Neoliberal Rationality in The Old Gilded Age: Introductory Address at 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium

At the outset of his chapter on “The Economics of American Literary Realism” in The Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (published today, by the way)Henry Wonham asks whether “the diverse set of writers generally aligned with the aesthetic disposition of realism…share an overriding interpretation of the economic conditions that inspired [Mark] Twain and [Charles Dudley] Warner to give [the Gilded Age] its notorious moniker?” The 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium on “American Literary History & Economics in the New Gilded Age” is dedicated in part to answering Wonham’s question, as well as another which it naturally inspires: Does the reappearance of the economic conditions of the Gilded Age, whether in the Era of Good Feelings, the Roaring Twenties, or our own time, correspond with a recycling of aesthetic phenomena?

The potential for an intrinsic link between cultural and economic cycles, what I have elsewhere called the “rhyme of crisis,” provides a rare occasion for agreement between Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Marx treats mass culture as a projection of class consciousness created by prevailing material conditions, while Keynes argues that changes in macroeconomic conditions are catalyzed by the persuasive narratives saturating the public consciousness via mass media. Their disagreement – about the chain of causation between culture and economy – may not be resolvable, but I’m not sure it needs to be. Merely that such a link exists and manifests itself in the literary record provides a more than adequate foundation for numerous scholarly projects. Projects which have the added benefit of eroding arbitrary periodizations and encouraging conversations across specializations and even disciplines, as is happening this weekend.

Keynes defines economics as a “habit of mind,” a “way of thinking,” and a “branch of logic.” He was quick to remind his colleagues, in the face of their scientistic delusions, that the economy is an imaginary, and, like novelistic fiction, one which is made seductive by the hubris and scope of its claims to verisimilitude. Because no one can imagine the whole of it, every claim about the economy is deeply speculative and contingent. On this front, Keynes had the full support of both his infamous rival, Friedrich Hayek, and his rejected mentor, Alfred Marshall.  All of them worried that their nascent discipline would be corrupted by vain and partisan men who were willfully blinded to the limitations of their economic imaginary by the temptation to whisper in the ears of “madmen in authority.” For this reason, Marshall, who, as founder of the first department, at Cambridge, did as much as anyone to institutionalize Economics, wrote, later in life, “I do not think it would be well that Economics should be studied by very many men, even at Cambridge.”


The next generation of economists proceeded, with Faustian arrogance, to present their speculative and contingent imaginary as natural science, insisting that economics was not merely a way of thinking about the complex world, but the only reasonable way of thinking. What Wendy Brown calls “neoliberal rationality” became, through calculated colonization and bureaucratic symbiosis in education, government, and business, a globally hegemonic habit of mind. We are all under pressure to be, as Brown puts it, “always, only, and everywhere…homo oeconomicus.” Neoliberal rationality, “saturat[es] the practices of ordinary institutions and discourses of everyday life…remak[ing] other fields of existence in…its own terms and metrics.” Paul Samuelson unselfconsciously summarizes his profession’s imperial impulse when he says, “I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treaties – if I can write its economics textbooks.”

Wendy Brown, like Foucault, places the emergence of neoliberal rationality in the late 20th century. Yet, if our culture, as well our economic conditions, mirror the Gilded Age, we could presumably find neoliberal rationality then as well. Consider this passage in a letter Sam Clemens wrote shortly after the death of his eldest daughter:

I did not know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away, & take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. And I did not know what she was. To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weight it, count it, realize it, not necessary; & now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this? Why am I robbed, & who is benefitted?

The image of the “broken” bank was an all too familiar one for Twain, who went bankrupt during the Panic of 1893, and spent the intervening years scrambling to repay his debts and claw his way back to affluence. When Susy fell ill, he was completing a worldwide lecture tour, and thus he found himself separated by oceans, unable to comfort her, unable to attend her funeral, unable to ever fully reconcile himself to her loss, which he blamed upon himself being, like his father and brother before him, constitutionally unfit for business.

Twain spent these years sacrificing his health, his solace, and his artistic ambitions to fulfill his duty as breadwinner. He undertook a crash course in economic rationality from Standard Oil executive Henry Rogers. While he admired Rogers, Twain bristled at the assumptions about human nature underlying the conventional wisdom of US capitalism and the ascendant school of neoclassical economics. As he alludes to the conflation of his parental grief with what, after Susy’s death, seemed petty pecuniary losses, his outrage at the callousness of economics creeps to the surface. He had become so engrossed in neoliberal rationality that he had allowed himself to think of his daughter as human capital, as an appreciating asset in his vault. With characteristic self-loathing, Twain burlesques the underlying assumptions of neoclassical economics in order to expose them as ludicrous and shameful. He concludes with a promise to his confidante that, from this point forward, he will “pay as [he] can, in love; and in this coin practicing no economy.”

The greatest character Twain created in the years surrounding his bankruptcy was David Wilson, better known as “Puddn’head.” Wilson is a polymath and an iconoclast, who enjoys nothing more than questioning conventional wisdom. And because he spends so much time surveying the borders of prescribed knowledge, Puddn’head retains a healthy regard for the “great dark” that lies beyond the horizon of his own intelligence.

On these terms at least, David Sloan Wilson is also a “Puddn’head.” He has done much to erode the conventional wisdom of economics in books like Does Altruism Exist? and essays at which submit it to the more rigorous standards of evolutionary science. He has also, in The Literary Animal, argued with admirable Puddn’headedness that the relationship between literary studies and evolutionary theory may be “mutually reinforcing.” If we hope to mount a resistance to the false narratives of neoliberal rationality, we need our discipline to explore and expand this natural alliance.

On behalf of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, I am proud to welcome tonight’s keynote speaker, David Sloan Wilson and kickoff the 2018 Quarry Farm Symposium.