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Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer Hardcover – April 23, 1996

3.2 out of 5 stars 149 customer reviews

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Hardcover, April 23, 1996
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Martin Dressler is a turn-of-the-century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father's cigar store but dreams of a bigger empire. That dream shapes into a series of large hotels. At first, Dressler's seems the archetypal American success story, but he does not quite grasp the future. The Manhattan of fabled skyline is about to take shape just over the horizon, but Dressler cannot see it. So the story becomes another kind of fable, as Dressler contemplates having "dreamed the wrong dream."

From Publishers Weekly

Literature's romance with the building-as-metaphor earns new energy through Millhauser's latest novel (after Little Kingdoms, 1993), which quietly chronicles the life of an entrepreneur whose career peaks when he builds a fabulous hotel in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Beginning with his first jobs-in his father's cigar shop and as a bellhop-young Martin's rise is fueled by a happy blend of pragmatism and imagination. Both inform the design of the cafes and hotels he builds as an adult, though the latter seems to gain sway in the construction of his magnum opus, the Grand Cosmo. Within the rusticated walls of that grand hotel, one floor's elevators open onto "a densely wooded countryside" dotted with cottages; another floor simulates a rugged mountainside, featuring "caves" furnished with beds, plumbing and "refrigerated air." For recreation, guests can wander in the artificial moonlight of the Pleasure Park or visit the Temple of Poesy, where young women in Green tunics will recite poetry, 24 hours a day. Such amenities speak of Dressler's view of the hotel as "a world within the world, rivaling the world." In deliberate contrast stands Millhauser's cooler evocation of his protagonist's private life. The magnate's genial sister-in-law works for him, while the troubles of his neurasthenic wife-"his sister's sister, his tense, languous, floating, ungraspable bride"-reflect his increasingly manic, untethered imaginings. Millhauser's characteristic fascination with the material artifacts of the vanished past-and the startling deftness with which he can describe the street, the carnival, the hotel that never existed-marks him as a cultural historian as well as an idiosyncratic fabulist. Taking its place alongside other fine tales of architectural symbology, from Poe to Borges to Ayn Rand, this enticing novel becomes at once the tale of a life, a marriage and a creative imagination in crisis.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 293 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (April 23, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 051770319X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0517703199
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (149 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,339,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Orrin C. Judd VINE VOICE on May 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
Martin Dressler is Prospero, Horatio Alger, Jay Gatsby, William Randolph Hearst, William Paley, Richard Cory, Donald Trump, Icarus, and most prominently, he is everyman and nobody. As noted by the more astute observers on these pages, Millhauser has created a fable here, a myth, a romance about human limitations and possibilities. The readers who attack the book for lack of depth, or characterization, or plot, have missed the mark, most likely because they are not well-grounded in Millhauser's mythic sources, and can't recognize a carefully-construed allegory.
This novel is as textually rich as a novel can be, but one must dig a little deeper, as Martin digs deeper into the earth in each successive structure he creates. It is also a novel of psychology, as Martin also digs deeper and deeper into his subconscious mind as the novel progresses. This is a multi-tiered work, operating on so many levels as to leave one dazzled at the sheer scope of the enterprise. Such works are easily dismissed by the masses, which is why it is surprising that the Pulitzer committee, so often gravitating to the successful and the obvious, definitely got one right in this instance.
The structure of the novel parallels the themes and "plot" of Millhauser's story. In the first few chapters we find ourselves inhabiting a rather mundane, prosaic, grounded reality, as Martin, the son of a cigar-store owner (as was William Paley), is presented as an industrious, intelligent young man who is liked by everyone he encounters. He is, in these early stages, marked more by his efficiency than his imagination. As the novel progresses, we find ourselves venturing further and further from the ordinary and the possible, into the realm of the extraordinary and then the impossible.
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Format: Paperback
Steven Millhauser's "Martin Dressler" may not be worthy of the hype surrounding its Pulitzer Prize winning status but it's gotten more flak than it deserves. As a novel, it's strangely one dimensional and therefore disappointing, dull even. There isn't much of a storyline to speak of - Martin simply takes on successively bigger projects until he finally overeaches himself - and the characters (including Martin) are all bloodless, cardboard-like stick characters, sleepwalking (ironically, like Caroline) through their parts. Sure, the attention paid to periodic detail is meticulous and impressive but unless you're an afficionado of late 20th century artifacts, chances are that you'll find most of it rather tedious. That's not to say Millhauser's scene setting techniques isn't beautifully executed. It is - his descriptive prose is vivid and flawless but...indulgent. There were moments when I thought the plot was about to take off for some place leftfield but sadly, such promises were never fulfilled. Even the one heart stopping episode near the end of the novel wasn't exploited for its full dramatic potential. Martin's relationship with the Vernon women could have been fascinating had it been allowed to fuel the plot, but it remained underwritten and undeveloped. There's also an eerie feeling about the nature and relationship between the two Vernon sisters that was left unexplored. However, the weaknesses we perceive in "Martin Dressler" as a novel quickly dissolve when cast in the fable genre. Fables aren't after all about real life people but about morality and ideas. Stylistically, there are tell tale signs that suggest this treatment.Read more ›
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