In Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams and the Spirit of Jefferson, scholar Alec Marsh traces the economic theories that ran through the work of modernist poets. Even poet and successful businessman Wallace Stevens had an economic position, that, Marsh says, “depends on the redistribution of wealth from the top down” (Marsh 157). In Marsh's volume, no such space is given to Marianne Moore's monetary ideas. Is it possible that Moore, a Protestant, could have been a poet of the Protestant work ethic, and that she might have come down squarely on the side of the capitalist ethos that was widely denigrated as sinful because it didn't kick money to impecunious poets?
Moore was a twice-weekly Presbyterian in Brooklyn, her brother and grandfather were pastors, and her poems, too, may well be steeped in the Calvinist work ethic. F.H. Rookmaaker writes, in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture,
“Culture is the result of man's creative activity within God-given structures. So it can never be something apart from our faith…So, as Paul said, nothing is sinful, neither eating and drinking nor any kind of activity whatsoever, if done with thanksgiving” (37).
Moore seemed to have an uncomplaining attitude toward God's creation, or her place in it, and did not find work to be something she didn't want, or which she resented. Moore's mother wrote a letter to her son John Warner Moore (a Presbyterian who worked in the Naval shipyard in Brooklyn) on October 22, 1932, that “The only way to restore well-being and hope to the workman is to get him back to work in his own calling with the normal occupation” (cited in Carson 322). Luke Carson writes that Moore's contemporary and correspondent Kenneth Burke had the opposite idea: “While the presidential campaign focused mainly on the need to create jobs, Burke saw an opportunity for increased leisure” (322).
Although often considered to be the equal of modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, especially by contemporary feminists, Moore's economic thinking is thought to be non-existent or not worth examination. Aside from Ezra Pound, not many of the modernists are known for their economic schemes, and the one used by Pound is no longer considered workable by any economist (compounded in an eccentric fashion from the work of Major Douglas). Luke Carson writes of Moore, “…there is little to suggest that Marianne Moore considered the Depression to have posed any fundamental challenge to the task of poetry” (Carson 315). While there are a few places where Moore debates economics, it seems that Moore was a free-market conservative. This aspect of her personality and career is still obscure, and is likely to remain obscure, but it forms a tantalizing window especially as we attempt to square her economic thought with her religious framework. As we will see, what little we possess of her economic sense aligns with the economic theories of Adam Smith and the Austrian School of economics, but can we really claim that her poetry is an illustration of Austrian school capitalist ideas?
Luke Carson's viewpoint is the standard position for those thinking about Moore's economics (that she never thought about it). How could she have been friends with so many major poets with economic ideas, and not thought about economics? Carson's article recuperates Moore's economics, but limits it to her family background and to conversations with her mother and brother. Marianne Moore had a far larger command than Carson's summary provides (as I will show), and yet her own thinking is kept discretely quiet within her poems and essays. Perhaps this is because she was a woman among men. As the men around her trumpeted their ideas might she have at least had the subject cross her mind? Moore had actually taken several college courses in economics, and was therefore familiar with basic concepts of capitalist versus socialist theory.
Moore's close friend Kenneth Burke thought that with high unemployment a wonderful period of “increased leisure” (cited in Carson 322), would ensue, and that if the word “leisure” was changed for “unemployment,” this switch in vocabulary would satisfy any personal loss one might feel about the collapse of employment (Carson 322). Burke fired a letter at Moore urging that she get on the bandwagon toward nationalization of industry. On November 30, 1932, Moore wrote, “…capitalism leads to revolution and the remedies are increased taxation, nationalization of industries, and compulsory national service, civil and military. But ‘the people,' you and I, and always the artist, elude responsibility and the result is likely to be a dictatorship such as they have in Russia or in Spain or in Italy” ( Letters 282).
Nearly a century later, Moore's work in this area has never been recuperated. That she held such a firm belief as the one she martials against Burke may indicate that she felt that she was dealing from strength. If so, was this strength provided by her introduction to Austrian School economics at Bryn Mawr College (sketched out more fully later on)? Her knowledge of economics was not enough to have made her into an economic thinker capable of being set aside Friedrich Hayek or Adam Smith, but the same could be said to be true of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams or Kenneth Burke and yet the latter three were far from quiet on a topic on which they had relatively little professional competence. Was her economic position partially a result of her own comparative finances? Compared to most of the poets of her time, Moore's estate was in relatively good shape at the time of her death in 1972. A Trenton, NJ newspaper entitled The Evening Times has a brief obituary notice of the poet that claims, “Marianne C. Moore, the poet, left an estate estimated at $400,000” (“Poet Leaves Estate” 2). Economics forms a major theme in the work of Ezra Pound, and his all-out assault on usury is a central aspect of his Cantos. William Carlos Williams writes extensively (in a self-taught fashion) when he covers economics in his essays such as “A Letter” (to the poet Reed Whittemore) when he writes, “Peter Cooper said a number of years ago, Exorbitant rent (commonly called interest) silently but surely devours the substance of the people. – I think this, in one sentence, says more succinctly than Pound ever dreamed, everything he ever conceived of economics” (Selected Essays of WCW 238). Williams goes on to castigate Pound for wanting to be a “master mind,” (238) in fields other than his own, but Williams has little else to offer on this economic front unless one were to comb through Paterson looking for coherence.
While Pound and Williams and other modernists dallied with socialism, and could be seen to represent yet another arm of the ever-expanding socialist intellectual phalanx that Friedrich Hayek sketches out in his essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” and although many of these poets found a small but eager audience, Moore's modernist poet might present a modest economic alternative (particularly in poems such as “Dock Rats,” and in “New York”.)
Friedrich Hayek argued that socialism had seized the imagination of intellectuals and that almost all within the academies had signed on to this bandwagon, and suggests that, in the face of this, “we must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination … What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism” (384). Could the rather quiet complexities of Marianne Moore's poetry already offer this? It is dubious if Moore ever said much of anything that could be used for propaganda by the capitalist machine. While Moore's contemporaries received quick profit for their socialist poetry and a fast turn-around on their economic theorizing in terms of instant credibility within the ranks of the burgeoning academic and Bohemian left, classical capitalist theory was thoroughly widespread enough to perhaps not have needed Moore. While communism, and Major Douglas' Social Credit scheme (touted by Pound) have become historical footnotes to the twentieth century, free market principles have expanded into the former Soviet Union, into China and Vietnam, and only a few pockets such as North Korea and Myanmar remain in the grip of planned economies. In spite of this it is hard to think of any major poets then or now who have tried to expound upon the pleasures of capitalism in a programmatic fashion.
Marianne Moore's poetry does openly reference capitalism. The poem “Dock Rats,” seems to favor New York's entrepreneurial creatures and the bustle of shipping in a capitalist fortress's major harbor:
There are human beings who seem to regard the place as craftily
as we do who seem to feel that it is a good place to come
home to. On what a river; wide twinkling like a chopped sea under some
of the finest shipping in the
world: the square-rigged four-master, the liner, the battleship, like the two-
thirds submerged section of an iceberg; the tug strong moving thing,
dipping and pushing, the bell striking as it comes; the steam yacht, lying
like a new made arrow on the
stream; the ferry-boat a head assigned, one to each compartment, making
a row of chessmen set for play. When the wind is from the east,
the smell is of apples; of hay, the aroma increased and decreased
suddenly as the wind changes;
of rope; of mountain leaves for florists. When it is from the west, it is
an elixir. There is occasionally a parakeet
arrived from Brazil, clasping and clawing; or a monkeytail and feet
in readiness for an over
ture. All palms and tail; how delightful! There is the sea, moving the bulk
head with its horse strength; and the multiplicity of rudders
and propellers; the signals, shrill, questioning, peremptory, diverse;
the wharf cats and the barge dogs it
is easy to overestimate the value of such things. One does
not live in such a place from motives of expediency
but because to one who has been accustomed to it, shipping is the
most congenial thing in the world
(Poems of MM 54).
While the poem doesn't openly endorse capitalism, it does seem to delight in it. It references “motives of expediency” as well as “value” and seems to find pleasures in trade. She inventories some of the goods on the boats including exotic animals, grain, florists's greens, and apples. There is her excitement in a robust harbor. A similar poem “New York” addresses the fortune made in skins by John Jacob Astor. The poem opens,
“the savage's romance
Accreted where we need the space for commerce –
The center of the wholesale fur trade” (54)
It ends with a line that Moore herself attributes to Henry James, as that New York conveys a certain “accessibility to experience” (CP 54). The phrase “accessibility to experience” is precisely the opposite of a planned economy determined from above. What we see in poems such as “Dock Rats” are the hilarity and wonder of various boats going about their business with seemingly no planning and the diverse picture of a brisk economy. Adam Smith and many others had warned against planned economies of the type that had seduced many of the modernist poets, but what we see in Moore's poem is the tremendous beauty of the invisible hand. Adam Smith biographer James Buchan writes,
“Smith had long recognized that men pursue systems, whether in cosmology or the arrangement of furniture, purely for the sake of system. In politics, this man of system – this Robespierre or Pol Pot – becomes so ‘enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it … He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board'” (141).
Buchan summarizes Smith's viewpoint that seems to tally with Moore's own in “New York,” when he writes, “Commerce grows and spreads … out of cooperative self-interest” (99). The sense of a messy vitality animates Moore's descriptive poetry of New York City's harbor and fur trade. Was she setting out to capture this excitement so that others could become capitalists, and relish its give and take? The least we can say is that there is little criticism of free market economics in her early poems.
Moore's later poems celebrate experiential capitalism but do so more warily. In “Old Amusement Park”(CP 210-211), “A businessman, the pony-paddock boy” represented in a postcard which New Yorker editor Brendan Gill had sent to Moore with a request to turn straw into gold, is sketched by Moore. After having “fares collected,” he “limber-slouched against a post” (CP 210). Moore's poem appeared in The New Yorker shortly after Gill sent the postcard, and Gill sent a thankyou note to the poet, which said, “Will you always write a poem like that when I command it? What a sense of power it gives me…!” (cited in Willis 7). The boy's capitalism is innocently referred to, but there is no invidious complaint as to his activity. The boy is praised as a model of workmanlike thrift, although in his afterhours he “slouched” and “tells a friend what matters least” (CP 210).
Moore's notes in The Complete Poems are as a taproot to the flowers of the poems themselves. The notes point us to a work of literary and artistic criticism entitled, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, by Alan Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg, a scholar at Yale University, writes that New York City was originally envisioned as “a potential business street,” (33). Manhattan began as a Dutch fur trading settlement and continued on with widening economic significance after its British appropriation. Trachtenberg cites Lewis Mumford,
“The city, from the beginning of the nineteenth century on, was treated not as a public institution, but a private commercial venture to be carved up in any fashion that might increase the turnover and further the rise in land values” (Mumford cited in Trachtenberg, 33).
Mumford had a socialist side, but Marianne Moore writes of whole towns in her early poems, whole corporations, whole communities, and celebrates the invisible hand that guides their robust (if somewhat corrupt) economies, from her first poem in Complete Poems. In “The Steeple-Jack,” she sketches a classic New England town as being like one that Albrecht Durer might have painted, with its public works such as a lighthouse and church, its seagulls and vegetation, its college and its rather pedestrian handymen, such as the steeplejack himself, who straightens the steeple, and she is inclusive of “waifs, children, animals, prisoners,/ and presidents” (7) giving them, like the student, a sense of the whole. Moore is presenting a liberal democracy, rather than an aristocracy or a socialist state, a sense of a village working together, as via Smith's invisible hand, to work out its own destiny. The invisible hand has built the Brooklyn Bridge, Carnegie Hall, the skyscrapers of New York City, and the Ford Motor Co.'s Edsel (see Thomas Bosnall's Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel , for an understanding of Moore's small but charming role in the history of that fated automobile as they had asked her to name the vehicle but her appellations such as “Utopian Turtletop” were not used for the unfortunate vehicle).
Moore's poetry references the steeple-jack, the artist, the connoisseur, little boys working at an amusement park, violinists and baseball players, as groups and individuals play a significant role in her poems, and in culture as she understood it. Economics is usually very far from the surface, and if there is an explicit economic message it is not foregrounded, as it is in the poetry of Ezra Pound, with his constant complaints about “usury.”
In a sharply worded exchange with the poet Pound, Moore writes against his own urge that she foreground economics.
“I give strict attention to anything that is said about the economic foundation on which … we live, but in art some things which seem inevitable ought to be concealed, like the workings of gastric juice. A glass stomach might not kill one, and is interesting to inspect – compulsory for all, under a Hanfstaengl-Hitler-Russo-Japanese General edict, not good” (Letters 343).
Moore's letter is dated March 4, 1935. Moore appears to criticize the top-down planning of the soon-to-be-mobilized Axis powers, and the disturbing totalitarian tendencies that they represented, as having glass stomachs, so that everything they consumed could be inspected by the dictators.
Nevertheless, at Bryn Mawr Moore took four classes in economics. She took two classes with Marion Parris who in turn had studied with Austrian School professors, whom Parris thanks in her dissertation (Parris 104). In addition, Moore took two classes with Charles Williamson, whose position was uncertain at Bryn Mawr, and who was denied tenure shortly after her graduation (see Winkler 51-69). Parris and Williamson were both anti-Marxist, but Parris' economic theories run closer to the Austrian School from which libertarian Friedrich Hayek and “The Road to Serfdom” had come, and so are perhaps the more interesting to inspect for a possible link to Moore. Williamson dropped out of economics, and began a career in library science, establishing an enormous collection of works on economics at the New York Public Library, an institution which Moore was known to frequent. Did they remain in touch? If so, there is no evidence of her working up her economics in the bowels of the New York Public Library the way the poet Pound attempted when he tried to understand and then expound Major Douglas' economics. Moore could not have read Austrian School Friedrich Hayek's classic in 1935 (Hayek's book appeared in 1944), but it is tempting to see if she could be aligned with Austrian School economics. Moore's criticism of the transparency of the economic transaction so that the government could peer in our stomachs (in the previously cited letter to Pound) is an ingenious image whose anti-totalitarian tendency mirrors Hayek's libertarian stance (Hayek had been publishing for a longer period, but his name was largely limited to insiders within schools of economic theory until his breakthrough volume appeared). In The Road to Serfdom Hayek presented Nazism and Socialism as being identical in all but name. The disappearance of private capital under National Socialism is something that Hayek lays out throughout his book and does the same with socialism under the Bolsheviks. Hayek writes, “Although we had been warned by some of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, by Tocqueville and Lord Acton, that socialism means slavery, we have steadily moved in the direction of socialism” (67). Hayek cites Adam Smith, “The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it” (cited in Hayek 100).
We get another peek into Moore's free market economics in a letter to her British friend Bryher dated October 3, 1932. Moore writes, “America is pestered at present by a man named Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Germany had been with Hitler, but I think Mr. Hoover will ‘win,' as our neo-Hitler [Roosevelt] would put it” ( Letters 279).
Did Moore's professor Marion Parris provide her with an Austrian School free-market education such that Marianne Moore could have grown in a parallel but similar direction to Friedrich Hayek? Throughout Moore's work she sees the similarities between the planned economies of Hitler-Stalin-Hirohito years before they came to general public consciousness, and at a time that almost all of her contemporaries were moving toward socialism. Nearly a century later, Moore stands out as the only major modernist poet in her milieu who disapproved of socialism. Like Hayek, she is not averse to constraints on pure capitalism, and she is not averse to public works along the lines of the Brooklyn Bridge, Carnegie Hall, and the parks system of New York (implicitly praised in her late poem “The Camperdown Elm”), nor against war itself, so long as the individual conscience and the free market remains intact.
Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek allows for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” ( Road to Serfdom 148), but warns that “public works undertaken on a very large scale … might lead to much more serious restrictions of the competitive sphere” (149). Hayek worries that the realm of the individual will be closed by the political, as universal panoptical planning will take the place of the invisible hand of Smith. Something similar seemed on Moore's mind. There is no evidence that Moore had read Hayek, nor even that she continued to think about the Austrian School of Economics to which her college professor Marion Parris had introduced her during the two classes she had taken at Bryn Mawr. It may be that the spirit of the individual was simply in the air in America at the time, and that the common ancestor between Hayek and Moore was Adam Smith. In her last semester at Bryn Mawr, while taking a class in Economics with Charles C. Williamson (Marianne Moore Newsletter 5:1 Spring 1981, 14), she wrote a letter home to her mother on February 21, 1909, asking for money to purchase Smith's Wealth of Nations (unpublished letter kept in Rosenbach Museum Archives in Philadelphia). What role did Smith's book play in her understanding of poetics? Is a poem such as “Dock Rats,” or “When I Buy Pictures,” or “New York” informed by the economic understanding? Another possible trajectory is to work forward from the Protestant work ethic which would have underwritten her understanding of Christian life.
David Landes, a contemporary economic historian at Harvard, in his update on Smith, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some so Poor, proffers ideas similar to Hayek. Landes argues that, “Wealth is not so good as work, nor riches so good as earnings” (Landes 172). He cites the Spanish as having enjoyed vast wealth in the 1500s, but the goods they purchased were from elsewhere. He cites a cynical Spaniard from 1675 by the name of Alfonso Nunez de Castro, who writes, “Let London manufacture those fabrics of hers to her heart's content; Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her brocades; Italy and Flanders their linens, so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing it proves is that all nations train journey men for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody” (Alfonse Nunez de Castro, cited in Landes, 172).
Moore's work came long before that of Landes, but Landes appears to endorse work ethic as the truest capital. According to her biographer Charles Molesworth, Moore majored at Bryn Mawr in “history and politics” (41), and her list of college courses includes several in political economy (unattributed document in MM Newsletter, 5: 1 Spring 1981, 14). Against the redistributionists such as Burke, who wanted governments to glean profit and spread it among the lower classes, so as to provide increased leisure, similar to that which the upper classes of Spain enjoyed in their heyday, economic historian David Landes argues that it is only earned money that is truly meaningful, or that contributes to the well-being of a person or a nation. Spain's money in the 1500-1700s came in through conquest of poorly defended South American societies, and through the seizure of their gold. Landes writes, “Spain spent all the more freely because its wealth was unexpected and unearned. It is always easier to throw away windfall wealth” (Landes 171).
Catholic countries that outsourced their products, like “Spain and Portugal, ended up as losers,” Landes writes (Landes 171). The Moore family shared this thrifty economic philosophy. Although the letters between Moore's mother, Moore, and Moore's brother John Warner have only been published in fragments, and a more complete volume would further clarify their economic discourse, what fragments we do have reveal a common understanding. To repeat a central thesis with regard to the modernists, scholar Luke Carson wrote that Moore's contemporary and correspondent Kenneth Burke had the idea: “While the presidential campaign focused mainly on the need to create jobs, Burke saw an opportunity for increased leisure” (322). While Moore and her mother (with whom she lived and constantly discussed current events), may have enjoyed culture, and their own leisure, leisure was not so important to them as work.
In the late poem “Rescue with Yul Brynner,” published in the early 1960s, Moore writes of Brynner's illustrated book Bring Forth The Children, in which the children of the refugee camps of Europe and the Middle East (a whole section is devoted to the plight of the Palestinians) are given minimal lodgings and food, but there is little or no employment. In this situation some fifteen years after the Second World War, the children haven't yet lost their appetite for life but many of the elders had collapsed in the inertia of the camps because they had nothing to do.
Brynner summarizes the situation, as “a desperate human need for decent living conditions, for education, for employment…” (107). Of these needs, education and employment are critical to Moore's vision in her poem, and perhaps why she found Brynner's book compelling. People need to work. Many refugees were being taken in by the Canadians (the book is published in 1960, and the camps had been operated since the mid-1940s, with millions of children having grown up entirely in the camps). Many of the children remained with their parents because countries would take the smaller children but not their sickly elders, so the children often remained in the camps, emotionally unable to separate from their families but without any meaningful activity to strive toward. Moore writes,
“There were thirty million; there are thirteen still –
Healthy to begin with, kept waiting till they're ill” (CP 227).
The illness is not merely infection. It is a lingering morbidity that stemmed from an inability to find dignified work. The Budapest Symphony managed to resurrect in Marl, West Germany. “The seventy-two players were put on salary and a beautiful concert hall was built for them” (Brynner 70). These 72 artists had escaped the fate of millions. Moore mentions the “Budapest Symphony” in her poem, as “displaced but not deterred” (227), who had managed to survive the war with dignity because they continued to be able to serve others.
It might be mentioned that Yul Brynner's work as a special consultant with The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in turn comes out of the document framed by the United Nations entitled The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by 48 nations, with none opposed (8 abstentions), in December 1948 (Glendon 170). Harvard scholar Mary Ann Glendon traces the arduous diplomacy of the document in her book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the rights listed are “just and favourable conditions for work” (Glendon 313). They are not capitalist or communist values (countries from both systems signed the document), but human values, as they were created by a world-wide panel of experts brought together through Eleanor Roosevelt's diplomacy. While Moore may have had reservations about the Roosevelts, and about the Democrats in general, there was still at the time an overlap between the parties. There was no unanimity among the central framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but the central tenets were strong enough to merit general support. As Moore doesn't mention this document specifically, and was a lifelong and ardent Republican, it is unclear if she would have supported Democratic Eleanor Roosevelt's signature document but work appears throughout her life and poems as a central principle on which she never reneges.
If Moore were to propose that good work is a central human right, and there is no reason to assume that she wouldn't, Moore adds to her list of workers, the student. In “The Student,” because they too are making something, and have found meaningful work, Moore finds something to praise.
“With us, a
School – like the singing tree of which
The leaves were mouths that sang in concert –
Is both a tree of knowledge
And of liberty,--“ (CP 101).
One cannot count on others' erudition, one must manufacture one's own, as a true student “studies voluntarily/ refusing to be less than individual” (CP 102). Anything else (i.e., papers bought from paper mills) is unearned knowledge, and is thus, bankrupting. Moore adds “liberty” to the inventory of goods, indicating again the freedom of the private conscience against the planned economics and mandated blueprints of the socialists.
Moore's ideas are steeped in the Calvinist work ethic. She was a twice-a-week congregant at the Presbyterian church in Brooklyn and clearly had an ideological home there. Moore's birds and animals and trees and plants are also enterprising, and in their own individualistic way, joyful Christian workers. In a book in Moore's personal library kept intact at the Rosenbach Museum and Library is a work by Methodist clergyman Lynn Hough. It is a book over 150 pages in length. Unlike many of Moore's books, it is relatively clean of margin notes. Only one sentence in the book is underlined in Moore's characteristic hand:
“Plants and animals have to work too to get done what they are trying to do” (127).
If Moore's economic vision is linked to her religious faith and can be seen in her poetry, she would have seen much as clergyman Hough did that every person, animal, and plant is fighting to accomplish something. To respect another being we must try to see what this is, and to allow for it on an individual basis. Planned economies, because they do not allow for the individual soul, are inhumane as they do not allow God's creatures meaningful work. If this is at least partially illustrated in Moore's poems, then perhaps there is a way to argue that Moore's poetry does in fact take a side in the debates over economics, and that she comes down politely but firmly on the side of the Protestant work ethic and its alliance with the free market.