In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

chapter 5 ‘‘Inexplicable Tangles of Personality’’: Patronage, Philanthropy, and Progressive Irony in Theodore Dreiser In a famous passage from The Financier (1912), Theodore Dreiser sums up the success of thirty-four-year-old Frank Cowperwood, describing him as ‘‘Like a spider in a spangled net, every thread of which he knew, had laid, had tested, he had surrounded and entangled himself in a splendid , glittering network of connections, and he was watching all the details.’’1 Emphasized here is the ‘‘network of connections’’ Cowperwood has brilliantly ‘‘laid’’ for himself and which create for him ‘‘prospects’’ of ‘‘wealth which might rival that of any American’’ (Financier, 140). A page later Dreiser compares Cowperwood to a modernist writer, describing him as ‘‘one of those early, daring manipulators’’ who transform the market through ‘‘fictitious buying’’ and ‘‘fictitious demand’’ (141). Seven pages later, however, he contrasts this portrait of individual volition, carefully fostered personal connections, and modernist innovation with the seemingly agency-free financial panic that will lead to Cowperwood’s failure and imprisonment. Emphasizing the apparently impersonal forces that are working beyond Cowperwood’s control, Dreiser metaphorically describes the Chicago fire and resulting financial panic as a ‘‘storm’’ that ‘‘burst unexpectedly out of a clear sky, and bore no relation to the intention or volition of any individual’’ (147–48). Many critics have read this set of scenes as revealing Dreiser’s reliance on the philosophical and generic conventions of naturalism (Cowperwood is a spider; the financial panic is a ‘‘storm’’). This chapter, however, takes a different tack by refocusing on individual agency and particularly ‘‘the Patronage, Philanthropy, and Irony in Dreiser 163 network of connections’’ in Dreiser’s ‘‘Trilogy of Desire.’’2 After all, the web Cowperwood weaves and the ‘‘storm’’ that overtakes him in The Financier do not reveal as much about the market as a natural force as they do about the work of individual personalities and longstanding social practices Cowperwood exploits. Cowperwood fails, not because of the panic, but because his ‘‘network of connections’’ or—in a discourse we have already explored in Chapters 3 and 4—‘‘friendship’’ fails. From the beginning of the book, he knows that ‘‘I have to have friends—influence’’ (70), and he has cultivated a friendship with the powerful politician Edward Malia Butler. Butler, early in his career, had likewise depended on ‘‘a councilman friend’’ (64) to gain influence, and now has even more ‘‘political and financial friends’’ (65) than Cowperwood. But, having ‘‘been befriended by Butler,’’ Cowperwood’s affair with Butler’s daughter Aileen is seen by Butler as a betrayal of this ‘‘friendship’’ (349). Therefore even Cowperwood’s ‘‘best friends’’ (347) give up on him, knowing that Butler has encouraged his ‘‘friends’’ (348) to make Cowperwood a scapegoat. In short, the ‘‘network of connections,’’ or ‘‘friendship,’’ is what makes and breaks Cowperwood in The Financier; the Chicago fire and the market panic that ensue only precipitate events that reveal the significance of the social practice of friendship. Nonetheless, it is also true that individual agency has little to do with final outcomes in Dreiser’s work. The trilogy, for example, perpetually touts Cowperwood’s business acumen rhetorically, but his successes are always actually failures to obtain what he really wants (as is apt in a ‘‘Trilogy of Desire’’). Irony, in short, is the central mode Dreiser relies on to treat the question of individual agency in these historical fictions about the Progressive period. At one level, this is not surprising. Hayden White long ago argued that, since the end of the nineteenth century, historical narrative has necessarily been ironic because of the ‘‘realist’’ revelation that evidence can be read from very different perspectives.3 Richard L. McCormick, whose work I discussed in the Introduction, demonstrates how this is true in contemporary historiography on Progressivism. While Progressives emphasized their ‘‘discovery’’ that ‘‘business corrupts politics’’ (311) and tried to disentangle them, contemporary ‘‘organizational’’ historians argue that Progressives instead ‘‘accommodated’’ the state to ‘‘large-scale business organizations and their methods’’ (313). These historians rely on readings of Progressivism as ‘‘conspiratorial,’’ ‘‘irrelevant,’’ or ‘‘insincere’’ (354), all of which highlight irony. Interestingly, however, McCormick counters these 164 Chapter 5 ironic readings of Progressivism with his own ironic thesis. He agrees with contemporary historians about the effects of Progressivism; nonetheless, he asserts that such effects were ‘‘unexpected and ironical’’ (315, see also 354) because ‘‘political action is open-ended and unpredictable’’ (355). Seeking to reinvigorate discussions of human agency in the face of structural change, he criticizes the...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.