Do you want to learn more about philanthropy this holiday season? Professor emeritus Leslie Lenkowsky, Ph.D., discusses the five best philanthropy-related novels.
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
The Blithedale Romance
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)
- The first half of the 19th century saw a variety of American experiments in utopianism—philanthropic efforts meant to show the superiority of communal life. One of the most famous was Brook Farm, a utopian project established near Boston and, for a brief period in 1841, the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. A decade later, he set a novel there, which, he professed, was not intended to “elicit a conclusion, favorable or otherwise, in respect to Socialism.” Nonetheless, it does. Hawthorne’s principal narrator, Miles Coverdale, comes to regard Hollingsworth, one of the founders of what is called Blithedale Farm, as a “bond-slave” to his philanthropic theory: “He knew absolutely nothing, except in a single direction, where he had thought so energetically, and felt to such a depth, that no doubt the entire reason and justice of the universe appeared to be concentrated thitherward.” It is Hawthorne’s portrait of this single-mindedness that fuels the novel’s dramatic tension: It makes Hollingsworth oblivious to the competition for his affections between two sisters, also residents of the farm: the forceful and proud Zenobia (supposedly based on the early feminist Margaret Fuller) and the frail and mysterious Priscilla. The love triangle eventually culminates in a suicide and in disillusionment about the transformative effects of communal living—a timeless reminder of the power of human nature to defeat even the noblest of plans.
By George Eliot (1871-72)
- Life in the English Midlands in the 1830s was hardly an experiment in communal living, but as it is portrayed in George Eliot’s famous novel, the spirit of reform was indeed making itself felt there. She weaves together a finely crafted story focused on two attractive idealists: Tertius Lydgate, a physician seeking to make medical care more scientific; and Dorothea Brooke, a woman who “longed for work which would be directly beneficent like the sunshine and the rain.” Ultimately, Lydgate succumbs to the jealousy of his rivals and to the perfidy of his patron, while the widowed Dorothea must sacrifice the goal of beneficence for the sake of finding happiness with a new husband. Their struggles are emotionally wrenching and yet not tragic. With characteristic eloquence, Eliot maintains that such lives, even if they fall short of their full idealistic aspirations, are consequential and humane: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
By Charles Dickens (1853)
- The setting is London’s mean streets, a place of strange happenings. Among them, the “spontaneous combustion” of an inebriated scrap dealer whose holdings include evidence central to a long-running dispute over a will that has ruined the lives of most of the claimants (but not their fee-grubbing lawyers). The drama centers on Esther Summerson, an impossibly sensible and good-hearted girl determined to discover the parents she never knew. Along the way she encounters, among others, Mrs. Jellyby, a lady of “remarkable strength of character,” as an admiring acquaintance puts it, “who . . . has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa”— particularly the natives of Borrioboola-Gha. She pursues her do-goodery, as we see, while neglecting the natural duties and obligations to her own family. A mystery story and a satire of the British legal system, “Bleak House” is also a work of biting social commentary, including on the follies of philanthropy.
A Traveler From Altruria
By William Dean Howells (1894)
- William Dean Howells envisioned an entire society based on altruism. In this, the first of his three novels on the theme, he created dialogues among the guests at an upscale summer resort—among them, Mr. Homos, a visitor from the remote island of Altruria. In his country—in contrast to the United States, the visitor explains—“every one does his share of labor, and receives his share of food, clothing, and shelter, which is neither more nor less than another’s.” There’s no need for charity either. Plotting and character are largely absent from this didactic work, though not humor. What makes it so striking are the vigorous, still-familiar arguments it seeks to advance—at the height of the Gilded Age—for economic and social equality. Although Mr. Homos persuades the resort’s staff of his land’s superiority, he doesn’t manage to convince “the more cultivated people who had met him.”
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
By Kurt Vonnegut (1965)
- Scion of a wealthy Indiana family, Eliot Rosewater is in charge of its multi-million-dollar foundation, which was created by his father to reduce the family’s taxes. Eliot, however, has other ideas: He wants to give the money to people who are in need, and he does so liberally. Disjointed and digressive as it is, this early Vonnegut novel reveals many of the qualities—wit, originality, a satirical voice—that would distinguish his later writings. It’s a work also prepared to raise difficult questions about philanthropy. “Don’t play God to people,” his father warns Eliot, “or they will slobber all over you, take you for everything they can get, break commandments just for the fun of being forgiven—and revile you when you are gone.” Although Eliot disobeys his father in the end, Vonnegut has already made his point that “a fortune,” even when it is given away, can be “a futile and destructive thing.”