By Theodore Dreiser
“An Ayn Rand novel written by a socialist” was my assessment of Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier. That description applies even more forcefully to Dreiser’s sequel, The Titan.
A strong man in contention against the whole of the social, political, economic and sexual world — driven not only by greed for wealth and power but also by a desire to construct and create — this is Frank Algernon Cowperwood in the second half of his life.
The first volume ends with Cowperwood’s bold recoup of his fortune during the panic of 1873. The great Philadelphia bond house Jay Cooke & Co. has abruptly failed. Cowperwood instantly apprehends the situation, sells short on a huge scale, and emerges three days later a millionaire again.
Not yet 40, he decides to leave Philadelphia and move west, bringing with him his beautiful young mistress Aileen Butler. He decides too he will end his career as a stock trader and build a business. He fixes on Chicago as his new home, and it is there we will follow him in The Titan.
The first novel ends with this glimpse of the future, delivered in clotted Dreiserian prose:
If you had been a mystic or a soothsayer or a member of that mysterious world which divines by incantations, dreams, the mystic bowl, or the crystal sphere, you might have looked into their mysterious depths at this time and foreseen a world of happenings which concerned these two, who were now apparently so fortunately placed. In the fumes of the witches’ pot, or the depths of the radiant crystal, might have been revealed cities, cities, cities; a world of mansions, carriages, jewels, beauty; a vast metropolis outraged by the power of one man; a great state seething with indignation over a force it could not control; vast halls of priceless pictures; a palace unrivaled for its magnificence; a whole world reading with wonder, at times, of a given name. And sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.
The three witches that hailed Macbeth upon the blasted heath might in turn have called to Cowperwood, “Hail to you, Frank Cowperwood, master of a great railway system! Hail to you, Frank Cowperwood, builder of a priceless mansion! Hail to you, Frank Cowperwood, patron of arts and possessor of endless riches! You shall be famed hereafter.” But like the Weird Sisters, they would have lied, for in the glory was also the ashes of Dead Sea fruit — an understanding that could neither be inflamed by desire nor satisfied by luxury; a heart that was long since wearied by experience; a soul that was as bereft of illusion as a windless moon. And to Aileen, as to Macduff, they might have spoken a more pathetic promise, one that concerned hope and failure. To have and not to have! All the seeming, and yet the sorrow of not having! Brilliant society that shone in a mirage, yet locked its doors; love that eluded as a will-o’-the-wisp and died in the dark. “Hail to you, Frank Cowperwood, master and no master, prince of a world of dreams whose reality was disillusion!” So might the witches have called, the bowl have danced with figures, the fumes with vision, and it would have been true. What wise man might not read from such a beginning, such an end?
In Chicago, Dreiser depicts — and Cowperwood exploits — a city of almost unfathomable corruption. It is a raw Western town of shanties, wooden sidewalks, muddy streets, and putrid rivers; a hodgepodge of settlers from every nation in Europe. But the outline of the future metropolis is already here to be read by a man with vision.
Cowperwood’s methods are flagrantly corrupt. He reaches understandings first with one of the leaders of the city’s financial establishment, then with the Irish boss of the city’s political counter-establishment. He pays bribes as a matter of course, maneuvers, deceives, and ends as master of the street railway system that serves the city north of the Loop.
Yet Dreiser forces us to see that Cowperwood is very far from uniquely bad.
The great political battle that ends the novel is a masterpiece of cynical irony.
Cowperwood’s street car franchises will expire in the year 1903. The imminence of that deadline limits his ability to obtain financing for expansion. He wants the franchise renewed well in advance. By now however his enemies have gained political strength. The newspapers oppose him (because he refused a demand for a bribe from the owner of one and because he seduced the daughter of the owner of another). The owners of the other streetcar lines hate him (because he has bested them in previous rounds of competition). The richest man in town despises him (for another love affair with the grumpy old man’s much younger wife).
So Cowperwood invents a brilliant plan. He will not seek a renewal for himself. Instead, he has secret political associates launch an anti-Cowperwood campaign! They will demand that streetcar monopolists like Cowperwood be regulated by a new Public Utility Commission. The Commission will set rates, approve routes, and generally protect the public from the likes of Frank Cowperwood.
Of course, the advocates of the commission acknowledge that the regulated companies will need some compensation for this new public vigilance. So they propose a compromise: in exchange for accepting the commission, all city franchises will be extended by 50 years.
The commission proposal is advanced in the Illinois legislature, a body even more corrupt if possible than the Chicago city council. Dreiser minutely describes the protocol of corruption — how a bribe is asked, how it is offered, how it is paid, how much a vote goes for. (The mastermind of the campaign in the state senate is offered $50,000 if he succeeds, $20,000 if he fails, provided he has exerted his best efforts. Ordinary legislators are offered $2,000 each.)
A Rand hero would indignantly scorn to pay. But then Rand’s heroes would not last 10 minutes in actual business. (They’re still heavily invested in passenger railways in 1959!) Cowperwood pays because he must and because he can. What distinguishes him from others is his total absence of hypocrisy and cant. Approaching the governor of the state, Cowperwood says, “I mean to bribe you if I can.” The governor — an unusually honest man despite his own extreme financial difficulties — refuses. Cowperwood, impressed for once, submits to the decision and admiringly offers to lend the governor the money he needs anyway. (It says something about what counted as honesty in the 1890s that the governor accepts — and that Dreiser thinks no worse of him for accepting.)
I mentioned Dreiser’s socialism. For Dreiser, writing almost a century ago, socialism existed as a live option, a feasible alternative form of social organization. Because he regarded socialism as feasible, he took it seriously, and worried about its problems.
Not for Dreiser any illusions about the inherent virtue of the common man. If the common people in The Titan behave better than the rich, it is only for lack of opportunity to do worse. When any one of them rises, he or she quickly discovers exactly the same capacity for selfishness as the upper classes. The “public interest” against the corporations? As the story of the public utility commissions shows, Dreiser puts scant stock in the very idea.
Then at last comes Cowperwood himself. Despite his many flaws, Cowperwood has to be regarded as a mighty natural resource, a man capable of unique achievement, of courage in the face of apparent disaster, of coolness in the face of mass delusions, of something that might be called greatness of soul, if Dreiser had believed in souls. Can society do without such persons? As firmly as Rand — and guided by a much more realistic and sensitive understanding — Dreiser answers “no.” But if society cannot do without him, what is society to do with him?
William Blake said of Milton’s Paradise Lost that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it. It might be said that Dreiser belongs in the same unaware spirit to the party of the capitalists. And yet I wonder if Dreiser did not perhaps sense the truth after all.