There was a kid in my high school who knew how to get under any teacher’s skin. He wasn’t a troublemaker really or a criminal, just a kid with a rare gift. Once in U.S. government class our teacher, who happened to be of the foot-washing Baptist persuasion, was comparing Marxism to American capitalism. She contrasted shared property with private property, controlled markets with free markets, and atheism with Christianity. So the kid raises his hand and says something like, “Then all American Christians should be Marxists. Shared property fits a lot better with the whole brother’s keeper thing.” He didn’t bother the teacher anymore that day, because she kicked him out of class. But he did have a point. A point, it turns out, that isn’t lost on a plurality of Americans.
According to a recent study from PRRI, 38 percent of Christians—and about the same percentage of Americans who don’t self-identify as Christians—say “capitalism is at odds with Christian values.” Those findings echo a stubborn tension between Christianity and capitalism in American life, an uneasiness that shows up repeatedly in American fiction. In some cases, the conflict between getting rich and getting saved is explicit, designed right into the plot; in others, it appears more subtly in ironic echoes of biblical passages. Both approaches are on display in stories by Herman Melville, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, representing a century and a half of American writing.
In Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a prosperous Wall Street attorney tells the unsettling tale of an employee who is spiritually and mortally undone by his work as a copyist in a law firm that specializes in titles and deeds. With its comic characters and its near slapstick moments, the story levels a furious assault on the American capitalism of the 1850s. Bartleby works productively at first, winning the boss’s approval. Yes, he’s a bit odd, but in an office staffed by a wino and a hot head, Bartleby is actually a pleasant addition. That is, until he suddenly becomes unwilling to perform even the most basic duties of his job, a refusal he immortalizes in the mantra “I would prefer not to.” The boss’s immediate response is measured and thoughtful. An obviously lonely and depressed Bartleby touches his Christian conscience, “For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.” But that feeling doesn’t last long enough to save his employee. Soon, the better angels of the boss’s nature fly the coop.
Bartleby’s stubbornness and ill health pose both a moral and a business problem for the attorney. His clients’ work needs to get done accurately and on time, so he decides to replace Bartleby right away. But on second thought, that seems inhumane. Maybe he should provide for him instead, give him a place to live? In the end, the narrator’s inner capitalist wins out over the inner saint. This entire moral drama occurs against the background of biblical allusions. The narrator reacts to his clerk’s refusal to work by turning “into a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). Later, he says Bartleby “had now become a millstone to me” (Matthew 18:6). In the end, replaying Peter’s denial of Christ, the narrator claims he has no connection to Bartleby. While Melville’s readers have long puzzled over how to take the narrator, this much seems clear: He’s someone the reader is meant to identify with. (Originally, those readers were the audience of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.) We’re no Bartleby, readers can assure ourselves, we’ve made our way in the American economy. We go to work. We don’t cause problems. We pay our bills. But this normal sounding narrator, who feels so familiar, ultimately abandons his own best instincts and Bartleby as well. Which leaves us wondering if perhaps we’ve done the same thing.
No one in Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” boycotts the demands of Wall Street the way Bartleby did. For Shiftlett and Lucynell Carter, wheeling and dealing seem second nature. The story, written a century after “Bartleby,” has the feeling of a moral fable. Yet in a sense it’s just two characters negotiating a deal on a used car—a deal in which the future well-being of a cognitively challenged woman hangs in the balance. What makes the story so entertaining is the tension between the often hypocritical nods to Christian teaching and the characters’ obvious underlying motives.
Tom T. Shiftlett appears at the hardscrabble homestead of Lucynell Carter and her grown daughter (also named Lucynell) like an Old Testament prophet spouting a string of condemnations that would do Amos proud. “The world is almost rotten,” he tells the them, people will do anything for money. Oh, and there are no innocent women left either. Shiftlett claims that he, unlike others, “has moral intelligence.” That self-assessment is never supported by moral acts but is quickened by a series of Christian allusions and symbols. Admiring the setting sun, Shiftlett raises his arms to indicate “an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross.” Like Jesus he’s an itinerant carpenter who performs miracles: He teaches the mute daughter to speak—a few words anyway. It’s not really the the sinfulness of the world that Shiftlett has his eye on, though. It’s the Carters’ broken down car. For her part, Mother Carter sees in Shiftlett a solution to the problem of what to do with the mute Lucynell. The Christian-capitalism nexus is clearest as Shiftlett and Carter haggle in religiously charged language.
“Lady, a man is divided into two parts, body and spirit [Shiftlett said]. …The body, lady, is like a house: it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady is like an automobile: always on the move…”
“Listen, Mr. Shiftlett,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on this place.”
Here, Shiftlett may allude to 2 Corinthians 7 and Lucynell to John 4, but they’re both trying to work the deal to their own advantage. What O’Connor is up to in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is implied by the story’s title. The characters may surround themselves with Christian ideas and symbols, but they cannot escape their own deceit and greed. They are victims in need of salvation that neither they nor their business dealings can provide. All of which points ironically to the story’s title. Drawn from a billboard headline promoting safe driving, it is the antithesis of the Christian message: We are never the source of our own salvation.
In our own time, the dehumanizing pressures that silenced Bartleby have been transformed into a futuristic totalitarian force in George Saunders’ “My Flamboyant Grandson.” The story’s narrator is a kindly grandfather, Leonard Petrillo, who recalls the surprising growth in his young grandson when he decided to take the child to see a Broadway show, an idea he calls “a revelation.” Petrillo, is a no-nonsense guy, the sort who’s spent a lifetime meeting obligations without complaint and with little attention his own needs. He admits that his grandson’s nascent homosexuality has been a struggle for him. When he spots the boy wearing a pink boa and singing a show tune, and then later, when the kid interrupts his grandparents and their dinner guests with another musical number, Leonard’s response is compassionate. He gave “it some deep thought and prayer.” His prayer, he tells us, was “Dear Lord, he is what he is, let me love him no matter what.” It is the grandfather’s fundamental Christian instinct that guides him in his relationship with Teddy, and that, along with practical business sense enables him to navigate the curious requirements of the capitalist economy he finds himself in.
Complicating their trip to Broadway is a wireless network (Everly Readers) that bombards pedestrians with personalized retail offers as they hurry along Midtown sidewalks. When Petrillo stops and removes his shoes to relieve his sore feet, the trouble begins. This simple act disconnects Leonard from the retail data stream. He’s nabbed by an official (ironically called a Citizen Helper) who threatens to write him up for the infraction, a delay that would cause Petrillo and his grandson to miss curtain time. Here, the struggle between the American economy, whose sole concern is stimulating purchases, and Petrillo, whose sole concern is helping his grandson’s development, could not be more acute. The assumption behind Everly Reader technology is that everyone’s “Personal Preference” somehow involves shopping. Not Petrillo. His personal preference is his grandson’s well-being, even at the cost of his own painful, bloody feet. Petrillo’s wish for Teddy that ends the story leaves us with a note of Christian hope. His grandson, Petrillo says, “fits no mold and has no friends but I believe in my heart that someday something beautiful may come from him.”
None of this is to say that all or even most American writers are obsessed with the apparent contradictions between Christianity and capitalism. But the same awkward dance plays out in enough books to make you wonder what it says about American culture. Each of these examples, and many more like them, suggests an inner conflict at work in the characters and their communities. Is it possible for an entire society to suffer an inner conflict? Perhaps. In his conclusion to Violence and the Sacred, René Girard draws an analogy between his own concept of mimetic desire and the theory of evolution. Just as biologists study fossil remains to draw conclusions about living species, Girard suggests, so too can we use literary texts—ancient or not—to find clues about social behavior and human cultures. What we’re seeing, then, is the predictable outcome of blending a get-rich-quick economic scheme with a money-is-the-root-of-all-evil religion. And if that odd pairing continues to haunt us, why should we be surprised?
Image Credit: LPW.