Business Through Literature and Film*
Imaginative literature has
contributed to the progress of civilization and to the dynamism of
society. Fiction empowers individuals’ imaginations to transcend the
empirical constraints that circumscribe them. Fiction sets people free
both as writers and as readers by cultivating their potentials to
self-reflect, to devise alternatives to the present, and to freely
choose among those options. Literature is a means to study the
individual human capacity for imagination and expression. Narrative
makes sense out of reality and provides a backdrop from which to view
the place of morality in one’s life. By reading literature, people are
studying the human condition.
The autonomy of imaginative literature mirrors the freedom and
independence of the individual human person. Fiction can help people to
realize their individuality and their ability to envision, to express,
to choose, and to pursue their possibilities for living a flourishing
and happy life. The point of reading fiction is to make people reflect
about what they believe in and what they want to get out of life.
Literature dramatizes how a person in a particular culture and context,
given his individual talents and motivations, defines himself, makes
choices, and acts. Because literature is, in part, an expression of the
culture within which it is produced, it can also supply a tool for
examining the social history of that culture. Because literature
possesses historical substance, reading fiction from various time
periods and places allows one to gain a big-picture explanation of the
evolution of civilization.
Reading literature contributes to a richer life. Fiction permits
individuals to encounter people who they would never get to meet, travel
to places they would never get to go, and to experience situations they
would never get to experience. Fiction takes readers beyond their own
individual experiences of life. Literature from very different times and
places can be a source of pleasure and appreciation here and now. Such
works can help a person to shape his general attitude toward life.
Literary texts can be sources of inspiration and character formation and
can develop one’s capacity to empathize with others. They can provide
insights into the subtleties of human nature. They can teach significant
truths about the human condition revealing how people think and act.
Imaginative fiction presents a variety of fully developed literary
characters with a wide range of beliefs, desires, and behaviors.
Literature transmits profundity of thought, fullness of emotion, and
insight into various characters’ value systems. It can be inspiring to
see different characters grow and change throughout a fictional work—at
times the reader almost feels as though he is growing and changing with
them. An individual can take on roles vicariously through reading.
Fiction gives the reader the opportunity to know and to follow various
characters and to see why they take certain courses or actions. Fiction
allows people to observe a wide range of motives, traits, and behaviors.
Different perspectives are attained because fiction helps readers see
scenarios from various points of view. Stories can enable readers to
identify with characters who are quite different from themselves. This
can help in understanding the many types of people they encounter in
life. Characters in a story can have an impact on the character of the
reader. A person’s own moral conduct and responses can be affected by
the moral imagination of writers. Every fictional work has the potential
to prompt a person to make changes in his own life.
Business is the great story of the last several hundred years. Work is
an essential and intrinsic part of human existence—a person’s identity
is frequently defined by the work he performs. Imaginative literature
can impart an understanding of the business world and how it works. All
of the elements of outstanding fiction are present in every business day
including heroism, cowardice, comedy, tragedy, absurdity, romance,
genius, stupidity, morality, immorality, catastrophe, emotion,
competence, incompetence, independence, teamwork, politics, conflicts,
dilemmas, opportunities, threats, decision-making, make or break
moments, and so on. Reading fiction dealing with business issues can
sensitize and enlighten us to the nature and complexities of the
Literature offers portraits of characters as employers, employees,
managers, leaders, consultants, and other professionals and as regular
human beings with a variety of drives, desires, and ambitions. Fiction
offers superb descriptions of the situations, circumstances, and
organizational settings in which workers find themselves. Reading
literary texts enables people to observe the issues within large and
appropriate contexts—context must be established. The reader is able to
encounter descriptions of a variety of successful and unsuccessful,
moral and immoral, men and women in different work situations. Stories
can serve to stimulate the moral imagination, to increase one’s
understanding of moral dilemmas, and to enhance moral competence.
Fiction can heighten a person’s ability to relate to complex ethical
matters facing the individual and the organization. Literature can
strengthen a manager or other employee’s ability to resolve specific
moral issues. Imaginative literature can be an especially valuable
resource for managers attempting to comprehend and to resolve human
problems in business. Fiction can help a manager to understand his own
needs and the needs of the people whom he manages for things such as
individuality, identity, challenges, power and control, responsibility,
self-respect and self-esteem, acceptance and recognition, personal
integrity, self-fulfillment, and so on.
The use of fiction, including novels, plays, and films, can enrich
teaching materials in both educational and business settings. Fiction
can be a powerful force to teach, educate, and move students and
employees in ways that lectures, case studies, textbooks, articles, and
anecdotes cannot. Although cases can be complex, they cannot compare
with the multifaceted nature of storytelling. In fiction, we know much
more about the characters than in case studies. In addition, readers or
viewers can empathize with the characters. Fiction more closely mimics
reality and illuminates the full context of a situation. It follows that
fiction generates insights that are conceivably different from those
emanating from the study of cases. Not only do novels, plays, and films
offer an expanded view of businessmen and business relationships, they
can also sometimes serve as a way to experience real events that
occurred in the past. Studying such works helps people understand what
happened in the past so that they can learn to avoid making similar
mistakes in the future or, more positively, learn what to do from
successful actions taken in prior situations.
Studying fictions of business can provide insight to often inexperienced
business students with respect to real-life situations. They can address
a multitude of issues and topics and can frequently better transmit a
lesson or message than traditional teaching approaches can. Novels,
plays, and films have the ability to tell interesting stories and the
potential to stick with the reader or viewer longer than lectures, case
studies, textbook chapters, etc. Literary passages or scenes are much
more engaging and memorable for most students and other audiences.
Fiction can be a great supplement to the theories that students
encounter in their business curriculum. Studying business fiction helps
business students to relate their various business classes, such as
management, marketing, organizational behavior, finance, operations
management, and so on to real life situations like takeovers, market
crashes, layoffs, etc.
Every day business people deal concurrently with multiple issues.
Novels, plays, and films are thus realistic because they tend to present
several issues together in the context of a story. Fiction can tell a
more complete story by dealing with multiple subjects and by
demonstrating how issues interact and interrelate. Also, the situations
and characters found in fictional works are more realistic than the
abstractions found in textbooks and case studies.
Fiction can be used to teach, explicate, and illustrate a wide range of
business issues and concepts. Many fictional works address human
problems in business such as: managing interpersonal conflict and office
politics; using different styles of management; the potential loss of
one’s individuality as a person tends to become an “organization man;”
the stultifying effect of routine in business; the difficulty in
balancing work life and home life; hiring and keeping virtuous
employees; maintaining one’s personal integrity while satisfying the
company’s demands for loyalty, conformity and adaptation to the firm’s
culture; communication problems a business may experience; fundamental
moral dilemmas; depersonalization and mechanization of human
relationships; and so on. Fictional works tend to describe human
behavior and motivations more eloquently, powerfully, and engagingly
than texts, articles, or cases typically do. Literary authors and
filmmakers are likely to develop and present ideas through individual
characters. They depict human insights and interests from the
perspective of individuals within an organizational setting. Reading
imaginative literature and watching films are excellent ways to develop
critical thinking and to learn about values and character.
Many novels, plays, and films are concerned with the actual operation of
the business system. Some deal directly with business problems such as
government regulation, cost control, new product development, labor
relations, environmental pollution, health and safety, plant openings
and closings, tactics used and selection of takeover targets,
structuring financial transactions, succession planning, strategic
planning, the creation of mission statements, the company’s role in the
community, social responsibility, etc. Assessing fictional situations
makes a person more thoughtful, better prepared for situations, and
better able to predict the consequences of alternative actions. Fiction
can address both matters of morality and practical issues. There are
many fine selections in literature and film which prompt readers to
wrestle with business situations.
Older novels, plays, and films can supply information on the history of
a subject or topic. They can act as historical references for actual
past instances and can help students to understand the reasons for
successes and failures of the past. Older literature can provide a good
history lesson and can help people to understand the development of our
various businesses and industries. These stories can be inspiring and
motivational and can demonstrate how various organizations and managers
were able to overcome obstacles, adapt, and survive. Fictional works are
cultural artifacts from different time periods that can be valuable when
discussing the history of business. Many fictional works present history
in a form that is more interesting than when one just reads history
A case can be made that reading the works of playwrights who have taken
business persons and a business-oriented culture as their literary
subject may be even better than novels for teaching business concepts
and for instilling moral values. Plays can more distinctly address the
interaction of characters thus enabling the reader to become more
involved in their situations. Drama can be a more efficient teaching
tool than novels because plays can attend to the same number of business
issues in a briefer format. A play’s dynamic scenarios more nearly map
reality and illuminate a situation’s full context. Passages in a play
can be used in role playing and readers’ theater. This form of active
learning can depict a more complete portrait of the business world.
Hollywood films can be effective vehicles to explicate, illustrate,
teach, and expand upon business, management, and leadership concepts.
Through purposeful viewing a film can become a text or case study. Print
media in the form of novels, plays, and case studies are more abstract
than films which offer realistic visualizations of abstract ideas.
Feature films can breathe life into intellectual concepts. The motion
picture is a powerful medium to enhance instruction by illustrating
issues and problems. Good movies can be memorable, compelling, and
Movies can be used as a catalyst to enliven classroom discussions among
business students who do not possess the business experience or frame of
reference to comprehend the issues and potential conflicts that occur
every day in the business world. Engaging and fun films can be a source
of substituted real-world experience for them. In addition,
major-release films are more attractive and interesting within a
business itself than are traditional training films. It is not
surprising that many companies use Hollywood films to educate and train
managers. Movies can encourage free-flowing discussions as college
students and business employees act as critical evaluators of these
Throughout history, business and the businessman have not fared
especially well in business fiction. There have been many unflattering
depictions of business, businessmen, and capitalism. Many have often
attacked business and industry for destroying an old communal order
based on equality and have lamented the businessman’s preoccupation with
material success and the dominance of large dehumanizing organizations
in people’s lives. A great many novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers
have been repelled by business and have criticized the businessman’s
lack of culture and interest in education. Notably, writers of artistic
merit are likely to be hostile and negative toward business ideology.
Fortunately, some fictional works do characterize business and the
businessmen in a more favorable, more realistic, even heroic image by
emphasizing the possibilities of life in a free society, the inherent
ethical nature of capitalism and the businessman, the strength and
self-sufficiency of the hardworking businessman, and the entrepreneur as
wealth creator and promoter of human economic progress. Positive images
of business, businessmen, and capitalism do exist but more are needed in
order to illustrate the value of free enterprise, innovation, and
Business fiction is a heterogeneous collection of writings and films.
Depictions of business and the businessman have changed over time.
Literary attitudes in a given time period and part of the world, and for
a specific author, are frequently partial, particular to a given social
class, and reflective of the author’s political convictions. For
example, European attitudes toward business have been more negative than
the attitudes of Americans who have great faith in progress and who
believe in the necessity of material progress. In addition, writers are
likely to set their fiction within the professional environment with
which they are familiar.
The tradesman has been portrayed in English literature ever since
Geoffrey Chaucer’s time in the fourteenth century. Chaucer himself was
controller of customs and royal business projects for many years. In his
The Canterbury Tales he paints a positive portrait of a merchant
as a worthy and respectable man. During this time a new merchant class
with business values was slowly but steadily becoming a factor in a
world traditionally controlled by the Church and land owners. In the
sixteenth century we find Shakespeare frequently showing respect and
honor for the tradesmen. Shakespeare was a fine businessman in his own
right possessing knowledge of commerce, contracts, and finance. In
addition, the father of the English novel, Daniel Dafoe, started out as
a businessman and displayed admiration for the merchant in his works.
Beginning with Dafoe, novels have delivered treatments of business and
the businessman that are varied, complex, and nuanced resulting in a new
literary genre. The businessman was a familiar character in sixteenth
century and the manufacturer became a common figure later.
We will now take a retrospective look at the changing image of business
and the businessman in fictional works during various time periods. In
doing so, a number of notable works will be mentioned and briefly
discussed. This survey will also demonstrate how business and
organizations have changed and how the successful ones have been
adaptive in order to survive. Through literature, a person can learn
about work-life from another person’s point of view in a very different
time and place.
“We will now take a
retrospective look at the changing image of business and the
businessman in fictional works during various time periods.
In doing so, a number of notable works will be mentioned and
In the eighteenth century, business was still seen as respectable and
virtuous. By the first half of the nineteenth century business and the
businessman were beginning to become objects of reprobation. Criticisms
were levied at individual businessmen as there were very few American
corporations in existence during the first half of that century.
Fictions of this era tended to portray salesmen and individual
proprietors as uncultured and selfish men who lack scruples. The few
corporations that did exist tended to be state-granted monopolies for
accomplishing public works. During this period many state officials were
bribed by such corporations in order to be granted the required
licenses. For example, railroad companies and government officials
engaged in unprecedented political and financial corruption.
Two of the best pre-Civil War American works of business fiction are
Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
(1853) and The Confidence Man (1857). Bartleby is a mysterious
clerk and copyist on New York’s Wall Street who politely refuses to do
work. His employer is a kind and compassionate man. The story is of the
relationship between a manager and an uncooperative, inert employee. Bartleby can perhaps be viewed as an early ancestor of the recent
film, Office Space, a satire of helpless employees doing mindless
jobs in a bland company. In The Confidence Man a master con man
or Yankee peddler assumes a variety of forms as he transforms into
different characters on a steamboat going from St. Louis to New Orleans.
The confidence man is a master of duplicity and deception. The lesson in
this novel is that a person is known by what he or she appears to be.
The great English author, Charles Dickens, had visited America in 1842
during which he sensed the emerging image of the American businessman as
a con man. In his The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
(1844), he tells of a young Englishman who changes into a confidence man
when he travels to America. Of course, the young man is no match for the
American con man and he returns defeated and chastised to England.
Dickens also authored A Christmas Carol (1843), in which he
provided an image of a miserly and greedy businessman in the character,
Ebenezer Scrooge. In addition, his 1848 novel Dombey and Son
centered around a family-owned shipping business.
In American fiction the revulsion and animus toward business and the
businessman were well-developed by the time of the Civil War. Business
power had accumulated during the Civil War and expanded throughout the
following decades. Following the Civil War, there appeared a variety of
novels dealing with success, financial and political corruption and
scandals, and economic reforms. The materialistic philosophy and
economic system of the Gilded Age promoted a widespread sense of
distrust. Many novels after the Civil War disparaged capitalism by
emphasizing the contradiction between business sentiments and higher
cultural and moral ones.
Horatio Alger is famous for his rags-to-riches glorified stories of
small merchants such as Ragged Dick (1868), Strive and Succeed
(1871) and Paul the Peddler (1871). Alger’s literary optimism was
a function of the prevailing beliefs of his times in individualism and
laissez-faire economics. Alger emphasized that hard work is the key to
success. Alongside the Horatio Alger type of businessman who makes good
through his own efforts was the Scrooge-like miser warped by his
ruthless struggle for material rewards. The image of the businessmen put
forth by the followers of Dickens is one of greed, miserliness,
unethical business dealings, and exploitation of, and insensitivity to,
the needs of employees. Then after the Civil War in the 1870s there was
rampant political and moral corruption inflamed by the national mania
for speculation. This corruption was dealt with in several novels.
Mark Twain and John Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age (1873)
portrays speculation as a national pastime. It is a tale of corrupt
Washington politicians conniving with private land and stock speculators
who lobby them. The mania for stock and land speculation following the
Civil War was intensified by the railroad explosion and financial
scandals in Washington during the Grant administration and on Wall
Street between 1868 and 1872. The novel recommends moral reform rather
than economic reform. Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now
(1873) was also set at the time of the financial madness of the early
1870s and the financial crash of 1873. Trollope’s satire of speculation
and deception is an indictment of a corrupt society. Trollope’s
financier protagonist makes a pretense of wealth and respectability and
almost succeeds in a manipulative scam of enormous proportions.
There were sweeping transformations in the economy after the Civil War.
Industry grew rapidly, cities mushroomed, large groups were dislocated,
there was an influx of immigrant foreign workers, labor/industrial
conflict grew, economic protests became common, and the leaders of
industry became “robber barons” within a short number of years. America
was changing from a nation of individual entrepreneurs and small farmers
to one of factory workers in routinized jobs. Many of the factory
workers were immigrants who felt more at home in America than in Europe
because they were free of the class structure of Europe.
The appearance of freewheeling private enterprisers led to regulations
such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust
Act of 1890. By 1890 there were a large number of critics who advocated
the replacement of capitalism with socialism. Novelists helped pave the
way for the passage of the early antitrust laws. The period between the
end of the Civil War and the end of World War I produced hundreds of
novels dealing with business, financial speculation, trusts, labor
relations, economic crises, and so on. During the 1880s there was a
great deal of labor/industrial conflict. There were economic crises
including a depression during the 1890s. In addition, by 1900, there was
the establishment of the great industrial trusts and the proliferation
of mergers. As a result, the railroads and the large manufacturing firms
were accused of engaging in ruinous competition.
Success novels, reflecting the belief in Social Darwinism, existed
alongside reform and utopian novels that began to appear in the 1880s.
The success novels treated corporate empire builders as visionaries,
heroes, creators, as well as manipulators. In the success novels
acquiring riches proved one’s mastery over the environment and his
fitness to survive. Utopian novels were numerous in the last decade of
the nineteenth century. By then social protest novels were gaining
popularity. The discontent and unrest of the 1890s stemmed from the
prevailing notion that industries were getting to be too
institutionalized and that wealth was becoming too concentrated. The
reform novels were intended to explain structural problems beyond the
control of any one individual. By 1900, novelists were capitalizing on
the widespread distrust of business, especially big business. Their
works were keeping pace with the huge transformations in the business
world. Since the late 1800s, authors have been quick to criticize
monopoly power, employment practices, and income distribution.
William Dean Howells is more realistic and kinder to the businessman
than many of his contemporary writers. His novel, The Rise of Silas
Lapham (1885), is the classic realistic novel of American business
and has received a great deal of literary acclaim. Howells did not
reduce his hero to caricature and he illustrated the complexities of
moral action in the real world. Silas Lapham is depicted as uncultured
but he is not shown to be necessarily immoral. He is portrayed as a
sympathetic and motivated individual who intended to make something of
himself from his early years on. Howells shows that man is a free agent
and that the choices in one’s life determine his character. By the end
of the story, Lapham has come back from financial collapse and is happy
running a small version of his former business. Howells is not as kind
to the businessman in his A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). In
this novel Jacob Dryfoos represents the dishonest individual in the
marketplace. Dryfoos becomes a corrupt speculator on Wall Street.
Dryfoos, Howell’s version of the contemporary robber baron, fails to
repent by the end of the story. He paints a distressing portrait of the
newly rich Dryfoos.
In Looking Backward (1888) Edward Bellamy describes a new
egalitarian American social, political, and economic order in which a
technocratic elite manages nationalized industries. This best-selling
utopian novel played a large role in shaping public opinion regarding
equality. In the novel America has evolved into a cooperative society in
which the government owns all of the capital. The people are motivated
by pride and each citizen receives the same amount of credit to spend.
America has evolved into a command economy made up of one great trust.
Another socialist writer, Jack London, penned an interesting, dystopian,
futuristic, socialist, and muckraking novel, The Iron Heel
(1908), twenty years after Bellamy’s work. In London’s novel there are
great divisions between the classes and a powerful oligarchy and
dictatorship of monopoly capitalists or plutocrats uses terror to run
the country and to deny worker’s rights. The Iron Heel, focuses
on political and social changes. Another important novel written by
London is his Burning Daylight (1910).
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888), the hero,
Hank Morgan, a type of tinkerer or efficiency expert, gets hit over the
head at work and awakens to find himself in 6th century
medieval England which is suffering from economic problems. The inventor
attempts to improve England’s economic, communications, and
transportation systems. The resourceful and skilled Morgan wants to free
people from ignorance and superstition. He advances the notions of free
enterprise and private property. Morgan introduces a new currency in an
attempt to promote economic recovery. He also introduces a stock
exchange and utilizes knights as traveling salesmen. At one point, the
mechanic tries to explain to a group of workers the difference between
real wages and nominal wages. He discusses that most people tend to
resist changes and he is able to improve life in medieval England in
only small ways. The decade of the 1890s then gave us two fine
business-related novels: Henry B. Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers
(1893) and Robert Herrick’s The Gospel of Freedom (1898).
Naturalistic writers such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser portrayed
the businessman in Darwinian scale, cornering a commodities market,
establishing a trust, or through some other grand endeavor. The
philosophy of naturalism does not find any distinctive significance in
man. Nature is thus indifferent toward men but nevertheless natural laws
do provide social benefits. The goal of literary naturalism is to
represent in abundant and objective detail that man is a small, finite,
and limited being determined by heredity and by social, economic, and
psychological factors. In his novels, Norris depicts the naturalistic,
romance, and adventure of business.
In Frank Norris’s novels, economic processes are huge, impersonal
forces--the business system is ultimately controlled by natural forces.
In his The Octopus (1901) independent wheat -farmers become pawns
at the mercy of the great railroads, politicians, and natural forces
beyond their control. In Norris’s vision of orderly determinism evil is
short-lived. The Octopus provides a historical look into a
specific struggle between railroad executives and independent wheat
farmers in an expanding California. Norris’s 1903 novel, The Pit,
looks at an attempt to corner the wheat market in Chicago. The title
refers to the trading room of the Chicago Board of Trade. For his story,
the author drew upon a historical speculative grain corner of 1897-98.
In this novel, Norris senses and foresees the possibilities of
speculation and Wall Street. In The Pit economic laws collide
with natural laws. The natural law wins as the speculators and
financiers, who attempt to interfere with the natural order of the wheat
cycle, are soundly defeated.
Several notable business novels appeared during the first decade of the
1900s. Calumet K (1901) by Samuel Merwin and Henry Webster is a
Midwestern novel centered around the building of a two million bushel
grain elevator. The principal character is Charlie Bannon, a heroic
mid-level manager, who has been charged by his company to construct the
elevator. The competent hero faces a series of obstacles and
complications that threaten the completion of the project. Bannon loves
his work and is a great example of the achieving individual. It is no
wonder why Calumet K was philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand’s favorite
novel. In contrast, in Robert Herrick’s The Memoirs of an American
Citizen (1905) tainted money is required for the “success” of the
protagonists similar to the case in Norris’s The Pit.
The Jungle (1906) is well-known for bringing
about the United States’ meat inspection system. This proletarian novel
gained meteoric notoriety because of its graphic depiction of terrible
slaughterhouse conditions, thus prompting reform of the meat packing
industry and the passage of the Food and Drug Act. The Jungle is
a powerful study of the working conditions in the Chicago stockyards. It
describes the exploitation of workers and explains how economically
disadvantaged and low-skilled workers have a very small chance to better
themselves and to move up the economic ladder. The novel details the
corruption, waste, and exploitation of Chicago’s “Packingtown.” Ernst
Bramah’s Secret of the League (1907) tells the story of the
overthrow by businessmen of a left-wing socialist government in England.
The weapon of the businessmen in the economic war against socialist
government is a mass boycott of coal, a heavily state-subsidized
Theodore Dreiser’s trilogy of desire is about the ruthless and
manipulative business titan, Frank Cowperwood, who believes that he is
superior to the moral and legal codes restraining other individuals.
Cowperwood has reasoned that the law of civilization is the same as the
law of the jungle. The strong feed on the weak and the only choice is to
kill or be killed. Like Frank Norris, Dreiser portrays the captains of
industry and finance as heroic but manipulative creators and organizers.
It is evident that Dreiser admired and sympathized with his
nonconformist superman-hero in The Financier (1912). The Titan
(1914), and The Stoic (1947). In these novels, Cowperwood shows
contempt for conventional notions of morality. Dreiser’s best known book
in this trilogy, The Financier takes a look back at the financial
disasters of the 1870s. The Darwinian Cowperwood seeks satisfaction in
wealth, women, and power. He bribes, cheats, and lies to gain these. The
man without a conscience rises, falls, and rises again. His motto is “I
satisfy myself.” He is unrepentant after being found guilty of legally
questionable acts. Undeterred, he restores his fortune after being
released from prison by taking a bear position in the midst of the great
panic of 1873. Throughout his life he uses opportunities presented to
him by the limitations and weaknesses of others.
Dreiser does not attack the immorality of the world he describes in his
novels. Dreiser understands Cowperwood’s faults but he does not pass
judgment on him. Like Norris, Dreiser views businessmen as amoral
individuals in the era of trusts, monopolies, political corruption, and
financial manipulation. Dreiser writes about the unconquerable self-made
man who reached their successful position without the benefit of formal
Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) is a great
example of immigrant fiction as well as of business fiction. In the form
of a thirty year memoir, it tells the story of the process of adaptation
to American life by a Russian Jewish immigrant. Despite his early years
of poverty, the protagonist becomes extremely successful financially in
the American ready-to-wear clothing industry. He becomes rich in things
of the world at the expense of his inner spirit. At the end he realizes
that he is no different than he was as a child and that money and power
alone cannot make one happy. Unlike many other novelists who explored
American business, Cahan paid a great deal of attention to the details
of the functioning of business itself.
In the 1920s literary satire rather than outright condemnation of
business and the businessman was the preferred vehicle for literary
critics of capitalism. Before Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) the
businessman had consistently been portrayed as a rugged individualist.
Babbitt fiercely satirizes the way in which bourgeois culture and
standardized mass consumption have affected society. In this novel,
Lewis provides a harsher perspective on the businessman than did earlier
writers such as Howells. Babbitt gives up his individuality to conform
to the values of his community and lives for what others consider to be
respectable. Babbitt is a complacent, prosperous, middle-class citizen
who is depicted as a helpless victim of social pressure. The author
devotes a large section of the novel to describe Babbitt’s typical
working day. Babbitt dislikes hard work. By the end of the story he
realizes and admits that his life is not fulfilling.
Garet Garrett’s novel
The Driver (1922) tells the story of a Wall
Street speculator, financier, and entrepreneur, Henry Galt, who acquires
control of a failing railroad. When the railroad declares bankruptcy
Galt assumes a leadership position in the company and, through his great
vision and work ethic, turns it into a spectacular success. The story
occurs in the wake of the great panic of 1893. As he succeeds the
government conspires with his competitors to regulate and control him.
The Driver tells how the government cannot get the economy out of
recession but, instead, how people like Galt can through investments and
Certain novels of the 1920s and 1930s look at class differences and
class warfare. One of America’s best known and most loved novels is F.
Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). It is a story of
social stratification and of “old money” versus “new money.” The novel
centers on an ambitious, self-made man with huge hopes and dreams in an
era of excess. Unfortunately, Gatsby could never escape his lowly
background. He fails when he encounters the vicious “old rich” world of
emptiness, moral decay, and extravagant parties. The best works of the
1920s, such as The Great Gatsby, Booth Tarkington’s The
Plutocrat (1927) and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Dodsworth (1929) were more separated from the everyday actualities
of business than novels before them or since them. Lewis’s Sam Dodsworth
is a noble businessman who has the dream of creating an attractive and
practical product. Much later Fitzgerald supplied a portrait of a
strong-minded, compassionate head of a major Hollywood movie studio in
his unfinished The Last Tycoon (1941). The dictatorial tycoon
understands his responsibilities to all of his constituencies. He knows
what he wants to accomplish and is adept at playing to the strengths,
weaknesses, and personalities of others including actors, screenwriters,
directors, and others. This movie producer exhibits a command and
control management style.
A great deal of the literature of the 1920s and 1930s is of the left.
The crash and the Great Depression brought about a new wave of literary
social criticism and calls for the federal government to lead the
economy. John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy consisting of The 42nd
Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)
present the story of America from 1910 until 1930. In these works Dos
Passos presents a mixture of stories, news items, biographical sketches
of important figures, and narrations. He tells the stories of a variety
of people. His complex trilogy condemns both capitalism and socialism.
In The Big Money Dos Passos speaks for the decade of the
Depression. In it he continues to interweave fiction, biography, and
documentary-style newsreels to witness the pursuit of the American Dream
from various vantage points. The author describes two different nations
within the United States during the 1920s. This social and political
novel contrasts the world of speakeasies, prohibition, and stock
speculation with the world of the rebelling working class, the labor
movement, labor-management warfare, and immigrants. Much later Dos
Passos wrote Midcentury: A Contemporary Chronicle (1961) in which
he focuses on the damaging nature of labor involvement with racketeering
and the Mafia. The author illustrates how union leaders become like
monopolistic capitalists when they invest union funds for private gain.
He also comdemns big corporations and big government. Dos Passos rebuffs
the NLRB for its inability to control violence and racketeering in
In The Grapes of Wrath (1939) John Steinbeck proposes fundamental
questions regarding social justice, land ownership and stewardship, and
the proper role of government. This is the story of tenant farmers in
Oklahoma driven away by drought, depression, and large companies that
wanted to take their land back. They are told that there are “orders
from the bank” to force them off the land. Fruit growers in California
print flyers asserting the existence of abundant well-paying jobs. This
is untrue and when they arrive in California there are so many migrant
workers seeking employment that wages are set at extremely low levels.
Then, of course, there are the company stores that charge
disproportionately high prices compared to the wages received. The
necessity of large-scale government intervention during bad economic
times appears to be a major lesson in The Grapes of Wrath which
was later made into a popular motion picture. Business-related films of
the 1930s include the anti-capitalism film, Modern Times (1936)
and the pro-capitalism (1939) film, Ninotcka.
The famed poet, William Carlos Williams began a trilogy of business
novels about an immigrant family with White Mule (1937). The
other two novels in the series are In the Money (1940) and The
During and immediately following World War II the reputation of business
improved. Business was applauded for its productivity during the war and
for providing jobs for returning servicemen. For example, the 1944 film,
An American Romance, celebrates the American Dream by following
its immigrant hero from his arrival in America through his progression
from miner to steelworker to foreman to automobile entrepreneur. The
movie has documentary portions and was used as a propaganda weapon
regarding World War II when the hero was shown building airplanes for
the war effort. In addition, there is the excellent 1941 film, Citizen Kane, and the fine novels
The Fountainhead (1943) by
Ayn Rand and Mildred Pierce (1941) by James M. Cain, both of
which were later made into films.
“During and immediately
following World War II the reputation of business improved.
Business was applauded for its productivity during the war
and for providing jobs for returning servicemen.”
The post-World War II period witnessed a reconsideration of the large
corporations as the source of stultifying conformity. A company’s
demands for loyalty and devotion called for managers to dedicate their
lives and efforts first and foremost to the corporation placing one’s
individuality and family in the background. The fictional image of the
middle-level “organization man” was that of an individual having to
choose between his personal values and the company’s demands. Corporate
life was becoming a major challenge for the individual. After World War
II the emphasis of literary authors switched from one which includes the
entire system of business to one confined to specific segments of that
system. Some business sectors such as advertising seem to hardly even
receive a fair depiction in fiction. For example, Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters (1946) is a popular satiric exposé of the radio
advertising business. It was also made into a movie. The year 1946 also
marked the release of the business-themed classic movie, It’s a
Wonderful Life. Samuel Hopkins Adams’s business novel Plunder
was released in 1948.
Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman (1949), is the tragic
story of a man who wants to believe that he is a success and who is
unable to admit failure. Willy Loman is a self-deluded man whose
aspirations were much higher than his achievements. The unsuccessful
salesman thinks that popularity, personality, and charisma are equal to
success. He is not impressive or well-liked and creates fantasies to
cover up his failure. Death of a Salesman provides a portrait of
the coming apart of a man who has chosen the wrong career path and who
is now at the end of that path. Several movie versions have been made of
this long-running and award-winning play.
In Point of No Return (1949) by John P. Marquand, Charles Gray,
son of upper-middle-class New England Yankee parents, rises into
aristocracy at an elite bank in New York City. Although he has escaped
his former small town lifestyle, it still affects him. The successful
banker attempts to free himself from a life that seems to be stereotyped
and preordained. During a period of time when he is under consideration
for a huge promotion, he revisits the town where he was brought up. He
struggles to become a vice-president but resents the conformity
required. Our sympathetic protagonist gets the promotion but the
promotion does not fulfill his life. Gray then understands the
superficiality and artificiality of the inter-office rivalry with
another manager for the vice-presidency. He also comes to the
realization that he would not have done anything differently. When
success is thrust upon him he understands that he is part of a system
and that he cannot do anything about that. Point of No Return
thus reflects the doctrine of social determinism. Deterministic
philosophy underpins this novel as well as others depicting the
In 1951 noted economist, Henry Hazlitt, released his futuristic novel,
Time Will Run Back. The novel is set in the year 2100 some 150
years after the victory of socialism over capitalism. A new reluctant
leader, who grew up on an island isolated from the workings of the
global socialist political state, senses that there is something wrong
with the socialist policies. He and his friend engage in Socratic-style
discussions and rethink the economic basis of the system. They gradually
rediscover the free market and attempt to implement new policies. The
clever plot includes an assassination attempt, the founding of a new
nation, and a love story. Reading Time Will Run Back is a great
way to learn about free market economics. The same year saw the release
of an English film, The Man in the White Suit. This satire tells
the story of the invention of a new kind of indestructible fabric that
never gets dirty and that lasts forever. Both the mill owners and
laborers oppose and fight the new invention. In addition, in 1950 the
business-related film, Born Yesterday, made its way onto the big
Former businessman turned novelist Cameron Hawley, truly understands and
accurately portrays the world of business. His 1952 novel, Executive
Suite, attained great success both as a novel and as a film. The
story begins with a crisis when the President of a furniture company
suddenly and unexpectedly dies before he could develop a succession
plan. The company is left in disarray with five vice-presidents
competing for the top position. The story details the resulting office
politics, machinations, and power struggles. In the end, the
vice-president of product research and development is pitted against the
vice-president of finance for the position of president. The foreman
runs the factory and the latter keeps a close look at the costs. The
hands-on factory man makes an impassioned speech explaining that the
firm’s success depends upon producing quality product. Profit results
from doing good work. He wants to give consumers better furniture and
the workers more fulfilling jobs. As a result, the controlling
shareholders choose him for the position and, in turn, he selects the
finance man to be his executive vice-president.
Hawley’s 1955 novel,
Cash McCall, is the story of a justified and
benign corporate raider who benefits himself and society by acquiring
poorly managed companies and bringing them back to economic health. He
is misperceived by many to be a dishonorable tycoon who merely takes
over firms, lays off workers, and sells the assets for huge profits. He
is actually a man of moral integrity who acquires failing companies,
improves them to turn them around, and then sells them to make an earned
profit. McCall makes changes to a firm and frequently finds ways to
attain synergy with other companies. Cash McCall celebrates the
power of capitalism and portrays business as an honorable activity. Like
Executive Suite, Cash McCall was made into a successful
Hollywood movie. Cameron Hawley went on to write two more novels about
the drama of business, The Lincoln Lords (1960), and The
Hurricane Years (1969).
Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) provides a
snapshot of life in the United States during the post-World War II era.
The novel tells the story of Tom Rath, a returning World War II veteran
and educated white collar worker. He longs for a safe, uneventful
corporate existence after the chaos of the war. His goal is to balance
his fragmented professional and personal lives. Rath values his
personal, familial, and social needs more than he values gaining a
promotion and moving up the corporate ladder. The sympathetic hero
recognizes the costs of success. He understands that a man only has so
much time and energy and therefore must choose between work or leisure
and job or family. Rath rediscovers his integrity when he faces the
choice between being like his mentor, Hopkins, who totally devotes his
life and energies to the corporation while destroying his relationships
with his wife and daughter or settling for a lesser, more comfortable
position with commensurate earnings and status. Work comes first for the
dedicated Hopkins but not for Rath, the corporate suburban nine to five
man. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was also made into a
popular Hollywood film.
A large number of business novels thematically and/or stylistically
similar to Point of No Return and The Man in the Gray Flannel
Suit appeared between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. Many dealt
with the submergence of the individual businessman in the culture of the
corporation. These works provide a variety of images of middle-level
executives as well as CEOs. Some noteworthy novels in this category are:
The Big Wheel (1949) by John Brooks; The Power and the Prize
(1954) by Howard Swiggett; From the Dark Tower (1957) by Ernst
Powell; Sincerely Willis Wade (1957) by John P. Marquand; The
Durable Fire (1957) by Howard Swiggett; The Empire (1959) by
George DeMare, Venus in Sparta (1958) by Louis Auchincloss, The Big Company Look (1958) by J. Harry Howells, and
from the Fortieth Floor (1960) by Theodore White. Also worth seeking
out is the Rod Serling film Patterns (1956) that deals with
loyalty and power struggles within a corporation. In Patterns a
CEO attempts to force out a long-time employee. The film also tells of
the disillusionment of a young business executive who has just been
hired for a high-level position in the company replacing the older
Not all business fiction of this period concerns the individual working
for a large corporation. For example, in Bernard Malamud’s The
Assistant (1957), the small businessman is portrayed as a
sympathetic anti-hero. A Jewish businessman has owned his small
neighborhood grocery store for more than twenty years. He is a
hard-working, trusting, honest and compassionate man who readily grants
credit to the neighborhood’s poor. Nevertheless, he is being put out of
business by his rival, a store run by a large supermarket chain
corporation. In addition, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1957)
tells the story of an out of work salesman who is a failure in a
prosperous world. He is a man who lacks entrepreneurial talent. Yielding
to the temptations of easy money he tries his hand in the volatile
commodity futures market. Seize the Day depicts the alienation,
isolation, and despair of a low man in a society in which people worship
only money. It has been made into a feature film.
Portraying a totally different world is Ayn Rand’s monumental
Shrugged (1957). This novel depicts businessmen as heroic
protagonists whose pursuit of profit is profoundly moral. It tells the
story of the last stages of conflict between producers and looters who
live by very different moral codes. The heroes are rationally purposeful
and the villains are not. The productive men of the mind reject
destructive government edicts and the looters doctrine of altruism, and
go on strike by withdrawing from society. By doing so, they illustrate
the role of the mind in human existence. The mind is shown to be the
fundamental source of wealth and profits. This novel of ideas also has
the ability to induce intense emotions. Atlas Shrugged is
currently being made into a series of three films. The first part was
released in the Spring of 2011 and the second part was released in the
Fall of 2012.
Sometimes a Great
Notion (1964) by
Ken Kesey is the tale of a small, independent, family-owned logging
business in Oregon. Henry Stamper is the patriarch of the family and his
son, Hank, symbolizes individualism and self-sufficiency. The heroic,
hardworking family members are anti-union and against anyone who
attempts to tell them what to do. They fight for what they believe in
and their family motto is “Never give an inch.” Their business is not a
union shop so they continue to work when the unions strike the other
logging operators in the area. The Stampers have a contract with a big
lumber company to provide logs. They pursue a great quest to supply the
logs and succeed through their indomitable will despite union violence
and sabotage. Like a number of other novels, Sometimes a Great Nation
has been made into a Hollywood film.
God Bless You Mr.
Rosewater or Pearls before Swine (1965) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. tells the story of
egalitarian Eliot Rosewater, the president of a philanthropic foundation
set up by his old-wealth family. Motivated by his equal love of everyone
he decides to distribute the funds among all of the deserving and
non-deserving poor of his county. He tries to love everyone equally
merely because they are human. Eliot does not understand that the true
nature of love involves discrimination and exception making. Eliot seems
to feel guilty for the wealth that he has inherited. His father is a
conservative senator who is an elitist and who represents the ethic of
capitalism. The senator views the indiscriminate distribution of money
and love as devaluing of human beings. The sentimental Eliot wants
individual people to be kind and to share. Philanthropy is shown to be
an individual and personal choice and action. In general, the novel is
against both business and government.
Louis Auchincloss’s The Embezzler (1966) tells the story of a
struggle to succeed in a world dominated by corporate greed. It is a
tale of crooked financial practices and the fall of a financier. The
novel reflects real Wall Street scandals and still has relevance today.
The satiric Office Politics by Wilfrid Sheed also appeared in
1966. The novel revolves around the power struggles, disloyalty, and
backstabbing that occurs in a publishing house. The chief editor and his
two senior editors constantly fight over the magazine’s focus and
content. When the chief editor suffers a heart attack the others compete
for the top position. When the charismatic chief editor returns he
restores order because of his effective leadership including the mastery
of office politics.
Society, business organizations, and ideas about success and fulfillment
were being restructured and transformed during the several decades
following World War II. Ideas were changing regarding the American
Dream, the good life, social progress, what constituted a good society,
the role of government, social responsibility, and so on. During the
1950s, the fragmented world of employees was constrained by corporate
culture and hierarchy. By the 1970s, the growing complexity of American
society was leading to the loss of all traditional ideals, authorities,
morals, and sanctions. These changes are reflected in the fiction of
The film Save the Tiger (1973) is the story of a man in a gray
flannel suit during the Watergate era. Our businessman is a middle-aged
man who grew up during a period that had values but who is now living in
a time of decaying values in countercultural Vietnam-era America. He
served in World War II and is troubled by horrific memories of combat in
Italy. The film highlights the differences between World War II culture
and the culture of the 1970s. His garment manufacturing business is
failing and heading toward bankruptcy. In order to save his company he
considers torching the factory for the insurance money. He suggests his
arson and insurance fraud plans to his highly ethical partner who is
mortified by the suggestion. Our protagonist thinks of the memories of
his youth and his current dubious business practices while choosing what
to do. This movie does a fine job exploring the relationship among
business, morality, and success.
Joseph Heller’s black comedy, Something Happened (1974) is the
story of the American Dream gone wrong. It takes place in a corporate
office where work is routinized and where process has replaced product.
Slocum, the “hero,” is alienated, unhappy, and beset by constant vague
anxieties. The goal of the troubled Slocum is to have no rivals or
enemies. He understands the corporate culture and produces (i.e., spins)
data to ensure that nobody is unhappy and that the status quo is
maintained. He is a proponent of bureaucracy and corporate gospel and
understands that getting ahead depends upon one’s attitude, style, and
appearance. The organization values and rewards style rather than
substance. He puts up a façade of niceness in an environment of entropy,
irrationality, and immorality. The troubled Slocum loses touch with
himself and with reality.
(1975) is William Gaddis’s easy money novel about a boy who learns about
the stock market in a sixth grade class. He becomes a child capitalist
and amasses a fortune in paper holdings. He uses a phone booth in his
school to create a diversified paper empire beginning with a mail-order
shipment of surplus Navy forks. He incorporates, has stockholders, and
puts together a team of grown-up marketers, financiers, and
administrators. The boy has a thoroughly materialistic value system and
mindset. Ultimately, he loses his fortune.
Ben Flesh, the hero of Stanly Elkin’s comic 1976 novel,
Franchiser, endeavors to help people acquire whatever they need or
want. He serves his customers democratically and equally while at the
same time pursuing his individual business interests through franchises
and within the world of huge corporations. Ben wants to homogenize the
country by having the same stores appear all across the country. He
wants to obliterate regional destinations. He uses money obtained at low
costs to buy a variety of franchises that shape the American landscape
in 1970’s America, complete with gas shortages and rolling blackouts.
Ben’s vitality is evident as we observe him relishing existence in a
world of possibilities. There are a number of other interesting business
novels of the late 1970s including: Not a Penny More, Not a Penny
Less (1976) by Jeffrey Archer; The Moneychangers (1976) by
Arthur Hailey; Rich (1979) by Graham Masterton; and Takeover
(1979) by Herb Schmertz and Larry Woods.
Rabbit is Rich
(1981) by John Updike in the third novel is a series of four that reveal
the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The others are Rabbit Run
(1961), Rabbit Redux (1971) and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Our
endearing but self-absorbed and directionless hero is a former high
school basketball star who sold cars and attained “success” through luck
by marrying into a family business. The middle-aged Harry now enjoys
prosperity as the chief sales representative during the late 1970s at a
Toyota agency in a medium size city in Pennsylvania. The dealership is
owned by his wife and his mother-in-law. The novel offers a look back at
America in 1979 and into the early 1980s. This snapshot of that period
of time includes inflation, gas shortages, the Carter administration,
consumerism, the OPEC oil crisis, the Iran hostage situation, and much
more. The novel is rich with respect to the issues and problems of the
time. Rabbit is now reasonably comfortable, affluent, and his family is
firmly in the middle class. American brand car sales are declining
because of their low gas mileages. Harry’s Toyotas sell because of their
high mileage per gallon and their low maintenance costs. He belongs to
the Rotary Club and he and his wife enjoy the country club life.
Rabbit’s son Nelson desires to work as a salesman at the Toyota agency
but this would mean dismissing the company’s top salesman. Rabbit knows
that Nelson lacks competence and maturity and that he possesses a sense
of entitlement. Rabbit feels like an economic prisoner when his wife and
mother-in-law overrule him and hire Nelson to work at the dealership.
The novel does a good job of illustrating problems of an
intergenerational family business. There are problems of succession and
of accommodating the next generation. Harry is never really happy. He
says that people never are because they either want something that they
don’t have or are fearful of losing what they do have. He thinks that
there is always someone out there who wants to get him. Both Rabbit and
America are running out of gas. Both have reached middle-age. The
novel’s theme is entropy as evidenced by the economically vulnerable and
spiritually deficient Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The novel discusses
economic and business issues throughout. For example, it is argued that
it is government and those in debt who benefit from inflation. With
respect to business, we hear talk about profit margins and pricing of
various cars, financing percentages, carrying costs of cars in the lot,
what percentage a car salesman makes on new and used cars, and so on.
“The use of fiction, including
novels, plays, and films, can enrich teaching materials in
both educational and business settings. Fiction can be a
powerful force to teach, educate, and move students and
employees in ways that lectures, case studies, textbooks,
articles, and anecdotes cannot.”
In David Mamet’s 1984 play, Glengarry Glen Ross, the reader is
able to witness the interactions between real estate salesmen, potential
customers, and managers in a small, Chicago office in the early 1980s.
This study of human interactions shows four small-time real estate
hustlers competing for their very jobs while attempting to revolt and
unite against a ruthless, inexperienced, vapid, and heartless
company-man boss who answers to his superiors downtown. Anger drives the
characters in this bleak world. The premium leads are reserved for
closers only. The salesmen try to sell vacation and retirement land to
less than financially ideal clients. One desperate and despairing
salesman in his 50s, was once a great salesman, but is now struggling to
make sales. Two others are shown discussing an opportunity to steal
their own company’s best leads and then to offer to sell them to a
competitor. These representatives of a dying breed will do just about
anything to get a sale. They manipulate, scheme, make up stories,
improvise, and cheat in order to connive people into buying land. This
realistic play was made into a fine motion picture.
Oliver Stone’s 1987 film,
Wall Street, depicts the securities
industry as being a rigged game and capitalism as an inherently corrupt
zero-sum system controlled by the few at the expense of the many. The
film teaches that consistent and atypical success in the stock market
depends on asymmetric information. The film is the story of an ambitious
young stockholder, Bud Fox, and his involvement with Gordon Gekko, a
wealthy unscrupulous corporate raider who buys out firms and liquidates
them. The junior stockholder idolizes the investment tycoon who takes
him under his wing. Bud gets a glimpse of Gekko’s world and comes to
realize how ruthless one has to be in order to get ahead. Gekko gives
Bud money to manage and asks him to spy and to obtain inside
information. Bud is from a working-class family. His father is an honest
man who would rather work hard to produce than get rich quickly,
illegally, and unethically. Gordon goes too far when he attempts to take
over and dismantle the airline where Bud’s father works and is a union
leader. Bud has a change of heart when he realizes that he has been a
pawn in that matter. Bud initiates a plot to make Gekko lose millions of
dollars. In addition, Bud is arrested for insider trading and he blows
the whistle on Gekko sending both of them to prison.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film,
Tucker: The Man and His Dream,
tells the true but somewhat fictionalized story of Preston Tucker, a
charming, persuasive, optimistic, innovative, and visionary maverick who
challenged the “Big Three” establishment by creating a utopian
automobile. After World War II, Tucker had the dream to design and
manufacture a safe, innovative, and revolutionary new vehicle. The
exuberant Tucker is portrayed as a Capraesque hero who overcomes
obstacles and fights the forces that eventually crush his dream. The
film celebrates the American can-do spirit and the entrepreneur as the
driving force of capitalism and wealth creation. According to the film,
Tucker was the victim of Detroit and Washington, illustrating the need
to separate economy and the state. His competitors and their allies in
government combine to bring him down.
(1988) by David Lodge is set in the Thatcherite mid-1980s in a
fictitious city in the English Midlands. It tells the story of the
collision of two different worlds, lifestyles, and personalities. An
Industry Year Shadow Scheme, a government program intended to foster
mutual understanding between university and collegiate communities, has
a faculty member shadow a local industrialist for a period of eight
weeks. Both of the chosen participants are disinterested in taking part
in the project. They have preconceived ideas about each other. The
female faculty member is an expert on the nineteenth-century factory
novel. She is an ardent feminist devoted to the study of women in the
Victorian industrial novel who has never been inside an actual factory.
The other person is the practical, hard-working managing director at a
casting and engineering firm. They are skeptical and lack appreciation
for the other’s mode of life. Adversarial at first, the two become
understanding of the other’s point of view. During their voyage of
discovery, they try to make sense of each other’s worlds. Their constant
and lively debates force both characters to reexamine their assumptions
with respect to business, politics, literature, and so much more.
Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play, Other People’s Money, presents two
sides of the hostile takeover and subsequent liquidation story line.
Corporate raider, Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle, wants to take over
an outmoded, debt-free wire and cable company that has a lot of cash.
His method is to target companies with undervalued assets. Larry plans
to sell off the assets of the takeover target firm. The company is worth
more if it is liquidated. Larry wants to maximize shareholder wealth by
taking the money and investing it in some viable more technologically
advanced industry. New England Wire and Cable’s aging chairman, Andrew
“Jorgy” Jorgenson, is a traditionalist and supporter of community values
who doesn’t want to see hundreds of people out of work. Jorgy is an
idealistic, passionate, and paternal businessman who runs the company
based on sentiment and who has pride and faith in his stockholders. The
climactic scene is a proxy fight in a shareholders’ meeting. It is a
battle for control of the board of directors between Larry, who would
make the shareholders money, and Jorgy, who would continue business in
the dying copper wire industry. They both deliver impassioned speeches,
which are masterpieces, explaining the principles underlying their
respective positions. The play portrays Larry as a moral, likeable, even
heroic person. He wants to make money for the stockholders including
retired people who are not rich, while freeing resources to produce
things that people want more than copper wire. The play illustrates that
an efficient and productive economy has the ability to change and that
takeovers are necessary for the efficient operation of a market economy.
Unfortunately, some people will be out of work but people are flexible
and adaptable to changing conditions. Other People’s Money was
later made into a popular film.
There are a number of other good 1980s novels that fall under the
business novel rubric including: The Power Players (1980) by Arlo
Sederberg; The Broker (1981) by Harold Q. Masur; Money: A
Suicide Note (1984) by Martin Amis; Confessions of a Taoist on
Wall Street (1984) by David Payne; Cash (1986) by Paul-Loup
Sulitzer; Small Business (1986) by Tom Parker; Bonfire of the
Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe; The Palace (1988) by Paul
Erdman; The Real World (1989) by Charles Knowlton; and Strong
Medicine (1989) by Arthur Hailey, among others. Three popular 1980s
business-related films are Gung Ho (1986) about the cultural
differences between American workers and Japanese workers, Tin Men
(1987) concerning aluminum siding salesmen who deceive customers, and Working Girl (1988) which deals with the obstacles and frustrations
of a woman working hard to get ahead in business.
William H. Morris’s 1992 novel,
Motor City (also known as Biography of a Buick) is a tale of media manipulation, dealer
pressure, and espionage at General Motors in 1954. This novel offers an
optimistic and romantic portrayal of the cultural and social landscape
of flourishing and energetic America of the 1950s.
(1995) by Po Bronson tells the story of a dysfunctional San Francisco
bond trading office named Atlantic Pacific. This accurate satire of a
high-pressure brokerage house was penned by a former insider of the
industry. In the brutally competitive environment a new, young bond
salesman ignores the house rules. The novel features a variety of
fearful and greedy brokers who engage in outrageous deals. The story
provides a good primer on the concepts and language of finance.
The hero of Philip Roth’s
American Pastoral (1998) is the owner
of a ladies’ glove factory in mid-century Newark, New Jersey who sees
his life fall apart due to political and social unrest. Radical
movements threaten his family and his factory. He is a good and kind
employer who treats his craftsman employees well, but he is not
perceived that way by outsiders. The owner appreciates human work and
initiative and he respects each and every employee who possesses
expertise in each manufacturing process. The hero believes that a
properly made glove reflects a superior world. It follows that people
can flourish through their common efforts to strive for perfection. This
is done when each employee contributes to the manufacturing process and
to the goals of the company.
Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1998) is primarily about two
characters. One, Charles Croker, is a middle-aged conglomerate king who
has a real estate empire. The other man, Conrad Hensley, works in one of
Croker’s frozen food warehouses and is about to be laid off from his job
due to downsizing that the bank has recommended. Croker’s real estate
business is on the brink of collapse. Both men experience tests of
character. Hensley, a man in full, discovers Stoicism and realizes that
happiness lies in not permitting oneself to be controlled by external
(1999) by Richard Powers is a historical novel about the origins and
development of a soap company and how its later years brought the threat
of cancer to nearby residents. In Gain two stories of different
scale are juxtaposed and woven together. The novel describes the rise of
Clare, a small soap company, into a multinational corporation over a
period of a hundred years or so. From one perspective, it tells the
story of enthusiasm, courage, and financial triumph. Not only does it
illustrate the benefits of industry, it also shows its dark side. The
author offers a good blend of American history, economics, management,
marketing, technology, and environmentalism in this work. He also
provides a parallel story of a woman real estate agent stricken with
ovarian cancer which may have been caused by using Clare products or by
living nearby a Clare factory.
Several business-related films appeared during the 1990s.
(1993) is the story of a hardworking Italian-American carpenter who
realizes his dream of becoming a contractor. He is an uncompromising,
honest, focused, and hardworking man with extremely high standards. For
Mac there are only two ways to do a job “the right way and my way and
they’re the same.” The moral of the story is that each person has a
God-given vocation and can contribute to the world by using his talents
to the best of his ability. In addition, there is the satiric Office
Space (1999) and the docudrama, Pirates of Silicon Valley
(1999), that describes the rise of the home computer business through
the rivalry between Apple Computer and Microsoft. The following year
Hollywood offered us Boiler Room and Erin Brockovich. Boiler Room is the story of a college dropout who takes a position
with a small stock brokerage firm where he learns that the company is
selling worthless stocks and bonds of non-existent companies. Erin
Brockovich tells the story of a single-mother legal assistant who
goes after a California power company accused of polluting a city’s
water supply thereby causing serious health problems for the nearby
Max Barry’s Company (2006), like the comic strip
is a parody of the corporate mindset. A new hire at the Seattle-based
Zephyr Holdings witnesses the wholesale irrationality of company policy.
He also realizes that none of the employees have an idea of what the
company actually does. As a result, he undertakes a crusade to
understand the firm’s mission, policies, and so forth. Then We Came
to the End (2007) by Joshua Ferris is about life in 2001 in a
Chicago advertising firm where many layoffs are occurring. All of the
copywriters and designers are in constant fear of being fired. Written
in the first person plural “we,” the novel tells the story of office
politics, deadlines, pranks, stress, rumors, arguments, threats,
laughter, tears, and must more. Work in this downward-spiraling office
is depicted as both boring and vibrant and both as something to be
avoided and as essential to people’s lives.
Money Never Sleeps
is a 2010 sequel to Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone. The
film revolves around the 2008 financial crisis and is set in New York
City. Gordon Gekko has been released from prison and Jake Moore is a
young investment banker in love with Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie.
Jake works for Keller Zabel Investments, a firm that collapses because
of rumors about sub-prime debt and KZI. KZI is not offered a bailout and
Jake goes on a quest to find out who started and benefitted from the
rumor. He teams up with the father of his fiancé to find out this
information. In turn, Gekko wants Jake to help him to reconcile with
Winnie. The movie Margin Call (2011) is a thriller involving key
players in the earliest stages of the 2008 financial crisis. An analyst
discovers that the company is so committed to underwater mortgage-backed
securities that the firm’s potential loss is enough to bring about the
downfall of the company. This information is given to another employee
who must decide whether or not these worthless securities should be sold
to unsuspecting clients. This film places the viewer in the shoes of
company executives who can save their jobs (at least temporarily) by
deceiving and swindling investors. The movie makes the point that
practically no one knew what was going on in the investment banking
industry, not even the majority of the employees.
We have now arrived at our brief analysis of the treatment of business
and businessmen in fiction. A large number of works of business fiction
have appeared and continue to be published. Some of these are popular
works, some have artistic merit, and some have been both well-received
by the general population and have also secured a high place in literary
canon. Many have treated business and the businessman with derision and
hostility while others have held them up for admiration. Many are
literary devaluations of business as a way of life, others have
generally been more favorable in their treatment of business values and
businesspeople, and a few have depicted a career in business as
honorable and heroic. The fictional image of business has been varied
and has included: (1) overemphasis of the faults and weaknesses of
business and the businessman thereby providing a distorted picture; (2)
depictions of how business has changed and developed over time; (3)
challenges at work; (4) the conflict between personal values and the
company’s demands; (5) the need for self-analysis and self-management as
a first concern in managing a firm; (6) celebration of the opportunity
and energy of business life; and (7) positive romantic portraits of
businessmen as active creators in free markets.
Business fiction can be an alternative source of insight to the academic
observations of social scientists. Fiction permits the unique
individuality and richness of variation of its characters. The writer or
filmmaker as artist is able to reshape reality in accordance with his
own values. Positive business novels such as Atlas Shrugged, Cash McCall,
Executive Suite, Sometimes a Great Nation,
and so on, can serve as a guidepost for a new direction in business
This author would like to see someone write a novel (or perhaps a series
of novels) that creates a fictional world, gathering place, or afterlife
of characters that brings together characters from numerous authors of
business novels and plays and characters from various business films.
Just think how interesting it would be to see the interactions between
characters such as Silas Laphan, Frank Cowperwood, David Levinsky,
George Babbitt, Jay Gatsby, Tom Rath, Willy Loman, Cash McCall, Hank
Stamper, Ben Flesh, Gordon Gekko, Larry Garfinkle, and so on. Are there
any aspiring novelists out there who would want to take on this project?
*This is the conclusion of an upcoming book called Exploring Capitalist
Fiction: Business through Literature and Film in which Professor
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From the same author
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307 – January 15, 2013)
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301 – June 15, 2012)
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300 – May 15, 2012)
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299 – April 15, 2012)
Henry Hazlitt's Time Will Run Back: A Tale of
the Reinvention of Capitalism
298 – March 15, 2012)
First written appearance of the
word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.
Le Québécois Libre
Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary
cooperation since 1998.