Artistes have always viewed tradespeople with condescension, if not contempt, seeing them as crude money-grabbers, not fellow creators and innovators. Although art itself participates in commerce, it is never totally reconciled to it; it often sees itself as the flagbearer of values critical of the urge to make profit at all costs and to treat human labour purely as an economic commodity. It might be said that art seeks transcendental values; business, merely worldly ones.
Yet, as Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge show in their new anthology, Minding the Store: Great Writing About Business from Tolstoy to Now, there exist in American literature two strong currents of writing about business. There is one critical of a culture of excess, of competition over cooperation, of the gulf between the richest and the poorest, of worker alienation and dehumanization, of dispensable ethical standards. But there is also, side by side, another tradition sympathetic to capitalistic energy and excitement, to a culture of risk and opportunity, to personal ambition and entrepreneurial zeal as a necessary expression of individualism and liberty. Coles and LaFarge draw on both traditions for their book.
Timeless: John Updike’s My Uncle’s Death is part of the anthology.
Indeed, in The Hardware Man, perhaps the best story in the collection, these contrasting attitudes towards the selling of goods and the employment of people are shown meeting head-on in a small town in America. The story is by John O’Hara, a short story writer who once enjoyed a reputation as big as his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It depicts a young tyro, Lou Mauser, who starts off as a worker in a hardware store, learns the ropes of the trade, saves up some cash, buys the owner out, and then sets out to decimate every other hardware shop in the neighbourhood.
At first our sympathies lie with Mauser and his youthful ambition. But then O’Hara’s gaze turns to his competitor, Tom Esterly, an old-fashioned store owner with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach towards his customers. Esterly finds his business rocked by Mauser’s new regime of price undercutting, freebies, and goods on credit. He tries to hold out, but the attraction of a bargain is enough to lure away even his most loyal patrons. The story, which features dialogue of a very high order, ends with Esterly about to go out of business. But the “hardware man” of the title could be either Mauser or Esterly: O’Hara does not tell us which.
There are stories here about employers and workers, thrift and largesse, success and failure, desk jobs and con jobs. The opening sentence of Joseph Heller’s In The Office In Which I Work—“In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid”—will resonate immediately with anybody who has ever worked in an organization and quickly become part of its sects and rivalries.
“Just about everybody in the company is afraid of somebody else in the company,” says Heller’s narrator—which might serve as a small-scale encapsulation of the logic of capitalism. Heller, who spent many years in corporate life, was drawing from personal experience. So, presumably, was O. Henry—who spent five years in jail on a charge of embezzlement—in his tale of three crooks, A Man Higher Up. And in John Updike’s My Uncle’s Death, a child’s adoring view of his rich but somewhat mysterious uncle from the fringes of his life gives us a sense of how the man might be in his dealings in a harsher climate. Uncle and nephew play card games, and “now and then, as he deliberated over the upturned pile, and then plunged and took them all in his hand, I felt for an instant the decisive thrust that had carried him into the world of money”.
Calvin Coolidge thought that “the business of America is business”, and the implications of that idea—the readiness of a civilization for that “decisive thrust”—are explored from many viewpoints in Minding the Store.
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