Friday, October 16, 2020

Book talk on Literature and Inequality, part 2

Herewith the second of two blogposts regarding yesterday’s session discussing Literature and Inequality, focusing on the book’s main coverage and content. The book has three parts, each discussing three particular works.

PART 1: ENGLAND AND FRANCE IN THE AGE OF REVOLUTION – Here are quick snapshots of Part 1’s three chapters:


1) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: As Branko Milanovic has pointed out, Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are in the top 0.1% of contemporary England’s income distribution, but the Bennets are also, if barely, in the top 1 percent. We also see a society in which there appears to be complete ordinal, if not cardinal, consensus about vertical rankings. There also is a thriving aristocratic ethos that posits reciprocal obligations and mutual respect, and that allows plenty of pushback to those who are “lower” within the top tiers. So why aren’t things better than this? Why are the tensions so high, and some of the disputes so nasty?


2) Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir: Dark and disturbing though this book may be – reading it, after Pride and Prejudice, feels like switching from a milk bath to an acid bath – in one respect it ought to feel considerably more benign than it does. It shows all sorts of people, at different social levels and in different ways, making a lot of money. One might expect widespread upward economic mobility to serve as an emollient, easing social tensions, but here it seems instead to intensify them. Why should a rising tide rock all the boats?


3) Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot and La Maison Nucingen: Among the main features of interest here, besides Rastignac’s relentless arrivisme (and Balzac’s keen portrayal of what motivates it), is the transformation of aristocratic rank from implying stability and a set of values, to its being merely a market commodity like having a nice mansion with well-dressed servants. Written later but set ((until La Maison Nucingen) earlier than Le Rouge et le Noir, it shows further disruptive advancement in the rise of finance and in early nineteenth century France’s capitalist transformation.


Other main themes in part 1: Why and how did England and France navigate the capitalist transition so differently? Legacy of the French Revolution, importance of the gentry / “gentleman” concept in England, aristocratic versus capitalist hierarchy.




1) Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – This cheery tale of the lead character’s serial humiliation – made palatable to us by his fervently embracing it – sets terms for the granting of deference and respect to successful businessmen. The distress of today’s “Scrooge truthers” – libertarians who insist that pre-conversion Scrooge is the story’s true hero – testifies to the potency of Dickens’s dignitary challenge to moneymaking that is shorn of accepting a quasi-familial or aristocratic sense of downward obligation.


2) Trollope’s The Way We Live Now – This uncharacteristically angry (for Trollope) attack on the social and cultural threat to English social values from the rise of finance explores scapegoating responses, such as blaming Jews or Americans, but concludes that such rot as there is, is self-inflicted, and that the system is resilient despite it all.


3) Forster’s Howards End – Here we see an early parallel to the modern American faceoff between the intellectual elite and the business elite. On its surface seeking reconciliation and a merger between the two groups’ virtues, instead it pitilessly attacks, and portrays the rightful subjugation of, the latter, turning even its famous motto, “Only connect!,” into a battle weapon.


Main themes in Part 2 – Dignitary issues raised by the unsettling rise of capitalism & finance; importance of the “gentleman” ethos in softening status rivalries; the relationship of this ethos to English social resilience.




1) Twain’s & Warner’s The Gilded Age – This root and branch satiric attack on the American success ethic shows also the relative porousness and benignity of American class divides at a point when the Gilded Age – which got its name from the book – was still just in the early takeoff phase.


2) Wharton’s The House of Mirth – As New York’s new and old social elites merge over money-worship, their social insecurities fuel competitive savagery, and failure may connote virtue, but also self-alienation and self-hatred.


3) Dreiser’s The Financier and The Titan – This almost stenographically accurate recounting of the lead events in the life of an actual Gilded Age robber baron – Charles Yerkes, aka Frank Cowperwood – powerfully dramatizes the tension between extreme high-end wealth inequality, on the one hand, and America’s democratic and egalitarian cultural legacy on the other.


Main themes in part 3 – What is so wrong with the United States in plutocratic eras (racism aside)? Why is extreme high-end inequality so toxic here? How does this relate to its tension with democracy, egalitarianism, and the lack since earliest days of a titled aristocratic class?


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