Literary works with business themes

The mainstream American novel has evolved as a fundamentally individual-centered form of representation. As a result, most realistic antibusiness American novels tend to represent corporations and other collective capitalist entities as detrimental to individual happiness and well-being. By the same token, the few probusiness novels tend to focus on successful individuals and their personal experiences of prosperity, rather than on corporations as a whole.

The earliest American writers were busy surviving and had a Puritan suspicion of worldly enterprises, but the first literary portraits of American business were for the most part positive and promotional. Samuel Sewall, SamuelSewall’s Diary, for example, written from 1673 to 1729, reflects the business values that accompanied the early growth of the colonies by a man who was an important Boston merchant and public servant. Sewall describes balancing his business interest with his religious and romantic interests. Sewall also wrote one of the first antislavery tracts in America, The Selling of Joseph (1700). Clearly, there were conflicts between commerce and human development even in early American history.Books;business-themed literature

The first important American writer to identify peculiar American business values was Benjamin Franklin, BenjaminFranklin, whose Poor Richard Improved (Franklin)>Poor Richard Improved (1757; also known as The Way to Wealth)–probably the most reprinted work in all of American literature–outlined in pithy and humorous form the values and attitudes that would underpin American business for the next centuries. His aphorisms include “Necessity never made a good bargain”; “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy, and wise”; “Lost time is never found again”; and “The used key is always bright.” Franklin later reiterated these values in his Autobiography (1791), emphasizing–even when he did not practice them–frugality, industry, moderation, and other virtues.

The first generation of American leaders–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Founders–bore out Franklin’s positive picture, which emerged as what came to be known as the Protestant work ethic, the belief that hard work results in success and salvation. The first phase of the literary treatment of American business can be said to have ended with J. Hector St. John Crèvecœur, J. Hector St. JohnCrèvecœur’sLetters from an American Farmer (Crèvecœur)>Letters from an American Farmer (1782), which described in eloquent language a vision of the New World in which–in contrast to England–“industry” and “good living” prevailed over class and fashion, and farmers and merchants carved out their places on the American frontier by dint of these values.

The Industrial Revolution

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the positive view of American business was coming under increasing attack. In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most popular poets of the nineteenth century, the Protestant work ethic was already beginning to sound a bit hollow. “Let us, then, be up and doing,” Longfellow urged in his most famous poem (“The Psalm of Life,” 1838), “Learn to labor and to wait.”

Although work was a purposeful enterprise in the time of Franklin and Crèvecœur, by Longfellow’s time it had become an end in itself. Slavery was now a reality few Americans could ignore–a war would be fought over it within the quarter century–and wage slavery, which accompanied the Industrial Revolution to the United States, soon became a second target of writers. Although the American values of hard work and frugality were still present (witness the portraits of working Americans in Washington Irving’s sketches), the truth was moving closer to Herman Melville’s stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (1855), which represent the destructive effects of routine and meaningless work. Already, Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the second third of the nineteenth century were warning readers of their spiritual impoverishment as a consequence of the American Industrial Revolution.

Rebecca Harding Davis, Rebecca HardingDavis’s Life in the Iron Mills (Davis)>Life in the Iron Mills (1861) only confirmed what earlier writers had touched on: The Industrial Revolution had arrived, and it stifled human life and growth. In one of the first works of American realism, a form that would dominate American literature for the next half century, Davis depicted graphically what industrial growth was doing to human potential. The Gilded Age, the first boom time after the U.S. Civil War, was named in a novel of that Gilded Age, The (Twain and Warner)title by Mark Twain, MarkTwain and Charles Dudley Warner, Charles DudleyWarner (1874) that depicted the worst excesses of the period’s speculation and government collusion with business. Novel after novel described the excesses of the period, including, among other wrongs, how immigrant labor was being exploited.

Ida Tarbell, muckraking journalist.

(Library of Congress)

Frank Norris represented the monopolistic railroads at the turn of the century in The Octopus (1901), while Abraham Cahan depicted the needle trades and early unions, in The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the story of a man who achieved business success by exploiting his fellow immigrants. The most famous of these works was Upton Sinclair, UptonSinclair’s study of the Chicago meatpacking industry, Jungle, The (Sinclair)The Jungle (1906). It was not only fiction that portrayed this period, however; at the turn of the century, journalists labeled Muckraking“muckrakers” by President Theodore Roosevelt were investigating various industries in this era of unchecked economic growth. Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities, 1904), Ida Tarbell (The History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904), and others wrote exposés for the leading magazines of the period that were often collected into books. It was this literature that helped bring on the antitrust legislation at the beginning of the twentieth century, as Sinclair’s novel helped produce the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

There was a popular antidote to this critical literature at the end of the nineteenth century in dime novels such as the Horatio Alger, HoratioAlger series, which glorified individual industry and honesty, and in the many works such as Andrew Carnegie, AndrewCarnegie’s autobiography How I Served My Apprenticeship (Carnegie)>How I Served My Apprenticeship (1896) that reinforced Alger’s rags-to-riches narratives. The American Dream may have remained just a dream in the lives of increasing numbers of immigrant mill and factory workers, but it was everywhere in the popular literature of the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was not a book but a lecture, Russell H. Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds,” which he delivered over six thousand times after 1870. In his lecture, Conwell told the story of a man who left home in a search for diamonds–which were discovered after he died on the very land that he had abandoned. The lesson in this and other popular literature was clear, that the American Dream was possible by staying with the job, no matter how boring and meaningless. Popular literature functioned, like education, to help provide the workforce for a growing industrial economy. As McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader phrased it to students in 1879, in a poem by Eliza Cook,

Work, work, my boy, be not afraid;
Look labor boldly in the face;
Take up the hammer or the spade,
And blush not for your humble place.

The American Renaissance

Forty years later, readers were more likely to come upon Sarah N. Cleghorn’s poem “The Golf Links” (1917), which read

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

The American Renaissance, as the literary period from 1910 to 1940 is known, saw the sensational debut of American literature on the world stage, and it was a period noted for its experimentation, criticism, and disillusionment, particularly with American business. Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) portrayed the American businessman as a shallow and spiritually empty booster; Theodore Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood trilogy (The Financier, 1912, The Titan, 1914, and The Stoic, 1947) made a similar attack on an unscrupulous magnate of big business. Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922) and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) were plays depicting the dehumanizing effects of technological progress.

During the 1930’s, this criticism of American business became even more strident. Proletarian literature (such as Mike Gold’s novel, Jews Without Money, 1930, or Clifford Odets’s play, Waiting for Lefty, 1936) blamed American capitalism for the crisis and glorified the worker. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy–The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)–chronicled the decline of its characters in the first decades of the century through commercialism and exploitation. Probably the best novel of the decade, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), followed uprooted Dust Bowl refugees facing exploitation in California at the hands of agribusiness. These and other works of the Great Depression faulted American business and called for an overhaul of the American economic system.

Postwar America

Nonfiction after World War II sought to confirm the growing number of negative fictional portraits of American business. Sociological studies such as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Allan Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) detailed the dehumanizing and conformist nature of work in the American corporation. Fiction such as Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or the stories of John Cheever only intensified this picture. The Beat Generation of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and their cohorts) rejected American business entirely in the search for adventure and spiritual fulfillment.

Novels written after the war painted a generally bleak picture of American business. In Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956), the hero loses everything gambling on commodities. In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), an insane asylum becomes a metaphor for all American institutions. In E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), the leaders of American business–J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford–are pictured as slightly insane, and only the revolutionaries have life. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) portrays the world of New York investment bankers with satiric savagery, and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003) portrays greed and power as empty and aimless.

It was in drama, more than in any other genre, that American business took the most direct criticism. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) told the story of a corrupt manufacturer of aircraft parts, while his Death of a Salesman (1949) recounted the powerful story of a man used up and tossed aside by American business. The pictures of business and businessmen, from Edward Abbey’s The Zoo Story (1959) through David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), continued this portrait of a selfish, rapacious American business culture. Some positive treatments of business continued into the twentieth century–notably Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which celebrate individualism and self-interest–but they were a minority voice.

American literary history demonstrates that American literature and business are not perfectly compatible. It is often noted that some of the greatest poets of the twentieth century were businessmen. Wallace Stevens was vice president of an insurance company, T. S. Eliot worked for a leading London publisher, and William Carlos Williams was a medical doctor. Rarely, however, did their work find its way into their poetry. There has always been an American suspicion of accumulated wealth and power stretching all the way back to the Puritans and their early equation of money and evil. Also working against the subject was the very nature of American literature. Some of the greatest American novels–from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) through Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960)–are about running away from family, work, and responsibility. It is a strain that exists from the nineteenth century on. In the twentieth century, modernism elevated aesthetic concerns above those of subject and further erased American business from the literary picture.

Further Reading

  • French, Bryant Morey. Mark Twain and “The Gilded Age”: The Book That Named an Era. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1965. Detailed study of Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s novel about corruption in business and government during the decade following the Civil War.
  • Mukherjee, Arun. The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel. London: Croom Helm, 1987. More than half this study is devoted to the novels of Dreiser, but Mukherjee also analyzes William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885), Norris (The Pit, 1903), and other late nineteenth century writers.
  • Polland, Arthur, Geoffrey Carnall, et al., eds. The Representation of Business in English Literature. London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2000. Serves as a useful counterpoint to studies of business themes in American literature, demonstrating the similarities and differences in representations of commerce on either side of the Atlantic.
  • Spindler, Michael. American Literature and Social Change. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. A Marxist analysis of American literature from the “production” economy (Howells, Norris, Sinclair) of the late nineteenth century to a “consumption” model (Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis, Miller) in the twentieth.
  • Taylor, Walter F. The Economic Novel in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942. The classic study of the treatment of Gilded Age capitalistic industrialism in the novels of Twain, Howells, Norris, and other writers.
  • Watts, Emily Stipes. The Businessman in American Literature. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. Probably the best survey of literary attitudes toward business, from the Puritans’ condemnation of the accumulation of wealth, through Franklin, to postwar American writers. Watts provides plentiful evidence of the American literary treatment of businessmen as greedy and unethical.
  • Westbrook, Wayne W. Wall Street in the American Novel. New York: New York University Press, 1980. Uncovers an association of money and evil going back to the Puritans, and evident also in Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Perceptive analyses of Louis Auchincloss, Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth, 1905), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, 1929), and other American novelists.

Book publishing

Copyright law

Films with business themes

Gilded Age

The Jungle

Magazine industry

Television programming with business themes