Critical Evaluation

The Titan is the second in Theodore Dreiser’s trilogy of novels tracing the career of Frank Algernon Cowperwood, which the author had planned to call “A Trilogy of Desire.” The Financier (1912, 1927) tells the story of Cowperwood’s early successes in the financial world of Philadelphia, the start of his extramarital affair with Aileen, and his conviction and imprisonment for grand larceny. In the final novel, The Stoic (1947), Cowperwood is still portrayed as shrewdly energetic and ambitious, now living abroad after his defeat in Chicago, and amassing a large but unneeded fortune in London. Estranged from Berenice, he dies a lonely death while his overextended empire finally crumbles.

Cowperwood’s character is based on that of nineteenth century Chicago financier Charles Yerkes (1837-1905). Like Dreiser’s Cowperwood, Yerkes was a shrewd schemer in business who made his fortune in Philadelphia public transportation, spent a short time in prison for illegal business manipulations, and then moved to Chicago and gained control of a gas trust. Yerkes later tried to monopolize the city’s transportation system through long-term franchises, and when he failed he turned to new business interests in the London Underground. According to Richard Lehan’s account in Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels (1969), several even more specific details in The Titan are taken directly from Dreiser’s own exhaustive research into the life of Yerkes and the activities of the Chicago business world he dominated for a time.

The Titan reflects Dreiser’s absorption with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, T. H. Huxley, and other nineteenth century social Darwinists who viewed society as essentially controlled by the law of “survival of the fittest.” In Dreiser’s view, it is the nature of the universe that “a balance is struck wherein the mass subdues the individual or the individual the mass.” Cowperwood’s struggle against Hand, Schryhart, and Arneel is one for survival in the financial jungle of Chicago big business.

For Dreiser, such a struggle is wholly amoral. There is no right or wrong because it is the nature as well as the condition of human beings to have to struggle for power and survival. Cowperwood’s cause is neither more nor less just than that of his antagonists, nor are his means any less scrupulous than their own. He may be said to be more shrewd than they, or to possess more...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)