Author Q&A: Francesca Sawaya, The Difficult Art of Giving

15283Francesca Sawaya is author of The Difficult Art of Giving: Patronage, Philanthropy, and the American Literary Market, which rethinks standard economic histories of the literary marketplace. Traditionally, American literary histories maintain that the post-Civil War period marked the transition from a system of elite patronage and genteel amateurism to what is described as the free literary market and an era of self-supporting professionalism. These histories assert that the market helped to democratize literary production and consumption, enabling writers to sustain themselves without the need for private sponsorship. By contrast, Francesca Sawaya demonstrates the continuing importance of patronage and the new significance of corporate-based philanthropy for cultural production in the United States in the postbellum and modern periods.

(Read Sawaya's earlier blog post, "Economic inequality, philanthropy, and the New (and old) Gilded Age," here. Click here to see every Fall 2014 Author Q&A post.)

+   +   +

Penn Press: Are philanthropy and patronage mutually dependent or independent in America?

Francesca Sawaya: Scholars have traditionally distinguished the two practices, describing patronage as a pre-modern, self-interested, individualized social practice, and philanthropy as a modern, disinterested, and bureaucratized one. But it is obvious that self-interested and individualized forms of sponsorship continue in modern times and are often indistinguishable from disinterested and bureaucratized ones and vice versa. In short, the two practices are often indistinguishable. So I argue in the book that while the historical account of the two terms is useful for charting the ways that social practices of giving or sponsorship change over time, nonetheless patronage and philanthropy easily blur into each other both historically and definitionally in the U.S. as elsewhere.

What are some of the social networks in the post-bellum era that helped shape the relationship between literature and philanthropy?

One of the central forms that I discuss is friendship, which was fostered institutionally at the turn of the twentieth century by the numerous urban-based men’s clubs. Such clubs consciously worked to bring together men from a wide range of professions. The friendships that emerged from these clubs were racial and gender exclusive, and often utilitarian. At the same time, it is also clear that these friendships created deeply felt emotional bonds and worked as a philanthropic or social welfare system (albeit of an exclusive and privatized nature), linking the worlds of business and culture. Mark Twain’s close friendship with Henry H. Rogers, the (in)famous vice president of Standard Oil, who rescued Twain from bankruptcy and served as his financial advisor and close friend till the end of his life, is a prime example of the way these networks worked.

Which was the bigger driving force in generating literature, the democratization of the literary market or the patronage system?

It’s a great question, but I don’t think we really know the answer to that question yet. One of the assumptions we have made in studying the literary market is that expansion is the same as democratization, an assumption that we have borrowed from political economy but have not examined in any depth. For example, we know that in the aftermath of the Civil War literacy rates improved, and thus the audience for literature expanded, and the publishing industry grew. Does this mean that publishing democratized? Not necessarily. Scholars have pointed out that the expansion actually hurt women writers who had depended on family networks and close and personal interactions with their publishers. Likewise, the publishing and literary market remained racially segregated in this period.

Looking at the question from another angle, the sociologist Paul McLean’s research suggests that market expansion can lead to more competition; and the more competitive a market economy becomes, the more that social connections and networks matter, so that the aspiring newcomer can gain a foothold. Supporting McLean’s work are recent studies on economic inequality in the West. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century demonstrates that inherited capital is far more important and determinative in the modern West than we have understood. While authorship does not depend on inherited capital, per se, it frequently depends on inherited social capital, which is characteristically linked to different forms of inherited wealth or status.

In the book, I acknowledge the importance of market expansion and posit that it can have democratizing effects, but I also argue that we need to do much more work investigating the range of social practices—including patronage and philanthropy—that create markets before we can argue that expansion is equivalent to democratization. I also argue that we need to study what kinds of social practices are characteristic of different market “niches”—whether they be elite, middlebrow, or mass—to understand the relation between expansion and democratization and patronage and philanthropy, how they interrelate, and which is a more significant force.

Why were Harlem Renaissance intellectuals so interested in philanthropy and patronage?

White sponsorship was particularly fascinating to them because it was the first time that whites had systematically aided blacks in gaining access to a national audience. Harlem Renaissance artists were excited, as any artist would be, that they were being funded to do their work. But the nature and timing of this sponsorship could not help but raise questions: Why do white elites want to fund black art now? What are the psychological, political, and/or economic factors involved in white sponsorship? What “returns” are sponsors looking for in the art produced? Indeed, Harlem Renaissance writers often used depictions of patronage or philanthropy as a way to “read” the significance of racial inequality and power relations in the U.S. more generally.

Should corporate-based philanthropy be considered philanthropy?

I’d say no, but the problem here is partially semantic. The first definition of philanthropy in the OED is ‘‘Love of mankind; the disposition or active effort to promote the happiness and well-being of others.’’ Modern corporate-based philanthropy cannot be seen simply as an expression of a “love of mankind” or as an “effort to promote the happiness and well-being of others.” As a modern institutional and bureaucratic formation it has served a variety of purposes and has had a wide-range of effects. For example, it has been used as a tax dodge for corporations and families, as a way to intervene in domestic and foreign policy in the interest of American corporations, as a way to cleanse a corporation’s unsavory reputation. Many critics of corporate philanthropy see it as a very effective tool that elites use to rule America, a tool they use to bypass or coerce the state to accede to their needs or ideological commitments. This is not to say that corporate-based philanthropy has not ever “promote[d] the happiness and well-being of others.” It has. At the same time, corporate-based philanthropy has also served the purpose of promoting the happiness and well-being of corporate capitalism and individual corporate capitalists, even when those needs and interests have not served “mankind” well.

What, then, should we call corporate-based philanthropy instead of philanthropy? I don’t have an answer to that, so in the book I instead always make distinctions between what I call corporate-based philanthropy and other more democratic expressions of a “love of mankind”—whether they be in institutional forms of philanthropy that consciously detach themselves from corporate interests or in grassroots activism.

Is human or corporate intervention ultimately benevolent and beneficial to society?

The focus of my book is not on whether or not corporate philanthropy is “ultimately benevolent and beneficial,” but rather the crucial and unacknowledged role of all forms of intervention in markets so that we can better understand how capitalism actually works. In other words, the notion of a “free” and self-regulating market is, as Karl Polanyi put it, a “utopian fiction.” “The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism,” Polanyi effectively argued. Corporations have historically depended on state aid and intervention (hence the term corporate welfare to describe the state’s aid) and a wide range of social practices to exist and thrive. Likewise the form of sponsorship or aid that corporate capitalists created, namely philanthropy, purposively intervenes in the “free” market, while refusing the logical consequences of having done so. I certainly have opinions on interventionism in markets—whether of the state or of the corporation. Probably most people do. But the aim of my book is not to highlight those opinions so much as to understand how the social practices of patronage and philanthropy work to intervene in “markets” and thereby to trouble the assumptions of what David Harvey calls “free market fundamentalism.”

In your opinion, from where does suspicion and anxiety about the dangers of philanthropy stem?

At the turn of the twentieth century, the anxiety stemmed from the question of the disproportionate influence that corporate and monopoly capitalism could exert on a democratic society through its philanthropy, a philanthropy that was often quite explicitly linked to the needs of corporate capitalism, not to the needs of a democratic society as a whole. The same anxiety is evident today. The European reaction, for example, to the much-celebrated billionaire philanthropy of Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates articulates this logic. As the German multimillionaire, Peter Kramer, told Der Spiegel in 2010, “It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it's not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That's a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?”

Are philanthropy and charity synonymous?

The historian Robert Gross in a very useful essay distinguishes the two practices—describing the former as institutional and bureaucratic and closely linked to modern capitalism; and the latter as pre-modern, linked to face-to-face interactions associated with religious imperatives. Again, however, as with the distinctions between patronage and philanthropy, there can clearly be historical and practical overlap between these two practices.

What are the main differences between corporate-based sponsorship and individual sponsorship?

Typically, corporate-based sponsorship is seen as providing systematic and rationalized solutions to social problems or cultural needs. By contrast, individual sponsorship is usually seen as personal, addressing some problem or need that the individual sponsor selects out of subjective interest. But again, these differences can easily break down. The goals of a philanthropic foundation can be linked to the personal proclivities of its founder(s). For example, the Gates Foundation has been criticized for its tendency to favor expensive technological solutions to medical problems and diseases that could be addressed more directly and inexpensively in other ways.

Is there a negative side to patronage?

The writers I examine in my book—Henry James, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, and Theodore Dreiser—certainly analyze the negative features of patronage: the inequality that it depends on and often enforces, the way in which it can curtail intellectual or political freedom, the moral compromises that can result from it. But they also highlight the necessity of the practice within capitalism, since each of them demonstrates in a range of ways that there is no “free” market.

+   +   +

Francesca Sawaya is Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professionalism, and American Writing, 1890-1950, also available from University of Pennsylvania Press. The Difficult Art of Giving: Patronage, Philanthropy, and the American Literary Market is available now.

Forthcoming Events