Places: The Titan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1914

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: 1890’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Titan, TheDreiser loved and admired Chicago. He wrote about it in many of his novels, including Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925). The Titan presents a vivid, accurate picture of urban life in America at the turn of the twentieth century, when horses provided almost all the city’s transportation, and there were no automobiles, buses, telephones, radios, phonographs, refrigerators, air-conditioning, or other amenities that are now taken for granted. All entertainments were live; social life centered around private homes. Women were largely confined indoors as housewives, mothers, and hostesses. Social classes were rigidly stratified. There were no labor unions, social security, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation insurance.

The plot of The Titan centers on the epic struggle of ruthless men for control of the lucrative streetcar traffic in the city. The evolution of streetcars exemplifies not only Chicago’s rapid growth but also the frantic pace of change taking place in the United States, in which millions of native-born citizens and European immigrants are being torn from the soil and drawn into urban centers. The slow, inefficient horse-drawn streetcars are replaced by cable cars, which in turn are quickly replaced with cars powered by electricity. Finally, elevated tracks become the last word in urban transportation. The city expands with the streetcar lines, and the streetcar lines form a larger and larger web around the expanding city.

Michigan Avenue Mansion

Michigan Avenue Mansion. Chicago home of the powerful entrepreneur Frank Algernon Cowperwood, for whom social success means as much as financial success. He builds his first mansion near the homes of the Chicago social elite in the hope that he and his wife, Aileen, will be accepted into high society. Their new mansion, built along conventional lines to emulate the homes of their neighbors, is described in detail. After the Cowperwoods are rejected by society, their mansion seems like an empty shell. Aileen has only a few humble visitors to entertain. She feels humiliated, isolated, and lonely. Cowperwood begins spending more and more time away from home, involved in liaisons with other women.


Tunnels. Cowperwood’s discovery of two rat-infested abandoned tunnels under the Chicago River is a turning point in his career. He realizes that they can be adapted to alleviate the chronic congestion on the bridges and enable him to provide faster, more dependable streetcar service from the suburbs into the central city. The history of the La Salle Street and Washington Street tunnels illustrates Dreiser’s cynical but realistic attitude toward capitalists and politicians generally. After the tunnels had become unprofitable for their original speculators, these men induced the city fathers to pay one million dollars of taxpayer money for them and then board them up. Cowperwood’s acquisition of the tunnels displays the superior intelligence and creative imagination that sets him apart from ordinary men.

New York mansion

New York mansion. House that Cowperwood has built on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. His conception of this mansion shows the change that has taken place in his character over the years. He builds a gaudy, spectacular palace to flaunt his wealth and declare to the world his indifference to social acceptance by timid, conventional souls: “Only the Italian palaces of medieval or Renaissance origin which he had seen abroad now appealed to him as examples of what a stately residence should be.”

Ironically, Cowperwood’s fabulous mansion, which is described in newspapers and magazines all over the United States, instills such envy among the common people that his Chicago enemies can turn the masses against him and defeat his scheme to monopolize the streetcar lines there.

Chicago City Hall

Chicago City Hall. Dreiser uses the City Hall in Chicago to dramatize the climax to his novel. The big building–described as a “large, ponderous structure of black granite–erected at the expense of millions and suggesting somewhat the somnolent architecture of ancient Egypt”–is packed with an angry mob, while the surrounding streets are thronged by thousands more. Without microphones, the speakers have to shout to make themselves heard, but they are shouted down by the incensed spectators whose passions have been aroused by the newspapers, the dominant media of the day. The irate citizens intimidate the bought politicians into voting down the proposal to award Cowperwood the long-term streetcar franchises he desperately needs.

BibliographyHussman, Lawrence E., Jr. Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983. Good discussion of Dreiser’s attitudes toward women, marriage, and prostitution, as well as his belief in “the giving spirit of women.” Also discusses Cowperwood’s search for the ideal woman.Lehan, Richard. Theodore Dreiser: His World and His Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A critical study of Dreiser’s novels that focuses on their genesis, evolution, pattern, and meaning. Discusses such influences on the author’s imagination as family, city, work, and politics. Analyzes Cowperwood as a materialist Horatio Alger hero who appreciates beauty and art.Lingeman, Richard. An American Journey, 1908-1945. Vol. 2 in Theodore Dreiser. New York: Putnam, 1990. Explores Dreiser’s composition of The Titan in relation to other aspects of his life. Points out that his doing research for the book in Chicago in 1912 diverged from his previous procedure in writing Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911).Mukherjee, Arun. The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel: The Rhetoric of Dreiser and Some of His Contemporaries. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. In the context of the popular myth of the American dream, Mukherjee sees Cowperwood as “a representative figure, a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of American society.”Pizer, Donald. The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. Discusses Dreiser’s research of historical sources relating to Charles T. Yerkes for the character of Cowperwood. Chronicles his creative choices and the novel’s publication history. Extensive discussion of Cowperwood’s sexual life as representing Dreiser’s interpretation of public morality in America.
Categories: Places