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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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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