Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Dreiser's 'The Financier' and the Horatio Alger Myth

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Dreiser's 'The Financier' and the Horatio Alger Myth

Article excerpt

Critical discussions of Theodore Dreiser's The Financier (1912) are often saturated with references to Horatio Alger. Robert Penn Warren, for example, once characterized the plot of The Financier as, among other things, an attempt to modernize "the Horatio Alger myth" (56).(1) The temptation to read Dreiser's chronicle of the rise, fall, and resurrection of a nineteenth-century street railway tycoon(2) as an updated version of Alger's narrative strategies is certainly understandable. Like Alger, Dreiser focuses on a young man who transforms ambition, work, and luck into material success. Moreover, as several critics have pointed out, "[i]t scarcely seems an accident that the name 'Alger' is absorbed into the name of [Dreiser's] hero - Frank Algernon Cowperwood" (Warren 56).

Despite these and other parallels between the narratives of Dreiser and his immensely popular predecessor, however, the commentators who have described The Financier as "a retelling of the standard Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story" (Lundquist 64) have distorted the accomplishments of both writers. The correspondences that Warren, James Lundquist, and others have highlighted are trivial in comparison with the respects in which Dreiser's subtle and modulated representation of the interplay of commerce and ethics clashes with Alger's uncomplicated moral didacticism.(3) Several recent studies concerning Dreiser and naturalism have charted the relation of Dreiser's novels to particular economic theories and policies and their impact on American financial markets around the turn of the century;(4) my purpose in this essay is to examine questions relating to Alger's influence on Dreiser that were raised, but never explored in detail, by Warren and others during the 1970s. In particular, I will question the hypothesis that The Financier is a modernized version of Alger's fiction by analyzing the ways in which Dreiser departs from the narrative framework popularized by Alger and by suggesting that to exaggerate Dreiser's indebtedness to Alger is to overlook one of the most inventive aspects of The Financier. Dreiser's ethically neutral representation of Frank Cowperwood.

Although Dick Hunter, the principal character in Alger's Ragged Dick (1867),(5) is a thoroughly urban figure (a bootblack in lower Manhattan), his circumstances at the beginning of the novel resemble those of Huckleberry Finn in the concluding chapters of Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Both are 14 years old, homeless (Huck sleeps in a barrel "behind the abandoned slaughter-house"; Hunter sleeps on a street corner in "a wooden box half full of straw" [Twain 256; Alger 3]), and alone (in each novel, the boy's mother has died and his father is missing and presumed to have drowned). In spite of his poverty and isolation, however, Hunter is exceptionally lighthearted and optimistic. The young bootblack is not offended by the office workers who complain when he charges 10 cents per customer; to the contrary, he seems determined to become one of them by adopting their middle-class values. When his friend Fosdick agrees to become his tutor in exchange for food and rent money, for example, Hunter studies relentlessly until Fosdick has nothing more to teach him. For Hunter, the narrator insists, a conventional education is the sine qua non of the basic social acceptance he calls "spectability":

Dick had gained something more valuable than money. He had studied regularly every evening, and his improvement had been marvelous. He could now read well, write a fair hand, and had studied arithmetic as far as Interest. . . . If some of my boy readers, who have been studying for years, and got no farther than this, should think it incredible that Dick, in less than a year . . . should have accomplished it, they must remember that our hero was very much in earnest in his desire to improve. (98)

Numerous critics have interpreted Alger's novels as an apotheosis of individualism, but Hunter's ongoing campaign to align himself with a wide range of mentors, employers, and social institutions contradicts this reading. …

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