The Magazine

Commerce and Art

The disdain is largely one-sided.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By STEPHEN MILLER
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John Kinsella, a highly regarded Australian poet who teaches at Cambridge, was quoted not long ago in the Times Literary Supplement as saying that he has “not sold his soul to market fetishization.” Kinsella means that he doesn’t want even to think about making a profit from his writing. But Kinsella is also doing what comes naturally for most poets and many literary essayists: He is expressing a disdain for the commercial world. To think about selling books is tantamount to worshipping Mammon.

Disdain for commerce is what might be called a topos—a recurrent theme in Western literature. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is insulted when a Phaeacian thinks Odysseus is a trader because Odysseus declines to participate in an athletic competition. In the Homeric world, traders supposedly lack athletic prowess. Odysseus is furious. “Your slander fans the anger in my heart!” Greek, Roman, and early Christian writers often argued that commercial men were avaricious because a desire for profit is an insatiable desire—an obsession. Or, as Kinsella would have it, a “market fetishization.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas said that “trade, insofar as it aims at making profits, is most reprehensible, since the desire for gain knows no bounds but reaches into the infinite.” 

It was not until the late 17th century that some English writers began to challenge the traditional view of commerce. In the Spectator, Joseph Addison defended merchants:

There are not more useful members in a commonwealth than merchants. They knit mankind together in a mutual intercourse of good offices, distribute the gifts of nature, find work for the poor, add wealth to the rich, and magnificence to the great.

Addison made a radical suggestion: English aristocrats, who often led idle lives, should emulate the Jews and become industrious men of commerce. Jews, Addison says, have greatly benefited humankind because they are traders: “They are, indeed, so disseminated through all the trading parts of the world, that they are become the instruments by which the most distant nations converse with one another and by which mankind are knit together in a general correspondence.” 

David Hume agreed with Addison about the benefits of commerce. So did Samuel Johnson. In Johnson’s view, a commercial society gives more opportunity for the poor to better their condition: “To entail irreversible poverty upon generation after generation only because the ancestor happened to be poor is in itself cruel, if not unjust, and is wholly contrary to the maxims of a commercial nation.”  

But most 18th-century English writers disagreed with Addison, Hume, and Johnson. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, and Thomas Gray argued that commercial expansion depopulates the countryside, undermines morality, and weakens public-spiritedness. Most 19th- and 20th-century English poets and essayists also took a dark view of commerce. Deploring the growth of commerce, John Ruskin said that “the ruling goddess [of Britain] may be best generally described as the ‘Goddess of Getting-On’ or ‘Britannia of the Market.’ ” According to Ruskin, commerce had ruined the minds of Englishmen: “It is simply and sternly impossible for the English public, at the moment, to understand any thoughtful writing—so incapable of thought has it become in its insanity of avarice.” (One wonders if Ruskin thought his remarks applied to his own father, a wine importer.)

A negative view of commerce remains the dominant view in the Irish and British literary world. According to one reviewer, the Irish poet Derek Mahon argues that corporations create “socio-economic and environmental desolation.” One of Mahon’s poems, the reviewer says, “portrays the human and ecological casualties of market forces.” American writers have not been as hostile to commerce as English writers, though: “Many of our most valuable public men have been merchants,” said Washington Irving. According to Walt Whitman, America was destined for a “grander future” than Europe, in part because of “the complicated business genius .  .  . of Americans.” In his journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “we rail at trade, but the historian of the world will see that it was the principle of liberty; that it settled America, and destroyed feudalism, and made peace and keeps peace; that it will abolish slavery.”  

William Dean Howells found ambitious American businessmen interesting. Reminiscing about his first trip to New York, Howells wrote that, on the ferry, “I had the company of a young New-Yorker, whom I had met on the boat coming down, and who was of the light, hopeful, adventurous business type which seems peculiar to the city, and which has always attracted me.” The hero in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is a self-made man who became wealthy by manufacturing high-quality paint. “Make Lapham vulgar but not sordid,” Howells wrote in his notebook. Lapham is an honest businessman, though he gets into financial trouble when a former partner browbeats him into buying risky securities. 

Yet Howells disliked thinking about the commercial aspects of being a writer. In “The Man of Letters as Man of Business,” he says that, among writers, “the instinctive sense of the dishonor which money-purchase does to art is so strong that sometimes a man of letters who can pay his way otherwise refuses pay for his work, as Lord Byron did, for a while, from a noble pride.” A shrewd negotiator with publishers, Howells was one of the most commercially successful American novelists, yet he frequently attacked commerce in his essays. New York was ugly, dirty, noisy, and smelly because it was “the commercial metropolis.”    

There are sympathetic portraits of businessmen in novels by Abraham Cahan, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis; yet after World War II, most American literary writers painted the business world in dark colors. In 1978, John Gardner complained that most contemporary American writers preached “a whining hatred of American business.” John Updike was an exception, however. In Rabbit Is Rich (1981), he describes commerce in a positive way. The character Harry Angstrom, who enjoys running a Toyota dealership his father-in-law started, talks about how good a car salesman his father-in-law was: “By the time he had sold a car to the customer the poor bozo thought he was robbing old Fred blind when the fact is the deal had angles to it like a spider web.”  

Though Updike implies that commerce is a tricky game of appearances, he was impressed by the entrepreneurial energy of many Americans. (Looking at the new stores and restaurants that have sprouted up in the decayed downtown of a local city, Angstrom reflects: “The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun’s just started.”) But Jonathan Franzen takes the usual literary view of commerce. He argues that Edith Wharton “anticipates two .  .  . hallmarks of American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism.” (Franzen’s essay appeared in the New Yorker, a magazine whose advertisements celebrate elegant hedonism.)  

Puzzled by the literary world’s dark view of commerce, the business world occasionally fights back. In May 2011, the chairman of a major bank holding company said he would give grants of as much as $2 million to colleges if they agreed to make Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged required reading in a course on capitalism. This idea has undoubtedly been resisted by most academics, who rightly object to donors’ prescribing what should be taught. Moreover, Ayn Rand’s second-rate novels are tedious and humorless paeans to selfishness. 

Wallace Stevens, the poet who was an executive for an insurance company, wished “we could .  .  . get rid of .  .  . the caricatures of the businessman.” But it is unlikely that Stevens’s wish will ever be fulfilled, for most American literary writers will continue to dislike commerce, especially corporate commerce, and most will continue to regard profit-making with suspicion, which is why most American writers are liberals. Three years ago, the essayist Daniel Menaker put it nicely: “Republican literary writers are in my experience as rare as ski bums in the Sahel.”   

Stephen Miller is the author, most recently, of The Peculiar Life of Sundays

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