Between 1865 and 1917, American writers produced hundreds of novels focusing on business, labor relations, financial speculation, economic crises, consumerism, and other economic phenomena. A handful of these novels, including William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), have secured a high place in today's literary canon. A number of others, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) and Frank Norris's The Pit (1903), were national bestsellers. A few, including John Hay's The Bread-winners (1883) and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), gained brief but explosive notoriety. Many others are deservedly obscure. Although they are often lumped together as “economic novels,” most of them fall within recognizable subgenres: the economic reform novel (which encompasses labor jeremiads, Populist polemics, and utopian lectures), the success tale (which includes rags-to-riches stories, Wall Street romances, and novels about financial titans), and consumer fiction, the sentimental and narrative formulas for which evolved over the latter half of the nineteenth century.
These novels aim to attach familiar meanings, emotional significance, and, for literary naturalists at the turn of the century, philosophical and aesthetic import to the vertiginous economic changes transforming American culture and rendering it, in the eyes of older observers, unrecognizable. Written to alarm, disarm, entertain, regenerate, as well as mobilize readers, they offer storylines, images, and characters through which American economic modernity – the industrial, corporate, and financial forces reshaping cities, rural landscapes, social relations, and identities – could be comprehended and, at least imaginatively, controlled.