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The Return of Riches to Rags Tales

Some of our best stories are about hubris, aiming too high, and falling from spectacular heights.

The morning headlines read like teensy plot summaries. "Billionaire absconds!," I scan, and then start hoping some novelist, poet, littwitterer, or screenwriter gets to work. I cannot wait for a "fall of" wave of art to come. (If e-books have their way with us, I may not have to wait long.)Rags to riches stories are pleasant, sure, but riches to rags stories warm the cockles of our bankrupt hearts. The plots invented by Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger-the mythmakers of the American Dream-are 30-year fixed-rate mortgages: steady, soothing, sleep inducing. But those that reverse the trajectory, that chronicle the hubris, moral choices, and anxieties of those who aim too high and fall, these are penny stocks: easy to get into, but once invested, take you on an Red Bull ride.American realists at the turn of the twentieth century loved to write about the rising action and denouement of financiers and their escorts. Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, The Financier, and The Titan, and William Dean Howells' The Hazard of New Fortune and The Rise of Silas Lapham, are realistic, historically detailed dramas about the ethical stakes of capitalism (spoiler alert: they tend to end badly).William Dean Howells was the "Dean of American Literature," editor of the Atlantic Monthly, maker of literary reputations, and buddy of Mark Twain. He was also a wonderful novelist who chronicled the clash of new and old money. His 1895 The Rise of Silas Lapham is probably his best. At the beginning of the novel, Silas Lapham is a successful businessman. He makes his fortune in paint, and moves his newly rich family to Boston to hob nob with the old money. He builds a large house in the then hot, new Back Bay neighborhood, and spends his money on "rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments" for his family. But he is never allowed entré into society. Lapham loses all his money but acts with integrity-hence his "rise." (Download the e-book for free at Project Gutenberg.)Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler: The Tale of An American Dreamer (1997) is a fantastic (literally and figuratively) riff on this genre. Set in the time in which Wharton, Dreiser, and Howells lived, Millhauser works his prodigious imagination on the myth of the self-made man in this too-little-read Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Dressler is a New York City cigarmaker's son who dreams of making big, big, big hotels. Let me make that clear: these are really big hotels. On one floor, the elevator opens onto a forest in the country; another, a mountainside with caves. Hotel amenities include a Temple of Poesy, where women in slinky tunics recite verse 24/7.Martin Dressler conjures the magic of capitalism gone rancid, a bedtime story for Ambien addicts. Tonight, after putting the headlines on your computer to sleep, read it to your unemployed love. I'll start you off:"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 nineteenth century, when on any street corner in America you might see some ordinary-looking citizen who was destined to invent a new kind of bottle cap or tin can…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."(Illustration John DuBois)

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