Chance leads the brothers to chandlery and also to a medicinal herb that gives their soap its marketing advantage. Persistence causes the firm to shoot up “like a backwoods boy fed on bear meat.” However, unlike Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte and Wells’s Uncle Ponderevo, the Clares are a cautious lot: “Our wives know us. Our children will answer to us. And we’ll never get mixed up in social caprices.” Even more important, they distrust “extreme profit. Too fat a margin meant something was wrong. Today’s excess spelled tomorrow’s liability. Profit bred complacency, and complacency bred the death of endeavor. Advantage existed only to be reinvested.” Guided by this business philosophy, they prosper nicely, weathering economic downturns, to the point that Powers says of one Clare that his death certificate might have indicated natural causes, but “he died, in fact, of fulfillment.”
Eventually, Clare Soap & Chemical adopts a charted management structure and incorporates. For the first time, the Clares have leisure at their disposal, and one of them uses it to read. He comes across the following definition of a corporation in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: “An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”
And there we have it: a family-owned company one century, a corporate colossus the next, paralleled by characters dying of fulfillment, and then environmentally caused cancer. Powers, though, like Dreiser, is not judgmental; he is inclined to wistfulness, not anger. If only it didn’t have to end this way, he seems to be saying, with the Clare brothers’ legacy of prodigious mercantilism marred by the murky issue of corporate accountability.
In their wide-armed embrace of economic history and their narrow-bore focus on feeling and motive, American Pastoral and Gain are extensive and intensive in execution, combining the best qualities of Wells and James. In this respect, these works differ from early business novels. At their core, however, is the theme that has always driven business narratives: the effect of economic upheaval on social fabric. This is no small attribute because it gives readers nuanced ways to think about forces of change and encourages understanding of the motives of movers and shakers.
If only more novelists would follow the example of Roth and Powers and engage in the major economic issues of our time. Instead, subjects of tremendous importance — globalization, technology, multinational corporations — and riveting (and riven) personalities — Bill Gates, George Soros, John Malone, Phil Knight — go begging. To be sure, Michael Crichton ventures into this territory, but he leans toward caricature and sensation. All the same, he is at least alert to another overlooked aspect of the genre: the pure storytelling pleasure to be had from the extraordinary business dramas unfolding around us. As Uncle Ponderevo says, “Commerce! A romantic exchange of commodities and property. Romance. ’Magination. See?”
Kate Jennings, [email protected], is the author of Moral Hazard: A Novel (Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2002), which is based on her experiences as a speech writer on Wall Street in the 1990s. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel Snake (Back Bay Books, 1999). She has written for The New York Times and other leading publications.