David Graham Phillips and the Great American Insurance Novel

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By Daniel D. Skwire | 01 November 2011

Not many novelists have the courage to set their work in the world of insurance. Mystery writers may use life insurance as a motive for homicide in their fiction, and an occasional writer of serious fiction may select the insurance business as the epitome of a dull and unrewarding profession. Rare is the novel, however, that truly explores the workings of an insurance company in all its complexity.

Such was not always the case. In the early years of the 20th century, the insurance profession was involved in scandals of the type that recently have rocked the banking and mortgage businesses. Newspaper headlines trumpeted new outrages seemingly every day—from outlandish expenses to inappropriate political influence, from extraordinary salaries to glaring nepotism, from excessive profits to barely disguised theft.

By 1906, no small number of investigative journalists had become experts on the insurance business. And one of them, David Graham Phillips, left behind what may be the fullest fictional treatment—albeit a harshly critical one—of the life insurance business.