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Inequality is the watchword of this election season, as candidates of both parties respond to—and build their candidacies upon—anger about increasing income disparities and the sense that economic opportunities for many ordinary Americans are disappearing while the wealthy become every wealthier.

It is no mean feat to discern what rising inequality means for American society—why, exactly, rising income inequality is problematic: is inequality inherently unfair, or only when disparities reach a certain degree, or only under certain conditions, such as if income inequality erodes equality of opportunity? An answer to these questions is essential for philanthropists who are moved to ameliorate inequality.

Fortunately, there are many resources in the American tradition to help us think about these questions, since the last decade is hardly the first period of rising inequality.

The Gilded Age of the late Nineteenth Century, for example, gave us Horatio Alger and his rags-to-riches tales, such as Ragged Dick, with the message that income inequality is not a true problem because anyone with the right spunk and native wit can rise from the very bottom to the top of American society.

On the other hand, the Roaring Twenties gave us the novels of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser’s American Tragedy was published in 1925, just three years before the concentration of wealth in America peaked in 1928 at levels not reached again until the last decade, and it offers a dark warning about the “tragic” consequences of economic inequality.

Dreiser’s prose is not elegant—indeed, one scholar who defends the importance of Dreiser’s work still concedes, “Dreiser’s fiction reads (to paraphrase an old adage) as if it had been produced by an infinite number of monkeys pounding away at an infinite number of typewriters.”

Yet An American Tragedy was voted by readers into the 16th spot on the Modern Reader’s Library Top 100 Novels because of its powerful narrative about the psychic and social consequences of inequality. As the novel unfolds, an able and ambitious but poor young man, Clyde Griffiths, is inexorably brought to ruin by his pursuit of status and wealth. Griffith’s tale is an “American tragedy,” as Dreiser presents it, because Clyde Griffiths is an archetype of American striving, and Griffiths’ ruin is brought about by forces thoroughly and typically American, including the narrow-minded pursuit of wealth necessary to rise to the top of American society but also crippling to those who make it to the top. The “smart set” to which Griffiths aspires are all graduates of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters, who never so much as consider a serious thought or pick up a book because they are intent on the pursuit and display of wealth.

Dreiser thus links anti-intellectualism to the “tragic” consequences of inequality; In an essay written at the same time that he was gathering materials for An American Tragedy, Dreiser derided the typical American as:

money centered…absolutely blind to everything that would tend to enlarge, let alone vastly extend, his social outlook. … His librarian locks up every decent book relating to politics, economics, and life. … he comes to favor a blue Sunday and the censoring of the already brainless movies and the stage, to say nothing of his one refuge, a decent book…

One almost thinks at times that the best response to income inequality, on Dreiser’s account, would not be an economic or tax policy but a course in serious books. But today we have the presumptive Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency celebrating the “poorly educated.” It might well be that we need to fight rife anti-intellectualism (an anti-intellectualism found at all socio-economic levels) if we are to face up to all sorts of challenges America faces today.

Dreiser himself had a rather ambiguous relationship to wealth; the success of An American Tragedy let him, in later middle age, live comfortably, although he was a socialist and, at the very end of his life, joined the Communist Party. His career occasionally depended on philanthropy, or at least an expansive sense of what made for a wise businesses investment, when his publisher Horace Liveright supported Dreiser for a year while he worked another novel, The Bulwark. (The friendship did not last: during a quarrel over movie rights to An American Tragedy, Dreiser cast hot coffee in Liveright’s face). But he is one of our authors, along with many others, who can help us think about why income inequality may be problematic, and, if so, what might be done about it.

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