Money, which represents the prose of life, and which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you’re bourgeois, money is it. It’s all the questions and all the answers. Ain’t no E-flat or color blue, only $12.98 or $1,000. If it isn’t money, it isn’t nothing.— John Coltrane
The history of the United States is synonymous with the dream of riches, but the question as to whether money is mortal or immortal has troubled Americans since the early confusion in the seventeenth-century wilderness about the budget projections for what they conceived as a joint venture backed by Divine Providence and British gold. Among the companies of gentleman adventurers offloading Dutch cannon and Geneva bibles on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, there were those who had come in search of El Dorado, betting their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on rumors of Spanish treasure and a trade route to the Indies. Others arrived with blueprints for the building of the New Jerusalem, content to lay up stores of virtue against the coming of the long New England winter in the grave. Visionary realtors assembling beachfront property on the coast of Utopia; stone-faced clergymen issuing passports for the journey to the pit of hell; nobody in the congregation at a loss for a sermon or a subprime mortgage deal or, if so inclined, a committee meeting about the nature and provenance of their newfound wealth—the wages of sin or a sign of grace, proof of the good Lord’s infinite wisdom, or the product of a sharp bargain with a drunken Pequot Indian.
As an heir to the ambiguity in the Puritan body politic, and as a lifelong and card-carrying member of the society alluded to by Emerson, I never know for certain whether money is an enemy or a friend. Its intentions fluctuate, and its appearance shifts in accordance with the angle of the sales pitch, the size of the number, the tone of voice and time of day, the chance of its arrival in the mail. By the age of four in San Francisco, I knew that money was the elephant always in the room, never to be addressed or seen, but whose will was done on earth as it is in heaven. At school and college in Connecticut in the 1950s, I understood that I was being groomed to meet and greet the august personage recognized by Coltrane as the Man. Resident for fifty years in the city regarded by Ambrose Bierce (also by John Adams and Henry James) as sacred to the worship of Mammon, I’ve learned to look upon money as the hero with a thousand faces, to know that nowhere under the light of the American moon or in the heat of a noonday American sun was its hallowed name to be spoken lightly or in vain.
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