What novels written from 1865-present were principally important in exploring the psychology of American capitalism?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Various American novels written after 1865 have been especially important in addressing issues of capitalism.  Among the most prominent of those novels have been the following:

  • Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
  • The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair (1906)
  • Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis (1920)
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
  • An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser (1925)
  • Home to Harlem, by Claude McKay (1928)
  • The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos (1930)
  • Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos (1932)
  • The Big Money, by John Dos Passos (1936)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  • The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (1953)
  • Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow (1956)
  • The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud (1957)
  • The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (1963)
  • The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Perhaps the most significant novels about capitalism date from 1900-1940, when the U. S. was becoming a highly industrialized, obviously capitalistic economy.

Sister Carrie explores the radical rises and falls in fortune. The Jungle presents searing, unforgettable portraits of factory life. Main Street mocks the smug middle-class values, as does Babbitt. An American Tragedy deals with the scramble to get ahead. Home to Harlem presents the lives of African-American workers.

The 42nd Parallel deals, in part, with the rise of labor, as does Nineteen Nineteen. The Big Money deals with naïve dreams of unlimited capitalist expansion. These three novels, all by John Dos Passos, are all part of a deliberate trilogy that may be one of the most sustained meditations on American capitalism ever produced.

Their Eyes Were Watching God presents labor from a black point of view. The Grapes of Wrath may be the greatest single American novel dealing so fully and explicitly with capitalism and its shortcomings. Invisible Man again gives us insights into capitalism from a black perspective. The Adventures of Augie March presents a central character who is familiar with both lower- and upper-class life. Seize the Day deals to a great extent with unemployment and economic failure. The Assistant takes us inside the world of very small business. The Bell Jar depicts an intellectual worker in New York City. Finally, The Crying of Lot 49 is a wholesale satire on American capitalism in the 1960s. Interestingly enough, most of the prominent novels written since the 60s do not take capitalism as a major theme – at least if we think of capitalism as a system involving the conflicting interests of the rich and the poor. More recent novels have more often dealt with race and gender, with class less important than these other two.

Often, great American writers have been highly skeptical of capitalism – an attitude that led Steinbeck to refer, in The Grapes of Wrath, to

. . . the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

For a different point of view, the novels of Ayn Rand are worth reading.

wordprof eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An addition from my own list of favorites:  Octopus by Frank Norris.