29 March 2012

Speculation and wealth in the 1920s

As described by Thomas Wolfe in You Can't Go Home Again (1940):
In all these ways Mr. Frederick Jack was not essentially different from ten thousand other men of his class and position. In that time and place he would have been peculiar if these things had not been true of him. For these men were all the victims of an occupational disease--a kind of mass hypnosis that denied to them the evidence of their senses. It was a monstrous and ironic fact that the very men who had created this world in which every value was false and theatrical saw themselves, not as creatures tranced by fatal illusions, but rather as the most knowing, practical, and hard-headed men alive. They did not think of themselves as gamblers, obsessed by their own fictions of speculation, but as brilliant executives of great affairs who at every moment of the day "had their fingers on the pulse of the nation." So when they looked about them and saw everywhere nothing but the myriad shapes of privilege, dishonesty, and self-interest, they were convinced that this was inevitably "the way things are."

It was generally assumed that every man had his price, just as every woman had hers... Such men could not realise that their own vision of human nature was distorted. They prided themselves on their "hardness" and fortitude and intelligence, which had enabled them to accept so black a picture of the earth with such easy tolerance. It was not until a little later that the real substance of their "hardness" and intelligence was demonstrated to them in terms which they could grasp. When the bubble of their unreal world suddenly exploded before their eyes, many of them were so little capable of facing harsh reality and truth that they blew their brains out or threw themselves from the high windows of their offices into the streets below...

All that, however, was still in the future. It was very imminent, but they did not know it, for they had trained themselves to deny the evidence of their senses. In that mid-October of 1929 nothing could exceed their satisfaction and assurance. They looked about them and, like an actor, saw with their eyes that all was false, but since they had schooled themselves to accept falseness as normal and natural, the discovery only enhanced their pleasure in life...
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The amount of simplicity that could be purchased even in, those times for a yearly rental of fifteen thousand dollars was quite considerable. As if this very thought had found an echo in her mind, she went on:

"I mean when you compare it with some of these places that you see nowadays--some of the God-awful places where all those rich people live. There's simply no comparison! I don't care how rich they are, there's--there's just something here that money cannot buy."

As her mind phrased the accusing words about "the God-awful places where all those rich people live," her nostrils twitched and her face took on an expression of sharp scorn. For Mrs. Jack had always been contemptuous of wealth. Though she was the wife of a rich man and had not known for years the economic necessity of work, yet it was one of her unshakable convictions that she and her family could not possibly be described as "rich". "Oh, not really," she would say. "Not the way people are who really are." And she would look for confirmation, not at the hundred and thirty million people there impossibly below her in the world's hard groove, but at the fabulous ten thousand who were above her on the moneyed heights, and who, by the comparison, were "really rich". 
The second excerpt has a certain resonance with statements made by some current politicians and their wives.

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