Journey to Justice

Cause and Effect – Differences of the Rich

By Professor Barry Supple, one of the contributors to our Economic (In)Justice project

In my late teenage years, and like many in that age group, I had a taste for worldly literature and an admiration for cynicism.  My friends and I were therefore impressed [and reassured] by a reputed exchange between two writers of the early twentieth century, seen by us as the gentle and naïve F. Scott Fitzgerald and the tough and cynical Ernest Hemingway.  

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the tough and cynical Ernest Hemingway.  

As widely believed, it went like this:

                  Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from us.”

                  Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”  

Now as then – perhaps even more now than then – the exchange, and especially Hemingway’s presumed riposte, has a satisfyingly authentic ring, confirming a cynical view of the determinants of culture, life styles and outlook.  And, by implication, it places individual and family wealth at the core of social and personal behaviour and lifestyles.  Indeed, suitably if simplistically glossed, it could be used as an indirect way into an understanding of the money-based nature of social class.

And yet, the exchange never actually took place. As the party spoiler Wikipedia tells us, it was a later mythical condensation of elements in the published writings of the two participants, followed by angry elaborations and the comments of others.  

Scott Fitzgerald’s published words on the subject [in the story The Rich Boy, 1926] were more detailed than the conventional quotation suggests:

     “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.”

And a decade later, through the words of a character in the first version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway ‘quoted’ what became the legendary view of the exchange as if he were not directly involved.  Nevertheless, he still managed to embrace both the view of the difference of the rich and an altogether more dismissive view of what he took to be Fitzgerald’s idea. In his character’s words: 

     “The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him”

In later years, the publication of a cryptic passage in Fitzgerald’s notebook compounded by a ‘helpful’ explanation by an editor established the widely accepted, but oversimplified and misleading, version of the non-existent exchange. [In fact the phrase “they have more money’ was used by a third party in a comment on a statement by Hemingway!] 

But does it matter?  Certainly, considered as a transient and mis-reported exchange it is a small literary blip.  And yet, in either the accurate or the popular mythological form, and no matter who actually said what, it raises important issues of social patterns and behaviour, equity and justice.

Certainly, it rings a bell in our minds as we try to interpret whether the wealthy are different – and if so in what ways. In this respect Fitzgerald has a more sophisticated and subtle view:   that the character and behaviour of the rich derived from the security and confidence sustained by wealth; while the non-wealthy are handicapped by the need to struggle for security and comfort.  His is essentially a social and cultural observation implying a theory [or at least a view] as to origins and causes.  

On the other hand, Hemingway – the observer of the struggle of individual men [almost exclusively men] against nature and softness and social environment – has a different perspective on the outcomes of the unanalysed.  

In these fictions, both writers interpreted individual wealth as shaping character and outlook, and [by implication] individual poverty as combining social handicap and character-forming incentives to action.  

In effect, both were focusing on the effects rather than the causes and origins [and perpetuation] of riches.  Of course, in works of fiction that is perfectly reasonable – even justified.  But it is far from the best way to understand how society works and what wealth – above all the uneven distribution of wealth – tells us about the patterns and dynamics of that society.  

Of course, it must be accepted that that is a task for other commentators.  In this case it is perhaps sufficient that the authors alert us to individual and group behaviour and outlook rather than attempting to explore their collective determinants.  Regrettably, however, this leaves implicit the overriding question of the justice of the process that characterises, while cementing, cause and effect.

Professor Supple is one of the contributors to our Economic (In)Justice project

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