The greatest of all American business novels

By Leonard Cassuto

We remember Theodore Dreiser mainly for his deeply felt tales of have-nots who yearn for much more than the world gives them. In “An American Tragedy,” his 1925 masterpiece, a young man’s longing for money and social standing leads him to the electric chair. But Mr. Dreiser also wrote admiringly of the wealthy, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of “The Financier,” his sweeping and minutely observed story of an enormously successful capitalist.

“The Financier” centers on Frank Algernon Cowperwood, whom the author repeatedly describes as possessing “force.” Cowperwood proves himself both skilled and resilient in the financial marketplace. He also keeps a cool head when he’s discovered sleeping with his business partner’s daughter. Mr. Dreiser so insistently interleaves stock-market intrigue with sex, in fact, that one critic described Cowperwood’s story as a club sandwich of “slices of business alternating with erotic episodes.”

But Cowperwood is no Gordon Gekko. He’s suave, not rapacious. And unlike Gekko, who celebrates greed, Cowperwood asserts simply, “I satisfy myself.”

Mr. Dreiser drew Cowperwood from life—specifically, the life of Charles Tyson Yerkes, one of the more freewheeling Gilded Age robber barons. Mr. Yerkes made his fortune in municipal rapid transit, but before he started buying up cable-car companies he was a stock and bond broker and speculator.

Mr. Dreiser fictionalizes Mr. Yerkes’s personality, but follows his business life closely in the novel. The result is an amazingly intricate description of high-rolling 19th-century finance.

Cowperwood practices a situational morality that “varies with conditions, if not climates.” Invited into shady parley with the Philadelphia city treasurer, he cuts a backroom deal that anoints him an investment banker for the city, allowing him to speculate with the city’s short-term loan issues. Although he does so prudently, investing in local street railways (the rapid transit of the time), he gets caught short when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 triggers a run on his secret holdings before the usual end-of-month settlement. Thus exposed, Cowperwood and the treasurer are convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison.

Mr. Dreiser’s detailed account of these machinations, and of the financier’s imprisonment, are drawn faithfully from the historical record. But the novelist imagines a scene when the young lover of the adulterous Cowperwood comes to visit him in the penitentiary and the chastened financier weeps in her arms.

From this low point, Mr. Dreiser’s hero soon regains his financial and emotional dominance. Pardoned after 13 months, he re-enters the financial fray on a smaller scale. He quickly becomes rich again when he leverages a stake of $75,000 into more than $1 million over a few days. Acting aggressively in a stricken market, he shorts the stocks of companies related to the firm of Jay Cooke, whose spectacular failure to complete a transcontinental railroad led to what became known as the Panic of 1873. Here again, Mr. Dreiser barely fictionalizes the real-life maneuvers of Mr. Yerkes. Mr. Dreiser follows Cowperwood’s further adventures in the Windy City in “The Titan” (1914), the second volume of what would eventually become his “Trilogy of Desire.”

Desire was Mr. Dreiser’s lifelong subject. His fascination with what people want—and what keeps them wanting, and how their social situations shape what they want—forms the through-line that connects all of his books. Cowperwood gets just about everything he wants, but it is Mr. Dreiser’s constant probing of the intertwined needs for money, art, glory, sex and so much else that makes “The Financier” the greatest of all American business novels.

But what makes Cowperwood want? Mr. Dreiser imagines a scene in which young Cowperwood witnesses a lobster and a squid caged together in a fishmonger’s tank. Over several days, he observes the squid getting more and more ragged, with pieces of it “snapped off” until it finally falls prey to the lobster’s relentless pursuit. Critics have made a lot of this spectacle, mostly reading it as a primal scene that answers for Cowperwood a question that Mr. Dreiser never stopped asking: How is life organized? But no one pays attention to what follows the underwater drama. The boy runs home to tell his parents about what he’s seen, but they show no concern. “What makes you take interest in such things?” asks his mother, while his father reacts “indifferently.”

Joining the lobster-squid drama together with its family aftermath allows us to view Cowperwood as a man-child of desire. His insatiable acquisitiveness—which extends to his love life—extends likewise from his understanding that “things lived on each other,” and also from a desire to gain approval from others by demonstrating his prowess on an increasingly grander scale.

It also helps to account for his weeping in prison. Mr. Dreiser portrays Cowperwood, for all of his bland and ruthless competence, as someone who needs sympathy. In this respect he is perhaps not so different from Dreiser characters like the pitiful George Hurstwood of “Sister Carrie” (1900) or the pathetically striving Clyde Griffiths of “An American Tragedy.”

Mr. Dreiser’s novels describe in unparalleled detail the myriad industrial, technological and social changes in the U.S. at the turn of the last century. “The Financier” has aged gracefully not least because Cowperwood’s world remains familiar. Readers will recognize the contours of today’s financial markets in Mr. Dreiser’s story (and a new edition of “The Financier,” from the University of Illinois Press, restores descriptions of Cowperwood’s financial dealings that Mr. Dreiser cut for the novel’s 1927 rerelease). Today’s readers will also spot some familiar tensions: It’s not a far leap from the causes of Cowperwood’s Philadelphia downfall to a discussion of how much transparency should be required in, say, the market for credit-default swaps.

Mr. Yerkes eventually wound down, dying short of his dearest triumph, a planned consolidation of London’s transit system. Perhaps because of this real-life anticlimax, Mr. Dreiser spent many years trying to close Cowperwood’s story. He worked on the final volume of the trilogy, “The Stoic,” until he died in 1945. (The novel was released posthumously in 1947.) “The Financier” hints at no such hesitation. The novel instead unveils one of Mr. Dreiser’s most energetic and accomplished characters in the early stages of his ascent, in a financial arena whose basic rules—and players—have changed but little.

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