Reprinted for the first time after 117 years, a couple years after this review drafted.
The Fate of Plutocracy
And the Future of Epic Imaginative Writing
I. An American Epic Disappeared
Over a century before former U.S. president Jimmy Carter tried his hand at a (historical) novel, another national political figure from Georgia, Thomas Manson Norwood wrote a “politico-social” novel titled Plutocracy; Or, American White Slavery, a lost work of literature, which, despite egregious flaws, should be considered an important epic of American imaginative writing. Part classic Victorian novel, part satiric epic, this literary hybrid has long since been forgotten1 even though both the literary reach and cultural relevance of Plutocracy is comparable to other major American (U.S.) imaginative works of any era, including major works of its own time, such as Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Scarlet Letter.
It seems likely that Plutocracy has disappeared from history largely due to cultural and political factors that are neither necessarily surprising nor difficult to understand, which may in part be indicated by the novel’s full title: Plutocracy; Or, American White Slavery. The complete disappearance of a major American work of the imagination by a U.S. statesman from not only literature and literary history but also from nearly all historical record likely indicates that there are considerably deeper social and cultural forces and prejudices than, for example, the entrenched racism and sexism operating in the United States. Though racism and sexism are of course powerful forms of chauvinism, institutionalized and otherwise, that have contributed to the burial of highly accomplished African-American literary works – such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God – and works by women generally – including Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – it seems that even more fundamental forces such as economic chauvinism, or some combination of economic and class prejudice, along with American (U.S.) nationalism have acted to essentially blank Plutocracy from history.
There is little critical reaction of any kind, even though Plutocracy was not published in some far off unsettled western territory, having been brought out by Metropolitan Publishing Company and The American News Company of New York City. Nor was the author an unknown or an unaccomplished figure. Thomas Manson Norwood was a noted statesman, scholar and historian, and multi-credited imaginative writer renowned in his time for his satiric wit and for the literary mark of his political speeches, in particular. He served in a wide variety of professional capacities as historian, lawyer, judge, as U.S. Senator from Georgia, and, at the time Plutocracy came out, as U.S. Representative.
Beyond its immediate years of publication, there is apparently virtually no reference to Plutocracy, apart from regional historical references and one footnote listing its title in a recent sociology article on the white slavery concern of the early twentieth century. To my knowledge, no reference to Plutocracy exists even in any of the many excellent works on political fiction. What’s more there is no reference that I know of by even the strong “radical” criticism of the middle and early part of last century written by Maxwell Geismar, V.F. Calverton, Bernard Smith, Kenneth Burke, and others. It’s not unlikely that they were unaware of this satiric epic novel.
Plutocracy was published in 1888, three years after the publication of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which Plutocracy rivals and resembles in a variety of ways, though only a single edition has ever been printed. Combination Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, half classic comic melodrama and half satiric epic, Plutocracy dramatizes, explicitly, the fundamentally exploitative nature of America’s national “wage-slave” economy in a way that has rarely been attempted so directly and forcefully in U.S. fiction.
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe took similar aim at chattel slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that The Nation magazine discussed in 1868 as the sole novel that might lay claim to being a “Great American Novel,” the novel which President Lincoln, not solely in jest, suggested caused the U.S. Civil War. Since Stowe’s novel from the North, which dramatized and analyzed the inhumanity of African American slavery in the feudal South nearly a decade before the civil war, met with immense popularity, why did Norwood’s novel from the South about the increasingly plutocratic “wage-slave” North nearly two and a half decades after the war not meet with similar popular effect? A likely answer is that the chattel slavery of the feudal Southern system decried in Stowe’s novel was soon destroyed (at least officially, and contemporary U.S. prison populations aside), which facilitated the expansion of the plutocratic northern, become American, system of wage servitude/slavery that still very much exists today (modified by the fact that many though not nearly all such wage manacles currently are often made of platinum, gold, silver, nickel and copper rather than the leather of whips and the iron of chains). There exists no president or public who has ever signed a decree or fought a war to liberate the wage serfs. Thus there is no president and no huge organized progressive public who might appreciate or otherwise pay tribute to the author of a novel that dramatizes the inhumanity of wage slavery.
By the mid-nineteenth century, abolition had become a relatively easy cause for northern elites and the reading public to champion, for economic as well as moral reasons. For other economic reasons, if not moral ones, the lively epic of Plutocracy (which analyzes the base relations between authoritarian capital and coerced labor, and dramatizes the monstrous consequences of such relations) could not be expected to receive much if any welcome or publicity or facilitation by a society and culture that to this day is drowned in the mythic propaganda that the main economic situation and relations in the country are fundamentally sound, free, healthy, proper, inevitable, and if not entirely fair, as nearly fair as can be. From such a point of view, to claim and dramatize otherwise is to make a case for chaos, barbarism, pointless fantasy, anti-Americanism (that totalitarian concept), or the devil of irresponsible fancy. It is likely due to such factors – whether classist, nationalistic, economic, or fatalistic – that U.S. culture has functioned to send Plutocracy down the memory hole and makes its retrieval difficult, if not impossible. Not only has the disappearance of the novel been a loss to American and world literature, it is a significant historical, political and broader cultural loss as well, given that the book’s near total absence can only have handicapped the creation of novels and imaginative literature along similar important private and public trajectories.
In the six parts of this essay, I sample, summarize, and analyze some strengths and weaknesses of Plutocracy, showing the importance of the work and the magnitude of its loss, and the loss of works akin to it, works with liberation tendencies, from history in general and from the current state of fiction in particular.
II. Epic Aesthetics
Plutocracy has essentially all the marks of classic epic narratives. Set in New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., and Arizona, the novel encompasses a national scope, with significant international implications. Spanning the heights and depths of society, from the most prosperous elite circles, to the urban middle class, the slums of despair, and to the rural frontier, Plutocracy covers remarkably varied, broad social and political spectrums – high income to low, rural to urban arenas, reactionary to progressive values and trains of thought. In addition to its wide sweep, the novel is epic in theme and style, large on the one hand and elevated on the other by irony, literary allusions and figures of speech not least.
Possibly the epic feature that most concisely demonstrates the novel’s main theme is a descent into hell, which occurs in and around New York City about three-quarters of the way through the book (292-315). A group of four men visiting from the U.S. West and eager to learn about the city arrive in downtown and meet up with a gentleman named Mr. Playfair who gives them a comprehensive tour, beginning with the “magnificent…churches…dedicated to God and vanity,” before proceeding to the stock exchange on Wall Street at the top of the monetary ladder and ending in the “dives” and pits of despair at the bottom.
At the sight and sound of the stock exchange, in a purposefully melodramatic and comic fashion characteristic of the novel, one of the westerners, Mr. Woolhat “trembled as he heard the bawling, screaming, yelling, and saw men jumping, running and pushing each other, as if trying to escape from fire or an earthquake.” Regarding the stock exchange, he cries out, “Why, [Mr.] Jeans, this is a lunatic asylum! a mad-house! And look! not one of them chained! I am not going to stay here. Draw your knife, Jeans, and let’s get away.”
A policeman assures Mr. Woolhat, “They don’t want you. All they want is your money.”
Continuing on this tour that will culminate in hell, Mr. Playfair leads the men to the Produce Exchange, describing it in some detail as an organization of wealthy robbers, to which Mr. Woolhat replies below and thus prompts from Mr. Playfair an explanation of the “politico-socio” system that is shaped by the economic set-up:
“The Devil and Tom Walker,” exclaimed Mr. Woolhat, “why – why – what kind of people is this, that they don’t break up this gambling house? Where’s the police?”
“Be quiet, Mr. Woolhat. You are talking about Society. Be careful. Do you expect Society to turn on itself, to break itself up? This is Plutocracy – one of the phases of Plutocracy – the very hub of it, I may say.”
“Explain that plutocracy,” Mr. Jeans requested.
“Plutocracy is the Rule of Money, or the Rule of the Rich. It is the lowest and last stage of every Government.”
“Do this people let betting go on in faro banks and such?” asked Mr. Woolhat.
“No indeed. The police will raid them, destroy the cards and chips, and put the gamblers in jail. Then they are prosecuted and punished.”
“But where’s the difference?” insisted Mr. Woolhat.
“You astonish me. The difference! It’s in what you are inspecting – Society. Society condemns one, and Society approves the other. One is forbidden by law; the other is established by law. Besides, while faro, etc., will rob one man, ruin him and his family, drive him to suicide, and his wife and children to the poor-house or to something worse, this style of gambling will do the work of ten thousand faro banks. To kill one man is murder, a thousand makes a hero. One is villainy, the other respectability.”
“Well, thank God! this thing is not out my way,” said Mr. Woolhat, with an air of relief.
“There you are mistaken. This gambling house covers every foot of ground in the United States.”
“Well, durn my eyes, if I don’t sue out a warrant, and -“
“No, you won’t. Why, Mr. Woolhat, Society would laugh you out of town. This is where all classes of people gamble, from the clergy down to black-legs. Why, my friend, many of the men you see in there are pillars of the churches we have just passed.”
“Look here, Mr. Playfair, if there is anything ahead here worse than this, I am going back.” Mr. Woolhat looked sad as he slowly uttered these words.
“I assure you all, gentlemen, bad as some things you will see are, there is nothing worse. You will see effects most horrible, but they are not worse than the cause. But we must go on.”
So the men after viewing the suite-life, call it, do encounter the street-life – economic and social situations that are far worse in terms of immediate impairment and violence, which may thus appear more ethically grievous. However, as Mr. Playfair has taken care to explain, these scenes are the predictable consequences of the legal crimes and intentionally oblivious values of the financial and cultural elite – and of those who are selected to do their bidding in political and social realms, or who otherwise adopt their asocial and anti-social mindsets. The western visitors go on to see “factories, foundries, mills, refineries” full of deplorable conditions and child labor. They read a committee report from a state legislature endorsing such labor. Then, in subsequent scenes – of fairly accomplished aesthetic touch that further mix the novel’s curious blend of discourse and melodrama, as the style shifts and ranges from comedy to tragedy, from naivety to wisdom, from understatement to exaggeration, from the deft ironic to the blunt literal, from realism to fantasy – Mr. Playfair leads the travelers on, first to the edge of the city where Mr. Woolhat is startled by a man emerging from underground. He does a double take:
“Wait a second. He is not a Negro. That is the shaft to a coal mine. The miners are coming up. Look at them!”
They kept rising up till a hundred or more were moving off, black as coal-dust, towards their little huts stuck about on all sides, each with a little bucket in one hand. [After a brief explanation of the mining industry, Mr. Playfair explains,] “My friend these are our Siberian slaves. They are a fair sample of American White Slavery…. The Plutocrats demanded of Congress to pass a law sentencing these beings to perpetual slavery, them and their children after them. Slavery has always existed somewhere, in some form, and, you see, when the Executive issued his proclamation freeing the black slaves, the Legislature Department issued its decree in 1861 to establish white slavery. These beings are a few of the white slaves…. These slaves, now and then, rise by getting up Strikes, but, like the Negroes, they are put down, starved out, and punished…. They have no money. There is not one in a hundred passing us now who has ten dollars in the world. How can they go? They are imprisoned here by Poverty, the most cruel jailer of the strongest jail ever built, and Plutocracy built it!”
Mr. Playfair guides the men back into the city slums:
“Here, right and left, are what are called ‘dives.’ Men and women walking along here suddenly disappear. They dive in there – underground. We will go to the door only and look in…. On the right, sitting in that little den, are five burglars. That one talking is giving a diagram of the premises they intend to break into tonight. Those on the left are dividing what they got last night. They are of the most cunning at this end of Society. You see, the upper end of Plutocracy robs the people, and the lower end robs the upper end.”
The touring group witness a quarrel over money and a murder, before going on to view a scene worthy Dante’s Inferno:
“We have not far to go now. There is much to be seen, but it is late, and we will hasten on.”
“What noise is that ahead of us, Mr. Playfair? It is a strange, confused sound.”
“I will answer by leading the way to the place. It is steep and slippery here; so, keep your footing. Stop now. We are near enough. You notice just ahead that this steep incline suddenly turns straight down. Now look closely, just beyond.”
The strangers gazed eagerly for a few seconds, when Mr. Woolhat inquired:
“What are they? Are they human beings?”
“Yes and no. They are wrecks of human beings. You see a vast multitude of men women and children….” [Mr. Playfair describes at length their types and circumstances, one by one.] “These tens of thousands you see here are the castaways of society. Society has pushed them over that brink so steep, into that pit so deep, they can never escape or rise again….”
Just then they heard a wild scream to the right. They looked and saw a beautiful girl, with hair streaming and arms outstretched, falling over the brink into the pit.
“There’s another gone! There’s another! I will catch the next one and try to save her,” said good-hearted Mr. Woolhat.
“Stand just where you are. You cannot change the decrees of Society. You could not hold her back, while the whole of Plutocracy is pushing her in. You would fall in with her. There come several. Mr. Jones, hold Mr. Woolhat. Don’t let him move.”
“Oh God! This is too horrible!” exclaimed Mr. Woolhat, as the woman went over uttering a wail of despair…
They discuss the scene, then Mr. Playfair comments:
“Thus, my friends, you have had a very imperfect view of Plutocratic Society. You have seen the extremes, but not near all that lies between. At the upper end you were regaled by perfumes sweet as those of ‘Araby the Blest.’ You find here foul, fetid, sickening smells that make your gorge rise. You saw at the upper end millions wasted in riotous dissipation. Hundreds of millions buried in stone, marble and mortar, equipages, paintings, statues, sacrificed to appease Ennui, to gratify Vanity. You see here squalor, misery, hunger, nakedness, disease, danger, drunkenness, crime and death.
You heard a preacher cry as we passed a church:
‘Though you have all these things, and have not Charity you are become as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.’
Oh, for the heroism that would demand of the Plutocrats in those congregations to assemble on this brink, and would point out to them this pit and say to them:
“Oh, ye generation of hypocrites and robbers! Spin your false theories; run your printing presses; buy your scribblers; weave your sophistries; juggle with figures; falsify balance sheets; delude your victims; rob labor; roll your millions up to billions; but remember, ‘for all these things,’ sooner or later, the People ‘will bring you to judgment!’ And may they show that mercy they have not received!”
Then, in the manner of Huck Finn, who, at the end of Twain’s masterpiece, “lights out for the Territory” because he “can’t stand” to be “sivilized,” “Mr. Grange and Mr. Green hurried to their lodgings, packed their trunks, and took the first train that was leaving for the West.”
In the final quarter of Plutocracy, the story continues from the “descent into hell” to dramatize the fates of characters who have chosen to not light out for the territory but to fully engage in society in both private and public arenas knowing full well how much is at stake and how daunting and serious and potentially wonderful are the matters at hand – the fate of civilization and society. In this regard, at least, Plutocracy significantly surpasses the scope of Huckleberry Finn, a scant three years after Twain’s novel was published. And in the character of George Otis, Plutocracy anticipates the heroic socialist Ernest Everhard of Jack London’s powerful progressive partisan epic, The Iron Heel. The characters of Plutocracy whose stories continue to be explored are both as compelling as Huck and as repellant as the Duke and the Dauphin, and Twain’s other marvelous creations. They represent from various strata of society the “rightmost” forces of authoritarian power and “sivilization” moving fatefully against the “leftmost” forces of democratic power and humane civilization. The resulting end of Plutocracy – though technically rushed and sloppy in its construction – is fateful and revelatory.
III. Epic Range
Some of Plutocracy’s strongest moments as a classic novel occur in the dissection of ideologies, manners and behaviors of elite society at a ball hosted by one of the leading ladies of monied society, Mrs. Secretary Nonavie – who attempts to maintain her high standing in society by holding a “Diamond Ball” more resplendent than any other, with more of the “Respectability” gathered in one place than anywhere else. As Norwood writes, woe be unto any naïve questioner who wonders who exactly constitutes respectable society. To one such query, Mrs. Secretary Nonavie explains with both acid and comic propriety, “there is respectability, and there is Respectability. And when Respectability, backed by millions, sees fit to do anything, it is always respectable.” For emphasis she adds that what anyone might “consider respectable matters not-millions is a law unto itself. Millions is Society, and Society is Respectability itself” (221).
As the ball begins, the narrative’s scathing satiric style continues unabated and is accompanied by what are usually considered to be more realistic novelistic depictions of psychology and personality, as demonstrated by the passage below. Though Miss Smiling, the daughter of an industrialist, is far from wholly approved of by Society, given that she associates with those of very low income and works on their behalf, she is nevertheless invited and welcomed by the host, Mrs. Secretary Nonavie who:
received Miss Smiling kindly, because she was a millionaire’s daughter, but not rapturously, because her dress being plain, her decorations simple and inexpensive, her presence wasn’t brilliant.
A glance around the room satisfied Miss Smiling that she was out of place. Nearly every female figure, as far as it was covered, was a bank of satin or silk, each of different colors trimmed with costliest laces of every width, while the large portion of each figure, uncovered, glistened with diamonds….
As a rule the older the figure, the more wrinkled the skin, the more sallow from age the complexion, the more the diamonds; as if they were intended to dazzle the eyes, so they could not see the age beneath.
One “elderly” woman, the Widow Simpers, who had been for many years desperately battling with Time, had built an escarpment of diamonds around her neck, letting it drop as a curtain far down in front and rear to conceal the furrows Time’s arrows had made on that part of the works which she had defended with sleepless vigilance. The crowfeet and furrows in the cheeks were not covered, only because they could not be. She never admitted that they were wounds inflicted by her enemy, Time….
Miss Smiling felt lost – she was in solitude. Her good sense, her womanhood revolted. She instantly thought of her friends, her wards, the poor. She wished she had not come, but she had come to please her father, and her sense of duty softened her regret.
Still, she had a feeling of shame for her sex. She soliloquized, “Why will women be so silly as to lay bare their arms to the shoulder, their backs down to the waists, their bosoms so, so low? Why will society tolerate such exposure at a ball, or reception, and frown on it as indecent and vulgar on the street, at small gatherings, at church, or traveling, and even on stage?”
…But Miss Smiling did not feel lonesome many minutes. Her eyes, in scanning the statuary, saw two figures that were covered very like herself and her heart went out to them. They were Miss [Pythagorea] Euclid and Miss [Virginia] Lovelace. She asked Mrs. Secretary to give her an introduction, which was given at once….
“I know that you three graces will agree, in fact fall in love with each other, if you don’t with anybody else. Excuse me now, I must arrange for the dance. You all dance, of course?”
Miss Smiling did not dance, Miss Euclid and Miss Lovelace might after awhile. They preferred “to look on.” The scene was too attractive, too much of a study, to Miss Euclid, for her to lose any time just then in watching her own feet. She was studying Society. She had already thanked her friend Miss Virginia, a dozen times, for insisting on her coming….
Miss Euclid possessed far more vivacity then her new friend. Her sense of ridicule and the ludicrous was keener. She had seen less of the follies and weaknesses of mankind; less of their sorrows and woes; less of the grinding, crushing power of money, less of its brutalizing effects. But she was learning rapidly and was deeply interested. (241-242)
Apart from Plutocracy, Norwood had a reputation for literary satire and invective in his political speeches, and plenty of that sparkle and bite comes through in the novel. The narrative conflicts are powerful and various, cutting across and within age, gender, family, professions, culture, politics, class – and also race, to a lesser extent, and in a prejudiced way. Plutocracy is a novel of society and a novel of ideas, a novel of manners and a novel of history, a novel of romance and realism, laced with classic literary and historical allusions, various modes that in the best moments feed off one another contrapuntally, augmenting and enhancing their effects.
At well over four hundred pages, Plutocracy cannot be said to lack development except in comparison to the longest Victorian novels, and what Plutocracy may lack in elaborate refinement and expansion of novelistic detail, it replaces with satiric play and cogitation. The scope and importance of Plutocracy also contribute to the novel’s liveliness and power. Together, this satiric development and epic magnitude combine to make Plutocracy a unique and standout Victorian novel, by American and world standards both, despite its rejection from history.
IV. Epic Satire
Plutocracy is both a serious novel and a strong imaginative work in a long, marvelous, and often vital line of satiric literature, stretching from Aristophanes’ plays, through such landmark works of prose satire as Petronius’ The Satyricon, Lucian’s Lucius or The Ass, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Dickens’ Hard Times, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and on up to Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary at the dawn of the twentieth century. Norwood’s Plutocracy easily belongs in this list, fitting in well in quality and content chronologically between Twain and Bierce. Moreover, Plutocracy is a prime direct descendent of what may be, according to Kenneth Rexroth, the greatest of all satires, The Satyricon, known for its ridicule of opulent decadence, primarily in the form of the ludicrous debauched tycoon, Trimalchio, depicted in the novel-length extant fragment of the massive original. As Petronius did in The Satyricon, Norwood does in Plutocracy, satirizing the elite corruption of the overseers of mass misery in his dramatic assault against members of the American plutocracy, who go by names indicative mainly of their exploiting industries and professions: Mr. Ferrum, Mr. Clinkers, Mr. Cinders, Mr. Weaver, Mr. Spinner, Mr. O’Le Margarine, Mr. Petroleum, Mr. De Stilling, Mr. Lagér, Mr. Skinner, Dr. Nostrum, Mr. Bonanza, Mr. Bond, Mr. Banks, Mr. S. O. Stocks, Mr. Haslet, Mr. Smiling, Mr. Margin, Mr. Recker, and so on.
V. Epic Political Statement
Given that its central themes revolve so much around the abuses of ruling power, economic and governmental, the focus and concerns of Plutocracy remain as urgent as those of any novel written today, a time of increasingly anti-democracy corruption, legal and otherwise. Though Norwood was in many ways reactionary and racist, as is the novel in some aspects, Plutocracy dramatizes action and articulates thought to a significant progressive political extent, possibly far more so than Norwood intended.
While Plutocracy delivers a scathing critique of capitalism on the one hand, the narrative voice of Plutocracy makes clear, and is in fact explicit at one point, that Norwood favors reformers, not radicals, socialists, anarchists – even if much of the drama and satire belies this. And though Norwood is to some degree as reactionary and racist in Plutocracy as he is in some of his non-fiction writings, it is almost certainly the radical progressive elements of Plutocracy that mainly account for the novel’s dismissal from history, given that, as a distinct minority of American literary critics and other intellectuals have shown, American intellectual (and general) culture is steeped in regressive political prejudice and bias. John Whalen-Bridge, for one, explores this tendency in Political Fiction and the American Self, especially in relation to Jack London’s marvelous political epic The Iron Heel. Though Plutocracy is more typically literary than The Iron Heel, somewhat like in London’s epic the heady mix of politics and literature in Plutocracy makes for compelling reading:
“Mr. Chairman,” said [Mr. Bonanza], “the Committee on Elections has made some progress. We employed a detective for seventy-seven Congressional districts. Their duty is to find two discreet men in each district, a Democrat and a Republican, into whose hands we can safely trust money. The two men are to be used to beat the candidate for Congress opposed to our interests….”
“Why do you hire a Democrat and a Republican?” asked Mr. Skinner.
“I will explain,” said the speaker. “We millionaires, as you all know, have no politics. Money is our politics. We don’t care a cent whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected Representative, Senator or President. Jeffersonian doctrines, strict construction, States’ Rights, and all that stuff, will do for young Forth-of-July orators. The fact is, those doctrines are in our way. We have nearly killed them, however. But what I mean is, we don’t care what a man thinks on them, if he is all right with us on the tariff, gold, and monopolies…. If the Republican candidate is not orthodox, we give money to the Democrat to beat him. If the Democrat is not orthodox, we give the Republican the money to beat him.”
“How do you manage when both candidates are of the same party?” asked Mr. Skinner.
“…that is easily arranged. We send money to elect the one who favors our views; or, if they both have views opposed to us, our detective finds out the characters of both, and we help the one we can buy. When he comes to Congress, we turn him over to the Committee on Surreptitious Legislation, to use one of the many methods employed by that committee” (383).
Labor leader George Otis thinking aloud to advocate of the poor, Miss Smiling:
“The pending struggle was not brought on by the poor. Nor will I say it was intentionally started by the rich. They may not mean to crush. The increasing degradation is not the object, but it is the inevitable result of this unthinking, heartless Plutocracy. I doubt that the man exists who would seize the reins and lay on the lash, intending to ride down and crush pedestrians in the street. Yet, if he should, the law says he is as guilty as though he intended. The injury or death is the same.”
“You and I are laboring in the same field,” said Miss Smiling. “You are trying to prevent the weak from being crushed, while I help them in my feeble way, after they are crushed” (362-363).
Though one often senses Norwood aiming his “politico-social” narrative at northern capitalism in particular, because he focuses his denunciatory energy on satirizing capitalistic exploitation in general, the novel dramatizes, explicitly, the fundamentally exploitative nature of the U.S. national economy in a way that has rarely been done so directly or well in fiction. And when the rebellious adult daughter of Mr. Smiling engages him in conversation, this dialogue from the century before last covers topics and points regarding militarism and the economy that are utterly contemporary, and urgent. Mr. Smiling speaks first:
“This is a free country, and this government don’t oppress any man,” said Mr. Smiling, with an air of patriotism. “If he don’t like his employer or business, he’s free to get another.”
“All oppression is not by governments directly,” said the daughter… “The oppression in this country is financial, and I am satisfied that most of the suffering all over the country has been produced by legislation.”
“What legislation do you mean?”
“I mean legislation in general, and some special legislation. The General Government since 1861 has been in the control of a victorious war party. The war sentiment and feeling have prevailed in every Presidential election. General Grant twice elected; then Mr. Hayes, a war candidate, and then General Garfield. And if Mr. Blaine had been a general in the late war he would have been elected by a large majority. The single feeling of those in control has been, and is, that they saved the country, and therefore it belongs to them, to do with as they please. The men who saved the Union, the men who did the fighting, have been deluded by the belief that they have shaped public affairs since the war. Demagogues have so flattered them, to get offices, but the rank and file of the army have had no more voice in shaping legislation than the negroes in the South. The masters of the situation are the men whom the war suddenly enriched, and those whose colossal fortunes have been acquired since by means of oppressive class-legislation. The rank and file have elected Congressmen and Presidents who passed at once under the control of the rich – the millionaires of the land – and they have shaped all financial legislation to gorge their pockets, already full…. Who have reaped the fruits – the people as a mass? No – the few, very few, have increased their wealth to a degree, and in sums without parallel in history, and these few are the men who were interested in the legislations I have named. And hence, I say, they have been and are masters and rulers of this country, and they are the ones against whom the poor make complaint, or will make it when they come to understand the situation.”
Such pointed politically conscious dialogue makes much of the socio-political fiction written today seem woefully indirect, evasive, and vacuous along such lines, with effects upon an ostensibly democratic nation and public that can be neither healthy generally nor politically or socially invigorating, nor often even, to me, much interesting. With Plutocracy and similar imaginative works pushed out of history, frequently no doubt before they have a chance to appear, how much that is lost cannot be overstated.
In the valuable volume, The Idea of an American Novel, Editors Rubin and Moore include a 1949 piece by Philip Rahv in which he observes of the state of fiction, “The creative power of the cult of experience is almost spent, but what lies beyond it is still unclear. One thing, however, is certain: whereas in the past, throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the nature of American literary life was largely determined by national forces, now it is international forces that have begun to exert a dominant influence. And in the long run it is in the terms of this historic change that the future course of American writing will define itself” (164). The international effect Rahv speaks of can be seen in at least much of the cultural diversification of literature in recent decades, often associated with what is called identity politics (rather than economic politics).
Still today, one area contemporary fiction fails to explore in much explicit depth is that of dominant international or even national economic figures and forces, in contrast to the forgotten example of Plutocracy. The fate of Plutocracy surely reveals partly why American fiction has shied from this direction, and William Van O’Connor in the introduction to The Idea of an American Novel shines further light:
Young America was carrying a terrible burden [and apparently still is] – the need to be a perfect society, or as near perfect as possible. Crevecoeur, who wrote Letters from an American Farmer, a utopian vision of the new society, also wrote Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, a disillusioned and bitter account of “patriots” he had known. Significantly, the former was published and widely acclaimed. The latter was put in a trunk and rediscovered, with no great fanfare, only in the twentieth century. There may be a clue here to the American imagination.
Noam Chomsky spells out the meaning of such a “clue” to “the American imagination” regarding certain political types of novels in his typical straightforward manner:
If Orwell, instead of writing 1984 – which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy – if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell’s Problem – [How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to] “instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?” ] – he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized
and if at all possible cut from history – sent down the memory hole, in the language of Orwell’s 1984, a novel derived largely from his observations of the workings of the BBC were he was employed during World War II. Orwell himself noted in a decades-long suppressed introduction to Animal Farm:
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
In the words of historian and playwright Howard Zinn in Artists in Times of War, we may find too “a clue to the American imagination” and what types of imaginative works are happily accepted into history and what types are in one way or another filtered out, rejected – works and authors that might try to fulfill Zinn’s suggestion:
that the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media…. It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say…. It is absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government to say that it is not doing what it should be doing to safeguard the right of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. We must be able to look at ourselves, to look at our country honestly and clearly. And just as we can examine the awful things that people do elsewhere, we have to be willing to examine the awful things that are done here by our government.
For as Nigerian and Nobel Prize winning Playwright Wole Soyinka notes, “Criticism, like charity starts, at home.”
In certain important ways “the novel’s next step” may likely need to be taken in accordance with a work like Plutocracy, though published the century before last. In Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing, edited by Philomena Mariani, “The Novel’s Next Step,” is the title Maxine Hong Kingston gives to her reflections on a type of novel needed for current times. She writes:
I’m going to give you a head start on the book that somebody ought to be working on. The hands of the clock are minutes away from nuclear midnight. And I am slow, each book taking me longer to write… So let me set down what has to be done, and maybe hurry creation, which is about two steps ahead of destruction…. All the writer has to do is make Wittman [hero of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey] grow up, and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield will grow up. We need a sequel to adolescence – an idea of the humane beings that we may become. And the world will have a sequel…. The dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the Global novel.
Kingston further suggests, “The danger is that the Global novel has to imitate chaos: loaded guns, bombs, leaking boats, broken-down civilizations, a hole in the sky, broken English, people who refuse connections with others.” And she worries, “How to stretch the novel to comprehend our times – no guarantees of inherent or eventual order – without having it fall apart? How to integrate the surreal, society, our psyches?”
It seems to me that her concerns should be taken very seriously but that writers have exhausted trying to do something along the lines of what she suggests, “imitate chaos.” The result in part has been what leading critic James Wood aptly dissects and excoriates as “hysterical realism.” I find Rebecca West to be perceptive writing in The Strange Necessity when she notes that regarding reality, when it comes to art, “one of the damn thing is ample,” that an inclination to imitation, excessive imitation at least, is ill-advised. Herein lies one of the strengths of Plutocracy; by use of various stratagems of fancy – caricature, exaggeration and so on – the writing cuts through many of the irrelevant distractions of reality, no matter how graphic or tantalizing, and gets quickly to some of the most meaningful pith of life, the social and public especially but also the private – the inhumane, the absurd, the ideal, and the possible – rather than rendering glossy and entrancing the too often dull, by comparison, and diffuse and relatively trivial layers of existence.
That Plutocracy is at least as much propaganda as well as art ought to be no deterring factor to a readership or literary study, given that, as Bernard Smith noted in his important book Forces in American Criticism as far back as 1939:
“It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something.”
Plutocracy is an unknown American classic. It is art, it is propaganda, it is political, it is a rare and vital work of imaginative literature that despite all flaws renders itself engaging – marvelously so in occasional and key moments – and rewarding of serious reflection and study for casual readers, concerned citizens, and writers, especially those of a strong progressive and partisan social or political bent, that is, especially of anyone interested in liberation literature – imaginative, critical, and otherwise.
It’s worth thinking about what is greatly needed and what might be fruitful today in literature. The burial or relative neglect of key works of what might be called “liberation criticism,” perhaps even moreso than the burial or neglect of certain works of the imagination, have hindered critical and imaginative thought. From the early part of last century, Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart (1924) stands out in this regard. Also, V.F. Calverton’s The Liberation of American Literature (1932), and Bernard Smith’s Forces in American Criticism (1939). And the most progressive elements of Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941, later revised) don’t seem to me to have received nearly the attention warranted.
The Philosophy of Literary Form in many ways consumates the literary criticism of the first four decades (and perhaps beyond) of the twentieth century – both the so-called sociological and formal veins.
In regard to liberation literature, both critical and imaginative, explicit political art not only has a long distinguished history, it has never been more needed than today, an art with strong “social, political, and economic aspects” as Edmund Wilson describes it in his important essay “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” art that “plays a political role” and “exerts a subversive” and other constructive “influence,” and “makes life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them…” since
the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered….
As remarkable critic Edward Said showed in great detail, authors have to be willing to cross certain perhaps difficult borders to attain great insight – national, informational, cultural, political borders put up directly and indirectly by various dominant corporate, academic, governmental, social and cultural ideologies, structures and powers. While exploring “the urgent conjunction of art and politics” in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said notes:
It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual [including artistic] mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed “counter, original, spare, strange” [Gerard Manley Hopkins]. From this perspective also, one can see “the complete consort dancing together” contrapuntally…
Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermath-in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms-seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…. The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment…[not least in] the urgent conjunction of art and politics….
VI. Epic Racism and Other Flaws
Though Plutocracy demonstrates strong liberation tendencies, it fails greatly in this regard when touching on race. Thomas Manson Norwood was racist to a degree unusual even by the standards of his time and place. And though he chose, fortuitously, not to focus much on race in Plutocracy, considerable amounts of racism come through. The alternate novel title itself, American White Slavery, contains reference to the most common racial indicator, which works both for and against a main purpose of the book, to show the inhumanity of elite exploitation of the working class. Because Norwood’s epic dramatically and analytically rails against this exploitation throughout the novel, he indicates, fortunately, the extremely low regard in which he holds the concept of slavery – American, white or otherwise. On the other hand, the title’s racial indicator technically suggests a focus limited to the exploitation of whites. Norwood uses the title to direct the wrath of his story against the North, and the wage-enslaving practices of northern industrialists on northern white workers. But of course, such practices applied to workers of all races, North and South. Therefore, a more appropriate and accurate title, a racism free title, would be something like: American Capitalist Slavery, or American Wage-Slavery, or The New American Slavery, or even Third-Stage Global Slavery (following feudal slavery and chattel slavery), etc. Norwood was hardly alone in his use of the phrase American White Slavery, which was and would be employed by many radicals and reformers protesting general capitalist abuses for decades to come, but the fact that even the novel’s title is inappropriate indicates some of the difficulty Norwood had in simply attempting to make an unprejudiced remark about race.
Several chapters are pointedly interracial given the presence of a single African American doorman who greets all the attending members of (white) society at a ball. Unfortunately, especially in these three chapters (of fifty-one), a number of narrative remarks put forth racist stereotypes, though it is possible Norwood believed he was using these chapters to attempt to show racial even-handedness, since virtually all of the elite attendees are placed in a farcically poor light by way of the doorman Scipio’s malapropisms. There are a couple such extended scenes that might reasonably have charges of minstrelsy leveled against them, regardless of Norwood’s intentions (whatever those might be). If these scenes withstand the charge of minstrelsy to a partial degree it is due to the fact that the wealthy white guests suffer more the bite and brunt of Norwood’s comic and satiric pen than does the malapropian doorman.
Additionally, Norwood’s glaring racism stands out in appalling fashion early on in the novel when a comparison is made between white wage slavery and black chattel slavery. While the condemnatory critique of wage slavery is reasonably keen, and though the critique might have been remarkably enhanced by a non-racist comparison to chattel slavery, the relatively favorable description of chattel slavery comes across substantially as a grotesque whitewash of the horror and inhumanity of chattel slavery, despite Norwood’s clumsy efforts to claim otherwise. Norwood voices these racist thoughts through Miss Smiling of New York, one of the novel’s designated reformers (and clearly one of the representatives of Norwood’s views throughout the work). Speaking to her industrialist father Mr. Smiling, a designated reactionary, Miss Smiling says:
The North, for fifty years, denounced slavery in the South, but we have slavery here worse, in some respects, than that was. Bad as that was, and I have no apology to offer for it, it had some features milder and more humane than our slavery. The Negro was cared for in health to keep him well, and when sick he was kindly nursed and had medical help. When, from age, he could not work, he was still fed, clothed, housed and provided for in every way that humanity and philanthropy required. The law of the State compelled humane treatment, under heavy penalty. Besides all this, as a rule, the relation of master and slave begot mutual kindness. This is proved by the kindness and fidelity of the slaves to mistresses and children, when the masters were absent during the war. There was not then one-tenth the crime committed by the slaves, as they, as freemen, have committed in any four years since the war…. I am not justifying Negro slavery; I am condemning white slavery! (32-33)
In this extended comparison, Norwood is obviously trying, in part, to make provocative reformist sociological points about the horrors of wage slavery but by making chattel slavery sound like a paradise of sorts, no less, all protestations aside, the effect is more racist than reformist. Such racism crops up elsewhere, including in a passing remark of the narrator’s about Miss Smiling at a ball: “She was wholly indifferent to, if she had not a contempt for, ‘barbaric pearls and gold;’ admiration for which she regarded as a long retrogression towards barbarism – towards man’s savage condition, in which the Indian’s pride is in his painted skin and feathers, and the African’s in brilliant beads” (240). Of note is that Norwood is quoting an apparently similarly racist passage in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost: “The gorgeous East with richest hand, Showers on her kings barbaric pearls and gold; but all is barbarism still; and we gladly permit the pageant to disappear like a dream that is dreamed.” Such racism cannot and should not account for the disappearance of Plutocracy from history, anymore than Paradise Lost should be or could be thus expunged.
Driven by apparent bitterness and anger at the post civil war North, which was in no small degree thwarting the South economically (especially by means of “the tariff” that the novel often decries), and likely also angry at the great financial interests that had cost him his seat in the senate, Norwood in Plutocracy has dramatized a partly progressive viewpoint in regard to wealth and power; unfortunately, this important aspect is sometimes overshadowed by the racism, which, it is noted by historians, became ever more pronounced in Norwood’s writing as he aged. Thus, given the progressive drama of the novel and the sometimes racist politics of the author in other realms of his life, there are obvious political reasons, that is, excuses, for intellectuals across the entire political spectrum to exclude Plutocracy from history rather than include Plutocracy in studies and other endeavors as an important and accomplished work of American imaginative writing.
Unfortunately more than a few great literary works express racism (as have their authors personally), not to mention plenty of other forms of chauvinism, classism not least. Yet, these very regrettable facts should not prevent important works from being read and discussed – not least if the works otherwise confront oppressive social and cultural realities, which Plutocracy does, to its credit, in vital, powerful, unique ways. Using Plutocracy to expose racism and how tightly it is often intertwined with educated circles is also important.
Beyond racism, other flaws in Plutocracy are not easy to miss. Some of these flaws are noted, and I think somewhat unfairly judged, at the end of my copy of the novel by an anonymous ” ‘Reviewer’,” an owner of the book contemporaneous to its publication:
Viewed as a work of art, this novel is a failure. Not that it does not contain great truths, not that it does not contain a very good reposition of the great iniquities of the tariff system. The fault lies in the clumsy, ill constructed plot, the want of proper dramatic incident, as well as the careless and slipshod style of the author. Had he paid more attention, etc, he would have better succeeded in his undertaking. The subject is one of the best the times afford for a grand, magnificent novel, such as Charles Reade could have elaborated and gloried in. The “time” has come, why not the “man”? It looks like a commentary on America that no real novelist will take hold of this subject and write a book that would live as long as the language.
Mr. Senator should have taken more time, should have revised and rewritten his work. Nevertheless, it contains much food for thought and will be perused with interest by all students of sociology. The author of a didactic novel should have two purposes in view. While its pages should teach an important truth, at the same time the woofing of this truth, should be held together by a warp of incidents pleasing in themselves, in which dramatic propriety is not violated. That the author has signally failed in the latter, it takes no Macaulay to observe.
As I’ve indicated and partly shown, Plutocracy cannot be considered an overall “failure” whether “viewed as a work of art” or otherwise – quite the opposite – though some large part of the criticisms of the “‘Reviewer'” are well taken. As with Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other major American novels, Plutocracy contains serious flaws in each of its satiric, epic, and novelistic modes. In addition to the racism, the novel contains other obvious failings and flaws, including Norwood’s obsession with tariff “iniquities,” a rushed and formulaic ending, and “careless and slipshod” attention to details and development. Some very similar types of charges have been leveled against both Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, with no little justification in my view, and yet both novels undoubtedly retain by and large and deserve to retain their reputations as major works of American literature. Plutocracy, being variously more and less accomplished than these two novels, deserves similar consideration.
In Norwood’s zeal to show what he considered to be the injustice of national tariffs on imported goods, he belabors the issue throughout the novel so that individual members and various workings of the plutocracy can scarcely be mentioned or dramatized without references to “the tariff.” The references are so pervasive that readers may well discount references to “the tariff” as they might a heavy-handed motif that the author cannot resist frequently inserting, just as they do well to discount some of the various types of infelicities of style, theme, and structure so much criticized in the two great novels of Stowe and Twain.
Occasionally, Norwood attempts to explain exactly what he sees as the injustices of the tariff, but the explanations cannot be convincing, whatever their merit, because Norwood never allows himself to write the detailed essay that would be minimally required to make the argument persuasive. Thus the reader is left with the worst of both worlds – numerous intrusive, dramatically meaningless references to “the tariff” and no wholly convincing explanation of the claimed injustice. Aesthetically and educationally both, it would have been far better for Norwood to reduce the number of such references and simply amend the essay or speech of an anti-tariff character to the end of the novel, or insert an extensive talk somewhere in the middle – just as Nadine Gordimer skillfully does with the fictive but reality-based political speech of Lionel Burgher, a leading left, anti-Apartheid, South African activist. Gordimer simply and appropriately drops the fictive speech into the middle of Burgher’s Daughter – her most accomplished and readable novel in my own opinion, as well as in that of her Nobel prize winning countryman J. M. Coetzee – a work that is wonderfully buttressed and enhanced, as novel and as direct political experience and knowledge, by such an insertion. Comparatively, Norwood’s handling of the issue of the tariff is both a distraction and a disappointment, regardless of the real nature of the issue.
Plutocracy takes its satiric and novelistic enterprise to full epic levels in all ways except perhaps one. While there are a handful of characters upon whom, it might be said, the fate of their people depends – or in fact the welfare of all people, all humanity – there is no developed central character, or perhaps better yet a well established array of characters, who are themselves shown to be of epic proportion in relation to common mortals. Several characters intriguingly approximate this ideal without fulfilling it. Thus, apart from the racism, the novel’s greatest weakness is not its most obvious one, the obsession of the tariff, but the lack of a sympathetic dominant central character, or characters, who might ease and facilitate readers’ interest throughout the story. Such characters exist in the novel – Miss Euclid, Miss Smiling, Mr. Playfair, George Otis – but seem underplayed in the face of Norwood’s fixation on corruption. Plutocracy is neither a satiric epic of evil nor of heroism but an unsettled swirl of competing thematic foci and genres. Still, the novel often works well, and like any strong work of art suggests much beyond itself.
Major flaws exist in many important works. The entire last third, not least, of Mark Twain’s epic masterwork Huckleberry Finn is seriously marred by a variety of aesthetic and thematic problems, as scholars have explored. The last third of Huckleberry Finn is a crude novella that would work better on its own, if it were a separate novella/story, than it does as an aesthetic and thematic part of the whole. Plus, the novel has other serious problems throughout, as has been widely noted. Racial stereotyping is yet another concern scholars find regarding Twain’s otherwise often socially and culturally critical work. Yet Twain’s work remains great, given its many extraordinary qualities. Just as serious flaws and concerns did not and should not disappear a largely wonderful and important work like Huckleberry Finn from history, so does Thomas Norwood’s Plutocracy, published a scant three years after Huckleberry Finn, also deserve a noted and accessible place in history, including long overdue study and consideration as an important major work of American imaginative literature.
1. I came across the title online accidentally in a used bookstore while searching for records of American novels that included some variant of America or United States in their titles. The earliest such novel is The Female American, 1767, another overlooked work of American imaginative writing, if not necessarily for economic or political reasons, a work that has been reprinted and studied in detail in recent years, at least.
2. Because Plutocracy is badly marred by authorial racism, a sense of racial decency might be thought to account for the novel’s exclusion from history, but this seems unlikely since more than a few major works of literature have racist components or ties. The racism may have contributed to the novel’s disappearance; however, it does not seem likely to be a main cause for a number of reasons, further discussed in part VI of this essay.
3. A partial list of Norwood’s published works, not including his congressional speeches and Junius letters: “Mother Goose Carved By a Commentator” (1900); The Story of Culloden: A Famous Village in Middle Georgia (1909); John Brown: A Brief Essay on a Small Subject (1913); Daniel Webster and the South (1913); Secession: A Concrete Right (1913); The Treachery of Abraham Lincoln (1913); How Did Yankees Come To Be That Way? or On Puritans and Cavaliers: In Two Parts Part I: The Puritans and the South (1913); A True Vindication of the South, in a Review of American History. Savannah: Braid & Hutton (1917)
4. I – An American Epic Disappeared; II – Epic Aesthetics; III – Epic Range; IV – Epic Satire; V – Epic Political Statement; VI – Epic Racism and Other Flaws
5. According to William Harris Bragg in “The Junius of Georgia Redemption: Thomas M. Norwood and the ‘Nemesis’ Letters.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (Spring 1993): 86-122.
6. The question of propaganda and art is explored in detail in the tradition, or tendency at least, of liberation criticism. See Appendix.
7. I am indebted additionally to this unknown figure for the identification of a number of literary and historical allusions, helpfully annotated in the text margins, including the Milton quotation.
8. Northern industrialists profited enormously from the effect of imposing tariffs on European manufactured goods, which caused European countries to retaliate by imposing high tariffs on U.S. exports, primarily agricultural goods, which in turn created great difficulties for the economies of southern states especially, Norwood’s Georgia not least. Norwood scarcely loses an opportunity to berate the dominant financial interests of the country for profiting enormously off the tariff while the working class reaps little of the profit and is forced to buy more expensive and sometimes inferior goods as a result.
Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903):
[The novel] may be a great force…fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak….
Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America (1924):
The political novel…is the most embracing in its material of all other novel types…[and] must be dominated, more often than not, by ideas rather than by emotions…
Upton Sinclair, Mammonart (1924):
Lie Number Six: the lie of Vested Interest; the notion that art excludes propaganda and has nothing to do with freedom and justice. Meeting that issue without equivocation, we assert:
All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.
As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.
…whether a certain propaganda is really vital and important is a question to be decided by the practical experience of mankind. The artist may be overwhelmingly convinced that his particular propaganda is of supreme importance, whereas the experience of the race may prove that it is of slight importance; therefore, what was supposed to be, and was for centuries taken to be a sublime work of art, turns out to be a piece of trumpery and rubbish. But let the artist in the labor of his spirit and by the stern discipline of hard thinking, find a real path of progress for the race; let him reveal new impulses for men to thrill to, new perils for them to overcome, new sacrifices for them to make, new joys for them to experience; let him make himself master of the technique of any one of the arts, and put that propaganda adequately and vitally before his fellows – and so, and so alone, he may produce real and enduring works of art.
W.E.B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926):
…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.
V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (1932):
Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another…. In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.
That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas – it was such fiction that won its adoration.
John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934):
A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible….
Joseph Freeman, Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935):
To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it…. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon….
James T. Farrell, A Note on Literary Criticism (1936):
Literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence…. I suggest that…the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence….’. [Literature] can be propaganda…and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation.
Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel (1940):
That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniable…. Such novels influence.
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):
The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable.
In the chart at the end of Jennifer Howard’s article “The Fragmentation of Literary Theory,” notice the gap in the timeline of works of literary “theory” that occurs roughly between the two world wars: That gap comprises much of easily one of the most vital periods of US literary criticism, as partly indicated above, a time that Bernard Smith overviews and analyzes in the last two chapters of Forces in American Criticism (1939). It seems to me that there should be more discussion among political artists and others of the sort arising, both figuratively and literally, from that gap in the timeline – discussions that relate the creation of art and literature today to the urgent concerns of today.
“Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? Why are we so slow, so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image? Can’t we see that it is, after all, works of fiction, no matter how mediocre they may be artistically, that best arouse political passion?”
Also highly valuable, with roots in the same era, the work of America’s greatest liberation critic of the mid-twentieth century, Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns – From Rebellion to Conformity (1958):
The present volume began as a collection of articles and reviews writing in the Nineteen-Forties and Fifties for a more or less popular audience [e.g., The Nation]… Some of these articles are in the polemical vein which a critic uses with reluctance when his second nature, or his first, is to inquire, to balance, and to evaluate. The central focus of the volume is on the transitional decade from the Second World War to the middle of the twentieth century-from McCarthy to Sputnik. The historical setting is that of the uneasy ‘peace,’ the tensions of the Cold War, the return to ‘normalcy,’ and the epoch of conformity.
Or was it euphoria? In literature the period marked the decline of the classic modern American writers at the peak of their popular reputation. In criticism there was the movement towards higher and higher levels of aesthetic, or scholastic, absolutes….
There was indeed a state of general inertia in the arts, as the familiar sequel to an age of anxiety: of problems urgent and not resolved, while the surface of the globe, and outer space too, vibrated in the throes of change. The American literary scene of the Forties and Fifties must have presented to the rest of the world an odd and ironic spectacle at times; and perhaps the polemical note was indicated; and meanwhile I trust that this spectacle may also be instructive… (ix-x).
James Petras, “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited”:
“The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA’s Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today’s intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship.”
Finally, a note by playwright Tony Kushner, writing in Theater:
“I do not believe that a steadfast refusal to be partisan is, finally, a particularly brave or a moral or even interesting choice. Les Murray, an Australian poet, wrote a short poem called ‘Politics and Art.’ In its entirety: ‘Brutal policy / like inferior art, knows / whose fault it all is.’ This is as invaluable an admonishment as it is ultimately untrue.”
by Tony Christini