It may go down in history as America’s greatest product. Certainly no country has invented so many varieties of it. Or contrived to spread debt, once the property of only the upper class and those who would aspire to the upper class, so democratically across all economic strata. Once the poor couldn’t taste the joys of debt—they were poor, after all. Who would lend them money? Now, however, like the aristocrats of past centuries every American can owe more than he or she can pay.
But even in the moment when we would triumph at building one of the greatest houses of cards in financial history, one that is now tumbling down about our ears, we must take off our hats, should they still be in our possession and not at pawn, to the great nineteenth century chroniclers of debt, Thackeray and Balzac.
N o one has ever done a better job than these two novelists of describing the joys of spending money you don’t have, of anatomizing the tools of the debtors trade, and then of recording the ultimate descent into, not tragedy, but bathos .
Take a moment out of your summer, as I did last month, to revel in the human comedy of what Thackeray in Chapter 36 of Vanity Fair called “How to live well on Nothing a Year.”
At the beginning of the chapter William Makepeace Thackeray’s voice, as always, drips with a worldly cynicism . Thackery never condemns his characters (except, perhaps in the end, Amelia, the “tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak” of Major William Dobbin.) Who are we to judge for we are all players in Vanity Fair?
But Thackeray is interested in every detail of how Vanity Fair runs. And so he asks at the beginning of Chapter 36, “Who, I say, with the most good-natured feelings in the world, can help wondering how the Jenkinses make out matters? What is Jenkins? We all know—Commissioner of the Tape and Sealing-Wax Office, with 1200 pounds a year for salary?”
His readers are so puzzled at how the Jenkinses make out because Thackeray, the great accountant of Vanity Fair, has already laid out all of that family’s spending.
Jenkins drives a large barouche, and even though the carriage is rented and the staff that drives it paid only by the day, it must still cost 600 pounds a year.
“And then there are the splendid dinners, the two boys at Eton the prize governess and masters for the girls, the trip abroad, or to Eastbourne or Worthing, in the autumn, the annual ball with a supper from Gunter’s.”
Mrs. Jenkins had no private fortune at marriage. She was one of eleven children of a small squire and all she ever gets from her family “is a turkey at Christmas, in exchange for which she has to board two or three of her sisters in the off season; and lodge and feed her brothers when they come to town.”
How is it, Thackeray, finally concludes that Jenkins has not been jailed or forced to flee for debt long since?
What I so love in this chapter is the precision of the economic and social calculus that runs Vanity Fair. In exchange for a turkey from the country at Christmas, Mrs. Jenkins has to feed and house two or three of her sisters when they come up to town. But only in the off-season.
The names may be different—we may go to the Hamptons and not Eastbourne—but who does not recognize the exquisite book keeping of society?
Honore de Balzac adds up the accounts in the life of debt and in the economics of human society with even more attention to detail that Thackeray but with little of his sense of bemusement. That comes, I think, from Balzac’s own intimate acquaintance with the life of debt. Balzac failed in business as a publisher, printer, and owner of a type foundry. He narrowly escaped bankruptcy in 1828, but spent the rest of his life trying to dig himself out from under what was originally a debt of 60,000 francs. That effort became frantic when he met Eveline Hanska, a married Polish countess. Getting his finances in order, Balzac believed, was critical to winning the countess after her husband’s death. The two were finally married in 1848 when Balzac was ill with the disease that would kill him a few months later.
Hard to get much distance under those circumstances.
My favorite Balzac novel is A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et miseres de courtisanes) because in that book he invents a satanic genius, the criminal Vautrin, who is powerful enough that he can fight the economic powers of society to a draw. Vautrin’s goal is to swindle, deceive, and blackmail a path for his protégé Lucien to the top of society. He’s willing to use any tools to his end but his most powerful weapons are the greed and self-deception of his victims. Lucien’s rise rests on Vautrin’s ability to sell human emotion for cash. Lucien’s fall and suicide is ultimately the result of his inability to banish all humanity from his own heart.
It’s Balzac’s triumph that I finished the novel wishing that Lucien had been less human and more the pure economic man that Vautrin is. Then this provincial poet, with nothing but debt to his name, would have succeeded in forcing society to admit him—and his Satan—into its heart.
It is all only fiction, remember.