NovelTM member Ted Underwood, and future members Hoyt Long and Richard Jean So recently published a compelling response to Thomas Piketty in Slate on money in the history of the novel. Drawing in part from HathiTrust Digital Library, the authors counted references to amounts of money in 7,700 English-language works of fiction between 1750 and 1950 and found exactly the reverse of Piketty’s story about the disappearance of money.
Six-hundred-page books about economics translated from French don’t usually become best-sellers. Part of the reason Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been so widely read is that it refuses to be just a book about economics. It traces the history of economic inequality with graphs of wealth and income, arguing that the past several decades have seen soaring disparity between the 1 percent and the rest of us. But it also shows how inequality shaped individual lives with stories drawn from novels. When Piketty spoke to President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in April, even they responded to the literary aspect of his work, quibbling over his interpretation of Balzac.
As literary historians, we’re thrilled to see economists arguing over details in a novel. But Piketty’s claims about fiction and inequality are important enough to probe in more depth, which is why we decided to test some of them on a scale only recently made possible by computers. Piketty’s account of literary history turns out to be wrong—but wrong in a way that casts a surprising new light on the way novels do respond to the changing economic fortunes of people in the real world.
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