A Matter of Life and Death


by Richard Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 355 pp., $25.00

Richard Powers
Richard Powers; drawing by David Levine

If, as Calvin Coolidge famously said, “the chief business of the American people is business,” the response of most American novelists has been that it’s none of theirs. While the tumultuous rise and global spread of American capitalism is surely a subject epic in scope and dramatic in detail, it is one that has inspired surprisingly few of our best writers. There has always been interest in the behavior of people who have money, but less interest in how money is made. Henry James, in The American, sketched a new type of character—the American entrepreneur—but found the merest mention of the commodity at the heart of his enterprise impossibly vulgar. The travails of workers have also received intermittent attention, but even the Proletarian writers of the 1930s had little to say about the production and distribution of the goods themselves. And while the manners and morals of businessmen figure in the work of writers from Sinclair Lewis to John Cheever, the business itself typically takes place offstage or in the background.

The thickest cluster of American novels whose chief business is business dates from the heroic age of American realism, which was, not coincidentally, the heroic age of American industrial expansion as well: William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and Theodore Dreiser’s twin character studies The Titan and The Financier are perhaps the best-known examples. The same period saw the publication in France of Emile Zola’s sprawling and synoptic Rougon-Macquart series and in Germany of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. In the century or so since, as realism and naturalism have given way to modernism and postmodernism, this country has produced a scattering of interesting anomalies like John Dos Passos’s The Big Money and William Gaddis’s JR, in which one of Dreiser’s mighty moguls is reimagined as an eleven-year-old boy.

But American literature and American enterprise—each in their way characterized by world-conquering ambition—have mostly run on parallel tracks. From time to time a conservative commentator will decry the indifference of novelists to the business world as evidence of ideological hostility. And while there may be some truth to this accusation—though it seems to me more often the case that the resistance is, as with James, a matter of aesthetic temperament rather than political conviction—the real difficulty may be a technical one. Novelists require human subjects, and while commerce is undeniably a human activity, it rarely has a human face. That is, since around the time of Howells, the activity of making, distributing, and advertising products has increasingly been the work of corporations, whose tendency is to disperse power from individual persons into bureaucratic structures and specialized functions. And while the late nineteenth century was the age of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other larger-than-life capitalists, they appear in novels like Dreiser’s in nearly allegorical form—as sublime embodiments of the titanic power and insatiable appetite of capitalism itself.…

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