restricted access Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Godden. Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer. Cambridge UP, 1990. 290 pp. $39.50.

It has been said that Theodore Dreiser wrote novels by layering slices of business next to slices of sex. Fictions of Capital, by Richard Godden, is organized on the same model: slices of economic history alternate with slices of literary criticism. Like Dreiser's fiction, too, this book is flawed but ultimately worthwhile. Godden spreads on a thick coating of jargon. He is much too fond of decorative quotations (quoting everybody, from Brecht and Lukács to Tony Tanner and Alfred Sohn-Rethel). Critiquing capitalism, he blithely ignores Marxism's economic failure and political collapse. He is, however, a master of close reading and carefully constructed arguments.

Fictions of Capital, Godden writes, is

premised on two assumptions: that economic relations are finally a guise assumed by social relations, and that social relations are the source of what stories can and can't be told. The changing economy of consumption is the historical base for my attempt to describe certain narrative and vocal options inherent in an economy based on growth.

Godden locates The Bostonians in a context that James left sketchy: the end of Reconstruction, with ex-Confederates reasserting political control through a national alliance with Eastern industrialists. His discussion of Fitzgerald zeroes in on the incest theme in Tender Is The Night and the class struggle in The Great Gatsby, with Gatsby dying at the hands of "a genuine proletarian."

The foreign settings that Hemingway employed are analyzed in terms of the American economy's expansion to world markets; the novelist's emphasis on the concrete and particular becomes, like George Babbitt's obsession with gadgets, an involvement with the commodities by which the modern world has become defined. A good discussion of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and William Faulkner argues that these writers made myths of Southern history to resist the commercialization of their world. Finally, in a critique of Norman Mailer, Godden draws some provocative parallels (some sexual, some political) between the author of The Naked and the Dead and the author of Why Are We in Vietnam?

Godden's language is sometimes cloying. He says ventriloquize for quote and uses commodification where another writer would probably say symbolism. Due to the large number of secondary sources on which he relies, it is sometimes hard to recognize the actual economy beneath the terms used to describe it: Taylorism, valorization, Fordist imperative, and spheres of Accumulation and Reproduction. George Orwell would have scoffed at such phrases. Orwell would have respected, however, the thoroughness with which Godden works out his proofs. This book is a model of Marxist criticism—not a museum-piece, but a useful and thoughtful work. [End Page 463]

Allen D. Boyer
Staten Island, New York
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