David graham Phillips CONTINUED
Phillips today has been largely and perhaps unfairly forgotten,
with his reputation resting on his exploration of corruption in the senate
rather than on his works of fiction.
interpret life, but to varnish, veil, and perfume life—to
make it a merry round of automobiling, country clubbing,
seduction, money making, and honeymooning. . . . But Mr.
Phillips does not bid for success in that way.
As appealing as it may be to discover an author who devotes
a novel of more than 400 pages to the inner workings of an
insurance company, a century or so of hindsight indicates that
Phillips does not entirely live up to Mencken’s lofty assessment.
At heart, Light-Fingered Gentry is a conventional romance.
Horace and Neva separate in the first chapter, dally with other
romantic interests, gain a greater appreciation of each other,
and reconcile in the final chapter. The major characters are
not realized enough (as they are in the novels of Wharton or
James) to make the reader identify closely with them and care
deeply about every step in their journeys. And some of the minor characters, including the insurance luminaries Atwater and
Shotwell, are not even dignified with first names.
For the insurance professional, however, there is much to
enjoy in Light-Fingered Gentry. While Phillips’ agenda of railing against corrupt practices is scarcely a secret—he describes
an insurance lawyer’s role as “the business of helping respectable scoundrels glut bestial appetites for other people’s property
without fear of jail”—he avoids, however narrowly, presenting
his characters as cartoon heroes and villains. Fosdick, though
greedy and manipulative, elicits some sympathy by the end of
the novel. And Armstrong, for all his eventual zeal, must examine closely his own motivations for achieving power and success.
Phillips also appears accurate in most respects in his portrayal
of the insurance business. If he sidesteps certain technical issues
such as deferred dividends, he manages to provide coherent discussions of many other important topics. His account of the agent
rebellion and proxy battle at the OAD rings particularly true to life,
for example. And his choice to make the company’s architects into
major characters allows an insightful discussion of alleged excessive expenditures, as when one architect argues that the patronage
of great art and architecture is only made possible through a system
that permits insurers to retain such a large portion of their profits.
Sadly, Phillips did not live long after publishing
Light-Fingered Gentry. On Jan. 23, 1911, he left his New York City
apartment for a walk to the Princeton Club. He hadn’t gone far
when he was stopped by a gun-wielding attacker who shot him
six times before turning the gun on himself for a fatal shot to
the head. Phillips died the next day from his wounds.
The assassin was Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a concert
violinist from a wealthy family. He had become obsessed with
Phillips and believed that the writer had based a character in
his 1909 novel The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig on
Goldsborough’s sister. He began to stalk Phillips, moving into
an apartment across the street from him and sending him a
series of threatening letters that culminated in the fatal attack.
DANIEL D. SKWIRE is a principal and consulting actuary at
Milliman inc. in Portland, Maine. He gratefully acknowledges
the assistance of Robin Mitchell of Wesleyan University in
researching this article.
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