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Tom Wolfe, American Iconoclast
by Marsha Familaro Enright
Originally published in The New Individualist, Fall, 2006
Tom Wolfe is one of the most original, honest and unfettered contemporary observers of American culture alive today. Originator of the New Journalism in the ‘60’s, Wolfe’s fiction-like forays in reporting have kept him at the leading edge of insight for decades. And he’s hilarious! He skewers pomp, pretension and preening evenhandedly–and his fellow members of the press are often well-roasted. His originality with language is phenomenal, his psychological insight and depth remarkable. Best of all, his entirely first-hand view of the world always shines through.
Just as Ayn Rand closely observed and essentialized American culture during the first half of the twentieth century, Wolfe studied our culture “in the field” during the second half and beyond. He ranged all over the country: geographically, culturally, artistically, and intellectually. His books offer the reader vivid accounts about the full range of the “American carnival,” from the outrageous car culture of Southern California (“The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby “) to demolition derbies (“Clean Fun At Riverhead”), to the inner workings of the ultimate in ‘high’ culture snobbery–the New Yorker editorial offices (“Tiny Mummies!”).
From the ‘60’s onward, he seems to be on a mission to discover what makes American culture such a vast array of paradoxes–and in his later works, he eyes philosophy for answers.
Who is this wild man of journalism and fiction? A hugely popular and prolific author, Wolfe is probably best known for his novelesque account of the NASA space program, The Right Stuff (1975), made into a movie of the same name. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia and educated at Washington and Lee (B.A., 1951) and Yale (Ph.D. American Studies, 1957) universities, Wolfe spent more than ten years as a reporter for such institutions as the Springfield Union, The New York Herald-Tribune, Esquire and The Washington Post. In 1960 as Latin Correspondent at the Post, he won the Washington Newspaper Guild foreign news prize for his coverage of Cuba.
Along with Jimmy Breslin, Wolfe became one of the original staff writers of New York magazine, which had started as the Herald’s Sunday supplement. While on staff there, he began writing articles for Esquire magazine, many of which later formed his first book, The Kandy-Kolored, Kool-Aid Streamline Baby, published in 1965. These essays birthed the new, colorful, dramatic, story-telling style of writing which was later dubbed “The New Journalism.” The methods of this new style changed the face of reporting forever.
If you want a sample of an hilarious piece of journalism about journalism-and insight into Wolfe-read the essay “The New Journalism” in The New Journalism (1975). To begin with, he aptly summarizes his experience in graduate school, which motivated him to become a journalist in order to have exciting real-life experiences:
“I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has…Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it…No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know…the subject always defeated them…Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic overboil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.” (The New Journalism, 1975, 16)
He then analyzes what made “The New Journalism” new: harnessing methods of the novel to infuse stories about real people and events with drama, local color and psychological depth. This included describing whole scenes of a person’s life-witnessed directly by the journalist-extended dialogue, and shifting points of view. It required the writer to spend considerable time with subjects, questioning them about their thoughts, feelings and motives. “They had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after-and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” (35)
This required that the reporters have “the moxie to talk their way inside of any milieu, even closed societies, and hang on for dear life.” Writers like George Plimpton trained as an amateur with the Detroit Lions football team and turned it into Paper Lion; Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang before almost being stomped to death by them; Gay Talese chronicled boxing great Joe Louis’ life. This new style was in contradistinction to the “century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice. The idea was that the narrator’s own voice should be like the off-white or putty-colored walls that Syrie Maugham popularized in interior decoration…a ‘neutral background’ against which bits of color would stand out. Understatement was the thing.” (32)
And distinguish himself from understatement he did. Wolfe’s works became populated with wholly original turns of phrase that are so on-the-mark, many have migrated into our vocabulary. Tom Wolfe invented terms like “the Me Decade;” “the Right stuff,” and “social x-ray,” but according to the biography on his publisher’s website, his personal favorite is a Southern turn of phrase he introduced to the written word–and the national scene-in 1964-“good ‘ol boy.” He also “found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along-and I must say I had a good time using them. I figured it was time someone violated what Orwell had called ‘the Geneva conventions of the mind’…a protocol that had kept journalism and non-fiction generally (and novels) in such a tedious bind for so long.”
Using these new writing inventions, Wolfe has spent decades describing wildly-changing, status-seeking American fashions in delicious detail, whether it’s taking a limo four blocks to a party or owning a plantation. From his sharp observations he has crafted pithy characterizations like that of renowned symphony conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his “radical chic” buddies (another phrase he coined) or fictional Charlie Croker of A Man In Full (1998). He’s wondered at the chasm between the people (the “proles”) and the intellectuals and literati, between the glorious productivity, abundance and creativity of American culture and the Intellectuals’ gloomy, apocalyptic evaluation of that self-same culture-all expressed with his usual, interwoven sarcasm.
The reader can find it in an early essay from a book about ‘60’s culture, The Pump House Gang (1968):
“What struck me throughout America and England was that so many people have found such novel ways of …enjoying, extending their egos way out on the best terms available, namely, their own. It is curious how many serious thinkers–and politicians–resist this rather obvious fact. Sheer ego extension–especially if attempted by all those rancid proles and suburban petty burghers–is a perplexing prospect. Even scary one might say…I was impressed by the profound relief with which intellectuals and politicians discovered poverty in America in 1963, courtesy of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And, as I say, it was discovered. Eureka! We have found it again!…When the race riots erupted–and when the war in Vietnam grew into a good-sized hell–intellectuals welcomed all that with a ghastly embrace, too. War! Poverty! Insurrection! Alienation! O Four Horsemen, you have not deserted us entirely. The game can go on.”
And he is still wondering about it in his most recent book of essays, Hooking Up, published in 2000. This book ranges from art to neuroscience, and even a Cato Institute seminar is examined. The title essay “What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World” opens with:
“By the year 2000, the term ‘working class’ had fallen into disuse in the United States, and ‘proletariat’ was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts…Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential…Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.
“Our typical burglar-alarm repairman didn’t display one erg of chauvinistic swagger, however. He had been numbed by the aforementioned ‘intellectuals,’ who had spent the preceding eighty years being indignant over what a ‘puritanical,’ ‘repressive,’ ‘bigoted,’ ‘capitalistic,’ and ‘fascist’ nation America was beneath its democratic façade. It made his head hurt. Besides, he was too busy coping with what was known as the ‘sexual revolution.’ If anything, ‘sexual revolution’ was rather a prim term for the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000…Sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty,” which Wolfe then goes on to describe.
As the reader can see in the foregoing, typical passage, Wolfe does not merely notice blatant contradiction and hypocrisy–he finds them like a homing device finds its target hidden in a dark cultural and intellectual labyrinth and reveals it to the world. Likely this skill, on top of his material success, accounts for the screaming fury of the literati. In “My Three Stooges” Wolfe recounts how his surging fame and success with the novel A Man in Full–which pre-sold 1.2 million copies–motivated the likes of ‘modern’ novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving to denounce him in public as beneath literature. Wolfe chuckled about it on national TV and thanked them for increasing his publicity.
A Man in Full is set in contemporary, dynamically growing Atlanta, teeming with vivid characters and detail about the New South. The bulk of the story revolves around real estate magnate Charles Croker and his attempts to hold onto his empire tooth and nail. The story reveals many strata of Atlantan society, both white and black. However, the reader can see Wolfe’s concern for our contemporary culture in his sympathetic portrait of Conrad Hensley, a young man whose upbringing by déclassé middle class hippies leaves him lacking in most of the technical and social skills that make survival and success possible. In this story, Wolfe’s recognition of philosophy’s power is most apparent, through the aid a book of the ancient Greek philosopher Epitectus gives to the self-development of the young man. After an excruciating run of events leads Conrad to one of life’s nadirs, he turns it around by incorporating Epitectus’ principles of integrity and courage into his life. Later, the dramatic plot explicitly turns on issues of philosophy as the young man’s life intersects with Charlie Croker’s.
Wolfe’s fictional characters are not heroes on the grand scale of Victor Hugo, but they can be larger than life, and some, like Conrad, do achieve real values over multiple obstacles through honesty and fortitude. Wolfe admires and honors ingenuity, courage, honesty, hard work, self-responsibility, and science–and competence and achievement over status. In his 1975 The Right Stuff, his admiration shows for the many engineers and scientists who made the Space Program possible. At the same time, he marvels at the status and honor accorded the Astronauts before they had gone on any missions!
His own personal values are most clearly apparent in the subdued tone of his celebratory essay, “Two Young Men Who Went West” in Hooking Up. In it he recounts the history and achievements of Robert Noyce, founder of Intel. Noyce is little-known outside of Tech circles but lionized there, a legend in the semi-conductor industry, “a national treasure” as one writer testified in all sincerity. Noyce forged a new corporate culture, the culture of achievement and single-minded work, the entrepreneurial, independent and self-responsible culture of Silicon Valley, through the principles and practices he instituted as head of his young company. Wolfe traces his ideas and values back to Grinnell, Iowa and its 19th century, Dissenting Protestant individualist roots. Wolfe respectfully reports that at his death, the unreligious Noyce was celebrated by “swarms of people [who] left [a memorial service] with the mournful feeling that some sort of profound–dared they utter the word ‘spiritual’?–force had gone out of the life of the Silicon Valley.”
Apparently, Wolfe deeply resonates with 19th century Dissident Protestant values. In a Brown University interview some years ago, Wolfe revealed this about himself: “Some years ago at a conference a student in the audience asked me why I write. I never asked myself that question in my life. I started free associating. I thought of the Presbyterian catechism for some reason. The first question is who created heaven and earth? The answer is God. The second question is why did he do it? It’s interesting, the answer is “for his own glory.” So I used that as my answer. It was probably a more honest answer than most.
“To me the great joy of writing is discovering. I started out as a journalist. I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.” (Mahdesian interview)
Wolfe comes by his appreciation of modern intellectuals honestly. He drew the ire of the art world with his essays-cum-books on art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). In the first, he argues…so to speak…that the fame of modern artists is wholly dependent on the trumpeting of art critics–not on any value or skill of substance might actually possess. When it came out, the art world howled at this characterization and Wolfe–ever the incendiary–fed the fire by appearing on TV in his trademark white Southern Gentleman’s suit, homburg and gloves.
In the second, he perforates the pretensions of Modern Architecture, the sort Ayn Rand describes as the new fashion near the end of The Fountainhead.
“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within they blessed borders today?
“I doubt it seriously. Every child goes to school in a building that looks like a duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse…Every new $900,000 summer house in the north woods of Michigan or on the shore of Long Island has so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes, it looks like an insecticide refinery.” (From Bauhaus To Our House, 1981, 1).
The books maps out how plain white walls and glass and steel boxes became the cynosure of architectural style in the wealthiest country that ever existed. He traces this fashion back to economical worker housing designed by Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe after World War I, and fawning American intellectuals me-too-ing European fashion.
Amid the acerbic observations and witty descriptions, I have seen him searching for an answer to the following questions: why does the U.S.-the greatest civilization in history-self-flagellate, and why has it descended into hypocrisy and perversion rivaling the Roman Empire? This paradox peoples much of Wolfe’s work. He sees U.S. culture and events through classic American eyes of common sense, respect for productivity and hard-work, and no-nonsense skewering of hypocrisy. As a self-made man, he appreciates the good fortune of our freedom and individual expression. And he struggles to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values–in other words, a philosophy that supports and realistically grounds the basic American values of common sense, productive creativity, self-respect and the individual pursuit of happiness.
Some feel Wolfe’s approach to events and characters is cynical. I think he strives to present an unvarnished view of American culture, with its warts as well as its gold nuggets. He is a reporter, after all. In his fiction, his characters are not idealized portraits, but neither are they journalistic: his characters are highly stylized examples of human possibilities, extracted from Wolfe’s perspicacious observations. He knows that status is a driving motive among men–he doesn’t like it, because he believes in merit. That’s why he seems to have some admiration for even mixed characters like real estate tycoon Charlie Croker. Charlie has created, he’s produced real wealth. Wolfe lauds him for this and spears him for his craven status seeking. He does not romanticize real people beyond their actual achievements–we see this in The Right Stuff-but he does present real heroes in all their glory, like Bob Noyce and Chuck Yeager (whom Wolfe made famous).
Wolfe shares with Ayn Rand the ability to deeply parody social-climbing antics. He could be describing Kiki Holcombe of The Fountainhead when he scrutinizes the “social x-ray” women of ambitious New York society in his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1975). This book, as his other novels, is replete with detailed accounts of self-aggrandizement and blatant status seeking. In an interview, he declares “My real interest is in the subject of status, which has to do with how people group themselves, rank themselves.” However, unlike Rand, he is not morally affronted by it. As a philosopher, Rand rails against the energy spent social-climbing and presents an alternative-a new, secular ethics and approach to self and others based on achievement and merit, qualities Wolfe clearly admires.
No, Wolfe doesn’t like the status-seeking, but he accurately and incisively reports it–and prods it with his razor wit and clever neologisms. Ever the journalist, Wolfe accepts the constant competition for status as basic to human life, even in such apparently rational groups as scientists and philosophers. I think he can sharpen readers’ eyes to this competition, enabling them to recognize it more often in their own social circles, and in themselves-however rational they may seem. He revels in the creativity and exuberance of American culture, with its open expression of personal values–of ego. He also worries about the descent into decadence and depravity in the past 40 years, and the lack of self-respect characterized by such phenomena as MTV and contemporary fraternity practices. He understands the siren call the current culture has on youth, with the concomitant drowning of personal self as illustrated through the main character in his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is not a hard and fast traditionalist–how could he be, with his independent views? He seems to be struggling to find some objective grounds, some reasonable formulation of wholesome values.
Over the years, I have felt like a detective–finding the clues for Wolfe’s deep love of country in work after work, but never hearing an open admission from him. The clues are there in The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House, The Painted Word, Hooking Up, and other books. Finally, in an interview this year in the Wall Street Journal, he voices his opinion:
“I also believe in the United States. I think this is the greatest nation that ever existed, still is. It’s really the only really democratic country in the world. Find me one country, just one country in the entire world that would let a foreign people-different culture, different language, and in many cases different color than the majority of the native stock-take over politically an entire metropolitan area in less than one generation. I’m talking about the Cubans in Miami . . .”
“I’m very democratic,” he says after a time. “I think I’m the most democratic writer whom I know personally, though I don’t know all writers of course.” (the precise reporter!)
“I really love this country. I just marvel at how good it is, and obviously it’s the simple principle of freedom. . . . Intellectually this is the system where people tend to experiment more and their experiments are indulged. Whatever we’re doing I think we’ve done it extremely, extremely, extremely well.” Silence. “These are terrible things to be saying if you want to have any standing in the intellectual world.”
Ever the jokester…its one of the things to which some people point, I’m sure, to prove his cynicism. I find it more in the vein of Mark Twain: caustic and always ready to puncture pretensions, even his own. His tone is not deeply serious or ironic in a weighty, European way. He’s led a rebellion against European intellectual domination-at least in journalism. His tone is distinctively American–light-hearted, irreverent and with an intellectual innocence nonetheless–like Mark Twain rather than Dostoevsky. Some might take exception to his style–as many have to Mark Twain-but his trenchant observations communicated through fresh eyes always delight me. I envy all the literary gold a new Wolfe reader will find.
Mahdesian, Linda. “Tom Wolfe, Zeitgeist Czar.” http://www.brown.edu/Administration/George_Street_Journal/v20/v20n24/wolfe.html
Picador Publishers’ Official Tom Wolfe Website. 2006. www.tomwolfe.com/bio.html#.
The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby 1965
The Pump House Gang 1968
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test 1968
Radical-Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers 1970
The Painted Word 1975
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine 1976
The Right Stuff 1979
In Our Time 1980
From Bauhaus to Our House 1981
The Purple Decades 1982
Bonfire of the Vanities 1987
A Man In Full 1998
Hooking Up 2000
I Am Charlotte Simmons 2004
This film celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of
entrepreneurs around the globe.
By Marsha Familaro Enright
The New Individualist, Jan/Feb 2008 — This past September, I was thrilled to see The Call of the Entrepreneur, a new documentary by The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headed by Roman Catholic priest Robert Sirico. Beautifully filmed in high definition, with inspiring music and a riveting story, this documentary celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of entrepreneurs around the globe. It dramatically makes the case for the moral value of capitalism—and it’s about time.
Economic and political developments in the last thirty-odd years have proven the factual case for the superiority of capitalism, but the moral case remains to be won. The harnessing and molding of self-interest through capitalism towards creative, productive, life-enhancing, happiness-achieving ends must be trumpeted to the world. This documentary is a clarion call.
The film’s theme is the unstoppable energy, optimism, creativity, and productiveness of the entrepreneur, which has made our world possible. It starts with a dairy farmer in the small mid-Michigan town of Evart, interweaving his story of ingenuity, perseverance, and calculated risk with the thrilling and heart-wrenching story of communist refugee and media magnate in Hong Kong, and that of a self-made merchant banker in Atlanta. Each of these entrepreneurs is remarkable.
Jimmy Lai, founder of giant Next Media, recounts his journey from the desperate poverty of Guangzhou province in communist China to his position as a media mogul aiming to foster freedom through information. The son of a merchant family stripped of their wealth, Jimmy’s mother was sent to work in the fields all week while he and his siblings fared for themselves. The boy left school at the age of ten to work in a railway station, which changed his life.
The communists, he comments, painted China as wonderful in contrast to the nasty picture they presented of the outside world; but his eyes were opened by the travelers at the train station. Their dress, speech, and even the kind way they treated him gave him an education. “I was never treated so well before,” he recalls. After ravenously eating a bar of chocolate handed to him by a client, he resolved to go to where it was bought: Hong Kong. He had to beg his mother for a year before she would allow him the dangerous journey in the hold of a sampan to the freedom of Hong Kong.
Dairy farmer Brad Morgan was searching for a more cost-effective way to dispose of tons of cow manure when his undying curiosity and creativity led him to the compost business. Although he appears only moderately educated, Morgan skillfully uses scientific and business experts from far and wide to turn his farm into one of the largest and best composting businesses around.
Investment banker Frank Hanna describes how his father, rather than guiding his sons to sports or leisure on the weekends, would take them to various properties the family owned. Together, they performed all the chores and learned the processes involved in running businesses—lessons Hanna used well as he and his brother built their merchant-banking business. Hanna has combined this practical knowledge with a study of free-market economics, not only for his successful business but for philanthropy, as well. Recently, he was named Philanthropist of the Year by Philanthropy Magazine because of the thoughtful and principled approach he takes to charity.
In addition to these inspiring stories, the movie deftly explains some key economic concepts through simple illustrations, including the tremendous value that capital markets create—something Tom Wolfe’s bond trader in Bonfires of the Vanities didn’t seem to know. Experts such as Peter Boetkke from George Mason University andWealth and Poverty author George Gilder cameo with pithy explanations of economic principles.
From the opening, the movie attacks the ridiculous idea that capitalism is a zero-sum game, visually puncturing that argument with sweeping views of New York and Hong Kong. You would think that just one of capitalism’s nay-sayers would ask themselves the question: If it’s a zero-sum game, where did all this stuff come from? How did we travel from the caves to New York City?
In justifying the virtue of the entrepreneur, The Acton Institute emphasizes the other-oriented attitude of the entrepreneur in contrast to the view that entrepreneurship is merely about greedy wealth-acquisition. The documentary argues that the entrepreneur must focus on the needs and desires of other people in order to succeed. One of the film’s messages seems to be that entrepreneurs are virtuous because they work for other people, performing a kind of altruism. In fact, during a question-and-answer session after the movie, executive producer Jay Richards confirmed this, emphasizing that the “al” in “altruism” means “other.”
It’s unfortunate that Acton feels the need to justify the goodness of the entrepreneur by his or her ability to help other people. Helping others is a valuable benefit of what they do, but, clearly, that is not always the entrepreneur’s motive. Morgan, Hanna, and Lai are obviously working for the laudable motives of enjoying the exercise of their own powers, and for their desire to change the world for the better—according to their own vision. While entrepreneurs must focus on the needs and desires of others for trade, many entrepreneurs create products that others could never imagine, or imagine wanting, such as PCs or “pet rocks.” Like almost all creators, entrepreneurs often face unrelenting criticism and resistance. Most often, the entrepreneur has to be pig-headedly persistent—“kinda stubborn,” as Morgan calls himself—in his own vision to bring new values to the world. Although the actions of entrepreneurs wonderfully result in benefits to others, in order to succeed, they must cleave to their own selves, to their own vision. Sounds rather self-interested, doesn’t it?
Indeed, the film’s commentators express discomfort with the concept of greed and criticize John Stossel’s ABC specials that focus on greed as a positive force in the market. Unfortunately, in the moral wars, the film’s eschewing of greed could be seen as apologetics for the basic self-interestedness of the entrepreneur, a discomfort that can be attacked by those more consistently altruistic in the self-abnegating sense.
The problem lies in the loaded concept of “greed.” Conventionally, the concept of greed, like that of selfishness, emphasizes excessiveness—in this case, the desire to acquire or possess more than one needs. But what of the entrepreneur’s stubborn insistence on pursuing his vision when others want him to stop? Is that excessive? Is that greedy?What’s needed is a clearer parsing of the concept of greed. Greed to acquire and possess values is a strong human motivational tendency. A more neutral term for this tendency is “ambition.” It’s a good thing that humans have this tendency, or they might not be sufficiently motivated to survive and flourish. It’s a tendency that can be aimed toward good or ill. The primeval, undisciplined tendency of greed often results in the pursuit of fame, money, or power at the expense of integrity, honor, love, family or friendship. Each person needs to focus the aim of his or her greed toward productive values, not toward destructive ones. That makes the moral difference.
On the other hand, some self-defined individualists would do well to broaden their almost autistic concept of the well-lived life. As Aristotle said, man is a political animal. Humans tend to have a great desire to interact and affect others, even when pursuing their own interests.
This transformational power is a sacred ability, because it makes human flourishing possible. As George Gilder says in the film, “There is no reason to explain poverty—poverty is the natural human state” before the first entrepreneurs, the farmers, changed the world. Productive creativity should be celebrated with joyful sanctity—and this film goes far in that direction.
Given the religious orientation of The Acton Institute, the ultimate message of the film is that man becomes nearer to God through creativity. With stirring music and shots of Michelangelo’s “Creation,” the documentary’s climax testifies that man’s creative ability is God’s gift to man, granting man a special place in the universe. This is the religious idealism of former centuries—a view contrary to that of the radical environmentalists, who consider man and his reality-transforming reasoning powers to be an unnatural scourge upon the earth. Rather, this Scholastic religious doctrine sees man as closer to God than any other creature, by his participation in God’s ability to create. The commentators, including Father Sirico and George Gilder, affirm the inspiring nature of this relationship to God.
As a thoroughly committed scientist and a nonbeliever, I was struck by the topsy-turvy nature of this view. Man’s ability to create and transform reality rather than merely adapt to the given is fundamental to his survival powers, acquired through evolution. Man’s reason and imagination, exploratory tendencies, and especially the energy, persistence, and independence of the personality type that typifies entrepreneurs, allow him to remake the world to suit his purposes. Isn’t it interesting that men feel the need to capture the sacredness of this fundamental of human nature by projecting a god with the same ability—and making man his special protégé?
This transformational power is a sacred ability, because it makes human flourishing possible. As George Gilder says in the film, “There is no reason to explain poverty—poverty is the natural human state” before the first entrepreneurs, the farmers, changed the world. Productive creativity should be celebrated with joyful sanctity—and this film goes far in that direction.
The Call of the Entrepreneur is premiering around the country at small venues, through organizations like the Sam Adams Alliance. Acton hopes to get it onto PBS affiliates or commercial TV. Despite its philosophical shortcomings, I urge you to see it and to enjoy its dramatic celebration of the optimism and lavish productivity of the entrepreneur.
Addressing a joint session of Congress on health care, President Barack Obama reiterated his often-expressed aversion to the profit motive:
“[B]y avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private [health insurance] companies by profits and excessive costs and executive salaries, [the public insurance option] could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better . . .”
Is this true? Is profit wasteful, as Obama implies? Does it lead to higher prices and lower value to consumers? Can the government, unburdened by profit, do the same job as a private company, only cheaper and better?
To answer, let’s consider one business, one product, and one profit-seeking man who lived at a time when the market operated largely free of government subsidies, bailouts, regulations, taxation, and other “progressive” intrusions.
Henry Ford, at age 13, saw a steam-driven land vehicle, a “road locomotive,” which filled his imagination with the vision of a horseless carriage and fueled a passion to create one. As a young man, he worked day jobs, while trying to build a car in his free time. Realizing a viable car could not run on steam, he sought to develop a new kind of engine.
On Christmas Eve 1893, the 30-year-old inventor clamped his first gasoline engine to his wife Clara’s kitchen sink. With the home’s electricity providing ignition, the motor roared into action, sending the sink vibrating and exhaust flames flying while Clara prepared the holiday dinner.
In pursuit of his dream, Ford and Clara moved eight times in their first nine years of marriage. He quit a secure job at the Edison Illuminating Company, banking everything on his vision. He co-founded the Detroit Automobile Company—a venture that failed. Jobless, Ford moved his wife and child into his father’s home. But he kept working on his car. “It is always too soon to quit,” he said.
Ten years passed from the roar of the little engine on Clara’s sink to the launch of the Ford Motor Company. It took five more years to produce his big success, the Model T, and additional years to master its mass production.
Why did Ford persist through years of hardship and uncertainty? How much would his love for the work have sustained him without the hope of eventual profit? Imagine if he had lived in a system where politicians could, at the stroke of a pen, seize his profits or decide how much he could keep. Would he have risked so much or worked so ferociously to bring a world-changing invention to market?
Would an Amtrak employee devote a decade of free time inventing a new train, only to rise a notch on a civil-servant’s pay scale? Dream big, work hard, create something earth shaking, but be paid small is the antithesis of the American dream.
The pursuit of profit not only motivated Ford, but also his bold investors who had the foresight to realize the horse was doomed.
In 1903, a school teacher invested $100—half her life savings—in the Ford Motor Company. Sixteen years later, she sold her stock for a total gain of $355,000. Why would she and others place their money on a highly experimental venture, were it not for the hope of tremendous gain should the enterprise succeed? What kind of person would deny her the reward for recognizing Ford’s vision and risking her own money?
The pursuit of profit also impacted every aspect of Ford’s business operations.
Ford didn’t need a politician’s scolding to lower prices—only the desire to make huge profits by reaching mass markets. Because early cars were expensive, people viewed them as mere playthings of the rich. But Ford sought to “build a motor car for the multitude.” This led him to develop his moving assembly line, significantly reducing manufacturing costs and, consequently, prices. The original $825 price of the Model T finally bottomed at $260. That price-lowering strategy brought him the millions of customers that made him rich.
Similarly, Ford’s pursuit of profit didn’t result in bare-subsistence wages for employees, but in phenomenal pay increases. He shocked the world by introducing the $5 workday, more than doubling the era’s prevailing wage. Why? To attract the best workers, whose talents increased product quality and company efficiency. High pay also decreased employee turnover and training costs, again increasing Ford’s profits.
Ford typifies the successful capitalist, whose profit-driven innovations lower prices, while raising wages and living standards for all.
Even today’s Ford Motor Company, a much-fettered child of our mixed economy, demonstrates the superiority of private- over government-run companies. Ford refused TARP bailout money, choosing to operate without government strings. The result? Ford’s profits are up 43 percent, while bailed-out GM and Chrysler lag behind.
In Henry Ford—a thin man who was the fattest of fat cats—we see an embodied refutation of President Obama’s worldview. Ford developed a new form of transportation vastly cheaper, faster, more convenient, and superior to the old mode. He continually lowered prices so that everyone, rich and poor, would have access to his product. He created thousands of jobs. He raised employee wages. He did all this good without government grants, bailouts, stimuli, subsidies, or coercion, but simply as a result of the honest pursuit of personal gain.
This achievement was possible only because a private individual had the freedom to pursue his own self-interest, in cooperation with others who supported his vision and shared in the rewards, unencumbered by government.
By eliminating profit, Obama implies that everything else about an enterprise would remain the same, only the product would be cheaper and better. Actually, by removing profit, nothing at all would remain the same.
Contrary to Obama’s notions, profit is not an overhead cost, but a vital gain sought over and above costs in order to reward a company’s risk-takers. According to economist Ludwig von Mises, “Profit is the pay-off of successful action.” And “The elimination of profit . . . would create poverty for all.”
Eliminate the hope of profit, and you extinguish that spark which ignites the human engine and powers it to explore uncharted roads: the creative mind. Profit is the proud product of the creative mind, and the creative mind is an attribute of the individual. Obama’s attack on profit is an attack on human creativity and innovation, which is an attack on the individual.
Obama’s antipathy for the self-interested individual is explicit. “In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action,” he said in an interview in the Chicago Reader. “But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
It was Henry Ford’s individual actions and individual dreams that brought motorized, personal transportation within reach of everyone in the world.
America is rooted in the “pursuit of happiness”—which means the right of each of us to create, to produce, to rise, to succeed, and to profit from the fruits of our labor. Contrast this worldview with that of a president who disparages the individual and seeks to limit or expropriate his profits on behalf of a faceless “collective.” Obama’s war on profit is a war against the individualist heart and soul of America.
Profits are a badge of honor earned by someone who offers others something they value enough to buy. The first buyer of the first car of the Ford Motor Company was a doctor. He was tired of hitching up his horse and buggy for nighttime emergencies. Ford’s product enhanced his life, as it later enhanced the lives of millions. Profit is the medal Ford received from his customers for a job well done.
If our nation is to cultivate productive geniuses like Henry Ford, it must proclaim that the quest for profit is moral and noble.
POSTSCRIPT: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” This means that the federal government, with its vast powers to fund highway projects, “liveability” initiatives, and other aid programs, as well as to tax gasoline, now intends, in LaHood’s stunningly brazen words, “to coerce people out of their cars,” in favor of walking or cycling. A century ago, Henry Ford, through capitalism and the profit motive, brought motorized transportation to the world. Now, an alarmingly anti-capitalist government is reversing that historic achievement and pulling us back to the pre-industrial age.
Gen LaGreca is author of “Noble Vision,” an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Incidents from the book “Young Henry Ford,” by Sidney Olson appear in this article.
Copyright © 2010 by Marsha Familaro Enright and Gen LaGreca. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the authors and inclusion of their byline.
Permanent Link: http://marsha-familaro-enright.com/a-lesson-in-profit/
Originally published at: http://dailycaller.com/2010/03/31/a-lesson-in-profit/
“I came here with no friends, an old typewriter, and look what I achieved. It would have been impossible to achieve this in England.”
So said James Clavell, an Australian immigrant to America who learned the fundamentals of the American outlook on life in a horrific Japanese prisoner of war camp. In over four decades as a novelist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, director, and producer, Clavell added one lushly romantic, gripping story after another to his accomplishments. What’s even more surprising in this day and age, his heroes were often businessmen.
An English-educated Aussie, Clavell was born in 1924 as Charles Edmund DuMaresq de Clavelle. He became a captain with the British Royal Artillery in Southeast Asia during World War II. This position landed Clavell at the infamous Changi Japanese prisoner of war camp near Singapore for half of World War II, where he “collected material” for what would become his first novel, King Rat (1962).
Clavell had planned to be a Naval officer, like his ancestors going back at least to John Clavelle who fought at Trafalgar. But a motorcycle accident left him with a limp and out of the navy. After a stint as a salesman, he wrote a TV pilot that brought him to the U.S. in 1953, and launched a long career in the movie industry. His first screenplay was the 1958 version of The Fly. Watusi followed, along with Five Gates to Hell, which Clavell wrote, directed, and produced.
His remarkable range as a writer-director first revealed itself with Sidney Poitier’s 1967 film hit To Sir, With Love (also made into a TV movie in 1974). The Poitier film was nominated for three major awards, including the Directors Guild of America’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement. He penned the screenplay for The Great Escape, a factually based movie of Allied prisoners’ daring plans to get out of a Nazi prisoner of war camp, which starred Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson. Clavell’s script was nominated for the Writers Guild of America’s award for Best Written American Drama in 1968.
Clavell finally won an award, a 1981 Emmy, for his TV mini-series Shogun. (I remember being so excited about seeing it that I ran out and bought my first color TV!) A later novel,Noble House, also was made into a mini-series starring Pierce Brosnan and Tia Carrera, along with many notables like Denholm Elliott and John Houseman.
But Clavell remains best known for his work as a novelist, which began during a Hollywood writer’s strike in the early 1960s. Almost twenty years after his release from Changi, he had just started talking about his experience when his wife said, “Why don’t you write a novel about it?” Unsure how to write novels, he seized upon Othello’s resentful, envious Iago as an inspiration, and King Rat’s first line spilled out. “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard.’ And so, once I started, it came out in a tremendous rush.”
King Rat (1962)
In a 1986 interview, Clavell said that his experience in Changi was “as close as you can get to being dead and still be alive.” King Rat recounts life—so to speak—in this place between life and death:
- Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies…[C]loser, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was—an obscene forbidding prison…[N]ow, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men… These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.
As are all his later books, King Rat is excellently plotted and highly suspenseful, its characters sharply and colorfully drawn, the details exact and realistic. What makes it singularly fascinating is Clavell’s picture of how different men faced this gruesome experience.
Clavell vividly depicts the squalid conditions and brutal treatment meted out by the Japanese. Preserving their dignity and refusing to be cowed by their captors are the British officers’ primary motives—in the face of awful enfeeblement from chronic dysentery, malaria, and a host of other ailments. Repeated conflicts between the Allied soldiers and their Japanese keepers, resulting in incomprehensible prisoner punishments, dramatize the clash between Anglo and Japanese values.
Also, through Peter Marlowe, a British flight lieutenant and stand-in for Clavell, the author explores British discomfort with the American entrepreneurial spirit, embodied by the book’s title character, Corporal King:
- They always shared what they could find or steal or make. Max and Dino were a unit. And it was the same throughout the world of Changi. Men ate and trusted in units. Twos, threes, rarely fours. One man could never cover enough ground, or find something and build a fire and cook it and eat it—not by himself….Only by mutual effort did you survive. To withhold from the unit was fatal, for if you were expelled from a unit, the word got around. And it was impossible to survive alone. But the King didn’t have a unit. He was sufficient unto himself.
Marlowe comes from a purely military English family. He knows almost nothing about trade and business; his life has revolved around duty and honor. So he finds “the King” fascinating. He’s not sure what to make of the American’s expert trading with the Korean guards and Chinese suppliers, offering Mount Blanc pens and diamond rings in exchange for the food, clothes, and medicine the prisoners desperately need. Without envy, but with growing wonder, he tries to understand King’s outlook and learn from it.
Is his wheeling and dealing in this “lifeboat” situation taking unfair advantage of the others? Or is King a life-saver, able to motivate others and cleverly acquire what they all need to survive? Is it wrong that he believes in making a profit in the process?
While Marlowe ponders the King’s ethics, he comes to respect the man’s ability to seize opportunities and make things happen while everyone else struggles on the edge of survival. “‘Damned if I know how you do it,’ Peter Marlowe said. ‘You work so fast.’ The King replied: ‘You got something to do and you do it. That’s the American style.’”
For his part, the King recognizes Marlowe’s difference from the first moment. “His face was craggy, and though he was Changi-thin, there was a grace to his movements and a sparkle about him…[The King] listened to the rich laugh and knew it was a rare thing. When this man was laughing, you could see that the laugh came from inside. This was very rare. Priceless.”
By contrast, Lieutenant Robin Grey, provost marshal of Changi, despises Corporal King, the American who somehow manages to be healthy, well-fed, and clothed while everyone around him can barely hang on: “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.’ Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he had spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot.”
“Nobody gives me nothing,” King objects. “What I have is mine and I made it.” But Grey dogs the King incessantly, with bilious hatred for his rule-bending and his overflowing vitality—hoping, planning, scheming to catch him breaking this rule or that, so he can throw King in the Japanese jail and see him rot.
Unsurprisingly, Grey hates Marlowe as well. Coming from the lower classes, Grey personifies English class envy and social ambition, mistaking Marlowe’s self-confidence for mere upper class snobbery, yet secretly, jealously wishing to be like him. For his part, Marlowe despises the small-minded, vindictive, and senselessly bureaucratic Grey. “You’re such a goddam snob, Grey, when it comes down to it…[The Americans] think that one man’s as good as another.”
King Rat was made into a 1965 movie starring George Segal as Corporal King and James Fox as Peter Marlowe.
Clavell followed King Rat with his blockbuster Tai Pan (1966), the next in his “Asian Saga.” That series included Shogun (1975), Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin(1993). I also found a book called Escape, which appears to be the love story from Whirlwindas a stand-alone novel. Before he died in 1994, Clavell wrote two children’s books, The Children’s Story (1981) and Thrump-o-Moto (1986).
Except for the children’s stories and King Rat, these are all enormous novels, most over 1,000 pages long, and offering heaps of factual detail about the countries and cultures in which they are set. To achieve that level of accuracy, Clavell spent about a year researching each, reading histories and sociological accounts, and living in the settings. Many of his main characters are based on real people. The reader rips through Clavell’s stories, yet comes away educated and interested in knowing more about the cultures he reveals.
“I write short stories, they may appear big in size, but they’re four or five novels in one,” he explained. “In return for picking up one of my books, I’m trying to give [readers] value for their money. The goal of writing any novel is creating the illusion that you are reading reality and you are part of it.”
Tai-Pan follows the adventures of the British merchant Dirk Struan during the establishment of Hong Kong as a British Colony in 1841. By means of a blockade and other, more devious means, envious Chinese rulers had effectively curtailed the vast fortunes that British companies, using swift sailing ships, were amassing in China by trading Indian-raised opium. Inventively, the merchants enlist the British government and military to establish the empty, swampy, pestilent island of Hong Kong as British soil and a free trade port.
- As Struan walked along the main deck [of the 74-gun ship Vengeance], he glanced at the shore and excitement swarmed over him. The war with China had gone as he had planned…the prize—the island—was something he had coveted for twenty years. And now he was going ashore to witness the formality of taking possession, to watch a Chinese island become a jewel in the crown of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria…Hong Kong contained the greatest harbor on earth. And it was Struan’s stepping-stone into China….
Against the machinations of his life-time rival, Tyler Brock, Struan struggles to develop his business into the greatest trading company in the East. “In a company or army or fleet or nation there is only one such man—he who wields the real power…[Struan] was Tai-Pan of The Noble House.” “Tai-Pan” means “Supreme Leader,” and The Noble House is based on a real firm, Jardine-Matheson Holdings Limited, a multinational company based in Bermuda.
Struan not only navigates the South China Seas but the alien culture and cut-throat trading habits of the Chinese. Through him, his Chinese lover May-May, and their son Gordon Chen, the reader’s understanding of China and its relation to the West grows.
Clavell developed a fascination for the East, especially Japan, through his experience at Changi. Apparently, his family’s military background enabled him to respect the Japanese Samurai outlook and what some consider the ultimate warrior philosophy of Bushido, in which honor and duty reign supreme.
In Shogun, based on the real adventures of British navigator Will Adams, Dutch sailors searching for new trading opportunities and riches find themselves shipwrecked and then held captive in a small village on the main island of Japan. The sailors are squirreled away with low-caste prostitutes, remaining as filthy and vulgar as ever—all except the ship’s pilot, John Blackthorne, or “Anjin-san” as the Japanese call him. He is taken in by the Kasigi Samurai clan, where he begins his education in Japanese culture and values.
From the first, the Japanese are impressed by his moxie. Blackthorne is introduced to Yabu,daimyo or feudal lord of the region. An antagonistic Portuguese priest, Father Sebastio, translates while Blackthorne considers the situation:
- Look, the Jesuit’s very deferential and sweating a lot. I’ll bet the daimyo’s not a Catholic…you’ll get no quarter from him!
“The daimyo says hurry up and answer his questions” [said the priest].
“Yes. Of course, I’m sorry. My name’s John Blackthorne. I’m English, Pilot-Major of a Netherlands fleet.”
“Fleet? What fleet? You’re lying. There’s no fleet. Why is an Englishman pilot of a Dutch ship?”
Blackthorne decided to gamble. His voice abruptly hardened and it cut through the morning warmth. “Que va! First translate what I said, Spaniard! Now!”
The priest flushed. “I’m Portuguese. I’ve told you before. Answer the question.”
“I’m here to talk to the daimyo, not to you. Translate what I said, you motherless offal!” Blackthorne saw the priest redden even more and felt that this had not gone unnoticed by the daimyo. Be cautious, he warned himself. That yellow bastard will carve you into pieces quicker than a school of sharks if you overreach yourself.
“Tell the lord daimyo!” Blackthorne deliberately bowed low to the platform and felt the chill sweat beginning to pearl as he committed himself irrevocably to his course of action.
Unbeknownst to the Anjin-San, he is caught up in the epic conflict of rival Samurai clans which resulted in the domination of Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate for centuries. The novel’s Toranaga is a thinly veiled, romanticized version of the real samurai Tokugawa, whose Shogunate remained in control from 1603 to the Meiji Restoration in 1865. As in all Clavell novels except for King Rat, a powerful, beautiful, brilliant love interest deeply figures in the plot. In this case, it is Mariko, a high-born Samurai lady turned Christian who interprets the Anjin-San’s speech while she captures his heart. In addition to valuing her translating skills, Toranaga finds her useful for her deep strategic wisdom, integrity, and bravery as well.
I came across Shogun after having made a brief study of Japan by reading such sociological classics as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot. Shogun helped me understand far more about Japanese culture and values than anything I’ve read before or since. Not only does Clavell jam-pack his novels with information, he is an unusually clever teacher, as well.
During the first part of the book, I thought the main hero was the Anjin-San. Only about half-way through did I realize that Clavell had educated me about Japanese values through the eyes of the Anjin-San so that I could understand and appreciate Toranaga. For example, in one of the first scenes, Blackthorne encounters the violently bizarre ways of the Japanese when Omi-san, the samurai in charge of the village, interviews him. A Jesuit priest interprets:
- “Wakarimasu ka?” Omi said directly to Blackthorne.
“He says, ‘Do you understand?’”
“What’s ‘yes’ in Japanese?”
Father Sebastio said to the samurai, “Wakarimasu.”
Omi disdainfully waved them away. They all bowed low. Except one man who rose deliberately, without bowing.
With blinding speed the killing sword made a hissing silver arc and the man’s head toppled off his shoulders and a fountain of blood sprayed the earth. The body rippled a few times and was still. Involuntarily, the priest had backed off a pace. No one else in the street moved a muscle. Their heads remained low and motionless. Blackthorne was rigid, in shock.
Omi put his foot carelessly on the corpse.
“Ikinasai!” he said, motioning them away.
The men in front of him bowed again, to the earth. Then they got up and went away impassively.
By page five hundred, I understood Omi-san’s motives implicitly. When I finally “met” Lord Toranaga, the central hero of the book, I could sympathize with him instead of despising him. Had I been introduced to him in the beginning, I think I would have been revolted by his actions rather than appreciate his integrity to his own code of values.
I was so swept up in the tale, which I often read while commuting to and from Manhattan, that I frequently found myself muttering Japanese words on the Penn Station platform. And I haven’t been alone. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review section, a writer said:
- Shogun is irresistible…I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one…It’s almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it is not only something that you read—you live it…possessed by the Englishman Blackthorne, the Japanese lord Toranaga and medieval Japan…People, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping you forget who and where you are.
Noble House (1981)
While his other novels dramatize the clash between authoritarian cultures and individualist, Anglo-world heroes, Noble House most directly depicts the conflict between individualism and collectivism. The madly raucous markets and remarkable culture of Hong Kong’s unfettered capitalism during the 1960s contrasts sharply with the devious, totalitarian world of the Red Chinese and ruthless Soviet spies. A rush on gold, a wildly swinging, unregulated stock market, and opportunities galore abound for Ian Dunross, the sharp trader-descendant of Dirk Struan (depicted in Tai Pan)—as well as for people at every level of Hong Kong society, from cleaning ladies to jockeys and military officers.
“Dunross juggles international concerns for profit and protects free enterprise from the Soviets and the British Labour Party,” literary analyst Gina MacDonald summarizes. “He supports dependents, friends, and relatives, assures ‘Old Friends’ status with the mainland Chinese, and fulfills obligations assumed by Noble House a century before.”
Not only relatives from previous stories, but even Peter Marlowe and Robin Grey from King Rat return as substantial characters. Clavell also introduces formidable American entrepreneurs Linc Bartlett and gorgeous Casey Tcholok, who figure in Dunross’s struggle against perennial rival Tyler Brock, descendant of the original Noble House nemesis.
Of the thirty intricate plotlines in Noble House, one leads to Whirlwind, Clavell’s novel of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Descendants of Dirk Struan are once again at the center of the strife as they desperately work to protect the people and property of their branch of the Noble House, S-G Helicopters, which services the oil fields. Simultaneously, trading descendants of Shogun’s Toranaga strive to gain oil and gas concessions in the Persian Gulf. “Whirlwind” is the code name for S-G’s escape plan, taken from “whirlybird,” English slang for helicopters.
Whirlwind can deeply educate the reader about world events as much today as it did after the Iranian Revolution. However, where Japanese and Chinese readers were astounded at how accurately and positively Clavell portrayed their cultures, Clavell was not able to make the culture, values, and Islamic mind-set of Iran as comprehensible and sympathetic.
Regardless, it is still a worthwhile tale and garnered Clavell a $5 million dollar fee, selling four million copies in the U.S. alone. As in all his novels, Clavell expertly creates a complex, multi-layered plot, combining action, romance, heroism, brutality, tumultuous historical events, and a great descriptive style—all in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century romantic novel.
Clavell brings together elements of Shogun and Tai Pan, as well as King Rat, in his last novel.
Gai-Jin opens in 1862 with the shocking attack on a group of Europeans by zealous ronin—rogue, clanless, displaced Samurai—near the European settlement in Yokohama. The roninoppose the massive social change wrought by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West in 1854, and fanatically uphold the static, highly structured society of the previous 300 years. They seek to expel the detested “gai-jin”—foreigners.
Malcolm Struan, heir to the Noble House, struggles to keep his leadership while steering his company on a treacherous but exciting voyage through Japanese society. He strives to take advantage of the enormous trade opportunities between Hong Kong, China, Japan, and the West. Ultimately, his fate rests in the hands of a beautiful young French woman, Angelique Richaud.
Amidst terrorism, espionage, romance, and trade, Gai-Jin depicts the Japanese quandary at encountering Western culture. Since the Japanese had long believed themselves descended from the Sun god, and the highest culture on earth, they are shocked to find out that the rough, uncivil, filthy Europeans are their technological superiors. But they don’t waste time. Many ambitiously learn from the West so they can again dominate—especially the Shogun, Toranaga Yoshi, descendant of the original Toranaga. The reader of Shogun has an advantage here, being intimately familiar with Japanese culture, values, and thinking, while readers of Tai-Pan and King Rat will enjoy the way Clavell interweaves elements and characters from those books into this one.
Clavell in Context
Modern in many respects, James Clavell’s work echoes British adventure classics likeTreasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Robinson Crusoe, and Two Years Before the Mast,but with greater depth of character and lavish historical details. He specializes in the clash of cultures, while his individualist heroes learn deeply from their encounters by independently experiencing and judging foreign situations and people.
Business people are heroes of every Clavell novel. For that reason, I wondered for years whether he had been influenced by that famous literary champion of capitalism, Ayn Rand, who romanticized the lives and careers of business people.
Then one day I came across an online auction of books from Rand’s personal library. Inside a copy of his newly published novel Noble House, according to the auction description page, James Clavell had written this inscription to the author of Atlas Shrugged:
“This is for Ayn Rand/ –one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks/ James C/ New York / 2 Sept 81.”
Further on the auction page, I found that Clavell’s editor had sent Rand a copy of The Children’s Story, also printed in 1981, with a note on the letterhead of Delacorte Press asking her to read the book and share her response.
So much made sense now!
Clavell’s genius at revealing the Eastern mind—and the similarity of some of his themes to Rand’s—has not gone unnoticed in academe. In 1996, Loyola University professor Gina MacDonald published James Clavell, A Critical Companion as part of Greenwood Publishers’ “Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers” series. Intended as a teacher’s guide for high school and college courses, the book analyzes his novels in multi-leveled literary detail and includes a well-researched biographical section. MacDonald even compares Noble House to Rand’s Anthem and notes that Clavell’s books are not only adventures and romances but novels of ideas as well—through their repeated exposition of clashes between the individual and the collective and the conflict between capitalism and authoritarianism. I found the book to be a valuable resource, and I hope that it is used frequently in schools, which would bring more readers to Clavell.
That is important because far too many contemporary books for young people revolve around dysfunction, personal disaster, and ineptitude—if they have much of a story at all. Wouldn’t projections of life as a thrilling drama, with conflict, struggle, and triumph, offer far better food for their inchoate souls?
Meanwhile, here’s hoping that someone in the movie industry turns Whirlwind or Gai-Jininto a film, helping to re-ignite broader interest in this marvelous author.
Imagine a novel whose mysterious main character you do not meet until page 236. He is reviled by some for his greed and destructiveness, revered by others for his generosity and remarkable creativity. The plot revolves around discovering who he is and what he stands for. Toward the end of the story, he makes a speech about the meaning and glory of business.
No, this isn’t Atlas Shrugged. It’s Cash McCall, published in 1955—two years before Atlas. Post Tags
Its remarkable author, Cameron Hawley, was a business executive for many years before he published his first novel. Born in 1905 to a frontier family in South Dakota—his grandfather was an Indian scout who wore buffalo skins—Hawley began writing state-wide syndicated columns in high school. He worked his way through the South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a sports and magazine writer, as well as working in carnivals and tent shows.
After graduation, Hawley was an advertising executive in Minneapolis for a few years before a twenty-four-year stint with the Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lived there on a family farm, “Buttonwood,” known for its Aberdeen-Angus breeding herd. According to an old Cash McCall jacket cover, his wide-ranging interests included “good food, field dogs, saltwater cruising, and duck shooting on Chesapeake Bay.”
At Armstrong, Hawley gained an intensive knowledge of business and industry by working in diverse areas of the company, from product development and testing to marketing. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he penned numerous short stories and nonfiction pieces in his spare time for top publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s.
After retiring from Armstrong and business in 1951, he published his most famous business novel, Executive Suite, the following year. Over the course of two decades, Hawley published three more: Cash McCall (1955), The Lincoln Lords (1960), and The Hurricane Years (1969, the year he died)—all of them about the drama of business.
Cameron Hawley’s books are realistic page-turners about the romance and drama of business, and were favorite business school texts as recently as 1986. His stories vitally intertwine sharp-eyed detail about executive life with a remarkably vivid descriptive style, whether he’s sculpting the form of a restored seventeenth-century plantation or detailing the social and emotional interplay between characters. His beautifully, intricately drawn characters give his tales depth. He cleverly divides his stories into subplots about their lives, passions, and ambitions, then weaves them back together for the climax. Love and romance are seamlessly blended with business as essential elements in each story.
Executive Suite opens with a gut-wrenching, theme-setting scene that propels the plot into motion. During a trip to New York City in search of a second-in-command, Tredway Corporation’s president, Avery Bullard, dies unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage, leaving five vice presidents and no one in charge. Thereafter, the engaging, suspenseful story depicts the conflicts, the collaborations, and the jostling for power among the vice presidents over two days while exploring the question: What type of person should be president of the company?
Intrigue, blackmail, and plot twists galore keep the reader riveted until the climax in the Tredway Corporation boardroom, where the characters argue over the meaning and purpose of business. Don Walling, the hotheaded young vice president for design and development, enlightens all with his recollections of Avery Bullard, a man who
- was never much concerned about money for its own sake. I remember his saying once that dollars were just a way of keeping score. I don’t think he was too much concerned about personal power, either—just power for power’s sake. I know that’s the easy way to explain the drive that any great man has—the lust for power—but…the thing that kept him going was his terrific pride in himself—the driving urge to do things that no other man on earth could do. He saved the company when everyone else had given up. He built a big corporation in an industry where everyone said that only small companies could succeed. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible…. [H]e never asked for applause and appreciation—or even understanding. He was a lonely man but I don’t think his loneliness ever bothered him very much. He was the man at the top of the tower…that’s what it took to satisfy his pride. . . . The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can’t make men work for money alone—you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way.
Hawley’s second novel, Cash McCall, stirred great public interest when it was published in 1955. Featured in a special presentation of Life magazine, it was also a Literary Guild Selection. In the story, a mysterious figure roams the land, buying up failing enterprises and turning them around to make a fat profit. “[I]s he really the sharp-dealing vulture that rumor makes him? Or is he only exercising the right of free enterprise that we all say is the very foundation of our American way of life?” asks the dust jacket on my 1955 copy. Although it does not have Executive Suite’s breathtaking opening, it’s just as spellbinding a story, with the suspense of its mysterious hero to boot.
Once again, Hawley’s soul-searching characters ride a wave of personal development through exciting action set in the world of business and love. He skillfully blends the business and the personal, the abstract and the particular. For example, here he examines the relation between law and morality:
- “Yes, the practice of law would be much more pleasant these days if there were a few more gentlemen of the Cash McCall stripe—and I use the word gentleman in its true meaning. They’re becoming rare, you know, men who recognize the difference between a thing being morally right and legally right.… [I]t does seem to me that more and more we find the viewpoint that legality is synonymous with morality. You don’t agree?”“No, I do agree. I’m just surprised to hear you make the distinction… I didn’t suppose a member of the legal profession would acknowledge it.”
Although Cash McCall was published before Atlas Shrugged, the parallels are eerie. In addition to its mysterious hero—the force behind important changes in the world and the book’s deeply informed pro-business stance—the novel also has a remarkably similar panoply of good and bad characters.
Hawley’s last two books are not quite as Romantic in the stature of their characters, but are excellent reads, nonetheless.
Published in 1960, The Lincoln Lords follows an out-of-work older executive and his wife who are struggling to maintain the appearance of money and status while desperately searching for a new opportunity. Here Hawley examines the psychology of leadership and its effect on organizations.
He starts by artfully delving into universals about the distressed mentality of a man out of work. Lincoln Lord is a man at loose ends; he hardly knows what to do with himself or how to keep his sense of self together without his job. Lord isn’t a creative dynamo as is the hero in Executive Suite. In fact, some would find him distastefully pandering to social convention. However, during the course of the story, the reader discovers Lord’s special abilities as an organizer and manager, which redeem him when the opportunity arises:
- But there was no need for concern. He had something to say to everyone. And his simplest words seemed a magical incantation. Even those who had already been introduced still stood closely bunched around him, magnetically held, their eyes so firmly fixed upon him that she could stare directly at them without being noticed. This was no new phenomenon, she had seen it happen before; yet it was still difficult to understand why so many people would instantly pledge their loyalty and support to a man about whom they knew nothing except that he had recognized their names and offered some scrap of information about them. Their faces were charged with hope, with expectancy, with the promise of good fortune that everyone always seemed to find in Lincoln Lord’s very presence.
Yet Lord is a realistic man: he knows he’s no creative genius, and even doubts his own value. His talents lie elsewhere:
- As Lincoln Lord practiced it, corporate management had been far more a matter of selection than of creation. He had never been, nor tried to be, a source of imaginative thinking. He could, perhaps, have trained his mind to work more naturally in that direction had he not noticed, as early as his student days at Chesapeake College, that the man of ideas usually had difficulty getting along with his associates. Later he had been warned by observation that a general management executive was rarely capable of fairly judging the work of another man’s idea when it had to be weighed against a brain child of his own. Thus he had come to accept the presidential function as that of a judge and arbiter who solved any given problem by selecting from all of the ideas that flowed up to his desk the one that promised to be the most practical and surely productive. It was a workable system and, applied with the skill that he had developed, a highly effective one. Its employment was, however, dependent upon one prime requirement—there had to be that flow of ideas. Without it, he was a craftsman with nothing to work upon, an arbiter with nothing to decide, a judge with no case before the court.
Hawley shows Lord’s genius at recognizing value in other men and ideas, and integrating them to creative, productive purposes. Knowing how to put great ideas to work is one of the supreme values of the executive, as celebrated by the proclamation of Lord’s African-American cook: “You know what Lizzie Pearl does when that call comes ’bout Big Charley [going back to work]?…‘Glory be to the God Jehovah!’ And what I says to ’em is that they better be singing ‘Glory be to Mr. Lord!’”
The Lincoln Lords also contains the most autobiographical character in Hawley’s corpus, down to his red hair: Brick Mitchell. Mitchell is the idea man, the creative writer who observes the actions and interplay of those around him in exquisite detail, but who needs a Lincoln Lord to rein in and direct his wild imagination.
The Hurricane Years, Hawley’s final novel, opens with a gripping description of a heart attack—from the executive-victim’s point of view. It explores the physical and emotional effects of executive Judd Wilder’s dedication to his high-stress job. Laid flat on his back for weeks by the illness, Wilder is forced to look at who he is and reconsider what is important in his life. Meanwhile, having run away to Paris from her discontent, loneliness, and alienation, Wilder’s wife, Kay, takes an emotional journey to a new life on her way back to the States to care for Judd.
Although the lion’s share of the story transpires while Judd is in the hospital, the action eventually snakes back to where it started, with the drama of business—but with a twist. Kay becomes intimately tied to Judd Wilder’s business world, thereby gaining entrance to his deepest personal self. Once again, Hawley provides an engrossing read, with plenty of drama and character detail.
In all his books, Cameron Hawley frames business as a vital, creative activity that by its nature demands—but does not always get—the best.
In the first pages of Executive Suite, Hawley diagnoses a problem creeping into business in the 1940s and ’50s: the rise of materialism. The reader is allowed to share Avery Bullard’s inner thoughts about Pilcher, a candidate from a competing company whom he’s considering for the recently vacant position of executive vice president:
- Yes, Pilcher was a money-man. They were a type. It was easy to spot them. You could always tell one by that cold fire in his eyes. It was not the hot fire of the man who would never interrupt a dream to calculate the risk, but the cold fire of the man whose mind was geared to the rules of the money game. It was a game that was played with numbers on pieces of paper…. Nothing else mattered. A factory wasn’t a living, breathing organism. It was only a dollar sign…. Their guts didn’t tighten when they heard a big Number Nine bandsaw sink its whining teeth into hard maple…. When they saw a production line they looked with blind eyes, not feeling the counterpoint beat of their hearts or the pulsing flow of hot blood or the trigger-set tenseness of lungs that were poised to miss a breath with every lost beat on the line.
Although materialistic, status-driven characters show up from Hawley’s first novel, they reach new prominence in the last two. Perhaps this was a natural evolution in the themes he explored, but I have to wonder whether something else was at play. Had Hawley noticed a change in the culture, away from the more idealistic view of businesses as engines of greatness, and toward one casting them as mere money machines? Did the New Left’s drumbeat during the sixties wear down businessmen’s self-image so that, by the decade’s end, they too had swallowed the idea that business was nothing but materialistic greed?
Surely, Hawley’s hawk-like eye for social and cultural detail would have noticed such a trend, and a 1952 Time article reveals Hawley’s thoughts about it: “Some of his reviewers, he says, were baffled by Executive Suite: they were so accustomed to caricatured businessmen that they kept looking for the tongue in Hawley’s cheek. Hawley is not discouraged; he is now working on another business novel, and thinks that ‘it will take four novels to break down the feeling that any book about business must necessarily be satire.’” But even theTime article acknowledges the conflict between the “money men” and the entrepreneurial type, ever looking for new frontiers to conquer.
In contrast to the materialists, Hawley emphasizes the importance of the creative individual, spotlighted in the following exchange from Executive Suite. Pilcher, the “money man,” considers taking over Tredway with his boss, Steigel, a septuagenarian who built their company from nothing.
- [Says Pilcher:] “A lot could be done…excellent production facilities but inadequate management. The real trouble, of course, is that Bullard’s running a completely one-man show.”[Replies Steigel:] “My boy, you are a good lawyer—you know the law. Also you are a good financial man—you know stocks and bonds. I know something, too. I know companies. All my life I watch companies. I want to know why they are a success. Always it is the same answer. You hear, always the same answer—always one man. You remember that, Mr. Pilcher. Always when you find a good company it is what you call a one-man show.”
Hawley’s individualism runs deep, typified by Lincoln Lord’s comment, “It’s always the man that counts, not the label you put on him.” And dollars, as Avery Bullard used to say, “were just a way of keeping score.” The thing that kept him going was “his terrific pride in himself…. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible—and he did that only to satisfy his own pride….”
Or consider the passage in The Lincoln Lords where Brick Mitchell discusses entrepreneur Adam Quincy with financier Anderson Phelps:
- “It was 1936…there was the AAA. That was a setup where the government collected processing taxes from food manufacturers and used the money for agricultural relief.”“Yes, I recall that.”
“Well, all of those Washington schemes were red flags to Mr. Quincy—he hated Roosevelt as if he were the devil himself—and so he fought anything and everything that came along.”
“A rugged individualist, I take it.”
“As rugged as they came.”
At one time, I was convinced that Hawley must have been influenced by Rand, perhaps through The Fountainhead. On the hunt for clues, I called his widow, Elaine Hawley, who still lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I asked whether she knew if Mr. Hawley had been a fan of The Fountainhead, and I found out: Not as far as she knew, and she didn’t even remember seeing the book around!
Yet the parallels are intriguing: the speeches lauding businesses as great creative endeavors; the lionizing of the “great man” of business by the good characters; the envy and sniping toward him by the evil ones; the ideological and psychological content of specific scenes. Hawley even has a character named “Kira” in The Lincoln Lords. Is it the logic of Hawley’s and Rand’s shared ideas, or is it something more?
Hawley was a master at exquisite description, whether of a physical setting, or a character’s inner state, or the way one character observes another. “Maggie Lord noticed that the blue sky of the morning had lost its pristine polish, scummed to grayness by a cirrus film,” he writes in a typical passage. Likewise, his great ear for stylized dialogue with a realistic tone conveyed so much about the first half of the twentieth century. Watch him capture the starry-eyed admiration people had in that day and age for remarkable businessmen: “Sure, honey, that’s old Bullard himself up there right now. They say he never goes home. Some nights he works right through. You know what? The other day I saw him getting out of his car. I swear to God I was so close to him I coulda reached out and touched him!”
What a difference from today!
Moreover, Hawley peoples his stories with an array of interesting characters. In Executive Suite, they range from Bullard himself to his “best friend,” the Italian immigrant who operates the executive elevator at Tredway. Luigi bursts with pride at his job and, the consummate Latin, cries at Bullard’s funeral. Erica Martin, Bullard’s executive secretary, illustrates the curious position of the highly intelligent woman of the time, embodying the changing views of women and work.
His main characters are remarkably purposeful, honest, and responsible, carefully considering the right thing to do, and often commenting on inappropriate behavior—like Steigel, who rebukes Pilcher for considering a shady stock scheme with the words, “There are some ways it don’t seem right to make money.” And women like Maggie Lord and Mary Walling stand not behind but beside the executives, sharing in their struggles and their triumphs; they are major forces in every story.
Hawley deeply grasped and conveyed the special abilities of the great, creative entrepreneur. Consider a passage in which a college dean, expert in seventeenth-century history, speaks of a food baron who decided to restore his property to the plantation it once was:
- What had so impressed him about Adam Quincy was that in two short years the old man had made himself, by driving application and an extraordinarily intense concentration of interest, a first class authority on seventeenth century life, so well informed that he could rarely if ever be bested in an argument.
He draws portraits of great businessmen as more than mere money-grubbers—from his pen they emerge as remarkable, many-sided, capable geniuses whom no one completely understands, but many love:
- “Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Julia said. “You’ll never understand him completely. Don’t try. You’ll be happier if you don’t. He’ll be happier, too. Not understanding will make you very lonely sometimes, Mary—when he shuts you away behind a closed door—when you think he’s forgotten you—but then the door will open and he’ll come back and you’ll know how fortunate you were to have been his wife.”
Hawley’s novels so speak to the reality as well as the romance of business that they often have been used in business school courses, even as they have appealed to a wide public.
And they still can make an impact. A few years ago, I gave Cash McCall as a gift to a couple hosting me on a trip to Atlanta. Little did I know what its effect could be. The book so vividly reinforced the value and effectiveness of character in business, it inspired my hosts to seek out good businesses ruined by unethical practices that they could buy and turn around.
Since publication, Executive Suite has been translated into fourteen languages. My 1986 copy was published as part of the Dell Publishing “Delta-Diamond Library Gems of American Fiction with Enduring Appeal.” Executive Suite was made into a 1954 movie as well, with a huge cast of notables: William Holden, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Nina Foch, and Dean Jagger star; Robert Wise directed and John Houseman produced this MGM classic, which recently aired on American Movie Classics. It is also available on video. Holden is great as the firebrand Don Walling, and the script sticks closely to the story and to Hawley’s actual words. Warner Brothers made Cash McCall into a movie in 1960, also now available on video. Produced by Henry Blanke and directed by Joseph Pevney, it stars James Garner and Natalie Wood, and among its other stars includes Dean Jagger once again and Edward G. Marshall.
Unfortunately, all of Hawley’s books are currently out of print, although available inexpensively through used-book sources. Perhaps republishing them is an opportunity waiting to happen?
Cameron Hawley made the life-and-death drama of business palpable. Sharing the fears, frustrations, and achievements of executives and factory workers alike, readers come away from his works experiencing the importance and romance of business. Having reread many selections from his books for this article, I am bitten anew by the Hawley bug and plan to immerse myself in his novels again.
Copyright © 2006 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.
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