Essay 90: Is History the Story of Technology? Dreiser’s Novel

Due to the welter of inventions and gadgets around us, we have come to understand the entire past our “path to the present” as the story of technical milestones. This is a very narrow-gauge view of the world, but it is part of our “epochal waters” that buoy us up (i.e., our minds immediately go there without our knowing quite why). Consider the opening paragraph of Dreiser’s (died in 1945) novel, The Financier. The past is explained as a setting for technical change by itself:

The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not then in existence the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage stamps or registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing railroad system still largely connected by canals.

Theodore Dreiser (Chapter I, opening paragraph of the novel)

The larger story is described here. Notice the Panic of 1873 as pivotal:

In Philadelphia, Frank Cowperwood, whose father is a banker, makes his first money by buying cheap soaps on the market and selling it back with profit to a grocer. Later, he gets a job in Henry Waterman & Company, and leaves it for Tighe & Company. He also marries an affluent widow, in spite of his young age. Over the years, he starts embezzling municipal funds. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire redounds to a stock market crash, prompting him to be bankrupt and exposed. Although he attempts to browbeat his way out of being sentenced to jail by intimidating Mr. Stener, politicians from the Republican Party use their influence to use him as a scapegoat for their own corrupt practices. Meanwhile, he has an affair with Aileen Butler, a young girl, subsequent to losing faith in his wife. She vows to wait for him after his jail sentence. Her father, Mr. Butler dies; she grows apart from her family. Frank divorces his wife. Sometime after being released, he invests in stocks subsequent to the Panic of 1873, and becomes a millionaire again. He decides to move out of Philadelphia and start a new life in the West.

This is Book 1 of the “Trilogy of Desire.”