- Panic! Markets, Crises, and Crowds in American Fiction
The modern stock market’s notorious unpredictability and spasmodic swings represent its most maddening and most enthralling aspects. As Lily Bart makes clear when she receives a lucrative but dangerous financial tip from Gus Trenor in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), the seemingly firm financial world of facts and statistics is also thoroughly infused by the apparently more numinous realm of rumor and innuendo. The occasional financial panics and devastating crashes in our history have most clearly crystallized this joint-stock relationship between the securities market and the suggestive power of language. Perhaps not surprisingly, the imaginative dimensions of financial panics—the ways in which financial panics are taken up and processed within literary texts and other cultural documents—have been a source of excellent criticism over the last several years. Scholars such as David Anthony, Ann Fabian, and Mary Templin have powerfully elucidated earlier periods of the nineteenth century. David Zimmerman’s recent book, Panic! Markets, Crises, and Crowds in American Fiction, moves this scholarship forward by focusing on authors’ engagements with financial panic at the turn of the twentieth century, the period of the modern stock market’s emergence and embedding within corporate capitalism. Panic! provides an inventive and valuable addition to the scholarship addressing the interpenetration of economics and literature specifically and to studies of the modern United States more generally.
Zimmerman writes at one point that “Panic fiction offers an extraordinary lens—or, more exactly, prism—through which to read [End Page 425] how modern understandings of economic crisis, crowds, and markets emerged” (223). The stutter over the words “lens” and “prism” is indicative here of the book’s overall form. On the one hand, Zimmerman’s book is topically and chronologically tightly focused. He examines the deluge of panic-centered novels and cultural documents published between the years of 1898 and 1913. These significant dates frame his study because they correspond, on one end, to the beginning of American capitalism’s wrenching consolidation into corporate trusts and, on the other end, to the Federal Reserve Act, which was aimed at soothing the financial shocks produced by the industrializing economy (9–10). But while Panic!’s temporal coordinates are contracted, Zimmerman’s approach to panic novels is correspondingly kaleidoscopic. Rather than offering a narrow argumentative line on panic fiction, Zimmerman’s book provides a series of compelling case studies that collectively outline how economic turmoil’s mental contagions and periods of hysteria “offered novelists story lines and symbols for remarkably varied forms of modern excess and confusion” (3).
His analysis ranges, in order, from a largely forgotten popular novelist (Frederic Isham), to a man who is usually accorded only a brief footnote in twentieth-century business history (Thomas Lawson), to the canonical mainstays of literary naturalism (Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser), with a chapter on a writer usually understood in the context of muckraking (Upton Sinclair) sandwiched between Norris and Dreiser. The logic behind his particular concatenation is at times a bit obscure. For example, if Zimmerman’s analysis in the Isham chapter makes it apparent why he opens with this now unknown writer, the reasoning behind the Lawson chapter coming next is less immediately clear. Regardless if some readers may pause at the organization, Zimmerman wonderfully demonstrates how this group of writers, and many others whom he cites in the notes, turned to the extraordinary moments of financial panic as a method for crystallizing the normally invisible or indiscernible web of entanglements that held modern social life together but left so many individuals utterly beguiled.
Zimmerman opens his book with a richly contextualized chapter on Frederick Isham’s 1904 novel, Black Friday. Isham’s novel initially seems incoherent. The story opens with a fictionalized account of the panic triggered by Jay Gould’s outlandish 1869 attempt to corner the gold market, only to follow this with a seemingly unrelated retelling of the 1871 Paris Commune. But Zimmerman shows how “French anarchy and American financial panic stand for...