The Financier at 100

by Bob Schwartz


This year is the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt’s independent run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket. He continues to come up in aspirational discussions, as much or more from Democrats as from Republicans. President Obama referred to him admiringly earlier this year. The Progressive Party Platform of 1912 remains a touchstone statement of political ideals.

The year 1912 is significant in other, less celebrated ways. At that time, issues of economic and social disparities were not limited to politicians. This year is the centennial of author and journalist Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier, the first book in his Trilogy of Desire series about tycoon Frank Cowperwood, followed by The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1947).

Starting with Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser explored the personal and social impact of class distinctions and ever-increasing wealth on early twentieth-century America. Dreiser was a pioneer in what’s come to be called the naturalist movement, telling stories in a plain, unromanticized way that allowed the darkest moments and motives to speak for themselves. More than a century later we’ve come to accept that style of storytelling. But at the time it was not the norm, and the effect on literature was profound.

Among the robber barons of the nineteenth century, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905)  is less well-known than J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. But you know some of his legacy, including the Chicago Loop and the London Underground. Yerkes’ roller coaster life of ambition—rich today, felon tomorrow, richer the next—was the inspiration for Dreiser’s financier Frank Cowperwood.

Any story of unbridled greed and ambition, fiction or non-fiction, is so common that it is hardly worth mentioning, especially if it is a hundred years old. But Theodore Dreiser was no ordinary observer, attested to by his stature as one of America’s great novelists. At the end of the first volume of Frank Cowperwood’s rise and fall and rise, Dreiser includes a curious little coda. Just a few paragraphs long, it is a description of a fish whose “great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation.” The language may seem a bit dense for the twenty-first century reader, but in the context of The Financier, the point is clear:

You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.

Here it is in its entirety:

Concerning Mycteroperca Bonaci

There is a certain fish, the scientific name of which is Mycteroperca Bonaci, its common name Black Grouper, which is of considerable value as an afterthought in this connection, and which deserves to be better known. It is a healthy creature, growing quite regularly to a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds, and lives a comfortable, lengthy existence because of its very remarkable ability to adapt itself to conditions. That very subtle thing which we call the creative power, and which we endow with the spirit of the beatitudes, is supposed to build this mortal life in such fashion that only honesty and virtue shall prevail. Witness, then, the significant manner in which it has fashioned the black grouper. One might go far afield and gather less forceful indictments—the horrific spider spinning his trap for the unthinking fly; the lovely Drosera (Sundew) using its crimson calyx for a smothering-pit in which to seal and devour the victim of its beauty; the rainbow-colored jellyfish that spreads its prismed tentacles like streamers of great beauty, only to sting and torture all that falls within their radiant folds. Man himself is busy digging the pit and fashioning the snare, but he will not believe it. His feet are in the trap of circumstance; his eyes are on an illusion.

Mycteroperca moving in its dark world of green waters is as fine an illustration of the constructive genius of nature, which is not beatific, as any which the mind of man may discover. Its great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation, which relates solely to the pigmentation of its skin. In electrical mechanics we pride ourselves on our ability to make over one brilliant scene into another in the twinkling of an eye, and flash before the gaze of an onlooker picture after picture, which appear and disappear as we look. The directive control of Mycteroperca over its appearance is much more significant. You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.

Lying at the bottom of a bay, it can simulate the mud by which it is surrounded. Hidden in the folds of glorious leaves, it is of the same markings. Lurking in a flaw of light, it is like the light itself shining dimly in water. Its power to elude or strike unseen is of the greatest.

What would you say was the intention of the overruling, intelligent, constructive force which gives to Mycteroperca this ability? To fit it to be truthful? To permit it to present an unvarying appearance which all honest life-seeking fish may know? Or would you say that subtlety, chicanery, trickery, were here at work? An implement of illusion one might readily suspect it to be, a living lie, a creature whose business it is to appear what it is not, to simulate that with which it has nothing in common, to get its living by great subtlety, the power of its enemies to forefend against which is little. The indictment is fair.

Would you say, in the face of this, that a beatific, beneficent creative, overruling power never wills that which is either tricky or deceptive? Or would you say that this material seeming in which we dwell is itself an illusion? If not, whence then the Ten Commandments and the illusion of justice? Why were the Beatitudes dreamed of and how do they avail?

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