God and Mammon is a long essay, or chain of essays, published as a short book (163 pages). I meant it to be a sort of experiment in ways of using the essay, that wonderful form, to connect public lives with private lives, and to link the distant American past with the surreal career of the year 2020. My idea was not to write a formal treatise on economics or monetary history but rather to talk about what I call “the emotions of money”—the psychological and cultural reverberations of that immense American subject.
I would focus on money as the American subject. I wanted to talk about its presence—or its absence—in a few characteristic lives, including my own and those of my parents, who came of age in the Great Depression. I would do reverence to America’s bitch goddess, Success, and to the even nastier bitch, Failure.
Every personal essay has its proper form and tone of voice, a particular way of proceeding. An essay may take almost any shape. Each of Shakespeare’s soliloquies is a tightly reasoned essay. If the writing is any good—if it’s alive—then the thing is as it ought to be. The essay is an elegant, tolerant form, capable of assuming almost any shape—whatever shape seems natural—on a case-by-case basis. The test is whether it works.
I would do reverence to America’s bitch goddess, Success, and to the even nastier bitch, Failure.
Planning the book, I thought about John and Moses Brown of the founding family of Providence, Rhode Island (for whom Brown University is named)—John a financier active in the slave trade and his brother Moses a leading colonial abolitionist: each was, more or less, the other’s evil twin, although they remained on cordial, even loving terms.
I wanted to consider Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings from the money angle. Jefferson died broke, and his family had to sell off Monticello—everything, including the slaves—in order to pay his debts. (Hemings lived out her life quietly as a freed woman in Charlottesville.)
Ulysses Grant lost everything when his son, to whom he had entrusted his money, got fleeced by a Madoff-style crook. In the final stage of his life, dying of throat cancer, Grant sat down and wrote his Personal Memoirs (one of the great works of military history) in order to earn the money to support his family after he was gone.
My idea was to range freely and selectively over American history—for example, comparing Hetty Green, the 19th-century “witch of Wall Street,” who was so cheap that she worked at a desk in the lobby of a bank in order to save rent money, to Oprah Winfrey. The two women accumulated equivalent fortunes of some $4 billion.
And I meant to say a few words about Donald Trump.
As I started to write, sitting in my farmhouse on a dirt road in upstate New York, the pandemic set in. It was early in 2020. As the days and weeks passed, my gaze shifted between two screens—the computer monitor in front of me (maybe three files open on it, my book’s unfolding text plus history books and articles, archives, Google-stuff) and, to my right, on the wall across the room, a flat-screen television tuned to cable news, muted, but, all day long, acting out a range of vivid emotions—including, via the Dow, my “emotions of money”—rising or plunging in urgent, silent hysterics over the virus and Trump and Wuhan and the shutdown, first of March Madness—Gee, this is getting serious!—and then of the world.
I proceeded with the writing of the book, and I began to include intrusions from the real world as they unfolded on the agitated television screen. I felt as if I were combining the literary or historical essay with reality TV. God and Mammon began to unfold on two axes: the horizontal and the vertical.
The vertical axis reached back into American history and personal memory, while the horizontal axis registered events of 2020 (presently, the death and funeral of George Floyd, and the subsequent eruptions) as they advanced along the line of present time—what a theologian would call the ongoing creation, the creatio continua. I tied Minneapolis in 2020 to Atlanta in 1906, to the race riots there and the iconic ideological schism between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.
I began to include intrusions from the real world as they unfolded on the agitated television screen.
I wanted to present money in paired dimensions: past and present, public and private. Take the story of Jefferson and Hemings—an intimate, foundational, half-concealed bit of the country’s history, the American founding viewed, for the sake of a moment’s conjecture, as a prototype Harlequin Romance, with undertones tender and sinister and obscurely moving.
I brought my own parents into the story—gifted and endearing waifs making their way in the harsh weather of the 1930s. I tossed in an account of the night my mother got drunk with Representative Richard Nixon (Republican, California) at a political dinner in Washington and told him to get out of politics because he didn’t like people. Poor Nixon got angry, and the next morning called my father and said, “Hugh, can’t you control your wife?”
My definition of the personal essay is this: “The record of the adventures of an idea in the mind of the writer.” In one of his letters—I think he was commenting on The Adventures of Augie March—Saul Bellow wrote that the writer’s mind wants to hop a freight and ride an idea as far as it will take him.
Lance Morrow, a storied journalist and the winner of numerous literary awards, spent much of his career reporting for Time magazine. He is the author of numerous books, including Second Drafts of History: Essays and Evil: An Investigation. God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money is out now from Encounter Books