Economic Literary Realities

December 29, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Much of the economic talk at this year's annual meeting of the Modern Language Association is about the job market for professors. But at one session Monday, the focus was on how literature about past economic crises might be worthy of renewed exploration in light of today's woes.

Cecelia Tichi, professor of English at Vanderbilt University, said that just as wars or ideological shifts lead to reevaluations of literary works, so too does an economic shift such as the current recession. "New readings are always incumbent on us," she said.

Tichi cited Jack London's autobiographical The Road (about his years living as a hobo) as an example of a book that not only has renewed relevance, but that today may deserve to be read alongside neglected works or with fiction that may be ripe for new interpretation.

The road trip is, of course a key genre of American literature, she noted, from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to On the Road to "Thelma and Louise," and The Road in some ways fits in. But much of the tradition of the road trip, Tichi said, "is about accounts of adventure, of identity formation, of the view of the United States as a restless nation."

The Road -- with its frank depictions of poverty -- goes beyond that, and poverty isn't a tool to self-identification or adventure, but the basic point being described, she said. So too, some other road works may benefit from reevaluation at a time that economic issues are center stage.

"London's The Road is not an account of Whitman-esque loafing," she said.

Further, she said, Ralph Waldo Emerson's tributes to "self-reliant young men" have "a glibness" about them when read beside an economic-focused reading of The Road.

A variety of other works might be read with The Road to gain perspective on economic hardship at both the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 21st, she said. Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879), which focused on inequality and the seeming incongruence in how technological and economic developments affected the wealthy and the poor, has been neglected for too long, she said.

So too, some modern literary works deserve more attention in conjunction with The Road. Tichi said that Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres might be read now not as an updated King Lear, but also as a more literal commentary on how industrial agriculture is taking over the role of the family farm. And Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full could be re-read "as a prelude to today," she said.

Gordon Hutner, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who organized the session at which Tichi spoke, said in an interview that he saw her talk and the others at the session as a demonstration of the "opportunity for literary studies to focus on issues of concern to the culture." He said that economic analysis of literature has not received enough attention until recently as it didn't fit in with the "reigning paradigms" in literature. Even class-based analysis (a frequent companion to gender and race analysis) looks at just one economic question, not the economy as a whole and its reflection in literature, he said.

Economics has a "broad impact on U.S. culture" and needs the type of attention it received at the session, he said.

At Illinois, Hutner recently started a course that suggests some of the ways economic analysis may expand literary studies. The course is on the entrepreneurial imagination, looking at literature about entrepreneurs. Some works may be expected -- such as the Horatio Alger story or Andrew Carnegie's autobiography. Other selections challenge the traditional representation of the business world. For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's What Diantha Did is an early feminist look at starting a business. And Fanny Hurst's Imitation of Life, long read for its focus on racial "passing," is also "very much about how to start a business," Hutner said.

While entrepreneurs may get lauded in business schools and overlooked or criticized in English departments, Hutner said, it's time to pay attention to economic issues in literature. As he said in introducing Monday's session, "it took no leap of academic imagination to realize that a session on the fragility of economic conditions was of paramount importance."

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