Money in American Literature is the root of all evil… an essay submission

This is a presentation of an A level essay by one of the Upper 6th. He explores the question in terms of Huckleberry Finn (read as far as the Feud at this point) and Gatsby. Native Son is mentioned in passing in the discussion.

About 30 minutes of discussion. The essay is attached.

1 Timothy 6:10: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.’

The very values that shaped America in to an economic, cultural and political powerhouse were a reliance on capitalist ideals, a shared goal in the ‘American Dream’ and a common faith, Christianity. Therefore, to say that ‘In American Literature, money represents the ‘root of all evil’’ demonstrates the fall of what was meant to be the promised land, whereby the purity of Christianity could be fully manifested; replaced instead with an emotional investment in physical wealth. Twain criticises this facet of American society, in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ through the running motif of money propelling the plot forward and subliminally being the root of all Huck’s problems. The reader is first introduced to money and it’s potential for destruction in Huck’s passing statement:

‘Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich.  We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold.  It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up.  Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with.’

The language used by Huck to describe what could only be compared to the modern day version of winning the ‘lottery’ in such a naïve manner, being unable to fathom what the money could be used for other than being ‘an awful sight of money when it was piled up’, demonstrates Huck’s first rejection of societal norms and the attachment to material wealth because of his youth. Through rejecting material wealth, Twain immediately signals the purity of Huck, and thus provides a microcosmic representation of what America was meant to be – a morally good, respectable country – and what America became in becoming a society infatuated with becoming rich. Through Huck’s rejection of the six thousand dollars once he hears rumours of Pap’s resurgence and his subsequent attempt to offload the money to Judge Thatcher, we see the clear dichotomy being portrayed by Twain, with Huck resembling the Good and Pap resembling Evil. This is particularly key as it undercuts chapter 5, where Huck finds Pap sitting on his bed. Pap had conceivably heard news of the six thousand dollars that Huck had found, and so as an alcoholic, looked to take control of his son, and the money, in order to fuel his addiction. Twain’s criticism of money throughout the novel is personified in Pap, with his insistence of not conforming to society as seen through his ridiculing and stifling Huck from continuing his education; yet he needs society and needs money to fund his alcoholism, and ‘pierce himself with many griefs’. Huck on the other hand, is willing to relinquish his money and subsequent power in order to make sure that Pap doesn’t get the satisfaction of using him for his own gain. Through this, Twain asks the question of his late 19th century audience, who is more powerful, the man who needs society, or the boy who rejects ‘siviliz[ation]’?

Though Huckleberry Finn has been christened as the forefather of all ‘Modern American literature’ by Hemingway, the idea of ‘money being the root of all evil’ is further cemented by Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, whereby money allows for Jay Gatz to invent a persona, become the rich, party host in ‘Gatsby’ and further lust for Daisy as though she were money to be won. This is contrasted with the arrogant, entitled Tom Buchanan, who moves from the Midwest to East Egg, Manhattan, with no real purpose other than to consolidate his wealth, and be where the established rich folk are. The running theme throughout the novel is, much like Huckleberry Finn, the destruction that materialism brings. In a period of time characterized by the economic boom, the roaring 20s meant that the focus on wealth was magnified, and innovation, legal or illegal meant that the pursuit for money was more accessible (if you were a white male). Money is the very fabric of 1920s society, yet there are arguably no happy endings in the novel. Daisy, our rich provocateur, has swapped love and emotion for a hardened belief in materialism, and in doing so chose to be further abused by Tom, both physically as suggested in the dinner party scene of chapter 1, and psychologically, with her inferiority complex allowing her to be helplessly victimised by Tom’s infidelity. This choice between morality and money mirrors the choice that Huck made in giving up his fortune, with very different outcomes as a result of the choices made. There is also the issue of the class system in America, and the effect that money seems to have upon those who don’t have any. This is aptly explored through the character of Myrtle who, once afforded the luxury of being Tom’s mistress and being gifted a dog by Tom, becomes very disillusioned with her role in his life; bringing up Daisy’s name thinking that Tom wouldn’t react in the brutish manner that defines him as a character.  The reality of money is very different to the illusion that it charms over people, in the same way that Gatsby finds out that the reality of love is very different to his perception and growing fantasy of what love is meant to be.

Though money is seen as a lens to view society, often writers omit the other end of the spectrum in societies ridden with rich white members of the upper class. We see that in Huckleberry Finn, there is an attempt made by the ‘righteous’, ‘sivilized’ Miss Watson to sell Jim, which was the main reason for his escape and another representation of money spurring the plot forward. The role that slavery plays in this novel is particularly key in understanding the corrupt nature of America, with Jim taking pride in ignorantly stating that he is worth $800 in a manner that endears him to the reader because he is truly trying to find some sort of material worth in order to be like the white American society which oppresses him. There is also the issue of the black ‘bank’ headed by the ‘one-laigged nigger dat b’longs to old Misto Bradish’. The attempt by Jim made to invest his money in to a bank, give his 10 remaining cents to a man named Balum in his Church, and invest in a cow stock all turned out to be unsuccessful, yet the very endeavour to be like the white people who oppress him, and be treated like civilized human beings is one that makes Jim’s deeds admirable. Further too this, Jim’s comment claiming, ‘I owns myself, en I’s with eight hund’d dollars’, is yet again Twain commenting on the damned nature of American society which denies good negroes like Jim the right to self-ownership, regardless of what they tell themselves. Jim’s insistence that he ‘owns [him]self’ is one that is only true once he runs away, and is still not safe until he crosses in to the Ohio River, into the northern, union states. This is also subtly addressed by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, as our self-proclaimed un-judgemental narrator highlights ‘a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl’. Nick’s perceived disbelief at the existence of a white man driving successful black men, with the use of the slavery term ‘bucks’ to describe the animalistic strength that those black plantation slaves would have, is again an exploration of the potential that money has to shift the status quo but the reality of its misuse in a typically American, capitalist, and selfish attempt to further oneself, is one that both Twain and Fitzgerald criticise through their novels.

The idea of a selfish endeavour to further oneself is embodied by the Duke and Dauphin’s appearance in Huckleberry Finn, as devices for Twain to mock the stupidity of the southern bigots who believe the tricks which they tell and the plays which they act, and the discarding of honour as a core, American principle. Huck and Jim are first introduced to the Duke and Dauphin in Chapter 19, with Huck seeing through the façade of the conmen’s characters, yet Jim, ever-stuck in his role as the foolish, over-superstitious, comedic negro being completely subservient to both the Duke and Dauphin. The placement of this chapter is also key, as it succeeds the Grangerford and Shepherdson ordeal, and allows for comedic respite after a damning examination of Civil War America through the medium of two feuding families. The picaresque nature of the stops to each town, for the Duke and Dauphin to raid each town with their scams allows Twain to question the integrity of capitalism, an idea further explored by Fitzgerald in the character of Gatsby. It seems as if the issue of gaining wealth had, in both cases, overtaken the Christian morals that America was meant to be founded upon, with integrity, honesty and hard-work being the core to achieving the ‘American Dream’. This has been replaced with the dark arts of trickery, illegal acts and, in the case of the Duke and Dauphin, blasphemous acts whereby they pretend they are preachers in order to get money from their congregation. Ultimately, Fitzgerald and Twain demonstrate the way America’s great idealistic core was traded for a get-rich-quick scheme that benefitted individuals, whether that be to satisfy their goal, fit in to society and win the heart of a woman in Gatsby’s case, or the addiction to money and the egocentric nature of both the Duke and Dauphin.

In conclusion, it is conceivable that both Fitzgerald and Twain would have looked at the issue of money and the unhealthy focus on money with scorn as it festered within American society in the 1880s, and then re-emerged in the 1920s as a by-product of the economic boom. Ultimately, it is human nature to attempt to become better, stronger and richer as the materialistic world develops and morality is cast off as second to riches.