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The Capitalist Fiction of Garet Garrett

Tags BiographiesMedia and CultureEntrepreneurship

12/26/2008Bruce Ramsey

The Ludwig von Mises Institute has reprinted the four novels written by Garet Garrett (1878–1954), one of America's leading financial journalists and a libertarian. Garrett, who for unknown reasons had renamed himself so that both parts sounded alike, was a writer of distinctive ideas and a forcefully distinctive style. I have had the pleasure of editing two volumes of his essays: "Salvos Against the New Deal" (Caxton, 2002), and "Defend America First" (2003). Caxton will bring out a third volume, "Insatiable Government," later this year. But none of his novels had been reprinted since the 1920s, and they have been difficult to find on the used-book market.

As I write, abebooks.com is offering only two Garrett novels from those years: one copy of "Harangue" (1927) at a bookstore in Vancouver, WA, at $124.99, and one copy of "The Cinder Buggy" (1923) at a bookstore in England, at $530. No original copies of "Satan's Bushel" (1924) or "The Driver" (1922) are available at all. A determined reader can find these stories in bound copies of the Saturday Evening Post, or in the case of "Satan's Bushel," in another old magazine, called Country Gentleman. But then you have to photocopy them on 11x17 paper or read them at the library.

I'm an admirer of Garrett, and have long wanted his work to be easier to obtain. The Mises Institute reprints —  facsimiles of the original E.P. Dutton editions, bound in new covers and offered at $18 to $25 — now make his novels available once more.

Garrett was famous as a journalist and essayist, but not today as a writer of fiction, and there are some reasons for that. Still, his work should be of interest to libertarians, particularly those who grew up on the fiction of Ayn Rand. Many thought Rand was the only novelist with capitalist heroes. Those people hadn't read Garrett. Of the four novels, one is about a railroad tycoon and another about a pioneer of the steel industry. All four have messages about the market and the essence of American capitalism.

I should note that Garrett also wrote another book, "The Blue Wound" (1921), that is ostensibly fiction. In this work, a journalist meets a time traveler who gives him a tour of human history and a look 30 years into the future. The story takes the form of a novel, but really it is an essay. And because it promotes a theme of national autarky it will not be of great interest to libertarians.

Garrett's first real novel, "The Driver," is the one libertarians tend to know about, because of the argument that Justin Raimondo made in "Reclaiming the American Right" (1993). Raimondo supposed that Ayn Rand had lifted her protagonist's name "Galt" and the "Who is John Galt?" device from "The Driver." I don't know whether she did or didn't. Raimondo may be right, though Garrett does not use the "who is" device in the same way that Rand does. Both "The Driver" and "Atlas Shrugged" have to do with running railroads during an economic depression, and both suggest pro-capitalist ways in which the country might get out of the depression. But in plot, character, tone, and theme they are very different.

"The Driver" is set in 1894, a year after the great panic of '93, the harshest depression of the laissez faire era. Perhaps a quarter of the people are unemployed, and there is a thought running through the land that government should borrow money and put men to work building roads. There is also a deep resistance to that thought, and the government of President Cleveland is in principled opposition to it.

Garrett's story is narrated by a young journalist who has come from the march of Coxey's Army, a populist "petition in boots" for zero-interest government bonds. The young man has written private reports on the Coxeyites for the president of the Great Midwestern Railroad, and he has defended their good intentions. He goes to work for the railroad president, who calls him "Coxey." The road soon falls into receivership, but there is one man with an idea of how to make it go — a stock speculator named Henry Galt.

He takes over, and he saves the business. A few years later, when he is famous, he is attacked by his rivals in a stock-market raid, amidst accusations that he is a monopolist. He beats them. Then he is hauled before a committee of Congress, whose attorney grills him like this:

"Your occupation, Mr. Galt, — you said it was what?"


"Yes? What do you farm?"

"The country."

"Do you consider that a nice expression?"

"Nicest I know, depending on how you take it."

"Well, now, tell this Committee, please, how you farm the country, using your own expression."

"I fertilize it," said Galt. "I sow and reap, improve the soil and keep adding new machinery and buildings."

"What do you fertilize it with, Mr. Galt?"


"And what do you sow, Mr. Galt?"

"More money."

"And what do you reap?"


"And what do you do with the profit, Mr. Galt?"

"Sow it again."

"A lovely parable, Mr. Galt. Is it not true, however, that you are also a speculator?"

"Yes, that's true."

"To put it plainly, is it not true that you are a gambler?"

"That's part of my trade," said Galt. "Every farmer is a gambler. He gambles in weather, worms, bugs, acts of Congress and the price of his produce."

Garrett is here on familiar turf. He had grown up on a farm, and had written about farming. He had been in Wall Street and written about finance and railroad tycoons. He had advised Bernard Baruch, who, when called before Congress, famously declared his occupation as "speculator."

And Garrett uses "The Driver" to make a capitalist point about recessions. It is not the government that gets the economy out of its funk, but people like Galt who have the courage to invest. To the congressmen Galt says, "I bought Great Midwestern when it was bankrupt and people thought no railroad was worth its weight in junk." He tells them, "No railroad I've ever touched has depreciated in value."

It is a good scene, but "The Driver" is not the novel it might have been. It is weighed down by an unnecessary story about Galt's mother and two daughters, and the narrator's love interests. Garrett is not good at this sort of thing, and he doesn't do enough with it to justify including it in his story. He also underplays the drama of business. Galt's takeover of a great railroad is a chance for drama, but Garrett has him assume power by osmosis. Galt absorbs shares, befriends the CEO, concocts a plan, and then, when bankruptcy is filed, goes to the bankers and talks to them off-camera — an excellent way of depriving the story of color and interest.

And there is no real railroading in "The Driver." Compare it with "Atlas Shrugged." In that story, the heroine awakens on a train that is stopped at a broken signal. She strides along the track to the men held motionless under the false red light and issues orders that get the train moving again. In Rand's book, the heroine fights an unseen "destroyer," pleads with key employees not to quit, arm-wrestles with the CEO, insists on rebuilding a branch line with a new, "dangerous" kind of metal, rides the engine on its triumphal first run — and is later left on a motionless train abandoned by strikers. You feel the railroad; you feel the heroine's proprietorship over it. In Garrett's book, you don't. There, the most emotion-laden thing is the stock market.

"The Driver" offers two superb historical scenes, both of which have been excerpted in this magazine: the launch of Coxey's Army ("The Paper-Money Crusade of 1894," Liberty, August 2005) and the New York Subtreasury run ("Crisis of the Soft-Money Plague," Liberty, December 2004). It offers a message that will be appreciated by fans of the free market. But it is not a great novel.

Garrett's second novel, "The Cinder Buggy: A Fable in Iron and Steel," tells the story of a pioneer of the steel industry who battles it out with the producers of iron. It was a battle that happened in the decades following the Civil War.

Garrett does not make the same mistake he did in "The Driver"; he doesn't ignore the look, feel, and sound of his subject. "The Cinder Buggy" gets wrapped up in the stock market only at the end, where it tells a story that Garrett covered in 1900 as a young Wall Street reporter. It tells the story well. The rest of the book has iron rails that could be bent like a hairpin, iron nails that were cut from a sheet, inventors' struggles to make pure steel, and even a scene in which an iron man is cremated in his own blast furnace. The novel personalizes turning points in industry:

John went to Europe with a plan to form an international pool in which the nail business of the earth should be divided up… He returned unexpectedly and appeared one morning in Slaymaker's office.

"Did you get your pool born?"

"Chucked the idea," said John. "I found this."

He laid on the banker's desk a bright, thin, cylindrical object.

"What's that?" Slaymaker said, looking at it but not touching it.

"That," said John, "is a steel wire nail. It will drive the iron nail out. It's just as good and costs much less to make. You feed steel wire into one end of a machine and nails come out at the other like wheat."

Enter the steel wire nail.

The author is at his best when describing the industrial atmosphere in the world of laissez faire:

They were free egoists, seeking profit, power, personal success, everyone attending to his own greatness. Never before in the world had the practice of individualism been so reckless, so purely dynamic, so heedless of the Devil's harvest …

Business as it was in the last quarter of the nineteenth century also is far away. Nothing like it can ever happen again. It was utterly lawless, free in its own elemental might, lustful and glamorous…

Unlike "The Driver," "The Cinder Buggy" makes romance part of the business story: at the moment when the blast furnace is about to accept its corpse, the man in cowhide leggings and skullcap stoking the white-hot fire grabs the lone woman observing him and kisses her "once hotly on the mouth." But Garrett is only passable at telling a love story, and it is a slow-moving story. The man who kisses the woman for the first time in his life is her husband, and has been married to her for six years.

Garrett begins his book in the1920s, in a Pennsylvania town he calls New Damascus. It sounds like Danville, a town that once led the nation in the production of iron rails. Clearly it is a real town Garrett visited. By starting with this town, he makes a mystery of it: Why did the iron industry grow here and the steel industry did not? Why has the town become a refuge of wrought-iron craftsmen — workers who are "dogmatic, stubborn and brittle"? These are interesting questions, and they help to hook the reader. But to do them justice Garrett takes until page 83 to introduce his main character. Until then, he is talking about the character's grandfather and father.

As a novel, "The Cinder Buggy" runs hot and cold. When Garrett describes the process of industrial creation, he is unsurpassed:

Pittsburgh at this time was not a place prepared. It was a sign, a pregnant smudge, a state of phenomena. The great mother was undergoing a Cesarean operation. An event was bringing itself to pass. The steel age was about to be delivered.

Men performed the office of obstetrics without knowing what they did. They could neither see nor understand it. They struggled blindly, falling down and getting up. Forces possessed them. Their psychic condition was that of men to whom fabulous despair and extravagant expectation were two ends of one ecstasy. They were hard, shrewd, sentimental, superstitious, romantic in friendship and conscienceless in trade. They named their blast furnaces after their wives and sweethearts…

I cannot dislike a writer who writes that well. But this is the strength of an essayist — and it is the descriptive parts, not the interactions of characters, that are written to the highest standard.

Garrett's third novel, "Satan's Bushel," reads like a fable, but at the end you are not sure what the moral is. A journalist — maybe Garrett — is telling a story to four men of the Chicago wheat pit. The story was passed on to him in backcountry Burma by an American with the odd name of Dreadwind. This man and his lady friend went on a three-year quest to find a tree that appeared in a vision, and they found it. The why and how of the tree are not explained; the story is the one that led up to the vision. It is Dreadwind's story. He had speculated in wheat because it was the only gambling table with unlimited stakes. And one day the meaning of his work — or its lack of meaning — struck him:

In a week he had gone through the motions of buying and selling ten million bushels of wheat. That wheat had no reality … There was in all that buying and selling only the idea of wheat. Simply, he had been gambling in the price of it. Suddenly it occurred to him that he would not know wheat if he saw it.

He dropped everything to go see it. It is an odd action, in a story of odd actions. Anyway, he did it. He found himself walking through the green wheat fields of Kansas, listening to the sound of wheat — "the rhythm of phantom castanets playing just on and under the lowest pitch audible to the human ear." Then came a gust of wind:

In that very instant he was startled by a whispering that arose everywhere at once, grew louder, came swiftly nearer, and became suddenly a prolonged hiss. It ceased abruptly as it began.

"Satan's Bushel" is alive with the sound and feel of the wheat, the farming life and the harvest. Garrett had a unique talent for description. But a novel is a story, and the story is — well, it is strange.

In his quest to understand the wheat, Dreadwind comes across a farmer trying to sell a wagonload at a grain elevator. The farmer says his wheat is No. 1 quality, and the buyer offers a No. 2 price. An old man argues on behalf of the farmer. He browbeats the buyer into accepting the wheat as No. 1, thus earning the farmer five gold dollars. Then the old man walks away.

Dreadwind finds him at a meeting at which farmers have gathered to hear a sales pitch for agricultural cooperatives. The old man stands to speak, and says something one would not expect from his earlier exhortation. He tells them that cooperation is useless, that nature's way includes "no sick religion of equality." His thought is bluntly Darwinian in its emphasis on the conflict for survival.

If farmers, like elm trees, had a common fighting instinct, then every individual selfishly attending to his own profit would be working for the good of the race without thinking of it and cooperation would be what it is and should be — namely, a natural means and not an end to which you shall need to be exhorted.

Farmers are not forests. Farmers depend on markets, and markets don't allow them to set their own prices with the agreement of all others. The market even auctions off the wheat before the farmer grows it. Really it auctions off the farmer's labor, and with seemingly non-rational results. If the market wants ten bushels and he grows only nine, it pays him well for the nine; if it wants nine and he grows ten it pays him poorly for all ten. The bushel that breaks the market is "Satan's bushel."

Unlike the manufacturer, the farmer cannot fully control how much he produces. He is at the mercy of bugs, disease, and the weather. Though sympathetic to him, Garrett does not advocate a socialist farm program, either in this book, written nine years before the New Deal limited the wheat farmer's acreage, or later. He wrote many articles opposing federal intervention, before the New Deal and during it. His solution was individual: farm intelligently and avoid debt. The novel ends on such a point. But that is not the sum of it. Its message is more of absurdity, not the least of which is the old man, a Christlike figure of agricultural altruism who preaches a Spencerian ethic. The book is evocative, mystical, romantic and earthy. It has an enchanting quality that makes it easier to enjoy than to explain. Perhaps it is like the farmer, as Garrett describes him, who "belongs to a race apart. We have forgotten the language in which he thinks."

Garrett's last novel, "Harangue," is his best. The subtitle, "The Trees Said to the Brambles, Come Rule Over Us," was the title used by the Saturday Evening Post. It refers to a parable in the book of Judges (9:7–15) in which the woody plants try to elect a ruler, and none of the productive flora wants to rule over the others. The one that is willing to rule is the bramble.

"Harangue" is a novel about socialism. Garrett set it in his own time and made it about things he knew: East Coast intellectual socialists and an upper Midwest farming state. He calls the state "New Freedom," but it is obviously North Dakota, which was taken over by a socialistic group called the Nonpartisan League in 1916, when Garrett was a newspaper editor in New York.

Garrett had grown up on a farm in Iowa and by 1927 was living on a farm in New Jersey. During the farm depression of the 1920s the Saturday Evening Post sent him to North Dakota. His story came with a large photo of the state grain elevator, one of the monuments of the socialist experiment. From North Dakota newspaper editors and country bankers Garrett had heard an earful about that experiment and its sponsors.

His story ran in the issue of April 12, 1924, and focused on the call for federal help. Garrett denied there was a general problem requiring a general solution. With the end of the World War I inflation had come new conditions in agriculture. Some farmers had adjusted to them and some had not. Garrett restates these observations in "Harangue":

Success and failure divided by a road. Independence and well-being on one side; aching discontent and poor living on the other side. The same soil, the same sun, the same seed…

The successful farmers were not necessarily more intelligent than the unsuccessful, though very often they were; invariably, however, their intelligence was practical, not imaginative, and they had besides a kind of restraining wisdom.

The nut of wisdom was not to over-borrow. Many farmers had feasted on credit during World War I, when food prices, and therefore the value of farmland, were high. They borrowed to buy more land and equipment. When prices came down, borrowers were in trouble. Garrett had the bad manners to point out that they had done it to themselves.

Garrett's story brought complaints from North Dakota's conservative governor, who had followed the socialists in office and had to clean up their mess — yet who still wanted sympathy for his constituents. Garrett defended his story but promised the governor that he would return to North Dakota and write another report, which he did the following year.

North Dakota, farming, and farmers are all background to "Harangue," which is about the socialists. The state's real-life socialists were locals; the founder of the Nonpartisan League was a failed flax farmer and Socialist Party organizer named A.C. Townley. But to Garrett, the larger fact was that socialism was an imported idea that did not suit America, and specifically heartland America. In his book he personifies this by imagining the Townley character recruiting a cabal of socialists in Manhattan to be the brain trust of his revolution in the upper Midwest.

The first third of the novel introduces these brain trusters, who go by the odd, non-heartland names of Capuchin, Dwind, Semicorn, Fitzjerald, and Jael Saint-Leon. Capuchin, the Townley character, has been a promoter of failed irrigation schemes in the West, a story Garrett also covered for the Post. He is the revolution's salesman. Dwind is the economist, who will lie on a sofa amid a pile of books and rewrite the constitution of a state he does not know. Semicorn, the volcanic son of a Colorado miner, is a Wobbly and a man for whom "revolution" really means blood (which is what Garrett himself thought it meant). Semicorn will take over a newspaper and staff it with "red card" comrades in an alliance of convenience with the social democrats. Fitzjerald is the voice of honesty — really of Garrett — who diagnoses his fellow radicals' psychology, at the story's beginning, and their failure, at its end. Saint-Leon is the heiress of a Wall Street wolf who wants to do something socially redeeming with her inherited millions. She bankrolls the socialists' newspaper and state bank. Her theory is mistaken, but there is much of her father in her and she is ultimately rational about her investments.

The book follows this crew to North Dakota, whose government is already in the hands of the League. Soon it fast-forwards four years. The state enterprises have become sinkholes of the taxpayers' money, the state bank is bust, and the voters eject the socialists from office. Something like this did happen between 1916 and 1920: the Nonpartisan League governor, Lynn Frazier, was recalled, the only U.S. governor recalled in the 20th century. But Garrett's version of the story is fictional. His portrait of the League is somewhat different from the historical reality, and so is his portrait of the opposition: he has rolled the opponents into one hardheaded country banker, Anx. Plaino, who closes the loan window of his bank for the entire four years of the socialist administration.

The real Nonpartisan League fell short of revolution. It aimed at what socialistic things were possible in a U.S. state: such things as a state-owned bank (the Bank of North Dakota, saved by the conservatives and still in business), a state flour mill, etc. It implemented its program in 1919, a year of upheaval that saw Lenin and Trotsky in power in Russia, a soviet republic proclaimed in Hungary, a failed Spartacist putsch in Berlin, and a leftist-led general strike in Seattle. None of this background is in "Harangue." The story is focused on Capuchin's cabal and how they follow their ideas in a place that flirts with them but isn't really suited to them.

"Harangue" is the only novel in which Garrett disagrees politically with all the main characters, most of whom he treats with a measure of sympathy. He extends such sympathy even to the character he disagrees with most, Semicorn. To Garrett, the creed of the Wobblies is juvenile, a "romantic order" of unmarried and uncivilized men. But at least it is American; the Industrial Workers of the World is, "notwithstanding its great big name, peculiar to this country and could not have come to exist anywhere else in the world." And Semicorn is an honorable man. He follows his creed, and when it leads to his doom, he accepts it.

"Harangue" ended Garrett's career as a novelist — just as he was getting good at it. One imagines the novels he could have written about the Depression and New Deal — or the short stories, for that matter. He wrote several of these in the years before and after 1920. Still, he was a better essayist than anything else; and in 1927, when he was done with "Harangue," all his best political essays were ahead of him.

What remains are four novels of what might loosely be called capitalist fiction. They are of definite ideological interest to libertarians, and of some artistic interest. My advice: if you like politics, start with "Harangue." If you like a bit of strangeness, try "Satan's Bushel." Take it from there.


Contact Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey is a journalist in Seattle and editor of Salvos Against the New Deal, Defend America First, and Insatiable Government.