Books in the Background

Ron Berman

    I began to write F. Scott Fitzgerald: The American Scene after realizing how intricate his view of America was, and how evidential was his description of time, place, and class.  Observations by those who knew him confirm his knowledge of social history.  His daughter Scottie put it this way: "After you've read the stories, perhaps you'll ask yourself, as I did, 'Well, it's absorbing writing, but what's jazzy about it?’"  She rejected the idea that her father was only the voice of the twenties, thinking instead that he was a reliable historian of middle-class life between the two world wars.  His letters and essays bear that out.  The same kind of evidence brought me to think of Hemingway as a social historian.  What was the specific subject?  Two of the most accomplished readers of Hemingway, Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, pointed out that when he wrote about the ideas of 1918 in his novel of 1929 he used standards of the lost world into which he had been born in 1899.  It makes sense, especially when we consider how much of his work is about the irremovable (and unforgiving) presence of the past.  In fact, both writers found the period 1910-1920 important for their fiction of the twenties.
    Right now, we have new information about those dates mentioned by Fitzgerald and Wilson.  Some current books are revising our sense of the economy and political conditions.  They analyze the progress of modern ideas and also resistance to them. Specifically, they amend the rather easy notion we have that problems were caused only by the unequal distribution of income.  John Maynard Keynes (whose The Economic Consequences of the Peace was a bestseller of 1920) thought that wealth after the destruction of the old regime defended itself as a source of social stability in bad times.  He was fascinated by such apologetics—and he felt about them very much as Fitzgerald did in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz."  Older ideas about accumulating (and idiotically spending) money were being replaced by newer ideas defending wealth because it, in turn, defended family, stability, and tradition.  The books I've listed below look at new information on the early twentieth century and revalue our understanding of its conflicts.

The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century.  By Jürgen Osterhammel.  Translated by Patrick Camiller.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 2014.  1167 pp.  $39.95.
    Osterhammel goes a long way towards proving the point made by Wilson and Fitzgerald about Hemingway’s nostalgia for a lost world.  One of his most thoughtful arguments concerns the staying power of ideas.  In his view, the old dispensation did not end when we think it did—and even our newly elastic conception of the "long 19th century" has to be replaced.  Like a number of current historians, Osterhammel believes that "the world of yesterday" lasted long past the usual points of closure: the onset of war in 1914 and the new regime after 1919.  The internalized past persisted in the minds of those who had experienced it.  So, when modernity did arrive it was never separable from late Victorianism.  According to Osterhammel, being modern was not entirely a matter of new ideas, new art, and new scientific calculations about nature.  It was about political and economic conditions, which are familiar and basic contexts for the novel.  His book is especially useful for showing how conceptions about class and individualism resisted the mere flow of events in history.  When Osterhammel writes that "activities, lifestyles, and mentalities" replaced status, he comes closest to the insights of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Nothing is more central in the Basil Duke Lee stories than the presence of "a world much larger and more brilliant than themselves that existed outside their windows and beyond their doors."  The two worlds are always present—and mutually hostile—in The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms.

CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century.  By Thomas Piketty. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. 685 pp. $39.95.
    Fiction usually searches for a precedent in social science, but Piketty suggests that economic study of Europe and the United States has been made possible by novels. He believes that Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac are reliable sources of monetary evidence about investment, rates of return, profit, risk, and savings.  So were other literary works of fiction attuned to the marketplace. This very influential study has engaged economic historians because it takes the position that income inequality has returned to the levels set more than a century ago. It should matter to critics because its viewpoint of inequality is novelistic.  Piketty is especially concerned with the effect of wealth on those without it.  Like Osterhammel, he goes deep into the twentieth century.  Among the charts and graphs are passages like this: "Inequality of ownership of capital was somewhat less extreme in the New World.  Clearly, this does not mean that American society in 1900-1910 embodied the mythical ideal of an egalitarian society of pioneers.  In fact, American society was already highly inegalitarian, much more than Europe today, for example.  One has only to reread Henry James or note that the dreadful Hockney [sic] who sailed in luxury on Titanic in 1912 existed in real life and not just in the imagination of James Cameron to convince oneself that a society of rentiers existed not only in Paris and London but also in turn-of-the-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. . . . Income inequality increased quite sharply in the United States during the 1920s" (293).
    There is a kind of blurring of economic fact in our minds and we too easily ascribe conditions of the twenties entirely to relative inequality.  Piketty goes beyond that, identifying specific annual economic conditions that affected and even formulated the modern mind. Things changed often and quickly, as did human reactions to conditions of plenty or hard times. For example, Piketty goes year by year into economic events and shows how people were affected by varying experiences, and by new ideas about consumption, inheritance, and taxation.  His section "Vautrin's Lesson" is a stunning analysis of the delusion that talent leads to success without a "strategy" governing both personal and economic life. It certainly applies to marketing.


Ron Berman 12/07/2015

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