my post about Grace and Roberta’s letters

 

 

I encourage Dreiserians to read my post, “Two Letters from An American Tragedy,” with my thoughts and input from Thomas Kranidas.

 

Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy’”

 

I have always been interested in Grace Brown’s letters. Grace Brown was the murder victim of Chester Gillette in 1906 who is depicted in An American Tragedy in the character Robert Alden.

I think this post says a lot about what Dreiser was thinking in drawing the characters Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley; and about common misconceptions about them and the novel.

 

— Roger W. Smith

April 2021

Dreiser and Zola; The Financier

 

 

The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not then in existence–the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage-stamps or registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing railroad system still largely connected by canals.

— Theodore Dreiser, The Financier, Chapter 1

 

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“The Financier, the third of Dreiser’s published novels, marks a distinct turning point in his career. It is at once a departure from his characteristic subject matter and the beginning of his use of the larger canvas to which he knew that his fictional works were most ideally suited. Both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt had been essentially autobiographical works drawn from Dreiser’s family and work experiences, as was The “Genius,” which was drafted by 1911 but not yet published. Contrasting strongly with those works, The Financier was planned from its inception as an extensive work based (as Emile Zola had advised) upon research. Elements deriving from the writer’s personal and professional lives were now held to a mere shadow of their former prominence. The new story itself was huge, involving a multitude of prominent characters interacting with the central figure over a span of years; it was conceived as a cradle-to­-grave saga, the complete telling of one very significant and individual American life.

“As always in Dreiser’s realist fiction, The Financier is grounded firmly in the socioeconomic context of the author’s youth and young manhood. …”

— Philip Gerber, A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia

 

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I loved the way The Financier begins. In typical Dreiser fashion it draws you right into the novel. And, the beginning and opening chapters place you in nineteenth century Philadelphia, what it was like to live there. And for a boy such as Frank Algernon Cowperwood.

Cowperwood is born in Philadelphia, as was the financier Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr., the real life model for Cowperwood. Dreiser closely followed the actual life of Yerkes in The Financier and two succeeding novels. (Dreiser’s three novels — The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic — comprise the so-called Trilogy of Desire.)

By the time Dreiser began The Financier, he had amassed over 2,000 pages of handwritten notes, some of them verbatim transcriptions of newspaper articles, and he had been saving newspaper clippings from at least a decade earlier when he was living in New York City, Yerkes’ last place of residence.

The influence of Balzac on Dreiser — evident in the latter’s first work, Sister Carrie — has been commented upon frequently by Dreiser scholars (and by me in posts on this site). Zola was clearly a major influence too. This is most evident in An American Tragedy, but it can also be seen in works such as The Financier, as noted above by the late Philip Gerber, an authority on the Trilogy of Desire.

When it comes to An American Tragedy, I feel that Dreiser does not get sufficient credit for the extensive research by him in newspapers that was involved. All we hear for the most part is complaints about how Dreiser plagiarized from accounts of the Gillette murder case and trial. Actually, this was not plagiarism. He drew upon such accounts. And he (for example) quoted more or less verbatim from some of the letters of Grace Brown (the real life Roberta Alden). That is not technically plagiarism. Plagiarism is when one steals another author’s work without giving credit.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2021

 

 

 

An American Tragedy (film) scenario (Eistenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

 

An American Tragedy – scenario (Eisenstein, Alexandrov, Montagu)

 

The complete scenario, written by Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Alexandrov, and Ivor Montagu, for a film of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy  (downloadable PDF file above) is posted here. The scenario was written in 1930. The film was never produced.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

stock characters in Dreiser’s novels

 

 

 

Sondra Finchley … An American Tragedy

Letty Pace … Jennie Gerhardt

Berenice Fleming … The Titan

are stock, papier-mâché high class woman characters.

Straight out of soap opera.

Not believable

 

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Robert Alden is very real. Her ingenuousness. Her emotions. Her love for Clyde. Her sense of betrayal. Her letters. And so on. She is, in the words of Mary Gordon, a “genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.”

Sondra Finchley, irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich, bestows an occasional kiss on Clyde. She is the prototypical flapper with zero sex appeal. She is too vain to really show love for Clyde. “Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment,” notes Mary Gordon, “are the locus of her sexual allure.”* Her main reaction and main worry after Clyde is arrested are to keep her name out of the papers.

Characters like Sondra Finchley and Dreiser’s other high class women seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real.

Bob Ames in Sister Carrie — a stand in and mouthpiece for the author, Dreiser — has no purpose or reason for being in the novel. He does not seem real and is not brought to life.

 

* Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1991), pp. 8-10

 

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For purposes of comparison, let’s take an author such as Charles Dickens.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol could be considered to be a stock character: miser, skinflint, coldhearted businessman — crotchety curmudgeon.

He receives visitations from ghosts (spirits). This is realistic?

Yet …

Scrooge is realer than real. He LIVES in our imaginations.

So does Bob Cratchit, who might have been portrayed one dimensionally as the poor, overworked worker ground down by ruthless capitalism.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are so real that it sometimes seems that they actually existed and lived in Victorian London.

Or Tolstoy.

Levin in Anna Karenina is a stand in for Tolstoy the aristocratic landholder, and his views. But he is not a stock figure in the novel. His character is fully developed.

In a novel which Dreiser greatly admired, Balzac’s Père Goriot, there are characters who could be seen as types:

Goriot, old man rejected by his heedless daughters; miser out of necessity

Rastignac, prototypical social climber. Goriot’s self-centered daughters: the same

All are portrayed by Balzac in a manner that makes them fully human, idiosyncratic, and believable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

tendentious (the author as Deus ex machina)

 

 

While the money was in his hand the lock clicked. It had sprung! Did he do it? He grabbed at the knob and pulled vigorously. It had closed. …

The moment he realised that the safe was locked for a surety, the sweat burst out upon his brow and he trembled violently. He looked about him and decided instantly. There was no delaying now.

“Supposing I do lay it on the top,” he said, “and go away, they’ll know who took it. I’m the last to close up. Besides, other things will happen.”

He hurried into his little room, took down his light overcoat and hat, locked his desk, and grabbed the satchel. Then he turned out all but one light and opened the door. …

He walked steadily down the street, greeting a night watchman whom he knew who was trying doors. He must get out of the city, and that quickly.

Sister Carrie, Chapter 27

 

And Roberta, suddenly noticing the strangeness of it all–the something of eerie unreason or physical and mental indetermination so strangely and painfully contrasting with this scene, exclaiming: “Why, Clyde! Clyde! What is it? Whatever is the matter with you anyhow? You look so–so strange–so–so– Why, I never saw you look like this before. What is it?” And suddenly rising, or rather leaning forward, and by crawling along the even keel, attempting to approach him, since he looked as though he was about to fall forward into the boat–or to one side and out into the water. And Clyde, as instantly sensing the profoundness of his own failure, his own cowardice or inadequateness for such an occasion, as instantly yielding to a tide of submerged hate, not only for himself, but Roberta–her power–or that of life to restrain him in this way. And yet fearing to act in any way–being unwilling to– being willing only to say that never, never would he marry her– that never, even should she expose him, would he leave here with her to marry her–that he was in love with Sondra and would cling only to her–and yet not being able to say that even. But angry and confused and glowering. And then, as she drew near him, seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it in the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even then with any intention to do other than free himself of her–her touch– her pleading–consoling sympathy–her presence forever–God!

Yet (the camera still unconsciously held tight) pushing at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen to the very water’s edge. And then he, stirred by her sharp scream, (as much due to the lurch of the boat, as the cut on her nose and lip), rising and reaching half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow–yet in so doing completely capsizing the boat–himself and Roberta being as instantly thrown into the water. And the left wale of the boat as it turned, striking Roberta on the head as she sank and then rose for the first time, her frantic, contorted face turned to Clyde, who by now had righted himself. For she was stunned, horror-struck, unintelligible with pain and fear–her lifelong fear of water and drowning and the blow he had so accidentally and all but unconsciously administered. ….

“But this–this–is not this that which you have been thinking and wishing for this while–you in your great need? And behold! For despite your fear, your cowardice, this–this–has been done for you. An accident–an accident–an unintentional blow on your part is now saving you the labor of what you sought, and yet did not have the courage to do! But will you now, and when you need not, since it is an accident, by going to her rescue, once more plunge yourself in the horror of that defeat and failure which has so tortured you and from which this now releases you? You might save her. But again you might not! For see how she strikes about. She is stunned. She herself is unable to save herself and by her erratic terror, if you draw near her now, may bring about your own death also. But you desire to live! And her living will make your life not worth while from now on. Rest but a moment–a fraction of a minute! Wait–wait–ignore the pity of that appeal. And then– then– But there! Behold. It is over. She is sinking now. You will never, never see her alive any more–ever. And there is your own hat upon the water–as you wished. And upon the boat, clinging to that rowlock a veil belonging to her. Leave it. Will it not show that this was an accident?” ..

And then Clyde, with the sound of Roberta’s cries still in his ears, that last frantic, white, appealing look in her eyes, swimming heavily, gloomily and darkly to shore. …

An American Tragedy, Book Two, Chapter XLVII

 

 

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Neither situation, as carefully constructed by Dreiser — while admittedly fiction — is plausible. Dreiser as Deus ex machina, as artificer, “intervenes” in the plot, so to speak, for the purpose of making events be explainable — be construed by the reader — from his tendentious point of view. A clumsy authorial intervention which makes the story, plot, at that point the antithesis of seamless.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

“The Tragedy of the North Woods”

 

 

Eleanor Waterbury Franz, ‘The Tragedy of the North Woods’

 

“In my opinion, it is in the interpretation of the case that Dreiser goes furthest afield. His feeling of fate and the social conflict upon which he dwells obscure the right and wrong of the case.” — Eleanor Waterbury Franz

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF file above) is

The Tragedy of the North Woods

By Eleanor Waterbury Franz

New York Folklore Quarterly 4.1 (Spring 1948), pp. 85-97

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

Kranidas thesis (post) updated

 

 

I have reposted on this site:

 

Thomas Kranidas

“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy

Matser’s Thesis

Columbia University, 1953

 

See:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/thomas-kranidas-the-materials-of-theodore-dreisers-an-american-tragedy/

 

— Roger W. Smith

Howard Fast on Dreiser

 

 

 

Please note — I have interpolated my own comments. My comments are in all caps. — Roger Smith

 

It is not enough simply to state that Theodore Dreiser was a unique genius of American letters; that he was, indeed, but, more than that, he was a man born at a certain time and in a certain place, and moulded by time and place, so that he could become the articulate and splendid spokesman for that time and place. The turn of the century, the coming of age of American industrialism, the withering away of the independent farmer, the onrush of imperialism, the first great world conflict, the rise of the labor movement, the movement for women’s rights, the disillusionment and moral wreckage that followed World War I, the brief intellectual renaissance that spread like a flame across America, the mighty yet earthbound heroes of his native Midwest — all of these in turn and together reacted upon a man who was large enough to receive them and understand them, a man who was a curious mixture of pagan and Christian, provincial and urbane, a great mind and a great heart, turned by the endless search for the truth into a splendid artist.

— Howard Fast, Introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser

 

THIS IS FULSOME PRAISE IN PART (IN FAST’S CONCLUDING WORDS), BUT IT IS NONETHELESS MOSTLY TRUE AND WELL SAID.

 

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… the type of story called a “casual” by the editors of The New Yorker magazine, is just that: a casual, a glimpse of life that lacks form and meaning. For a story to last, it must hold up in telling; it must partake of something of the richness and complexity of life, the action, reaction and interaction of the human beings who make up our society. More than by the story-teller’s art, mood and emotion must be determined by the characters themselves, by what they do to each other and by what society does to them.

Concerning this last, I know of no better example in American story telling than Theodore Dreiser. Certainly, we are a land not poor in story-tellers, and, with the possible exceptions of Russia and France, the short story has nowhere else developed to the height and richness it has here. But for all of that, Dreiser has no peer in the American short story. If his short stories are not yet sufficiently known his own genius is to blame; for his monumental novels overshadow them–perhaps rightly so, perhaps not. As fine as his novels are, they do not attain the artistic wholeness of his short tales; and I say this along with the opinion that no American has ever equalled Dreiser in the field of the novel.

Among the moderns, there is almost no one capable of writing tales like these. The best of today is pallid and non­human when compared with Dreiser’s compassionate searchings; the average of today is another medium, outside the pale of comparison. …

The key to Dreiser the artist is compassion, the compassion of a Hugo or a Tolstoy.

 

WHAT MOVED FAST ABOUT DREISER’S STORIES WAS THE EMOTIONAL CONTENT. I CAN SEE THIS, BUT I FEEL — WITHOUT HAVING READ ENOUGH OF DREISER’S STORIES TO BE ABLE TO SAY THIS WITH CERTAINTY — THAT DREISER’S SHORT STORIES ARE SECOND RATE. THE CHARACTERIZATIONS TEPID, THE WRITING WEAK — THIS IS NOT CHEKHOV.

TAKE A STORY SUCH AS “THE LOST PHOEBE.” IT IS REALLY HARD TO GET THROUGH. I WOULD CALL “THE LOST PHOEBE’ TREACLY. AND I THINK IT COULD HAVE BEEN CONDENSED TO THE FOLLOWING (71 WORDS), SAVING THE READER THE EFFORT:

A poor old farmer lost his beloved wife and could not overcome his grief. No one knew for sure if he had gone insane, but he sent years wandering the countryside looking and calling for her. At times, he thought he saw her ghostly apparition. At a climactic moment, he thought he saw his wife’s ghost at the bottom of a cliff. Reaching out, he tumbled off the edge and died.

 

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Howard Fast (1914-2003) was an American novelist and television writer. He joined the Communist Party USA in 1943 and during the 1950s was blacklisted for refusing to name names in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Best Short Stones of Theodore Dreiser, edited with an introduction by Fast, was published in 1947. Under the same title and by the same publisher, The Best Short Stones of Theodore Dreiser was republished in 1956 with a new introduction by James T. Farrell.

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

“The Little Brown Jug”

As Richard Lingeman explains in the first volume of his Dreiser biography, Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907,   Theodore Dreiser’s wife Sara* Osborne (White) Dreiser, raised on a farm in Missouri, was called Sallie by friends and Jug by her family. Jug was a family nickname.

The nickname stuck. In adulthood, Sara was always known to relatives and friends as Jug or Juggie.

Jug, states Lingeman, was “a sobriquet given her [Sara] by a beau … because she wore brown so often that she resembled the little brown jug of the song.”

“The Little Brown Jug” was a song written in 1869 by Joseph Eastburn Winner (1837–1918). The song was originally published in Philadelphia, where Winner operated a publishing music business. It was originally a drinking song.

*Her first name was originally Sarah. She dropped the h in later years.

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The Little Brown Jug

1.
My wife and I lived all alone
In a little log hut we called our own;
She loved gin, and I loved rum,
I tell you what, we’d lots of fun.

2.
‘Tis you who makes my friends my foes,
‘Tis you who makes me wear old clothes;
Here you are, so near my nose,
So tip her up, and down she goes.

3.
When I go toiling to my farm,
I take little “Brown Jug” under my arm;
I place it under a shady tree,
Little “Brown Jug” ’tis you and me.

4.
If all the folks in Adam’s race,
Were gathered together in one place;
Then I’d prepare to shed a tear,
Before I’d part from you, my dear.

5.
If I’d a cow that gave such milk,
I’d clothe her in the finest silk;
I’d feed her on the choicest hay,
And milk her forty times a day.

6.
The rose is red, my nose is, too,
The violet’s blue, and so are you;
And yet I guess before I stop,
We’d better take another drop.

Chorus:
Ha, ha, ha, you and me,
“Little brown jug” don’t I love thee;
Ha, ha ha, you and me,
“Little brown jug” don’t I love thee.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

an exchange about Dreiser

 

 

The following are emails — the content of which I believe make for interesting reading — between myself and my brother Pete Smith today (plus a follow up comment from my brother several days later).

 

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Roger Smith:

I happened to reread this post of mine today

link below

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/roger-w-smith-biographical-sketch-of-theodore-dreiser/

and was very pleased with myself.

I think it’s one of the best overviews and appraisals of Dreiser.

 

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Pete Smith:

Just read this again myself. Can’t imagine it could be any better written by anyone. Perfect summary and very thoughtful; I especially like the ending where you explain why, even though he was a dirtbag plagiarist (just kidding but not totally kidding), his work lasts.

 

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Pete Smith:

I’ve been busy with work, but still finding a few moments for [Dreiser’s] “Newspaper Days” and just today have begun reading about the Chicago World’s Fair trip he was dreading. What a riot. Incredibly revealing and often unintentionally hilarious. … I’m saving judgment on Dreiser until I finish. but based on what I’ve read so far, he’s a much better writer, and a much worse person, than I had thought. . .

 

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Roger Smith:

You may have heard of the book “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson.

I was a very popular book. I think I own it. I believe I read a bit of it.

The main thing about the World’s Fair trip is that Dreiser met his future wife Sara (Jug), who was one of the schoolteachers on the train.

Dreiser honestly, candidly reveals things about himself in “Newspaper Days” — his stupid adolescent mistakes and sex longings and indiscretions, his successes and failures. I admire his sincerity. He did not engage in image “window dressing.”

Dreiser the cad seems to be to more apparent in his adult years.

His primarily failings (major) — as I see it — were his shameless womanizing, believing he could have multiple, serial relationships and they couldn’t, hitting on young unsuspecting woman (personal “secretaries”) and, in one shameless, well documented case (there may have been others) a teenager in high school when he was in middle age or past it; plagiarism; and — I think this is most significant — a deep insecurity and lack of love from early age so that he could never trust or love anyone; also (less important but true), becoming a would be snob once he got well known and rich, putting on airs and admiring the rich and high class (which made him look ridiculous).

I think, as if often the case with writers, some of Dreiser’s early works are better than later ones; and when he was simply attempting to narrate and tell the truth — or engage in reportage (of, say, the Brooklyn trolley strike or the Hudson River tunnel cave in), he could be surprisingly good.

When he attempts to philosophize or pose as an intellectual, he is out of his depth. He was basically uneducated. He was often on the wrong side of political and social issues.

 

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Pete Smith:

Yes, read “Devil in the White City” years ago. Excellent book; reading Dreiser’s excitement about the World’s Fair there reminded me of the book; that part is well written.

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion [in the St Louis Republic; recounted in Newspaper Days] which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours are himself.

 

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Roger Smith:

Re your comments (in bold):

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His treatment of women is horrifying, inexcusable.

I doubt you would wish to read Dreiser’s “serialized” novella “This Madness,” posted by me at:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2020/04/16/theodore-dreiser-this-madness/

The woman characters were real lovers of his.

I spent days and weeks copying the whole “This Madness” — 56,000 words — at the New York Public Library and typing and proofreading it at home.

It comes though clearly how Dreiser regarded and treated women. How could he not see how it made him look? (Self-awareness was not one of his strong points.) Dreiser is posturing as, bragging about, his quest for the ideal woman, who, of course, he never finds; he finds faults in all of them. And leaves them. Will never commit to an enduring relationship. It never occurs to him to empathize (as yon note) with them.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours is himself.

I remember well this part of the book. But did not think about this (what you say about not empathizing with the victims). Undoubtedly true and on the mark.

 

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Pete Smith:

Thanks, Roger. This is very well written and very interesting; based on my reading of “Newspaper Days” (nearing the finish line) everything the writer says rings true. (In reference to an article I shared with my brother: “Moby Theo” by Oliver Edwards, The Times of London, January 19, 1956; see PDF below.),

I would have stopped reading “Newspaper Days” hundreds of pages ago if it weren’t so damned interesting. Embarrassingly interesting and revealingly interesting often, but interesting nonetheless. And there is something odd about Dreiser’s writing style — there are almost always far too many words, but it’s almost always not bothersome.

 

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Roger Smith:

 

Pete,

I often, continually. am recasting, reformulating, refining thoughts and opinions in my mind.

Re “Newspaper Days” — this probably (if not certainly) also applies to Dreiser’s fiction — there is no (Joycean, Hemingway-ish, Nabokovian) wall.

You, the reader, can walk right in and he shares his unscripted, plain, inchoate, actual experience with you. His memory may be faulty and, like any good raconteur, he will present the story in a certain light.

But it feels very true. And real.

Dreiser is very easy to read. This is a GOOD thing.

And, as true as this is (his readability), there is a substratum, a bedrock, of fact and actuality.
It is not fiction for philistines and those who choose the next book to read or recommend to a friend from the bestseller lists,

Which is why people who like to read still read Dreiser

While (although) he and many of his works are otherwise largely forgotten and perhaps considered out of fashion.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

 February 6, 2021

 

oliver-edwards-moby-theo-the-times-london-1-19-1956