American literature is all about money. For one thing, it’s all about making money: in the nineteenth century, writing was one of the few respectable ways for women to earn a living. Fortunately for American ladies, books about romance and strong morals and domestic life–things ladies were supposedly way better at than dudes–were very popular in the nineteenth century. So popular, in fact, that Nathaniel Hawthorne famously complained to his publisher in 1855, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.”Maybe because authors were so hung up on making money (Hawthorne sure was, mostly because he was really bad at it), American novels are also pretty obsessed with money. American literature is full of financial advice and cautionary tales. Why listen to what so-called “experts” in the so-called “twenty-first century” have to say about how to stay solvent when the authors of the past offer so much free financial wisdom about the direct relationship between greed and a gruesome, embarrassing death or about the virtues of genteel poverty?
If your main complaint about your high school English class was that there wasn’t enough personal finance, then you’re in the right place. Let the classics of American literature teach you everything you need to know about the do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts) of managing your money.
To kick things off, let’s turn to one of those scribbling women herself: Louisa May Alcott. Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an educator, reformer and all-around crackpot who was constantly in debt and whose idea of a good business venture was the unsuccessful Transcendentalist free-love commune Fruitlands. Alcott grew up always worrying about money, an anxiety that’s clearly visible in her most well-known novel, Little Women.
The March girls are always complaining about being poor, and then feeling guilty about complaining about being poor, since they have more than the really destitute German family down the street. Fortunately, the girls make friends with their very rich next-door-neighbor Laurie, so even if they are still technically poor, they don’t seem to miss out on too many luxuries. This is Little Women’s first financial lesson: Make friends with rich people and then marry them.
Mr. March isn’t quite the debt-ridden crackpot that Bronson Alcott was, but he is a pastor with a tendency to give away his material possessions, so he’s not much help in the family income department. To keep the family financially afloat, Jo March takes up writing (I told you it was a good career for the ladies). She has some early success, but it’s not until she moves to New York and starts writing lurid sensation stories under an assumed name that she really starts to make bank. She rips ideas from the headlines and turns them into exciting, if formulaic, stories that sell like proverbial hot cakes.
There’s just one problem: the German professor Mr. Bhaer, who has taken a father-like (soon to be husband-like, but that’s a different kettle of fish) interest in Jo, figures out that she’s been writing these potboilers and starts worrying about her soul. He shows her, in his kind, gentle way, that these stories have been polluting her mind, and that if she keeps writing them, her very moral foundation may crumble away.
Alarmed, Jo takes his advice and stops writing sensation stories. By the end of the book, she’s pretty much stopped writing altogether, opting instead to marry Prof. Bhaer and open up a school for wayward boys together. The lesson of Little Women seems pretty clear: sensational stories will rot the brain and corrupt the writer.
Except. While she was writing Little Women and its sequels, Louisa May Alcott herself was happily churning out lurid and sensational tales under an assumed name. She didn’t even like writing Little Women all that much–she thought it was kind of tedious, but since it was making money, she kept writing. The income from her novels and sensational stories allowed her to live an independent life. She never married, and was kind of resentful when fans demanded that the characters in Little Women get married. She wrote in her journal, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone,” and instead married her off to Prof. Bhaer as a “funny match” more or less meant to spite fans.
And that, my friends, is Little Women’s most important financial lesson: Do as Louisa May Alcott does, not as she says. Figure out what sells and do it, because it probably won’t mean sacrificing your soul. Anyone who tells you otherwise is almost certainly trying to marry you and keep you from a life of happy spinsterhood.