Monday, September 22, 2008

Wall Street and Willa Cather

I've been reading My Antonia, Willa Cather's 1918 novel about growing up on the Nebraska prairie. It's a beautiful book, poignant and uplifting, full of characters who reflect the truth of life in all its joy and pain. It's also an instructive portrait of the time in America when explicit toil was required for mere survival, never mind success.

I've been reading it against the background noise of Wall Street's collapse, men and women on CNN droning gravely about the consequences of greed, and the need to ensure that the greediest of all do not, in the end, go broke. It's a complex issue. It takes someone like Yale business student David Bledin, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post, to put a human face on the unfolding tragedy. You think you have it tough; think what it's like for Masters of the Universe-in-training who now rue the rigors involved in chasing a seven-figure salary:

"... once I could afford to splurge on a Zagat-rated "$$$$" dinner, I didn't have any time for it. I frequently spent 90 hours a week shackled to my computer. ... What bothered me most, though, was the way I couldn't plan anything. When I was foolish enough to try and sneak in a Sunday matinee, my BlackBerry would inevitably vibrate before the movie's climax, forcing me to scamper back to the office to tweak a pitchbook that had to go out to the client within the hour ..."

Oh. The humanity.

I know, there were venal snots running around in Cather's time too, most of them in New York. And it's foolish to romanticize a time so fraught with hardship. But the clarity of prose in My Antonia, and the importance of the landscape on which it's set, invite reflection about the stark contrast between the America that is and the one that was:

"If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

This is the country we've made. No starlight at all, just streaming video and freeway exits and BlackBerries buzzing during matinee showings of Righteous Kill. It's a country where we pay guys a lot of money to tweak pitchbooks on a Sunday afternoon. Or used to. Maybe that'll seem poignant 90 years from now, the way My Antonia seems now.


Anonymous said...

Those of us without the benefit of spousal support to cushion our last years before “retirement” can’t afford to be so cavalier as to depict this latest economic upheaval as a mere burp in the life of an overdigitized twenty-something. For many people today, a lifetime of toiling, whether it’s behind a computer, a plow or a fast food counter, still involves sacrifices – of health, family, stability – yet the fruits of labor are far less tangible than in Willa Cather’s day and far more easily erased in an instant.

Dave Knadler said...

Thanks for weighing in with the full weight an anonymous response. Always a pleasure to encounter someone more bitter than myself.

Yes, spousal support is great. I highly recommend it should your own job disappear. But I think you have missed the point: the sacrifice endured by Wall Street piranhas, who produce nothing and grow sleek on the labor of those who do, is laughable. It's facile -- and kind of stupid -- to equate that with the plight of those stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder.

But how about that Willa Cather?

Tess Knadler said...

I'm sorry, but I gotta set the record straight. I get way more "spousal support" than I will ever be able to provide, and I can't believe anyone who knows a little about us but obviously not much about us would deign to write something so off-base and mean-spirited (anonymously, yet!) Dave, you are on the money about Willa Cather and America and Wall Street, and just about anything you have to say. Keep up the brilliant work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think anonymous has missed the point of the analogy here. This is a comparative post! Not an absolute one. And I liked reading it, the last paragraph is poetry. You have a great turn of phrase, Dave, pity some people don't get it.

Jessie K said...

Read The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan. It's about the dustbowl of the 1930s. It's so good; you can't help but draw parallels to what's happening to this country today. (And yet people are still going to vote for McCain. Don't understand that mindset at all.)

Dave Knadler said...

Jessie: I agree, Worst Hard Time is a fine book, maybe the best I've read this year. Like you, I was struck by how much the speculative mindset of the years leading up to the Dust Bowl so resembles the last few years on Wall Street. I think we're all in for some trouble, even those of us who didn't do a single leveraged buyout. Farewell, 401(k)! I hardly knew ye.

Maxine: Thanks so much for the kind words.

Jessie K said...

I don't get how anonymous is "bitter." He/she was just voicing an opinion....which seemed pretty low on the bile-o-meter as far as I'm concerned. Or am I missing something?

Peter Rozovsky said...

"This is the country we've made. No starlight at all, just streaming video and freeway exits and BlackBerries buzzing during matinee showings of Righteous Kill. It's a country where we pay guys a lot of money to tweak pitchbooks on a Sunday afternoon. Or used to."

At least the country's current agonies are producing some good noirish writing.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

If you can sustain that last paragraph, you might make it to the Times best-seller list yet.


Dave Knadler said...

Stock: Well, that's the trick, isn't it? Any dummy can write a passable paragraph once in awhile; writing a few thousand of them is the hard part. But I appreciate the compliment from a fellow writer. Thanks.

Ryan said...

Sure I'm a little late.

But as a student in high school, we just finished reading My Antonia.

And I'm writing an essay on the romanticism in the novel. The thesis hangs heavily on why Cather decided to romanticize the hardworking country experience. And that's what I couldn't figure out.

But herein, I think I have found my answer. Or at least something with which to start.

Thank you from a fellow writer.

You may have just won a reader