and intimate in scope, Steven Millhauser’s historical novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
(1996) charts the rise and fall of the American dream through the lens of the title character's experiences. The novel is set in New York City at the close of the nineteenth century, providing a vivid backdrop for Dressler's rags-to-riches story.
Martin Dressler is the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, but he dreams, even from a young age, of something greater than following in his father's footsteps and running Dressler's Cigars and Tobacco. At fourteen years old, Martin goes to work as a bellboy at the Vanderlyn Hotel. He juggles his job at the hotel with his responsibilities in his father's store. Over time, Martin works his way through the hierarchy of the Vanderlyn. He goes from bellhop to day clerk, then on to personal secretary before being offered a job in management. As he ascends the ranks, Martin also operates a concessions shop in the lobby of the Vanderlyn. He proves himself to be a dependable and conscientious worker, and his enthusiasm makes him a valuable employee.
As Martin amasses more money, he goes into partnership with Mr. Dundee, and they purchase the Metropolitan Lunchroom. The restaurant is extremely successful. When the higherups at Vanderlyn offer Martin another promotion, he turns them down to focus his energies on opening and managing a chain of restaurants.
In his personal life, Martin recognizes that it is time to marry. Though he has some slight misgivings, he pursues Caroline Vernon, a quiet young woman with an undeniable air of mystery and sensuality. Caroline is especially close to her younger sister Emmaline, whom Martin employs as a cashier in one of his restaurants. Martin and Caroline marry, though she is placed in a secondary position within the larger framework of the novel—much as she is in Martin's life.
Martin sells the chain of restaurants and purchases the old Vanderlyn Hotel. He secures the funding to give the aging building a complete renovation; its grand reopening is a success. This triumph inspires Martin to dream bigger, and he starts planning an even more ambitious project, one that will take years to realize. He envisions the Dressler Hotel as a destination of bold modern design that will not only be the talk of New York City but a centerpiece of its architectural fabric. When the Dressler Hotel opens, it is a smash.
At home, Caroline retreats from Martin. She becomes ill with headaches, tiredness, and other vague complaints. Martin finds himself relying more and more on Emmaline, whom he promotes to advanced positions at the Dressler Hotel. Eventually, she becomes his business partner, and while there is no physical intimacy shared between the two, Martin finds support and encouragement, challenge and inspiration, in his connection with Emmaline. Martin fears he has married the wrong sister.
Before long, Martin is laying the groundwork for another majestic and elaborate design: a towering eighteen-floor structure ten blocks to the north of the Dressler. It forever alters the burgeoning New York City skyline. Called the New Dressler Hotel, these state-of-the-art lodgings bring Martin even more wealth and notoriety.
Then, his personal and professional worlds collide. One evening, Caroline, in a fit of jealous rage, enters Emmaline's apartment at the New Dressler and fires a gun at her sister. She misses, and instead of tearing the sisters asunder, the shot brings them closer than ever. Emmaline, neglecting her work and responsibilities at the hotel, tends to Caroline—and Caroline's assorted illnesses—around the clock.
Martin's ambitions continue to swell. He joins forces with the Austrian designer Rudolf Arling to build what will be his most awe-inspiring project yet: the Grand Cosmo. The Grand Cosmo will not be lodging quarters or even a destination. It will be a world unto itself. Comprising thirty floors, seven subterranean levels, and containing every modern convenience a person would need—from restaurants and shopping to parks and theatres—the residents of the structure will never need to leave.
At this point in the novel, with his marriage in shambles, his trusted confidante Emmaline missing from his life, and both his wealth and aspirations virtually limitless, Martin loses his grip on reality. Whether the Grand Cosmo is ever real, to begin with is a matter that is not entirely clear. The novel veers from a work of historical fiction into something more fantastical as Martin plans his greatest work, one unhindered by the constraints of money or logic or even sanity.
Martin overestimates the public's interest in the Grand Cosmo, which leads to his financial ruin. His marriage to Caroline is all but over. Nevertheless, in the end, Martin Dressler does not admit defeat. As he takes a walk through a New York City park, his belief in the American dream seems to be alive and well. He accepts that his monumental ambition has led to his failures, both professionally and personally. He comes to terms with the fate that he himself—and the unfettered thirst for success nurtured by a ravenously capitalistic society—created.Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
was a critical and commercial sensation upon its release. It won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It also topped bestseller lists and was named a New York Times
Notable Book of the Year.