Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2013, No 308
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 business world.
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 books.
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 inspiring.
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 cinematic depictions.
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 personal initiative.
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.
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.
Upton Sinclair’s 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 industry.
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 education.
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 productive work.
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 unions.
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 Build-Up (1952).
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.
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 “organization man.”
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 screen.
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 The View 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 employee.
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 Atlas 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 that era.
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.
JR (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, The 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.
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.
Nice Work (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.
Bombardiers (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 events.
Gain (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. Mac (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 residents.
Max Barry’s Company (2006), like the comic strip Dilbert, 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.
Wall Street: 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 fiction.
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?
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*This is the conclusion of an upcoming book called Exploring Capitalist Fiction: Business through Literature and Film in which Professor Younkins discusses 25 novels, plays, and films. **Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.