Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Moneychangers by Upton Sinclair

Financial chicanery and commercial skullduggery
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Moneychangers, published in 1908, is loosely based on the real-life stock market crash known as the Panic of 1907. The story takes place in New York City. In the opening chapter, Allan Montague, an attorney, is reunited with a childhood friend from Mississippi, Lucy Dupree, who is recently widowed and has decided to settle in New York. Lucy wants Montague’s help being introduced into “Society,” but he soon finds himself assuming the role of protector as the beautiful Lucy is sought after by wealthy, married philanderers. Though there is no romantic connection between the two, Lucy is naive to the big-city ways of the metropolis, and Montague takes it upon himself to defend her honor.

The story then makes a segue from chivalry into business. From their days back home in the South, Montague and Lucy are both stockholders in the Northern Mississippi Railroad. Lucy wants to sell her stock, and she asks Montague to act as her financial representative. Though this railroad is a small business, it has the potential to become a lot bigger through a deal with The Mississippi Steel Company. As New York’s wealthy financiers get wind of this, they show an interest in Lucy’s stock and start sniffing into her and Montague’s business. The more he deals with these interested parties, the more Montague learns about the underhanded deals going down in the world of New York finance, and how a handful of wealthy and powerful oligarchs manipulate the market, the courts, and the legislature to their advantage.

Compared to other writers of the muckraker era like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair always had his own unique style that was more propagandistic and preachy than his contemporaries. He was never afraid to push his political agenda, no matter how blatantly, even at the expense of plot and characterization. (That’s not a criticism, just an observation; I actually admire him for it.) Here in The Moneychangers, however, Sinclair definitely makes an attempt to craft a satisfying melodrama. Stylistically, the book greatly resembles Dreiser’s novels The Financier and The Titan. Sinclair nevertheless still manages to get his digs into the capitalist class, but not so dogmatically as he does in books like The Jungle, 100%, or The Millennium. This may be because none of the book’s characters are members of the lower, working, or even the middle classes. The story is told entirely through the perspective of lawyers, bankers, and well-to-do businessmen. Having covered the proletariat with due diligence elsewhere in his body of work, perhaps here Sinclair was aiming to educate middle-class readers through subtler persuasive tactics.

The Moneychangers isn’t very compelling at first, but it improves considerably as it goes along. The first half is rather slow, and the whole storyline about Lucy and her reputation feels a bit unnecessary to a novel that’s ultimately about finance and greed. The second half of the book, however, is really quite good. The instances of financial, commercial, and political corruption start out small but then gradually snowball into an avalanche. One particularly clever scene of journalistic espionage turns the book into a thriller worthy of a 21st-century film adaptation. Though Sinclair develops his case gradually without resorting to diatribes, by the end of the novel he has presented an ample laundry list of evils perpetrated by the oligarchs of American finance. The Moneychangers proves once again that even Sinclair’s lesser known works are often of high literary merit and loaded with valuable perspective on American history.
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