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Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age

Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age

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Literature and Inequality: Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age

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Mar 31, 2020


The consequences of high-end inequality seep into almost every aspect of human life: it is not just a question for economists. In this highly accessible new work, Professor Shaviro takes an interdisciplinary approach to explore how great works of literature have provided some of the most incisive accounts of inequality and its social and cultural ramifications over the last two centuries. Through perceptive close readings of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Edith Wharton, among others, he not only demonstrates how these accounts are still relevant today, but how they can illuminate our understanding of our current situation and broaden our own perspective beyond the merely economic.

Mar 31, 2020

Sobre el autor

Daniel Shaviro used to practice in a law firm, like the characters in this book, but decided he would rather not work so hard for a living, and is now a Professor of Law at NYU Law School. Luckily, his law firm was nothing like the one depicted here. He is the author of many books about public policy, but this is his first novel. He lives in New York with his wife, two sons, and three cats, and has a blog at http://danshaviro.blogspot.com.

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Literature and Inequality - Daniel Shaviro

Literature and Inequality

Literature and Inequality

Nine Perspectives from the Napoleonic Era through the First Gilded Age

Daniel Shaviro

Anthem Press

An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company


This edition first published in UK and USA 2020


75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK

or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK


244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA

Copyright © Daniel Shaviro 2020

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1-78527-366-7 (Hbk)

ISBN-10: 1-78527-366-3 (Hbk)

This title is also available as an e-book.


1. Introduction

Part 1 England and France during the Age of Revolution

2. Why Aren’t Things Better Than This?: Class Relations within the Top 1 Percent in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

3. A Rising Tide Rocks All Boats: The Threat of Rising Prosperity in Stendhal’s Le Rouge Et Le Noir

4. Arrivistes, Rentiers, Mandarins and Flunkies in Honoré De Balzac’s Le Père Goriot and La Maison Nucingen

Summary for Part 1: England and France during the Age of Revolution

Part 2 England from the 1840s through the Start of World War I

5. Why Do Scrooge Truthers Hate Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol ?

6. Not to Blame?: Plutocrats, Capitalism and Foreigners in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

7. Unconnected: Rentier Intellectuals Über Alles in E. M. Forster’s Howards End

Summary for Part 2: England from the 1840s through the Start of World War I

Part 3 Gilded Age America

8. Anti-Success Manual?: Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age

9. No Success Like Failure?: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

10. Superhero or Bungler?: Frank Cowperwood/Charles Yerkes in Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier and The Titan

Summary for Part 3: Gilded Age America

11. Conclusion



Chapter 1


Consider the following three scenes, each taken from a famous novel of the last two-plus centuries:

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the gorgon-like Lady Catherine de Bourgh confronts Elizabeth Bennet outside the Bennets’ family home, demanding that Elizabeth disclaim any plan of marrying her Ladyship’s nephew, Mr. Darcy. Facing unwonted opposition, her Ladyship exclaims: I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.

Elizabeth responds: That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the wealthy and well-born Tom Buchanan tells the merely wealthy Jay Gatsby that he won’t let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to [my] wife Daisy, who is planning (or thinks she is) to run off with Gatsby. Tom then so thoroughly crushes Gatsby that he can command him to drive her home. Go on, Tom tells Daisy. He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.

In Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, self-styled Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond-trader, has been brought low by the exposure and criminal prosecution of his involvement in a hit-and-run car accident. Released on bail amid a giant media circus, he returns to his $3 million Park Avenue townhouse, only to find that he cannot escape the sound of demonstrators with bullhorns shouting his name. The world all around is titillated […] by his disgrace. Abandoned by his wife and all his friends, he still finds mockers and exploiters eager to invade his privacy and sniff[] and sniff[] at his shame, until their faces stiffened from the stench. It’s the perfect nightmare demonstration that, in a democratic society with an excitable press, wealth and privilege (at least at McCoy’s level) do not provide immunity against the threat of public destruction.

In each of these three scenes, a holder of substantial wealth, high rank, or both together faces a startling power outage. Lady Catherine cannot quell what she deems [t]‌he upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Gatsby’s recently acquired vast wealth proves inadequate to satisfy his upstart pretensions. McCoy is offered up as a cheap sacrifice to the mass voting and consumer public by people who can advance their own interests by doing so.

Each of these three novels is written in a realistic vein, with close attention to contemporary detail regarding the author’s own society. Yet the conclusion best drawn from them is not that Austen, Fitzgerald and Wolfe view the holders of great wealth or rank as facing impotence or failure on an everyday basis. To the contrary, each moment comes near the climax of a distinctive drama that has been building since the novel’s first paragraph. Its being unusual adds to its power. In each case, however, the moment grows organically out of broader social conflicts that the novels depict as more generally swirling around wealth and high rank.

In Pride and Prejudice, the central battle concerns the relative status of people at different levels within England’s landholding gentry. Lady Catherine not only feels entitled to issue commands to Elizabeth but views Darcy as residing far above the sphere in which you have been brought up. Elizabeth, for her part, not only refuses to be intimidated into anything that her personal judgment tells her is wholly unreasonable but also says their spheres are the same. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal. (How fully she believes this is another matter.)

The Great Gatsby’s core status conflicts similarly revolve around a bid for admission to the very top. Here, however—more than a century later, and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—the issue is permeability, rather than breadth. Gatsby seeks admission to the very top by reason of his recently having acquired great wealth. Part of Daisy’s appeal to Gatsby is that she is an authentic top-ranker by birth, whereas he can only pretend to be one. Her voice is full of money, he says, in a society where, at least in some circles, inheritance is the dominant metric. His sense of personal inferiority, because he was not born rich, is crucial to Tom Buchanan’s ability to crush him.

By the time of Bonfire of the Vanities, we have transitioned to a society in which making money conveys more status than inheriting it. In addition, Wolfe offers us a very different angle on dignitary conflicts between those at the very top and everyone else. Here, a central point is that people of middle or lower rank feel resentment for their betters’ arrogant pretensions—fueling their delight at McCoy’s ignominious fall. Yet the novel focuses from the inside on his torment, rather than on their delight, or on any grievances that might fuel it. The Bonfire of the Vanities is thus, among other things, anxiety porn regarding fears that may be felt at the top. It offers its empathy to one who is gazing down from above, rather than, as in Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby, up from below.

A still broader set of lessons from these novels (and others) concerns the use of literature to help us understand high-end inequality. Great wealth and claims to high rank may be associated with intense status conflicts—whether concerning rival elites, admission to a particular elite, or the proper relationships between people at different levels. These conflicts inevitably reflect the particular social contexts in which they arise, rather than just depending on the protagonists’ relative wealth. Narrative fiction can offer unique qualitative insights about a given society’s status conflicts—thereby both complementing and informing expressly empirical social science research. As it happens, the sociological issues around high-end inequality are especially important in America and peer societies today, given the recent growth of wealth and income concentration at the very top, along with the reasons why they matter. These reasons, in turn, bear the influence of both quantitative and qualitative considerations.

The Recent Sharp Rise of High-End Inequality

A recent leading study found that, between 1979 and 2014, the share of overall US wealth that was held by the top 0.1 percent more than tripled, from 7 percent to 22 percent (Saez and Zucman, 2014). Meanwhile, the top 0.01 percent was pulling away from the top 0.1 percent, and the top 0.001 percent from the top 0.01 percent, in a process that economists call fractal inequality (Lowry 2014).

While other reputable studies have found marginally less (and less rapidly growing) wealth concentration at the top,¹ the core conclusions that they reach are very similar. At whatever precise rate, the superrich have been pulling away from the rest of us for several decades. Such differences as there are between the studies reflect both the empirical barriers to observing wealth accurately and conceptual puzzles regarding what we might mean by wealth—or alternative measures, such as income—when the issues of broader interest extend to the sociological and the psychological.

Statistically measuring wealth inequality would be easy if there were a comprehensive register showing both the value of all assets (a term that is not self-defining) and who owned what interests in them. Instead, however, even when we know assets’ value, such as in the case of publicly traded stock, we may not know who ultimately or beneficially owns them. And even when we know who owns something, such as a privately held business, we may not know its value. Economists must therefore try to infer wealth from a number of distinct data sets, such as income tax returns, estate tax returns and the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). Each comes with its own distinctive problems. For example, estate tax returns purport to value the assets in rich decedents’ estates, but are notoriously subject to understatement and tax planning games. Income tax returns include taxable income flows, from which one can try to gauge underlying asset values, but this requires attributing rates of return. It also leaves out unrealized asset appreciation until the tax-discouraged occurrence of a sale. The SCF excludes members of the Forbes 400 and relies on the completeness and accuracy of what people are willing to report.

The debate over how to resolve such challenges is not just empirical but also conceptual. For example, what about human capital or the present value of people’s remaining expected career earnings? Viewing this as wealth is controversial, but a CEO who earns $100 million a year, has job security and enjoys working may be just as well-off materially as an idle jet-setter who annually withdraws vast amounts from a trust fund. Excluding such human capital value from wealth estimates may therefore give what is in some respects an incomplete picture.

The role of people’s earnings, not just their conventionally defined asset holdings, is especially important given labor income’s central role in fueling the modern rise of high-end inequality. Despite all the talk about capital by Piketty (2014) and others, reflecting its undoubted importance, the modern rise of high-end inequality, especially in the United States, has been fueled more by the rise of unequal labor market returns than by anything else.

Among other things, this is crucial to modern self-conceptualizations at the top. Consider Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class, which is best known today for setting forth the theory of conspicuous consumption. While Veblen’s analysis of competitive social display, viewed at a general level, remains as timely as ever, he wrote at a time when wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors […] [was] more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessor’s own effort (Veblen 1912, 24). Today, by contrast, we live in an era of putatively heroic job-creators and superman CEOs, who ostensibly do tremendous things advanc[ing] the public good (Mankiw 2014). Thus, today even the scions of famous parents […] like to pretend that the generous paydays that fall into their laps reflect their own talents and efforts (Shaviro 2016, 128). So the social meanings that are likely to be invoked in pursuit of competitive social display have changed, even as conspicuous consumption remains with us.

The Last 200 Years’ Up-Down-Up Pattern with Respect to High-End Inequality

Despite the empirical and conceptual issues that complicate defining and measuring high-end inequality, the economic literature is quite clear regarding its course over a long time period. In the United States, throughout the pre-Civil War era, the nation’s free society, comprising all regions outside the slaveholding South, was far less unequal, at both the top and the bottom, than leading countries across the Atlantic, such as England and France. While, in the South, inequality took the most extreme and violent form possible, since one-half of the population owned the other half (Piketty 2014, 16), the rest of the country not only lacked a formal aristocracy but also had extremely cheap land available to those who could move. But then America’s late nineteenth-century Gilded Age witnessed a sharp rise in high-end wealth concentration, fueled by the creation of new business and finance mega-fortunes.

Between 1870 and 1910, the top 1 percent’s income share almost doubled, from 9.8 percent to 17.8 percent (Lindert and Williamson 2016, 173). As to wealth, Brad DeLong (1998, 4) estimates that the share held by the US top 1 percent peaked at about 35 percent before the Civil War, fell to 25 percent during the Civil War era and then started rising again, such that it reached 45 percent by 1900. Hugh Rockoff (2008, 33) finds that the top 1 percent’s wealth share rose steadily from 27 percent in 1860 to 37.2 percent in 1900.

That era was then followed by the Great Easing, in which high-end inequality declined for much of the twentieth century. The trigger for this course change seems to have been multiple great calamities, including a decade-long Great Depression that was sandwiched between two brutally destructive World Wars. Given, however, the trend’s persistence until about the mid-1970s, it seems to have had additional demographic and/or technological causes that remain incompletely understood. It also may have continued for as long as it did due to tax, regulatory and spending policies—restraining after-tax economic gains at the top and extending opportunity further down—that countries such as the United States and Great Britain pursued from the end of World War II through the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism.

Since the Great Easing’s end, four-plus decades of rising high-end inequality have made the onset of a new Gilded Age (Krugman 2014b) indisputable if one is merely speaking statistically. Perhaps more important, however, as well as more controversial, is the question of whether the comparison between eras is otherwise apt, such as culturally and politically. Such a question requires considering more generally whether, why and when extreme high-end inequality might be cause for concern.

Why Does High-End Inequality Matter in General?

We sometimes treat inequality as if it were a single unified topic, even though it embraces issues of both poverty at the bottom and wealth concentration at the top. The mistake that this involves brings to mind the statistician in the old joke whose head is in an oven, while his feet are encased in a block of ice, and who proclaims that, on average, he is feeling quite comfortable.

The statistician’s mistake is not just that of overrating the importance of average adjoining temperature. Even if he added a statistical measure of variance from the mean, he would still be conflating two distinct problems. The dangers that his head will burn up and that his feet will suffer from frostbite are distinct and heterogeneous.

High-end and low-end inequality likewise raise distinct types of issues. Concern about low-end inequality reflects that the poor are worse-off than the rest of us. Simple beneficence dictates wanting to raise them up. For concern about high-end inequality to be the same thing in reverse, it would have to involve thinking that, because the rich are doing better than the rest of us, we should want to push them down, presumably as an end in itself. This would substitute malignance (or gratuitous envy) for beneficence. However, no such view need be embraced by anyone who feels that extreme high-end inequality is a problem. To the contrary, beneficent regard for human welfare supports being concerned about it, no less than about poverty and deprivation, albeit by a more circuitous pathway.

The economic literature addressing high-end inequality sometimes focuses with undue exclusivity on declining marginal utility, which can be explained as follows. Since we satisfy our most urgent needs first, any given individual who is being handed one dollar after another (starting from the case where she has nothing) will generally gain less and less added welfare per dollar, as the stack of her dollar bills rises. Accordingly, if people are otherwise similar, a marginal dollar generally would increase a poor person’s welfare more than a rich person’s.

Consider a recent report finding that the richest 26 people in the world have, in the aggregate, just as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion (Oxfam 2019). Even before we learn specific details about fabulous indulgences among the 26, or about disease, malnutrition, homelessness, exposure to violence and short life expectancies among the 3.8 billion, we may find it easy to guess which group’s average members would subjectively benefit more from gaining a dollar of spending power.

Declining marginal utility is important, but it falls far short of capturing the full significance and effects of high-end inequality in human society. We are not just isolated consumers, growing increasingly sated as we fill up on pizza slices, or ever more jaded as we push further toward the frontiers of fine living. Rather, we are an intensely social species, and often a rivalrous one, prone to measuring ourselves in terms of others, and often directly against others. People have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy, creating the potential for extreme wealth differences to invoke[] feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination that powerfully affect[] the ways we relate to each other (Wilkinson and Pickett 2014).

A large and growing body of social science research suggests that extreme inequality makes people more anxious, paranoid, shortsighted and prone to risky behavior. It cleav[es] us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy (Payne 2017, 3–4). For example, it correlates with, and appears to increase, such social gradient ills as teenage births, homicides, other violence, imprisonment rates, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity (Wilkinson and Pickett 2014). These not only matter in and of themselves but may be diagnostics indicating broader societal unease.

The stresses associated with extreme high-end inequality may reflect our evolutionary history as a species that, until the rise of urban civilization about ten thousand years ago, lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, none of whom could amass large reserves of secure, inheritable wealth, or otherwise achieve secure and lasting dominance. For another example of recently changed circumstances, consider our craving for fat and sugar, which evolved when famines were a repeated evolutionary bottleneck, but which is maladaptive under conditions of secure plenty. Analogously, our social heritage of competing keenly over status and scarce resources, but under more fluid circumstances and without so much prospect of facing huge vertical gulfs, may have affected our psychological adaptability to what came next. After all, we are neither so individualistic, rather than group-focused, a species as cats, nor one that shares dogs’ evolutionary heritage of obeying dominant pack leaders.

Among the reasons for concern about extreme high-end wealth concentration is that it can lead to the extremely unequal exercise of political power, with deleterious consequences for governmental responsiveness to the concerns of the bottom 99 percent (Bartels 2010; Gilens 2012). Insofar as this is the problem, it might seem that we could focus, say, on campaign financing rules, rather than on wealth distribution as such. Yet even if we could succeed at the challenging task of walling off concentrated economic power from political power, this still would fail to address, even just within the realm of politics, high-end inequality’s attitudinal consequences.

In the United States today, Josh Marshall (2014) argues that the distinctive position of the superrich breeds [in them] a mix of aggressiveness and perceived embattlement, with poisonous broader consequences. Accustomed to extreme deference in their daily lives, they find it humiliating and intolerable when they must run to the political class hat in hand (albeit waving large checkbooks) in quest of backing. He adds that the sheer scale of the difference in wealth levels means that they live what is simply a qualitatively different kind of existence. This leads to their estrangement and alienation, experienced against the background of awareness that such a minuscule sliver of the population can’t hope to protect itself alone at the ballot box, thereby inducing a significant radicalization of the politics of extreme wealth. In this study, we will see Gilded Age antecedents for the phenomenon that Marshall notes.

US High-End Inequality in Particular

High-end inequality’s broader sociological effects vary with time and place, rather than depending purely on any measure of its statistical level. A case in point involves America’s distinctive national culture, shaped not only by the historical absence of aristocracy but also by a long-standing egalitarian and democratic ethos. This has long been accompanied, however, by a strong ideological commitment to what we now call meritocracy.

While this term was only first coined in 1958, in a dystopian satire written by a British socialist (Young 1958), the meritocratic ideal—[holding] that social and economic rewards [both] should [and does] track achievement rather than breeding (Markovits 2018, 9)—has been around far longer. Since at least the 1870s, proponents of what we now call the national Horatio Alger myth have been insisting that America offers so much economic opportunity to rise, even from the humblest origins, that anyone who works hard and exercises proper self-discipline not only can, but almost surely will, become rich. Hence, not only have the rich proven their merit and virtue by succeeding, but the poor have only themselves to blame for failure. Both winners and losers deserve their fates, and the former owe the latter nothing, not even compassion (see, e.g., Conwell 1925).

Pre-Industrial Age England, by contrast, had a prominent, aristocratically derived, notion of reciprocal links and obligations between the upper and lower classes. The humble, no less than the great, properly and honorably belonged in their inherited sphere, without any moral blame attaching to their low standing. What is more, a prominent social ideology valorized the two-sided exchange of gracious aid and concern for deference and gratitude.

One need neither admire the aristocratic ethos nor mourn its passing to find American ideological underpinnings ill-suited to accommodate extreme wealth concentration at the top. In what I call a paradox of egalitarianism, the very fact that, in American ideology, inequality is not viewed as simply the natural state of things seems to create a need, among those at the top, at least when they have grown sufficiently remote from everyone else, to deploy harsh vehemence in defending and rationalizing their high perch. The super-wealthy must be markedly superior to the rest of the population, both morally and intellectually, in order to be assured of deserving their place. As we will see, the resulting compulsion to flaunt meritocratic desert not only counsels contempt for those below but also sharpens status battles at the top.

The view, expressed in other recent work, that meritocracy breeds rancor and division, amid a maelstrom of recrimination, disrespect, and dysfunction (Markovits 2018, x), can actually be deepened by comparative and historical research. This, in turn, can usefully involve looking closely at America’s first Gilded Age, as well as exploring comparisons to other countries and to other eras.

Design Implications for This Study

The fact that issues of status, hierarchy and social affiliation play out neither in a vacuum nor identically in all cultural settings helps to show the need for interdisciplinary work. Sociology such as Veblen’s, examining the broader cultural pathways through which people express their wants and interpret their experiences, can help to deepen our understanding of high-end inequality’s impact at a given time and place.

The importance of social context also gives comparative study a key place in the analysis of high-end inequality. Comparisons between eras and peer countries can be illuminating, and all the more so in light of the last two centuries’ up-down-up pattern with respect to high-end wealth concentration.

Consider the United States and England. These two countries have enough in common, both historically and as a matter of ongoing cultural relationships, that key differences between them, such as England’s aristocratic tradition and America’s ugly racial history, can function almost like independent variables in an experiment. Likewise, the fact that early nineteenth-century France, unlike England, had recently experienced a violent revolution, and subsequent uneasy restoration, adds interest to comparing the tensions in each around upward mobility.

In this book, my approach to examining high-end inequality adjoins both sociology and history, via cultural studies. I offer close readings of selected works of literature that provide suggestive in-depth perspectives on high-end inequality in their particular eras. Each of the selected works concerns the author’s own society, in a setting that he or she had personally experienced. Moreover, each has, at the least, strong elements of attempted realism and close social observation. I proceed from the early nineteenth century through the first Gilded Age’s end, early in the twentieth century. A follow-up work may examine literary works from the 1920s to the present day.

More particularly, this book examines novels from three distinct eras, as defined both by time and place. The first is England and France during the early nineteenth century’s Age of Revolution. The second is Victorian and Edwardian England, from the mid-nineteenth century through the run-up to World War I. The third is the United States during the Gilded Age.

Each period offers instructive comparisons to high-end inequality today. For example, in early nineteenth-century England and France, the continued importance of titled aristocrats and aristocratic values—each, however, under challenge—yields a decided contrast to a modern world dominated more by wealth and celebrity than ancient lineages as such. In Victorian and Edwardian England, we see the significance of England having a broad upper class that bases its identity on the concept—socially, both unifying and dividing—of the gentleman. Finally, in America’s first Gilded Age, we see the importance of extreme high-end inequality’s tension with the nation’s long-standing egalitarian and democratic ethos for white Anglo-Saxon men.

From each period, I choose three particular works, selected for reasons that merged the purposeful with the concededly idiosyncratic. I wanted some degree of social and intellectual diversity between my selections from any given era,² along with a shared focus on what I considered the era’s central issues around high-end inequality. The chosen works also needed to reward a close reading. I make no claim that these are the best works to look at from a historical or sociological standpoint—only that they are among those very well-suited to reward such treatment.

I principally focus on works within the canon of what many (myself included) would call great literature. One could argue that great literature, at least when it is socially and psychologically oriented, has the capacity to offer especially deep insights about high-end inequality. Yet no such premise is needed to support focusing on them here. For my

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