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Steven Millhauser Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

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Award: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Millhauser is an American novelist and short story writer.

For furtherl information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 21 and 54.

Steven Millhauser writes of the world of the imagination. The subject of his stories is frequently the artist and the dreamer, the illusionist who creates worlds to satisfy the needs of others for fantasy. Millhauser's artistic motivation is summarized in the opening line of his short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" from the collection The Barnum Museum (1990): "Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." Millhauser's lauded first novel, a mock biography, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972), is the story of Mullhouse, an eleven-year-old novelist, as told by his twelve-year-old biographer, Cartwright. The novel, which examines the wonder of childhood and imagination and suggests that all biography is inherently fiction, won the Prix Medicis Etranger. A Washington Post reviewer said of the novel: "It is at once a satire of literary biography, an evocation of childhood and an exploration of the creative mind; it is clever without being showy, its intelligence is daunting, and it has a surprisingly powerful effect upon the reader's emotions." Millhauser continued his examination of childhood with Portrait of a Romantic (1977), a fictional account of the narrator's life from ages twelve to fifteen. He followed that book with another novel, but the publisher balked at the 1,000-page manuscript and Millhauser refused to cut it. Eventually he did shorten the story and From the Realm of Morpheus (1986) was finally published in the same year as his short story collection, In the Penny Arcade. The collection, like the ones that followed—The Barnum Museum (1990) and Little Kingdoms (1993)—explored illusion, fantasy and modern mythology. A reviewer for The Washington Post said, "In those books Millhauser was experimenting with ways of treating American mythology, of intermingling the realistic and the fantastic into a unique fabric that might help us see ourselves in a clearer and more revealing light." Individually the stories were largely praised, but several critics felt they were too much alike. Douglas Balz observed that "many of the stories bear an uncomfortable resemblance to each other. Read one too many stories about a character's escape from the solid world of appearances—by falling down a rabbit hole ("Alice, Falling") or slipping past a theater curtain ("Behind the Blue Curtain")—and their impact is diminished." However, Balz praised Millhauser's examination of the imagination and his ability "to take us inside the labyrinth of prose," making comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Some critics view Millhauser's short stories as too static. Michiko Kakutani said, "While the reader delights in Mr. Millhauser's meticulously detailed descriptions, one waits and waits for something to occur." Millhauser brought the themes of illusion, fantasy, and what he called "the myth of the self-made man in America" into his next novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996). Set in what Jennifer Schuessler described as "a precisely evoked, but oddly ethereal, New York City," Martin Dressler is the story of a sort of Horatio Alger of the imagination. Dressler rises from cigar store clerk to hotel magnate by being closely attuned to the needs of his customers' imagination. At the apex of his career, Dressler creates the ultimate fantasy land—The Grand Cosmo—a combination hotel and theme park. Diana Postlethwaite described the facility as "an amalgam of hotel, museum, department store, amusement park and theater—twenty-three levels underground, thirty above—containing (and I offer only the most partial of lists): rustic cottages, caves, a New England Village, a Moorish Bazaar, a Seance Parlor, a Temple of Poesy, an Asylum for the Insane, a Theatrum Mundi, stage sets of the solar system and 'black gardens of imagination' in a subterranean labyrinth. Millhauser's powers of description in this section of the book astound and delight." However, Millhauser does not portray the life of the imagination as perfect. Dressler's personal life and marriage are unsatisfactory. He overlooks a plain but interesting woman to marry her beautiful but vacuous sister who appeals to his fantasy. In what some critics consider the most telling development of the book, the hotel fails to attract customers, and Dressler allows actors to live there free of charge while they pretend to be customers. Janet Burroway concluded: "Martin Dressler coolly explores this American Dream in all its manifestations as aim, vision, intention, nightmare, hallucination, delusion, death. The great city—and by extension America, with its ever more exotic immigrants, its ever more hyperbolic advertising, its voracious ambition, its headlong rush into the 20th century—becomes 'a fever patient in a hospital, thrashing in its sleep, erupting in modern dreams.'" The book was awarded the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Millhauser was somewhat taken aback by the honor. Dinitia Smith related that Millhauser, who was told of the prize while lecturing to a class at Skidmore College, remarked, "I told my students that a grotesque error had been committed, and that I had to straighten it out."

Principal Works

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Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54, by Jeffrey Cartwright, (novel) 1972
Portrait of a Romantic (novel) 1977
From the Realm of Morpheus (novel) 1986
In the Penny Arcade (short stories) 1986
The Barnum Museum (short stories) 1990
Little Kingdoms (novellas) 1993
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (novel) 1996
The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (short stories) 1998

Michiko Kakutani (review 12 June 1990)

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SOURCE: "Where Everyday Life Intersects with the Magical," in The New York Times, June 12, 1990, p. C17.

[Below, Kakutani reviews several of Millhauser's short story collections, praising the writing style but finding several of the stories lacking in character or plot development.]

To read Steven Millhauser's fiction is to enter a fairy-tale kingdom of "the mysterious, the magical, the unexpected." Like his earlier books (In the Penny Arcade, From the Realm of Morpheus), The Barnum Museum is crammed full with amazing events, perplexing characters, strange exercises in sleight of hand. A magician conjures up the head of a girl named Greta, who takes on a life of her own ("Eisenheim the Illusionist"). A merchant sailor visits a distant country that is besieged by a giant bird ("The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad"). A lonely, unhappy man buys a postcard that slowly comes to life ("The Sepia Postcard").

Nearly all the stories in this collection are concerned with two worlds (the familiar, sunlit world of everyday life and the dark, intriguing world of the imagination) and the boundaries that lie between them. In "Alice, Falling"—a kind of annotation of the first chapter of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland—the heroine notices that a change comes about as she falls down the rabbit hole: "the mysterious shaft or vertical tunnel through which she is falling begins to seem familiar to her, with its cupboards, its shelves, its lamplit bumps and hollows, while the upper world grows shadowy and strange; and as she falls she has to remind herself that somewhere far above, suddenly the air is blinding blue, white-and-yellow daisies grow in a green field, on a sloping bank her sister sits reading in sun-checked shade."

"Behind the Blue Curtain" and the title story of this collection similarly delineate the world of wonders that lies just on the other side of our workaday world. In the first, Mr. Millhauser uses the metaphor of a movie theater, taking us behind the screen to reveal a backstage realm in which characters step out of their film roles to hold conversations with one another. In the next, he compares the realm of the imagination to a fantastical museum—a museum of infinite rooms, wings and exhibits, which like Jorge Luis Borges's famous library contains all the secrets of the universe.

Though this museum is enjoyed by children and boasts many joyful diversions (a flying carpet, a winged horse, leprechauns, jugglers and peanut vendors), there is a darker, more sinister aspect to it as well. There are said to be subterranean levels in the museum presided over by bands of swarthy dwarfs, and black caverns containing "disturbing creatures dangerous to behold." Visitors can easily become lost in the museum, and those who completely succumb to its seductive charms often lose touch with their real lives, abandoning everything they know and love to wander its many towers and halls.

"If the Barnum Museum is a little suspect, if something of the sly and gimcrack clings to it always, that is simply part of its nature, a fact among other facts. We may doubt the museum, but we do not doubt our need to return. For we are restless, already we are impatient to move through the beckoning doorways, which lead to rooms with other doorways that give dark glimpses of distant rooms, distant doorways, unimaginable discoveries."

The problem with this story, like many in this collection, is that it's almost completely static. While the reader delights in Mr. Millhauser's meticulously detailed descriptions, one waits and waits for something to occur. No character of any significance is introduced, no moral—save the obvious one that the imagination can be both enervating and spiritually sustaining—is ever drawn. Instead, we are simply given a laundry list (albeit a prettily written laundry list) of marvels, most of them already highly familiar to us from mythology, fairy tales and the works of other writers.

"The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad" even more pointedly recycles earlier tales, namely the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor as recounted in the Arabian Nights, though it does so in the guise of providing a commentary on the nature of storytelling. "Alice, Falling" does little more than embroider Lewis Carroll's well-known story with some of Alice's own musings. And "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" simply gives the Frankenstein story a predictable twist, turning the man-made monster into a pretty girl. Such exercises convince the reader that Mr. Millhauser can write. Unlike the stories in his last collection (In the Penny Arcade), however, they do not persuade the reader that he has much to say.

Fortunately, several other tales in this volume evince a little more originality. "Eisenheim the Illusionist" recounts the story of a turn of the century magician capable of inventing people out of thin air, and it becomes a resonant fairy tale about the unreckoned consequences of art.

"A Game of Clue" similarly explores the connections between the real world and the world of fiction by using the anxieties and concerns of a family playing the board game Clue as counterpoint to the anxieties and concerns of the characters in the game (Mrs. Peacock, Miss Scarlet, Mr. Green, Colonel Mustard etc.). In this tale, Mr. Millhauser demonstrates his proven talent for inventing fanciful, fairytale-like characters, but at the same time he also displays—for the first and only time in this volume—an ability to conjure up some believable flesh-and-blood human beings. It's a skill he might well want to explore further.

Jay Cantor (review date 24 June 1990)

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SOURCE: "Free Fall to Wonderland," in The New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1990, p. 16.

[Cantor is an author and a MacArthur Prize Fellow. Below, he reviews Millhauser's collection The Barnum Museum.]

"Imagination dead, imagine," Samuel Beckett moaned, dismayed to discover that even to write the demise of the imagination would be the imagination's work. Would this endless, pointless chase after imaginary rabbits never cease?

Whoa, you moody Irish brooder! Steven Millhauser, inhabitant of a sunnier, more American frame of mind, also takes the imagination as his subject [in The Barnum Museum], attempting, in this tightly focused collection of stories, to stage it, allegorize it, track its motives, delineate its solace, seek its limits. Unlike Beckett, though, Mr. Millhauser celebrates the times when, dissatisfied with life or our previous imaginings, we turn to … our imaginings.

In Mr. Millhauser's first story he imagines a game as the stage the imagination constructs for itself. The children of a suburban family play Clue to forget their family tangles, their father's illness. As they play, Mr. Millhauser creates lives for the game's characters—Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet—as confused as the players', as given to imaginings, as much in need of games. For the imagination has no limits, it reaches all the way down—though I wished that I might have sensed a thicker web of connection between the family and the Clue troupe, to complicate the game for the reader.

Mr. Millhauser also imagines the imagination as a junk shop with a warren of rooms, one chamber linked to another without any reason except the bewildering reason of the heart. The shop's seeming confusion reminds us of the possibility of surprise the imagination offers—the once discarded thing that has undergone a sea change, and emerged rich with an as yet unacknowledged desire. The unhappy lover in "The Sepia Postcard" plucks from the shop's bins an image of a man and a woman in a romantic setting, but when he gazes at the card alone in his rented room, the picture shows not romance but his own terrifying anger: the swain's "slightly raised right hand grasped a small sharp rock."

And Mr. Millhauser allegorizes the imagination as a "Barnum Museum," named for the patron saint of charming bunco, and filled with seemingly magical displays, flying carpets, half-glimpsed mermaids that disappear into a haze and invisible beings that "brush lightly against our arms." The museum's air of trickery—it's just your imagination!—only calms the patron as she wanders through its maze of halls, allowing her more easily to fall into the museum's dreams.

Or Mr. Millhauser imagines the imagination as secret apartments within the movie theater, where the film characters continue their lives offscreen, as if projected on air. When a boy on the verge of his sexuality reaches out to touch his beloved star, he feels his hand "sinking through melting barriers." Perhaps Freud's right, and love begins again in imaginings, because we cannot possess the forbidden love of childhood and so we project her, or him, onto another. But that other cannot truly be our lost beloved, and our hand moves through our projection grasping only air.

Dissatisfied with life, or our previous imaginings, we fantasize, providing ourselves with an uncertain supplement to life, like the man in "The Invention of Robert Herendeen," a sad sort who invents in exacting detail a romantic friend for himself. His amour is disrupted by an uncalled-for, equally imaginary intruder, Orville, a post-modern demon, who pulls up his trouser legs to show he has no shins underneath. For the imagination delights in calling attention to its powers, even if that means undermining its own creations. Such illusion-destroying mockery recalls Herendeen to life—where he still must "imagine what would happen to me next."

The best of Mr. Millhauser's stagings of the imagination are hardly stories at all, but extended reflections on the imagination, as he walks about the Barnum Museum, or examines and re-examines the voyages of Sinbad, or wonders what the moment of free fall was like as Alice descended the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Dodgson, you see, momentarily stumbled in his invention, making Alice, his character, feel her fall might last forever. Mr. Millhauser provides the invention that fills in until Dodgson invents a place for Alice to land.

No doubt the bunny Alice chases is the very same rabbit that Pascal imagines a king chasing in his "Pensees"—a goal not worth a king's effort, except that the game keeps the king's mind from his life's unintended goal, his death. "Alice tries to recall her feeling of restlessness on the bank…. She felt that at any moment she was going to split open, like a seed pod. That was when … she heard the noise in the grass." Our restlessness—our yearning for a lost object, our murderous violence that should only be expressed in stories, our unappeasable fear of death—these cause our endless imaginings, even an author's restless multiplication of representations of the imagination. It creates the noise in the grass that Alice chases after.

The author's faith in the imagination sometimes has an air of the sheltered existence. Sinbad's voyages resolve themselves to a boy reading on the beach in Connecticut, beside his "mother's straw beach bag and her white rubber bathing cap. He would like to prolong this moment, when the two worlds are held in harmony, he would like this moment to last forever." In such protected places imagination has its efflorescence, develops its amplitude, but I occasionally wished that Mr. Millhauser's stories had had more of the bluster and intrusion of history, those unhappy collective imaginings. And Mr. Millhauser's work has the difficulties of farming the self-regarding terrain that has become a staple of modern art, producing, for example, Beckett's and Nabokov's and Italo Calvino's masterpieces. But Mr. Millhauser's elegantly told, charming stories about the nature and muscle of storytelling often provided me with delight.

Douglas Balz (review date 5 August 1990)

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SOURCE: "A Collection of Cunning Escape Routes for Fleeing the Mundane," in The Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1990, p. 7.

[In the following review, Balz favorably assesses The Barnum Museum.]

Among the pleasures of literature, and there are many, is one that is absent from much of the self-conscious fiction of recent years. It is what made readers of most of us when we were too young to know better, but that doesn't make it just a childish delight. It may, in fact, be the root of the storytelling impulse; the desire to escape a humdrum world of ordinary appearances for one where anything and everything is possible.

Steven Millhauser's new book, The Barnum Museum, pays homage to this type of writing in the most direct way possible, by recreating those delicious sensations in his readers. But Millhauser is hardly an archaeologist of fiction. His short stories are old-fashioned and avant garde at the same time; they tip their hat to the past, but are on speaking terms with contemporary fiction, too.

"The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad" is a good example of Millhauser's blend of old and new literary strategies. "Sinbad" is actually three stories in one: a third-person narration of Sinbad's voyage, the same story told through Sinbad's eyes and a scholar's critical gloss on The Arabian Nights, in which the Sinbad story appears.

Millhauser accomplishes this by devoting separate paragraphs to each voice, and advancing the story in three-paragraph clusters. The effect is unsettling, for just as one voice begins to weave its spell, another intrudes. Where, the reader wonders, does authority reside? What is the truth about this piece of fiction?

This kind of self-awareness can be a crippling liability, but Millhauser has a knack for satisfying both the mind and the imagination. Like Jorge Luis Borges (and Italo Calvino), he takes us inside the labyrinth of prose, but never at the expense of those shivery pleasures that fiction can provide.

In "A Game of Clue" the reader spends an evening playing that well-known game with the Ross family: 15-year-old David, who is celebrating his birthday; his older sister Marian; and David's older brother, Jacob, who has arrived hours late for the party with his girlfriend, Susan.

At first, it seems to be a conventional story. The narrator sets the scene, describes the mechanics of the game and the clues each person is holding, and then explores the private thoughts of each player. Will Jacob be forgiven for arriving hours late and spoiling David's birthday party? Will Susan be accepted into the circle of the family? But then Millhauser goes one step further. His narrator takes us onto the game board itself and inside the minds of the playing pieces, too. Will Colonel Mustard succeed in his attempted seduction of Miss Scarlet?

Where does the "fiction" begin and end in a story like this? Who is more real, the players or the playing pieces? Intriguing questions, certainly, but Millhauser is too clever to allow them to intrude on his story. They come to mind only after the story is finished and the narrator's spell is broken. "Clue," then, is an irresistible blend of adult enthusiasms and childish pleasures, including the chance to solve the game's murder.

Not every one of Millhauser's stories succeeds as well as these two. "Klassik Komix #1," which turns The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock into a sequence of panels from a comic book, is merely clever. "Rain," in which the elements conspire to make the world dissolve, is slight. And many of the stories bear an uncomfortable resemblance to each other. Read one too many stories about a character's escape from the solid world of appearances—by falling down a rabbit hole ("Alice, Falling") or slipping past a theater curtain ("Behind the Blue Curtain")—and their impact is diminished. Readers are advised to savor these stories slowly; there is too much rhetorical sleight-of-hand and too many exotic worlds for a single sitting.

Then again, exotic worlds may not be enough for some readers. Where are the commentaries on contemporary society, the truths about the larger world? Is Millhauser's work nothing but escapist fantasy? In his title story, the author provides an answer.

"The Barnum Museum" is a vast palace of numberless delights, a kind of gaudy, extravagant cousin of the Museum of Science and Industry: part science, part sideshow. The story is more a catalog than a narrative, a tour of the place in the company of a guide who not only describes its attractions but also explains its appeal: "In the branching halls of the Barnum Museum we are never forgetful of the ordinary world, for it is precisely our awareness of that world which permits us to enjoy the wonders of the halls. Indeed I would argue that we are most sharply aware of our town when we leave it to enter the Barnum museum; without our museum, we would pass through life as in a daze or dream."

Is it necessary to say that the Barnum Museum is the house of fiction (the house of art, for that matter) and Millhauser is our tour guide? Probably not. Though it is worth adding that a splendid guide he is, a writer who vivifies the act of reading. For those who must attach importance to a collection of stories, that ought to do the trick.

Aram Saroyan (review date 30 September 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Surreal as Substance," in The Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1990, p. 11.

[Below, Saroyan gives a mixed review of the stories in The Barnum Museum.]

In more than a few of the 10 stories that comprise The Barnum Museum it's as if a prodigious, bizarre and photographic imagination is struggling mightily to pin itself to the mat of the post-modern story as practiced, for example, by the late Donald Barthelme. Steven Millhauser does his best to distance his art, to make it cool in the manner of accomplished predecessors, but the effect is sometimes like seeing a gorgeous butterfly—say a tiger-swallow-tail—mounted under glass, and then catching a slight twitch in one of its wings.

He can be witty. "Klassik Komix #1" is a comic-book version—the prose divided into sections labeled "Cover" and "Panels" numbered 1 through 44—of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which the anti-hero is seen regarding a beautiful woman at a party without being able to muster the courage to engage her socially, and is rendered climactically on the cover as "a creature part crustacean and part man" lying on his stomach on the ocean floor. So much for hesitation.

"A Game of Clue," a novella that opens the collection, alternately evokes a family of grown and almost grown siblings as they play the board game one evening just after being newly reunited at the family house in Connecticut, and the characters, architecture, furnishings and situations unfolding in the English mansion that is the setting of the game. Millhauser charts a seduction between the game-board figures of Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet that has unexpected emotional nuances. Finding herself reduced to an object under the gaze of this stalwart, heartless womanizer:

She feels, in that pause of inspection, that she has achieved the condition of utter banality. It is a condition more extreme than death, for to die is to continue to exist in the body; but she has ceased to exist in the body, she is impalpable, the cells of her flesh have dissolved in the solvent of a trite imagination. Despite her revulsion for the vulgar Colonel, Miss Scarlet is grateful to him for permitting her to savor this annihilation.

The board game has taken a turn into a parlor out of a macabre Henry James. And overlooking this action—to which they remain oblivious—are David Ross, 15; his older brother, Jacob—with his girlfriend Susan—and his older sister, Marian. Millhauser renders their interpersonal complexities with a touch as gentle as it is evocative, and in this dimension the narrative has a fluent realism reminiscent of William Maxwell.

The other, briefer stories seem less involved with relationships per se than with the artist, in various guises and incarnations, and with the power and position of art in the larger community within which it exists. "The Barnum Museum," the title story, seems an elaborately tedious conceit on this order, the museum being a sort of local circus of freaks and wonders, about which the locals feel, yes, ambivalent.

In another story, a man buys a postcard that seems to change on successive viewings. In "Alice, Falling," the famous Alice has a nap after a picnic with her sister beside a lake and dreams of falling down the rabbit hole without ever reaching wonderland. In "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad," the old wanderer at home in his garden in Baghdad dreams another journey while recalling earlier ones with his memory playing an elusive role of its own.

In these works, the odd, remote, supernatural or surreal seems to be perceived as the primary substance of art, a notion that has its most popular literary incarnation in the genre of science fiction, which Millhauser flirts with and never quite embraces. This is a notion that might be argued, but in the end it may come down to a difference in taste. Just how great a writer is Edgar Allan Poe?

The final two stories, "The Invention of Robert Herendeen" and "Eisenheim the Illusionist," make it clear that Millhauser perceives the artist as a magician, one who works wonders that society and the artist himself may have trouble keeping in proper perspective. In the first story, an unpublished writer imagines into actual being a young woman, her family, and even a male rival for her attention. As things start to go out of control, the narrator concludes: "If only I could remain calm remain calm remain calm then I might be able to imagine what would happen to me next."

In the final story, Eisenheim, the most celebrated magician of fin de siècle Vienna as the Hapsburg empire nears its end, is able by concentration to create living presences on stage who prove to be impalpable when members of the audience try to touch them. When the chief of police and 12 policemen come to the theater to arrest him, it is because he is guilty of "shaking the foundations of the universe, of undermining reality, and in consequence of doing something far worse: subverting the Empire." When the police get on stage to take the magician into custody, Eisenheim himself proves to be impalpable, disappears, and is never seen again.

One realizes we are living in a fin de siècle period of our own when the American empire is no longer what it once was, and there is particular resonance to this tale in our day of Jesse Helm's pronouncements on the proper functioning of the National Endowment for the Arts and the recent arrests for the selling of the 2 Live Crew album. Then too, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is the narrative in which Millhauser seems finally at home with his vision, masterfully evoking the charged interactions at the crossroads of history and art, a grim face-off between the officialdom of the time-bound and an alchemist of the eternal. Technically conventional, employing none of the post-modernist literary devices the writer uses elsewhere, it is at once the most readable, complex and uniquely daring story of the book.

Jens Rieckmann (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: "Mocking a Mock Biography: Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus," in Neverending Stories: Toward a Critical Narratology, edited by Ann Fehn, Ingeborg Hoesterey, and Maria Tatar, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 62-9.

[Below, Rieckmann uses Edwin Mullhouse and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to examine the literary role of the mock biography.]

When Steven Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1943–1954), by Jeffrey Cartwright was published in 1972, several reviewers remarked on its Nabokovian qualities and pointed to Pale Fire as the most likely model for Millhauser's mock-biography. The very title of Millhauser's novel, however, seems to point to another possible model: Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. In fact, a comparison of these two fictional witness biographies leads this reader to conclude that Millhauser's novel, in some of its themes and motives as well as in the person of its fictional biographer and in its parody of the conventions of biographical writing, bears more of a mockingly distorted resemblance to Mann's text than to that of Nabokov.

Millhauser's novel, which won the Prix Medicis Etranger, is ostensibly the biography of the prodigious writer Edwin Mullhouse, who meets a premature death at the age of eleven. Millhauser's novel focuses as much on Edwin's life as on the efforts of his biographer, Jeffrey Cartwright, Mullhouse's eleven-and-a-half-year-old friend, to shape Edwin's life into a meaningful whole. As Edwin's next-door neighbor, Cartwright is a privileged observer of his friend's life, and his desire to write his biography becomes an all-consuming passion. Compared to his "zealous sense of purpose, his industrious concentration on his subject's infinite variety and plenitude of sameness," Pearl Bell wrote in a review of the novel, "James Boswell seems inattentive, Richard Ellman's Joyce slipshod, Leon Edel's James cursory."

The subjects of Mann's and Millhauser's mock-biographies, the modernist composer Adrian Leverkühn and the eleven-year-old writer Edwin Mullhouse, represent in the eyes of their fictional biographers the artist as genius. They give occasion for reflection on the nature of genius and the proximity of disease and creativity. Both novels are what Hoberman terms "mediated biographies"; Mann and Millhauser put particular emphasis on their fictional biographers' perception of their subjects. "It is as if these narrators were standing in front of a slide projector: they are themselves immediately present to the viewer, and thus experienced dramatically, unmediatedly, but the slides themselves [Leverkühn and Mullhouse in our case] are now visible only in relation to [the narrators]." Hoberman's comparison very aptly captures the peculiar stance of narrators in mock biographies. On the one hand, they are aware of their subservient role; on the other hand, their marked presence provides the opportunity for self-dramatization.

Edwin Mullhouse's brief life, culminating in the writing of his "immortal novel" Cartoons, is told by his friend Jeffrey Cartwright. For him as for Zeitblom, the narrator in Doctor Faustus, the writing of the biography becomes a "mission" that gives "meaning" to his life. This sense of mission awakens early in both biographers. When Leverkühn chooses the University of Halle as his alma mater, Zeitblom follows him there "to keep a constant eye" on his friend, motivated by personal solicitude but even more by "something like a premonition of the fact that it would one day be my task to set down an account of the impressions that moulded his [Leverkühn's] early life." Similarly, yet carrying the parody of the biographer's sense of mission further, Millhauser has Cartwright observe his subject "from the beginning"—from the day Mullhouse is eight days and Cartwright six months old, "with the fond solicitude of an older brother and the scrupulous fascination of a budding biographer."

The biographer's mission thus becomes all-consuming and virtually takes over his life. "It should be said once more," Zeitblom confesses, implicitly boasting of the sacrifice of self involved in the biographer's task, "that I led my own life, without precisely neglecting it, only as if it were an aside, with half my attention, with my left hand; that my real concern and anxiety were centered upon the existence of my childhood friend." Again, in Edwin Mullhouse the biographer's vicarious existence is carried to its extreme. When Mullhouse withdraws from the world to write his "immortal novel," Cartwright's own life is reduced to a void. His many "attempts to escape into sham hobbies" are futile, and the biographer's obsessive watchfulness, which is the content of his life, is hilariously spoofed when Cartwright attempts to witness his novelist friend's progress: "Often at night, unable to sleep, I would creep into my kitchen and watch Edwin's light until it went out: at 1:26, at 2:03, at 2:55. I even made a game of it, thrilling each time he broke a record. Once I watched from 3:27 (his previous record) to 5:06 … before I had to crawl back to bed, exhausted, though his light still burned; but that morning Edwin looked surprisingly well-rested, and I realized that he had fallen asleep with his light on."

Both narrators, then, emphasize their subservient roles. Zeitblom, the self-styled "simple man," feels privileged to be the witness of the "life of an artist … this unique specimen of humanity," just as Cartwright seems to be imbued with the sense that his subject is "the special one," and not he, although he is "an unusually bright child." Ostensibly they know that for the biographer it is only fitting to assume "a place in the background of these memoirs," as Zeitblom puts it, or to "huddle modestly in the background," which is Cartwright's declared policy. An inkling of the biographer's desire to be emancipated from a subservient role is provided by Cartwright's observations on the relationship between biographer and subject:

Edwin looked up to me as a prince looks up to a trusty servant; there was never any question of a clash of privileges. In bitter loneliness the prince asks his man to decide a subtle question of policy, and so the unseen man has a hand in the affairs of state. Then perhaps the prince forgets the existence of his man for a week or weeks or months at a time, until suddenly he needs him again. But the man never forgets his prince, and in the servant's chamber, which the prince never enters, who can tell what strange midnight thoughts flit through a skull?

The extended metaphor reveals the tendency on the part of most narrators in mock-biographies to assert themselves, despite their protestations to the contrary. Although Zeitblom assures the reader in the opening sentence of his account of Leverkühn's life "that it is by no means out of any wish to bring my own personality into the foreground that I preface with a few words about myself and my own affairs this report on the life of the departed Adrian Leverkühn," he does bring himself into the foreground to a degree that no narrator in a factual biography ever would. In this respect Cartwright is modeled directly on Zeitblom. Recalling his first meeting with the eight-day-old Mullhouse, he observes: "It is with no desire of thrusting myself forward, but only of presenting the pertinent details of a noteworthy occasion, that I thus intrude my personal history into these pages." Yet intrude he does, and, as we shall see, not only "into these pages." The prominent role biographers assume in mock-biographies ultimately leads the reader to question the narrator's reliability and disinterestedness to such an extent that the focus tends to shift away from the account of the subject's life to its narrator.

In psychological terms, the biographer's need to assert himself can be seen as part of a compensation syndrome. Zeitblom and Cartwright both claim the same motivation for writing their respective biographies: the desire to preserve for posterity the details of their friends' lives. Ultimately, however, both Zeitblom's and Cartwright's motives for rendering an account of their friends' lives stem from unrequited love. Zeitblom can barely hide his hurt feelings occasioned by the "friendly" and "objective" mention of himself in the note with which Leverkühn assigns his sketches and journals to him; neither can he deceive the reader about the intensity of the jealousy aroused in him by Leverkün's homosexual relationship with Rudi Schwerdtfeger. Similarly, Cartwright cannot disguise his jealous disapproval of Mullhouse's two loves, Rose Dorn and Arnold Hasselstrom, and his feeling of rejection when Mullhouse includes him only as an afterthought among those who had influenced his life. It is this rejection that motivates Cartwright's most extreme statement of the biographer's need for self-assertion, made on behalf of all witness biographers who are tied to their subjects by a "burdensome friendship." In his response to Mullhouse's critical comments on the fictionality of biography he notes: "But I take this opportunity to ask …: isn't it true that the biographer performs a function nearly as great as, or precisely as great as, or actually greater by far than the function performed by the artist himself? For the artist creates the work of art, but the biographer, so to speak, creates the artist. Which is to say: without me, would you exist at all, Edwin?"

The rhetorical question of course reveals the very fictionality of biography it is intended to refute, and at the same time it draws attention to the chief characteristic of all mock biographies: through placing a greater emphasis on the supposed biographer than factual or "straight" fictional biographies do, they stress the act of mediation and reveal to the reader, as Petrie has pointed out, the problems inherent in all biographical narration. Mann's comments on his choice of Zeitblom as narrator reveal his consciousness that this choice foregrounded the act of mediation and determined the hybrid character of his work. In The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus he writes: "My diary of the period does not record exactly when I made the decision to interpose the medium of the 'friend' between myself and my subject; in other words, not to tell the life of Adrian Leverkühn directly but to have it told, and therefore not to write a novel but a biography with all its trappings." And rereading the fourteenth chapter of Doctor Faustus, he was struck by the degree to which he had realized his goal. In his diary, he noted: "Read in the evening the discussions among the students in the novel. The unnovelistic, strangely real biographical [sonderbar real Biographische] that nevertheless is fiction." He did not anticipate, however, that some readers might be duped by the "sonderbar real Biographische," among them Arnold Schönberg, who feared that future generations of musicologists would read Mann's novel as a factual biography and assume that Leverkühn and not Schönberg was the actual creator of the twelve-tone system. What Schönberg failed to see was the "mimicking of the biographer [Biographen-Mimik]," the parody of the conventions of biographical writing. This among other features of Doctor Faustus establishes its fictionality and in its turn casts doubts on the nonfictional quality of factual biographies.

It is exactly this point that is made in Mullhouse's critical comments on the art of writing lives. In a conversation with his biographer, Mullhouse claims that

the very notion of biography was hopelessly fictional, since unlike real life, which presents us with question marks, censored passages, blank spaces, rows of asterisks, omitted paragraphs, and numberless sequences of three dots trailing into whiteness, biography provides an illusion of completeness, a vast pattern of details organized by an omniscient biographer whose occasional assertions of ignorance or uncertainty deceive us no more than the polite protestations of a hostess who, during the sixth course of an elaborate feast, assures us that really, it was no trouble at all.

Cartwright, anxious to protect the dignity of his trade, dismisses these comments as the "typical mixture of subtlety and inanity" characteristic of the thought processes of creative people, but Mullhouse has of course put his finger on a problem that has received much attention in the critical discourse of the recent past.

The validity of Mullhouse's questioning of the biographer's trade is ironically confirmed by Cartwright's critical reflections on the methodological problems he encounters in the reconstruction of his subject's life, and once again these reflections mirror in a mockingly distorted fashion those of his predecessor Zeitblom. As we have seen, the weakest chinks in the biographer's armor are, according to Mullhouse, his imposition of a meaningful pattern on his subject's life, his desire to shape the life into an aesthetic whole, and his concealed claim to omniscience. As biographers, Zeitblom and, to a larger extent, Cartwright are guilty on all three counts. Zeitblom assures the reader that the account of his friend's life is necessarily limited to those parts of it he could witness. He ostentatiously renounces the novelist's omniscience and skillfully tries to disarm any doubts the reader may harbor concerning the extent of his Zeugenschaft by raising the issue himself: "May not my readers ask whence comes the detail in my narrative, so precisely known to me, even though I could not have been always present, not always at the side of the departed hero of this biography?" Zeitblom tries to meet such possible objections by an array of statements interspersed throughout the text, such as frequent references to his excellent memory, the notes he took on conversations, and Leverkühn's "priceless sketches," letters, and diary pages that are in his possession. Yet when it serves his purpose, he oversteps the bounds of the witness biographer, though he himself had established them in a kind of contract with the reader. Although Zeitblom exclaims at one point that he is not writing a novel "in whose composition the author reveals the hearts of his characters indirectly, through scenic presentation" (my translation), this fictional technique abounds in Doctor Faustus. Significantly, it is not only employed for the presentation of scenes Zeitblom witnessed, but also for those he admittedly did not. In the latter instances the disavowed omniscience of the novelist is embraced by the witness biographer apparently because of a horror vacui shared by most biographers, and justified on the basis of the witness biographer's "frightful intimacy," which "makes him an eye-and ear-witness even to [the story's] hidden phases."

There is, however, yet another kind of omniscience that novelists and biographers share, and it is this kind of omniscience Cartwright alludes to when he enumerates the preoccupations of Mullhouse's early childhood: "Comic books, cameras, photographs, Viewmaster reels—such were his simple games, but what omens for the omniscient biographer!" The biographer's relationship to the life he narrates is a retrospective one, and this puts him perilously close to the novelist's omniscience, as Cartwright puts it in one of his many futile attempts to draw a clear distinction between the biographer's art and that of the novelist. It is this retrospective omniscience that accounts for a dual perspective in both historical (biographical) and fictional narration. The narrator, as Paul Hernadi points out, sustains a delicate balance between a retrospective point of view and the point of view of one immersed in the events as they occur. The two perspectives correspond to what Hernadi calls logos and mythos: the narration of events in terms of causality versus their narration in terms of intention or teleology. No matter how much Zeitblom and Cartwright protest that they are writing biographies and not novels, they are caught up in the quandary created by this dual perspective. For the witness biographer, the quandary is exacerbated by the treacherous tricks memory is wont to play on the biographer's recollections. This added predicament is reflected in Cartwright's self-admonishing statement: "The true course of events must always be carefully distinguished from memory's false fusion, lest biography degenerate into fiction."

The tensions created by this dual perspective are reflected in the oppositional directions in which Zeitblom and Cartwright feel themselves pulled as biographers. On the one hand, they labor under the obligation to narrate their subjects' lives chronologically, hence Zeitblom's misgivings at "jumping the gun" in the opening pages of the novel through his premature revelation of Leverkühn's pact with the devil. In a lengthy disquisition on the advantages of biographical writing as compared to fictional writing, Cartwright observes:

God pity the poor novelist. Standing on his omniscient cliff, with painful ingenuity he must contrive to drop bits of important information into the swift current of his allpowerful plot…. The modest biographer, fortunately, is under no such obligation. Calmly and methodically, in one fell swoop, in a way impossible for the harried novelist who is always trying to do a hundred things at once, he can simply say what he has to say, ticking off each item with his right hand on the successively raised fingers of his left.

On the other hand, to adhere to the chronological straitjacket conflicts with the biographer's desire to impose a pattern on what Cartwright equates with "the stupid wretched pretense that one thing follows from another thing, as if on Saturday a man should hang himself because on Friday he was melancholy." What Hernadi calls mythos is super-imposed on logos, and this superimposition ultimately causes the degeneration of historical "truth" into fiction. Again, it is Cartwright, the more self-conscious of the two biographers, who, in the course of writing his life of Edwin Mullhouse, is forced to confirm the verdict of biography's enemies, "its helpless conformity to the laws of fiction." This truth is brought home to him when he realizes that the "curse of chronology" threatens the biographer's ultimate goal: to write the life of his subject in such a way that "each date, each incident, each casual remark contributes to an elaborate plot that slowly and cunningly builds to a foreknown climax: the hero's celebrated deed."

Closely connected to the interplay between logos and myth is the biographer's desire to subsume the "question marks, censored passages, blank spaces, rows of asterisks, omitted paragraphs, and numberless sequences of three dots trailing into whiteness" of real life into an aesthetic whole. Cartwright's endeavor in this respect represents the ultimate, mockingly distorted reflection of Zeitblom's labor of love and at the same time the slighted biographer's revenge on his subject. Whereas Zeitblom as biographer is motivated by, among other things, his hope that Leverkühn may find grace, if not in the eyes of God, then in the eyes of posterity once an account of his friend's life has been rendered, Cartwright, increasingly troubled that the "design" of his biography is "marred somewhat by Edwin's indefinitely continued existence," conceives and carries out the ingenious plan of killing off his subject, thus providing an aesthetically pleasing end to this "throbbing book." At the same time he fulfills his labor of love, for had not Mullhouse told him shortly before his death that Cartwright had "saved his soul … by making him think of his life as biography, that is, a design with a beginning, middle, and end"? As mock-biographies both Doctor Faustus and to a larger extent Edwin Mullhouse should be read, as I have tried to show, at least on one level as Cartwright would have us read Mullhouse's "immortal novel" Cartoons: "By the method of scrupulous distortion, Edwin draws attention to things that have been rendered invisible to us by overmuch familiarity."

Publishers Weekly (review date 25 March 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, in Publishers Weekly, March 25, 1996, pp. 62-3.

[Below, the critic provides a brief plot summary and favorable review of Martin Dressler.]

Literature's romance with the building-as-metaphor earns new energy through Millhauser's latest novel [Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer] (after Little Kingdoms, 1993), which quietly chronicles the life of an entrepreneur whose career peaks when he builds a fabulous hotel in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Beginning with his first jobs—in his father's cigar shop and as a bellhop—young Martin's rise is fueled by a happy blend of pragmatism and imagination. Both inform the design of the cafes and hotels he builds as an adult, though the latter seems to gain sway in the construction of his magnum opus, the Grand Cosmo. Within the rusticated walls of that grand hotel, one floor's elevators open onto "a densely wooded countryside" dotted with cottages; another floor simulates a rugged mountainside, featuring "caves" furnished with beds, plumbing and "refrigerated air." For recreation, guests can wander in the artificial moonlight of the Pleasure Park or visit the Temple of Poesy, where young women in Green tunics will recite poetry, 24 hours a day. Such amenities speak of Dressler's view of the hotel as "a world within the world, rivaling the world." In deliberate contrast stands Millhauser's cooler evocation of his protagonist's private life. The magnate's genial sister-in-law works for him, while the troubles of his neurasthenic wife—"his sister's sister, his tense, languous, floating, ungraspable bride"—reflect his increasingly manic, untethered imaginings. Millhauser's characteristic fascination with the material artifacts of the vanished past—and the startling deftness with which he can describe the street, the carnival, the hotel that never existed—marks him as a cultural historian as well as an idiosyncratic fabulist. Taking its place alongside other fine tales of architectural symbology, from Poe to Borges to Ayn Rand, this enticing novel becomes at once the tale of a life, a marriage and a creative imagination in crisis.

Washington Post (review date 28 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "When Fairy Tales Come True," in The Washington Post, April 28, 1996, p. 3.

[In the following review, the critic provides a plot summary and positive review of Martin Dressler.]

Steven Millhauser is a wonderfully gifted and original writer who had the rather considerable misfortune to write an absolutely brilliant first novel. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–54 was published in 1972—it has just been reissued in paperback by Vintage—and was reviewed with near-universal enthusiasm. It is at once a satire of literary biography, an evocation of childhood and an exploration of the creative mind; it is clever without being showy, its intelligence is daunting, and it has a surprisingly powerful effect upon the reader's emotions.

The problem with writing so thoroughly accomplished a first novel is that it arouses undue expectations about those to follow. In a literary culture such as ours, one that bestows fame hastily and withdraws it cruelly, this can have devastating effects. At its worst, as recounted by John Leggett in Ross and Tom, it can lead to despair and suicide, as happened to both Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, the authors, respectively, of Raintree County and Mister Roberts. More typically, it leads writers down various paths in search either of ways to repeat that first success or of ways to depart from it.

In the case of Steven Millhauser, the splendid first book was followed by several others, most recently two collections of stories, The Barnum Museum and Little Kingdoms. Although they did not, alas, make much of a dent, we can see now that in them Millhauser was steering himself toward Martin Dressler, a book quite different from Edwin Mullhouse but similarly accomplished. In those books Millhauser was experimenting with ways of treating American mythology, of intermingling the realistic and the fantastic into a unique fabric that might help us see ourselves in a clearer and more revealing light.

Martin Dressler is the culmination of that undertaking. It tells the story of the ultimate American archetype, the dreamer, forever imagining "something else, something great, something greater, something as great as the whole world." The novel's opening paragraph establishes its themes and tones with a sureness that few writers could hope to achieve:

"There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune. This was toward the end of the 19th century, when on any street corner in America you might see some ordinary-looking citizen who was destined to invent a new kind of bottlecap or tin can, start a chain of five-cent stores, sell a faster and better elevator, or open a fabulous new department store with big display, windows made possible by an improved process for manufacturing sheets of glass. Although Martin Dressler was a shopkeeper's son, he too dreamed his dream, and at last he was lucky enough to do what few people even dare to imagine: he satisfied his heart's desire. But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin, in the end."

There you have it, almost literally in a nutshell. On the first page, Millhauser announces that this is to be an American fairy tale, one steeped in the mythology of American success and offering, at its end, a cautionary moral. That Millhauser then proceeds to deliver as advertised is no mean accomplishment, especially when one considers that in addition he tells an engaging story and brings turn-of-the-century Manhattan to life with precision and affection. In this latter respect Martin Dressler may remind some readers of Ragtime, but it is a far less self-conscious book than E. L. Doctorow's best-seller, and its purposes are far more serious.

Young Martin Dressler gets his first taste of business working at his father's cigar store, where he displays "a gift that surprised people: he could swiftly sense the temperament of a customer and make sensible, precise suggestions." He soon moves into the hotel business, where customers sense "some quality of sympathy or curiosity that made him concentrate his deepest attention on them, made him sense their secret moods." His rise is swift, from running a hotel-lobby cigar stand to managerial positions of steadily greater authority to opening his first lunchroom and billiard parlor to becoming a hotel magnate on his own; all this happens while he feels himself "being led by friendly powers toward a destination they had marked out for him."

His story is a mixture of Horatio Alger and Theodore Dreiser—Dressler/Dreiser doubtless is no accident—told in language out of the Brothers Grimm. Early in his career he is lured into the bed of a hotel guest, Mrs. Hamilton, who introduces him to the mysteries of love and tells him: "Everything seems like a dream. That's what they say, you know: life is a dream. As in that child's song—how does it go? Merrily merrily. Life is but a dream." As his career unfolds Martin's dreaming turns upon him; falling in with an attractive woman and her two marriageable daughters, he chooses the one so lost in dreams that she is disconnected from reality; then he embarks on successive hotel projects that aim not merely to provide lodging but to transport their customers into "a world within the world, rivaling the world; and whoever entered its walls had no further need of that other world."

When the story of Martin Dressler reaches this point it takes no great leap of the imagination to realize that it is, in mythical form, the story of Walt Disney, of all those American dreamers for whom fantasy—unreality—becomes the ultimate reality. Martin hires an advertiser who could as well be a promoter for Disney World: "it was Harwinton's belief that every city dweller harbored a double desire: the desire to be in the thick of things, and the equal and opposite desire to escape from the horrible thick of things to some peaceful rural place with shady paths, murmuring streams, and the hum of bumblebees over vaguely imagined flowers."

As should be self-evident, Millhauser has taken on big themes in Martin Dressler. These include not merely the American longing for illusion and escape, but also the pitfalls of great ambition and the rise and fall of the modern city. In embracing these themes it is therefore, a transparently American novel, and a most convincing one, well worth the long wait since Edwin Mullhouse.

Diana Postlethwaite (review date 6 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Cities of the Mind," in The Nation, May 6, 1996, pp. 68-72.

[In the following review, Postlethwaite compares the development of the theme of the world of the imagination in Edwin Mullhouse and Martin Dressler.]

On the surface, Steven Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, and his most recent, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, appear radically different in subject and scope. Edwin Mullhouse—the outrageously exhaustive literary biography (written by an 11-year-old!) of a writer whose "Early," "Middle" and "Late" periods span kindergarten through fifth grade—counts the angels on the head of a pin. Martin Dressler, in contrast, constructs a grand cosmology (a vast, turn-of-the-century New York City hotel named—what else?—The Grand Cosmo) to rival Dante's road map of heaven and hell. But both Edwin Mullhouse's biography and Martin Dressler's hotel are really cities of the mind, archeologies of the imagination.

Steven Millhauser's previous novels include Little Kingdoms and The Barnum Museum. The re-publication of his 1972 novel, Edwin Mullhouse, in conjunction with the appearance of Martin Dressler, provides an opportunity to discover patterns that have shaped the writer's ongoing aspirations and inspirations from beginning to end.

Edwin Mullhouse is a hoot of a book. Not since Vladimir Nabokov set Dr. Charles Kinbote loose to wreak havoc on poet John Shade's heroic couplets in Pale Fire has there been a more deliciously loony literary critic than Jeffrey Cartwright, the "real" author of Edwin Mullhouse.

You have to suspend your disbelief a bit, of course, to enjoy this Bugsy Malone of literary biographies. The truly annoying Jeffrey Cartwright, detecting signs of genius in his friend Edwin since birth, decides at age 5 that he will play a pint-sized Boswell. (Edwin's first, infant memory of Jeffrey is, appropriately, "a vague sensation of someone bending too close to me"). Jeffrey, a young fellow with apparently total recall, faithfully catalogues the titles of Edwin's 200 favorite cartoons, provides an exhaustive summary of "juvenilia"—thirty-one stories from a family newspaper, "an event of major significance in the spiritual history of my artistic friend"—and records Edwin's every word. Edwin Mullhouse's literary career climaxes with his one and only book, Cartoons (published posthumously in 1958). Ironically, the writer's death makes possible the biographer's Life.

Is it any coincidence that Edwin Mullhouse, with its lambent prose, flights of speculative free association and novelistic probings, was originally published in the same year as the final tome of Leon Edel's five-volume, bazillion-page life of Henry James? But then, why pick on Edel? Scores of literary biographers could be models for Millhauser's dead-on satire of the form.

Shrunk to the scale of Edwin Mullhouse's brief life span, childhood events loom large as defining moments: At 6 months, we learn, "Edwin was always sleeping"; "colds always took him by surprise"; "third grade surprised me: I had not anticipated desks." When a cohort hits the skids, "she drifted into the middle reading group and at last into the lowest reading group, from which she never emerged."

A big joke, of course (one Jeffrey shares with Kinbote) is that this unreliable narrator/biographer has no idea how deluded he is. Jeffrey's unctuous self-effacement is hollow to the core: "It has been my policy in this work to huddle modestly in the background." Who's the biographer really writing about? Why, himself, of course: "I, for one, can testify that even a modest biographer can be driven to strange devices for the sake of his throbbing book."

The even bigger joke, though—one it may take the reader longer to figure out—is the fact that Jeffrey Cartwright is correct: Edwin Mullhouse is a genius. And so is Jeffrey Cartwright (Steven Millhauser, too).

"Biography is so simple…. All you do is put in everything," says Edwin. And that's just what Jeffrey does, with mad abandon. There are wonderful pages on the poetry of Edwin's pre-verbal burbles (James Joyce meets Mister Rogers), and the miracle that happens in first grade: "Words were springing up all around him…. They grew on pencils, on lamps, on clocks, on paper bags, on cardboard boxes, on carpet sweepers, on the brass prongs of all plugs, on the bottom of plates, on the backs of spoons. They grew on his sneakers, in his underpants, on the inside of his shirt behind his neck."

"For what is genius," Millhauser writes, "but the capacity to be obsessed? Every normal child has that capacity … but sooner or later it is beaten out of us, the glory faded." What if, contrary to the Wordsworthian dictum that we must inexorably trade the heaven which "lies about us in our infancy" for the "light of common day," we could fully recall the wondrous way we saw the world as a child?

That's the imaginative premise of Edwin Mullhouse—and the grim joke behind Edwin's early death, which saves him from "the obscenity of maturity." It's also a clue to the main character's name, that seductive echo between "Edwin Mullhouse" and "Steven Millhauser." Not to wax biographical (pace, Jeffrey Cartwright!), but surely Mullhouse is Millhauser's childhood self—just as Cartwright is a darkly comic parody of the adult writer, shaping childhood memories to the procrustean bed of literary form.

Like Edwin Mullhouse, Millhauser's new novel, Martin Dressler, is a story of genius and obsession, in which an amazing world is built to the dictates of an unfettered imagination. It's a tale as American as a Horatio Alger. A German immigrant lad in New York City at the turn of the century rises from rolling cigars in his father's store to outtrumping The Donald as the builder of the most astounding hotels the world has ever seen.

At age 13, Martin takes the Prospect Park & Coney Island Railroad to West Brighton, where he has a transforming vision of the modern age: "Iron piers stretched out over the ocean, iron towers pierced the sky, somewhere under the water a great telegraph cable longer than the longest train stretched … and Martin had the odd sensation … that the world, immense and extravagant, was rushing away in every direction." The rest of the novel (which takes place between 1881 and 1905) chronicles Dressler's attempts to harness and contain that pulsing energy in a series of ever-grander business and building enterprises.

As a youth, Dressler wanders the "vast stretch of land" between the Hudson River and Central Park, a patchwork of row houses, vacant lots, chateaux, squatters' shacks and farms. As the city grows, so does Dressler's imagination: "It was as if the West End had been raked over by a gigantic harrow and planted with seeds of steel and stone; now as the century turned, the avenues had begun to erupt in strange, immense growths: modern flowers with veins of steel, bursting out of bedrock."

Historic New York has been the focus of popular novels from the nostalgic (Jack Finney's Time and Again) to the nasty (Caleb Carr's The Alienist). Martin Dressler's Manhattan joins the fantastic ranks of meta-cities as a worthy companion to Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and E. L. Doctorow's The Waterworks. If you're a fan of the time-travel genre, you'll relish the vivid detail with which Millhauser re-creates a bygone era: a flash of high-seated cyclists, distant sounds of an organ grinder, the smell of horse manure in the air. In contrast to the Joycean excess of Edwin Mullhouse, Martin Dressler's prose is spare, but still sensuous, as rich as a Tiffany lampshade "hand-painted with Nile-green sailboats, its gleam of slender glasses holding amber and emerald and ruby liquids."

Martin Dressler's astounding success comes from his uncanny ability to intuit the temper of an era still in its infancy. His restaurants flourish on prescient principles: relentless print advertising, linked stores with similar decor, name recognition, "five-minute" breakfasts (guaranteed), free prizes for the kids. Not content to invent the McDonald's of the horse and buggy set, however, he restlessly seeks out evermore difficult and daring endeavors. Dressler rises inexorably from desk clerk at the Vanderlyn Hotel to developer of a chain of "Metropolitan Lunchrooms" to innovator of the grandest of grand hotels.

In the hotel business, Martin Dressler finds his true métier. An epiphany sets the tone for the fantastical ventures that follow: "At once he saw: deep under the earth, in darkness impenetrable, an immense dynamo was humming … it was as if the structure were his own body, his head piercing the clouds, his feet buried deep in the earth, and in his blood the plunge and rise of elevators … a wild, sweet exhilaration." The self-contained universe of the hotel will literally body forth its creator's imagination.

I can't help but think of Martin Dressler's contemporary, Henry Adams, speculating in his Education that "the new American—the child of incalculable coal-power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as of new forces yet undetermined—must be a sort of God."

Just as Jeffrey Cartwright "creates" Edwin Mullhouse, so Martin Dressler realizes American dreams in concrete and steel. The apex of his creation, the Grand Cosmo itself, is an amalgam of hotel, museum, department store, amusement park and theater—twenty-three levels underground, thirty above—containing (and I offer only the most partial of lists): rustic cottages, caves, a New England Village, a Moorish Bazaar, a Seance Parlor, a Temple of Poesy, an Asylum for the Insane, a Theatrum Mundi, stage sets of the solar system and "black gardens of imagination" in a subterranean labyrinth. Millhauser's powers of description in this section of the book astound and delight.

The Grand Cosmo cleverly embodies the most profound contradictions of the modern American sensibility: our yearning for the nostalgic and the new, the exotic and the utterly familiar; a place at the very heart of the city—and a place where we can get away from it all. (I write this review a stone's throw from the Mall of America, that Grand Cosmo of the Upper Midwest!)

Yet Martin Dressler, man of his age with the Midas touch, builds the Grand Cosmo to his heart's desire—and it fails miserably. Why? Is Dressler being punished by a jealous God for satanic overreaching? Is there a fatal flaw in this creator that leads to the downfall of his creation? One clue may be found in his disastrous marriage. Dreams make terrible lovers, as he discovers after wedding the languorous beauty Caroline Vernon, a woman whose lotus-eating sensibility ("a sweet, melting melancholy, a dissolving shadowy sweetness of vague regret and dim longing") would seem at utter odds with Martin's go-getting ambition. His ill-fated attraction to Caroline suggests the darker proclivities of an obsessive imagination: Vigorous cities of the mind can also become entropic, escapist prisons.

Another clue to the fate of the Grand Cosmo can be found near the novel's end. Martin strolls the streets of his old neighborhood to discover that his first residence, the Bellingham Hotel, has vanished without a trace: "That was the way of things in New York…. Even as his new building rose story by story it was already vanishing, the trajectory of the wrecker's ball had been set in motion as the blade of the first bulldozer bit into the earth." Millhauser here takes a page from Prospero's book: "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces … the great globe itself" must inevitably dissolve as we awake from artifice to reality.

But I doubt Steven Millhauser is about to abjure his rough magic just yet. Edwin Mullhouse ends with Jeffrey bumping into yet another "interesting little fellow … I expect to be seeing more of … in the near future." At the conclusion of Martin Dressler, its hero ambles away from his failed hotel into the light of common day: "For the time being he would just walk along, keeping a little out of the way of things, admiring the view…. He was in no hurry." The year is 1905; Martin Dressler, the suggestive age of 33. I eagerly await another biography, another hotel, another novel.

Steven Millhauser with Jennifer Schuessler (interview date 6 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Steven Millhauser: The Business of Dreaming," in Publishers Weekly, May 6, 1996, pp. 56-7.

[In the following interview, Millhauser provides some insight on his perspectives regarding the creative process.]

Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, is perhaps best known as the home of the oldest racetrack in America, where Texans in the obligatory ten-gallon hats and the more genteel traditional horsey set gather each August for the Travers Stakes. But Steven Millhauser's imagination is captured more by structures like the old Batchelor mansion, an elaborately painted and turreted Victorian folly a few blocks off the main drag. "The man who built that was not thinking just of a practical dwelling," Millhauser tells PW on a brilliant early spring day. "He was a dreamer."

In seven novels and short-story collections, Millhauser has made a considerable reputation writing about the inner lives of novelists, painters, puppeteers and other assorted inventors. His latest novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, out last month from Crown, depicts a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur caught up in "a long dream of stone," building an increasingly fantastical series of hotels in a precisely evoked, but oddly ethereal, New York City. His ambitions culminate in the Grand Cosmo, a monstrously rococo pleasure dome that combines elements of the hotel, the department store, the carnival and the museum in its endlessly mutating interiors. This shadow city, "in comparison with which the actual city was not simply inferior, but superfluous," is the dreamer's greatest success, and the businessman's undoing.

But when attention turns to himself and his own creative impulses, Millhauser insists writers are the most boring people imaginable. "I'm assuming everything I say is of no interest whatsoever, and that's what allows me to say it," he warns. "If I thought it was of interest, I'd immediately be silent."

Tall and thin, with graying hair and a gently exacting professorial manner, Millhauser, 52, is disarmingly voluble even when threatening to revert to the public silence he has kept for most of his career. With few exceptions, he has scrupulously avoided interviews—"that means I'm now unscrupulous," he deadpans—and the biographical sheet on file in his publicist's office is revealingly blank. "You know, I was convinced you were going to describe my shirt. So I chose the least noticeable, the blandest one possible," he says of his (heretofore unnoticed) blue and purple plaid flannel.

Millhauser's playful mockery of his own public non-persona belies the persistent melancholy of his artist tales. His first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, published in 1972 (and reissued this month by Vintage), was a dark elegy for the creative genius of childhood, a portrait of the artist as a 12-year-old boy written by an overly literal, secretly envious best friend. The stories gathered in collections with names capturing Millhauser's fascination with the fantastic and the outmoded—The Barnum Museum, In the Penny Arcade, Little Kingdoms—often returned to the theme of the solitary inventor or artist, stranded both ahead of and behind his own time, gradually fading out of the real world and into the imaginary.

Now, after 25 years of making dreamers his business, Millhauser has made the dreamer a businessman. "I wanted to write about something as different from my earlier stories about artists as possible," he tells PW in a coffee shop across from the Adelphi, the only hotel remaining from Saratoga's heyday as a summer playground for the likes of J. P. Morgan, Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell. (Millhauser has lived in this historic town with his wife and two young children since the late 1980s). "And the thing most different from an artist is a businessman, someone who looks at the world practically. Now I have a feeling that as I did this I was secretly turning him into an artist, trying to find the place where his imagination touched mine, because I wanted it to be a sympathetic view. I've always liked the myth of the self-made man in America."

The novel grew out of research Millhauser did for a story called "Paradise Park," a long fantasy on turn-of-the-century Coney Island published in Grand Street in 1993. Millhauser had found a historical moment in which time itself seemed out of joint. "The grand hotels, the great department stores," Millhauser says, "always combined the most modern mechanisms—elevators, vacuum-cleaning systems—with deliberate imitations of old-fashioned European features. It's a wonderful contradiction—lookingback over your shoulder at something that is passing and also at everything that is aggressively modern in America."

Since the market forces that spectacularly reward and punish such dreamers in stone as Martin Dressler are generally oblivious to novelists of a serious bent, Millhauser has, since the late 1980s, taken four months out of each writing year to teach at Skidmore College. For him, teaching writing is an odd, paradoxical business, but he throws himself into it. "Writing can't be taught," he insists, "and if you know that you'll suffer much less confusion. But what can be taught is a certain kind of attentive, skillful reading. If you want to write, you absorb literature. And then you can't stop writing."

Millhauser recalls wanting to write stories ever since he could read them. "When I was seven years old," he in-tones, pausing with a mock portentousness worthy of Edwin Mullhouse's preadolescent biographer. "But seriously, I guess I always thought from childhood that I wanted to write. But then many children think that."

After finishing college at Columbia, Millhauser took part-time jobs, shuttled back and forth between New York City and his parent's house in Stratford, Conn., and completed numerous stories and a novel. An agent circulated the novel, and while Knopf rejected it, an editor did express interest in seeing his next book. In the meantime, Millhauser enrolled in the English Ph.D. program at Brown, working, over two summers, on the book that became Edwin Mullhouse. It was accepted "instantly," he says, by Knopf's Robert Gottlieb in 1971 and published to rave reviews in 1972.

Edwin Mullhouse is a not-so-gentle satire on the savage art of literary biography, which—quite literally, in the novel—murders genius in its very attempt to anatomize it. Jeffrey Cartwright, playing Boswell to the 12-year-old author of a hallucinatory masterpiece called Cartoons, documents everything from Edwin's earliest burblings to his schoolyard crushes on his most disturbed classmates. It's a dizzying, uncannily vivid elaboration of what Holden Caulfield memorably dismissed as "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," transplanted to suburban Connecticut of the 1940s. But in the end, our brief glimpse of Cartoons suggests that Jeffrey's biography—and the real world itself—is merely a "scrupulous distortion, a specious clarity and hardness imposed on mists and shadows."

While the novel is a wicked indictment of biography's excesses, Millhauser says, its mists and shadows are drawn straight from his own past. The book, he says, "has a deliberately implausible premise, which was what released me into being able to write about my childhood at all. I did Zola-like research, interviewing my third-grade teacher to find out exactly what happened. But within that, I invented wildly. The book imitates a certain kind of realistic novel, and pushes more and more toward the extravagant."

Millhauser followed up his debut with Portrait of a Romantic in 1977 and In the Penny Arcade in 1984, both from Knopf. When Knopf rejected an early version of From the Realm of Morpheus, his agent, Amanda Urban, took the book to Morrow, which published it in 1986. But Millhauser, desiring a smaller house that could give him more attention, subsequently went to Ann Patty's S&S imprint, Poseidon Press, which brought out The Barnum Museum in 1990. After Poseidon folded in 1993, just as Little Kingdoms was being published, Millhauser followed Patty to Crown. "So I've had a checkered past," he laughs.

Asked about connections between his first and latest novels, Millhauser admits there are "patterns I helplessly follow. I'm attracted to extreme things, and I see extreme things in a deeply practical culture doomed to failure. There's a place where things go too far, become too much of themselves. I seek out that place always. But on a technical level, with Martin Dressler's last hotel, I wanted to stretch the real into the fantastic without actually snapping it."

On the whole, Millhauser is reluctant to discuss openly the tasks he sets for himself as an artist, hewing to a highly articulate, grown-up version of "the maddening evasiveness" that bedeviled Edwin Mullhouse's fictional biographer. It's as if he doesn't want to let readers into the innermost chamber, to reveal just how the man behind the curtain is controlling the men behind their own curtains in his stories. "There's something so intimate about my imagination that I don't want to tamper with it."

Asked about the nature of fiction in a rare 1982 interview with Contemporary Authors, Millhauser made a typically firm, and typically evasive, declaration: "Unless a writer is a trained aesthetician, his opinion concerning the nature of fiction is of no more interest than his opinion concerning the nature of the economy." In other words, as one skeptical academic supposedly said of efforts to bring Nabokov to Harvard in the 1950s: "Why would you hire an elephant to teach zoology?"

While reluctant to identify himself with "the person representing Stephen Millhauser in that interview," the author backs up his old disclaimer. "Most writers are not terribly interesting when it comes to describing the nature of what they do. What you learn from a writer, as a rule, is what his passions are. If I wanted to learn how to think about art theoretically, I would not go to a writer. I would go to a philosopher. And then I would find the philosopher dry and dull and I would finally go back to the works of the writer."

But even as Millhauser asserts that artists as people are not interesting, that they have little of value to say about their own work, he finds their creative drive endlessly fruitful as a subject for his own art. "Artists are not terribly interesting if you observe them from the outside. But they're interesting insofar as they represent a refusal to behave the way conventional people behave. What artists do, if they're the real thing, is shut themselves off secretly in a room and ask not to be disturbed while they pursue waking dreams. This is a very curious way of behaving over a lifetime. It's very close to lunacy, in fact."

Does Millhauser really believe himself to be a lunatic? "Yes and no," he says. "It's as if my fear with each new book is that 'Oh, now I've really stepped over the edge. Now they'll know the truth about me, that I'm a screaming madman who spends all day having pictures in my mind and writing them down.' The only comfort a review has ever given me is that feeling that 'Ah, I'm allowed to do this. I can do this again.'"

But in characteristic style, Millhauser can't resist going on, pulling the rug out from under himself, wriggling out of one statement about his art with another, equally adamant declaration.

"As I say this, something else rises in me, which is the opposite of that—to assert the absolute validity of what I do. I have no doubts about it; I never have. Dreaming is the healthiest possible thing to do. It sounds arrogant, but when I make up these tales, I'm not removing myself from reality. I'm pointing myself absolutely toward the center."

He pauses. "Of course, I'm also aware that this may be a terrible delusion. I'm involved in a very peculiar human activity. But I'll never stop."

Janet Burroway (review date 12 May 1996)

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SOURCE: "Heartbreak Hotel," in The New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Burroway favorably assesses Martin Dressler.]

"Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." So says the narrator of Steven Millhauser's story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," and that claim, might stand as an epigraph to his new conjuring trick of a novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.

This wonderful, wonder-full book is a fable and phantasmagoria of the sources of our century "There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune … But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously." "Perilous privilege" is the core of Mr. Millhauser's analysis of that subgenre of fairy tale, the American Dream.

The setting is late-19th-century New York, a place where, like third sons in the tales of the brothers Grimm. Horatio Alger heroes hang out "on any, street corner" Martin's story is quickly told. He begins as a helper in his father's Broadway cigar store, does a clever kindness for an acquaintance and as a result becomes a bellboy at a nearby hotel. He is diligent, good-looking, inventively attentive and reserved, he rises to day clerk, then becomes the manager's private secretary. He takes over the lobby cigar stand as a sideline, opens a lunchroom, then another, becomes tempted by the idea of chain, or "linked," stores and eventually acquires the hotel he originally worked for. He is always interested in the larger scheme, both in the sense of manipulating many elements into a harmonious whole and of working toward something bigger and better. He builds a hotel of his own that goes underground and up in the air. Taken by the new notions of subway and skyscraper, he goes farther underground and farther up, and then farther, and then too far.

Running concurrently with this expansion of Martin's ambitions is the progress of his love life, which begins with his seduction by a voluptuous hotel guest. He proceeds through the usual sexual awakening, the usual whorehouse experience, then meets a trio of gentlewomen, a mother and two daughters, all of whom attract him in some way He charms the mother, Margaret, marries the languid Caroline and takes the plain but vibrant Emmeline into his business ventures. However, his wedding night is consummated not in his marriage bed but up in the hotel attic, with a thick-legged immigrant maid whose friendship he needs and whom he later abandons. Exhilarated by his sister-in-law and her "brave plunge into the world of work," aroused only by his monosyllabic wife, who is always at the edge of "thick, sticky sleep," he watches the sisters strangely merge and interchange. It appears that desire, too, elaborates itself in ever more rarefied and labyrinthine ways.

Martin Dressler is full of favorite Millhauser images: caves, castles, forests, clairvoyants, nickelodeon parlors, fortunetellers, photography studios, waxworks, conjurers, dragons and vampires. Set against these slightly tawdry fancies, however, is another hallmark of this writer—the flat, convincing grit of workaday experience, the machine behind the magic. Like his hero, Mr. Millhauser moves in two directions, toward the fantastical and the mundane, and for this the faux-naif tone of the fairy tale serves very well.

Martin himself is not a parody but a paradigm of the bootstrap capitalist. He might with perfect sensitivity have served—and got rich on—Edith Wharton's characters. He is the apogee of all that Willy Loman would admire. His early genius is for the nuances of servitude, a consciousness that the customer is not only always right but always vulnerable. Therefore, Martin tries to "imagine, the confusion of strangers, satisfy their desires, make things simple and orderly." As his skills develop and his dreams inflate, this shop-clerk sense becomes fabulous as he seeks to cater—with under-city waterfalls and Hindu temples—to "the hotel guest's need for solitude and mystery."

Martin is not so much interested in wealth as he is in making an alternate world, an ambition that is at once attractive and overweening. His passion is for the way things work and for making them work—for pattern, arrangement, combination, for solving the structural puzzle and the marketing enigma. He is quick to understand in this new age of telephones and dynamos, when, nonetheless, goats still roam behind the ramshackle fences of the West 70's, that people want "to move in both directions at once—to introduce every mechanical improvement without fail, and at the same time to emphasize the past," to preserve "an older world of stone arches and hand-carved wood." Through his architect partner, he becomes obsessed with the notion of "inner eclecticism"—the structural fusion of disparate elements, the stone and steel equivalent of a mall-order catalogue.

Of course, "inner eclecticism" bears a striking resemblance to post-modernism, but Martin Dressler is not a story that parallels our world. Rather, the novel X-rays it in utero, showing how the ideas and infatuations of our lives were already fully formed at the turn of the century. Here the advertising man is already God, the developer already insatiable. At the moment of each leap up the entrepreneurial ladder, Martin is visited by a surge of dissatisfaction. Others pull out, take their money and run. "Was there then something wrong with him, that he couldn't just rest content? Must he always be dreaming up improvements? And it seemed to Martin that if only he could imagine something else, something great, something greater, something as great as the whole world, then he might rest awhile." The ultimate enterprise is the Grand Cosmo, "not a hotel at all" but an experiment in enclosed community, something like a vertical city and something like a global village—and finally a dystopian disaster of clash, uncertainty and confusion.

One of the novel's marvelous motifs is a cigar-store Indian, nicknamed Tecumseh, that it is the boy Martin's pleasure to wheel out in front of his father's shop every morning. As Martin becomes more successful, so do his props, and this icon of Americana transmutes into a Pilgrim emblem for the restaurant chain, turns to stone on the facade of the Hotel Dressler as a group of massive statues of Pilgrims and Indians, then proliferates in a museum-like display with a wigwam, a wax squaw and a chief smoking a pipe. Later it turns robotic in a carefully counterfeited Grand Cosmo Cigar Store, which also houses "authentic German cigar makers," and finally fuses with Martin's dream as an image of doom.

Mr. Millhauser's story often suggests an affiliation with philosophy rather than folklore, and in particular brings to mind the French critic Guy Debord's perception that in our world the artificial and the real have exchanged places. (In a culture of electricity and annual holidays, for example, to pace one's work to the rhythm of the seasons or daylight would amount to affectation)

Very early in the novel, when Martin is still employed by his father, the day clerk of the Vanderlyn Hotel takes him up in an elevator and through a series of corridors They turn a corner and come upon a surreal collection of people, including a woman who wrings her hands, weeps and falls to the floor. A silk-hatted man goes to her aid, but the others merely sit and stand around, seemingly indifferent; one concentrates on peeling an orange. Like Martin, we learn with shock that these are actors in rehearsal. Late in the novel, when the Grand Cosmo begins to fall, he offers free accommodation to actors to make it look as if the rooms were taken—which, naturally, they then are, producing "the rather complicated little effect of false life that, in the acting, became less false, that spilled into the real, since the actors knew each other and were pleased to talk, to walk about, to go on with their lives in a pleasant new setting."

Throughout the capitalist enterprise, a dangerous, magical and mundane exchange takes place between the found and the fabulated worlds, and both these worlds are finite: "The trajectory of the wrecker's ball had been set in motion as the blade of the first bulldozer bit into the earth." Martin Dressler coolly explores this American Dream in all its manifestations as aim, vision, intention, nightmare, hallucination, delusion, death. The great city—and by extension America, with its ever more exotic immigrants, its ever more hyperbolic advertising, its voracious ambition, its headlong rush into the 20th century—becomes "a fever patient in a hospital, thrashing in its sleep, erupting in modern dreams."

R. Z. Sheppard (review date 10 June 1996)

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SOURCE: "Trump, the Early Days," in Time, June 10, 1996, pp. 82-3.

[In the following review, Sheppard discusses Martin Dressler, suggesting that the architectural structures in the story are metaphors for American culture.]

Why do novelists like to stereotype American entrepreneurs as single-minded and heartless? Perhaps because so many are. Herman Melville set the tone in 1857 with The Confidence-Man. Mark Twain later brought the national style of go-getting to popular perfection in Huckleberry Finn. An adult rereading of that masterpiece reveals a hierarchy of hustlers, from runaway slave Jim and his fortune-telling hair ball to the outlandish charlatans calling themselves the King and the Duke.

At the other literary extreme, Horatio Alger's heroes triumphed through trustworthiness, diligence and stupefying practicality. As usual, the truth about the business world lies somewhere between comic cynicism and Rotarian sentimentality, in a psychological wilderness area now artfully surveyed by Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.

Set in New York City at the turn of the century, this tale of a young man, a real-estate dreamer, embodies both the realities and the fantasies of a growing nation infatuated with its own possibilities. Dressler is only nine years old when he builds a display that makes the 5 cent cigars in his father's tobacco shop look more expensive. As a teenage bellhop, he boosts sales at a hotel concession. In 1894 at the age of 22, he opens the Metropolitan Lunchroom and Billiard Parlor, a winning concept that is expanded northward into the newly developing acreage bordering Central Park.

Among the pleasures of Millhauser's fourth novel, which continues in the author's previous vein of treating American history with dreamlike obsession, are descriptions of Manhattan as it began to transform its landscape into a 20th century skyline: an eruption of "modern flowers with veins of steel, bursting out of bedrock." It does not take a Viennese mind doctor to find eroticism in such charged imagery. Building cities is a procreative business, and Dressler is an evocative example of a breed driven to reproduce itself in concrete. A decision to marry a withdrawn woman of no discernible personality is a strong indication of his diverted passions.

In such respects Martin Dressler is an urban fable about civilization and its discontents, the repression of instincts in the service of progress. Yet this commercial hero also represents a period of social history when ambition and new wealth outstripped utility and taste. Dressler's Grand Cosmo, an architectural and cultural Tower of Babel, is part residence and part theme park. Within its 30 stories and two subterranean levels are a beach, a lake, a model New England village, a Moorish bazaar and a simulated asylum for the insane. Criticized as an example of "the worst excesses of late Victorian eclecticism," Dressler's folly fails spectacularly, a case of too much too late. In the end Dressler completes the illusion and his ruination by hiring actors to play customers.

Turning real estate into a reflection of a mind that in turn mirrors a society is a tricky literary feat. Millhauser pulls it off by lowering the barriers between realism and myth. The effect is also to remove artificial distinctions between the entrepreneur and the artist. Both, this well-told tale of obsession suggests, are gripped by demonic energies and grand schemes. And both take big risks, not the least of which is to be consumed by their own creations.

Dinitia Smith (essay date 9 April 1997)

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SOURCE: "Shy Author Likes to Live and Work in Obscurity," in The New York Times, April 9, 1997, pp. C13, C18.

[In the following essay, Smith provides some biographical information about the author and a summary of his works.]

The writer Steven Millhauser was teaching his fiction workshop class at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Monday afternoon when the chairman of his department entered the classroom and handed him a note asking him to call a reporter from a local newspaper "re: Pulitzer." "I told my students that a grotesque error had been committed," Mr. Millhauser said yesterday, "and that I had to straighten it out."

Of course, it was no error. Mr. Millhauser had received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, published last year. But his suspicions were understandable. Until today, few but readers of serious fiction had heard of Mr. Millhauser, a shy, 53-year-old author of seven books, including four novels.

Known primarily for his 1972 novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, the fictional-biography of a cartoon-obsessed 11-year-old written by his best friend, Mr. Millhauser has deliberately kept himself out of the mainstream, preferring to type out his novels in solitude, first in his parents' attic, and since the late 1980's in his home in Saratoga Springs. His books have received relatively low advances, and his new novel was published by Crown rather than by Knopf, which has been a bulwark of prize-winning literary fiction and published some of his earlier work.

Mr. Millhauser's Martin Dressler is the story of a self-made man in 19th-century New York City, a kind of phantasmic hero out of Dreiser, Martin begins by helping out in his father's cigar store and becomes an entrepreneur whose career is a metaphor for the construction of the modern city. He is a builder, retailer and hotel owner who tries to satisfy his guests' needs "for solitude and mystery," with under-city waterfalls and Hindu temples. Martin's goal is "to imagine the confusion of strangers, satisfy their desires, make things simple and orderly.". He wants "to move in both directions at once—to introduce every mechanical improvement without fail, and at the same time to emphasize the past."

In many ways, Martin Dressler is a typical Millhauser book, reflecting the author's obsession with popular culture, with labyrinths and dreams, and portraying a world in which the real and the fabricated have become intermingled.

When the novel was published last year, Janet Burroway, writing in the New York Times Book Review called it a "wonderful, wonder-full book." The novel, she wrote, shows "how the ideas and infatuations of our lives were already formed at the turn of the century." The book was a finalist for this year's National Book Award for fiction.

"I've always been interested in the American myth of the self-made man." Mr. Millhauser said in a telephone interview, "the idea you can work your way up the ladder. It's as central to our culture as the Faust myth is to Germany. I wanted to confront the fable head on."

Mr. Millhauser was born in 1943 in New York City, where his father was a professor of English at City College. He spent some of his childhood in Brooklyn before his father became, a professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He attended high school in Fairfield and went on to Columbia University. A three-year period as a graduate student at Brown University followed. Mr. Millhauser planned to get a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance literature; indeed, Spenser's "Fairie Queene" has been one of the influences on his work. "I was someone who wanted to be a novelist, but I was having trouble writing." Mr. Millhauser said. "I was wandering around, wondering what to do. I have a scholarly strain in me. I was officially at school, but secretly writing at night."

The book he was secretly writing was Edwin Mullhouse. It is a strange work, a biography of a baseball-obsessed child who dies at 11 written by his envious best friend. It is both a sardonic portrait of an artist and a parody of literary biography. William Hjortberg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it "a mature, skillful, intelligent and often very funny novel."

Mr. Millhauser spent the following years "dimly earning a living," he said, and continuing to write in his parents' attic. In 1977 came Portrait of a Romantic, a fictitious account of the narrator's life from ages 12 to 15, published by Knopf. In the Penny Arcade, a collection of stories and a novella appeared in 1986. He wrote a third novel. From the Realm of Morpheus, in which a man watching a softball game follows the ball down a hole into the realm of dreams, but the manuscript was over 1,000 pages long, and Mr. Millhauser refused to cut it. Robert Gottlieb, then an editor at Knopf, turned it down.

Eventually, however, Mr. Millhauser agreed to cut the manuscript, and it was published by Morrow in 1988. Next came The Barnum Museum, a collection of stories, in 1990. The title story was about a museum with fantastic rooms that "represents the imagination," he said. The book reflected Mr. Millhauser's love of popular culture and was published by Poseidon Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, where his editor was Ann Patty.

In 1993 Little Kingdoms, another collection, was published. When the Poseidon imprint folded that year, Mr. Millhauser decided to follow Ms. Patty, his editor, to Crown, an imprint of Random House. "Steven has been published by a lot of houses," said Carolyn Reidy, the current president and publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade division. "It shows you editorial passion counts, no matter what house you're in."

Martin Dressler, which was chosen for the Pulitzer over Unlocking the Air and Other Stories, by Ursula K. LeGuin, and The Mannikin, by Joanna Holt, took two years to write. Though Mr. Millhauser knew he wanted to write about New York at the turn of the century, his knowledge of the era was limited.

"My immediate problem was ignorance," he said. "I had chosen to write a period piece. I researched the necessary time and place—what does the front of a cigar store in 1890 look like, for instance? A writer has to steep himself in research. But he must also be free to play with it and twist it. The turn of the century in New York was an era of astonishing physical changes—Manhattan was slowly marching uptown. I read novels of the times, Howells, Wharton."

Today, Mr. Millhauser teaches at Skidmore one full semester each year, and spends the rest of the time writing. His wife, Cathy, creates crossword puzzles. They have two children. "I don't anticipate the Pulitzer will change my life at all," he said. "I dare it to change my life!"

Further Reading

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Birkerts, Sven. A review of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser. The Yale Review 85, No. 1 (January 1997): 144-49.

A review of Martin Dressler in which Birkerts calls the book a "Horatio Alger novel with a twist, a bildungsroman of American capitalism."

Kunkel, Benjamin. A review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser. The Nation 266, No. 19 (25 May 1988): 33-5.

A positive review of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories in which Kunkel praises Millhauser's prose as "lucid, exact and formal," and compares the author to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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Millhauser, Steven


Millhauser, Steven (Vol. 21)