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Wealth and Race in Popular Literature

In the social climate of today’s world the last thing most readers want is a story about wealthy white people. They reek of privilege and tend to be flooded with gold watches, pleated skirts and a Gatsby caliber of gaudiness. But the most difficult pill to swallow in these books, pomp and frill aside, are the woe-is-me characters who hate their money. You’ve got hand it to literature for making likeable a character profile sounds so disingenuous and petty.

A recent New York Times article cites two new additions, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel, to the gold laquered canon of this book genre. Rather than scorning these books, NYT offered us a new frame for reading them: their perspective on white entitlement in an age of greedy millennials, racial strife, and the reigning one percent.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix

 

The Nest enters the lives of a family, stripped of their money to pay off one brother’s mishap with a waitress and drug related offenses. Without money some or the characters are drawn back into childish behavior, while others press on, fraught with anxiety about success and expectation. In Ease and Plenty, a similar narrative of loss unfolds, but in this case our main character, Edgar, feels his loss as a blessing. It staves off a life (one his wife wants) in which family resembles “one long string of spent and earned, experience maintained, standards adhered to and passed on and one never asking what any of it meant, whether any good had ever once been done.”

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

 

Rather than rolling our eyes at the painful ‘whiteness’ of these stories – you can add Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby among others to such stories – these narratives can alternatively operate as case studies for the entitlement that comes of being a certain race or social class, and the blindness many have to a world outside their own. In the two books the New York Times cites, all the central characters are white, but even without a dot of color, these books are still about race – at least a slanted glance.

They’re both implicitly about what they don’t explicitly say: the destructive nature of entitlement and the adherence of entitlement to whiteness and wealth. Any peripheral characters of color live more in the margins than the actual pages; they are there to pose contrast and “help teach the white protagonists about their own luck,” a review suggests. When a character of another race enters the scene, the white character briefly acknowledges the disparity between their lives, laments the difference, and brushes off the encounter to go get a scotch, summer in the Hamptons, or whatever other clichéd activities white people do. The few blooms of color are more of a subtle nudge to the reader about their overwhelming absence in the text than they are an eye-opener to the protagonists.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Stories of the likes are especially poignant today because they point to a lapse in awareness, a void of consciousness concerning race relations. Even harder to acknowledge, they suggest that wrapped (or blinded) by white wealth, many avoid pulling the cover back to look at racial dynamics, begin to understand, communicate and mend. The illusion of wealth is a sturdy one but ultimately fallible as each character sees it slowly disappear.

Even the vainest attempts to keep wealth, and inadvertently repress knowledge and communication, can’t avoid class and race dynamics completely. A flickering awareness for disparity bubbles up in these characters in the form of wealth guilt – an insecurity in having money. It doesn’t sound too far off from a similar notion, one that plagues communication in real life just as much as wealth insecurities plagues the characters – white guilt. Books like these touch on the topic of white guilt without addressing it directly – perhaps a self-reflexive scold for poor communication when it comes to talking about the issues.

These stories can be looked at for what they are explicitly, what they suggest beneath the text (regarding race and class), and at the heart of them – in Edgar’s sincere desire to breed success with his own talents and see the world that exists beyond his wallet –  a need to break an entitled mentality. Getting to the deeper levels of these stories, or even just applying new meaning in today’s frame, offers insight to our social issues through an unexpected lens.

 

Featured image courtesy of 7-Themes.