Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526
*Philadelphia. Principal city of Pennsylvania between 1837—the year of protagonist Frank Algernon Cowperwood’s birth—and 1873—the year of a great stock panic that Cowperwood exploited to his advantage. Philadelphia was by implication a relatively crude major city compared to Boston and New York, without telegraphs, phones, stamps, city mail, ocean steamers, or streetcars as the novel begins. Its 250,000 inhabitants are dominated by a Republican hierarchy, many of whose leaders are uncouth. Although Cowperwood is under no illusions as to the quality of men he is dealing with, he aspires to join this establishment for what it can do for him. However, he ultimately fails when he is convicted of shady financial dealings and imprisoned.
The arts and amenities of Philadelphia hardly exist in a public sense; for example, one would never guess from the novel that the city was soon to boast a world-class orchestra. Dreiser does speak of “handsome parks” and “notable buildings” on the first page but almost never thereafter. Cowperwood demonstrates an increasing awareness of art and decor as he accumulates wealth, and the more sophisticated establishment figures furnish their grand houses handsomely; however, overall the lack of graciousness of the city—Dreiser never really depicts its public places—is a fit backdrop for the ruthless and cunning grasping after power and wealth by an immensely intelligent and amoral figure, an American Nietzschean who believes only in himself.
Cowperwood’s homes. Between 1847, when Cowperwood is ten, until 1873, when he leaves for the Midwest, he changes homes around seven or eight times. The moves are progressively upward until the end, when he is imprisoned. Each new home is precisely established in a financial, as well as a social, context. Indeed, Dreiser’s mastery of complicated financial dealings is a feature of the novel: he is sometimes even wearying in the bulldog tenacity with which he pursues financial details.
Cowperwood’s first move takes place when his father is promoted from bank clerk to teller, and the family moves from a two-story house to a three-story house with a piano in a “much better neighborhood.” When the father is promoted to cashier, the family moves to a four-story house on the river. Here Frank meets a Mrs. Lillian Semple, an attractive woman five years his senior, whose husband dies a year later. Frank pursues and wins the semireluctant and deeply conventional widow and moves into her pretty house, also on the river, improving it with a garden, remodeling, and art objects. Some seven or eight years later Cowperwood, still in his twenties, has moved so far that, together with his father, he commissions the building of two large side-by-side granite domiciles and a new office. Dreiser use three full pages to describe the new house and observes that the “effect of a house of this character on its owner is unmistakable.”
A multimillionaire at the end of the Civil War, Cowperwood acquires a mistress and installs her in...
(The entire section contains 727 words.)
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