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Free to Write

Understanding the marketplace of ideas.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JAMES SEATON
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Like Shelley, Walt Whitman is almost always thought of as a thoroughgoing radical, an idealist who could not help but be as opposed to capitalism as any professor. Thomas Peyser concedes that “in cultural matters, Whitman does indeed share many of the views of today’s cultural left” but adds that the poet’s “political and economic views” were decidedly on the right. For Whitman, business and even a “maniacal appetite for wealth” are finally beneficent: 

I perceive clearly that the extreme business energy, and this almost maniacal appetite for wealth prevalent in the United States, are parts of amelioration and progress, indispensably needed to prepare the very results I demand.

And if Whitman approved of successful businessmen, he seemed to feel what Peyser describes as “a certain disdain for people who fail to prosper once they have been unshackled from feudal restraints.” In Democratic Vistas, Whitman asserts that democratic society depends on “the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners,” while in contrast “democracy looks with suspicious, ill-satisfied eye upon the very poor, the ignorant, and on those out of business.”

The loose structure of Whitman’s free verse masterpiece, Song of Myself, is analogous, Peyser suggests, to the kind of order Hayek finds in a market where buyers and sellers pursue their own aims without reference to an overall plan. Song of Myself, “a compilation of discrete textual units that, while displaying ample signs of organization within themselves, are juxtaposed in a way that defies the strictures of rhetorical or thematic cohesion,” makes no attempt to achieve the formal unity of a sonnet or a novel like Madame Bovary. Peyser finds a parallel to the “spontaneous order” of the marketplace in the catalogues or lists so central to Whitman’s style: “great lists that aspire to capture the astonishing variety of America without either insisting we see that variety as tending towards a univocal purpose or despairing at the sheer incoherence of phenomena.”

Unlike Walt Whitman and pace some of her academic interpreters, Willa Cather had no truck with the cultural left, but like Whitman she appreciated the value of free markets and American capitalism. Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! (the title is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) climbs from poverty to the ownership of a successful farm, in the process indicating, as Stephen Cox points out, her understanding of “the modern capitalist theory of value” (in technical terms “the principle of subjective value and the closely related principle of marginal utility”). Her father was an intelligent man, but he was hampered by his (in the novel’s words) “Old-World belief that land, in itself, is desirable,” while her unperceptive brother Oscar cannot see the limitations of what Cox calls “the equally old-world belief that labor is desirable and valuable in itself.” Thus O Pioneers! is, among other things, “a textbook exposition of capitalist theory and practice, viewed from a perspective that is highly unusual even today .  .  . the capitalist perspective.”

Alexandra Bergson, unlike the radicals in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, had the intelligence and the determination to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the free market. Conrad’s would-be revolutionaries, on the other hand, blame capitalism for their poverty and obscurity. Their opposition to capitalism—and not theirs alone, Conrad implies—has little to do with compassion for the poor and much with resentment at their personal failure to achieve the power and fame they feel is their due. As Cox comments, the malcontents of The Secret Agent want to replace capitalism with “a social system that is congenial to themselves, a system that will give them the respect and authority they could never obtain in any imaginable free market in such commodities.”

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