- The Economy of Affect in Frank Norris’s Vandover and the Brute
“I don’t want anything fancy,” he said to Field. “No big per cents, and bigger risks. If I’ve got to live economically I want something that’s secure. A good solid investment, don’t you know, with a fair interest; that’s what I’m looking for.”
“Yes,” answered the lawyer grimly; “I’ve been looking for that myself ever since I was your age.”– Frank Norris, Vandover and the Brute (124)
Concerns over financial matters, such as the housing bubble, unemployment rates, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, have become commonplace in the shock waves of the recent economic recession. The fictional exchange above between a lawyer and his client in Frank Norris’s Vandover and the Brute, although penned at the end of the nineteenth century, feels especially relevant to our present economic climate when a “secure” or “solid investment” may seem particularly elusive. Norris wrote Vandover and the Brute in the aftermath of the economic Panic of 1893, yet its cautionary tale remains timely. Although Vandover is typically thought of (when he is thought of at all, that is) as the young man who succumbs to lycanthropy in Norris’s sensational first novel, the passage above portrays him as a cautious investor, seeking prudent financial advice from his lawyer. Given Vandover’s rapid fall in social class as he moves from his family home to a bachelor apartment to a rented room in the slums, one way we might understand Norris’s plot of decline is to pay closer attention to Vandover’s failure to hold on to property than to his degeneration from man to animal. In this essay, I contend that Vandover’s demise is not simply the plot of a man’s descent into brutishness, but indicative of a wider cultural change that many other young bachelors living in cities encountered after the Panic of 1893. Moreover, I argue that Vandover’s behavior, defined by a “certain pliability” (20), should be understood as a defensive tactic for negotiating diminished socioeconomic expectations, even though it does not [End Page 335] prevent his failure at the novel’s end. Although seemingly counterintuitive, this argument puts pressure on a common critical tendency to dismiss Vandover’s affective responses as merely symptomatic of his failure.
By giving serious attention to Vandover’s behavior as a response to depressed market conditions, this essay extends and complicates a recent line of critical inquiry into the relationship between economics and affect in modern American fiction. David Zimmerman’s Panic!, for instance, explores the confluence of affect and financial downturn in panic fiction at the fin de siècle. With a focus on novels that feature what he terms “market crowds,” Zimmerman argues that
panic novelists made visible how individuals were lodged within economic and affective matrices otherwise too vast and abstract to apprehend and how they bore—suffered as well as passed along—the emotions and designs of myriad other individuals across these matrices, spreading trauma and disruption (or, conceivably, salvation) along the way.(5–6)1
Seth Moglen identifies a similar process within American modernist literature which, he claims, is “an effort to mourn the destructive effects of modern capitalism—and to mourn, most of all, for the crisis of alienation” (xiii–xiv).
I do not read Vandover as an example of either panic fiction (given its lack of market crowds) or a response to a “crisis of alienation” (a subject position that Vandover is, arguably, too early to adopt). These scholars, however, convincingly elucidate how affective responses are not only symptomatic of economic distress in the fiction they study but are often shared, or even transferred, from one character to the next. Understandably, Zimmerman and Moglen are both interested in characters with negative emotional reactions to their economic circumstances. We expect, in other words, that economic downturns will evoke feelings of panic, anxiety, and mourning from their victims, whether real or their fictional counterparts. After the 1930s in particular, this association between the health of the national economy and one’s mental health became synonymous in the American imagination with psychological “depression...