Monday, July 18, 2011

The Inventor of ‘Capitalism’ is 200 years-old Today

William Makepeace Thackeray, (1811-1863), novelist, was born on 18 July 1811 at Calcutta, the only child of Richmond Thackeray (1781-1815), secretary to the board of revenue in the East India Company at Calcutta, and Anne Becher (1792-1864), second daughter of John Harman Becher, a writer for the East India Company, and his wife, Harriet.

For a full biography see his entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (HERE).

Thackeray wrote The Newcomes and published it in serial form from 1854. In it he ‘chronicles the affairs of a most respectable family' of merchants, bankers, and petty aristocrats. The respectability is primarily one of manners and appearances, and the novel reveals in great detail intense intra-family jealousies, rivalries, fights, and outward politeness’ (OED).

No summary of any of Thackeray’s novels, or the hundreds of his short essays and, usually mocking, vignettes, can capture his unique and insightful style.

As a student, I purchased a secondhand copy of Thackeray’s biting satire, The Book of Snobs, and treasured it for many years. Alas, I cannot find my copy today. In the first-year English class at University, we read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (what a joy!).

Years later, I picked up another of my second-hand little volumes, The Newcomes, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Coincidentally, I examined the origins of the word ‘capitalism’ in the great, Oxford English Dictionary and found to my double delight, the first use of ‘capitalism’ in English was credited to Thackeray in his novel the Newcomes (1854), where he mentions ‘capitalism’ several times.

As they say the rest is history. ‘Capitalism’ as a word is now ubiquitous, praised by some condemned by others. In the popular press, and sometimes in more serious publications, ‘capitalism’ is (falsely) credited to Adam Smith (who never heard, nor knew, of the word) and back-projected onto manifestations of early commercial societies in late medieval periods and right up to the tail-end of the so-called ‘industrial revolution. Erroneously, it is credited to Karl Marx.

No, it was a modest novelist, with a great sense of the humourous and pompous follies of the men and women in modern societies, who quietly used the word for the first time in English. Though born to East India Company English parents in India, he travelled and lived widely, spoke fluent French and German, visited the United States and had investments in its railroads and the early telegraph companies, knew a fair share of bankers and men of money, and also of a snobbish social slice of the English upper classes and their transatlantic cousins.

Thackeray saw all sides of the new capitalists – and their wives and extended families, and the mother-in-laws of all classes, of whom he had little that was kind to say about them. His stories would make great television and DVDs for a new generation of non-readers of books.

Follow the link and read his OED and DNB entries – perhaps also stretch your mind by reading his essays and novels. If they disappoint you,I am sure that Thackeray cast a character of like-minded preferences to your good self.



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