Business and Industry Novels

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The American novel of business and industry came into its own immediately after the Civil War as a capacious form of cultural documentation. Unlike the western, the captivity narrative, or the sentimental romance, the business novel was not so much a genre as a type of alembic to which the elements of genre (the romantic subplot, moral regeneration, the villain) were submitted to be broken down, weighed, and revalued. Its men and woman descended directly from Herman Melville's (1819–1891) whalers and scriveners and generated George F. Babbitt and Jay Gatsby, but they navigated the new avenues of endeavor and experience offered by the Gilded Age with neither the certitudes of their ancestors nor the clarified expectations of those who followed in their footsteps.

To get some idea of the importance—both aesthetic and economic—of the novel of business and industry in these years, it is only necessary to note such typical trade-journal advertisements as the one placed in the 7 April 1906 edition of the Literary Digest by the J. A. Hill Company of New York for its "Wall Street Library," whose five volumes included Stock Speculation and The A B C of Wall Street:

This is a subject which every intelligent American should understand, for the influence of this gigantic money-making machine extends to the furthest corner of the United States. . . . It shows how financial panics are caused, and how to anticipate them. It exposes Wall Street fakes. (Literary Digest, p. 546)

These notices ran alongside nearly identical advertisements for novels like Upton Sinclair's The Money-changers (1908), John Charles Van Dyke's The Money God (1908), Henry M. Hyde's Buccaneers: A Story of the Black Flag in Business (1904), and Edwin Lefevre's collection of Wall Street Stories (1901). The juxtaposition is telling, as is the fact that Sinclair and Lefevre were journalists whose fictions were avowedly journalistic and that Van Dyke had published extensively on Renaissance and American painting but would one day edit The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie (1920). The business novel developed coordinately with several other forms of writing. They included the muckraking journalistic exposé; works of economic sociology by Simon Newcomb and Thorstein Veblen; and the scholarly article of public conscience practiced by the likes of John Dewey and the brothers Charles Francis Adams Jr. and Henry Adams (the latter's novel Democracy: An American Novel, published in 1880, scandalously portrayed the business of politics). Also appearing at the same time were demotic screeds such as William H. Harvey's Coin's Financial School (1895) and narrative primers about such matters as monetary policy and the tariff, curious books like the apocalyptic and proto-science fictional Battle of Coney Island; or, Free Trade Overthrow by "An Eye Witness," the likes of which poured forth from printing presses throughout the nation. Anxious to distinguish between the genuine article of American industriousness and the corrupting practices of Wall Street "fakes," novelists of widely varied political outlooks and aesthetic predispositions contributed their fictions (often based on real people and events) to what they hoped would be a cultural narrative of real value.


By 1870 the large and variegated enterprises taking shape with the help of economic theory and legal doctrine—especially the unanticipated applications of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to corporate "personalities" that were both elusively fictional and redoubtably material—were unlikely to be "bossed" (a word with the disconcerting tendency to migrate from business to politics, potentially disarranging the cultural organization of authority) by the paternal tutors described by historian Paul E. Johnson in A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837, or by Melville's Master of Chancery, that "eminently safe man" (Melville, p. 40) whose good intentions are underwritten by religious piety, political patronage, and legal precedent. There was no telling where the next tycoon would come from: he or she could be an inconspicuous Indianapolis pump worker like James Sheridan in Booth Tarkington's Turmoil (1914; also included in the author's Growth trilogy, published in full in 1927); nearly a Canadian, like the stalwart Vermont hero of William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885); or even a veteran of the inner-city criminal courts, in the manner of Van Harrington, who Robert Herrick would have us believe goes from bad to worse in the Chicago novel Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905). Likewise, fortunes lay imminent even in the most homely fields. Lapham publishes his name on the landscape in mineral paint, much to the chagrin of the Brahmins whose acceptance he grudgingly seeks. Henry Kitchell Webster cleverly played off the financial institutions against the trading pits in his novel The Banker and the Bear (1900), the subtitle of which—The Story of a Corner in Lard—speaks for itself. And Frank Norris (1870–1902) famously lent an epic sweep to the matter of wheat, first in the California valleys of The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and then in the restricted compass of the Chicago mercantile market in The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903). In a nation emerging from civil war and wracked by no less than three depressions and any number of panics during the next half century, it was a matter of some urgency to figure out just who these men and women were who were turning sows' ears into silk purses.

This is not to say that novelists viewed themselves as superintendents of the social register, though the efforts of the nouveau riche to gain entrée into traditionally forbidden (and often desiccated) corners of society is a notable aspect of the novel of business and industry. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), in particular, developed a redoubtable social vision. In Annie Kilburn (1888) he made the manufacturing village of Hatboro the scene of tension between the sources of tradition and new labor. Neither religion nor aesthetic drama (in the form of a misguided production of Romeo and Juliet) are able to allay the conflict. In A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) he evoked the problems of labor and capital from the equally problematic relationship between cosmopolitanism and a precarious sense of national identity. Embodying the impetus of American industry as fully as his more run-of-the-mill quotidian counterparts in fiction, Christopher Newman, onetime manufacturer of leather goods and bathtubs in Henry James's The American (1877), falls victim to the nefarious Bellegardes largely because of the qualities of honesty and determination that made his fortune. For Harold Frederic (1856–1898) in his best-selling novel The Market-Place (1899), as for Howells and James, the problem of social acceptance is reflexive. It measures the rather restricted tolerances of the Lady Edith Cressages and Lord Plowdens of the world as well as the atrophied moral faculty of the ambitious and frantically industrious Joel Stormont Thorpe. To the credit of novelists like Howells, James, Frederic, and Herrick, the cost of belonging is never equated with the depleted resources of tradition alone. The tycoons wanted their fair share of high society, and for better or worse, they were bound to get it.

As cautious as they often were in holding the line against social interlopers, the novelists of business and industry, particularly in the first years after the Civil War, interested themselves in character as much as situation in order to foster a sense of historical continuity between the recently concluded war and the new field of commercial conflict that was making the metaphor of war ever more pervasive and apt. Novels that locate a discontinuity, such as J. G. (Josiah Gilbert) Holland's Sevenoaks: A Story of To-Day (1875), "express," in the words of Henry Nash Smith in "The Search for a Capitalist Hero: Businessmen in American Fiction," "the basic revulsion of their authors against the emergent financial and industrial system of the post-Civil War period" (Smith, p. 78). Holland, better known for cofounding and editing Scribner's Magazine than for his forthrightly sentimental and sententious prose and verse, pits speculating and cosmopolitan village tyrant Robert Belcher against a vivid collection vernacular characters (several resembling James Fenimore Cooper's character Hawkeye), to the misfortune of the baronial capitalist.

Continuity, on the other hand, could serve either as a conservative vehicle for approbation or abhorrence. The well-known Washingtonian John Hay (1838–1905), following the example of his friend Henry Adams, published his first novel The Bread-Winners: A Social Study (1883) anonymously. His hero, Arthur Farnham, is a veteran Civil War commander who invests his inheritance in business (like Henry Adams's brother Charles Francis Adams Jr., also a former Union officer) and ends up marshaling the citizens of his native Buffland (a lakeside cross between Buffalo and Cleveland, as the name suggests) against benighted strikers led by the "oleaginous" "reformer" Sleeny, "the greasy apostle of labor" (p. 74).

John Barclay, protagonist of William Allen White's (1868–1944) sprawling A Certain Rich Man (1909), turns his war experience against his fellow citizens by gathering around him a cadre of sharp financial and political dealers from the first days of the Civil War. White was an eminent newspaperman from Emporia, Kansas, and his novel doubles as a fairly accurate record of early skirmishing on the Kansas-Missouri border and a melodramatic account of the way men like Barclay corrupted the heritage of abolition by directing its moral authority down the ramifying channels of commerce in pursuit of purely selfish ends. (Barclay's father was an abolitionist preacher of New England stock who had been shot to death soon after arriving in Kansas.) Once Barclay experiences the obligatory epiphany and begins to work his own redemption, the civil and commercial wars justify themselves one to another with the decisiveness of a cracking blow struck to the skull of a cowardly striker by the firm hand of Barclay's counterpart in Hay's novel Captain Farnham, source of investment capital, civic order, and historical continuity.


Every army, even one whose campaigns are industrial or financial, needs a general to lead it, which perhaps accounts for the frequency with which the protagonists of business novels are likened to Napoleon. (Although this observation does not apply to the "Industrial Army" Edward Bellamy imagined in his 1888 novel Looking Backward: 2000–1887, the great "Trust" commanding it certainly qualifies as a revolutionary form of sovereignty.) Herrick's Van Harrington in Memoirs of an American Citizen is classed as a new kind of Napoleon, and Landry Court in Frank Norris's The Pit makes a similar comment about head honcho Curtis Jadwin's indomitable spirit: "I tell you he's Napoleonic" (Norris, p. 262). Elam Harnish, whose indicative nickname provided Jack London (1876–1916) with the title of his novel Burning Daylight (1910), descends from the Yukon a visionary land developer who strikes at trusts in California's Central Valley with "Napoleonic suddenness" (p. 156) before losing his bearings in drink and lethargic financial drudgery, only to regain his composure preparatory to a Silas-Lapham–like ascension. Such a formula bespeaks the worry widely shared at the time that the reins of government had passed into the hands of a new and unprincipled plutocracy bent on establishing a "feudalism" all the more onerous for its cynical and undisciplined modernity.

Whether it appeared as a sociopolitical combination exercising comprehensive cultural authority or a monolithic trust whose managerial unity disguised the diversity of its attributes, the plutocracy was feared as an insidious threat to the fragile brand of sovereignty peculiar to America. In The Mammon of Unrighteousness (1891), H. H. (Hjalmar Hjorth) Boyesen (1848–1895) related the manner in which brothers Aleck and Horace Larkin break from the influence of their adoptive father Obed, a landholder and university benefactor patterned upon Ezra Cornell, and become in their respective aesthetic and political triumphs the servants of an industrial order they neither endorse nor quite understand. Boyeson, like the more sentimental Holland in Sevenoaks, perceived the seeds of corruption beginning to mature not in the new territories, but in the disconcertingly fertile ground of the old Northeast and its landed estates.

In several vigorous novels published in quick succession in the first decades of the new century, David Graham Phillips (1867–1911) dramatized the threat posed by the new and multiform plutocracy to traditional ways of conducting commercial and political business. Hampton Scarborough exposes the under-handed financial manipulations of John Dumont in The Cost (1904) and then accepts his party's nomination for president of the United States while taking apart Harvey Saylor's "Power Trust" in The Plum Tree (1905).

Superior to either of these novels is The Deluge (1905), perhaps because Phillips was following as he wrote the real-life example of maverick Boston financier Thomas W. Lawson, whose sensational exposé Frenzied Finance had begun its serial run the previous spring in Everybody's Magazine. Phillips's hero this time is Matt Blacklock, or "Black Matt," a publicist-financier—referred to condescendingly as the boss of a "bucket shop"—only slightly more scrupulous than the canting and sanctimonious "Seven," a group of capitalists he brings down in an eleventh-hour media blitz. Though Blacklock profits handsomely from his exposé, he rationalizes his lurid work as a public service. He then leaves the fray he created, having concluded that the people are responsible for fostering the Seven and thus "wear the yoke" of poverty and oppression "because they have not yet become intelligent and competent enough to be free" (p. 463). So much for popular sovereignty. A similarly pessimistic view is presented in Memoirs of an American Citizen, by Robert Herrick (1868–1938). Van Harrington is able to buy a seat in the U.S. Senate, where one is told he will shine forth a "sickening example" to his fellow citizens. These novels suggest that there is little chance that government institutions are adequate to control modern industry. (Such controls are referred to in Boyesen's The Mammon of Unrighteousness, when the character Horace Larkin pleads for their design.) Whether the novelists of business and industry in America thought they had designed adequate literary institutions remains very much in doubt.


Novels of business and industry may have had their literary and intellectual shortcomings, but complacency was not among them. It was the rare work that did not outline some grievance or point out the need, if not the avenue, of reform. If the solution, such as it may have been, appeared to lie merely in some moonshine manner of individual sympathy, that was because most institutions were felt to be either outmoded or in collusion with the prevailing order. Howells made the obligatory gestures toward the clergy and the law in his books, but the basic (and indeed rather helpless) call for understanding undergirds Annie Kilburn's relationship with the laborers of Hatboro in Annie Kilburn. It also informs the reader's attitude toward J. Milton Northwick in The Quality of Mercy (1892), one of Hatboro's least sympathetic voices, who embezzles money from the insurance company he heads. In the wake of the Haymarket riot and influenced by Edward Bellamy's New Nationalism, Howells had by the time of A Hazard of New Fortunes turned toward a genteel variety of Christian Socialism. By contrast, an altogether more vigorous version of this same Christian Socialism benefits the impoverished and disenfranchised freedmen in Albion W. Tourgée's novels Murvale Eastman, Christian Socialist (1890) and Pactolus Prime (1890).

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911) embraced a muscular humanitarianism in The Silent Partner (1871). The pathos of Phelps's novel and its few mawkish moments hardly detract from the force inherent in the feminine alliance of the patrician Perley Kelso and the feisty and articulate mill girl Sip. More explicitly political were novels like T. Fulton Gantt's Breaking the Chains: A Story of the Present Industrial Struggle (1887) and Frederick Whittaker's Larry Locke, Man of Iron; or, A Fight for Fortune: A Story of Labor and Capital (1884), serialized fiction of a sentimental variety aimed at the working-class reader and advocating an immediate derailment of the capitalist gravy train.

The factor that threatened most directly the novelist's fictional arrangements seems to have been gender or, more precisely, the "sex relation," as Norris calls it in The Pit (p. 35), or the "mystery of sex" that flummoxes London's Burning Daylight (p. 335). There was something more at work here than the dulcet call of domesticity that the typical entrepreneur of fiction, even the most Napoleonic, heeded in the end. Seeking a force to offset the primal quality of multiplying assets in a faintly Darwinian atmosphere, and yet a force that comports with the economic imperative, novelists broached the topic of intercourse. J. G. Holland treated it as a folksy mystery, Jack London and Frank Norris as a countervailing pull. Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), however, considers it as an integral aspect of doing business in his depiction of Frank Cowperwood in the powerful novels The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In this respect, business novelists were bringing up to date Melville's observations in the "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855) and exploring the territory Charlotte Perkins Gilman had lately opened up in Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898). These works suggest that there might be a force the institutions of the new sovereignty—literary and otherwise—could not manage.


The more successful novels of business and industry remain some of the most valuable achievements in the history of American literature. To understand why this should be so and why readers continue to approach Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham, Henry James's The American, Norris's unfinished trilogy The Epic of the Wheat, and Dreiser's Cowperwood novels with such interest, it is necessary to perceive the relationship these writers and their cohorts in other disciplines—the Adams brothers in Chapters of Erie and Other Essays (1871), Gustavus Myers in History of the Great American Fortunes (1909–1910), and Charles Austin Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), to name a few—forged between modes of literary and business thinking. Like the seed-bearing narrator of Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" and the tariff-encumbered Nathaniel Hawthorne in his essay "The Custom-House," these writers submitted their words to the industrial process and took note of the reciprocal exchange that resulted. This process is reflected in the title of Howells's famous essay "The Man of Letters as the Man of Business" (1891).

Material and ideational changes after the Civil War transformed industrial capitalism into finance capitalism. This transformation was described and aided by economists like Henry Carter Adams, David Ames Wells, Richard Theodore Ely, and John Bates Clark. Clark's essay "Capital and Its Earnings," which appeared in May 1888, was especially important. As a result of the transformation, the methods, means, and objectives of business underwent an attenuation. The alteration of the peripatetic salesman into the visionary organizer can be perceived in such close fictional cousins as Twain's Hank Morgan and Howells's Silas Lapham. In a world of floating assets and potential values, the methods of the financier bore an affinity to the methods of the artist, as the more thoughtful of Cowperwood's sexual conquests never fail to point out. Cultural changes in the arenas of production and political economy had made conceivable to Dreiser, Twain, and Howells a certain identity of endeavor between themselves and the subjects they wrote about that simply did not exist for Melville in the Chancery Offices on Wall Street or for Hawthorne in the Salem Custom House.

Chicago seemed to hold the key to an early understanding of the phenomena described above. With its stockyards casually yet uneasily rubbing shoulders with its trading pits, the city practically embodied the reciprocity of the material and the ideal—the base and the ephemeral—that was increasingly credited with the creation of economic value. One of the first novelists to recognize the promise of these materials was Chicago native Henry Blake Fuller (1857–1929), who would be singled out by Dreiser as the greatest influence on his own novels of business. Fuller was well equipped to point up the tensions between art and commerce, though he was temperamentally unfit to seize the opportunity for reconciliation his works indicated. An aesthete with a sensibility steeped in European romanticism, Fuller was put to work by his father tending the books and the plumbing of the family's real estate holdings in Chicago. Fuller's two business novels, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893) and With the Procession (1895), represent his best work. Wholesale marketer David Marshall and his son Truesdale in the latter volume are especially memorable characters; father and son, of divergent biases and aspirations, both try to preserve an experiential, even existential, integrity in an environment that undermines ethics in such a way as to jeopardize selfhood by offending something Fuller can only describe as good taste. Fuller must be credited in these novels with conserving the aesthetic impetus as a category within the pervasive (and increasingly protean and evasive) logic of business and industry. If his characters frequently are overwhelmed, their imaginations are never entirely deranged; balked and dissatisfied, Fuller's men and women rarely succumbed to alienation.

Following the suggestion of Fuller's work, novelists like Dreiser, Twain, and Norris (and James in The American before them) evoked aesthetically such essential novelistic concerns as the relationship of the individual to the wider community from within the imaginative environment informed increasingly by business and industry. When Dreiser in The Financier speaks of Cowperwood's pronounced sense of "financial individuality" (p. 182), he establishes a register of experience authoritative enough to comprehend finance and art, thus making his hero's rabid art collecting a viable pursuit rather than the egoistic excrescence some readers have criticized. Similarly, Hank Morgan is speaking Mark Twain's language, in more ways than one, when he tries to derive from the inferior materials of the sixth and the nineteenth centuries an institutional safeguard for the singularity of the imaginative and technological "effects" he is always "getting up," as well as the broadly republican society in which both the effects and their singularity have meaning. These aspects of The Financier and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court constitute rhetorical work carried on in dialogue with the intellectual and material resources of business and industry. The two novels are neither reactionary nor quite reformist. Dreiser had read too much H. L. Mencken to entertain such hopes, though Twain, for his part, voiced sympathy with organized labor and hostility toward politicians generally and bad writers in particular.

Twain and Dreiser may not speak in their fictions about business and industry with the clarity of Hawthorne or Melville, but that is because their words and those of their colleagues in the Gilded Age are generated, in effect, already from within the intricate contraption the narrator of the "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" views from the outside as a coherent machine, forbidding perhaps, but comprehensible (even anthropomorphic) nonetheless. (Mark Twain's ill-fated and expensive dalliance with the failed Paige typesetter remains a convenient metaphor.) Like most of their readers, the writers of narratives of business and industry from 1870 to 1920 occupied the uncertain yet promising position of Laura Dearborn in The Pit as she contemplates the engrossing "solidity" of the Napoleonic speculator Curtis Jadwin. "She was intensely interested," Norris writes. "A whole new order of things was being disclosed, and for the first time in her life she looked into the working of political economy" (p. 130). An unlettered Van Harrington in Robert Herrick's Memoirs of an American Citizen follows a similar intuition and applies himself to a crash course in "history and politics and economics," featuring "old Mill . . . Darwin and Spencer, Stubbs and Lecky and a lot more hard nuts" (p. 52), with an eye to material success, if not moral improvement. Like Laura and Harrington, writers suspected that this inchoate "new order of things" was, to a certain yet definite degree, of their own making.

See alsoA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; A Hazard of New Fortunes; The Jungle; Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism; Success; Wealth


Primary Works

Anonymous. The Battle of Coney Island; or, Free Trade Overthrown. Philadelphia: J. A. Wagenseller, 1883.

Dreiser, Theodore. The Financier. 1912. New York: Meridian, 1995.

Gantt, T. Fulton. Breaking the Chains: A Story of the Present Industrial Struggle. 1887. In The Knights in Fiction: Two Labor Novels of the 1880s, edited by Mary C. Grimes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Hay, John. The Bread-Winners. 1883. Ridgewood, N. J.: Gregg Press, 1967.

Herrick, Robert. The Memoirs of An American Citizen. 1905. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Literary Digest 32 (7 April 1906): 546.

London, Jack. Burning Daylight. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." 1853. In Great Short Works of Herman Melville, edited by Warner Berthoff. New York: Harpers, 1969.

Norris, Frank. The Pit. 1903. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970.

Phillips, David Graham. The Deluge. 1905. New York: Johnson Reprints, 1969.

Smith, Henry Nash. "The Search for a Capitalist Hero: Businessmen in American Fiction." In The Business Establishment, edited by Earl F. Cheit. New York: John Wiley, 1964.

Whittaker, Frederick. Larry Locke, Man of Iron; or, A Fight for Fortune: A Story of Labor and Capital. 1884. In The Knights in Fiction: Two Labor Novels of the 1880s, edited by Mary C. Grimes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Secondary Works

Berthoff, Warner. The Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884–1919. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Fine, Sidney. Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865–1901. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Hendrick, Burton J. The Age of Big Business: A Chronicle of the Captains of Industry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1919.

Hicks, Granville. The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Horwitz, Howard. By the Law of Nature: Form and Value in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Howells, William Dean. "The Man of Letters as the Man of Business." In Literature and Life: Studies, pp. 1–34. New York: Harpers, 1902.

Johnson, Paul E. A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Livingston, James. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865–1914. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967.

Matthaei, Julie A. An Economic History of Women in America: Women's Work, the Sexual Division of Labor, and the Development of Capitalism. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

Smith, Henry Nash. "The Search for a Capitalist Hero: Businessmen in American Fiction." In The Business Establishment, edited by Earl F. Cheit. New York: John Wiley, 1964.

Warren, Robert Penn. Homage to Theodore Dreiser, August 27, 1871–December 28, 1945, on the Centennial of his Birth. New York: Random House, 1971.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1966.

Richard Adams