Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
by Steven Millhauser (1996)
Vintage (1997)
293 pp


I first read this book about a decade ago, and I didn’t like it much. I thought it was boring. Well, if nothing else, let this post be about second chances and about how our situation in life may well be the real reason we fail to appreciate a book. I decided a few nights ago to reread it to review it in anticipation of this year’s Pulitzer (Millhauser has a book of short stories that was selected by The New York Times as one of 2008’s five best books of fiction, so he is a contender this year too). When I started it this time I was thinking, let’s just give it a few pages. I was immediately drawn into the world of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. I’m sure one of the reasons I appreciate it more is that I’m a much better reader now than I was then. I feel more of the subtlety. Also, my experience with people and with settings has increased my ability to connect with the book. The first time I read it all of the details bringing New York City of 1880 to life failed to grab me; this time, now that I roam those same streets, it was striking!

Millhauser’s evocation of old New York was, well, as I said, striking. The past seemed so real it is haunting; or, rather, I felt as if I were there haunting the past. Here is an early description that was one of the main reasons I kept reading past the first few pages:

Martin’s mother almost never allowed him to cross Broadway, where great red or yellow omnibuses pulled by teams of two horses came clattering by; once she had seen a man hit by the wheel of an omnibus, and another time she had seen a horse lying in the middle of the street. She herself shopped at the less expensive stores on Sixth Avenue, where high in the air the Elevated tracks stretched away like a long roof with holes in it for the sun to come through. But the line of stores and hotels on their side of Broadway between the two big shady squares, Union and Madison, was almost as familiar to Martin as his own street. At Madison Square Park his mother liked to sit on a wooden bench under the trees and look up at the big seven-story hotels, before heading back to their rooms over the cigar store . . . .

I’d love to know if this passage is intriguing to people who have never been to New York City. Imagining that place bustling, under elevated tracks, 120 years ago, and linking that to the bustle that is New York today really filled me with curiosity about the city. In a way, this book is a preface to the twentieth century. Here we see the transition from small to large to gigantic. Buildings that couldn’t rise above ten stories can suddenly go up twice — no — three times as high. Fantastic engineering feats, like the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, inspire others to think big and execute their plans, all of this before severe zoning and environmental and safety restrictions. This is the life of Martin Dressler, who started out helping in his father’s cigar store, a modest, conservative establishment. Martin’s first big dream is to create an interesting window display. Millhauser dives deeply into the soul of this dreamer, however, and we watch as his imagination, never satisfied, forces him to attempt larger and larger feats. From the cigar store, Martin finds his way into a job at a nearby hotel. There he works his way up, building capital, until he can open his own cigar booth (which sells cigarettes, something his father would never do) in the hotel lobby. He continues his jobs in the hotel too, absorbing the atmosphere, learning the system, allowing his imagination to run unrestrained.

No, what seized his innermost attention, what held him there day after day in noon revery, was the sense of a great, elaborate structure, a system of order, a well-planned machine that drew all these people to itself and carried them up and down in iron cages and arranged them in private rooms.

Soon his successful enterprise takes him higher and higher until he attempts to build a structure that houses the universe itself.

You are justified to think that as Martin’s dreams grow larger, the book itself would have a hard time sustaining this. However, the more complex and large Martin’s ideas get, the more complex the book’s structure gets — the better the book gets. Indeed, the book’s structure is a representation of what it describes. Millhauser anchors the fever-dream imaginings (all told with exceptional, exotic and attractive detail, like a sophisticated advertisement — another layer in this book) with intricate relationships, and he has the ability to navigate the complexities often felt but not understood. Through his excellent and ambitious craftsmanship, Millhauser infuses this structure with life rare in fiction. He can be lofty, taking on America itself, or he can be delicate and intimate, like when a young girl gives a young Martin “a small heart-shaped gold locket, still warm from being clutched in a fist.” This is adroit writing; by avoiding the obvious “her fist” and opting for “a fist,” Millhauser actually makes us focus on the moment and the action itself. The book is filled with moments like this. They are powerful and, though never expressly referred to again, haunt the pages just as the past does.

And as the structure and dreams get more complex, so do the relationships. Which brings me to another thing Millhauser does exceptionally well: trusting the reader. The book is complex yet controlled to the minute detail.  And through it all Millhauser feels no need to spell everything out to us; he trusts us to follow him, picking up the details. This is particularly important when delving into the many relationships in the book. When Martin is moderately successful, he takes up boarding at a hotel where the Vernons — a mother and her two daughters, both around his age — are also residing. Strangely, yet believably and not distastefully, Martin feels as if he is married to all three women. On the periphery is the hotel maid, Marie Haskova:

His little Sunday morning friendship with Marie Haskova, with its air of faint ambiguity, as if her were concealing from the Vernons a secret mistress, in one sense simplified his relation to them, for whatever he felt for the three Vernon women had nothing to do with secret liaisons. The Vernons, all three of them in a kind of lump, could be imagined only as a wife. And yet in another sense Marie Haskova confused his feelings for them, for it was as if the vague desire aroused by the Vernon women were seeking an outlet in young Marie Haskova. But there were deeper confusions, elusive connections that he could barely sense. There was something unspoken between him and Marie Haskova, something secretive and unacknowledged — but weren’t the secretive and the unacknowledged the very sign of his union with Caroline Vernon?

Caroline Vernon is destined to become Martin’s ghostly wife. Martin’s true friendship will develop with the other daughter, who will become his business confidant. These relationships portray interesting aspects of marriage and the rise of women, still only slightly, up the ladder of equality. They also exemplify another aspect of modern life: the transition of some intimate events (like dinner) into large social events, where everyone gathers around in a large room inside a large building inside a large city.

Structure and identity are important aspects to Millhauser’s novel; indeed, they are as intriguing to me as his reportage of old New York. Playfully, Millhauser utilizes themes that seem connected to intriguing theory, particularly Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. While told very realistically, the book is filled with quasi-existence and mock authenticity. Sometimes Martin only knows how he feels by looking in a mirror. Many objects are reproductions or representations of something else. He hires “live actors [to] impersonat[e] wax works.” Objects are given meaning through advertising and placement. Life is given meaning through objects.  And yet, it’s not so simple.

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By |2018-01-15T19:14:32-04:00April 9th, 2009|Categories: Book Reviews, Steven Millhauser|Tags: , , |13 Comments


  1. KevinfromCanada April 9, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Thanks for this — I’ve heard of Millhauser but never read him. I keep looking up reviews of the current volume you mention and can’t push myself to buy it. He certainly seems to have changed his focus.

    A question about this book: Given that it takes place at roughly the same time as The Age of Innocence and has some similar (only similar, I emphasize) themes, do you have any observations on comparisons between the two books — given they were written close to a century apart, but about the same era?

  2. Trevor April 9, 2009 at 11:35 am

    I was thinking of The Age of Innocence the whole time, Kevin. Probably the best comparison between the two is the reportage. It is fascinating to think of New York’s uptown being frontier land full of grazing cattle and the like. Both books show New York just as it was about to boom.

    The other aspects were quite different. While Martin Dressler has its sights on relationships, it is a bit to the side. I think Millhauser was more interested in theorizing about identity than about relationships per se. Still, a very very worthwhile read, especially for those interested in the locale.

  3. KevinfromCanada April 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    I am intrigued and will get to this book sometime. As someone who has only visited New York, I am fascinated to contemplate the “northward” creep of development — since we normally stay on the Park, one of the reasons I’ve liked Wharton and others from the period is being able to contemplate what once was both north and south of there (Helpern addresses it as well, but in a different kind of way). Your reference to “small to large to gigantic” captures the notion of that transition very well.

    I do get the sense that while a good part of Wharton involves looking back (the relationships and exploration of the traditional, but changing aristocracy) an exploration of identity (the dreams of a cigar shop owner’s son) places a look at the future in the same present time frame, if you can understand that terribly awkward sentence, which I have just made worse.

  4. Isabel April 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    I like to read about old New York. Need to add to my TBR list.

    BTW, I went to Imran’s Unimagined book tour last night.

    He remembers YOU! He appreciates your support.

  5. Trevor April 10, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I’m glad you got to go see Imran! I imagine he is doing well, and I hope that his road tour is as thrilling as he hoped it would be. Most authors wouldn’t do this type of thing on their own dime, but his message is important, he feels it, and I imagine his presentation is excellent!

    Can you enlighten us who have not been able to attend?

  6. Deucekindred April 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Maybe this is a bit off topic but I couldn’t help noticing this sentence :

    I first read this book about a decade ago, and I didn’t like it much. I thought it was boring. Well, if nothing else, let this post be about second chances and about how our situation in life may well be the real reason we fail to appreciate a book.

    I am sincerely believing that there are so many factors which make one dislike a book. Either the novel doesn’t resonate with you life situation or that the writing style is a bit convoluted or simply you are not in the mood for something like that.

    Saying that does that mean that every book ever published (or let’s say work of fiction) is fantastic and there is something wrong with us? If so what gives us the right to love or hate a novel if in a few years time we change our opinions??

    it’s puzzling

  7. Trevor April 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Interesting point, Deucekindred. And perhaps this is a good time for me to state that, despite my views on this topic, I do not consider myself or this blog to be the gatekeeper to great literature. It is a place for you and me to enter into many discussions, including discussions like this. I have been enriched by the commenter’s opinions about what is good and what is not. It has led me to many books and it has helped me understand my own criteria for judging what is and is not worthy literature. Hopefully anyone can feel entitled, yes, feel the right to express his or her view here. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree, but I recognize that I have many limitations, even if I don’t always recognize what my limitations are.

    So, to add another preface to this discussion: I absolutely don’t believe that literature (or any art) is purely subjective, that one person’s evaluation is just as good an any other’s just because part of literature’s role is to communicate something to a reader. The temptation, much indulged, to reduce literature to “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” is silly.

    However, there is a threshold past which one’s ability to appreciate a piece of literature is based on one’s perspective (this after one has determined whether the piece is even literature); it depends on one’s understanding—whether that understanding is informed by knowledge of technical form or of the themes in the book or even the setting of the book—and one’s personal taste. So, in that regard, yes, I do believe we as readers have a responsibility to bring our best selves to the work. We have a responsibility to attempt (perhaps only so far) to understand the form and the substance of the work. Whether it resonates with us is another thing. I think the first time I read Martin Dressler I recognized it’s superb literary qualities, but the book didn’t resonate with me.

    When I say that I read Martin Dressler again and suddenly liked it, I knew that this would not be the case with every book I gave a second chance. Sometimes (but not every time; not even close) when I finish a book and don’t like it, I know that part of it is my own fault. It is nothing against the author, whose book many others will enjoy deeply, and who has possibly created a tight work of art regardless of my own ability to appreciate or even comprehend. One reason I gave Martin Dressler a second chance is because that happened when I finished it the first time. I knew I didn’t bring it what it deserved. But the reader is not always the reason a book fails. Sometimes authors, even the best, can’t write something worth the reader’s time, let alone work. I try to comment on this, too, when I’m feeling particularly (insert one of the following words: courageous, confident, arrogant, downright pompous and pedantic).

    You bring up a good point: “. . . what gives us the right to love or hate a novel if in a few years time we change our opinions??” Aware of my own potential to change, I try to inject that awareness in my posts by keeping my judgments tempered. However, I definitely reserve the right to love or hate a book today, even if I will feel the opposite tomorrow! It is still valuable, personally and communaly, to have an opinion based on criteria others share. Then we enrich the field with debate!

  8. Mrs. Berrett April 10, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Children’s literature is my forte. Trevor’s always pushing me to do a children’s lit blog, and maybe that’s so I won’t bog his down with my children’s comments. Unfortunately for him I haven’t yet, and I’m going to chime in on this discussion with a link from one of my favorite children’s authors:

    The above link discusses a reader’s relationship with books in reference to the author’s relationship. Coming from an author I found it to be interesting and insightful. The main jist is that no opinion’s are absolute because too much of the reading experience relies on the readers themselves.

    Then there is this link:

    She’s still discussing the same concept, but has determined that books are personal and therefore there aren’t any good or bad books. There are books good for some and bad for others. She acknowledges a difference in literature, but maintains that the reader’s experience is more important.

    I don’t fully agree with her conclusions, particularly the second article, but I think she made some good points. And I’ve stopped snubbing people who choose to read romances.

  9. Sheila O'Brien April 10, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    We were musing together, during your excellent post on Edith Wharton, why there are so few good works of fiction based on the world of Wall Street. Having just finished “House of Cards – a Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street” by William Cohan, I have decided that the dearth of fiction is because there are many gripping, true accounts of what goes on in that amoral world, and no ficton writer could best the descriptions of what actually happened. All of the accounts are tales of greed, titanic egos, knives in backs (always, knives in backs), and character flaws of Shakesperean dimensions. Also, there is often smut – always a good thing.
    In additon to House of Cards, which is an excellent primer on the basis of current financial mess, I believe your readers would enjoy “740 Park”, the story of the demise of many tycoons, as told from the perspective of their occupancy of (and eviction from) the most prestigious apartment building in Manhatten. It is full of colorful characters, whose names will be known to any readers of financial papers, with a lot of peering in to their medicine cabinets and dirty laundry hampers ( metaphorically speaking)

    These tomes may send you scrambling to hide your money in a mattress. They are vivid descriptions of interlocking relationships and the shocking abdication of fiduciary oversight, and leadershp ehtics. The last line of “House of Cards” says it all:
    “We f–ked up. Government, Rating Agencies, Wall Street, Commercail Banks, Regulators, Investors. Everybody.”
    Not for the faint of heart, but good reading.

  10. Trevor April 10, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    I’m glad you brought this up again, and I think this post is a good place to do it, Sheila. Martin Dressler is one of the better books about building and building houses of cards. It gave me a bit of what I was looking for. Though I have to agree, in some regards who needs fiction? I know that I couldn’t have been more engrossed than I was while reading Confederacy of Idiots.

    By the way, I saw House of Cards in the bookstore tonight and thought, I wonder if Sheila has read this one. Glad to have your endorsement!

  11. Trevor April 16, 2009 at 7:07 pm
  12. […] 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 […]

  13. […] The passage of time, the disintegration of small communities: these are common themes. In fact, Millhauser has covered them in some of his best works (for the crazy drive for “progress” look no further than Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (my thoughts here). […]

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