by Noel Rooney
[ bookreviews ]
Money's place in American culture is certainly unique; no other nation has been so conscious of money's expansive potential, or its devious versatility, and no other nation has a history so completely entwined with that of its money. Other countries struggled through various stages of development (Marxist or mystic, choose your menu) like awkward embryos - the USA simply bought itself, or rather, bought its self.
Jason Goodwin's 'Greenback' is an anecdotal panorama of this convoluted - and at times comical - progress, an entertainment you don't need to be a materialist to enjoy. Goodwin writes beautifully; he has a light, engaging touch, and his scholarship seems almost effortless. He is a sort of amiable naturalist of culture, finding gems under the dullest of foliage. You sense that he likes his subject, without too much liking money itself.
But if you're looking for an insight into the crunching consumer imperium that is American cultural hegemony, this isn't it: in 'Greenback', mammon is more metaphor and myth than moral and mayhem and, curiously enough, the book ends just where, for most of the world, the dollar's history really begins. Branding, and mass production and consumption; Wounded Knee, drug dealing and the military-industrial complex - these iffy Americans apparently arrived too late for consideration; they are hardly mentioned, if at all, as part of Goodwin's invented America. Perhaps that's legitimate when you think that he's dealing with the American view of America, largely; perhaps.
It is a fascinating frolic, though; every major figure in American history seems to have had his (it's always a he) hand on the currency's development, and, it seems, quite a few had a hand in the national till. In this respect, it's a true American history: a catalogue of entrepreneurial villains, ploughing their own idiosyncratic furrows in ways that managed to be simultaneously populist and selfish. Even Ignatius Donnelly makes an appearance, railing against the gold standard (which eventually made the country rich and secure), for the noblest and wrongest of reasons. There's a supporting cast of wonderful minor characters too, making deals and history with equal appetite, pioneering and pilfering their way into legend.
Goodwin is at his best when he captures the sneakily ephemeral relationship between the awesome size and solidity of the country itself, and the heroic pretensions of the tiny interlopers who somehow pushed back the native population (in the invented America, this just sort of happened; genocide is not mentioned) and populated the place all over again, and here money is the aptest of metaphors: "paper money cost nothing to produce; it was a promise, like America".
Dreamers and misfits drive this history, pragmatic inventors and hollow orators jostling for the box seat and a portrait on the back of a note; Goodwin gathers them all in his grand sweep, and treats them all with equal ironic respect, and considerable affection. However, the book loses some of its charm, and most of its momentum, as it wanders into the twentieth century. It's as if that part of the story needs to written by Noam Chomsky, as a sober sequel to this galloping fairy tale; but I'm quietly pleased that it was Goodwin rather than Chomsky who wrote this book.