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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Financial Narratives of the 19th Century

By Roark Mulligan

Financial Narratives of the 19th Century

Early American novels emphasized, to a greater or lesser extent, the financial and economic forces that shaped the United States: westward expansion, industrialization, urbanization, and trust-building.  In The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking series, James Fennimore Cooper moves beyond sentimental romance, tracing major economic shifts that were transforming the wilderness into pastoral farmland.  Another early novel, Eliza Buckminster Lee’s epistolary work Sketches of a New England Village, in the Last Century, realistically depicts household economies that rely on barter and exchange.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, works such as Charles Frederick Briggs’s The Adventures of Harry Franco: A Tale of Great Panic and Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street depict market forces, exposing the dangers of Wall Street.  At the same time, Sara Parton in Ruth Hall and Anna Bartlett Warner in Glen Luna: Or, Dollars and Cents were detailing the limited economic choices of women who were no longer supported by men.  In her realistic Life in the Iron Mills (first published serially in The Atlantic Monthly), Rebecca Harding Davis reveals the brutal labor conditions that offered workers no protections; in sharp contrast, John Hays’s The Bread-Winners: A Social Study depicts the corruption within unions.  These early works of realism contrast dramatically with the popular melodramas of Horatio Alger, whose novel Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks was the first in a sequence of formulaic novels by Alger that would inspire many imitators.  In these novels, an honest, hard-working young man is rewarded for maintaining high moral standards.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, during a period of late realism, narratives presented complex situations that exposed economic excesses caused by industrialization, urbanization, and rapid economic change.  In The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, a novel that named the period, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner satirically expose the dangers of land speculation, political corruption, and industrialization.  Admired for their entertainment value, Twain’s other works—such as his short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (later published in book form, with other writings, under this title) and the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—serve as further warnings that economic changes bring technological and financial problems.  William Dean Howells, a literary leader of the period, championed realism, writing works such as The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes.  In these two novels and other works, Howells portrays the dangers of wealth but also suggests moralistic solutions based in Christian socialism.

Following in Howells’s footsteps, Hamlin Garland, in fictional works such as A Member of the Third House, A Spoil of Office, and Main-Travelled Roads, dramatizes the corrupting influences of money and the harsh conditions of midwestern farm life, suggesting Henry George’s single tax on land as a solution.  In his novel The Cliff-Dwellers, Chicago-based realist Henry Blake Fuller (a friend of Garland) was the first to depict skyscrapers as the frenzied financial settings where economic pressures force criminal behaviors.  Henry James, another realist praised by Howells, expanded realism to include cosmopolitan characters, such as the protagonist in The American, a wealthy entrepreneur who attempts to buy European culture.

Other authors from this period depicted technology and philanthropy as panaceas.  In his utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy envisions a future that combines industrialism and socialism to ensure a utopian society.  His fictional rendering was so seductive that readers formed more than a hundred Nationalist Clubs, a network of political groups advocating Bellamy’s socialist paradise.  In his novel The Market-Place, realist Harold Frederic posits philanthropy as the cure for economic changes, an approach suggested by such industrialists as Andrew Carnegie.

Works Cited