Move Over, Ayn Rand

By Ray Schultz

Looking for a novel about a businessman unbound by the rules and fears of mortals? Here are three, and they’re not by that conservative icon Ayn Rand, but by the alleged one-time Communist Theodore Dreiser.

Yes, Dreiser wrote a somewhat admiring portrait of Frank A. Cowperwood, a thinly fictionalized version of the robber baron Charles T. Yerkes, in three monumental volumes: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1946). Later, they were repackaged as the Trilogy of Desire.

Granted, these aren’t the first books I’d recommend by Dreiser. His finest works are his first two novels: Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911). In these heartbreaking tales, he described poverty, the kind he experienced as a child, and how Carrie and Jennie emerge from it (a lesson that drew fire from moralists of the time). He combined awe and compassion with a newsman’s eye for detail, as H.L. Mencken would observe. That said, anyone interested in finance would do well to work through their way through the Trilogy.

The Financier traces Cowperwood’s early success on the Philadelphia stock exchange—and an early failure. The city treasurer has been illegally floating loans to him, and Cowpoerwood is unable to cover them when the Chicago Fire of 1871 causes a panic.

Cowperwood exhorts the sniveling treasurer to hold on, that the run on the banks will be temporary. But it’s too late. Both are indicted, and sent to jail.

Don’t think Cowperwood is broken by it: As Dreiser depicts him, he is a sort of Nietzschean superman, utterly fearless (which may be the whole point, assuming it needs a point). Cowperwood emerges, and walks right in to the real panic—of 1873. And he recoups his fortune by buying and selling short while others lose everything.

The Titan follows him to Chicago, where he builds and runs part of the elevated train system (yes, public transit was built by private enterprise in those days). Some men he breaks, others he pulls in to share his success. And he makes enemies—many of them.

For example, the blue-chip bankers of Chicago, all of whom despise him, create a scheme to call in Cowperwood’s loans. Their goal? To save themselves from an impending corporate failure. Here’s the scene:

As he entered the home of Arneel, he was a picturesque and truly representative figure of his day. In a light summer suit of cream and gray twill, with a straw hat ornamented by a blue-and-white band, and wearing yellow quarter-shoes of the softest leather, he appeared very model of trig, well-groomed self-sufficiency. As he was ushered into the room he gazed about him in a brave, leonine way.

 “A fine night for a conference, gentlemen,” he said, walking toward a chair indicated by Mr. Arneel. “I must say I never saw so many straw hats at a funeral before. I understand that my obsequies are contemplated. What can I do?”

He beamed in a genial, sufficient way, which in any one else would have brought a smile to the faces of the company. In him it was an implication of basic power which secretly enraged and envenomed nearly all those present.

 The bankers lay it out. They need cash to avoid a calamity, and “your loans are the largest and the most available. Do you think you can find the means to pay them back in the morning?”

“I can meet my loans,” he replied easily. “But I would not advise you or any of the gentlemen present to call them.” His voice, for all its lightness, had an ominous ring.

 “Why not?” inquired Hand, grimly and heavily, turning squarely about and facing him. “It doesn’t appear that you have extended any particular courtesy to Hull or Stockpole.” [Men losing everything in the failure]. His face was red and scowling

 “Because,” replied Cowperwood, smiling…“I know why this meeting was called. I know that these gentlemen here, who are not saying a word, are mere catspaws and rubber stamps for you and Mr. Schryhart and Mr. Arneel and Mr. Merrill. I know how you four gentlemen have been gambling in this stock, and what your probable losses are, and that it is to save yourselves from further loss that you have decided to make me the scapegoat. I want to tell you here”—and he got up–“you can’t do it.”

The bankers are stunned by his confidence, and even more by what he says next:

 “If you open the day by calling a single one of my loans before I am ready to pay it, I’ll gut every bank from here to the river. You’ll have panic, all the panic you want. Good evening, gentlemen.”

I don’t know about you, but that scene always makes me want to cheer.

Running in tandem with his business exploits is Cowperwood’s womanizing (a pursuit enjoyed by Dreiser himself). He ignores conventional pieties in this area just as he does in commerce.

Having brought Cowperwood this far, Dreiser abandoned him to focus on novels like The Genius (1915) and An American Tragedy (1925). Finally, he took him up again in his old age. In the third volume, The Stoic, Cowperwood is in London, building part of the Underground. His health and powers are declining (as are Dreiser’s): Thus, The Stoic is not quite as robust as the earlier books. But published a year after Dreiser’s death, it was a fine ending to the series. As with Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, I reread the Trilogy every few years.

Thinking of curling up with an Ayn Rand book at the beach? Try the Trilogy of Desire. It covered some of the same ground in a much more powerful way.

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