CAPITALISM'S HIDDEN HEROES The literary establishment contrives to ignore the business giants in the American novel.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – America's professors of literature do not understand capitalism, and they do not like what little they know about it. Some of their disdain is Marxist- inspired, but not much. After all, one has to have a whopping grudge against one's parents to enjoy Das Kapital, even to read it. And most professors of my acquaintance are simply not that driven. No, the resentment is much fuzzier and less systematic than that. It is usually something that one just picks up in the halls of academe the way one might catch a bad cold. Once contracted, this bias is never questioned. I suspect it will rage forever in the university--or at least until professors are given a rooting interest in the realities of economics by, say, pegging their salaries to the gross national product. One symptom of this phenomenon is the treatment of the fictional capitalist. The capitalist has received almost no attention in literary criticism for the past 20 years or so, and he is about the only one who hasn't. You see, profs have to write to get tenure, so they have written and rewritten articles on an infinite variety of subjects, one more ludicrous than the other. A friend once slipped a title of his own concoction--''Diminutive Doings: Dwarfs and Midgets in American Literature''--into a respected critical bibliography, and no one noticed. In a field where the schlemiel in literature has attracted much more interest than the capitalist, dwarfs must have seemed quite substantial. Academics paid some attention to the capitalist in literature prior to the mid-Sixties, but they seem to have done so grudgingly, as if in forced response to a loathsome fashion. One critic, Claude R. Flory by name, wrote a whole book on economic novels in the Thirties starting from the premise that capitalism ''is in the large undesirable.'' One can easily guess the conclusion derived from such a premise. Others have shared Flory's bias, if not his bluntness. Many echo the most notable critical summary, Henry Nash Smith's 1964 essay, ''The Search for a Capitalist Hero.'' Smith concluded: ''Few major writers have concerned themselves with the actual operation of the business system, and when businessmen appear in novels, they are often treated with hostility or derision.'' In fact, many celebrated novelists have written favorably about the capitalist. But the American literary establishment has generally chosen to ignore or distort this literature. Since many novelists pass through many phases, teachers and critics can nimbly skirt the less savory ones. Thus, students have to read the early Marxist novels of John Dos Passos, but they hardly ever read his later, pro-business novels. They might read The Octopus, Frank Norris's indictment of monopolists, but hardly ever its broker-as-hero sequel, The Pit. Smith has to work hard not to find a capitalist hero. He focuses, for instance, on Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt but neglects Dodsworth. Worse, Smith does not even mention Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, or Booth Tarkington's The Plutocrat--novels with formidable and often noble characters, ones more deserving of the designation ''capitalist'' than the likes of Babbitt. A second tactic of the anticapitalists is ridicule. Pro-capitalist novelists are about as popular on college campuses as herpes. Consider the plight of Ayn Rand. In many a classroom one cannot mention her name without producing a chorus of soul-shriveling guffaws. I have never heard of a college reading list that includes her name. True, Rand's Atlas Shrugged is a little long and a little dreamy. But that isn't why a major political statement by a controversial female author is ignored by the literary establishment--and by the feminist establishment as well. Few successful women authors have generated as little literary criticism as Rand. The ink may still be wet on a brand X feminist novel, and you can bet someone is off writing a dissertation on the heroine. No such luck for Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged. Not only does Dagny have wild affairs all over the country, but she runs a major railroad. And is she tough. She could eat Bella Abzug for breakfast and be hungry again at lunch. Yet Dagny and her creator remain pariahs among literary feminists. A THIRD TACTIC, and perhaps the most ingenious, is flat-out critical distortion. In this way, a professor can teach any book, even one that the author thought pro-capitalist, and neuter it through interpretation. In Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth, the eminently noble title character dreams of creating a practical but attractive product. One possibility is a kind of mobile caravan. Yet regardless of what Lewis thought of such a project, critic Dick Wagenaar thinks it ''spiritually base.'' Writing a half-century after Lewis, the politically correct Wagenaar recoils in horror at ''trailer parks, littered campgrounds, scenery spoiled, and nature almost everywhere ravished.'' Egad! One wonders if Wagenaar thinks Moby Dick ''spiritually base'' because of what has happened to the whale. Nowhere can this kind of distortion be seen more clearly than in the treatment of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A whole school of criticism would have you believe that this novel is a searing indictment of mean property consciousness. One professor, James M. Cox, notes that the novel's hero, Hank Morgan, is a ''grotesque caricature of the enlightenment he advocates.'' Why grotesque? Because Morgan has brought science and industry to Camelot and disrupted its rhythms. Since Cox considers Twain's Camelot ''a charmed Arthurian paradise,'' he regards Morgan the way he might view a dioxin salesman. Cox's reading of this novel borders on the preposterous. Twain called Camelot ''a nation of worms.'' He disliked its Catholicism, its feudalism, its ignorance, its squalor. Perhaps more than any other novelist, Twain believed that the capitalist was a liberator. For him, the factory represented the synthesis of ''hand and brain'' that would redeem the world from centuries of feudal oppression. ''Who made the greatness of England?'' asks Twain in notes he made around the time he wrote Connecticut Yankee. ''Was it Wellington and Nelson? No; these shrink into a pitiful insignificance when placed alongside the mighty names of Watt, Arkwright, Eli Whitney, and Stephenson.'' The man truly loved industrialism. It is evident in every page of the novel. But the academics can't deal with this. They can't believe that as major a writer as Twain does not share their perspective. So what do they do? They change his perspective. They tell students that Twain ''really'' disliked capitalism, and they tell them persistently enough that the students begin to believe them. Hank Morgan is not the only capitalist hero twisted or ignored by the literary establishment. Other major ones include Fitzgerald's tycoon, Monroe Stahr, perhaps the single most heroic figure in 20th-century literature; Lewis's Sam Dodsworth; Theodore Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood of The Stoic and Solon Barnes of The Bulwark; William Dean Howells's Silas Lapham; Tarkington's plutocrat, Earl Tinker; Christopher Newman of Henry James's The American; and Norris's Curtis Jadwin of The Pit. These fellows are strong, upright, courageous, and successful on their own merits. By weeding their likes out of the curriculum, academics can more safely portray the American businessman as a Babbitt or worse. And they can more safely push their own vision of America as a failed land--nature spoiled, dream dead, classes divided, all that sort of mumbo jumbo. Is there any hope for change? Yes, there will be some change, some yielding to fashion, especially at the lesser colleges whose names begin with a compass direction and end with ''State.'' But change will be negligible at the major universities with the privileged students and the big endowments. The professors and students at those institutions have had too little exposure to the realities of ambition, work, achievement, and success. For them, capitalism will continue to be something one learns from books.