Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last. You spurn'd me such a day; another time you call'd me dog; and for these courtesies I'll lend you thus much moneys?
— Shylock to Antonio, Act I, Scene III, The Merchant of Venice1.
This article originally appeared in Reason Magazine in October 1986 (Vol. 18, No. 5). I revisit it here for the edification of readers who are familiar with Shakespeare and with the dearth in past and modern literature of stories that regard the businessman as a hero. I have edited it to correct very minor errors.
I never got to study Shakespeare in high school. By the time I started, he had been supplanted by J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and other contemporary, topically relevant literary works, most of them forgettable and authored by lesser, meaner minds than the Bard's.
Later, I was grateful that I was spared an introduction to his work then. No doubt it would have been filtered through the Deweyian strainers of gender consciousness, minority appreciation, and antiviolence sensitivity and blended in a potpourri of egalitarian mixers. His plots, characters, the beautiful profundity of his language – the whole broad landscape of Shakespeare – were left for me to discover without benefit of interpretation via the National Education Association.
Nor was the subject of the role of businessmen in literature broached in those generously labeled "literature" courses. Business didn’t exist in literature. It just barely merited mention in sophomore history and senior civics, where, if it was noticed at all, it was portrayed either as a glum spectator to the parade of the state or as a recalcitrant sheep that needed its hind legs nipped periodically by the Lassies of the public interest.
"Businessmen" is a broad category, encompassing bankers, merchants, industrialists, manufacturers – anyone responsible for the production of material wealth or services. They have appeared in literature since before the Greeks, but I arbitrarily begin with Shakespeare, and specifically with his Merchant of Venice, because the author and his work are closer to our time, and because Shakespeare was probably the first major writer to create an important business character.
The "merchant" of the title is Antonio, not Shylock the moneylender. Of the two characters, Shylock is the more interesting, if only for the intensity of his feelings. Antonio is something of a pompous, profligate windbag and not very convincing as a captain of commerce. Shylock is a three-dimensional character, even though his overall treatment reflects an unpopular view of Jews in the Elizabethan and subsequent eras.
Sentiment against usury was so strong that only Jews were permitted to practice it with near impunity. Shylock's legal claim to a slice of the merchant's flesh served two purposes: It was his revenge for being maligned in public by Antonio, and it was the central conflict of Shakespeare's usual family of conflicts. The ethics of usury may have even intrigued him, and this might have been his only means of addressing the subject. In the end, Shylock is compelled to waive both Antonio's debt and the pound of flesh, to become a Christian, and to have half his property given to Antonio. He also must bequeath his entire estate to his daughter and the Christian she has married against his will. In return, he retains his life and half his wealth. This was the most justice Shakespeare dared give him in his time.
The businessman has ever since been ranked with the vampire, the criminal, and the tyrant as a stock pariah and nemesis of society. It would be fair to say that he has been accorded markedly less sympathy than the werewolf. Until the 19th century, the merchant, the entrepreneur, and the banker were all relegated to minimal roles in literature, usually as minor antagonists or as subjects of satire. While businessmen made the rise of the West possible, few writers bothered to explore the possibility that they might have been just as rich a potential for dramatic expression as lords, vagabonds, or picaroons.
"Go make my coarse commodities look sleek, with subtle art beguile the honest eye," urges a woolens draper in Thomas Middleton's Michaelmas Term (1606). Middleton's unflattering portrayal of the trader may be taken as a moderate instance of the esteem in which businessmen were held up through the Enlightenment. "Shoddy goods" were only an excuse for writers to ignore the morality of profit and value-for-value trading. In their eyes, the ethics of created, earned wealth was too contemptible a subject to treat seriously.
But the power of the Enlightenment inevitably altered that view. Writers could no longer feign blindness to or remain incurious about the incredible explosion of wealth and the rise in living standards spawned by that intellectual revolution. God against king and king against prince fast faded as handy or exciting vehicles of moral conflict. The literature that used those themes and that survived were written by such titans as Hugo, Schiller, and Goethe. The rest has almost vanished from serious critical attention.
The problem was that most writers could not conceive of treating the businessman as an autonomous individual whose problems and conflicts were as uniquely personal and universal as those of any other highly visible "role model." They could not accept him at face value as they could a king, statesman, cleric, or soldier. A king had has conscience, a cleric his temptations, a soldier his honor. What could a merchant do that was virtuous? The risks and rewards of trade, of investment, of innovation – these were actions viewed as outside the bounds of morality, even though they were the source of a writer's quill, foolscap, and fashionable clothes.
The best writers could do was portray the businessman as an upright, respected, responsible member of his community, or as an enemy of that community. The novels of the early Victorian age, particularly those of Charles Dickens, are chock-full of business characters, some of them "upright" and even admirable, others insatiable, often charming frauds who prey on a gullible public.
The attitudes of novelists and playwrights in the early to mid-19th century mirrored those of such prominent theoreticians as John Stuart Mill and such beaux espirts as John Ruskin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on," wrote Mill in Principles of Political Economy (1848). He described the "success ethics" as one of the "disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress." Ruskin fantasized about how the Industrial Revolution might be disguised, for example, by designing railway trains to look like dragons, while Coleridge bemoaned the demise of an "enlightened aristocracy" and the exodus of the rural poor to the cities and manufacturing towns, away from the ministrations of a patronizing gentry.
To this day, Europe has never entirely expelled the vapors of caste. Its culture has yet to allow business to rid itself of its inferiority complex. But what was happening during this period in America, which had no philosophy of predestination and no built-in prejudice against business?
For the most part, America's preeminent thinkers, intellectuals, and observers wished that the opposite were true. The outstanding champion of business was Horatio Alger, whose novels of hard work and success may have helped to popularize the ethics of individualism but did not explain why that ethics ought to have been a value.
And American novelists and playwrights did produce business literature. However, just as many of America's leading intellectuals, in philosopher Leonard Peikoff's words, were "alienated by the basic premises of the country, [and] hostile to the essential character of its institutions, its traditions, and its people,"2. many of the leading novelists, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, were tongue-tied by the unabridged individual, by galloping industrial progress, and by a population that was almost universally unresponsive to their charges that the "success ethic" was a cruel hoax. What they finally did was abandon their frontal assaults and launch a literary flanking movement.
In 1884, John Hay published what was regarded as a major pro-business, pro-success novel, The Bread-Winners. Its convoluted, saccharine plot is the genteel ancestor of television's Dallas and Dynasty. A year later, H.F. Keeton answered it with his antibusiness novel, The Money-Makers, a similarly contrived work written, however, with much more conviction. In it, Hay's original industrial magnate/union organizer, warm-hearted-fellow/conniving rabble-rouser roles were simply reversed.
In both novels, confused, sensitive scions of the tycoons are unsure of where their duties lay until outside events precipitate action one way or the other. And in both novels, these duties concerned the welfare of others and a heightened sense of noblesse oblige to some segment of society.
The two major American novelists of the late 19th century were Henry James and William Dean Howells. James was the finer, sounder writer. His most acclaimed works are The Bostonians and Washington Square. But he found America barren of serious subject matter and viewed Europe as his intellectual and artistic home. He moved to England and, a year after acquiring British citizenship, died there in 1916.
His friend and colleague, Howells, though, felt right at home. While not as prolific as Alger and certainly not as perceptive as James, Howells virtually cornered the market for "serious" novels of business and success. James, in his novels, specialized in pitting Americans against "superior" European sensibilities.
In Annie Kilburn (1889), The Minister's Charge (1887), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), and in many other novels, Howells devolved the creed that money isn't everything, that the lower classes have legitimate grudges against the reigning moral and economic system, and that the pursuit of one's own happiness inherently entails injustice and suffering for others. His most famous work, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which chronicles the progressive corruption of a successful man as he seeks to be accepted by Boston society, was a standard subject of study in American high schools for decades.
What was the answer of American businessmen to these novels? Many chose to say nothing. Most ignored them as unimportant. But the muteness was understandable. An explicit ethics sanctioning capitalism had never been formulated. An explicit political philosophy separating the state from the individual had yet to be invented.
In the meantime, the only noteworthy response was Andrew Carnegie's The Gospel of Wealth (1889), in which he asserted that great industrial enterprises, such as his own, are created by the strong and ruthless (without any reference to rights). These enterprises, he offered in expiation, are but trusts administered by the winners of the struggle for the benefit of the public.
These positions were meant to be the finger in the hole of the dike, but all they did was help to enlarge the rupture. What followed was a deluge of antibusiness literature. Frank Norris produced The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903); Robert Herrick, The Common Lot (1904) and The Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905); Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908) and Burning Daylight (1910); Theodore Dreiser, The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914); and Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906), The Metropolis (1908), and King Coal (1917).
Not all of these novelists urged complete condemnation of the businessman. London's Burning Daylight and Howells's Silas Lapham, for example, claim that spiritual renewal and moral salvation may be found through the renunciation of business, finance, and innovation. These and other redeemed business characters retreat to the wilderness or to old-time religion or to some other form of passivity. They accept the nostrum that integrity, honesty, and genius are incompatible with capitalism, which can only corrupt the truly moral man by inculcating ambition and selfishness.
With the publication in 1943 of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, the game, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was up. Rand must have taken some pleasure in turning all the standard assumptions on their heads. Gail Wynand, the ruthless, self-made newspaperman, for example, unwittingly practices everything that had been preached to businessmen and the public in the past. He is ultimately obliged to endorse the destruction of his best friend, Howard Roark, an architect, innovator, and something new in the pages of literature – a man of independent self-esteem whose soul is not tied to society, nor crippled by any altruist notion.
On the other end of this novel's spectrum of business characters is Hopton Stoddard, the aging, itinerant millionaire who "found relief in religion – in the form of a bribe." When a shaken Stoddard returns from a worldwide tour of religious shrines – undertaken to find a creed that would forgive him for his dubious business ethics and shady life – Rand says of him with dark humor that: "He had returned from his journey, crushed by the universal spectacle of religion, most particularly by the various forms in which the promise of hell confronted him all over the earth. He had been driven to the conclusion that his life qualified him for the worst possible here-after under any system of faith. It had shaken what remained of his mind."3.
In Wynand, she illustrated the tragedy of a great man who molded his life on a second-hand morality, altruism, or the "gospel of power." In Stoddard, she created a foil who was almost a caricature of previous novelists' conceptions of a "redeemed" businessman.
Gail Wynand's conflicts are refined in the character of industrialist Hank Rearden in Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957), with the difference that Rearden questions the moral code that is supposed to govern both his business and his personal life. When he has his day in court – when he publicly rejects the right of a tribunal to penalize him for having conducted "illegal" business – we know that his end will not be the same as Wynand's.
Atlas Shrugged was not written exclusively as an answer to any particular antibusiness novel, but it is important to note an inversion in its characterizations that is a product of the novel's radical theme. All the virtues that previous novelists had asserted businessmen ought to be imbued with – including the primacy of service over self-interest and the disavowal of the profit motive – are precisely those possessed by businessmen in this novel who are the heavies, the incompetents, and fence-sitters. Moreover, they are also the sneaks, the frauds, the cowards, the looters, and the extortionists, not in spite of their altruist virtues, but because of them. Among many other things, Atlas Shrugged developed the theme that the altruist virtues in men have clung to for centuries are actually vices, and can turn them into tragic figures, or into monsters.
In terms of the business novel, was there life after Atlas Shrugged? Yes, if one concedes that to be comatose, one must first be alive. Business novels have been published since Atlas, but overall they perpetuate the altruist-collectivist theme – or no discernible theme at all.
In retrospect, Atlas Shrugged was a literary supernova whose light has yet to reach the lifeless pages of modern literature. Our novelists, critics, and professors of literature have neither the equipment – intellectual or literary – to grasp that novel, nor the inclination to acquire it.
Nearly 6,000 miles and 360 years separate a Venetian court of law from a Chicago appellate court and the verdict against another moneylender, banker Midas Mulligan (one of the earliest "strikers" in Atlas), who was ordered to loan his money to men who claimed a right to it because they needed it. And a whole new philosophy governed his response to the wrong dealt him by the court. Literary justice was exacted after all – and for much, much more than a mere pound of flesh.
1.William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988. p. 430, lines 24-27.
2. The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Stein & Day, 1982. p. 325.
3. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. p. 362.