Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Talk on Bonfires of the American Dream, part 1

 Yesterday, at an NYU Law and Culture Colloquium, I discussed the Great Gatsby chapter from my recent book, Bonfires of the American Dream. This book has been falling between the cracks a bit, although here is its Kirkus review - which is a shame, certainly from my personal standpoint but also because I think it's a good read (as well as short) that has important things to say. This may be true of a lot of books that fall between the cracks (as there are just so many of them), but a lot of people out there might connect with it, if only they knew about it and gave it a chance. Maybe including you?

Anyway, here is a considerably fleshed-out version of notes that I used to make brief remarks at the start of the session:

Instead of presenting my Gatsby chapter as if it were a separate paper, let me give some context for the book it's in, as well as the genre in my recent work of which it is a part.

Going back 40+ years, when I was in college (at Princeton) I majored in history, and (despite focusing on American history) participated in the European Culture Studies (ECS) program, then run by Carl Schorske. The central ECS idea was to treat cultural products - from literature, the visual arts, philosophy, music, etc. - as objects for historical study. I wrote my senior thesis on some very interesting diaries that were left behind by the eighteenth century Virginia planter (and slaveholder) William Byrd II, which gave a remarkably intimate portrait of his life.

For most of my college career I was planning to go to graduate school in history and, while not enormously methodologically self-conscious, I had a fairly clear idea of the sort of work that I might do. But on a glorious spring day near the end of my junior year, as I struggled to find materials for a term paper on the medieval town, it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't want to do this with my life. (This reflected a combination of my understanding the already dire career prospects for history PhDs, with a comprehension that scouring library shelves was not really what I wanted for myself.) This left me with the obvious default plan for that era: I'll go to law school like 90% of my friends! 

After law school I entered tax practice, and subsequently tax law & policy in academia, because I almost accidentally stumbled into learning about its advantages in both realms.

Academic tax law features a mix between "just law," math/quantitative, social scientist, and (to a lesser degree) humanities approaches. My work has been mainly in the social scientist camp, with an occasional side helping of humanities.

I've enjoyed working in that space, and I still do. But it was perhaps under-utilizing my humanities side.

I've always had strong arts interests, extending to books, film/TV, and popular music, and also once wrote a satirical novel about scoundrels competing with each other at a law firm that is also, I think, a fun short read (and only $4.03 at Amazon!). But about 10 years ago I saw an opportunity to expand my academic use of the humanities side to my interests.

With the rise of high-end inequality as a tax (and other) policy problem, I noticed that the dominant public economics frame treated declining marginal utility as the only reason for being concerned about it. I agree about the relevance of declining marginal utility, but believe that there are also other concerns, relating to hierarchy, status competition, etcetera. Those problems call for a broader sociological approach, which might be enlightened by (among other things) studying cultural products ECS-style.

Then came Piketty's famous publication of Capital in the 21st Century. I got on the bandwagon early enough to invite him (before his dance card was filled) to a symposium discussing the book at NYU Law School, and i co-authored one of the papers at the conference.

Piketty got a lot of popular mileage in the book from his discussing famous novels by Austen and Balzac. His use of them was a bit limited by my ECS standards, but he did make some interesting points about them.

I noticed, however, that he got Balzac wrong! He treats Le Pere Goriot as showing the utter futility of using personal effort to get rich, as opposed to relying on inheritance. Yet Goriot's closest thing to a lead character is Eugene de Rastignac, who is surely the preeminent arriviste or social climber in all of French literature. Rastignac learns in the novel (from the famous Vautrin speech) that there is simply no point to his seeking wealth as a lawyer. The returns would simply be too small, deferred, and uncertain. But he doesn't give up on social climbing through personal effort - rather, he learns that a better career choice is that of social parasite (e.g., going to salons, seducing rich women who can help him, trying to inveigle or finagle their husbands, etc.).

That paper plus my ECS training and my sense that the legal and economics literatures about high-end inequality were missing something led to a book, Literature and Inequality, that features 9 studies of classic French, British, and American novels from the nineeteenth through the early twentieth century. That was going to be Part 1, and then Part 2 would hypothetically feature 9 more recent British and American works (e.g., Waugh, Wodehouse, GatsbyBonfire of the Vanities, and several others TBD).

But then I realized that I didn't want to write Part 2. Instead, I'd do something much shorter, focused on the US setting where I feel more sure-footed, and shifting the emphasis to factors that might help to explain the rise of Trump and American fascism.

In particular, I was interested in the role played by the tensions between two deeply rooted American cultural ideals: egalitarianism (at least for white males) and what I call market meritocracy, or the view that everyone has a fair chance, and that market outcomes decide who is worthy and who is not. (Suggesting that the "winners" deserve everything that the market gives them, while the "losers" deserve nothing but hatred and scorn.)

The book has three main substantive chapters (leaving aside the Introduction and Conclusion). The first discusses the John Galt speech in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and compares it to a much less malignant late 19th century entry in the so-called success literature genre, Russell Conwell's Acres of Diamonds speech, which he gave to paying audience thousands of times between 1870 and 1925, thereby earning enough moolah to found Temple University.

The last chapter compares 2 movies that have a surprising amount in common, apart from the pervasive cultural influences of their very different eras: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life from 1946, and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street from 2013.

The middle chapter, which I presented at the workshop and will recapitulate briefly in a follow-up blog post to this one, discusses The Great Gatsby.

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