Philadelphia Story

TO THOSE who fancy that the Mike Milken scandal symbolizes what we have become as a nation over the past decade, Theodore Dreiser's 1912 novel The Financier may come as a surprise. The characters and the roles that they play in the commercial and political life of the time have a curiously modern flavor.

The novel is a classic Dreiserian cautionary tale about the rise and fall of Frank Cowperwood, an unethical, young, upwardly mobile securities trader whose ability and ambition inspire creative innovations in a legal gray area of finance. The pivotal event is the financial panic in Philadelphia caused by the Chicago Fire of 1871, threatening the exposure of a range of irregularities in the relationship between the local public and private sectors. The ruling Republican Party closes ranks to safeguard its position in an upcoming election, making Cowperwood its scapegoat: He had been caught with half a million dollars of public funds which he had made a habit of using to finance his securities dealings through a lucrative arrangement with the city treasurer. He also happened to be extramaritally involved with the daughter of a powerful member of the city political machine, a traditionally-minded Irish Catholic who discovered the affair in the midst of the financial crisis.

Dreiser tells an absorbing tale with a gift for observing and analyzing human nature within its particular social and ethnic contexts. This seems the mode of realism that Tom Wolfe applauds, though written from a lately unfashionable, unequivocal moral position.

The novel is available in a NAL paperback edition. PETER GEIER Washington

Swan's Way

THE DREAD of death is a pervasive motif throughout Western culture, from the medieval refrain "Timor mortuis conturbat me" ("The fear of death disturbs me") to the latest headlines suggesting a severely restricted diet can double one's lifespan. But if one looks at the longevity claims that have attached themselves in recent years to yogurt, fish oils, exercise, certain medical techniques, and so forth, it is worthwhile to ask what life at such advanced ages will be like and will it be worth living?

Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan takes an interestingly prescient look at this culture, painting a satisfyingly sardonic picture of Jo Stoyte, a California oil tycoon afraid of old age and death, at once petty and pathetic in the face of possibly eternal life. When a researcher discovers that an 18th-century English nobleman used the same rejuvenating system Stoyte is experimenting with, the two go to England and make a shocking discovery. In addition to the theme of extended life, Huxley's book also draws a portrait of Hollywood, one that pays full tribute to that city's role as purveyor of dreams and extravagance. The longevity theme becomes one of the many fantasies temptingly packaged by the myth factory that is the movie industry.

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan is in print, to be found on the shelves of better-supplied book stores, as well as available at public libraries and used-book stores. JULIA LUTZ Rockville

Chatwin Again

THE COMMENTS by Jon Michaud regarding Bruce Chatwin (Book World, April 30) were very well taken. They reminded me that much of Chatwin's ambition for adventure as a boy, by his own account in In Patagonia, came from that rare, offbeat, fascinating autobiographical book, Uttermost Part of the Earth, by Esteban Lucas Bridges. This is the true story of a family living and growing up on the edge of the Beagle Channel and among its islands at the southernmost tip of South America. It is also an absorbing account of living and working with the remnants of several of the primitive Indian tribes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego before they were vitually wiped out by a measles epidemic in 1924.

The book chronicles the Indians' feasting on beached whales, boisterous wrestling matches, intertribal feuds and stealing each other's wives. It so impressed Chatwin as a boy that he made a point of visiting Bridges's descendants and finding and hiking the trail which he used to walk to Rio Grande, Argentina.

The book was published by Dutton in 1949. I have been unable to find a paperback edition but did find a copy in the local public library. I was told about it in Chile years ago but only found time to read it in recent years after retirement. I think Chatwin was so right in his enthusiasm. ROBERT A. STEVENSON Vienna, Va.

Memory and Exile

A GOOD place to acquaint yourself with that quintessential storyteller Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize receipient in 1987, is in his first published collection of short pieces, Legends of Our Time (1968). Written in anecdotal form, the collection contains autobiographical fragments such as "The Death of My Father" and "My Teachers," introspective reportage like "The Last Return" and "The Wandering Jew" and reflective essays like "Moscow Revisited" and "The Guilt We Share" -- all of which are in some way related to the destruction of European Jewry. His concise stark imagery is haunting, and has earned Wiesel the title of literary laureate of the Holocaust.

Legends of Our Time is available in a Schocken paperback. MOLLY ABRAMOWITZ Silver Spring

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