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Discuss this topic in the Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • Do the Right Thing -- June 1998
    Thinking globally -- and acting ethically -- in the new world economic order.

  • The Graveyard of the American Dream -- May 1998
    What's behind California's decline, and what's at stake for the rest of the country.

  • Games of Monopoly -- April 1998
    A look at the tactics of John D. Rockefeller shows that capitalism, like history, repeats itself.

  • The Price of Longevity -- March 1998
    Medicare and what we have to look forward to.

  • The King of Drudge -- February 1998
    A review of a new biography of the man behind the assembly line -- whose ideas need to be acknowledged and abandoned.

  • Color Us Green -- January 1998
    A heretical new approach to economics puts ecology first -- and may change the way we think about growth.

  • The Deep Slumber of Decided Opinion -- December 1997
    Those who hail the virtues of trade without limits are this era's reactionaries.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

  • America, Inc.
    Gain, the new novel by Richard Powers, makes the corporation the shaping force of American history

    by Jack Beatty

    July 22, 1998

    "Who will write the Great Republican Novel?", the critic Walter Kirn asks in a recent New York magazine review of Gain, a new novel about American business, by Richard Powers. Kirn feels that while post-war American novelists have pursued "the sex drive into its darkest, subterranean hideouts," they have "lost track of the money trail lying in plain sight." According to Kirn the novel has not had much truck with business since the days of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Sinclair Lewis, and in those cases things were distorted by the writers' (socialist) attitudes, as would be the case if Pat Robertson were to narrate a history of the movies.

    gainbk picture Gain is the story of the nearly two-hundred-year rise of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company, told through portraits of the Clare family members, all male, who turned the business from a small Boston shop into a major twentieth-century corporation. Powers parallels the Clare saga with the poignant story of a contemporary woman, Laura Bodey, and her scarifying battle with ovarian cancer. Laura lives in Lacewood, Illinois, the home of the manufacturing plant of Clare Soap and Chemical; friends and family believe her illness to be the result of toxic effluents from the Clare factory and push her to join a class-action suit against Clare. Neither Laura nor Powers is so sure of Clare's complicity in her cancer. Dying, she discovers, is no simpler than living.

    I have been researching the early history of the American corporation, and, to my rookie understanding, Powers has mastered the subject, encapsulating complex economic developments in brief, sometimes brilliant, notations. Of the primitive state of American land transportation in the first decades of the nineteenth century he writes, "The nine dollars that moved a ton of goods from Europe to Boston moved that same ton no more than thirty miles inland." Only with the canal boom of the 1820s, which first opened the American hinterland to large-scale trade from the Atlantic coast, would this growth-limiting economics change. The Clares began as transatlantic merchants dealing, above all, in risk: "Profit equaled uncertainty times distance. The harder it was to haul a thing to where it humanly belonged, the more one made." Powers captures a major turn of history in the following strikingly phrased observation: "The Clares sank into manufacturing at the precise moment when the railroad broke loose. The new self-propelling engines began to fling mankind outward, and the expansion sucked all business along in its wake." The result was that "the week vanished into hours."

    The invention of the railroad may belong to the history of technology, but the diffusion of that technology belongs to business history. The force that conquered the American frontier in the nineteenth century was the railroad corporation, the first professionally managed business in history.

    While the form of telling a corporate history does not permit Powers to bring the Clares alive as characters (as he does Laura Bodey), he does vivify with historical imagination the business challenges faced by each generation of the family. His attitude toward the corporation is that of the historian who accepts the authority of what has happened, not the socialist-moralist who deplores it. Thus, in one sense, Gain indeed is a Republican novel: Powers does not regret the rise of the corporation any more than he would regret an inferior sunrise. The corporation is the major economic fact of our history, and Powers is a naturalist of the institution. Describing the distance Clare Soap and Chemical traveled from its Roxbury beginnings to the advent of mass marketing in post-Civil War America, he writes, "The world had changed immeasurably, and business had changed it." Such is the Powers thesis of the corporation, which has more to say to our time about American history than the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis of the frontier. Not the frontier but the corporation is now this country's shaping force, confronting each generation with the task of reaping its economic and social rewards while mitigating its social and environmental costs.

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    Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

    Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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