- Towards a Late View of Capitalism:Dehistoricized Finance in The Financier
A reader first encountering Theodore Dreiser's The Financier (1912)1 might find it curious that a novel that so closely tracks a series of shady financial deals appears at the same time as a tribute to the historical rise of finance capitalism. The financier in question, Frank Cowperwood, attains wealth and prominence in Philadelphia in the late 1860s, is ruined during the financial panic of 1871, and is tried and convicted for a scheme in which he borrows money in an attempt to save his business. After his release from prison, Cowperwood exploits the great panic of 1873 to recover his fortune and triumph over the rivals who had sought to destroy him. In this final turn of events, the text's de-emphasis of moral accountability is perhaps most striking; the drama of Cowperwood's "great hour" appears fully at odds with a negative judgment on his amorality or opportunism. That the financier achieves his greatest strength at a moment of widespread economic ruin might suggest that the text shares the age's deep ambivalence about financial titans, reflecting what historian Steve Fraser calls the characteristically American fascination with and profound mistrust of Wall Street. And, indeed, although Dreiser is certainly clear-eyed about the risks of financial expansion-the concentration of economic power into fewer hands, and the ability of business to outpace the law-his sweeping descriptions of historical events tend to read less as social critique than as paeans to the massive new opportunities of the period and the exceptional individuals who realize them.
Yet even in its embrace of such contradictions, I wish to argue, the text produces not a historical ambivalence about the rise of the financier but a formal ambivalence in the novel's account of historical change. In the formal intimacy of the text's financial descriptions is to be found perhaps the most sensitive register of historical tremors, where fissures of opportunity are constantly [End Page 42] being opened and closed by the movement of history, and where the details of what is possible, from a pragmatist's standpoint, produce expectations for the material shape of the future. The financier's operations both embrace and refute a progressivist view of history, revealing the tension in the novel between the "natural" system of capitalism and the role of capitalism's historical agent-such as he is. The text's argument over the randomness of events versus the evolutionary trajectory of history is hardly an inconsistency: in accommodating order and disorder, progression and disruption at the same time, Dreiser's account of history corresponds to the views of many scientific historians and economic writers of the period.2 But more to the point, it becomes the source of one of the text's most productive interrogations: the question of what capital can or cannot do in particular historical circumstances. With this approach, it becomes possible to see the text as not simply "borrowing" from biographical history to explain the financier, nor treating as this figure as a self-sufficient explanation of history, but instead as using the emergence of the financier to negotiate between competing models of history.
Donald Pizer's observation that the historical narrative in the Cowperwood trilogy feels "forced" (7) might lead some to question what does not feel forced in a long and unwieldy narrative that, in its attention to the details of financial transactions, is certainly unequalled in American literary realism. The extensive descriptions in The Financier (Howard Horwitz calls them "transcriptive" ) together with Dreiser's commentary about the nation's post-Civil War economic and geographical growth (he even notes historical milestones that the country has not yet passed), have been viewed as examples of the text's unsuccessful integration of aesthetic and historical concerns. Recent analyses have attended in particular to the novel's awkwardly alternating plot structure, its excess of financial detail, and its heavy-handed metaphors of strength and weakness, using such formal deficiencies as a lens into the text's governing systems of value and representation.3 But I suggest that as a means to identify some of...