Heartless or Heroic?


The Businessman in American Literature, by Emily Stipes Watts, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982, 183 pp., $16.00.

This book-length survey of the businessman in American literature is a first. Emily Stipes Watts demonstrates that while businessmen are usually portrayed as stupid, immoral, and spiritually vacuous, serious American literature is by no means devoid of more positive images. Unusually, Watts is herself frankly sympathetic to free enterprise, specifically praising its promotion of individualism, creative production, and political freedom.

From the Puritans to the present, the book reviews the dominant character types and themes common in American literature that portrays business activity. Among her figures are the heartless and finally repentant Scrooge of William Dean Howells's Silas Lapham; the shrewd Yankee Peddler who became Herman Melville's Confidence Man; and the Tinker, the ancestor of a uniquely American hero, the inventor-entrepreneur. She notes the interesting conflict in American culture between the celebration of invention and the fear of its result: industrialization and technology seen as destroyers of the very individuality and creativity that produced them.

Why has the literary artist so often expressed such hostility to business? It was not, Watts shows, a result of "the ['robber baron'] excesses of the post-Civil War period. The truth of the matter is that American writers produced works with anticapitalist tendencies from the very beginning, despite our current cliches about the Puritan work ethic and the economic motives of our Founding Fathers." She takes issue with the myth of the "Puritan-capitalist connection," presenting historical and literary evidence that American Puritanism was in word and deed opposed to business, economic freedom, and material gain. What Puritanism spawned, she says, was not support for capitalism, but an intellectual anticapitalist tradition for American writers.

Watts does not oversimplify the problems artists face in a culture without a tradition of patronage and where commercialization is a potential threat, but she notes that it has also been ignorance and envy that have led to the views that "businessmen are stupid" and that "a fortune is easy to make." Her discussion of the attraction of artists to utopian socialism in the 19th century and to Marxism in the 20th suggests that anticapitalist portrayals in utopian socialist and proletarian novels were largely refinements of much earlier prejudices.

She finds sympathetic portrayals of the businessman in some early figures (like Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography) and several writers in the '30s who defended capitalism against the Marxist rage (for instance, Gertrude Stein: "Getting rid of the rich does not end up very funnily. It is easy to get rid of the rich but it is not easy to get rid of the poor. Wherever they have tried it they have got rid of the rich all right and so then everybody is poor."). Watts credits Ayn Rand with the creation, in The Night of January 16th, of a new kind of literary hero, the entrepreneur (but oddly does not deal with the fuller characters of Rand's later work, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged).

In Watts's view, the most positive portraits are more recent stories about the independent, private businessman, in the tradition of the "rugged individualist," who displays integrity, courage, and endurance against the encroachments of big government, big business, big unions—"corporate capitalism"—and the conformity, mediocrity, and loss of freedom they threaten. Her primary representative of this type is Ken Kesey's Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion.

Watts reminds us that heroes of any kind are rare in contemporary literature. So in order to create a capitalist hero, American writers must reject and dispel a number of powerful myths. However, she claims that the individualist tradition, and the perception that capitalism encourages individual freedom and self-expression, are good reasons why the businessman should emerge as an American literary hero.

Watts's survey is broader than it is deep. It insufficiently appreciates the impact of European cultural movements (like romanticism) on the American writer, and it does not make a convincing case for the generalization that American writers have come to deal with capitalism in a "creative and constructive manner." But this is the most extensive look to date at the treatment of capitalism by major American writers. Her book will give the general reader a much richer appreciation of the literary tradition that shapes the image of the businessman in American literature.

Cheri Adrian is a former professor of literature and is currently working in Hollywood as a screenwriter.