July 2012

Western literature doesn’t really care for markets.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom, and it’s been that way for quite a while. Even Ayn Rand took time to satirize the anti-commercial prejudice of the literary set, bringing it up in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Academic literary critics sometimes seem proud of the anti-commercial stance, while those who favor free markets as a matter of policy won’t quite be comfortable with works such as The Merchant of Venice or Bleak House.

But is that really all there is? Of course not. This month, we’re going to dig a little deeper.

Our lead essayist, Sarah Skwire, contends that academics could stand a wider reading of the canon — and that libertarians have a lot less to fear than they may have suspected. Western literature’s view of commerce is complex and often highly critical, but it’s also very often quite positive. In short, she invites both sides to read with new eyes.

To discuss with Dr. Skwire this month, we have invited three distinguished authors, each of whom has spent much time engaging with the big questions of liberty, commerce, and literature. William H. Patterson, Jr. is the foremost scholar of the great libertarian science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Amy H. Sturgis is an intellectual historian active in both libertarian activism and the fantasy/science fiction community, and Frederick Turner is an accomplished poet and literary theorist.

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Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.

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