is second only to unalloyed virtue in sinking a novel. Next he will be asking novelists to write about happy families!
Blundell’s free-market viewpoint is as simplistic and skewed as that of the extreme anticapitalist populists who see making money solely as a dirty game and businesspeople as ripe for vilification in fiction. In truth, beginning with Daniel Defoe, novelists have served up treatments of businesspeople and commerce that are as varied, nuanced, and complex as they are in life, resulting in an engrossing, invigorating literary genre. Unfortunately, these days, with modern readers preferring the narrowly personal or entertainingly exotic, the business-novel genre has fallen on hard times, to the detriment of not just literature but all social discourse.
Portraits of Moneymen
Novelists worth their salt have always been drawn to human behavior in all its glory and inadequacy. Take, for example, Anthony Trollope. In The Way We Live Now (1875), he created Augustus Melmotte, the best-known of all fictional businesspeople. A financier peddling shares in an American railroad scheme, Melmotte bursts on 19th-century London society with the radiance of a comet, and, as comets do, burns out. Melmotte, who eventually commits suicide, is a study in overreaching ambition, in greatness gone awry, but Trollope doesn’t make him a
figure of contempt. Melmotte, as his faithful servant Croll says, was “passionate, and did lose his ’ead; and vas blow’d up vid bigness.… ’E bursted himself.” In this story, the real villains are the amoral, gormless, prejudiced, blue-blooded fops who sneer at Melmotte while taking advantage of his prosperity. Trollope wanted to illustrate venality in all its venues, not just in the City.
If Melmotte is a comet, then Theodore Dreiser’s nonconformist magnate Frank Algernon Cowperwood is a sun that shines steadily through an entire sequence of novels: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947). Cowperwood is a corner cutter and opportunist in the Melmotte mold, but Dreiser, a journalist by training, wasn’t interested in passing judgment, or in being arch or satirical. He admired his hero, he understood his faults, and although he was awake to the social injustices of Cowperwood’s era — post–Civil War America — he couldn’t resist the cavalcade, either. His detached but vigorous reportorial style, particularly in The Financier, where the writing is the sharpest, results in an adamantine portrait of a moneyman. In no other book is the truth of Calvin Coolidge’s remark “The business of America is business” so well brought to life.
Rivaling Melmotte and Cowperwood in double-or-nothing risk taking is Octave Mouret, the pioneer department-store merchant in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) (1883). A marketing and public relations genius, Mouret sees himself as being in the business of creating desire. Not for him anything as plebeian, as dull, as satisfying customer needs; he wants Parisian women to swoon with covetousness.