Dreiser and Balzac

 

 

The mixture of philosophical digressions and speculation with narrative in the text is a notable feature of Sister Carrie. The philosophy may be lightweight, but I would say Dreiser does this well. I think he got it from Balzac, whose novels were a great early influence on Dreiser.

 

 

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Madame Vauquer, née de Conflans, is an old woman who for the past forty years has run a family boarding house in the rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève, between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau. The boarding house, known as the Maison Vauquer, is open alike to men and women, young and old, but no breath of scandal has ever sullied the reputation of this respectable establishment. It is also true that for thirty years no young female person has ever been seen there, and any young man who stays there must be getting a very meagre allowance from his family. All the same, in 1819 when this drama begins an impoverished young woman was living there. However discredited the word ‘drama’ may have become through incorrect, strained and extravagant use in these days of harrowing literature, it must be employed here; not that this story is dramatic in the true sense of the word, but by the end of this work the reader will perhaps have shed a tear or two intra muros and extra. Will anyone understand it outside Paris? That is open to doubt. The special features of this scene, full of local colour and observations, can only be appreciated in the area lying between the heights of Montmartre and the hills of Montrouge, in that illustrious valley of flaking plasterwork and gutters black with mud; a valley full of suffering that is real, and of joy that is often false, where life is so hectic that it takes something quite extraordinary to produce feelings that last. One can however occasionally encounter sorrows to which the concentration of vice and virtue imparts a solemn grandeur. At such a sight egoism and self-interest are momentarily forgotten and give way to pity, but the impression lasts no longer than the taste of a fruit greedily swallowed. The chariot of civilization, like that of some juggernaut, may be briefly impeded when a heart less easily broken than most jams its wheels, but soon crushes it and rolls on in triumph. You will do likewise, holding this book in soft white hands, sinking into a comfortable armchair with the thought, ‘Perhaps I’ll enjoy this one.’ After reading about the secret misfortunes of Père Goriot, you will eat your dinner with relish, blaming the author for your insensibility, charging him with exaggeration, accusing him of poetic licence, but, let me tell you, this drama is not fiction or romance. All is true. So true that everyone can recognize its elements in his own circle, perhaps in his own heart.

The boarding house is the property of Madame Vauquer. It stands at the bottom of the rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève, just where the ground slopes down towards the rue de l’Arbalète so suddenly and steeply that horses rarely pass up or down. …

— Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot, Chapter I

 

 

When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money. It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterised her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.

To be sure there was always the next station, where one might descend and return. There was the great city, bound more closely by these very trains which came up daily. Columbia City was not so very far away, even once she was in Chicago. What, pray, is a few hours–a few hundred miles? She looked at the little slip bearing her sister’s address and wondered. She gazed at the green landscape, now passing in swift review, until her swifter thoughts replaced its impression with vague conjectures of what Chicago might be.

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.

Caroline, or Sister Carrie, as she had been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class–two generations removed from the emigrant. Books were beyond her interest–knowledge a sealed book. In the intuitive graces she was still crude. She could scarcely toss her head gracefully. Her hands were almost ineffectual. The feet, though small, were set flatly. And yet she was interested in her charms, quick to understand the keener pleasures of life, ambitious to gain in material things. A half-equipped little knight she was, venturing to reconnoitre the mysterious city and dreaming wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy, which should make it prey and subject–the proper penitent, grovelling at a woman’s slipper.

“That,” said a voice in her ear, “is one of the prettiest little resorts in Wisconsin.”

“Is it?” she answered nervously.

The train was just pulling out of Waukesha. …

— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Chapter I

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2020

 

 

 

 

more misconceptions about “An American Tragedy” and the true story

 

 

re: Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

Oswego County Today

September 20, 2020

 

Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

 

 

There are a few inaccuracies in this piece.

Scott states that An American Tragedy, “along with books like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is seen as the beginning of the modern American literature.” This statement seems problematic. Could not ‘modern American literature” be said to have begun with Huckleberry Finn? Or to have been already begun around the time that Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie and Stephen Crane works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

Scott states that An American Tragedy “shows the extent someone will go to realize the American Dream ignoring any sense of morality.” This is succinctly and well put.

In discussing the factual underpinnings of An American Tragedy — i.e., the Gillette murder case — Scott makes a serious, common error:

Chester Gillette was born into a successful family but his father, after a religious conversion, renounced his wealth and became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. Gillette, however, still hankered for the good life and when his uncle offered him a job at his factory in Cortland he accepted. He had the opportunity to work hard and advanced. Knowing that he should not consort with the help, Gillette ignored the advice and began seeing Grace Brown, a hard working girl from a farm family. They usually met at her place and not in public. Meanwhile, Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family. [italics added] Grace Brown became pregnant and wanted to get married but that would have interfered in Gillette’s hope for marrying someone from the upper class.

The notion that Chester Gillette was dating a local girl (Harriet Benedict, not named by Scott) is a common misconception. It has been thoroughly disproved and you would think someone writing an article about An American Tragedy and the Gillette case would know this (or, at least, bother to check). There are numerous publications about the actual case, and Craig Brandon has written a book which provides the definitive account.

The notion that there was “another woman” whom Gillette was involved with and that such a relationship gave him a motive for murdering Grace Brown is not only suggested by the character Sondra Finchley in An American Tragedy, which is FICTION — don’t forget — it was also rumored that this was the case at the time of Chester Gillette’s arrest and trial in 1906.

Perhaps Dreiser himself, who used the New York World as his source for the Gillette case, was influenced by such accounts. Early on, in July 1906, at the time of the murder of Grace Brown and Gillette’s arrest, the World published a story suggesting that Gillette may have been engaged to another girl. The girl was Harriet Benedict, a member of the of the “best’ families in town. Miss Benedict, who testified at Gillette’s trial, said that she knew Gillette and had been on a social outing in which Gillette was a member of the party, but she stated, unequivocally, that there had never been any romantic relationship, much less an engagement. Scott’s assertion that “Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family,” presumably establishing a motive for his murdering Grace Brown, is flat out wrong.

 

 

— Roger W, Smith

   September 2020

 

.
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Addendum:

While I am at it, I would like to point out that many misconceptions about both An American Tragedy and the Gillette case itself have come from the film A Place in the Sun and comments by film critics. There was an earlier film based on the novel: An American Tragedy (1931), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The 1931 film has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Host Ben Mankiewicz stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount, the film company. It was Grace Brown’s mother, Minerva Brown, who sued, not Chester Gillette’s mother.

I emailed Mankiewicz about this and got no response.

new post – “looking for work”

 

 

To fellow Dreiserians

Please see my post

“looking for work”

looking for work

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

Once I read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer …

 

 

“Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer

 

 

 

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If a follower of this blog can help, I would appreciate it. It may be obvious who the writer Dreiser was referring to is, but I don’t have a clue.

 

— Roger W. Smith

thoughts about Dreiser, mine (today’s)

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email from me, today, to Thomas Kranidas, a Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University who has had a lifelong interest in Dreiser.

 

 

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Good morning, Tom.

I am busy with several projects, including getting back to some Dreiser stuff.

Now I am trying to write a long-delayed essay/article that I started quite a while ago. It is again about Dreiser’s family.

His sister Emma (Sister Carrie) married a second husband — actually, her first husband (her marriage to Hopkins/Hurstwood seems to have been a common law marriage) — John Nelson, who was a Swedish immigrant and who was known for being moody and difficult to get along with.

I think he is, possibly, a prototype for a minor character in the early chapters of Sister Carrie.

Dreiser was a TERRIBLE WRITER. His views and philosophizing were addled and (to put it kindly) jejune.

But I have not lost interest in or (entirely) enthusiasm for Dreiser.

He evokes a time and a period. He never really assimilated to the dominant American culture. Yet his characters and plots resonate. This is going out on a limb, but I would say more so than do James Joyce’s. I care more about Hurstwood than Stephen Dedalus. I am not sure about Leopold Bloom. He was my favorite character in Ulysses.

Best wishes,

Roger

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 14, 2020

“Dreiser’s Nephew Carl” — UPDATED

 

 

addendum – ‘Dreiser’s nephew Carl’

 

 

 

I have updated my post “Dreiser’s Nephew Carl” again.

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2020/05/20/roger-w-smith-dreisers-nephew-carl/

 

The post is mostly in the format of downloadable Word document.

The reason for the update is that I have obtained a valuable piece of evidence: a chapter from the second typescript of Dreiser’s Dawn (at the Lilly Library) which was not available to me until now because of the library being closed during the pandemic.

The only addition to my essay is the Addendum at the end. I have posted the Addendum here as a downloadable World document (above).

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

“I would not want to do anything that could harm the position of Russia.”

 

 

excerpt

 

 

So said Theodore Dreiser said in 1933, explaining his refusal to intercede for a group of arrested Trotskyists, according an essay/book review on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon by Maya Zlobina: “Versiya Kestlera: kniga i zhizn” (Koestler’s Version: The book and the life) in the Russian journal, Novy mir (Novy mir, No 2, 1989).

I could not find the source of the Dreiser quote, which — in Zlobina’s article — is in Russian. The passage from the article referenced referring to Dreiser and other supporters from abroad of the Soviet Union under Stalin (in my translation from the Russian) is as follows:

… Rubashov,* who is to be shot before midnight, paces the cell, tallying the final results. The blinding darkness that had darkened his mind has dissipated, melted, and a clear, hitherto unknown stillness descends on the soul. The final chapter is called “The Dumb Interlocutor” — with him, that is, with his true Self, the hero will spend the hours allotted to him before the execution. Free from debts and obligations (or maybe just free?), Rubashov will reconsider and reevaluate his past, questioning everything he believed in. “So why should he die? To that question he had no answer.” He only knew that “I have paid; my account with history is settled.” … The author gave the hero more than an easy death — peace: “A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and travelled sedately on a shrug of eternity.”

On this it would be possible, together with Koestler, to put an end to it, if his book did not give us a key to another historical phenomenon, no less mysterious than the confessions of the accused at the Moscow trials. So mysterious that others are seriously talking about a worldwide conspiracy of the left intelligentsia against Russia, in which A. Barbusse, R. Rolland, L. Aragon, T. Dreiser, B. Shaw, L. Feuchtwanger, F. Joliot-Curie, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Hewlett Johnson and others (and from our own — V. Mayakovsky, M. Gorky, I. Ehrenburg and, of course, M. Koltsov, who told Aragon before leaving for Moscow in anticipation of his arrest: “Remember that Stalin is always right”). I will not discuss this detective story, which looks suspiciously like those anti-Soviet conspiracies that were composed at Lubyanka. But the attitude of the Western intellectual elite to these crudely fabricated forgeries, to mass arrests and to everything that happened in those terrible years in our country, the stubbornness with which eminent, respected writers ignored the crimes of the Stalinist regime and thereby covered them up (and some even glorified the Soviet “camps for the re-education of citizens” as “a remarkable achievement of socialism”), is stunning and requires explanation. What was it? What “blinding darkness” covered their eyes?

All the same: we find here “Rubashov’s syndrome” in its purest form – after all, they were not threatened with torture! … They believed — or wanted to believe — that in the USSR “the foundation of the great happiness of all mankind is being laid,” and for the sake of the dream they cherished protected and supported the myth created by Stalinist propaganda. ” It just so happened, — Bukharin said bitterly to one of his Parisian acquaintances, — that Stalin became, as it were, a symbol of the party. “Or a symbol of socialism, the foreign friends of October might say.” from Rubashov and his comrades, these highbrow humanists enjoyed all the rights and benefits of imaginary freedom, which the country was deprived of, embodying their social ideal! … Hypnotized by the alternative “who is not with us, is against us,” they were asked menacingly:

“Who are you with, masters of culture?” — they chose Stalin.

“Whatever the nature of the current dictatorship in Russia – unfair or whatever you want … until the current strict martial law is eased … and until the question of the Japanese threat is cleared up, I would not want to do anything that could harm the position of Russia. And, with God’s help, I will not do it, “Dreiser said in 1933, explaining his refusal to intercede for a group of arrested” Trotskyists,” with whom, however, “he was very sympathetic.” And Joliot-Curie, who in 1938, at the request of Koestler, wrote a letter to Stalin in defense of the Austrian physicist-communist Weissberg, who was arrested in the USSR (later transferred in accordance with the Soviet-German treaty to the Gestapo), in the late 40s, when “Darkness at Noon’ was being published in France,, and Weissberg, returned from the concentration camp, publicly branded Koestler as a detractor and slanderer! Ten years later, after the official denunciation of the “cult of personality,” the same Joliot-Curie admitted to Ehrenburg that he had seen all the “flaws” for a long time, and added: “Please, in the presence of the children, tell us about the good things that were done for you.” In essence, these intellectuals treated both their people and all of humanity as children who should only be told about the good so that they would not be disappointed in socialism! … Yes, they knew what they were doing, and in the name of a falsely understood duty they betrayed not only ourselves, but us. They betrayed the precepts of European culture and that chief duty that Zola enunciate in his famous “J’Accuse…!” and that impels every true intellectual to take up the pen and sound the alarm at the sight of injustice.

Only a few of the progressives dared to speak the truth about “the country of the victorious revolution.” Now we cannot even imagine how much courage these “apostates” needed, how they reviled and cursed these, according to Koestler, “fallen angels who had the tactlessness to divulge that paradise is not found where it is supposed to be.” The case of the purely non-partisan “defector” André Gide is very indicative in this respect. The famous French writer, who from afar saw in the USSR “an example of that new society that we dreamed of, no longer daring to hope,” was deeply disappointed with Soviet reality. In the preface to “Return from the USSR” (1936), he tried to explain that supporting a lie, “would only harm the Soviet Union and, at the same time, the cause that it personifies in our eyes”; that, with sympathy for Russia, he hesitated for a long time before coming to such a decision, for it so happened that “the truth about the USSR is spoken with hatred, and lies — with love.”

Koestler’s book was written in the conviction that salvation is only in truth, and was written with love for a country and people suffocating under the yoke of the Stalinist dictatorship. However, the people, who remained for all intents and purposes beyond the scope of the portrayal, are depicted in the novel as obviously conventional. The schematism of these images, which is particularly obvious and, perhaps, even offensive for the Russian reader, is simply explained by the fact that the author was unable to artistically master the “folk” (and foreign) material. And yet Koestler was able, with a penetration rare for a visiting foreigner, to discern the living soul of the people through official optimism, propaganda varnish and the dumbness of fear. In The Invisible Writing, an autobiographical book written twenty years later, we find striking words about direct, reliable, fearless people, whose civic prowess contradicts the very essence of the regime and on whom, according to Koestler, our country rests. “I have met them on my travels in every part of the Soviet Union. … These men, whether Communists or not, are ‘Soviet Patriots’ in the sense in which that word was first used in the French Revolution. … in a country where everybody fears and evades responsibility; they exercise initiative and independent judgment where blind obedience is the norm; they are loyal and devoted to their fellow-beings in a world where loyalty is only expected towards one’s superiors and devotion only towards the State. They have personal honour and an unconscious dignity of comportment, where these words are objects of ridicule. … To-day I realise that their existence is very nearly a miracle, that they became what they are not because, but in spite of that education — a, triumph of the indestructible human substance over a de-humanising environment.

 

— Maya Zlobina. “Versiya Kestlera: kniga i zhizn” (Koestler’s Version: The book and the life), Noyy mir, No 2 (1989 )

 

 

*Rubashov, a victim of the Moscow show trials during the Stalinist Great Purge, is the main character in Darkness at Noon.

 

 

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The passage from Zlobina’s article, in the original Russian, in which Dreiser is quoted is as follows:

 

“Какова бы ни была природа нынешней диктатуры в России – несправедливая или какая хотите… пока нынешнее напряженное военное положение не смягчится… и пока вопрос о японской опасности не прояснится, я не хотел бы делать ничего такого, что могло бы нанести ущерб положению России. И, с Божьей помощью, не сделаю”, – заявил в 1933 году Драйзер, объясняя свой отказ заступиться за группу арестованных “троцкистов”, коим, впрочем, “очень сочувствовал”.

 

The full text of Zlobina’s article, in the original Russian and my English translation, is posted at

 

Maya Zlobina, “Koestler’s Version: The book and the life”

 

I wish to thank the Russian independent scholar Yuri Doykov for providing me with a copy of this article in the original Russian.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2020

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt

 

 

 

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt- NY Times 11-21-1911

 

 

 

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser

The New York Times

November 21, 1911

James E. Barcus, “More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

 

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Language Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Laguage Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

Posted here (PDF document and Word document transcription, above) is the following article:

 

“More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

by James E. Barcus

English Language Notes, 38:1 (2000): 68-73

 

 

Chester Gillette was the prototype of Clyde Griffiths, the main character in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020

the first newspaper accounts of the Gillette murder case

 

 

 

‘Gillette Says the Boat Upset’ – Syrcause Herald 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Mystery in Girl’s Death’ – NY Times 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Girl Murder Victim’ – Washington Post 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Gillette Accused of Miss Brown’s Murder’ – NY Times 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Lake Murder Arrest’ – NY Tribune 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Gillette a Prisoner’ – Washington Post 7-15-1906

 

 

 

‘Accused of Killing Girl’ – Chicago Tribune 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Flaws in Gillette’s Story’ – NY Times 7-16-1906

 

 

‘Lured to Her Death’ – Washington Post 7-16-1906

 

 

‘Accused of Murder of Grace Brown’ – Hartford Courant 7-16-1906

 

 

 

‘Is It a Murder’ (Gillete’s arrest) – Malone (NY) Farmer – 7-18-1906

 

Grace Brown murdered (gives DOB) – (Lowville) Journal & Republican 7-19-1906

 

 

‘Sister Sobs with Gillette’ – Washington Post 7-27-1906

 

 

Followers of this site may be interested in reading some of the earliest accounts of the Gillette murder case that were published in newspapers in July 1906. The case provided the factual underpinning for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.
The newspaper accounts — posted here (above) as downloadable PDF files — are as follows:

 
GILLETTE SAYS THE BOAT UPSET
Syracuse Herald
July 14, 1906

 

 

MYSTERY IN GIRL’S DEATH.
New York Times
July 14, 1906

 

 

GIRL MURDER VICTIM
Washington Post.
July 14, 1906

 
GILLETTE ACCUSED OF MISS BROWN’S MURDER
New York Times
July 15, 1906

 

 

LAKE MURDER ARREST
New York Tribune
July 15, 1906

 
GILLETTE A PRISONER
Washington Post.
July 15, 1906

 
ACCUSED OF KILLING GIRL
Chicago Tribune
July 15, 1906

 

 

FLAWS IN GILLETTE’S STORY.
New York Times.
July 16, 1906
LURED TO HER DEATH
Washington Post
July 16, 1906

 

 

ACCUSED OF THE MURDER OF GRACE BROWN
Hartford Courant
July 16, 1906

 

 

IS IT A MURDER?
Malone (NY) Farmer
July 18, 1906
TRAGEDY AT BIG MOOSE
Journal and Republican (Lowville, NY)
July 19, 1906
SISTER SOBS WITH GILLETTE
Washington Post.
July 27, 1906

 

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020