Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Financier by Theodore Dreiser

As real as life itself, and sometimes just as dull
As the title suggests, Theodore Dreiser’s 1912 novel The Financier is a story of stocks and bonds, banking, and business, but it’s also a very human tale of dreams, desires, and defeats. In 1837, Frank Cowperwood is born the son of a bank clerk in Philadelphia. At a young age, he demonstrates notable intelligence, initiative, and a precocious talent for finance. Through perspicacity and hard work, he gradually builds a career from small-time deals to ever greater heights of financial influence and commercial reputation. Cowperwood’s opportunistic streak gets the better of him, however, and he engages in dealings that are less than ethical. This becomes trouble when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 plays havoc with the stock market. Cowperwood has spread himself too thin, and when creditors start calling in their loans, he must scramble to scrape up any dollar he can in order to save his business and his reputation.

As is typical of Dreiser, Cowperwood’s story is told in a naturalistic style that is about as real as realism gets. Dreiser’s detailed, matter-of-fact prose vividly immerses the reader in the time, place, and social environment of the narrative. When the novel focuses on the human drama surrounding the money matters, it can be very emotionally involving. Even though the protagonist is a somewhat despicable human being whose self-centeredness clouds his judgment of right and wrong, the reader can’t help but root for Cowperwood because Dreiser has drawn him as a complex human being with identifiable faults. At times, Dreiser delves deeper into the financial machinations than I cared to go, and he assumes a fair amount of stock-market knowledge on the part of the reader. If you like novels about hypothecated shares and sinking funds, this is the book for you. Today’s financial world is difficult enough to understand, much less the system that was in place before and immediately after the Civil War. The deals and manipulations taking place in The Financier are more difficult to decipher than similar goings-on in other financially themed naturalist novels like Frank Norris’s The Pit or Emile Zola’s Money.

Any confusion, however, is not due to lack of exposition. The main problem with The Financier is that it is too long-winded and repetitive, particularly in its flabby mid-section. The same conversations seem to take place over and over again. Is it really necessary to include the complete text of the closing arguments of a court case, after the several preceding chapters have already outlined both sides of the argument? Some summarizing would have been appreciated. Dreiser is so thorough in his description, his narrative so protracted, that most of the time I felt like I was experiencing the action of the novel in real time. That’s fine when interesting things are happening, but not when you’re sitting through another meeting in which Cowperwood repeats what he told someone else the day before. While the story as a whole is too drawn-out, the ending feels rushed and too convenient. Then Dreiser caps the work off with two brief epilogues; one unnecessary, the other vague.

The Financier is the first novel in Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire, followed by The Titan and The Stoic. Honestly, The Financier might have been a better book if it were a stand-alone novel. Perhaps then the conclusion would have been more satisfying. Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this novel, I will probably follow the trilogy through to its end. The Financier may be flawed, but Dreiser is an exceptional author whose work is essential to the history of American literary realism. Even his less successful books are worth reading.
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