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The Historian, the Novelist, and the Faith

The keepers of the tabernacle are now applying a cold-war ideology to American writers from Henry James to Norman Mailer

The fortunate few who can afford Fortune were treated in the November issue to an essay by John Chamberlain on "The Businessman in Fiction." Preaching in Henry Luce's tabernacle for the already converted, Chamberlain made a fervent plea for faith in the businessman not only as the source from whom all our blessings flow, but also as a beneficent force in the culture and an admirable family man and community-conscious citizen who has been treated villainously by the ingrate novelists.

Chamberlain's discussion of the novelists from William Dean Howells and Frank Norris to Norman Mailer and Hiram Haydn formed a pendent to an attack upon Harold Laski's recent The American Democracy. "Laski," as Chamberlain puts it (in the thin disguise of a character borrowed from Booth Tarkington), "the stupid limey socialist… the complete moron… the pontifical and insufferable little know-it-all," has had the audacity to write a study of American democracy in the fifth chapter of which ("American Business Enterprise") he displays a severely unflattering portrait of the businessman in a business civilization. Chamberlain's point is that, since Laski could not have derived his portrait from social reality, he must have taken it from the never-never land of the novelists. In discussing them, he concludes that they in turn could not have derived their portrait of the businessman from reality, and must have taken it from their own frustrated and father-hating innards and from Marxists like Laski. Thus, out of a vicious circle in which everyone takes in everyone else's intellectual dirty wish, the businessman emerges misunderstood and maltreated.

This obviously troubles Chamberlain, the former heretic (Farewell to Reform) now turned more orthodox than the orthodox; and it sets him on one of the most curious heresy hunts pursued in our culture by a literate man since Wigmore attacked the civil-liberties opinions of Holmes and Brandeis as an example of the advocacy of "freedom of thuggery in wartime." Chamberlain sniffs the tracks of the anti-business literary heretics with the zeal of a Hound of God:

Oh the Faith is old and the Devil is bold,
Exceedingly bold indeed,
And the masses of doubt that are swirling about
Would stifle a mortal's creed.

Chamberlain marshals them all in a rather monotonous line—Sinclair Lewis, Frederic Wakeman, John P. Marquand, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Lester Cohen, Norman Mailer, Christina Stead, Hiram Haydn, Robert Penn Warren, Charles Yale Harrison, Hugh MacLennan, Herman Wouk, Robert Rylee, Taylor Caldwell, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, MacKinlay Kantor, Robert Wilder, Thomas Duncan, Merle Miller, Robert van Gelder, Mary McCarthy, Arthur Miller, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Edwin Seaver, Mary Heaton Vorse, Grace Lumpkin, William Rollins, Robert Cantwell, Jack Conroy, Jack London, Robert Herrick, Frank Norris, William Dean Howells, Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, Henry James. And being thus lined up, the heretics are compelled to roll down their pants that Chamberlain may thwack them with his stout episcopal staff compounded in equal parts of theocratic absolutism, capitalist orthodoxy and totalitarian thought police.

Only two novelists are given absolution—Booth Tarkington and (though with a still unfinished novel) the great white hope of the American craft of fiction, Ayn Rand. Sinclair Lewis is thwacked for Babbitt but almost let off for Dodsworth. (Surely he should have been absolved wholly on the strength of Prodigal Parents, which, from Chamberlain's standpoint, ought to be considered his best book because it is most correctly pro-capitalist and anti-radical.) And John Dos Passos is thrashed for Charley Anderson in The Big Money, but patted gently for having since seen the error of his ways and having pointed out to the readers of Life the sins of British socialism and American radicalism. There is a cheerless sort of joy in Chamberlain's capitalist heaven over the sinner who hath repented—cheerless, I suppose, because the damage has been done and the books are still in circulation. If only they could be banned or burned.

I should not want to defend all the novelists on Chamberlain's list, either for their skill in fiction or their subtlety of ideas. Certainly much of the proletarian fiction of the 1930's—the Grace Lumpkin and William Rollins variety—reads now like dreary claptrap. The current exposé literature at the expense of the advertising and publicity boys is also in danger of becoming a too easy formula.

Yet the fact is that Chamberlain's condemnation is meted out impartially to the living books as well as the formula books, the great character creations as well as the potboilers, the quick as well as the dead. His yardstick, as in all heresy hunts, is neither literary nor intellectual, but ideological. By his standards Booth Tarkington is greater than Frank Norris, and Ayn Rand than Theodore Dreiser. He makes no effort to trace that fusion of the novelist's social observation with the deep currents of his inner life, out of which great fiction is fashioned. He never asks himself how it could happen that all the best energies in American literary history should have been so completely misled by critical realism, proletarian enthusiasm and the Freudian father-image.

This episode in heresy hunting would be merely pathetic if it were not also symptomatic. It is part of the intellectual and moral climate of the cold war. It is a logical extension of the methods and outlook of the Committee on Un-American Activities, which set out to purge the script writers and film makers of Hollywood on the basis of their ideology and not of their craft. You will recall that the big count against the Hollywood Ten— far deeper than the fact that they refused to tell the committee whether they were Communists—was the fact that, in their pictures they gave unflattering portraits of the American businessman and allowed hostile things to be said about Big Money. That was their treason. By undermining the people's confidence in the type-figures of American capitalism, they were playing into the hands of the Russian Enemy.

That, basically, is also Chamberlain's count against the novelists. It is "the note of belittling as applied to the businessman" that he objects to. He admits that in the process of opening up and exploiting the continent, the businessmen did help themselves rather freely to a lot of the swag. (The way he puts it, coyly and primly, is that "US business enterprise has not always been carried out within the scope of the ethics that must apply to it as a functional system.") But, he adds, the scoundrels have been chastened and have mellowed; the crimes were committed in another period. Finally—and this is the clinching argument—think of the alternative: the dead hand of bureaucracy, the blood sacrifices that are part of the Soviet purges, and the terrible condition of England, which is now also, in her cry over spivs and drones, taking "a first unconscious step toward the purge."

Here we arrive at the real point of the article. The essay in literary history and criticism turns out to be an adjuration to forswear not only ideological aid to the Communist enemy, but even any ideological approaches to the democratic socialist ally. The historian and critic must perforce employ the method of the catechism because he has enrolled himself as a soldier in the armies of the faith.

I should like to see some time a serious essay on the theme Chamberlain set for himself—the treatment of the businessman in American fiction. It would ask why sensitive men like William Dean Howells were torn between an admiration for businessmen like Silas Lapham and the angry passion against inequality, injustice and exploitation which Howells set down in A Traveler from Altruria, and which turned him into a socialist. It would ask why towering writers like Henry James recoiled from trade and yet were obsessed with money and its aura; and why, in the James tradition, Edith Wharton's novels came to life when she dealt with her money-driven women, her female counterparts of single-minded businessmen, in The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.

It would explore the mind of Mark Twain, himself a businessman of a sort, who wrote the blistering indictment of capitalist bribery and political corruption in The Gilded Age, and in his great novels found the democracy and fraternity he loved only under the frontier pre-capitalist conditions of his boyhood village and the picaresque days of his young manhood on the Mississippi. It would ask what passion it was that moved the muckrakers to their labors in the archives of business methods, corporation finance and political rottenness, and what relation there was between the facts they turned up and the inner impulsions that led to such masterpieces as The Pit, The Financier, The Titan, The Jungle.

It would examine not only the exact factual parallels between the historical Charles Tyson Yerkes and Dreiser's Frank Algernon Cowperwood, but also the psychic correspondence between Dreiser's odi-et-amo feeling about his hero and the combined fascination-and-recoil that most Americans felt for the power and the ruthless drive of their business titans. It would look into the American cult of success, and the belief in the Darwinian doctrine that the survivors must be the fittest, and compare them both with the terrible wasteland of American moral and cultural life between the time of Grant's presidency and that of Theodore Roosevelt. And it would ask how much that wasteland had to do with the portrait of American business to be found in the novelists before World War I.


In my view it had everything to do with it. You don't have to seek for abstruse reasons to explain why the young men who became America's great novelists felt as they did about the corporation and the big businessman and the power of money and the single-minded, ruthless pursuit of it. They had seen its consequences. It was not that they were rebelling against their fathers, as Chamberlain suggests. Nor was it, as he again suggests, that they had a desire to return to the order-enclosed womb of a new feudalism. Theirs was no Hammacher-Schlemmer dream of beauty in chains.

They wrote what they wrote out of the disillusionment that overcame Americans when they began to glimpse the chasm between the Jeffersonian dream of a gracious and egalitarian American democracy and the actualities of the world of Daniel Drew and Commodore Vanderbilt, of Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, of "Bet a Million" Gates and Charles Yerkes, of Rockefeller and "Jupiter" Morgan, of Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine. It was a gap between the democratic promise and the corporate fulfilment that furnished the real impulsion of American fiction in this area. And when the writers were taken to task by the fat-cats of their era for daring to write in the spirit of irreverence about the lords of creation, they only dug in more obstinately. For the Puritan tradition which had given the impetus to their conscience had also given them the courage of non-conformism.


If is foolish to say that the between-wars generation and our own ought to have broken with this tradition and recognized that they were dealing with a reformed character. The businessmen of the nineteen twenties were cocksure that they had found the secret of eternal prosperity, and that it lay in entrusting them with all the policy-making decisions in the economy and the government. If their arrogance could have been justified by success, not even the success was forthcoming. The collapse of American life in 1929 was the final epitaph on the claims of Big Business to be the arbiter of our cultural values and our political fortunes as well as of our economic destinies. Thorstein Veblen's Theory of Business Enterprise, published in 1904, was a summation of the experience of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His Absentee Ownership was written in 1923, at the height of the New Prosperity, but was also a forecast of the coming collapse.

The Great Depression led naturally to an idealization of proletarian perfections that did not exist. But the younger novelists of the past decade have, for the most part, no such illusions. Chamberlain is so absorbed in his single theme of the businessman abused that he misses the real meaning of their work. What they are saying is not so much that the Big Businessman is a stinker (actually the attraction-repulsion is still true of our/ generation), as that they intend to have no traffic with concentrated monopoly power that is not responsible and responsive to the people. With an insight sharper than that of Chamberlain, or his master Friederich Hayek, they insist on going beyond the forms of control or non-control. They have glimpsed that power can be private as well as governmental, that democracy can be stifled by the greeds and fears of financial movers and shakers as well as by the power lust of commissars.

To the extent that they are at all ideological, their books are not so much attacks on businessmen as they are defenses of the democratic idea against its persistent degradation by the men of power at the top and by their mercenaries in advertising, publicity, slick-paper journalism and the armed forces. In the end they are affirmations that the democratic dream is not lost, and fumbling explorations of the moral conditions under which it could still be fulfilled. And all the "Don't Play into the Hands of the Russians" signs in the world will not, I suspect, chase them from the battleground they have staked out for themselves, and which is greatly and singularly their own.

We are dealing here with the problems not only of literature and its creative conditions, but also with history and its writing. Emery Neff's too neglected book, The Poetry of History (the Columbia University Press, $3.50), has with a gracefully carried learning developed the theme that the boundaries between history and literature have been extremely tenuous in the time from Voltaire to Arnold Toynbee. The great writers among our historians—men like Carl L. Becker and Samuel E. Morison—have shown that history can be literature. But the novelists I have been discussing have shown the reverse—that literature can also be history. Men like Vico and Herder in the eighteenth century, whom Neff discusses, understood as historians that the deepest insights into the life of a people will be found in a study of their language, built up by condensed accretions of cultural experience; and in a study of theirmyths, which show better than any more formal records the deep impulsions that move a people. We have all but forgotten that insight.

When historians get too absorbed in specialized division-of-labor histories, as so many of ours have tended to do in an age when it is safer to write footnotes than to challenge power, then novelists must become historians. The bold, exploratory historical\ hypothesis, followed by the courageous synthesis, is something that only men of the stature of Charles A. Beard have attempted in American historical writing. Following his lead, but also working along lines of their own experience and observation, and their own deep intuitions, the novelists have written their notations on the history of the American spirit—the business spirit along with other matters. In the process they have set down, and are today continuing to set down, as faithful a transcript of the essential American experience as you are likely to find in the official custodians of that experience.

I had occasion, after reading the Chamberlain piece and mulling over its implications, to read some essays by a young American historian of wide reading and considerable courage. I refer to Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. I would suggest to Chamberlain, for example. Chapter VII, on '"The Spoilsmen: An Age of Cynicism," dealing with Conkling and Jay Gould, with the Credit Mobilier, with Grant as President, with James G. Blaine ("'the Plumed Knight") and the Mulligan Letters, with Cleveland and his philosophy of laissez-faire. Hofstadter builds his chapter on the work of Beard, Josephson, Cochrane and Miller, Parrington, Tarbell, Gustavus Meyer, Curti, Gabriel, Hacker, Nevins. His wry deflationism is his own, and it is exhibited in the other chapters as well; but the verdict on the spoilsmen, including both the robber barons and the politicos (to use Matthew Josephson's evocative phrases), is a verdict based on the record. I suspect that the historian of the future, writing on the spoilsmen of our inflationary prosperity and our brink-of-war economy and our monopolies and oligopolies and our hucksters and magazine tycoons, will emerge with a verdict closer to that of Steinbeck and Penn Warren, Wakeman and Mailer and Irwin Shaw, than to that of the men who call them innocents in the net of the Russian and British police states. And closer also to the verdict of Laski, about whom Chamberlain has had a long-standing obsession and about whose most recent book he is so bitter.

This is not the place for an analysis of Laski's book, which has already had very adequate review in the New Republic. But I may perhaps jot down some notes about the way it has been received, since this strongly documents my thesis that our thinking today is caught in the glacial grip of the cold war. There are faults in Laski's book, factual errors that Henry S. Commager has pointed out, faults of repetition, minor contradictions which it would be amazing not to discover in so sprawling and comprehensive a work. There are also gaps set by the book's own limits. The already famous—or infamous—Chapter V (on "American Business Enterprise"), which has received the brunt of the criticism, is an analysis of the power, the outlook, the intellectual universe and the limitations of mind of the modern American businessman.

Laski might have documented his thesis by a sustained analysis, which I wish he had given us, of the TNEC reports on the structure of American business power; he might have done more with the efforts to apply Keynesian economic remedies to the American economy, and an analysis of the failure or success of those remedies; he might have done more with an analysis of the recent changes in corporate structure, in dispersion of ownership and concentration of power, in the dynamics of depression followed by New Deal followed by armament economies; he might have made use of the remarkable work of the new psycho-cultural school, of American anthropologists and psychologists, and the light they shed on American attitudes toward the businessman, and business power. But if he had done these things, which he did not set out to do, not being primarily an economist or cultural psychologist, the final portrait would have been essentially the same, with the lines somewhat more complexly drawn but with the lineaments not very different.


The fact is that Laski has worked in the manner which, according to Neff, every great historian and critic of culture has, worked: with a bold hypothesis which he has elaborated and tested. It was the way Bryce worked, and de Tocqueville as well; and while I should dissent from the publishers in matching Laski's book with de Tocqueville's, I believe it to be on a level with Bryce's in its sweep and erudition and understanding. The big difference, of course, is that Bryce did his analysis from the standpoint of the Mugwumps in America and the mild liberals in England, and that he was accepted because he was not thought dangerous.

Laski has done his work from the standpoint of the Labor Party in England and the radical democrats in America, and he has been attacked very largely because he is dangerous. I wish his critics had read more carefully his last chapter, "Americanism as a Principle of Civilization," with its summary of the American achievement, of the extent to which the promise of an equalitarian polity and an open society has actually been fulfilled; with the reasons for the resentment of European conservatives against America; and with the reasons why the democratic promise has not yet been wholly fulfilled.

It would give them a more rounded picture of Laski and his book than they seem to have when, like many critics, they have used it as a stick with which to beat the dog of an analysis which is Marxist in its inspiration.

In the end, I suppose, it comes down to a question of one kind of faith as against another kind of faith. Laski's faith is that of a democratic socialist, and he in turn used it as a stick with which to beat the dog of a business civilization whose central principle he regards as only a phase in the long campaign of history. Chamberlain's faith is, as I have suggested, that of Hayek and Luce—the faith of a laissez-faire free economy and an American Century; and he in turn regards all forms of planning as "not only anti-business… but also anti-fecundity and anti-life." The test of which is right must be sought in the facts both of experience and of intuition: which jibes best with the historical experience of the past? And which is most in tune with the deep intuitions of the sensitive men—the novelists and poets—who register and also help to create the values of our culture?

I think my own answer has been made clear enough. I think the answer of the novelists and the younger historians is also clear. For if the answer is given in any other direction, if we test our ideas primarily by the cold-war standards of whether or not they are weapons against the Russians and the British, we have ceased to be valuing men and have become cynical tacticians. In that direction lies the prospect of atomic and germ wars, and the destruction of a free market as well as of a free society toward which every economic order is only the means.

If that happens we shall fulfil the remarkable vision which Neff quotes from Vico's Scienza Nuova:

Since such peoples, like beasts, have become accustomed to think of nothing but individual advantage… and have been living in solitude of spirit and desires, not even two of them able to agree, with the result that by obstinate factions and desperate civil wars they make forests of cities, and of forests holes for men to hide in… the sinister subtleties of malicious minds, more frightful than beasts because of the barbarity of reflection, which is worse than the primal barbarity of sense, begin to defeat themselves.

This article originally ran in the December 6, 1948, issue of the magazine.