An Embarrassment of Riches
Literature and the Ethics of Wealth in the Gilded Age
Feb 12, 2013
15 Min read time
Writers of the Gilded Age unsettled the comfortable relations between failure and poverty, wealth and success.
This essay is a response to Richard White’s “Before Greed: Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches.”
Richard White throws a slanted light on the Gilded Age by uncovering, amid the rubble of capitalist expansion, persistent discomfort with wealth. He explores the moment at which the very idea of wealth seems to pivot, from being enough to being too much. Consumption became notable for its conspicuousness—outsized, redundant, ostentatious. In the ideal of “competency,” by contrast, he finds an enduring desire to define a life as sufficient, independent, and flourishing. By stressing competency as the ideal, he shows how wealth became unhooked from the deeper concept of personal success. As Andrew Carnegie phrased it in his call for elegant philanthropy: “It will be understood that fortunes are here spoken of, not moderate sums saved by many years of effort, the returns on which are required for the comfortable maintenance and education of families. This is not wealth, but only competence which it should be the aim of all to acquire.”
“Comfortable” is the key word here. Emerging in eighteenth-century England to describe the right kind of country living, “comfort” became a middle-class idea in the nineteenth century. As historian Richard Bushman describes it, “comfort implied a moral condition achieved through retirement from the bustle of high life and retreat into wholesome domesticity.” It was a kind of vernacular gentility. According to this logic, wealth became the negative state—a danger, and not just to an equitable society or balanced polity. As White points out, wealth could also become negative in an emotional, even an aesthetic sense. The wealthy could seem unattractive and unrefined. Counterintuitively perhaps, wealth became an uncomfortable state because it unhinged from moral and intellectual returns. Riches produced embarrassment.
We can see this embarrassment again and again in the drama of “new money” that dominates American literature in the Gilded Age. Take The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), a novel by William Dean Howells—the dean of American letters at the time. In this story of overreaching, Silas Lapham rises from farmer to wealthy businessman, but his moral blunders and business failures return him to a state of rustic competency at the end. The scene that most fascinated readers of the day was a dinner [pictured right] in which the rustic Lapham gets drunk and shames himself before his Brahmin acquaintances. Status and identity collide at this moment of embarrassment. The Laphams have achieved colossal means but they lack the ends—the finer things—to match.
I wish to turn to the role of literature in the ethics of wealth, not least because White turns so elegantly to Horatio Alger. Literature is often a good place to detect conventional wisdom at work, to sneak up on implicit ideology in a text and scare it into the open. It’s important to understand so-called rags-to-riches fables like Alger’s because these stories are so prevalent in our political culture, especially around election time. They are a zone of ethical fantasy, or wishful thinking, that works to animate a kind of comforting ethical continuity between old fashioned values (hard work, good character, proper charitability) and the pursuit of wealth. The truly good, honest, and hardworking will—with just a little help from those above them—make their way up in the world. Good rich men see the virtue in Ragged Dick and help him because (in the wishful logic of the book) he clearly deserves it. There is no need to systematically address rising class disparities. The poor seem poor because they lack character; by implication, wealth is a sign of inherent ethical sensibility. Some selective, arbitrary attention now and then to a plucky bootblack is enough.
Yet Ragged Dick also exposes the contradictions and anxieties at the heart of this ethics-made-easy. White mentions that Alger was a pedophile—and indeed, Dick’s success is as much a result of homoerotic patronage as anything else. (Dick is like Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, plucked by an ambiguous older man from his impoverished youth.) The book obsessively strives to distinguish good and honest from counterfeit and unsavory, as if they are far from natural distinctions. And then there’s the big question of what the money’s for. Dick wants to be respectable, but his accumulative mindset has little inward benefit. That is, it’s unclear whether any social, cultural, or intellectual value accrues to his bank account. This fuzziness is part of the plot of Ragged Dick: a plot that doesn’t really end. We leave Dick on the upswing—and we can give that two cheers. But what about the actual state of being wealthy? The story doesn’t show us that. It ends not with competence, I’d suggest, but with implied possibility, with Dick described finally as “A young gentleman on his way to fame and fortune.” Hence, Alger artfully dodges the critical question: How much is enough?
For answers to that question, we must turn elsewhere.
• • •
The embarrassment of riches, as I’ve been describing it, is an imbalance in which means outweigh ends. The Gilded Age’s philanthropic urge can be understood as a pragmatic attempt to adjust the ends to justify the means. The cultural work done by Ragged Dick is to show us the means without the ends, or at least without the problem of what inadequate ends can do to the more-than-adequate means: make them seem embarrassing. By starting at the bottom and leaving his protagonist barely midway on the upswing, Alger avoids the problem of drawing a border round competency, or keeping comfort within bounds. But he does so in a way that exposes the deeper, problematic mindset driving Gilded Age disparities.
Even before the Gilded Age, American literary narrative is particularly good at helping us think through this question of ends and means. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is the classic assault on Americans who have gotten tangled up in means because they have confused the true nature of their ends. “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live,” he writes at the beginning of Walden, with characteristic pun. To be mean is to be cruel and ungenerous. To have means is to have the necessities to live. But Thoreau wants to generate meaning from means, to gain vision—the true end—from the division of labor that alienates us from our genuine necessities. He sees that his contemporaries have become trapped in an idea that the means and not meaning is the ends. “The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot,” he writes. Wealth has migrated from enough to too much, we have become slaves to our clothes. Thoreau strives in his experiment at Walden to embarrass riches by stripping down and exposing the self, yet his attempt to be comfortable, to balance perfectly his means and his ends, inevitably fails. He sneaks off to his mother for the occasional meal, he breaks his vegetarianism with an occasional woodchuck, and after two years he leaves Walden a failed experiment.
The House of Mirth makes us uncomfortable by exposing the impossibility of an ethical wealth.
Thoreau brings us inadvertently to a point I want to emphasize, a point where you might say that fact and fiction coalesce, or where life and the dictates of literary art seem to merge. We can see in Thoreau and elsewhere the ideal of a balanced competency, a comfort in which the material means match the intangible ends. But in Thoreau’s case we also see the instability of such stasis. We see how the demands of the material—the demand for literary material, the demand for interest (to use another monetarily loaded term), the demand for plot, even, for motion one way or another—runs over balance. What we see over and again is how the endless pursuit of material replicates itself in a plot-heavy Gilded Age literature obsessed with the pursuit and the problem of wealth. This is not to say that the movement is always Algeresque, from rags to (potential) riches. Indeed, many narratives of the era enact plots of decline, in ways less wishful than critical. To illustrate this predicament I’d like to focus on two women writers, Edith Wharton and Sarah Orne Jewett, to uncover what I’ll call a literary ethics of wealth—or at least a debate on those ethics.
• • •
Edith Wharton knew her way around a yacht. Born Edith Jones—of the “keeping up with the Joneses” Joneses—she grew in the culture of wealth, though not always with the means to maintain it. She became a professional writer—really a businesswoman—to secure her financial independence and an intellectual life separate from her failed marriage. Her 1905 novel The House of Mirth propelled her to literary fame and fortune. The story of Lily Bart’s fall down the social scale, The House of Mirth is a fascinating ethnography of a class, and a subtle but devastating exploration of the ethics of wealth.
Lily is raised in a world of unstable luxury with a nascent sense of something finer in life—an ethical end. She vaguely, gropingly wants wealth as a means to achieve something better but her finer yearnings become conflated with crass pecuniary values. Wealth itself comes to stand in for the very thing desired; the means eclipse the end. Unmarried and 29 at the beginning of the book, Lily should have married some rich guy years ago, should have given in to the logic of her set. But as much as she spends her days jet-setting between friends’ estates longing for what they have, that nascent finer thing—that inchoate sensibility for something beyond crass wealth—keeps thwarting her ability to clinch the deal.
On one such occasion, Lily neglects to go to church to bag a wealthy, boring suitor, opting instead for a hike with the independent, interesting bachelor, Lawrence Selden. In their conversation, Wharton takes on the embarrassment of riches: the ethical as well as aesthetic and intellectual challenges of her class. Selden remarks that Lily’s genius lies in converting impulses into intentions (making means and ends appear to match), which brings them to a discussion of genius and success. Lily has a vague and relativistic definition of success: to get as much as one can out of life. Selden replies with an alternate definition of success as personal freedom “[f]rom everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit—that’s what I call success.” Selden describes a space of comfort and competence, a sufficiency free from the extremes of luxury and poverty. Unhooked from wealth, success is a nonmaterial realm of pure intentionality—a willed stasis. Lily strives for such moments of beauty and brilliance but is mostly pulled apart by an ethical contradiction. She dreads the dinginess and fears the ugliness of poverty, yet she equally detests a servile dependency on the wealthy and the moral vacuousness of wealth. She vacillates between these two states (fear of poverty, discomfort with wealth) and cannot find the middle ground. Her question of competence is not How much is enough?, but Can I enter the “republic of the spirit”?
In essence, Lily’s character is shaped by incompetence—or more properly, the impossibility of competence for her as a woman. Lily comes to see that the means to her end really sacrifice it in an endless, venomous obsession with having it all. And on top of this, she is a woman. She lacks access to the means of independence and thus is victim to the material accidents of plot. Unable to choose one way or another and lacking the means to reconcile them, she is driven to her final end: dead from a drug overdose in a shabby boarding house.
The House of Mirth was a bestseller. Why were readers fascinated by this plot of decline? The story makes us uncomfortable, I’d suggest, by showing how and why Lily cannot keep her own comfort in bounds. The story makes us uncomfortable by exposing the impossibility of an ethical wealth. The republic of the spirit that Selden describes—the state of freedom, education, competency—is closed to the wealthy. It is also closed to women. Wealth is embarrassing but there is no alternative. Lily’s resistance to “success” (in the terms of her set) is precisely her resistance to the severe limits with which female fulfillment had been imagined within domestic and marital confines. What fascinates us about the plot, its tragic determinism, performs an ethical function. Plots need to move and end. They cannot stand still. Competence is uninteresting. But to move up, for Lily, means giving over to the empty endlessness of acquisition compounded by the enslavement of womanhood. Poverty and the failure of death is the only way out.
• • •
If competency is unethical, as Wharton implies, because conditions are plotted against female independence, then was there any alternative? With this question in mind, I’d like to turn to my other example, Sarah Orne Jewett—a popular regionalist writer. Her stories of coastal Maine were consumed in elite magazines by an increasingly urban and cosmopolitan middle class who enjoyed her descriptions of narrow and depressed rural societies. (This was the era when wealthy tourists were beginning to find aesthetic value in depressed rural areas, turning them into vacation spots.) Unlike Wharton, Jewett was considered an inherently limited writer, not just because she wrote of cultural “backwardness” but because her stories seemed to resist the status of “stories”—they were so sketchy and plotless. Jewett self-consciously saw herself writing for a middle-brow readership which would be content, she believed, to read about everyday life in all its mundane detail. She refused editorial advice to develop her sketches into fuller stories and remained quietly content with her minor art, which had almost an avant-garde quality in its resistance to plot.
These literary texts speak to the anxieties and needs of a readership confronted by the discomforts of wealth.
Jewett’s stories make an odd kind of sense in the context of Gilded Age wealth. A state of competency is a problem in Wharton’s work, because women lack access to the necessary independence and must instead sell out to corrupt wealth or else plummet into poverty. Whereas Wharton deals with this problem by writing melodramatic plots of decline, we could say that Jewett declines to plot. Even her stories that feature a plot—stories in which characters leave their rural homes in search of greater experience—wind up removing the significance and consequences of such ventures from their ends. The break into plot often gets frustrated, or else the stories end suddenly, without completion.
Jewett’s sketch “Marsh Rosemary” is a good example of this tendency. “Marsh Rosemary” is the story of Ann Floyd’s eventual marriage after years of loneliness, only to have her husband desert her for a happy life with a much younger woman. To the extent that characters encounter plot they get punished. Like Lily Bart, Ann Floyd fails in love. The story ends thus:
She had put one cup and saucer on the table; she looked at them through bitter tears. Somehow a consciousness of her solitary age, her uncompanioned future, rushed through her mind; this failure of her best earthly hope was enough to break a stronger woman’s heart.
Who can laugh at my Marsh Rosemary, or who can cry, for that matter? The gray primness of the plant is made up of a hundred colors if you look close enough to find them. This same Marsh Rosemary stands in her own place, and holds her dry leaves and tiny blossoms steadily toward the same sun that the pink lotus blooms for, and the white rose.
Floyd has failed, but it’s a peculiar kind of failure. The story finally moves from ruined character to the world of nature—to an ecological, place-centered resilience and sufficiency. Lily Bart is also described as a plant, but a hot-house flower, uncomfortably hot—exotic and unsustainable. Here we move away from plot to a plantedness that is content, continuous, and resilient if humble. And because humble, there is no shame, no embarrassment; no drug overdose or shabby boarding house.
In Jewett’s sketches, characters whose ambition sweeps them into plot typically fall back to moments of humility—just as Henry James described Jewett as a writer with “a sort of elegance of humility, or a fine flame of modesty.” Characters come to accept their limitation, often defined against the former wealth and vast prospects of the declined fishing industry of coastal Maine. Characters become content by recognizing and reconciling their relative smallness and insignificance—a “consciousness of inadequacy,” as one story terms it. It’s a diminishment, but it’s not poverty. This is not a negative failure, but one that takes on different values for female characters. It’s a kind of freedom and possibility, a freedom from patriarchy (her characters are often spinsters) and from the broader national economy (they are inherently self-sufficient). This is not frustrated compromise but a contentment in sorrow and a comfort in isolation. It is also a freedom from plot.
In their very form, Jewett’s stories describe failure not as a process, but as a place and a time—almost an existential state, of being limited, just as her own work was known for its minor quality. If plot moves us forward, with the promise of intentional progress toward meaning; if plot makes events into story, and endings create the teleology within chains of described events: if this is so, then Jewett refuses the crashing climax of an ending, removing process altogether from her stories. She describes instead a kind of bounded and stable competency—a competency impossible in material success. Thatwill always be vulnerable to anxious wealth or threatened by poverty.
Jewett is not interested in development, in decline or upward mobility; she’s not really interested in how fortunes are made or lost. She’s unconcerned with wealth. She’s not interested in bad endings but no endings. She’s not interested in the relationship between ends and means, but rather a condition in which ends and means are the same. If Alger leaves us with a promise of future plot, then for Jewett it’s all already done. And if Wharton’s plot is driven by the desire to have it all—both the means (wealth) and the ends (a finer sense)—then the plot can only decline because the desire is unfulfillable, the means and ends are irreconcilable. Ethical success, for Jewett, is freedom from plot, if plot is driven by the reach for material success.
Richard White has written elsewhere that success and failure were not always binaries in the Gilded Age. In Jewett’s stories, we approach, as far as it’s possible, a triumphant, affirmative view of failure—a refusal to deal. As Jewett saw it, this was the only possible, the only ethical competence.
These are literary texts, of course—not models for right living. But they are more than just secondary representations. Wharton and Jewett, in their own ways, both offer extreme positions that spoke to particular anxieties and needs of a readership confronted by the discomforts and embarrassments of wealth. Whether through a highly-plotted narrative of frustrated striving or through plotless sketches of accepted limitation, the writers unsettled the comfortable relations between failure and poverty, wealth and success.
Editor’s Note: This article was published in collaboration with the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.
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February 12, 2013
15 Min read time