If we had to nutshell today’s rather stilted lecture it would be accurate to claim that Dreiser’s social criticism of the effects of capitalism on democracy becomes more explicit with Frank’s entry into the judicial and penal system.
Regarding the sentencing hearing itself, it’s important to recognize that the scene with Ackerman, the hapless lead pipe thief, is an effort to demonstrate that the whole legal process– because it has been bought in advance by powerful political and economic interests– is a kind of burlesque, a sort of crude theater much like minstrelsy or what many scholars term blackface performance. (If you’re interested in blackface, you might read Robert Toll’s Blacking Up or Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Last Darky, or screen Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.) Ackerman’s manner of speaking owes much to the figures of the minstrel show, and in this regard Dreiser is consciously invoking a “low” comic form which by his day (ca. 1910s) had lost almost all of its original vitality and had become a stale performance of racist stereotypes. Frank’s sentencing, then, is literally a joke. A bad one.
The other significant aspect of the latter half of the novel concerns the Panic of 1873, an event that presaged the longest economic depression in US history and which Frank takes full advantage of in order to re-acquire his position of wealth. When Jay Cooke fails the savings of thousands of people of modest means evaporates in a second. Note Dreiser’s explanation for the cause of this, as well as Frank’s behavior. He is perfectly attuned to the situation, and he knows exactly what he must do in order to profit from it.
Wednesday we’ll discuss the last few pages of the novel and review where we’ve been so far this semester. If you have questions, that would be a good time to ask them.