Friday, May 08, 2020

My follow-up book-in-progress to Literature and Inequality

In my prior post, I promised a follow-up to how my plans for a sequel to Literature and Inequality have developed.

Literature and Inequality looks at 9 books, 3 from each of 3 eras. It goes:

(1) England and France during the Age of Revolution: Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir, Balzac's Le Pere Goriot & La Maison Nucingen.

(2) Victorian and Edwardian England: Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Forster's Howards End.

(3) Gilded Age America: Twain & Warner's The Gilded Age, Wharton's The House of Mirth, Dreiser's The Financier & The Titan.

Part 2, as originally envisioned, was going to repeat the structure of having 3 eras with 3 works each, in this case the 1920s through World War II, then the 1950s through perhaps the 1970s (i.e., the peak of the "Great Easing"), then the 1980s to the present. I also anticipated looking not just at novels, but also possibly at plays, such as Death of a Salesman, and films, such as It's a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street.

But I have decided instead to write something shorter and more focused. Here's the current state of the play, which I have been pursuing actively while sheltering in place at home. Current working title, which may change and might require a more informative subtitle: Bonfires of the American Dream.

Here my main premise is that two deeply embedded U.S. ideological sets of values, which I dub egalitarianism and market meritocracy, are both each contested internally and in tension with each other, in ways that make extreme high-end inequality very fraught here, and which texts of various kinds can help us to understand. I propose to illustrate how texts can be used to illuminate these tensions through examples drawn from each of three formats: lectures or speeches, literary fiction, and film - rather than to draw sweeping general conclusions from a limited data set.

Part 1, of which I have completed a first draft, discusses and contrasts (1) Russell Conwell's Acres of Diamonds lecture (very famous and prominent cultural artifact from the 1870s to 1920s) and (2) the John Galt speech in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Part 2, on which I am making (knock on wood) good progress at present, discusses The Great Gatsby. I take an interest here not just in the text itself, but also in how its reception has varied sharply as between eras.

Part 3, on which I've done some preliminary research, will aim to discuss and contrast It's a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street.

The whole thing will be, I hope, no more than say 45,000 words. And if the project keeps going well, I should certainly be able to finish writing a complete first draft this summer.

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