Humane Studies Review

Volume 7, Number 2 Spring 1992

Reading the Economy

by Donald McCloskey

Current Issues in Literature


I have been thinking about an anthology of literature on the economy, a garland for those, as Hopkins said, "seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil." It would collect the best writing about the economy, about toiling and trading, from the literary side. It would contain Homer and Shakespeare, not Adam Smith and J.M. Keynes (saved for another day). Its implied readers would be people who toil and trade or people who watch them -- most of us, in short. We need to be un-seared, bleared, smeared.

On the first page of The Principles of Economics (New York: MacMillan Press, 1961, 9th Ed.), Alfred Marshall defined the subject as "a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life." My point is that literature sometimes studies it too. Wily Odysseus, the master of subtle dealing, enacts the wanderings of a Greek trader. Robert Frost's poem about mending a wall (his stone-age workmate said, "Good fences make good neighbors") is about a farming chore but also about its meaning or lack of meaning and about our view of the meaning. Look at the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, one of many instances in a play "about," among other things, accounting:

Salarino:	...  I know Antonio
		Is sad to think upon his merchandise.
Antonio:  	Believe me, no; I thank my fortune
		My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
		Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
		Upon the fortune of this present year:
		Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.
Salarino: 	Why, then you are in love.
Antonio:	                        Fie, fie!
Yet Antonio's ordinary business seems by Act III to have gone badly, and his loan, too. Bassanio asks, "But is it true, Solanio?/ Have all his ventures failed? What, not one hit?/ From Tripolis, from Mexico, and England,/ From Lisbon, Barbary, and India?/ And not one vessel ‘scape the dreadful touch/ Of merchant-marring rocks?" "Not one, my lord." Poets and novelists write "about" war, love, politics, religion, and always about writing itself. But they write also on occasion about financial crises and daily work.

Such writings denote the meanings of ordinary life, not as mottoes hung and forgotten on the wall but as revisionings -- literally, visions seen again, and again, and again, on each reading. To the economist's definition of economics the literary critic Northrop Frye would add, as he says in The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964, p. 140): "The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life . . . is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in."

The vision of the society we want to live in can be utopian and socialistic; or else it can be local and capitalistic. That is, it can exhibit the nature of man under socialism, never seen but vividly imagined, the vision provided by nineteenth-century intellectuals to haunt the twentieth century. Or it can exhibit the Edinburgh townsman, encountered yesterday in the street, the vision of eighteenth-century intellectuals which we may hope will guide the twenty-first century. The one is utopian in its root sense: ou topos, no place. The other is particular to a locale, tried. Both are visions of the society we want to live in and both are revisioned in literature. Poets write about poetry, I say, even when writing about the economy. Here is Frost, in "The Tuft of Flowers," first published in 1915 (later in E.C. Lathem, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968, pp. 22-23]), revisioning what poetry has to do with work, locally, in the here and now: "I went to turn the grass once after one/ Who mowed it in the dew before the sun... But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,/ And I must be, as he had been -- alone, / ‘As all must be,' I said within my heart,/ ‘Whether they work together or apart.'" Yet a butterfly causes him to see a tuft of flowers left by the mower. He had left it for no payment, "Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,/ But from sheer morning gladness at the brim." In a recording of the poem Frost remarked of "sheer morning gladness at the brim" that it was "a definition of poetry." Thus the social character even of poetic work: "glad with him, I worked as with his aid,/ And weary, sought at noon with him the shade; ... ‘Men work together,' I told him from the heart,/ ‘Whether they work together or apart.'"

The word poema in Greek means "a thing crafted." Frost the craftsman was suspicious of grand revisionings of the economy -- "Yes, revolutions are the only salves./ But they're one thing that should be done by halves" ("A Semi-Revolution"). He saw a job of grass-turning or apple-picking as a local and literal thing made. We work together in the economy, whether we work together or apart, which is the reason to care about its imaginative revisioning. We buy and sell, and in the sweat of our brows earn our bread.

The plan, then, would be to select the best that has been thought and written about the ordinary business of life. Some writers, like Frost, could fill a book themselves, so often did they reflect on work and trade, as in "New Hampshire," published in 1923 (and in Lathem, p. 164): "Do you know,/ Considering the market, there are more/ Poems produced than any other thing?/ No wonder poets sometimes have to seem/ So much more businesslike than businessmen."

Other poets and novelists deal rarely with the economy. T.S. Eliot does just once, when casting a traveler to Christ's birth as making a business report, complaining of the assignment, the prices, and the accomodations ("Journey of the Magi," in Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1990-1950 [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952, pp. 68-69]). Eliot was a banker and publisher, but like most moderns he separated his art from his business. The successor to Eliot as the most studied American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), might have written economic poetry in abundance, as a surety bond lawyer for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company from 1916 until his death, but wrote in fact none. W.H. Auden, though socially conscious in a way that neither Eliot nor Stevens was, produced only a handful of economic poems.

Of course one could, as the literary people put it, "be reductive" and stick everything into the economy, thereby harvesting every poem as "basically" economic. After all, the host of golden daffodils that Wordsworth saw in never-ending line along the margin of a bay were some farmer's field infected with weeds, or else a venture in the cut flower trade. Various other reductions are possible. Literature can be "basically" psychological or personal or sexual or social. Yeats' poem "Easter 1916" can then be cast into the category of economic because it is political and, after all, politics is basically economic.

The better selection, however, would be non-reductive. Indeed in a particular sense it would be superficial, for a reason. A poem or story can be taken as "about" the economy if it speaks on the surface about the matters that concern businesspeople, trade unionists, craftsmen, economists, housewives, and other workers and their theorists. If such a poem or story is read by such economic people they will start intrigued. If it is good literature they will stay.

Good writers of course say more than is on the surface. (That is not to say that they write in order to be decoded in a summarizable message, which is the view expressed in Richard Posner's lamentable Law and Literature [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988]; it is the theory that literature is a picture puzzle, like those in the children's book "Where's Waldo?") The below-surface meaning is why I keep putting uncomfortable quotation marks around the word "about," as in "about the economy." "More than is on the surface" says merely that the meanings coexist at different levels and that literature enacts its meaning as much as saying it. The anthology would connect the economic surface of people's lives to the tradition of literature. The purpose is to entice economic people into literature.

There is a lot of literature of high quality about the economy. An anthology should prefer complete works to snippets, yet some snippets are hard to resist. Consider Matthew Arnold's portrait of a trader fleeing the ruck of the eastern Mediterranean, at the end of Arnold's decidedly uneconomic, even anti-economic, poem, "The Scholar Gypsy": "To where the Atlantic raves/ Outside the western straits; and unbent sails/ There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,/ Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;/ And on the beach undid his corded bales."

Poetry is one type; novels are another. Whole novels deal with the economy, as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders do. Jane Austen's supporting players are economic people before the phrase, maximizers on the market for marriage. Dickens is of course a relentless describer of the worst of capitalism, most relentlessly in Hard Times. The novels can be snipped to fit: Crusoe choosing what to save from the wreck, the exercise of choice under constraints; or Steinbeck's description of the labor camps in California in The Grapes of Wrath; or bargaining scenes from the sagas of the Icelanders, a commercial and heroic people. Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed (1825-26) is memorized by Italian school children as a model of Tuscan. Manzoni was a classical liberal, and devotes an eloquent chapter (XII) to showing the effects of price controls during a famine.

But wait a minute. Work and play differ, don't they? The sweat of our brows is one thing, the spiritual Eden of literary art another, correct? The economy is matter, literature is mind, right? We work by day as lawyers or ditchdiggers and then cleanse our souls of an evening with golden daffodils recollected in tranquility, n'est ce pas?

No, not right, not correct, non. If literature often cannot be summarized without loss, my theme can: It is, "The dichotomy between the economy and the spirit is bunk."

An anti-economic line in much literature has enforced the dichotomy. The bard scorns the mere tradesman standing at the door of the banquet hall. An ancient poetic convention splits the two, work and play, as though done by different classes, one the slaves, the other the aristocrats. The sneering dichotomy between work and play celebrates a leisured class of poets, priests, and philosophers resting on a mob of mere workers. "Odi profanum vulgus et arceo, I hate the uncouth mob and fend it off," sang Horace (Odes 3.1) in the language of religion, concluding with an anti- economic query in the language of the marketplace: "cur valle permutem Sabina/ divitias operosiores? Why should I exchange my Sabine valley for the great trouble of riches?" The vulgarities of work and technology and science are supposed to have nothing to do with their own meaning, supplied from the outside by religion and poetry and music.

The matter/mind split dates from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, exemplified for him in the split of slave from master, and the mere citizen from the aristocrat. In the seventeenth century, when one might think the ever-rising middle class would be finding some way around it, the dichotomy was revived as science versus practice. One sees the result today in the sneers that theoretical physicists reserve for engineers (and for everybody else). The mathematicians and theorists come mostly from the upper middle class or the aristocracy itself; from the rest, disproportionately, come the engineers and entrepreneurs.

The dichotomy is nutty and hurtful, and it is about time we got rid of it. Anyone who has proven in school a mathematical theorem and also written a rock lyric knows that the two have similarities. Anyone who has raked hot-top for the Highway Department and made a pot on a wheel at the community college knows that the pleasures of plasticity are one. Anyone who has sold a car secondhand and read Lincoln's Second Inaugural knows that the joys of exercising the language for persuasion are the same.

It is hurtful for the nine out of ten adults who work in home, office, or factory to be told their main occupation is beyond the reach of poetry and fiction. No wonder they turn to other sources of lyric and myth, to rock music and country, the TV soaps and the National Football League. The literary people keep telling them that what they do is "alienating" and that the only real living happens in leisure time and in libraries.

Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco dock worker and sage, spoke often to the contrary, as someone in a position to know. Thus The Ordeal of Change (New York: Harper and Row, 1963, p. 34):

it is mainly by work that the majority of individuals prove their worth and regain their balance... No one will claim that the majority of people in the Western world, be they workers or managers, find fulfillment in their work. But they do find in it a justification for their existence. The ability to do a day's work and get paid for it gives one a sense of usefulness and worth.
Or again, in The Temper of Our Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1967, p. 13):
There is a considerable literature on the barbarizing and dehumanizing effects of the machine; how it turns us into robots and slaves, stifles our individuality, and dwarfs our lives. Most of the indictments of the machine come of course from writers, poets, philosophers, and scholars -- men of words -- who have no first-hand experience of working and living with machines. . . . The proficient mechanic is an alert and intuitive human being. On the waterfront one can see how the ability to make a fork lift or a winch do one's bidding with precision and finesse generates a peculiar exhilaration.
In other words, the anthology would lean against the false dichotomy of (mundane) work and (spiritual) life. In Justice as Translation: An Essay in Cultural and Legal Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) James Boyd White, a legal and literary scholar of note, has asked the right question: "Can we learn to produce texts that are more ‘integrated' in the sense that in them we put two things -- two systems of discourse, two sets of practices -- together in such a way as to make a third that transforms our sense of both? . . . Can we find ways to connect the way we talk professionally with the ways we talk in ordinary life?" The anthology would try to put the literary and the economic systems of discourse together, to make a third that transforms our sense of both.

A selection will of course depend on a theory of the economy. The dominant theory of the economy in departments of literature these days is Marxist, and for about a century even intellectuals without much enthusiasm for state socialism have thought It's All in Marx. Alarmingly, an English professor who wants to learn more about the economy will turn to Lukacs, Adorno, or Eagleton, not to Friedman, Arrow, or Samuelson. She does not even turn to Marxoid writings that recognize the power of non- Marxist economics or the error of Marxist economic history, such as Robert Heilbroner's or John Elster's. If she is serious she will read back to Capital and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, but never to Menger or Marshall. A well-known Marxist critic admitted to me recently -- to her credit she was embarrassed at the thought -- that she had read Marx's attack on Adam Smith with care but not a page of Adam Smith.

A "new economic criticism," as the critic Martha Woodmansee has called it, is redressing the balance. Woodmansee herself has written most illuminatingly on "The Genius and the Copyright" (Eighteenth-Century Studies 17, Summer 1984: 425-448), explaining how the romantic notion of the lone author has colored modern law. Others in this line are Marc Shell (The Economy of Literature [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978]; Money, Language and Thought [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982]), Catherine Gallagher (The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985]), and especially Kurt Heinzelman (The Economics of the Imagination [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980]), who is remarkably sophisticated about economics-without-Marx. They all shift their gaze from production and reproduction (namely, Marxism) to consumption and growth (namely, Smithism). "Consumption," said Smith, to the applause of most economists, "is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer."

From the economic side, too, there are signs of literary life, such as Don C. Lavoie, ed., Economics and Hermeneutics (London: Routledge, 1990). There is no need to cast out the Marxist writings; but they do need a great deal of supplementation. As long as the supplementation is broad church not much harm is done, even to Marxist sensibilities. "The ordinary business of life" covers a lot of ideological ground. There is no need to be dogmatic.

Of course, I have views. On Marxism they are well expressed again by Hoffer: "Marx never did a day's work in his life, and knew as much about the proletariat as I do about chorus girls" (Before the Sabbath [New York: Harper and Row, 1979, p. 60]). But in my youth I was a Marxist and have felt the romance of revolution. The socialists have by far the best songs: "And was Jerusalem builded here/ Among these dark satanic mills?"; "For a' that, and a' that,/ It's coming yet, for a' that,/ That man to man the warld o'er/ Shall brothers be for a' that"; "From San Diego up to Maine/ In every mine and mill/ Where workers strike and organize,/ That's where you'll find Joe Hill."

Fairness in selection, against my own bias, is easy in the present case, because literary people have not been on the whole enthusiasts for markets. The word-people of course favor words. They tend to think that explicit planning, which is word-rich, is therefore to be preferred to anonymous markets. (They have not usually recognized that markets in fact live on the tongues of men and women: one quarter of national income at present is spent on persuasion, as Arjo Klamer and I have discovered recently.)

So most of the economic thinking of literary people has been socialist, if not positively Stalinist, in its hostility to free exchange. Thus Arthur Hugh Clough's skillful poem of 1862, "The Latest Decalogue," when the literary socialists were beginning to win the war against capitalism: "Thou shalt have one God only; who/ Would be at the expense of two?/ No graven images may be/ Worshipped except the currency," and so forth and so on, down to, "Thou shalt not covet, but tradition/ Approves all forms of competition." And Ogden Nash, when the clerisy of the pen had finally won: "Man must labor,/ Man must work./ The executive is/ A dynamic jerk." The materials for a selection, if chosen by a literary standard, will lean against my predispositions.

Yeats says somewhere in his Autobiography that "We should ascend out of common interests, the thoughts of the newspapers, of the market place, but only so far as we can carry the normal, passionate, reasoning self." There it is again, that notion that we "ascend" to a realm of poetry out of the marketplace. But Yeats had the sense to see that the normal, passionate, reasoning self must not be left behind. The crafter of literary things will speak of labor and valuation even in rejecting it, as did, for a last example, that fountain of pure poetry, Dylan Thomas ("In My Craft and Sullen Art," from The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas [New York: New Directions, 1946, p. 142]):

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.


Donald McCloskey is a professor of Economics at the University of Iowa.

Copyright 1992 by the Institute for Humane Studies.

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