Wealth and Poverty in American Literature

March 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

In American literature and culture throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the signs of wealth and poverty are often indicated by an individual’s appearance. The belief that one’s exterior reflects their class is demonstrative of the narcissism of American society during the Progressive Era, as the population – more notably the middle class, grew obsessed with the idea of visibly displaying one’s wealth. The expansion of conspicuous consumption remains central to evaluating the signs of economic power, as without the development of this concept, appearance would not be considered so wholly symbolic of one’s pecuniary strength. As a result, a person’s image provides many signs of their financial status; such as their physical appearance, their display of possessions, the manner in which they speak, but also the type of activities they partake in which affect their mien. The significance of these signals is explored in many pieces of American literature, which capture the dramatic contrast between the extravagant exterior of the rich and the ragged appearance of the poor.

The physical appearance of an individual is shown to be representative of their financial status, as those who are smart and well-dressed are assumed to be wealthy, and those who are unwashed and unkempt, poor. In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the extreme wealth of the characters is reflected by their clothing – with particular focus on Countess Olenska, whose hair is said to be ‘held in place by a narrow band of diamonds’. This small accessory alone is an indicator of her fortune, as it is evident that only the upper classes can afford to wear such valuable jewelry. Wharton also draws attention to the Countess’ ‘long sealskin cloak’, which reinstates her affluent image, as authentic animal fur is recognised as a luxury good. The elaborate clothing of the wealthy Countess contrasts greatly to the pitiful physical state of the impoverished characters in Crane’s Maggie. On the first page of the novella Crane highlights the dishevelled appearance of the peasant boy Jimmie, stating ‘His coat had been torn to shreds […] and his hat was gone’. This immediately hints at his poor background, as the only clothes Jimmie is wearing are almost unwearable due to their severely tattered condition. The fact that Crane makes particular note of the loss of his hat rather than listing all the clothing he possesses (like Wharton), stresses his destitute image. Similarly, the author first describes Maggie as a ‘ragged girl’; instantly underlining her bedraggled state and therefore alluding to her indigence. By introducing the characters in terms of their physical appearance, Crane stresses the importance of clothing as a sign of monetary power. This is also demonstrated by the character Pete, who adapts his clothing in order to make himself appear richer; Crane notes ‘wealth and prosperity were indicated by his clothes’, suggesting that he is deliberately wearing finer garments to build a wealthy image. Throughout the novella, the author focuses on the description of visual aspects, which reinforces the idea that appearance provides an insight into one’s economic situation – he tells us what poverty looks like.

However, American literature also demonstrates that it is not merely a person’s clothing that reflects their class, but also how one makes themselves appear through physical activities. Wharton’s novel captures the importance of engaging in cultural practices in order to exhibit one’s wealth – as the characters attend the opera, read educational books, and host dinner parties (each of these lavish pursuits representative of their affluence). The opening scene of the novel takes place at the opera, to which critic Hossein Pirnajmuddin states “right from the outset we know that Wharton’s dramatic personae are upper class New Yorkers.” With this view in mind, it is evident that partaking in intellectual activities instantly entails wealth – especially ‘high art’ like the opera, as it is associated with those who have a higher level of education and a higher social origin. Pierre Bourdieu explores this theory, as he argues that taste in the arts “function as markers of ‘class’” due to the way in which arts and their consumers are constructed hierarchically. This shows how an interest in culture is symbolic of prosperity – as an individual who has grown up in an educationally and socially richer environment is more inclined to appreciate the arts. Consequently, by attending the opera, Wharton’s characters immediately appear sophisticated and fashionable because of the association tied to it – meaning partaking in cultural activities such as this serves as a clear sign of wealth. Contrariwise, the lack of involvement in such pursuits is also a sign of belonging to a poorer class – as it suggests that one lacks a proper education.

The display of an individual’s possessions is another sign of either wealth or poverty, as a person’s belongings often hint at their economic power. Actively exhibiting one’s expensive assets, in other words, conspicuous consumption, is described as ‘an evidence of pecuniary strength’ by Veblen in his The Theory of the Leisure Class. The critic of capitalism states that ‘the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit’, therefore indicating that by flaunting upmarket goods, one is immediately regarded as wealthy – and conversely, if one does not conspicuously consume, then in society’s eyes, one is poor. The sociologist also clarifies that comforts of life such as luxurious food, fine furniture and grand dwelling ‘are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class’. This culture of ostentatious spending in order to mark one’s prosperity is captured in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as the author describes the Beaufort’s ball-room; noting the ‘red velvet carpet’, the ‘vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms’ and the ‘conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.’ This is an obvious display of wealth; the imposing furniture and adorned architecture are characteristic of conspicuous consumption. The display of rich colors such as red, black and gold also builds on the affluent image of the Beauforts, as visually, these tones are striking and demand to be noticed – these assets would not be signs of wealth if nobody were there to see them. Conversely, the poorer class is identified by their inability to exhibit such luxuries and their possession of purely basic goods for survival; as Veblen explains, ‘the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence’. This is captured by Riis in How the Other Half Lives, as he documents the squalid living conditions of the New York slums throughout the 1880s. Here he refers to the ‘twenty-five cent lodging house’ as an ‘enclosing a space just large enough to hold a cot and a chair and allow the man room to pull off his clothes.’ The fact that the most expensive pieces of furniture consist of a cot and a chair stresses the sheer poverty of the lodgers. Riis proceeds to describe the bed sheets as ‘yellow’ and ‘foul’, which contrasts dramatically to the lavish image of the Beaufort’s red velvet carpet. The journalist also captures the bleak appearance of poverty in many of his photos, such as “Room in a Tenement”, where a family of seven are pictured living in a single room. The only possessions in sight are a few items of crockery and clothes, a frail-looking cot, a bed and a chair. Here the lodgers severe lack of belongings is a clear indicator of their poverty, as unlike the ridiculously wealthy characters in Wharton’s novel, they do not have the means to conspicuously consume. This demonstrates how the quality and quantity of one’s possessions affects their appearance in terms of economic power; meaning obtrusive spending is a sign of wealth, and the lack of this sign is itself a sign of poverty.

Speech is another important aspect in terms of making oneself appear of a particular class, as the manner in which one speaks is thought to signal their social origin and the quality of their education. The characters in Wharton’s novel speak in Queen’s English, using correct grammatical structures and no slang – this is a clear indicator of their upper class background, as it shows that they are all finely educated. For example, in a conversation with the Countess, Archer questions “Sincerely, then – what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility – the certainty – of a lot of beastly talk?”. Here the complex structure of the sentence, and Archer’s clear pronunciation is evidence of his good schooling. The use of more elevated, somewhat pretentious language is also a sign of wealth, as this sophisticated style of speech is typically associated with a higher level of education. The eloquence of the characters in The Age of Innocence allows them to appear well-moneyed, whereas the dialect of those in Maggie is an sign of their working class background. For example in Chapter 10, feeling betrayed by her daughter, Mary cries “Yeh’ve gone teh deh devil […] Yer a disgrace teh yer people. An’ now, git out an’ go ahn…”. Here Crane’s use of phonetic spelling conveys the strength of the Irish accent; immediately hinting at her underprivileged background, as during the 19th century many poor Irish immigrants fled to New York in search of a better life. The contractions and the dropping of the letter ‘d’ in ‘and’ creates the impression of a lower class, as the pronunciation is imprecise, and the language unrefined. Mary also uses incorrect grammar as she talks about how she “bringed up” Maggie, showing her lack of proper education. Crane implies that the characters themselves recognize speech as a sign of pecuniary strength, as at one point he narrates, “as [Pete] became aware that [Maggie] was listening closely, he grew still more eloquent in his descriptions of various happenings in his career”. This shows that Pete is attempting to make himself appear of a higher class by adapting his speech.

American literature and culture throughout the Progressive Era captures the significance of appearance in terms of the signs of wealth and poverty, as both fictional and factual works convey the societal judgements towards the working and the leisure class. Veblen confirms the importance of the role of conspicuous consumption, as his The Theory of the Leisure Class suggests that this concept is what really drove society to review one another’s financial status in light of their exterior. Wharton presents the power of this notion in her novel, as the New Yorkers’ majestic robes, sophisticated possessions, style of speech, and attending of the opera all contribute to their glamorous appearance; hence indicating their wealth. Crane and Riis also address these signs, however conversely, as the scruffy appearance and use of non-standard English in Maggie, and the lodgers’ ownership of only primitive items in How the Other Half Lives is a manifestation of poverty. Regardless of whether these signs indicate wealth or poverty, they are all evinced through one’s appearance; either directly (visually) or indirectly (through mannerisms or activities that give the impression of a particular class).

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