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  • Capitalist Reform:Dreiser's The Titan and the Benefits of Competition
  • Graham Culbertson (bio)

One of the orthodoxies of American history is that the Gilded Age had too much Darwinian/Spencerian struggle for existence and not enough social harmony. This struggle was felt most keenly in the cities, where the poor suffered without recourse, the situation being ameliorated only when muckraking works like Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890), Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), and Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) galvanized public opinion against the social Darwinist beliefs of the day and helped usher in the Progressive Age. In his 1914 novel The Titan, Theodore Dreiser offers a counter-narrative in which society improves not by means of the sympathy and the abstract concepts of truth and justice that animated progressive reformers but by conflict among amoral forces working mechanistically to establish balance, or "equilibrium." As he puts it in "Equation Inevitable," an essay in Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub (1920), "a harmonious workable state" of society requires

a certain reciprocating smoothness of exchange and balance . . . . It is like those constructive adjustments which make any machine possible, and has apparently given rise to such conceptions of the necessary conditions for exchange as are indicated by the words "harmony," "justice," "truth," possibly even "tenderness" and "mercy," all of which mean but one thing, if they mean anything, at all: the need of striking a balance or achieving an equilibrium between plainly restless and conflicting elements.


Harmony, however, does not mean static perfection, for these "restless and conflicting elements" express "an inherent impulse in Nature that makes for change and so rearrangement, regardless of any existing harmonies or balances" (158). Without conflict, then, is no progress.1

Dreiser's belief in a universe of restless forces seeking what can only be a temporary balance derives largely from Herbert Spencer's version of [End Page 69] evolutionary theory, especially as described in First Principles. In Spencer's cosmos, two "antagonistic" processes—evolution and dissolution—are ever at work, the overall direction of change being determined not by the elimination of one process or the other but by "a differential result of the conflict between them" (Spencer 518). Within cosmic evolution, local conflicts among forces often achieve a period of "unstable equilibrium," a phrase "used in mechanics to express a balance of forces of such kind, that the interference of any further force, however minute, will destroy the arrangement previously subsisting; and bring about a totally different arrangement" (401-02). Although Spencer asserted that evolution is working inevitably towards perfection, a belief accounting for Americans' preference of Spencer over the less optimistic Darwin, perfection eventually proves unstable as dissolution begins the inevitable disintegration of the evolved complex structure. When dissolution runs its course, the whole process begins again in an eternal "vast rhythm" (551) of alternating opposing processes.

The Titan is Dreiser's most thorough illustration of how this "vast rhythm" operates at the level of human society. In the opening chapters, Frank Cowperwood is an intrusive force that disrupts Chicago's existing unstable economic equilibrium, the bulk of the narrative, roughly through Chapter XLIX ("Mount Olympus"), describing how a new, socially beneficial equilibrium emerges out of the conflict between amoral forces over control of Chicago's gas and streetcar franchises, a conflict between the Nietzschean superman Cowperwood and the more conservative financiers who run the city when he arrives. Hoping to make virtually permanent his control of Chicago's newly unified mass-transit system, he awakens a counterforce—the reform impulse of an outraged public—that drives him out of the city in defeat. Yet he leaves Chicago a better place to live and prosper, not despite his greed, dishonesty, and will-to-power but precisely by means of them. To state the matter in Spencerian terms, The Titan reveals how the "differential result" of conflict may reveal the rhythmic swing towards dissolution in one part of the cosmos while contributing to the overall evolution of the world.2

The central conflict of the novel is, as Jack Wallace notes, between the "two classes" (60) of financier that Dreiser identifies in "'Vanity, Vanity,' Saith...


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pp. 69-87
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