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Bull Run

THE GREAT GAME; The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000; By John Steele Gordon; Scribner: 320 pp., $25

January 02, 2000|STEVE FRASER

Nonetheless, though for generations Wall Street lived in cultural purgatory, it always had many admirers. Often, they've been small-timers, marginal players or spectators dazzled by Gordon's "great game." Oddly enough, for a place so identified with the high and mighty, The Street has also been a boulevard of plebeian ambition, attracting especially those less than enamored of the astringent pleasures of capitalism's work ethic. To be "bullish on America" goes back a long way to the democratic mythos of the Yankee as a daring peddler of notions, a kind of benignly optimistic trickster, supremely confident about the future, his own and the country's. In the age of the estimable J.P. Morgan, however, this all began to seem a bit disreputable and unbecoming. Wall Street emerged as the magnetic center of a true American ruling class, perhaps the only coherent one since the days of the Southern slavocracy and the Brahmin elite of mercantile New England. For a season, lasting roughly from 1900 to 1930, The Street not only seemed to take responsibility for the reorganization and consolidation of American industry but also volunteered to help run the country's key law firms, foundations, political parties and institutions of high culture.

The manners and mores of this "class" were closely observed by Edith Wharton, among others (her "House of Mirth" was also a real "house," scandalous at the time as the site of mercenary intrigues between financiers and New York politicians). In fact, our serious literature has returned again and again to Wall Street as an incubator of moral conundrums and social crises. Its presence was felt in the existential bleakness of Melville's "Bartleby," in the satire, moral melodrama and Darwinian naturalism of Twain, Howells and Dreiser, and more recently in Tom Wolfe's sendup of the greed and vanities that luridly backlighted the Reagan era.

Gordon Gekko's manifesto in the film "Wall Street"--"Greed is Good! Greed is Right! Greed Works! Greed Will Save the USA!"--reminds us that The Street has also infused our popular culture in innumerable ways; one thinks immediately of the gothic Gilded Age cartoons of Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler, of D.W. Griffith's early cinematic classic "Corner on Wheat" and naturally of the hero worship of our favorite financial titans, including the cultic following that now trails after Warren Buffet. Even the language we've used to describe life on The Street has fused with basal American myths about the frontier and about masculinity. For generations journalists have peopled The Street with gunslinging cowboys, merciless marauders and Napoleonic conquerors; or made of it an eroticized melodrama about control, seduction and addiction. So too the techno-jargon and mathematics deployed to describe the market's mysterious inner mechanics and chaotic oscillations reassure the skeptical that The Street's wildness can be tamed while exuding an intimidating aura of machismo.

No matter how pervasive Wall Street's influence today, it would be going much too far to start thinking of it as Wall Street 'R' Us. Still, The Street's cultural rehabilitation from the ignominy of the Great Depression is extraordinary. Ever since Charles Merrill's "thundering herd" brought Wall Street to Main Street in the years after World War II, it has seeped deep into the pores of our common lives. The Street has indeed achieved a certain greatness, both imperial and intimate, reconfiguring the global balance of power, coloring the homelier details of our plans for retirement. For the moment at least, it's won our confidence. But to find out whether "The Great Game" is really a confidence game, as so many of our ancestors believed, stay tuned.

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