The American Dream has been taking a bit of a beating in the last decade. George W. Bush got elected by a questionable Supreme Court vote. The tragedy of 9/11 quickly followed, with an equally tragic, Cheney-led response. Afghan and Iragi wars, supposedly quickly won, turned into quagmires. And now, with the collapse of the American financial structure, the country is headed into an economic period that may make Steinbeck’s Depression look almost trivial. GM is in bankruptcy protection; banks are failing and a recent New Yorker article outlines how a Mexican tycoon is poised to become the owner of the New York Times. Those of us who grew up in North America in the post-WWII years never dreamed this would come to pass.
All of which makes it a perfect time to read Martin Dressler, The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser, to remind you of what made America what it was at its peak and what it might be capable of in the future. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 but a recent Abebooks post called it one of the most forgotten Pulitzer winners of all time. I’d like to dispute that but I do have to admit that until The Mookse and The Gripes reviewed it, I hadn’t heard of it either. That failure has now been rectified and I am happy to report that it is a wonderful book that deserves more attention. It contemplates, and in many ways celebrates, an attitude that has been eclipsed by recent troubles.
The dreamer of the title is introduced in 1881 in his father’s cigar shop, just off the lower end of Broadway between Union and Madison Squares — that pretty much defines his world. Millhauser wastes no time in describing Martin’s first dream, a cigar tree that would display 16 cigars which he wants to place in his father’s shop window. He has already calculated that should the tree produce only one additional sale of a nickel cigar each week, that added revenue would leave enough for three more fares on the steam train from Prospect Park to Coney Island each year, the summer excursion that is the highpoint of his young life.
The cigar tree doesn’t work out quite as well as Martin imagined, but never mind — it was a learning experience. As we are quick to discover, he thrives on them. Not long after this venture, Martin’s friendly personality attacts attention and he has a part time job as a bellboy at the Vanderlyn Hotel, just down the street. It is here that he begins to observe some of the upcoming movers and shakers who are part of New York City at the time. And while he is doing well at the hotel, the resistance of the manager to some of his progressive suggestions starts to tell him something about himself:
In Mr. Westerhoven’s arguments there was always a ground of the solid and practical, but Martin knew that they were arguing less about elevators or telephones or expenditures than about something else: they were arguing about the manager’s secret desire to stop the city from its rush into the new century, his desire to return to his childhood parlor with its soft dark rug, its heavy curtains and vases of heavy-headed flowers, its mother with her bag of knitting in the easy chair by the window.
I have to digress here for just a bit. I am a great fan of Edith Wharton and Henry James and their description of New York City around the turn of the century. In both their novels and short stories, they explore the transition then taking place as a merchant and entrepreneurial class gradually replaced the land-owning “aristocracy” that previously ruled New York. Wharton and James tell that story from the perspective of the upper classes; Millhauser, writing almost a century later, tells the same story, but looks from the bottom up. If you liked The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth you want to read this book to complete your experience.
Martin’s first business venture comes from watching the cigar stand in the Vanderlyn lobby. It has inferior products with no customer service — and in short order he has taken over the lease, installed a knowledgable and customer-friendly manager and a capitalist has been born. The stand prospers and in almost no time Martin is on his way to setting up the Metropolitan Lunchroom, soon to become the Metropolitan Cafe and that soon to expand into an early version of IHOP or whatever eating chain strikes your fancy.
The novel, however, takes a much different turn when the Vernon threesome is introduced. Mrs. Vernon is a Boston widow; she and her daughters, Caroline and Emmeline, have taken up residence in the Bellingham Hotel, where Martin also is now residing. At this stage, the book moves from the kind of dreams we all experience into a whole new world.
Martin has grand development plans that extend well beyond a chain of cafes. Emmeline proves to be not only a useful sounding board, but a more than competent manager. Yet it is her older sister, Caroline, whom Martin sees as his wife — and that eventually comes to pass in one of the stranger courtships known to fiction.
As the story unfolds, Martin’s dreams and ambitions, not unlike those of the New York of the day, get grander and grander. The Dressler Hotel is his first venture — and that one we as readers can comprehend. As he moves on to the New Dressler and finally the Grand Cosmo, Millhauser takes the reader into territory that is more reminiscent of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale than Wharton or James. The personal relationships become strained; the business developments even stranger. Consider Martin’s contemplation of the department store:
The idea was to lure customers in by means of skillfully arranged display windows and then to persuade them that they never had to leave, since everything they desired was immediately at hand. It struck him that what the stores really ought to do, if they wanted to keep customers there for as long as possible was add several hundred parlor-and-bedroom suites. And as Martin pursued such thoughts, again he was struck by the kinship between the hotel and the department store, for each sought to attract and hold customers, each sought to be a little world in itself, each brought into a single large structure an immense number of juxtaposed objects serving a single idea. The department store and the hotel were little cities within the city, but they were also experimental cities, cities in advance of the city, for they represented in different forms the thrust toward vertical community that seemed to Martin the great fact of the modern city.
Martin Dressler is a particularly timely book because those dreamy business developments are eerily similar to a lot of what people gambled on in good faith over the last few years — Bernie Madoff would be right at home in the latter stages of this book. Millhauser does an exceedingly good job of setting that part of the story up. As the story becomes more and more fantastic, this reader at least was more than willing to go along. And when I did pause, it was to wonder in amazement at how the author had anticipated what was going to happen in the decade after he wrote the book — even though I don’t think that was his intention.
For anyone who has ever visited Manhattan, Martin Dressler is a fascinating account of how that city became what we know today — how the vista of six storey buildings became 20 storeys and then 30 and then more. Equally, it is a fascinating account of a personality who dreamed the dreams that produced those results. And perhaps most important, as the reader contemplates Martin’s failures, a lesson about what has been going wrong in the last few years. In short, a timely novel that succeeds on many fronts.