Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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