BOOKS

For the love of money

MONEY AND CLASS IN AMERICA: NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON OUR CIVIL RELIGION By Lewis Lapham

IAN AUSTEN April 11 1988
BOOKS

For the love of money

MONEY AND CLASS IN AMERICA: NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON OUR CIVIL RELIGION By Lewis Lapham

IAN AUSTEN April 11 1988

For the love of money

BOOKS

MONEY AND CLASS IN AMERICA: NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON OUR CIVIL RELIGION By Lewis Lapham

When Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1981, he not only took the post of president, but assumed the role of a Dale Carnegie-style positive thinker. The deter-

minedly optimistic and sometimes illinformed Reagan declared that his nation would again rule the world while celebrating wealth and success at home. Writes Lewis Lapham in his scathing review of the Reagan era, Money and Class in America: “Reagan imparts to money the lustre of something new and irreproachable.” According to the author, until last fall’s stock market crash, many Americans “had embraced the claptrap economic theory of the Reagan administration and borne witness to the moral beauty of capitalism unbound.” However, he adds that after the drastic losses of last Oct. 19, “nobody was singing any more hymns to Mammon.”

Lapham makes it clear that his book is not a formal social history of American attitudes toward money. Instead, he offers what he calls a “speculative essay” on the worship of the dollar, devoid of hard political analysis. Lapham himself was born into a wealthy and powerful San Francisco family. And now, as the 53-year-old editor of the liberal-leaning Harper's magazine, he is a member of America’s media elite.

Lapham argues that wealthy Americans are divided between whether money is a force for good or evil. And he says that they suffer from an unquenchable thirst for greater wealth and power. Such analysis, as Lapham admits, is hardly original, but he presents it in polished and witty prose.

One story about the selfishness of the greedy focuses on a woman whom Lapham identifies only as “R.” Before

marrying a wealthy businessman 20 years her senior, the woman demanded that he undergo a physical examination. The doctor, in exchange for a share of her expected inheritance, let her read the medical report. Satisfied that she would soon be a widow, the woman wed. Within 18 months she was left with a $l-million annual income. Writes Lapham: “So great was her joy at the coming to pass of this miracle that when she telephoned her friends in New York she could do nothing but giggle.” Ultimately, Lapham’s sea of anecdotes overwhelms the book. His comparisons of current upper-class excess with that of the Romans and pre-Revolution French monarchs become repetitious. And Lapham arrives at few conclusions other than the obvious: that the worship of money is dehumanizing but unlikely to disappear. He writes that he “never met a social critic whose complaint had more to do with substance than gesture.” The same can be said of Lapham’s critical but apolitical thoughts on America’s elite.

-IAN AUSTEN