In the late 19th century, advocates of capitalism found biography an ideal genre for promoting the virtues of individualism. Focusing first on the way that Robert Herrick attempted to parody the form for satiric purposes, this essay then looks at the Christian rhetoric employed by Andrew Carnegie in his counter critique or "Gospel of Wealth."
The central cultural project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Alan Trachtenberg argued in his wittily titled The Incorporation of America, was the expansion of commercial values into new social discourses. In order to legitimate the domination of the economy by corporate interests, it was necessary to educate the public in the language and values of commercial culture, and advocates of capitalism quickly discovered that one of the most powerful tools was the biography of the successful businessman. Stories of laborers who rose to the status of gentlemen had become common in the 19th century, while biography itself had its origins in the lives of saints and military heroes. Thus the genre lent itself well to the promotion of individualistic interests and the way that they fitted into a social framework.
By the same token, however, the popularity of this kind of success story meant that its formulas could be used as a basis of parody for those who were critical of the capitalistic system, and it was this strategy that informed a 1905 critique of the "gilded age" by Robert Herrick, entitled The Memoirs of an American Citizen. A professor at the University of Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mindful of his Puritan, New England heritage, Herrick was never entirely comfortable with the materialism of Chicago, which represented for him the future direction of American culture. Having attacked the various hypocrisies and injustices of the gilded age in such novels as The Web of Life, in Memoirs he shifted the moral frame from one of Social Darwinism back to an older ideal of civic virtue and personal integrity, and in the process transformed the heroic businessman of the biographers into the greedy and immoral manipulator of finance capitalism.
Herrick's project, however, ultimately failed, and my purpose in the following essay is to explore the reasons why. To do so, I will first begin by profiling the economic scene in the later part of the 19th century, with particular focus on the common tropes employed in success stories, using examples from biographies of Philip Armour, Jay Gould, and Andrew Carnegie. Next I will explore how Herrick attempted to use these tropes to show how the contemporary capitalist, although a hero of his own biography, acted in ways that were morally repugnant to an older American ideal, but how this very backward-looking nature of Herrick's parody limited its effectiveness as an attack on capitalist culture. In turn, I will conclude by showing how Andrew Carnegie's own essays and philosophy constituted a better strategy, specifically the way he attempted to frame capitalist endeavor within Protestant rhetoric and expand the language of corporate capitalism into the realm of communal responsibility and an ethic of Christian charity.
Describing the complications involved in making generalizations about "businessmen" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Robert Weibe states that "the general attitudes which businessmen shared neither separated them distinctly from other Americans nor bound them into a self-conscious community. Almost all of them disliked labor unions, disdained politicians, and feared panics and depressions" (10). Most Americans in the 1870s and 1880s focused on the local, the traditional, and the commonsensical, and businessmen were no exception. The overall social mechanism was a combination of the harsh economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the social Darwinism of T. H. Huxley and William Graham Sumner, and the rules for success within the system derived from traditional Protestant virtues of thrift and strength of character. …