The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Villain and Vampire: Businessmen in Literature


Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last. You spurn’d
me such a day; another time you call’d me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend
you thus much moneys?
 
    
Shylock to
Antonio, Act I, Scene III, The Merchant of Venice1.
This article originally appeared
in Reason Magazine in October 1986 (Vol. 18, No. 5). I revisit it here for the
edification of readers who are familiar with Shakespeare and with the dearth in
past and modern literature of stories that regard the businessman as a hero. I
have edited it to correct very minor errors.
_____________________________________________________________________________
I never got to study Shakespeare in high school. By the time I started,
he had been supplanted by J.D. Salinger’s The
Catcher in the Rye
and other contemporary, topically relevant literary
works, most of them forgettable and authored by lesser, meaner minds than the
Bard’s.
Later, I was grateful that I was
spared an introduction to his work then. No doubt it would have been filtered
through the Deweyian strainers of gender consciousness, minority appreciation,
and antiviolence sensitivity and blended in a potpourri of egalitarian mixers. His
plots, characters, the beautiful profundity of his language – the whole broad
landscape of Shakespeare – were left for me to discover without benefit of
interpretation via the National Education Association.
Nor was the subject of the
role of businessmen in literature broached in those generously labeled
“literature” courses. Business didn’t exist in literature. It just
barely merited mention in sophomore history and senior civics, where, if it was
noticed at all, it was portrayed either as a glum spectator to the parade of
the state or as a recalcitrant sheep that needed its hind legs nipped
periodically by the Lassies of the public interest.
“Businessmen” is a
broad category, encompassing bankers, merchants, industrialists, manufacturers –
anyone responsible for the production of material wealth or services. They have
appeared in literature since before the Greeks, but I arbitrarily begin with
Shakespeare, and specifically with his Merchant
of Venice
, because the author and his work are closer to our time, and because
Shakespeare was probably the first major writer to create an important business
character.
The “merchant” of the title is Antonio, not Shylock the
moneylender. Of the two characters, Shylock is the more interesting, if only
for the intensity of his feelings. Antonio is something of a pompous,
profligate windbag and not very convincing as a captain of commerce. Shylock is
a three-dimensional character, even though his overall treatment reflects an
unpopular view of Jews in the Elizabethan and subsequent eras.
Sentiment against usury was
so strong that only Jews were permitted to practice it with near impunity. Shylock’s
legal claim to a slice of the merchant’s flesh served two purposes: It was his
revenge for being maligned in public by Antonio, and it was the central
conflict of Shakespeare’s usual family of conflicts. The ethics of usury may
have even intrigued him, and this might have been his only means of addressing
the subject. In the end, Shylock is compelled to waive both Antonio’s debt and
the pound of flesh, to become a Christian, and to have half his property given
to Antonio. He also must bequeath his entire estate to his daughter and the Christian
she has married against his will. In return, he retains his life and half his
wealth. This was the most justice Shakespeare dared give him in his time.
The businessman has ever
since been ranked with the vampire, the criminal, and the tyrant as a stock
pariah and nemesis of society. It would be fair to say that he has been
accorded markedly less sympathy than the werewolf. Until the 19th
century, the merchant, the entrepreneur, and the banker were all relegated to
minimal roles in literature, usually as minor antagonists or as subjects of
satire. While businessmen made the rise of the West possible, few writers
bothered to explore the possibility that they might have been just as rich a
potential for dramatic expression as lords, vagabonds, or picaroons.
“Go make my coarse
commodities look sleek, with subtle art beguile the honest eye,” urges a
woolens draper in Thomas Middleton’s Michaelmas
Term
(1606). Middleton’s unflattering portrayal of the trader may be taken
as a moderate instance of the esteem in which businessmen were held up through the
Enlightenment. “Shoddy goods” were only an excuse for writers to
ignore the morality of profit and value-for-value trading. In their eyes, the
ethics of created, earned wealth was too contemptible a subject to treat
seriously.
But the power of the
Enlightenment inevitably altered that view. Writers could no longer feign
blindness to or remain incurious about the incredible explosion of wealth and
the rise in living standards spawned by that intellectual revolution. God against
king and king against prince fast faded as handy or exciting vehicles of moral conflict.
The literature that used those themes and that survived were written by such
titans as Hugo, Schiller, and Goethe. The rest has almost vanished from serious
critical attention.
The problem was that most
writers could not conceive of treating the businessman as an autonomous individual
whose problems and conflicts were as uniquely personal and universal as those
of any other highly visible “role model.”  They could not accept him at face value as
they could a king, statesman, cleric, or soldier. A king had has conscience, a
cleric his temptations, a soldier his honor. What could a merchant do that was virtuous? The risks and
rewards of trade, of investment, of innovation – these were actions viewed as
outside the bounds of morality, even though they were the source of a writer’s
quill, foolscap, and fashionable clothes.
The best writers could do was
portray the businessman as an upright, respected, responsible member of his
community, or as an enemy of that community. The novels of the early Victorian age,
particularly those of Charles Dickens, are chock-full of business characters,
some of them “upright” and even admirable, others insatiable, often
charming frauds who prey on a gullible public.
The attitudes of novelists
and playwrights in the early to mid-19th century mirrored those of
such prominent theoreticians as John Stuart Mill and such beaux espirts as John Ruskin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “I
confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think
that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on,”
wrote Mill in Principles of Political
Economy
(1848). He described the “success ethics” as one of the
“disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.”
Ruskin fantasized about how the Industrial Revolution might be disguised, for
example, by designing railway trains to look like dragons, while Coleridge
bemoaned the demise of an “enlightened aristocracy” and the exodus of
the rural poor to the cities and manufacturing towns, away from the ministrations
of a patronizing gentry.
To this day, Europe has never
entirely expelled the vapors of caste. Its culture has yet to allow business to
rid itself of its inferiority complex. But what was happening during this
period in America, which had no philosophy of predestination and no built-in
prejudice against business?
For the most part, America’s preeminent thinkers, intellectuals, and
observers wished that the opposite were true. The outstanding champion of business
was Horatio Alger, whose novels of hard work and success may have helped to
popularize the ethics of individualism but did not explain why that ethics ought to have been a value.
And American novelists and
playwrights did produce business literature. However, just as many of America’s
leading intellectuals, in philosopher Leonard Peikoff’s words, were
“alienated by the basic premises of the country, [and] hostile to the
essential character of its institutions, its traditions, and its people,”2.
 many of the leading novelists, especially
in the latter half of the 19th century, were tongue-tied by the
unabridged individual, by galloping industrial progress, and by a population
that was almost universally unresponsive to their charges that the
“success ethic” was a cruel hoax. What they finally did was abandon
their frontal assaults and launch a literary flanking movement.
In 1884, John Hay published
what was regarded as a major pro-business, pro-success novel, The Bread-Winners. Its convoluted,
saccharine plot is the genteel ancestor of television’s Dallas and Dynasty. A year
later, H.F. Keeton answered it with his antibusiness novel, The Money-Makers, a similarly contrived
work written, however, with much more conviction. In it, Hay’s original industrial
magnate/union organizer, warm-hearted-fellow/conniving rabble-rouser roles were
simply reversed.
In both novels, confused,
sensitive scions of the tycoons are unsure of where their duties lay until outside
events precipitate action one way or the other. And in both novels, these
duties concerned the welfare of others and a heightened sense of noblesse oblige to some segment of
society.
The two major American novelists
of the late 19th century were Henry James and William Dean Howells. James
was the finer, sounder writer. His most acclaimed works are The Bostonians and
Washington Square. But he found America barren of serious subject matter and
viewed Europe as his intellectual and artistic home. He moved to England and, a
year after acquiring British citizenship, died there in 1916.
His friend and colleague,
Howells, though, felt right at home. While not as prolific as Alger and
certainly not as perceptive as James, Howells virtually cornered the market for
“serious” novels of business and success. James, in his novels, specialized
in pitting Americans against “superior” European sensibilities.
In Annie Kilburn (1889), The
Minister’s Charge
(1887), A Hazard of
New Fortunes
(1890), and in many other novels, Howells devolved the creed
that money isn’t everything, that the lower classes have legitimate grudges against
the reigning moral and economic system, and that the pursuit of one’s own
happiness inherently entails injustice and suffering for others. His most
famous work, The Rise of Silas Lapham
(1885), which chronicles the progressive corruption of a successful man as he
seeks to be accepted by Boston society, was a standard subject of study in American
high schools for decades.
What was the answer of American
businessmen to these novels? Many chose to say nothing. Most ignored them as
unimportant. But the muteness was understandable. An explicit ethics
sanctioning capitalism had never been formulated. An explicit political philosophy
separating the state from the individual had yet to be invented.
In the meantime, the only
noteworthy response was Andrew Carnegie’s The
Gospel of Wealth
(1889), in which he asserted that great industrial
enterprises, such as his own, are created by the strong and ruthless (without any
reference to rights). These enterprises, he offered in expiation, are but trusts
administered by the winners of the struggle for the benefit of the public.
These positions were meant to
be the finger in the hole of the dike, but all they did was help to enlarge the
rupture. What followed was a deluge of antibusiness literature. Frank Norris
produced The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903); Robert Herrick, The Common Lot (1904) and The Memoirs of an American Citizen
(1905); Jack London, The Iron Heel
(1908) and Burning Daylight (1910); Theodore
Dreiser, The Financier (1912) and The
Titan (1914); and Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906), The Metropolis (1908), and King
Coal
(1917).
Not all of these novelists
urged complete condemnation of the businessman. London’s Burning Daylight and Howells’s Silas
Lapham
, for example, claim that spiritual renewal and moral salvation may
be found through the renunciation of business, finance, and innovation. These and
other redeemed business characters retreat to the wilderness or to old-time
religion or to some other form of passivity. They accept the nostrum that
integrity, honesty, and genius are incompatible with capitalism, which can only
corrupt the truly moral man by inculcating ambition and selfishness.
With the publication in 1943 of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the game, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was up. Rand
must have taken some pleasure in turning all the standard assumptions on their
heads. Gail Wynand, the ruthless, self-made newspaperman, for example,
unwittingly practices everything that had been preached to businessmen and the
public in the past. He is ultimately obliged to endorse the destruction of his
best friend, Howard Roark, an architect, innovator, and something new in the pages
of literature – a man of independent self-esteem whose soul is not tied to
society, nor crippled by any altruist notion.
On the other end of this
novel’s spectrum of business characters is Hopton Stoddard, the aging,
itinerant millionaire who “found relief in religion – in the form of a
bribe.” When a shaken Stoddard returns from a worldwide tour of religious
shrines – undertaken to find a creed that would forgive him for his dubious business
ethics and shady life – Rand says of him with dark humor that: “He had
returned from his journey, crushed by the universal spectacle of religion, most
particularly by the various forms in which the promise of hell confronted him
all over the earth. He had been driven to the conclusion that his life
qualified him for the worst possible here-after under any system of faith. It had
shaken what remained of his mind.”3. 
In Wynand, she illustrated
the tragedy of a great man who molded his life on a second-hand morality,
altruism, or the “gospel of power.” In Stoddard, she created a foil
who was almost a caricature of previous novelists’ conceptions of a
“redeemed” businessman.  
Gail Wynand’s conflicts are
refined in the character of industrialist Hank Rearden in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), with the difference
that Rearden questions the moral code that is supposed to govern both his business
and his personal life. When he has his day in court – when he publicly rejects
the right of a tribunal to penalize him for having conducted
“illegal” business – we know that his end will not be the same as
Wynand’s.
Atlas Shrugged
was not written exclusively as an answer to any particular antibusiness novel,
but it is important to note an inversion in its characterizations that is a
product of the novel’s radical theme. All the virtues that previous novelists
had asserted businessmen ought to be imbued with – including the primacy of service
over self-interest and the disavowal of the profit motive – are precisely those
possessed by businessmen in this novel who are the heavies, the incompetents,
and fence-sitters. Moreover, they are also the sneaks, the frauds, the cowards,
the looters, and the extortionists, not in spite of their altruist virtues, but
because of them. Among many other
things, Atlas Shrugged developed the
theme that the altruist virtues in men have clung to for centuries are actually
vices, and can turn them into tragic figures, or into monsters.
In terms of the business novel,
was there life after Atlas Shrugged? Yes,
if one concedes that to be comatose, one must first be alive. Business novels
have been published since Atlas, but
overall they perpetuate the altruist-collectivist theme – or no discernible
theme at all.
In retrospect, Atlas Shrugged was a literary supernova
whose light has yet to reach the lifeless pages of modern literature. Our
novelists, critics, and professors of literature have neither the equipment –
intellectual or literary – to grasp that novel, nor the inclination to acquire
it.
Nearly 6,000 miles and 360
years separate a Venetian court of law from a Chicago appellate court and the
verdict against another moneylender, banker Midas Mulligan (one of the earliest
“strikers” in Atlas), who
was ordered to loan his money to men who claimed a right to it because they
needed it. And a whole new philosophy governed his response to the wrong dealt
him by the court. Literary justice was exacted after all – and for much, much
more than a mere pound of flesh.
1.William Shakespeare:
The Complete Works
. Eds. Stanley
Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988. p. 430, lines 24-27.
2. The Ominous
Parallels: The End of Freedom in America
, by Leonard Peikoff. New York:
Stein & Day, 1982. p. 325.
3. The
Fountainhead
, by Ayn Rand. Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill
Company, 1943. p. 362.

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4 Comments

  1. Teresa

    Amazing overview! Once again your intellectual breadth stirs my admiration.

  2. Edward Cline

    Teresa: My intellectual breadth stirs my imagination!

  3. Michael Neibel

    Excellent nut shell history of the businessman in historical literature.

  4. Anonymous

    How much does the reader-writer relationship influence the themes, characters, and plots of novels? For a variety of social and literary history reasons, I supsect that finding love (and sex) are more appealing to readers than a smoothly run business, or resolustion of a conflict for a shop owner. Nonetheless, I finished reading "We Three Kings" yesterday. I chuckled, when in the midst of the power struggles, muggings, kidnappings, etc., Fury takes time to attend to his warehouse fire and aviation business negotations. Then, he's back to cracking heads (intellectually and physically).
    Oscar

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