On Envy

I speak today of a secret vice. Rarely admitted, but relentlessly practiced. “The sin that everybody commits.”* No, not that one. A distinctly modern sin, made for (and perhaps made by) a modern consumer economy: envy.

The rise of a distinctly American envy—as a national mood but also a national worry—is the topic of an incisive social history by Susan Matt.** She charts a growing concern in the late 1800s that while it is getting richer and more comfortable for some, America is becoming more competitive, more anxious, and more envious. 

Direct comparison between people’s internal lives in 1870 and 1910 may be impossible, but their worries in print are immediately legible. S. Weir Mitchell (M.D., LL.D. HARV., thanks for asking) wrote Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked in 1871 “as a warning to a restless nation.” George Miller Beard, who coined the term “neurasthenia” to describe the condition of pathological nervousness, addressed the topic at length in American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences (1881). William James simply called it “Americanitis.” Their diagnosis was this: in the land of opportunity, the constant and exhausting pursuit of success was fraying the nerves of a nation. 

Ambitious worry fed aspirational male dressing. A fine suit glowed with the promise of advancement, while a cheap but perfectly good one signified falling behind. Young men threw away ready to wear suits and bought bespoke on credit. As Matt’s book makes clear, this wasn’t vanity but strategy. Workers enviously calculated the cost of one another’s clothes while trying to measure the unsteady value of their own labor. In a small town, your reputation precedes you. Arriving in an anonymous metropolis, you must make a good impression by other means, one temporarily disadvantaged millionaire observed. Morals could make your name on the farm but were no use in Manhattan.

For critics of America’s nervous aspiration, this was exactly the problem. You needed competitive drive to succeed in these new jobs, but competition was making even the successful worker exhausted, avaricious, and unhappy with what he had. For advocates, endless desire was the whole point. Envy drives people to great things, they argued, so long as it aligns with business success, and not pushing your manager down the stairs. “Let him always strive,” one such argument went; “there is happiness in the very strife.” Aspirational people get things done. Consumption drives economic growth. You might never have enough suits, but still create a very successful blog along the way. The debate between thrift and envy around 1900 replayed in sartorial terms the oldest argument of political economy: can private vice create public benefit?

That debate rolls on much the same today. But while American Nervousness has become a global hit, we can be thankful for one small change: now that billionaires wear hoodies and the man at court in vicuña is probably the defendant, beautiful suits hardly symbolize honesty or financial success. At last, we can envy those things in which a tailor takes pride: the balance of the quarters or a hand-attached sleeve. Symmetry above finery. Elegance that proves nothing.

“The Sin That Everybody Commits and How I Cured Myself of It,” American Magazine, December 1919.

** Susan J. Matt, Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society, 1890-1930 (UPenn Press, 2002).

Artwork: ‘Jealousy’ by Edvard Munch

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