Charles Ives & Life Insurance

My assumption tends to be that the arts and Yankee capitalism work somewhat at cross-purposes (if they are not out and out hostile to each other along the lines of what you find in Gaddis’s J R); so it is utterly remarkable to me, and something I need to ponder seriously on, that Charles Ives not only succeeded in becoming rich selling Life Insurance, but was a true believer that Life Insurance was something essentially good for humanity. Here is something Charles Ives really thought, according to Jan Swafford (pp.217):

There was not a service I could render to my fellow man that was more important than the business of life insurance.

The paragraph preceding the one in which that sentence is found gives a bit more detail:

Time and again Ives preaches his essential points. Life insurance is a natural step in social evolution, a humanistic and scientific response to fundamental needs. Buying insurance has become a basic responsibility of the head of a family. Teaching men, most of them innately good and reasonable, to fulfill that responsibility is a matter of presenting them with a few easily comprehensible facts. Spreading that responsibility in society is an indispensable part of progress toward a better and more prosperous community. Insurance “is an integral part of social evolution, an organism that has not been thrown on society, but which society has evolved.” In another paper:”Without going far in the field of metaphysics, an insurance idealist might hold that life insurance is altruism scientifically organized, or perhaps commercialized, accepting the term as more of a paradox than a contradiction. A practical insurance man will say that life insurance has a certain influence on the moral and economic development of a country.” If life insurance were abolished “Mankind in general would be thrown backward into a state of mind that would not be far from … the middle ages. Civilization … would have to adjust itself to many medieval standards, for Life Insurances has become not only a vital part of civilization but a civilizer itself.

I suppose what I find interesting here is that the artist himself seems so well-aligned with American commerce, while his art remains so counter to it — that his insurance products should be directed toward the ‘average man’ while his music was seemingly not. Certainly, Ives’s music does not present the listener with “a few easily comprehnsible facts.”

(Occurs to me Kafka also worked in Insurance, and at around the same time, though in that case he was working for a state-run program, which, if I recall, insured workers against workplace accidents.)

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