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Financial Literacy through Economic Narratives (August 2015): Early 20th-Century Fictional Narratives

By Roark Mulligan

Early 20th-Century Fictional Narratives

During the Progressive Era, economic novels proliferated, gaining cultural collateral as the country struggled with a failed banking system that was transformed in 1913 by the Federal Reserve Act.  The narratives from this period often took the form of muckraking exposés, educating a public bewildered by rapid change.  Novelists and journalists questioned the rising power of monopolies, trusts, and banks, concerned that their size protected them from the economic gyrations that displaced American families.  In The History of the Standard Oil Company, Ida Tarbell, a model for other muckraking journalists, exposes the power of a corporate giant.  In his three-volume history of American wealth, History of the Great American Fortunes, Gustavus Myers revealed the shifting methods by which American tycoons accumulated their wealth.  Louis Brandeis, an economic adviser to President Wilson and a Supreme Court justice, wrote a series of essays exposing a failed banking system and greatly influencing Progressive legislation.  These essays were collected as Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It.

During this same period, moralistic novelists melodramatically portrayed the greed of Wall Street by depicting financiers who rose above or succumbed to worldly dross, novels that set a virtuous example or issued a dire warning.  For example, in his unfinished “Epic of the Wheat” trilogy—The Octopus: A Story of California and especially the second volume, The Pit: A Story of Chicago—Frank Norris provides a melodramatic account of the dangers of commodity speculation.[1]  David Graham Phillips did likewise in his novel The Cost, which focuses on a ruthless financier who corners the woolen market, thus causing children to go cold in winter.  Jack London’s The Iron Heel, a speculative work that pioneered the dystopian genre, warns of a future controlled by an oligarchy of trusts.  In her speculative novel Herland Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a champion of women’s economic rights, imagines a socialist utopia ruled by a race of powerful women, a world that serves as a critique of the United States.  Of the Progressive novelists, Upton Sinclair was the most prolific and remains the best known for writing novels such as The Jungle and The Moneychangers, both of which inspired Progressive legislation.  Championed by muckraking editor S. S. McClure, Willa Cather, especially in her “Prairie Trilogy”—O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia—nostalgically depicts a pioneer period when farmers lived a Jeffersonian ideal.  During this period, Cather’s novels and those of others, such as Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, began depicting the immigrant experience, dramatizing a rags-to-riches struggle.

Alongside these muckraking, moralist works stood more pragmatic ones that have been labeled amoral or even immoral.  In this category, Theodore Dreiser’s “Trilogy of Desire”—comprising The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic—is a paradigmatic example.  Modeled on the life of Charles T. Yerkes, this realistic fictional trilogy celebrates the tycoon’s creative powers while exposing the amoral dealings that transformed the nation.  Other works exhibiting these pragmatic ethical tendencies include Robert Herrick’s Memoirs of an American Citizen and Edwin Lefèvre’s Reminiscences of a Stock Operator.  Lefèvre’s roman à clef novel is still widely read by Wall Street traders because it provides a realistic depiction of the psychological factors that motivate brokers and investors, revealing numerous pitfalls.  Other novelists exposed the extent to which economic forces were changing average Americans.  For example, Sherwood Anderson’s novel Poor White illustrates the influence of industrialism on the rural heartland of the United States, and Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize, depicts the mind-numbing conformity of the business world in Babbitt.

During the first half of the twentieth century, American modernists employed experimental techniques in responding to economic transformations; these writers almost universally developed narrative strategies that called into question the American Dream.  As a member of the privileged class, Edith Wharton had inside knowledge of how the rich lived and how they accumulated their fortunes.  In novels such as The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, Wharton unmasks the excesses of the rich and famous.  Known for his modern prose stylings and his stories of wealthy youth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in works such as The Great Gatsby and some of his short stories, questioned the connection of wealth and happiness.  In the early 1920s, readers devoured Fitzgerald’s stories, hoping to discover and emulate the lifestyle of the rich and famous, often ignoring the dire warnings that posited the American Dream as a destructive ideal.

Other modernists, not necessarily known as writers of financial narratives, also depicted great economic transitions.  For example, in The Sound and the Fury and other works William Faulkner dramatizes the economic fall of the South, including details such as Jason Compson’s foolish speculation in cotton futures.  In 1925, at the age of fifty-four, Theodore Dreiser published An American Tragedy, his first best seller, a work that turns the American Dream into a death-row nightmare, essentially reversing the Horatio Alger formulae.  Willing to murder his pregnant fiancée so as to advance socially, the protagonist ends with nothing, not even his life.  During the 1930s, although novelists continued experimenting with form, their works often carried an obvious social message.  Employing four unique narrative strategies, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A trilogy—The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and especially the final volume, The Big Money—tells the fragmented story of those who lose their humanity while securing fortunes.  Combining journalistic realism and experimental modernism, John Steinbeck graphically depicted the victims of the Great Depression in novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, a work that lovingly follows the Joads, a displaced family of tenant farmers.


[1] Norris died suddenly and never started the third volume, which was to have been titled The Wolf: A Story of Empire.


Works Cited