Dreiser and Zola; The Financier


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, The Financier, Chapter 1



“The Financier, the third of Dreiser’s published novels, marks a distinct turning point in his career. It is at once a departure from his characteristic subject matter and the beginning of his use of the larger canvas to which he knew that his fictional works were most ideally suited. Both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt had been essentially autobiographical works drawn from Dreiser’s family and work experiences, as was The “Genius,” which was drafted by 1911 but not yet published. Contrasting strongly with those works, The Financier was planned from its inception as an extensive work based (as Emile Zola had advised) upon research. Elements deriving from the writer’s personal and professional lives were now held to a mere shadow of their former prominence. The new story itself was huge, involving a multitude of prominent characters interacting with the central figure over a span of years; it was conceived as a cradle-to­-grave saga, the complete telling of one very significant and individual American life.

“As always in Dreiser’s realist fiction, The Financier is grounded firmly in the socioeconomic context of the author’s youth and young manhood. …”

— Philip Gerber, A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia



I loved the way The Financier begins. In typical Dreiser fashion it draws you right into the novel. And, the beginning and opening chapters place you in nineteenth century Philadelphia, what it was like to live there. And for a boy such as Frank Algernon Cowperwood.

Cowperwood is born in Philadelphia, as was the financier Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr., the real life model for Cowperwood. Dreiser closely followed the actual life of Yerkes in The Financier and two succeeding novels. (Dreiser’s three novels — The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic — comprise the so-called Trilogy of Desire.)

By the time Dreiser began The Financier, he had amassed over 2,000 pages of handwritten notes, some of them verbatim transcriptions of newspaper articles, and he had been saving newspaper clippings from at least a decade earlier when he was living in New York City, Yerkes’ last place of residence.

The influence of Balzac on Dreiser — evident in the latter’s first work, Sister Carrie — has been commented upon frequently by Dreiser scholars (and by me in posts on this site). Zola was clearly a major influence too. This is most evident in An American Tragedy, but it can also be seen in works such as The Financier, as noted above by the late Philip Gerber, an authority on the Trilogy of Desire.

When it comes to An American Tragedy, I feel that Dreiser does not get sufficient credit for the extensive research by him in newspapers that was involved. All we hear for the most part is complaints about how Dreiser plagiarized from accounts of the Gillette murder case and trial. Actually, this was not plagiarism. He drew upon such accounts. And he (for example) quoted more or less verbatim from some of the letters of Grace Brown (the real life Roberta Alden). That is not technically plagiarism. Plagiarism is when one steals another author’s work without giving credit.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2021


3 thoughts on “Dreiser and Zola; The Financier

  1. irinamorogmailcom

    Thank you, Roger for your defence of Dreiser. Each great writer is more or less inspired by the real life and facts , especially in the case with the 19th-early 20th century social writings. Stendhal took a real trial as a basis for his great The Red and the Black as well.

    By the way , do you know if Dreiser read this novel? In many ways the plot of the both novels is the same story of the career pursuit.

    Всего доброго, И.В. Морозова

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Roger W. Smith Post author

      Thank you for the interesting comment, Irina. We are in agreement!

      Regarding The Red and the Black, I think I began to read it once, but I have not read it. I am told that it is a great book. This came from a friend of mine in New York City when I was first living here. He was one of the most well read persons I have ever met. He basically could not put the book down, and said it was an outstanding work.

      Since Stendahl’s The Red and the Black was not in Dreiser’s extensive private library – compiled by Roark Mulligan in an outstanding feat of research; see the University of Pennsylvania’s Dreiser web source site at


      I would guess Dreiser never read The Red and the Black. I have never seen Stendhal mentioned in works about Dreiser.

      Dreiser did have a copy of The Chartreuse of Parma in his private library. My friend said that was also a great work. Or, perhaps I am confused about which Stendahl work my friend actually read.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Roger W. Smith Post author

      Irina – Dreiser had 12 of Zola’s works in his private library, including L’assommoir, Germinal, and Nana. I have purchased many Zola works in paperback, with good intentions. I have to read them!

      Liked by 1 person


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