Capitalism in early American literature: Texts and contexts



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One of the fundamental precepts of American culture is that America is the place where the free market economy assures rewards commensurate with productivity. This idea, and the corollary one that nonproductive people should not be allowed to usurp the rewards of others, has been a perennial concern of American writers since our literature's beginnings. This literary history attempts to show how these ideas were planted and flourished in the national consciousness, and how criticisms came to be levelled against the capitalist system in the colonial period, the early national period, and the Jacksonian period. Although the focus is on literary texts, each section begins with an overview of the broader social debates which impacted the literature being produced. The colonial period saw the establishment of the essential American attitudes towards work and wealth. The experience of the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth showed the benefits of an economic system based on self-interest. Puritan divines helped disseminate the concepts of the "calling" and the compassionate use of wealth. Later, Benjamin Franklin and Michel-Guillame-Jean de Crevecoeur helped codify the idea of rising individual while tentatively exploring the plight of the dispossessed groups. In the early national period, American writers began dealing in earnest with questions of class stratification, the rising individual, and the economic parasite. Novelists reflecting the conservative viewpoint included Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Rebecca Rush; more radical in his critiques was Charles Brockden Brown. In the Jacksonian era, characterized by wild economic swings and increasingly harsh urbanization, writers became more strident. James Fenimore Cooper provided an able defense of the landowner as productive capitalist; Charles Frederic Briggs presented a darker vision of the country's economic stratification; and Frederic Douglass showed how becoming a productive member of a free market system was an essential part of his identity as a human being. The study ends with a look at a modern economic novel, Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You. Mr. Rosewater, as an example of a work that draws heavily on the ideas of the past in its plea for a capitalist system tempered with compassion.