Money—The Magician's Serpent?


Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion, by Lewis H. Lapham, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 244 pages, $18.95

As targets for potshots, the rich come a close second to clay pigeons, at least when the shooting range is America and the weapons are words. It is a sport with a long past, traditional you might say. Reach for any book purporting to pronounce upon the social fabric of the nation, reach practically at random, and you will find the bullets flying. This leapt out as I flipped through Walt Whitman's essays:

"The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only kill time. In business (this all-devouring modern word, business), the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining today sole master of the field."

The source is "Democratic Vistas"; the date 1871. A hundred-odd years later, from Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, the blast sounds much the same. For there is not much new to say about the rich if you rely on old ammunition: they have money (as F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly pointed out so astutely); they get bigheaded and spend amounts that we would never countenance were we in their shoes; and they find that their desires still outrun their bank accounts, causing them to feel thwarted, empty, poor amid plenty.

If there is anything interesting about an old game like this—and I still have my doubts—probably it resides in the player himself. How's his form? Is he sporting? Lapham brings to the trap shoot an upbringing among San Francisco oil millionaires and education at the Hotchkiss School and Yale. He now presides over a magazine kept afloat by grants from one of capitalism's benevolent byproducts, the tax-exempt MacArthur Foundation. In short, he'd be a clay pigeon himself were his finger not on the trigger.

If it can be said the American rich constitute a class in the strict sense—an argument Lapham seems to favor—they have overlooked a traitor in their midst. This is not because the rich are dumb but because Lapham is wonderfully clever. Note how he lulls them: "The reader shouldn't infer from my criticism of the presiding theology that I bear a grudge against money. I take as much pleasure in it as the circumstances allow.…I have never professed…the faintest allegiance to the Marxist heresy. Nor can I muster the scolding tone of voice sometimes deemed obligatory in any discussion of money and class. Possibly this is because the fear and resentment of the impoverished rich moves me to sadness instead of anger."

Hear the echo of "It hurts me more than it hurts you"? The passage appears on page 8, after which the gunfire commences hot and heavy. He is a marksman of infinite guile. The "equestrian class," which takes the heaviest fire, is a group defined neither by income nor holdings nor any objective measure. If Lapham thinks you are "newly enriched," whether by inheritance or industry, you are in his sights. The book is a critical free-for-all restricted only by the energy and (unstated) moral standards of the shootist.

Those standards are apt to be slippery. Ted Kennedy is said to be victim of an "iconography" comprised of divorce, lust for power, and the drowning at Chappaquiddick. According to Lapham, "the iconography has little to do with Senator Kennedy's own character or attainments" but has been inflicted on him by press and popular opinion. I wonder whether Mary Jo Kopechne realized it was headlines and rumor at the wheel as the car plunged off the dock.

Knowing how to make money and keep it cannot be of much day-to-day interest to a man born to riches. Money must seem a naturally occurring resource, like sunlight or fresh air. Thus Lapham is attracted not to the behavior of men doing, that is, working and earning; but rather to men being—enjoying, spending, squandering their fortunes with Oriental abandon. The sedentary, profligate posture seems to him the essence of man. Describing the "divorce from England," then, Lapham finds it necessary to frown at the discovery that "the first cry for rebellion was not Thomas Jefferson's 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' but the Boston shipowners' 'liberty, property and no stamps.'"

There is no room in Lapham's thinking for the legitimate desire to be financially independent. For him, people working to attain the security of wealth are the future inhabitants of his nightmare world of the well-to-do, more sad cases to weep over and snipe at. Wealth, for him, is static, and with it human behavior. The monied have proved themselves vain, greedy, and foolish, so wealth in and of itself is somehow evil. Those without should despise the certainties of more money—better food, clothing, shelter—thereby to avoid the excesses it might bring.

Many will in fact read Lapham this way. He himself admits the "equestrian classes" are a "negligible minority,' leaving the aspiring outsiders in their teeming millions as the bulk of his audience. Nor can you fail to miss the purely defensive side of Lapham's project. If the rich can be made to seem despicable, fewer outsiders will want to be counted among their number; if they can be castigated in an amusing way (and some of Lapham does seem very funny), the rich themselves will be able to dodge his shots and go on living (and buying books) in the old way.

Criticism of the rich that makes the rich feel safe: I told you Lapham was clever. Only never mistake him for sporting. He claims to pity the rich and doesn't; he claims to abide capitalism and discredits it. Capitalism for the rich is inert, awaiting proper use by free men. Capitalism, for the rest, looms like a great destroyer ready to make men miserable.

"Money-making is our magician's serpent," wrote Whitman a hundred years ago. Lapham wrote it again yesterday, and just like old ammunition it flies wide of the mark, endangering spectators.

Paul T. Hornak is a free-lance writer.