Literature and Inequality
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163 pages

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Understanding high-end inequality through great works of literature

Today, high-end inequality in America and peer countries is at Gilded Age levels. These matters are too important and complicated to be left just to economists. A broader sociological and humanistic approach is necessary. Great works of literature, such as those by the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton, are among the resources that can help us to better understand high-end inequality’s broader, culturally contingent, ramifications – not just in the authors’ own eras but today.

Daniel Shaviro’s Literature and Inequality offers a unique and accessible interdisciplinary take on how a number of great and beloved works from the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries help shed light on modern high-end inequality. In particular, Shaviro helps us to understand the relevance both of cultural differences between America and peer countries such as England and France, and of cultural commonalities between America’s First Gilded Age in the late-nineteenth century and its currently ongoing Second Gilded Age.

Introduction; PART ONE: ENGLAND AND FRANCE DURING THE AGE OF REVOLUTION; Why Aren’t Things Better Than This? Class Relations Within the Top One Percent in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; A Rising Tide Rocks All Boats: The Threat of Rising Prosperity in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir; Arrivistes, Rentiers, Mandarins, and Flunkies in Honoré de Balzac’s Le Père Goriot; PART TWO: ENGLAND FROM THE 1840S THROUGH THE START OF WORLD WAR I; Why Do “Scrooge Truthers” Hate Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?; Not to Blame? Plutocrats, Capitalism, and Foreigners in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now; Unconnected: Rentier Intellectuals Uber Alles in E.M. Forster’s Howards End; PART THREE: GILDED AGE AMERICA; Anti-Success Manual? Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age; No Success Like Failure? Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth; Superhero or Bungler? Frank Cowperwood / Charles Yerkes in Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier and The Titan; Conclusion; Index.



Publié par
Date de parution 31 mars 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781785273681
Langue English

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Literature and Inequality
Literature and Inequality
Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age
Daniel Shaviro
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2020
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
Copyright © Daniel Shaviro 2020
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-366-7 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78527-366-3 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
1. Introduction
Part 1 England and France during the Age of Revolution
2. Why Aren’t Things Better Than This?: Class Relations within the Top 1 Percent in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
3. A Rising Tide Rocks All Boats: The Threat of Rising Prosperity in Stendhal’s Le Rouge Et Le Noir
4. Arrivistes, Rentiers, Mandarins and Flunkies in Honoré De Balzac’s Le Père Goriot and La Maison Nucingen
Summary for Part 1: England and France during the Age of Revolution
Part 2 England from the 1840s through the Start of World War I
5. Why Do “Scrooge Truthers” Hate Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol ?
6. Not to Blame?: Plutocrats, Capitalism and Foreigners in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now
7. Unconnected: Rentier Intellectuals Über Alles in E. M. Forster’s Howards End
Summary for Part 2: England from the 1840s through the Start of World War I
Part 3 Gilded Age America
8. Anti-Success Manual?: Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age
9. No Success Like Failure?: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth
10. Superhero or Bungler?: Frank Cowperwood/Charles Yerkes in Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier and The Titan
Summary for Part 3: Gilded Age America
11. Conclusion
Chapter 1
Consider the following three scenes, each taken from a famous novel of the last two-plus centuries:

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice , the gorgon-like Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronts Elizabeth Bennet outside the Bennets’ family home, demanding that Elizabeth disclaim any plan of marrying her Ladyship’s nephew, Mr. Darcy. Facing unwonted opposition, her Ladyship exclaims: “I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.”
Elizabeth responds: “That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , the wealthy and well-born Tom Buchanan tells the merely wealthy Jay Gatsby that he won’t let “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to [my] wife” Daisy, who is planning (or thinks she is) to run off with Gatsby. Tom then so thoroughly crushes Gatsby that he can command him to drive her home. “Go on,” Tom tells Daisy. “He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.”
In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities , self-styled “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond-trader, has been brought low by the exposure and criminal prosecution of his involvement in a hit-and-run car accident. Released on bail amid a giant media circus, he returns to his $3 million Park Avenue townhouse, only to find that he cannot escape the sound of demonstrators with bullhorns shouting his name. The world all around is “titillated […] by his disgrace.” Abandoned by his wife and all his friends, he still finds mockers and exploiters eager to invade his privacy and “sniff[] and sniff[] at his shame, until their faces stiffened from the stench.” It’s the perfect nightmare demonstration that, in a democratic society with an excitable press, wealth and privilege (at least at McCoy’s level) do not provide immunity against the threat of public destruction.
In each of these three scenes, a holder of substantial wealth, high rank, or both together faces a startling power outage. Lady Catherine cannot quell what she deems “[t]‌he upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Gatsby’s recently acquired vast wealth proves inadequate to satisfy his upstart pretensions. McCoy is offered up as a cheap sacrifice to the mass voting and consumer public by people who can advance their own interests by doing so.
Each of these three novels is written in a realistic vein, with close attention to contemporary detail regarding the author’s own society. Yet the conclusion best drawn from them is not that Austen, Fitzgerald and Wolfe view the holders of great wealth or rank as facing impotence or failure on an everyday basis. To the contrary, each moment comes near the climax of a distinctive drama that has been building since the novel’s first paragraph. Its being un usual adds to its power. In each case, however, the moment grows organically out of broader social conflicts that the novels depict as more generally swirling around wealth and high rank.
In Pride and Prejudice , the central battle concerns the relative status of people at different levels within England’s landholding gentry. Lady Catherine not only feels entitled to issue commands to Elizabeth but views Darcy as residing far above “the sphere in which you have been brought up.” Elizabeth, for her part, not only refuses to be “intimidated into anything” that her personal judgment tells her is “wholly unreasonable” but also says their spheres are the same. “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (How fully she believes this is another matter.)
The Great Gatsby ’s core status conflicts similarly revolve around a bid for admission to the very top. Here, however—more than a century later, and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—the issue is permeability, rather than breadth. Gatsby seeks admission to the very top by reason of his recently having acquired great wealth. Part of Daisy’s appeal to Gatsby is that she is an authentic top-ranker by birth, whereas he can only pretend to be one. Her voice is “full of money,” he says, in a society where, at least in some circles, inheritance is the dominant metric. His sense of personal inferiority, because he was not born rich, is crucial to Tom Buchanan’s ability to crush him.
By the time of Bonfire of the Vanities , we have transitioned to a society in which making money conveys more status than inheriting it. In addition, Wolfe offers us a very different angle on dignitary conflicts between those at the very top and everyone else. Here, a central point is that people of middle or lower rank feel resentment for their betters’ arrogant pretensions—fueling their delight at McCoy’s ignominious fall. Yet the novel focuses from the inside on his torment, rather than on their delight, or on any grievances that might fuel it. The Bonfire of the Vanities is thus, among other things, anxiety porn regarding fears that may be felt at the top. It offers its empathy to one who is gazing down from above, rather than, as in Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby , up from below.
A still broader set of lessons from these novels (and others) concerns the use of literature to help us understand high-end inequality. Great wealth and claims to high rank may be associated with intense status conflicts—whether concerning rival elites, admission to a particular elite, or the proper relationships between people at different levels. These conflicts inevitably reflect the particular social contexts in which they arise, rather than just depending on the protagonists’ relative wealth. Narrative fiction can offer unique qualitative insights about a given society’s status conflicts—thereby both complementing and informing expressly empirical social science research. As it happens, the sociological issues around high-end inequality are especially important in America and peer societies today, given the recent growth of wealth and income concentration at the very top, along with the reasons why they matter. These reasons, in turn, bear the influence of both quantitative and qualitative considerations.
The Recent Sharp Rise of High-End Inequality
A recent leading study found that, between 1979 and 2014, the share of overall US wealth that was held by the top 0.1 percent more than tripled, from 7 percent to 22 percent (Saez and Zucman, 2014 ). Meanwhile, the top 0.01 percent was pulling away from the top 0.1 percent, and the top 0.001 percent from the top 0.01 percent, in a process that economists call “fractal inequality” (Lowry 2014 ).
While other reputable studies have found marginally less (

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