Nature, the individual, and the market in Norris and Dreiser.
Alongside Spencer's classical liberalism and individualism dwell his more Darwinian justifications for an anti-regulation agenda. Describing London's poor as "good-for-nothings, who in one way or another live on good-for-somethings," Spencer asks, "Is it natural that happiness should be the lot of such or is it natural that they should bring unhappiness on themselves and those connected with them?" (80-81). He then blames the proliferation of the poor on the Poor Laws. Spencer later returns to this point, expressing it in explicitly Darwinian terms:
The process of "natural selection." as Mr. Darwin called it, cooperating with a tendency to variation and to inheritance of variations, he has shown to be a chief cause ... of that evolution through which all living things, beginning with the lowest and diverging and re-diverging as they evolved, have reached their present degrees of organization and adaptation to their modes of life. So familiar has this truth become that some apology seems needed for naming it. And yet, strange to say now that this truth is recognized by most cultivated people--now that the beneficent working of the survival of the fittest has been so impressed on them that, much more than people in past times, they might be expected to hesitate before neutralizing its action--now more than ever before in the history of the world, are they doing all they can to further survival of the unfittest! (131)
Spencer's two modes of rhetorical assault on government regulation thus suggest a harmony between Darwinism and the individualism of classical liberalism. Just as it is ethically wrong to force people to give charity through government welfare programs, such intervention is also deleterious to the proper functioning of evolution. The Man Versus the State thus argues that natural liberty and the dictates of Darwinian nature are in perfect agreement--that, in fact, each reinforces the other.
The fate of individualism and liberty in Darwinian nature is not, however, as clear cut as The Matt Versus the State would have it. In fact, much of American naturalism adopts a version of Darwinian nature that is deeply antithetical to the individual. In "The Law of Life," for example, Jack London writes that nature "ha[s] no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race" (40). Such a view is inherently in tension with classical liberalism's belief in "natural rights." If nature does not care about the individual, then the empowerment of the individual through a system of liberty and rights cannot be of interest to nature. Whereas Spencer sees nature's inherent predilection for competition as empowering to the individual, who is freed from the compulsion to support "good-for-nothings" whose poverty proves their unfitness for economic competition, London's "The Law of Life" holds that the individual is of no importance whatsoever.
In their works most explicitly concerned with economics Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser both address the fate of the individual in a marketplace that they construe as fundamentally natural. Because this fate is not a liberating one, at least not on the scale of the individual, Norris's The Octopus and The Pit and the first two novels in Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire draw attention to the rhetorical slipperiness of nature as an economic trope. In effect, they disentangle Darwinian nature from liberalism's insistence that laissez-faire economics are liberating to the individual, and in so doing suggest a problem with classical liberalism that, during the Progressive Era, would increasingly become central to American liberalism.
One caveat, before continuing. Numerous critics have discussed Spencer's influence on naturalist writers, particularly Dreiser, typically drawing primarily from Spencer's evolutionary theory rather than his more overtly economic works--though as the above paragraphs suggest, these two aspects of Spencer's work are not independent. Rather than taking up the question of this influence per se, however. I concentrate on the ways in which works by Norris and Dreiser draw attention to the difficulties inherent in conflating a Darwinian model of the natural world with individualism and the idea of natural rights. This is not an argument, that is, about authorial intention, and that Dreiser read and respected Spencer's evolutionary theory isn't germane to my argument. Instead, I argue that the works of Norris and Dreiser, intentionally or not, portray the effects of the natural market as chaotic and destructive at the individual level--a portrayal, I will argue, very much in line with how Darwin describes nature, but at odds with how nature is decribed in economic theory that celebrates the free market.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith applies the term "nature" to the market frequently but somewhat haphazardly. Smith describes at various points the "natural price" of commodities (52-59; bk 1, ch. 7), the "natural progress of opulence" as nations become progressively wealthier over time in a natural market (292-95; bk. 3, ch. 1), and the "natural liberty" of people to do business. The concept of "natural liberty" is particularly central to his theories. Smith first uses this phrase while discussing the effect on wages of England's laws restricting movement between parishes (86-119; bk. 1, ch. 10); this restriction of the "natural liberty" to move around, he claims, causes the discrepancy in wages across different areas of England. The idea of "natural liberty" continues to appear in various forms throughout The Wealth of Nations, and was important to Americans' understanding of Smith's work. In the introduction to a 1910 reprint of Smith's treatise, the American economist Edwin R. A. Seligman writes. "The two fundamental ideas of The IT of Nations are those of self-interest and natural liberty" (vii). Throughout The Health of Nations, Smith uses the word "natural" to signify anything working in a harmonious and ordered fashion. The market is "natural" so long as it regulates itself (or is regulated by Smith's most famous abstraction, the "invisible hand"), and thus anything that interferes with the market's operations becomes unnatural. Most famously, excessive government regulation and control is unnatural, but Smith is actually not as dogmatically opposed to government as some of his later disciples, so at times he describes other institutions--for instance, monopolies--as interfering with market processes, while he finds government run infrastructure and educational systems unproblematic. (1) The only consistent rule is that something is natural insofar as it orders the market and unnatural insofar as it disorders the market. Thus nature is conceived as orderly, while certain elements of human society, produce disorder. Smith's use of "natural however, is largely tautological--we know that the market is behaving naturally when it is behaving as it ought to be behaving, and that it is behaving as it ought to be when it is free from unnatural interference, a terminological circularity reflecting that The Wealth of Nations has more in common with moral philosophy than natural science. Smith's stake in the word natural comes not when he discusses the natural price of commodities, then, but when he examines the natural liberty to do business. What is axiomatic is that we are free by nature.
Only a couple decades after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, Thomas Malthus wrote the first edition of his influential An Essay on the Principle of Population, a treatise on nature and economics more firmly rooted in observations of the natural world. The only way to limit the spread of poverty among humans, he argues, is to sharply curtail population growth. Malthus in turn influenced Charles Darwin, who, in The Origin of Species, writes that Natural Selection is "the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdom" (5). Unlike Smith, however, Darwin does not equate nature with order. In describing Darwin's work, Elizabeth Grosz casts him as a scientist who longs for the certainty of Newtonian physics, while grappling with the uncertainty of biology and ecology As Grosz puts it, for Darwin "Life is construed as a confrontation with the accidental as well as the expected, a consequence of the random as well as the predictable" (7). When Darwin defines natural selection he writes that, owing to the struggle for existence,
variations, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, And will generally be inherited by the offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection. (61)
In this passage Darwin acknowledges that a greater level of individual fitness does not provide an organism with any guarantees. His language constantly equivocates, noting that useful traits "tend" to be preserved, that such traits will "generally" be passed along, and that creatures with beneficial mutations will "have a better chance" than those without. The struggle to survive and reproduce is like a poker game--skill helps, but so does luck. All evolution does is give some organisms better odds than others. And yet, Darwin ends the passage by suggesting an absolute truth rather than an equivocal possibility--"each slight variation, if useful, is preserved."
Darwin reconciles chance with certainty by looking at large populations over long periods of time. For instance, when discussing the circumstances favorable to evolution, Darwin identifies the importance of a "large Humber of individuals" in a particular ecosystem, which "by giving a better chance within any given period for the appearance of profitable variations ... is, I believe, a highly important element of success" (97). Similarly, Darwin explains die importance of a long period of time to the operation of evolution: "Lapse of time ... gives a better chance of beneficial variations arising and of their being selected, accumulated, and fixed" (100). In both cases, the large sample size generated either by a big population or a population over a long period of time smoothes over the unpredictability or individual lives. As a result, evolutionary changes in population only attain something like order when a population is examined in the aggregate, not when organisms are examined individually. Darwin makes this point clear when he discusses an article from the North British Review:
The author takes the case of a pair of animals, producing during their lifetime two hundred offspring, of which, from various causes of destruction, only two on an average survive to procreate their kind. This is rather an extreme estimate for most of the higher animals, but by no means so for many of the lower organisms. He then shows that if a single individual were born, which varied in some manner, giving it twice as good a chance of life as that of the other individuals, yet the chances would be strongly against its survival. Supposing it to survive and to breed, and that half its young inherited the favourable variation; still, as the Reviewer goes on to show, the young would have only a slightly better chance of surviving and breeding; and this chance would go on decreasing in the succeeding generations. (87)
But while even a substantial increase in relative fitness gives an organism only a slight increase in its chances of survival--too slight, at least in the case of lower organisms, to account for evolution--Darwin goes on to explain that "certain rather strongly marked variations, which no one would rank as mere individual differences, frequently recur owing to a similar organisation being similarly acted on. In cases of this kind, if the variation were of a beneficial nature, the original form would soon be supplanted by the modified form, through the survival of the fittest" (88). Here Darwin draws a distinction between the effects of Natural Selection at the individual level, and its effects at the communal level. Individually, even fitness provides no substantial likelihood of survival, but if any beneficial variation occurs frequently enough throughout a population, it will eventually be selected for. Hence, natural selection becomes a stable, more predictable process only when examined in relation to an aggregate. Large populations, long periods of time, and frequently recurring mutations can lead to a slow and incremental species change. However, the fate of any individual being, fit or otherwise, remains subject to chance. Order exists only in statistical aggregates. (2) Smith's claim that individual liberty brings order to economic systems thus conflicts with Darwin's description of nature as destructive and chaotic on the individual level. For Darwin, nature is only visible as order from a perspective that transcends the individual, inhuman in its distance from the everyday experience of living. The short span of a human life renders people unable to experience the organization of nature, even if they can comprehend that order intellectually
The contrast between the human experience of life as tragically disordered and the comprehension of a cosmic order that exceeds individual human lives is central to Norris's The Octopus. Critical discussions of The Octopus frequently center on the conflict between the bulk of the novel, which reads like an anti-monopoly polemic, and the novel's ending, in which the poet Presley comes to an understanding of the cosmic order that underlies the tragic events he has witnessed. Most of the novel describes the tribulations of a group of wheat farmers in California whose livelihood is threatened by a railroad monopoly. After a series of political defeats, the farmers finally resort to violence in an effort to stop the railroad's men from evicting them. In the ensuing battle, modeled after the Mussel Slough gunfight, the farmers are defeated, some of them get killed, and the monopoly triumphs in spite of the tremendous injustices it has wrought.
The novel's ending, however, complicates any reading of The Octopus as simply an anti-monopoly polemic. Presley, a friend of the farmers, goes to visit Shelgrim, the railroad's CEO. Presley intends to confront Shelgrim, but instead listens to a lecture from the unexpectedly sympathetic businessman in which Shelgrim denies his own agency in the actions that have destroyed the farmers:
try to believe this--to begin with--that Railroads build themselves. Where there is a demand sooner or later there will be a supply. Mr. Derrick, does he grow his wheat? The Wheat grows itself. What does he count for? Does he supply the force? What do 1 count for? Do I build the Railroad? You are dealing, with forces, young man, when you speak of Wheat and the Railroads, not with men. There is the Wheat, the supply. It must be carried to feed the People. There is the demand. The Wheat is one force, the Railroad, another, and there is the law that governs them--supply and demand. Men have only little to do in the whole business. (576)
Shelgrim compares the growth of the railroad to the growth of wheat, a sort of natural miracle that may be enabled by humans but that is ultimately the result not of human agency but of natural forces. Under such a view the monopoly is merely the actualization of the law of supply and demand, recast by Shelgrim as not just the rule that governs the free market but as a law of nature. Shelgrim compares himself to the wheat farmer who "can burn his crop, or he can give it away, or sell it for a cent a bushel--just as I could go into bankruptcy--but otherwise his Wheat must grow," and ends by asking "Can any one stop the Wheat? Well, then no more can I stop the Road." Beholden to the people who own railroad stock, Shelgrim casts himself as just as much a pawn of nature as the farmers. This point of view initially shocks Presley, but the poet eventually accepts at least some of Shelgrim's argument and realizes that the wheat must, indeed, continue to flow. Presley ends the novel with the realization that "the WHEAT remained. Untouched, unassailable, undefiled, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless, moved onward in its appointed grooves ... the individual suffers, but the race goes on" (651-52).
The ending of The Octopus frequently dissatisfies critics, who find in it an odd and often displeasing change of tone from what comes before it. Presley's final realization could be taken as an exculpation of the railroad monopoly, an affirmation that it is, in fact, an inevitable part of nature as Shelgrim claims, and thus something that transcends categories of right and wrong. This reading, however, ignores the great lengths towards which the narrative goes to depict the suffering wrought by Shelgrim's monopoly. Alternately, Donald Pizer reads the ending as an expression of Norris's evolutionary theism, which allowed him to "dramatize natural laws with greater emphasis on racial and social benefits than on individual destruction" (Frank Norris 114). Because evolutionary theism is utilitarian in its moral outlook, the novel can ultimately overlook the individual tragedies of the farmers. The greater good has been served, and the wheat continues to flow. Under such a reading. Pizer explains, Presley's views crystallize into three stages:
Presley's preoccupation with individual tragedy and his personal involvement hinder him from achieving the "larger view." This is his earlier, moral attitude. However, led by his second perception of the wheat and by Shelgrim, he formulates an amoral, impersonal conception of force. This too fails to answer his doubts. It is only with the return to a moral position, now On a cosmic level, that he achieves the "larger view" and Truth. (139-40)
Pizer goes on to note that while Presley's conclusion is "logically consistent within the religious core of the novel," on an emotional level it "lack[s] validity" (146). That is to say, if The Octopus's message is that it is acceptable for the individual to be sacrificed to the greater good, the continuation of the race, then the novel is an aesthetic failure because it still provokes an emotional attachment to the individuals destroyed. Their ruined lives do not seem acceptable sacrifices for Presley's abstractions. Leaving aside questions of aesthetic merit and authorial intention, however, what Pizer's analysis suggests is that the novel illustrates a tension between individual suffering and aggregate progress, then fails to resolve that tension. This has frustrated many critics of The Octopus, who have typically dealt with it either by dismissing Presley's final vision as merely Presley's vision, and not the novel's vision, by accepting (as Pizer does) that the novel is, on some level, a failure, or by suggesting that the novel accidentally points to an internal contradiction in efforts to naturalize the market. (3)
Rather than see Presley's last thoughts as a statement of the novel's thesis, we might instead view them as a statement of the novel's central tension--the tension between individual suffering and the continuation of the race. The continuation of the race involves the creation of capitalist markets that follow the law of supply and demand--which the novel accepts as a law of nature--but these same markets have little regard for individuals and may quickly and brutally sweep them away Norris's novel thus sees nature in a manner quite close to Darwin. At the individual level everything appears dysfunctional and chaotic. There is no justice, and lives are destroyed without apparent reason. The order of things only comes into focus when we look at nature as an aggregate in which individuals matter very little. At this aggregate level everything continues to run in a manner that ensures the continuation of both the market and the race. Such a view aligns with evolutionary theism's utilitarian ethics, but because The Octopus's primary focus up until the end rests on the suffering of the individual farmers, the novel draws attention to the human cost of this model of economic progress.
While Shelgrim's view of the world is an aggregate view, Norris presents his foil in the farmer Derrick, head of the league of farmers combating the monopoly. The narrator describes Magnus Derrick as "always ready to take chances, to hazard everything on the hopes of colossal returns ... there was no more redoubtable poker player in the county. ... The old-time spirit of '49, hap-hazard, unscientific, persisted in his mind. Everything was a gamble--who took the greatest chances was most apt to be the greatest winner" (64-65). Derrick is a gambler and a gold prospector at heart, "willing to play for colossal stakes, to hazard a fortune on the chance of winning a million" (298). When he decides to gamble on politics and bribe some key people in order to influence the upcoming selection of members for the railroad commission, he soon finds himself blackmailed: "Gambler that he was, he had at last chanced his highest stake, his personal honor, in the greatest game of his life, and had lost" (461). The triumph of Shelgrim and the railroad is thus the triumph of the monopoly over the lone gambler. Norris consistently connects Derrick to the west and to the frontier spirit, and the suggestion here is that the old, every-man-for-himself spirit of individualism that fueled westward expansion cannot stand up to the monolithic power of big business. The distinction also recapitulates the distinction in Darwin between the functioning of chance at the individual level and order at the aggregate level, though the distinction functions somewhat differently for Norris. For Norris, in The Octopus, the monopoly is large enough to overcome the workings of chance, though at the cost of individual livelihoods.
In The Pit, Norris revisits the role of the market in disrupting the lives of individuals, this time without recourse to Presley's optimistic utilitarianism. The novel opens by invoking a typical Victorian marriage plot. Laura Dearborn has just moved to Chicago, and is faced with three suitors trying to win her hand in marriage: an ambitious young boy named Landry Court, an artist named Sheldon Corthell, and a businessman named Curtis Jadwin. Laura never takes Landry's attentions seriously, rendering the pursuit of Laura's hand a competition between art (Corthell) and business (Jadwin). This conflict is highlighted by the novel's opening scene, in which Laura goes to the opera to see a performance of Gounod's Faust. Enthralled by the beauty of the music, she closes her eyes and dreams about love, explicitly contrasting a chivalric conception of life to "the sordid, material modern life" (Pit 22). "But a discordant element develop[s]" as Laura hears some nearby businessmen discuss the recent collapse of Helmick, who has just failed in an attempt to corner wheat. Furthering the contrast between art (which the novel associates with chivalry and the past) and business (which the novel associates with the present, modern world) Jadwin is a self-made man, raised from relative poverty through his business acumen, while Corthell comes from old money Laura's eventual decision to marry jadwin rather than Corthell thus appears to affirm business and modernity over the romantically conceived past. (4)
The novel, however, does not end with Jadwin and Laura happily married. Rather, what would be the end of The Pit were it a traditional marriage plot is only the midway point. Aside from one early chapter in which Jadwin engages in some minor wheat speculation, and the discussion of Helmick's failed corner at the opera, business concerns remain largely absent from the novel's first half. But the second half, which picks up after Laura and Jadwin have married, is split almost equally between discussions of Laura's unhappy home life and of Jadwin's efforts to corner wheat. As Jadwin falls deeper into speculation, Laura feels progressively more abandoned and considers committing adultery with Corthell. In effect, the business novel inserts itself into the marriage novel, disrupting its logic. The structure of The Pit thus suggests business as a disordering element in the lives of individuals.
Traditionally, the marriage plot links the institution of marriage to civic order. The resolution of relationships into monogamous, heterosexual pairs corresponding to a hierarchical model of society at large signifies the appropriateness of that patriarchal hierarchy. If the order and stability of the family are the foundation of the order and stability of the country as a whole, then, the disruption or the marriage plot in The Pit ought also to be the disruption or civic order. This is not quite the case, however. As with The Octopus, The Pit draws a distinction between the dysfunction of the economy at the level of the individual and its ordered functioning in the aggregate. The workings of the economy disrupt and ruin individual lives, but it does not destroy society. Suggestively then, when Jadwin brings his co-speculator. Gretry, to see his personal art collection, Gretry comments about one painting that up close "it's just a lot of little daubs" (199) but that, from a distance, it comes into focus and makes sense. As with Presley's observations about the suffering of the individual, Gretry's aesthetic commentary reveals a tension in the novel between the way things look to characters who are too close to them and the way they look to those who can step back and view them from a distance.
The Pit's central metaphor--that the Chicago wheat pit is a "vortex" (259). "whirlpool" (373), or "maelstrom" (402)--plays explicitly with the idea that businessmen get sucked into speculation and lose sight of the larger picture. Initially imagining Chicago as "like a great tidal wave," Laura thinks, "It's all very well for the individual just so long as he can keep afloat, but once fallen, how horribly quick it would crush him, annihilate him, how horribly quick and with such horrible indifference" (63). As the novel progresses, Jadwin enters the vortex, and although he initially believes he can control it, his attempt to corner the wheat market drives the price of wheat so high that farmers all over the country plant more wheat than they have ever planted before. And the price plummets. The narrator describes the backlash against Jadwin's corner as though nature itself were turning against Jadwin:
The Wheat had broken from his control. For months, he had, by the might of his single arm, held it back; but now it rose like the upbuilding of a colossal billow It towered, towered, hung poised for an instant, and then, with a thunder as of the grind and crash of chaotic worlds, broke upon him, burst through the Pit and raced past him, on and on to the eastward and to the hungry nations. (392)
Initially, Jadwin is proud of his vision, his ability to "see" what wheat prices will do, as when he tells Gretry, "the rest of the Bear crowd don't seem to see it, but I see it. Before fall we're going to have higher prices" (195). As he ventures into the maelstrom, however, his vision falters. Thus Jadwin's final act as a speculator is to venture into the pit while his corner is collapsing, yelling that he wants to buy, until he suffers a nervous collapse. Outside the pit, he can predict which way wheat prices are headed, but as he gets more and more personally involved in speculative ventures his vision dissolves.
We might wonder why, in The Octopus, the railroad monopoly succeeds, appearing as an implacable, natural force, while in The Pit Jadwin's attempted monopolization of the wheat is doomed to fail. The key lies in the difference between Shelgrim and Jadwin. Shelgrim evacuates his own agency (becomes simply a "shell") in order to become a mere extension of the railroad. He believes that to be head of the railroad is to respect it as a force of nature in its own right, one that must grow on its own terms, just as wheat must grow Jadwin, in contrast, sees his wheat corner as a source of personal power--he is consistently compared to a great general fighting the "Battle of the Streets," and is repeatedly called "Napoleonic." In fact, Jadwin is far more like Magnus Derrick than he is like Shelgrim. The lone speculator, like the lone gambler or prospector, has little chance of survival.
Compounding this vision of his own power, Jadwin consistently supposes he is the master of chance. Inititially, he speculates on wheat because Gretry claims to have a sure way to make money, explaining to him "this ain't speculation. You can see for yourself how sure it is ... look here, J., you aren't the man to throw money away. You'd buy a business block if you knew you could sell it over again at a profit" (86). At first, Jadwin tries to resist the allure of speculation, but finally he gives in:
In spite of himself he felt a Chance had come. Again that strange sixth sense of his, the inexplicable instinct, that only the born speculator knows, warned him. Every now and then during the course of his business career, this intuition came to him, this flair, this intangible, vague premonition, this presentiment that he must seize Opportunity or else Fortune, that so long had stayed at his elbow, would desert him. In the air about him he seemed to feel an influence, a sudden new element, the presence of a new force. It was Luck, the great power, the great goddess, and all at once it had stooped from out the invisible, and just over his head passed swiftly in a rush of glittering wings. (87)
Jadwin flips a coin to decide whether or not he will join with Gretry, certain it will conic up heads--and it does. Initially. Jadwin's belief that fortune follows patterns he can discern and master seems well-founded, and the deal works out well due to "Jadwin's luck--the never-failing guardian of the golden wings" (110). Mimicking Gretry's language, Jadwin explains to his friend Cressler that, "this wasn't speculating. .... It was a certainty. It was found money." In contrast, however, when another group of investors draws Cressler in by promising him that "there won't be much speculating" (274) involved in their sure thing, Cressler ends up losing his money and committing suicide. Cressler's failure serves as a reminder that luck cannot be eliminated from speculation, and Jadwin's failure, though slow in coming, demonstrates he is no more protected than Cressler from the uncontrollable forces of the maelstrom. While Norri's whirlpool is a destructive force, however, like The Octopus, The Pit ends asserting that order nonetheless still operates--that is, that the market still functions. The wheat that jadwin's corner had been damming up is allowed to flow freely again, and the laws of supply and demand are again fulfilled.
To a certain extent, then, Norris appears to affirm the free market, naturalizing it, and in particular naturalizing the laws of supply and demand. Furthermore, he suggests that nature will rebalance any temporary aberrations that hinder the functioning of those laws. Whatever local difficulties might arise--cornered markets or local disputes between farmers and railroads--the market eventually smoothes them over. In contrast to Presley's epiphany that the market works, though, The Pit ends with Laura's despair and bafflement: "For a moment, vague, dark perplexities assailed her, questionings as to the elemental forces, the forces of demand and supply that ruled the world. This huge resistless Nourisher of the Nations--why was it that it could not reach the People, could not fulfill its destiny, unmarred by all this suffering, unattended by all this misery?" (420). The individual suffering Presley learns to accept remains for Laura a source of consternation. And her "dark perplexities" seem more responsive than his Final optimism to the central problem represented in the two novels: the "natural" market has no interest in individual liberty or natural rights. Such a vision of the market is indeed largely Darwinian--more Darwinian, in fact, than Spencerian--but it rejects rather than affirms liberal individualism.
While The Octopus and The Pit disrupt the ideological association of nature with individual liberty. Dreiser's The Financier, and to a lesser degree its sequel. The Titan, routes its concern for the individual more specifically through the concept of evolutionary fitness. Near the beginning of The Financier; in what is probably the most frequently analyzed scene in the novel, Cowperwood sees a lobster and a squid together in a tank at the fish market. Day after day, the lobster attacks the squid, slowly wearing it down and slicing it up, until eventually it manages to kill its prey In this battle, the young Cowperwood sees the answer to the question "'How is life organized' Things lived on each other--that was it" (8). (5) Applying this vision to human society. Cowperwood realizes that men live on other men--that the strong live on tilt' weak. His conclusion explicitly forestalls any possibility that chance could have changed the outcome: "The squid couldn't kill the lobster--he had no weapon. The lobster could kill the squid--he was heavily armed. ... What was the result to be? What else could it be? He didn't have a chance."
But what is, for Cowperwood, a fairly straightforward lesson about survival of the fittest has not been quite so straightforward for critics. Some have read it just as Cowperwood does, as an example of the novel's amoral world where the fit survive and the unfit perish. (6) Others--most notably Walter Benn Michaels--have read the scene as fundamentally misleading, claiming that the novel consistently inserts chance into its universe, disrupting the smooth Functioning of natural selection that Cowperwood believes he observes. While "nothing in Dreiser's work provides a better example of" his "susceptibility" to Spencer's ideas "than the allegory of the lobster and the squid," Michaels argues that this view of nature does not adequately explain "the events of The Financier itself, which persistently exhibit nature not primarily as an organizing three dedicated to the survival of the fittest but as the ultimate measure or life's instability" (76). Michaels continues. "die business crisis, understood by Dreiser as an essentially natural phenomenon, cannot be mastered or even predicted by any system of thought, any account of life's 'organization'--theological, scientific, even economic" (77). As a result, "Cowperwood's whole career is a glorification of chance, and the constant lesson of The Financier is that accidents will happen" (78), lithe squid has no chance, the stock market, ruled as it is by "unheralded storms out of skies" (Financier 201), is a place where even fit individuals find no guarantees. But if Michaels reads the operations of chance in The Financier as challenging the idea of fitness, chance is, as I've noted, fundamental to Darwin's description of nature. Furthermore, Michaels's conclusion that "Nature in The Financier is die speculator's ally" (83) because it guarantees the uncertainty on which the speculator gambles itself actually suggests an idea of fitness. As Alison Shonkwiler writes, Cowperwood is exceptional precisely because "he is able to register the 'natural' economic pressures around him" (58). That is to say, it is this knowing how to make effective use of his ally, nature, that constitutes his fitness.
Other critics have noted that the glass aquarium is not a natural environment at all. Just as Cowperwood operates as a financier in a world of government favoritism and uneven playing fields, the squid has no chance only because the confines oldie fish market construct things that way. "In nature, the squid had a chance of escaping," Bruce Robbins argues, but "it has no chance here precisely because this competition is not natural but man-made. It's not that life is organized, but that it has been organized in a particular way" (122). (8) Again, though, The Financier is Seen not to deny the law of the survival of the fittest, but rather to see fitness operating in particular contexts. A product of evolution just like the lobster, the squid is after all not absolutely unfit. It is simply unfit to share a small glass tank with one of its natural predators.
Dreiser addresses the relationship between context and fitness explicitly in "The Factor Called Chance," published in the posthumous volume Notes on Life. In it, he explains how chance plays into the success or failure of individuals:
Somewhere, we may assume, and it may be true, that For each individual male or female, there exists the right environment, or stimuli, for his particular temperament. Also, somewhere the most harmful environment or collection of stimuli. And either--should he chance to meet up with and be controlled by it--would be or prove his fate. By the one, he would be greatly furthered, developed, made most effective, by the other least so, his natural powers whatever they might be would be frustrated or destroyed. And this is the element of chance that faces us all. (40)
Here, the World is split not into the tit and the unfit, but rather into those who tit their particular surroundings and those who do not. Some people may indeed be more fit than others for survival in a particular market economy--but change the way the economy functions and those same individuals may "be frustrated or destroyed" while others rise to the top. Any particular manifestation of the "free market"--which as the lobster and squid scene suggests is always really a constructed market--is no longer the only "natural" market Formation capable of determining in absolute terms who is and who is not fit. Rather, it becomes one among any number of possible contexts, each of which determine an organism's fitness. This view is quite consistent with The Man Versus the State, which also accepts that society can be organized in ways unfriendly to laissez-faire. Indeed, central to Spencer's work was his concern that societies were organizing in ways that discouraged the competitive struggle he saw as salutary and natural. Rather than challenging the existence of Fitness, then, Dreiser's work might better be read as a meditation on what sort of fitness is encouraged by a cutthroat competitive market. And this meditation turns on the question at the heart of The Octopus and The Pit: what is the fate of the individual under such a system?
At the outset of The Financier, Cowperwood believes strongly in the power of his own agency. His mantra--"I satisfy myself" (121)--expresses the individualist ethos of self-interest that Seligman praises as central to The Wealth of Nations. In an essay titled "The American Financier," however, Dreiser proves ambivalent about the financier as a symbol of individualism. Appearing to defend the financier against the "masses" who cry out for his downfall, Dreiser writes:
Personally I believe that most of us would prefer that the mass should not sweep away the individual for each of us would prefer to be somebody in however small a way rather than mere unrecognizable cogs in a machine or bees in a beehive. At best, we are little more than that; even our greatest individuals, individual as they may seem. They, too, are but minute factors in the total machinery, little able to forefend against disaster or the ultimate nothingness that swallows them. (83)
While celebrating the financier as an individual, thus. Dreiser also envisions individuals as not particularly and sees that, in the grand scheme of nature, the financier is just "a highly specialized machine for the accomplishment of some end which Nature has in view" (74). Even as individualism suggests agency, Dreiser sees that nature governs everything, rendering human agency largely illusory.
Cowperwood first confronts the limits of his own agency when he becomes involved in the stock market. One of his early employers, Tighe, tells him, "I've seen breaks in stocks that you could never explain at all--no one could. It wouldn't be possible to find out why they broke" (39). As "This subtle world appealed to him land] answered to his temperament" (40), Cowperwood seems to be one or those individuals lucky enough to have found the environment for which they are fit. At this point in the narrative, however, Cowperwood remains skeptical or the stock market:
this buying and selling must be, and always was, incidental to the actual fact--the mine, the railroad, the wheat crop, the Hour mill, and so on. Anything less than straight-out sales to realize quickly on assets, or buying to hold as an investment, was gambling pure and simple, and these men were gamblers. He was nothing more than a gambler's agent. (42)
Although this state of affairs "was not troubling him any just at the moment," Cowperwood believes that "A Man, a real man, must never be an agent, a tool, or a gambler--acting for himself or for others--he must employ such. A real man--a financier--was never a tool. He used tools. He created. He led." Thus Cowperwood sets out a dichotomy, dividing "real men," who control their own fates, from "gamblers," whose fate is either at the mercy of chance or "agents" and "tools," who remain at the mercy of another, more powerful man. The real man is a creator, but not precisely in the sense of a producer. While Cowperwood recognizes that stocks are "incidental" to the productive work of mines, railroads, and other such enterprises, he never seriously considers a career outside of finance. Based on his initial analysis of the market, however, and in light of the turbulent economy in the aftermath of the Civil War, he decides not to become a "stock gambler," but to pursue instead "bill-brokering, a business which he had observed to be very profitable and which involved no risk as long as one had capital" (46). Though he is tempermentally suited for it, Cowperwood's initial rejection of stock trading is thus specifically a reaction against the elements of risk and chance. The lobster cannot lose to the squid, but the stock market involves substantial chance of failure, even for those who are best equipped for it.
Cowperwood changes his mind about the stock market only after he discovers--or believes he discovers--a way to render stock ventures secure and without risk. When Cowperwood is beginning as a financier, he follows the actions or the top Finance firms closely, and quickly discovers one of the facets controlling the stock market: "He noticed how often a rich man's word sufficed--no money, no certificates, no collateral, no anything--just his word. If Drexel & Co., or Jay Cooke & Co., or Gould & Fiske were rumored to be behind anything, how secure it was!" (63). In light of this Cowperwood comes to believe, like The Pit's Jadwin, that he can control, predict, and master the market. Such overconfidence leads to his ruin and incarceration for financial chicanery after the Chicago fire of 1871, but he remakes his fortune during the panic of 1873, which results, ironically, from the closure of Jay Cooke & Co.--one of the wealthy companies a word from which Cowperwood had once thought sufficient to render a venture secure. The puzzle the stock market presents to Cowperwood is thus homologous to the one nature presents to Darwin: they both sense--or want to sense--some sort of underlying order, but on the individual level this order is never manifest.
Cowperwood's journey through the legal system drives this point home. He reflects that the law is "a place where the accidentally wounded were ground between the upper and the nether millstones or force or chance" (290-91), and Cowperwood's lawyer, Harper Steger, reiterates this viewpoint, telling the jury that "only the most unheralded and the unkindest thrust of fortune" has brought Cowperwood to the court, and adding that while he does not blame the court or the law, he does "condemn and deplore the untoward chain of events which has built up a seeming situation" (377). In jail, Cowperwood reflects that "unlike most men in his position" he has done nothing wrong and is "merely unfortunate" (386): he sits in his cell, "wondering what, in spite of his great ingenuity. Was to become of him" (395-96). If Cowperwood embodies fitness for the stock market, then, this fitness in financial matters has still not secured him against all risk.
When Cowperwood's story picks up in The Titan, his rise. Call, incarceration, and rise again has taught him a valuable lesson: "He was sick of the stock exchange, anyhow, as a means of livelihood, and now decided that he would leave it once and for all" (1). He has come Cull circle at this point--as at the beginning of The Financier, Cowperwood is again leery of involving himself in an endeavor that leaves so much to chance. The stock market has turned out to be too little like the glass tank, where the game is rigged, that so impressed the young Cowperwood. And like just as his attitude toward the stock market has shifted, Cowperwood his tempered his personal doctrine of self-satisfaction. In The when his wife Aileen asks him "You do everything you want, don't you?" Cowperwood responds. "Not quite ... but it isn't for not wanting to. Chance has a little to say about some of these things" (24). He recognizes, that is, the difference between his own position and that of the lobster. Irk responds partly by accepting that his Fitness doesn't mean he can fix events always in his Favor, but also partly by looking for a way to change the game. Since the stock market could not be sufficiently rigged to avoid chance catastrophe. Cowperwood pursues instead a government granted monopoly, first in utilities then in streetcars. This attempt to play these rigged games ends in failure as well, however, when the people of Chicago rise up in rebellion against his stranglehold on the city, toppling his streetcar empire.
Pizer reads the ending of The Titan as the enactment of Dreiser's "equation inevitable" (Theodore Dreiser 157-59). According to this "equation inevitable." nature balances out disruptions in power that swing society too far toward any particular "mood." Such a reading might be taken to support laissez-faire, as Jack E. Wallace suggests: "the real consequence of the mob's uprising in Chicago is ... to support the argument for Social Darwinism. Such an argument must demonstrate that a free economic system, like the order of nature, protects itself against tyranny that flight destroy competitive balance" (68). However, these events don't finally support a laissez-faire perspective. The very mechanism of government regulation which Dreiser shows protecting the "free economic system" itself violates the principle of economic laissez-faire. Moreover, The Financier and The Titan have already suggested that "the order of nature" is not order at all, at least not for those people caught up in its daily working. The popular uprising cannot defend order, because there is no order to defend. There are only different ways of organizing the market, different versions of the glass tank and the struggle that plays out inevitably within it.
Ultimately, the narrative's consistent refusal to render judgment on the events it describes suggests that The Financier and The Titan are best understood not as attacks on or defenses of either financiers like Cowperwood or the free market more generally, but as portrayals or the uncertain fate of the individual in a market where chance and chaos trump individual power. In "The American Financier," after describing the limited individuality of financiers like Cowperwood, Dreiser writes that "there is apparently in Nature no such thing as the right to do or the right not to do" (87)--precisely the antithesis of what Spencer argues in The Man Versus the State. While this might be taken to exonerate the amorality of financiers like Cowperwood, it does so low undermining any ethical justification for a market set up to give play to their self-interest. Whereas Spencer sees the survival of the fittest as a law of nature, harmonizing with man's "natural right" to determine how his property is disposed of, for Dreiser the right to property cannot be a natural right because there are no natural rights. Nature is no more than a chaotic field for various elements that each Seek their own ends. In the interplay of these elements Dreiser renders Smith's invisible hand visible. The hand that places the lobster and the squid in a tank, sealing the squid's fate, seeks to create a context in which the lobster will be the more tit creature--though this is really For the gain of the merchant, not the lobster. Like the merchant in the fish market. Cowperwood seeks always to build a Context amenable to his interests. His deal with the Philadelphia treasurer in The Financier and his bribery of public officials in The Titan are both attempts to manipulate the field in which he plays, to create a battleground in which his opponents, like the squid, will have no chance.
In The Man Versus the State, Spencer argues that a properly functioning society is dependent on properly functioning individuals, writing that "the welfare of a society and the justice of its arrangements are at bottom dependent on the characters of its members," and "the defective natures of citizens will show themselves in the had acting of whatever social structure they are arranged into" (150). Spencer's analysis, which conies at the conclusion of his argument against Poor Laws, suggests that human fitness and a better society are mutually constitutive and thus that the goal of social reform should be to encourage fitness and weed out the unfit, not to help the unfit poor. Such a view however, elides the fact that fitness is itself contextual rather than absolute. As Dreiser's novels suggest, any given version of the market is only one of many possible contexts, set up to ensure the fitness and survival of some and the destruction of others.
The belief, not only of the socialists but also of those so-called Liberals who are diligently preparing the way for them, is that by due skill an ill-working humanity may be framed into well-working institutions. It is a delusion. The defective natures of citizens will show themselves in the bad acting of whatever social structure they are arranged into. (105)
Dreiser's novels suggest a rather different view of the working of evolutionary fitness. If any given version of the market is only one of many possible contexts, set up to ensure the fitness and survival of some and the destruction of others, then an examination of the market needs to ask what sort of fitness any given configuration promotes. Far from guaranteeing individual liberty, a competitive market modeled after Darwinian nature would offer little solace for the individual.
The free market in context
While Darwinian evolution, with its description of nature as inherently competitive, was easily appropriated as a justification for the free market, doing this risked describing a world antithetical to a culture that valued individualism. Spencer's The Man Versus the State attempts to contain this threat by attaching Darwinian natural selection to classical liberalism's notion of nature as an ordering and progressive force. As Darwin saw, though, "natural selection, or the survival of the fittest, does not necessarily include progressive development--it only takes advantage of such variations as arise and are beneficial to each creature under its complex relations of life" (120). That is to say, organisms simply evolve to fit their environment, whatever that may be, independent of questions of "progress." The works of Norris and Dreiser remain powerful today because, while they accept the capitalist market as natural, they do so by highlighting why such a market ultimately became problematic to liberalism in America. In their works, nature is no friend of the individual, and no friend of liberal individualism. Railroads, futures markets, and stock markets provide the context for struggles in which the individual isn't affirmed but, rather, rendered powerless.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, this was a message many Americans were ready to hear. The old connections between liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism were beginning to come undone, as movements like Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom sought to redefine freedom as not just freedom from a tyrannical government, but freedom from tyrannical corporate powers as well. Mourning the passing of the individual, Wilson wrote, "Yesterday, and ever since history began, men were related to one another as individuals. ... To-day, the everyday relationships of men are largely with great impersonal concerns, with organizations, not with other individual men" (6-7). The "great impersonal concerns" Wilson worried about were large trusts, like the railroad trust in The Octopus, but such concerns could as easily take the Form of nature and the "natural" market. One of Norris and Dreiser's most important contributions to economic discourse is their drawing attention to the terrifying inhumanity of Darwinian nature, and its indifference to the individual. Even as they represent the free market as natural, they suggest that nature is not always nurturing--that a commitment to a "natural" marketplace might clash a commitment to the value of the individual.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Signet Classies, 2003
Dreiser, Theodore. "The American Financier." Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub: A Book of the Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920, 74-91.
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Frye, Steven. "Presley's Pretense: Irony and Epic Convention in Frank Norris' The Octopus." American Literary Realism 39.3 (2007): 213-21.
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Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
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Horwitz, Howard. "'To Find the Value of X': The Pit as a Renunciation of Romance." American Realism: New Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1982, 215-37.
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Matthiessen, F.O. Theodore Dreiser, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973.
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(1.) Smith discusses the potential of monopolies to disrupt the proper functioning of the market when he discusses the natural price of commodities (52-59: bk. 1, ch. 7). He discusses the proper role of government in maintaining education, infrastructure, and a standing army throughout book five.
(2.) In The Taming of Change, Ian Hacking argues that "during the nineteenth century it became possible to see that the world might be regular and vet not subject to universal laws of nature. A space was cleared for chance" (1). While Hacking admits that the entrance of chance into intellectual discourse revises Enlightenment ideology, he concentrates on the way that the potential disruptive power of chance is neutralized, noting, "The erosion of determinism is not the creation of disorder and ignorance--quite the contrary. By the end of the century chance had attained the respectability of a Victorian valet, ready to be die loyal servant of the natural, biological and social sciences" (2). The primary means of separating chance from disorder was statistics, and this is certainly how Darwin separates the two. As Hacking observes, "evolutionary theorizing was to import chance into biology" (8). Whereas Hacking concentrates on the ways in which statistics tame chance, my thesis is that certain naturalist works resist the taming of chance by insisting on tracing out the fate of individuals rather than statistical aggregates.
(3.) Joseph McElrath, for instance, takes the first position (98-100). Steven Frye argues along similar lines to Pizer that the ending is odd because "there is no event in the novel that manifests this triumph of good [that Presley sees]" other than the "contrived" death of one of the railroad's most despicable henchmen, Behrman, and the "inadequately rendered" idea that the wheat will feed the hungry (219). Adam Wood takes the final position, claiming that The Octopus is "riddled with ideological contradictions" and "unconsciously reveals the process of myth construction in the reification of the market of wheat as a natural phenomenon" (108). My own view is closest to Wood's, though I do not believe that the novel's contradiction is inherent to Norris's treatment of the wheat market as natural. Rather, what the novel's internal contradiction reveals is the extent to which Darwinian nature is unfriendly to the concept of individual liberty.
(4.) The contrast between the business plot and the marriage plot in The Pit has caused problems for a number of critics, much as has the contrast between the ending of The Octopus and the rest of the novel. Pizer largely dismisses The Pit, noting, "Neither the business nor the love plot of The Pit is really successful, yet they are more successful independently than together" (Frank Norris 174). McElrath treats the two sides of the novel more or less separately, reading the love plot as a critique of Romanticism and the business plot as a critique of the market, though he does note that some themes remain parallel between the two plots--for instance, both involve a character who feels a great deal of hubris (107-21). Other critics have tended to take McElrath's route, exploring the thematic similarities oldie two plots while reading the plots as parallel rather than intersecting. See, for instance, David Zimmerman's "Frank Norris, Market Panic, and the Mesmeric Sublime," which reads the theme of mesmerism in both plots. Other critics have concentrated almost solely on one of plots or the other, and Clare Virginia Eby notes the "longstanding critical misjudgment" (149) of The Pit that has led critics to concentrate on the business plot in eschewal oldie love plot. Karsten H. Piep provides an overview oldie Failure of scholarship since the late 1940s to reconcile the two plots (28-31). Piep's is also one of the few attempts to tie the two plots together on more than thematic lilies, portraying the relationship between the call for companionate marriage and Progressive ideas about the importance of cooperation in industrial capitalism and arguing that the novel pursues a Progressive political stance that joins these two agendas together. Alternatively, Howard Horwitz claims that the novel's aesthetic problems stem from the fact that the two plots are too parallel, resulting in the romanticizing of the business plot (215-16).
(5.) I use the text of the 1927 edition of The Financier, the only edition still in print. Dreiser first published a substantially longer edition in 1912, which he felt to be poorly edited and rushed on account of financial pressures he was feeling at the nine. When his pecuniary situation Unproved he re-edited die novel resulting in a second edition. For more on the differences between the two editions, see Kevin Jett.
(6.) F.O. Matthiessen, for instance, writes that Cowperwood is "Dreiser's version of the survival of 'the fittest,' intermingled with traits of Nietzsche's 'Superman,' and possessing also what Dreiser calls a 'Machiavellian' brain" (131-32). Pizer concentrates primarily on Nietzsche'S influence on Dreiser, but does note that Nietzsche likely appealed to Dreiser in part because his "will to power" resembled "Spencerian Social Darwinism," which Dreiser had already accepted (Theodore Dreiser 158).
7. David A. Zimmerman provides an analysis of the role of chance similar to Michaels's. Suggesting that "The Financier documents the operation of nature and its laws as they reveal themselves in the title character's tight with other men and his attempt to impose stability upon an unpredictable universe" ("The Financier" 4), Zimmerman argues that Cowperwood's attempts to impose stability ultimately fail: "Panic puts an end to Cowperwood's prospects because, for Dreiser, the universe, governed lw inscrutable and impersonal forces, Subject to chance and flux, must frustrate any attempt to bring the future into line, to plot it, to See it prospectively. ... Nature defies any attempt to contain it within a single vision or hold it hostage to a single design" (9). Unlike Michaels, however, Zimmerman does not directly suggest that chance disrupts the functioning of evolution.
8. Lois Hughson similarly notes that the struggle between the squid and the lobster occurs under artificial conditions (53).
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|Title Annotation:||Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser|
|Author:||Collins, Peter E.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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