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Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer ()

Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books

    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 streetcorner 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.
        -Martin Dressler

Steve Millhauser, in both the subtitle of this book and the opening lines quoted above, notifies the reader that the story of Martin Dressler is the stuff of myth, and an intensely American myth at that.  In the New York City of the 1890s, Martin rises from humble beginnings in his father's cigar store to  become the City's greatest hotelier.  With each new wildly successful venture, Martin's dreams grow in scope.  Until he arrives at his final creation, the Grand Cosmo, with subterranean levels and hidden rooms.  It houses impossibilities like trout streams and geysers, boardwalks and bazaars :

    [T]he Grand Cosmo was not a tourist attraction or a hotel for transients, but a world within the
    world, rivaling the world; and whoever entered its walls had no further need of that other world.

But when it starts to fail, Martin wonders if he is at last a victim of hubris :

    For surely the Grand Cosmo was an act of disobedience.  Or he was being punished for something
    deeper than crime, for a desire, a forbidden desire, the desire to create the world ?

Indeed, this time Martin has gone too far and not all the genius of his creation, nor the power of his advertisements and promotions can save the Grand Cosmo from failure.  But as the story ends and he looks back on his life he is relatively content :

    For he had done as he liked, he had gone his own way, built his castle in the air.  And if in the end
    he had dreamed the wrong dream, the dream that others didn't wish to enter, then that was the way
    of dreams, it was only to be expected, he had no desire to have dreamt otherwise.

Besides the magic tinged prose, something like a cross between E. L Doctorow and Mark Helprin, what gives the book its great power is this essential vision.  Of course Martin has dared too much and has left his patrons behind, but there's a strong sense throughout, even as he's failing, that such extravagant dreamers are central to American innovation, even central to human progress.  For what may have started out as a comment on the all-consuming nature of capitalism and of the American Dream, ends up partaking of the Fall of Man and dealing with the mad ambitions that drive the species.  Martin's dreams may ultimately come a cropper, but how much worse never to have dreamed ?  This is an ambitious attempt at epic mythmaking which succeeds brilliantly.


Grade: (A+)


Steven Millhauser Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Steven Millhauser
    -ESSAY: What Does “Stylist” Even Mean? On Steven Millhauser’s “Disruptions” (Josh Cook, December 19, 2023, LA Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Essential Steven Millhauser: Where to Start With An Underrated American Master: Spoiler Alert: It's Not With Martin Dressler (Emily Temple, August 3, 2020, LitHub)
    -REVIEW: of We Others by Steven Millhauser (aaron Thier, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Disruptions by Steven Millhauser (The New Yorker)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : from Enchanted Night : A Novella
    -Steven Millhauser (Bold Type)
    -New York State Writers Institute - Steven Millhauser
    -PROFILE : Steven Millhauser, American Dreamer (Donald W. Faulkner)
    -PROFILE : Writer's writer is a winner (Lois Blinkhorn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 13, 1997)
    -ARCHIVES : "steven millhauser" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : millhauser (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Edwin Mullhouse by Steven Millhauser (Class Notes)
    -ESSAY : Cyberspace and Law: Some Speculations on the Movement From Place to Process (Ethan Katsh)
    -ESSAY : The Ubiquitous PC: Courts and Commentators Alike Recognize That Technology Is Changing Society (Stuart Biegel, Los Angeles Daily Journal, June 26, 1997)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Martin Dressler (Random House)
    -REVIEW : of MARTIN DRESSLER The Tale of an American Dreamer. By Steven Millhauser (1996) ( Janet Burroway, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Dressler (Mary Kuntz, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Dressler (R.Z. SHEPPARD, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Dressler (Carmen Cambareri, Albany Online)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Dressler (World & I)
    -REVIEW : of Martin Dressler (Kevin Dicus, Arizona Daily Wildcat)
    -REVIEW : of Edwin Mullhouse (Curled Up)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE PENNY ARCADE By Steven Millhauser (1986)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of IN THE PENNY ARCADE By Steven Millhauser (1986) (Robert Dunn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of FROM THE REALM OF MORPHEUS. By Steven Millhauser (1986) (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of FROM THE REALM OF MORPHEUS. By Steven Millhauser (John Crowley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Barnum Museum   By Steven Millhauser (1990) (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Barnum Museum   By Steven Millhauser (1990) (Jay Cantor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of LITTLE KINGDOMS Three Novellas. By Steven Millhauser (Frederic Tuten, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Little Kingdoms by Steven Millhauser (Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of THE KNIFE THROWER And Other Stories. By Steven Millhauser (1998)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE KNIFE THROWER And Other Stories. By Steven Millhauser (1998) (Patrick McGrath, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower (D. T. Max, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower & Other Stories By Steven Millhauser (Kelly Milner Halls, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser (Michael Upchurch, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower (Michael L. Rozansky, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower : Irrealism in the U.S.A. (reviews of books by Donald Antrim,   Stephen Millhauser and Colson Whitehead) (Alice Whittenburg, The Cafe Irreal)
    -REVIEW : of The Knife Thrower (Margot Livesey, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Enchanted Night By Steven Millhauser (1999) (Tobin Harshaw, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser (Cathryn Alpert, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Enchanted Night (Audrey M. Clark, Rambles)
    -REVIEW : of Enchanted Night (Andrew B. Roth, Associated Press)
    -REVIEW : of Enchanted Night (Ben Marcus, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -AWARD : 1997 Pulitzer Prize : Martin Dressler

    -ESSAY : IN PURSUIT OF THE ULTIMATE FICTION (Justin Kaplan, April 19, 1987, NY Times Book Review)