Alphons J. Dreiser (Al; b. 1867) was Theodore Dreiser’s older brother.
Alphons J. Dreiser (Al; b. 1867) was Theodore Dreiser’s older brother.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DREISER CASE
When they first alighted from the smoky little train at the Pineville depot few people noticed a tall, slender blond who seemed to be swallowed up in the crowd and hurried to the hotel. Eyes were focused on the author of “An American Tragedy” – Theodore Dreiser – who had figured a few months earlier in an episode in which he slapped the face of Sinclair Lewis, another author, because of an open charge of plagiarism hurled by the author of Nobel prize winner in 1931.
That night when she came down to dinner at the Continental Hotel she immediately drew the attention of those sitting around the lobby. I sauntered over to the register and asked the clerk who this new member of the Dreiser party was. The various press releases failed to give her name or the name of any book she had written. That detail had been well taken care of by the publicity man of the Dreiser party who told how these investigators were coming down to old Kentucky to look into a reported “reign of terror” in the coal fields; that they were going to test the right of “free speech” at two carefully planned meetings in Bell and Harlan Counties.
Marie Pergain was her name, written in an even, flowing hand on the hotel register. By co-incidence, her name was written directly beneath that of Theodore Dreiser. I don’t know why, but there was something about the proximity of these names on the register that made me wonder, idly, as they passed into the dining room, just what they meant to one another. I afterward learned that she was one of the author’s numerous secretaries — girls he paid from $35 to $50 a week to assemble materials and help him in getting out his numerous literary offerings. He disclosed this while answering questions put to him by a newspaperman from Pineville whom he had put on the stand.
She wore a flaming red tam and a flaming red skirt that night in the dining room. Her blue eyes looked at the author steadily and while I did not catch any of the words spoken, one of the waiters did. Asked if they were discussing the plight of poor miners the party came down to help this negro waiter replied:
“They wasn’t worryin’ none ‘bout miners. They wus talkin’ ‘bout love”.
She was not a member of the committee, she confided to a questioner a few days later. She had just come along for the trip.
There have been so many stories told of the occurrences of the few days during which the Dreiser party remained in Pineville that I have endeavored to get at the true facts and here they are related for the first time. It is known everywhere that Dreiser and Marie Pergain were indicted on charges of adultery while at the Continental Hotel in Pineville and that both entered immediate denials. Dreiser went to [sic] far as to proclaim in the press that it was “utterly impossible” for him to be guilty of the charge made and asserted that he was “impotent” and had been for some time. Miss Pergain made no such statement but declared that the charges were a frame-up and that her life was her own to live as she chose. Dreiser placed the blame for the investigation on Circuit Judge D.C. Jones of the Kentucky Courts, and asserted numerous times that the whole affair was intended as a smoke screen to hide the real troubles in the coal fields. Now, for the first time, the real facts back of the charges are made known and the reader can draw his own conclusions.
It was Saturday night, the third night that the party had been in Pineville. At the head of the stairs on the second floor of the hotel was Dreiser’s room. Diagonally across from his room was a room occupied by Harry Isaacs and Harry Sikes, two traveling men who had noted some of the unusual occurrences of the evening and had heard some of the reports about Dreiser and his attractive blond secretary. Down the hall and around a turn thirty to fifty feet from Dreiser’s room, was the room of Marie Pergain. Two-twenty-six was her room number, while Dreiser’s was 217. The other room which figured in the story was 216.
About 10:30 o’clock Isaacs and Sikes were seated in their room when they saw, through the partly open door, the slender figure of the secretary entering the room of Dreiser. A few minutes before this they had ascertained the fact that Miss Pergain still occupied her own room. To see that she did not leave without leaving some sign of her departure the amateur sleuths, at the suggestion of one of the newspaper correspondents, propped a toothpick against her door. Another was propped against the door of Dreiser. And this is how the toothpick became famous in the Dreiser case. After the door closed on the Dreiser-Pergain meeting in the author’s room, Isaacs and Sikes went to the girl’s room and verified the fact that she had left – for the toothpick had fallen to the floor from its leaning posture against the door.
They called a bellboy, placed him in a darkened room across the hall from the Dreiser room and told him to stay there until they returned and to report any departure from the Dreiser room. They went out, swore to a search warrant for room 217, before City Judge Jo_ [illegible] Page, and returned with an officer. The bellboy reported that no one had left the room and no one had entered it. Toothpicks had been replaced at both doors before the pair departed for the warrant and these wooden witnesses still stood vertically on guard at the rooms of Dreiser and Pergain. Everything was set for the raid. The men told newspapermen to be on their guard that some “big news” was going to pop and pop soon. Tired re-write men were awakened on news association trunk lines and everything was set for the crash that would echo and re-echo around the literary word. But it didn’t come.
Before knocking on the door Isaacs and Sikes decided to take the matter up with the manager of the hotel. The manager, ill with an attack of tendinitis, asked the men not to stage the raid, declaring that such action, in the event of failure, might bring the hotel into disrepute. Acceding to his wishes the men decided to forego the plan of raiding the room and dismissed the officer. Trunk line re-write men were told to go home to bed and forget any hope of a big news headliner for the morning. This was at 2:30 o’clock Sunday morning, and, incidentally, the toothpicks still stood guard.
The men waited until 4 o’clock and all was quiet. Isaacs and Sikes wanted to be sure that there was no slipup in their plan and before calling the officer they went to Miss Pergain’s room. With a passkey they entered and found no one there. Baggage was still resting on the bed and no one had occupied it. They replaced the toothpick and left. Again at 6 o’clock they examined both rooms and the toothpick still stood silent guard.
A housekeeper the next morning saw Miss Pergain come out of the Dreiser room, carrying a bundle under her arm.
Sunday night the same men decided that they would carry out their plan regardless of the wishes of the hotel proprietor. They watched until after midnight but nothing transpired and they finally gave up and went home. But they failed to consult the night clerk who connected the rooms on tw0 occasion [sic] during the evening.
Dreiser, back in New York a few hours after his indictment on charges of adultery, ridiculed every charge. “Put me in the most beautiful budoir [sic]” with the most attractive woman, the writer declared, and you will “find us discussing literature or the fine arts.” So said the author of “An American Tragedy” after his indictment by a Bell County Grand Jury down in Pineville, Kentucky. The night clerk, Dan Johnson, tells another story and you can take it or leave it.
It is eleven o’clock. The Dreiser and Pergain rooms are connected
“Hello. Why don’t you come down?”
“I can’t, I’m not dressed,” came back a man’s voice from No. 217. “You come on up here.” The invitation was declined and the phones were hung up. This was at eleven o’clock.
Clerk Dan Johnson was aroused at 2:45 o’clock Monday morning by a tinkling of his telephone. Rom 217 was calling Room 226. He listened in and heard their conversation.
“Hello. What’s the matter with you?”
A feminine voice answered, “What’s the matter with you?”
A masculine voice said: “Get yourself up here.” The two phones clicked as one and Clerk Johnson heard a door open just above where he sat and softly close. This is all he knows. Perhaps they discussed literature and the fine arts, it is not for me to say.
Herndon J. Evans, “The Truth About the Dreiser Case,” Herndon J. Evans Collection, 1929-1982, 82M1, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington, KY, November 1931, Box 1, Folder: 2; the article is available online at:
Herndon J. Evans (1895-1976) was editor of the Pineville (KY) Sun and local correspondent for the Associated Press (AP) during the early 1930’s.
Toronto Globe and Mail
December 22, 1942
Dreiser Not Needed Here
Excellent as Mr. Theodore Dreiser is as an author, he is not great enough to be able to insult British people in an interview and then expect them to listen to him as an exponent of democracy. Toronto is tolerant, but not stupid or crazy, and it certainly would be both stupid and crazy if it welcomed a public speaker who “would rather see the Germans in England than the damn’ snobs now there.” Perhaps he doesn’t know Canada has an army in England to help keep the Germans out, that many thousands of Canadians have given their lives to assist the “damn’ snobs” in destroying the most brutal thugs that ever resorted to arms – the people Mr. Dreiser admires and to whom he belongs by ancestry.”
Mr. Dreiser has no proper place on any public platform in Toronto or Canada. The sponsors of the Town Forum made a fatal mistake in bringing him here; the City Council did the right thing in acting to prevent him from speaking.
His subject was to have been “Democracy On the Offensive.” Whatever may be his ideas on democracy, he said enough to show they are contrary to those of this country. He is no morale builder for us. He had better tell his story to Hitler.
OBITUARIES Vera Dreiser, 90, psychologist, former dancer
The Atlanta Constitution
Saturday, November 21, 1998
Author: Rachel Tobin
Dr. Vera Dreiser never flinched. Even details of the 1969 Manson murders told to her firsthand by the female suspects didn’t shock the psychologist.
“She never made judgments on her patients,” said Tedi Dreiser Godard of New York, her daughter. “She was a wonderful therapist. Anything those women told her, nothing ever shocked her. Things so horrific that you or I would’ve been so upset. She said, ‘No, I’m not upset, I’m here to help.'”
The 90-year old Macon resident, who lived in Sandy Springs for 20 years, died Tuesday of heart failure at Macon Manor Nursing Home. The body was cremated. A private memorial service will be held in New York. Bridges Funeral Home and Crematory is in charge of arrangements.
Dr. Dreiser was head of the Psychiatric Treatment Center at the California Institute for Women from 1961 to 1972. Her name appears in Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” the account of the Manson case, as the psychologist who interviewed the women involved in the murders.
“They told her the most gruesome details,” her daughter said.
A dancer at Carnegie Hall as a young woman, Dr. Dreiser wanted to be a singer. However, she had a natural flair for psychology, her daughter said. The native New Yorker earned her doctorate from New York University in 1944.
With her shock of bright red hair and 5-foot-9-inch frame, Dr. Dreiser was a memorable figure who appeared on popular television shows in the 1950s-60s giving advice on relationships and mental health.
Decades ahead of her time, Dr. Dreiser, who kept her maiden name when she married the late Alfred E. Scott in 1939, experimented with yoga and wrote monthly articles for Dance News about the importance of dance in relieving stress.
In the 1970s, Dr. Dreiser retired to Sandy Springs to be closer to her daughter. In 1976, the psychologist published her family memoir, “My Uncle Theodore,” her daughter said.
Dr. Dreiser was the niece of novelist Theodore Dreiser, who wrote “An American Tragedy,” and of songwriter Paul Dreiser, who wrote “My Gal Sal.” Her father was actor and director Edward Dreiser.
“She loved to laugh, a good joke, a good party and a cocktail before dinner,” said her daughter, the only immediate survivor.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to the American Cancer Society, 2200 Lake Blvd. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30319.
Below is a transcription of an obituary of Clara Clark Jaeger (1909-2006).
Clara Clark met Theodore Dreiser in 1931 when she was in her young twenties. They began a romantic relationship, and Miss Clark became a secretary and editor to Dreiser. In 1988, under her married name, Mrs. Jaeger published a memoir entitled Philadelphia Rebel: The Education of a Bourgeoise that includes a detailed account of her relationship with Dreiser.
— Roger W. Smith
The Independent (London)
Monday, November 21, 2005
SECTION: OBITUARIES; pg. 57
HEADLINE: Obituary: CLARA JAEGER; Secretary and mistress to Theodore Dreiser
BYLINE: Mary Lean
For four years in the 1930s, Clara Clark was secretary, and mistress, to the American novelist Theodore Dreiser. Yet the defining relationship of her life was her 56-year marriage to the Moral Re-Armament campaigner Bill Jaeger.
Born in 1909 in Germantown, Philadelphia, she inherited a flair for writing from her paternal grandfather, the humorist Max Adeler (born Charles Heber Clark). Her rebellious streak came, perhaps, from her maternal grandmother, whose daring hats flouted the conventions of the Quaker Meeting she attended.
The Clark family addressed each other as ‘thee’ in deference to their mother’s Quaker roots, but attended Episcopal Church on the insistence of their lawyer father.
By her late teens ‘Click’ was rebelling against her sheltered upbringing and yearning, with adolescent intensity, for romance and adventure. Her two years at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, culminated in her expulsion in 1930.
Back at home in disgrace, she read Theodore Dreiser’s 1931 autobiography, Dawn, and his best-selling novel An American Tragedy (1925 ” filmed in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg). A highly charged correspondence ensued ” ‘Clara, Clara ” intense, aesthetic, poetic, your letter speaks to me’ ” and an invitation to New York, where Dreiser offered her the job of typing and pruning his work.
‘His sentences . . . went on interminably, sometimes for a whole page, broken by a series of semicolons, but rarely a full stop,’ Clara Jaeger recalled in her autobiography, Philadelphia Rebel: the education of a bourgeoise (1988):
The margins and spaces between lines were filled with arrows and parentheses. He seemed unable to resist over-emphasising and embellishing every point, as if afraid to omit any angle of interpretation. I blue-pencilled almost every sentence.
Dreiser apparently took this streamlining with better grace than Clara took his efforts to reverse it. In the mornings, he would sit in a rocking- chair, pleating and repleating his handkerchief, and dictate to her; in the afternoons, he would return the pages which she had reworked the day before:
My neat, short sentences are now covered with darts, arrows, parentheses and long columns of handwriting down each of the margins. Once again I edit, retype and return. Once again he adds. And so it goes, back and forth, as often as five or six times, until he finally settles on a compromise.
In the meantime Dreiser introduced her to the poverty, speakeasies and radical literary circles of New York in the Depression and to his own unconventional domestic arrangements, which included an estranged wife and a long-term partner, Helen Richardson. Clara continued working for him ” in spite of causing a car accident in which Helen was injured ” until August 1934, when he told her he could no longer maintain her in New York.
Her own literary aspirations were quelled by Dreiser’s perfectionism. ‘You write well, but you don’t say anything!’ he told her. When, in 1933, one of her novels was accepted for publication, he persuaded her to rework it and take it elsewhere. She never published a novel, and her first book ” Annie, a memoir of her mother-in-law ” did not appear until 35 years later. In addition to her autobiography, she also wrote a biography of her husband, Never to Lose My Vision (1995).
Clara met Bill Jaeger in 1941. By then she was working with Moral Re-Armament, a dramatic change of direction which intrigued Dreiser, who described himself as ‘one of the irreconcilables’.
The catalyst was her mother, who, influenced by MRA’s precursor, the Oxford Group, had apologised to Clara for demanding that she should reflect credit on her. This somehow enabled Clara to confront the mess she had made of her life and to reach towards a new beginning, inspired by the idea that God could use her to make a difference to the world.
Bill Jaeger had grown up in poverty in Stockport, Cheshire, where his mother ran a hat shop, and was to spend his life befriending and mentoring members of the international labour movement. He had come to the United States, on the urging of MRA’s initiator, Frank Buchman, to help strengthen morale in the industries on which America’s war effort would depend. They married in 1946 and their son, Frederic, was born in 1947 in London.
The next years were peripatetic, with ‘everlasting packing up and moving from one home to another’, and frequent separations as Bill (and sometimes Clara) travelled with a series of MRA campaigns in different countries. It was only 27 years after their marriage, when the Jaegers settled in Knebworth in Hertfordshire, that they were able to unpack all their books ” over 3,000 of them: literature and history for Clara; politics, current affairs and industrial relations for Bill.
Dreiser had described Clara as ‘a fresh wind, blowing here and there, in the alleys as well as the gardens of life, and remaining sweet of heart’. She adored Bill, and shared with him a talent for expressing appreciation: when you met either of them, you went away feeling better about yourself.
At the age of 91, although severely deaf, she went to Philadelphia to take part in the celebration of the centenary of the publication of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and in 2002, at Bill’s funeral, told their friends that she would see them again at her own.
Clara Clark, writer: born Germantown, Philadelphia 22 August 1909; married 1946 Bill Jaeger (died 2002; one son); died Knebworth, Hertfordshire 5 November 2005.
In Book Three, Chapter XXII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, there is an egregious typographical error, made, presumably, by Dreiser’s typist — Estelle Kubitz? Sally Kussell? Louise Campbell? Helen Richardson?; see Thomas Riggio’s commentary in Library of American edition, pg. 966-67 — in Roberta Alden’s last letter to Clyde Griffiths, a misprint which has been preserved in all subsequent printings of the novel:
I have been biding good-by to some places to-day. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here all my life, you know. First, there was the springhouse with its great masses of green moss, and in passing it I said good-by to it, for I won’t be coming to it soon again — maybe never. And then the old apple tree when we had our playhouse years ago — Emily and Tom and Gifford and I. Then the “Believe,” a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played [italics added].
The word transcribed and printed in the novel as “Believe” should have been “Beehive,” which makes sense, whereas “Believe” makes absolutely no sense.
A careful examination of Dreiser’s first draft seems to indicate that he wrote “Beehive,” although it is difficult from his handwriting to distinguish between the h in “Beehive” and the l in “Believe” Anyway, the typist read “Believe,” and the mistake was not caught in any of the subsequent prepublication stages.
It was a mistake that was not perpetuated elsewhere (in transcriptions of Grace Brown’s letters, that is, such as those published in newspapers; however, translators of An American Tragedy struggled mightily with how to render the odd proper noun).
The letters of Grace Brown (the real life prototype of the character Robert Alden in An American Tragedy) to Chester Gillette (the real life prototype of the character Clyde Griffiths in the novel) were read at Gillette’s murder trial and caused a sensation. The words “the ‘Beehive,’ a cute little house in the orchard” are rendered accurately (as one might expect) in the court transcript of the actual trial; in newspaper accounts of the trial, in which the letters were reprinted; and in pamphlets in which the letters were published for sale at the trial.
It is, however, interesting to see what translators of An American Tragedy have done with this passage. Here’s a sampling of some known translations.
Then the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.
Pastaj «Besën» ─ një tendë të vogël. të bukuir në kopsht, ku loznim nganjëherë.
Një tragjedi amerikane
trasn. Bujar Doko
Tiran: Naim Frashëri, 1989
A pak ten hezoučy altánek v štĕpnici, kde jsme si časem hrávali.
Americká Tragedie. Trans. Karel Kraus. Prague: Nakladatelství, 1948; vvol. II, pg. 306
Og saa det morsomme, lille Skur I Frugthaven, hvor vi sommetider plejede at lege.
En amerikansk tragedie. Ttrans. Tom Kristensen, Copenhagen: Gyldendalske boghandel, 1928, 2 vols., II:197
Sitten mehiläispesälle, somalle pikkuvajalle puutarhassa, jossa joskus leikimme. (Then the beehive, a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.)
Puis la « Crois-y » une mignonne petite cabane dans le verger où nous jouions parfois ensemble.
… und den ,Ewig dein’, einem allerliebsten kleinen Haus im Obstgarten, in den wir manchmal gespielt haben.
“The phrase under examination has been creatively rendered as ‘Ewig dein’, which literally means “forever yours/yours in eternity”, probably resulting from an interpretation of “‘Believe'” as an abbreviation of “I believe in you/in our love”. This shows that a typing mistake can be transformed into something meaningful in both the original and the translation (the typist probably interpreted the word in a similar manner [perhaps a Freudian mistake of a typist in love with Dreiser]. Be it as it may, it fits the context.” (I thank Professor Klaus Schmidt for an email by way of explanation.)
E poi “Believe”, una graziosa costruzione nel frutteto dove a volte giocavamo.
The Italian translator threw up her hands!
Professor Kiyohiko Murayama of Toyo University, Japan consulted two Japanese editions of the novel in which the passage in question varies, namely, a translation by Fukuo Hashimoto (4 vols., 1963-68) and one by Youkich Miyamoto (1970; 1975).
The phrase in question (“the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house”) was translated by Hashimoto as “‘shinrai’ to iu na no kawairashii ie” and by Miyamoto as “‘shinjiru’ to iu chiisana kawaii ie. … Now, Hashimoto translates ‘Believe’ into ‘shinrai’, while Miyamoto ‘shinjiru’. ‘Shinrai’ is a derivative from Chinese, which means ‘trust’ rather than ‘belief’, I think. ‘Shinjiru’ means ‘believe’ or ‘trust,’ sounding more Japanese, since it takes a form equivalent to infinitive in English verb conjugation. The root “shin” is a derivative from Chinese. Chinese derivatives do in Japanese what Latin derivatives in English: both of them tend to be used for conveying rather abstract concepts, such as philosophical, religious, or academic…. it would be very appropriate if ‘a cute little house in the orchard’ is named ‘Believe.’ The problem to a translator would be whether this ‘believe’ is meant to be religious, or to be of human relations. Does it mean to ‘believe in God, or have faith’? Or to ‘believe your friend’?
Hashimoto’s translation ‘shinrai’ means the latter rather than the former. Miyamoto’s ‘shinjiru’ is too unspecified to decide which it really means. Moreover, Hashimoto’s translation may be an attempt to make a point of the irony inherent in Roberta’s situation” (email from Kiyohiko Murayama).
A Korean edition of the novel was consulted for me by one of my former students at St. John’s University, who “decoded” the passage in question as follows:
And then, I walked to what it is called “the house of faith” which is in the snug orchard. This is also the place where I often came and played.
Og det lille skuret bak låven hvor vi holdt til når det regent. (And the little shed behind the barn where we stayed when it rained.)
Potem żegnałem “Ustronie”, maleńki, śliczny domek w warzywnym ogrodzie [one can say “w warzywniaku”), gdzie bawiliśmy się często. (“Later I was saying goodbye to the bower, the little, beautiful house in the vegetable garden where we spent a lot of time.” This is perhaps a somewhat stilted translation. The key word, “Ustronie”: means recess, place of retirement or seclusion, backwater, or secluded place. I thank Anita Ludwikoska for helping me with the Polish.)
A potom som bola pri našom peknom altánku v sade, kde sme sa ako deti brávali.
The Dutch and Hebrew editions of An American Tragedy are abridged and omit, egregiously, Roberta’s last letter to Clyde.
The “beehive” passage occurs in Grace Brown’s eloquent and moving last letter to Chester Gillette of July 5 1907, which was used in the libretto by Gene Scheer for Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy.
— Roger W. Smith
The mis-transcription of the “beehive” passage is discussed in Adirondack Tragedy: A Study of the 1906 Gillette Murder Case, Fourth Edition, by Joseph W. Brownell and Patricia Enos (Cortland Press & Carbon Copies, 2017), pp. 182-183.
The following brief commentary by a guest contributor says a great deal about Dreiser in a few words.
”Cry on Geraldine’s Shoulder” column, Oakland Tribune, February 21, 1934
… I owe more, perhaps, to Theodore Dreiser than any other man; for he had made me see clearly and vividly the chaotic industrial forces In American life and their devastating effects upon human character.
Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. But who can forget the charming Jennie Gerhardt? Or the brutal and ruthless Cowperwood? Or the poor, pathetic Hurstwood? Or even the will-less and flabby Clyde Griffiths? No one, who has thoroughly read Dreiser.
He has an almost miraculous grip on his characters. No other American writer, except the late Ring Lardner, has had such an extensive gallery of convincing characters. And while Lardner was a merciless satirist, without the slightest trace of pity, Dreiser has almost divine pity for the helpless creatures that he has so skillfully drawn.
Although Lardner masked his savage contempt for men with a lusty humor, Dreiser totally lacks humor. And Dreiser broods incessantly on the traffic fate of his characters and the profound mystery of life: a kind of intellectual day-dreaming that probably accounts for the sluggish incoherence of his novels. The stark realism of Dreiser is shocking, convincing but disillusioning. And most novel readers seek, not disillusion, but illusion, and thus, they find Dreiser irritating and painful. But compared to the trashy concoctions of Kathleen Norris and Faith Baldwin, although both of them write about the same type of people, he is, indeed, a sincere and conscientious genius.
The essential tragedy of Dreiser’s characters is not that they rebelled against the established order, but that they accepted too naively its prejudices, its superstitions, its ideals. This is almost an obsession with Dreiser, who hates the sheer hypocrisy and tawdry pretenses of our social life. He clearly sees the cruel, ruthless forces that ripple and roar beneath our papier-mache formality; and he is fascinated with the vitality men display in trying to combat these tricky forces, although they may be defeated in the end.
I sincerely look forward to another book by Dreiser covering the depression era, but I hope that he keeps on firm ground as in “An American Tragedy,” rather than wallowing in the absurdities of “Tragic America.”
— ROBERT B.
The following are remarks by Theodore Dreiser as quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1932.
There is an immaterial force that is shaping the world and everything in it, and it compels my reverence. I haven’t the intellect to understand it fully, but I have seen its results in various ways since I was a young boy, and I am now an old man. I am astounded by the brutality and horror rampant in the world, not only in war, but in peacetime, but there is a guiding force, and we are following through to our destiny.
Dreiser went on to say that rich merchant classes in all large countries have been governing them. “These men believe that they are the light of the world, that the common man does not matter, but they are being proved wrong.”
— Roger W. Smith
“Dreiser hailed as writer of the city; Novelist caught aesthetic power of urban scene”
BYLINE: Jeffrey Hart
THE LOST WORD
JEFFRY HART on the novels of THEODORE DREISER
Everything that can be said against Theodore Dreiser has been said. It is therefore time to make the case for him in terms that finally matter – that is to say, as a writer, a writer who did much that was new in writing.
It must have been startling to have been an alert reader in that annus mirabilis of American literature, 1925. You read Ernest Hemingway’s first major work, “In Our Time.”
You read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and also that strangely pivotal conversion poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “The Hollow Men,” which ends with the infant’s “whimper” at Bethlehem. And you read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.”
The case against Dreiser much resembles Samuel Johnson’s case against John Milton. Dreiser was a disagreeable man. His sexual conduct was outrageous, and his political opinions equally so. As Johnson would think of Milton, Dreiser’s philosophical opinions, if philosophical is the right word, were incoherent. His style occasionally is embarrassing.
Let us continue for a while the case against Dreiser before hearing from the defense.
In a recollective essay titled “An Evening at Theodore Dreiser’s,” Malcolm Cowley tells us about a meeting under Communist Party auspices at Dreiser’s Manhattan studio in 1931, a year of hard-to-imagine economic collapse and social desperation. The meeting was called to recruit writers, artists and intellectuals to the revolutionary cause.
“The younger writers were proud of his later successes, and most of them felt that he and not [Sinclair] Lewis should have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize; but they also felt that he groped and fumbled more than anyone had a right to do.
“His mind, it often seemed to us, was like an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Darwinist, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes almost as a fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer. … Dreiser looked up shyly from his prepared text, revealing his scrubbed lobster-pink cheeks and his chins in repeating terraces. . .. ‘The time is ripe,’ he said, ‘for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker.’ ”
Cowley’s portrait of Dreiser is affectionately and respectfully devastating. The cultural left regarded Dreiser as a peasant writer and celebrated his faults as a sign of peasant authenticity. His awkwardness and his contradictions were signs of health compared with the decadent perfection and intelligence of Henry James. If you were for The People, Theodore Dreiser was your man.
From a rather different perspective, H.L. Mencken celebrated Dreiser as a writer coming from outside the genteel tradition of the East – and Mencken had in mind not least that Dreiser was of German stock. Harvard’s F.O. Matthiessen, an acute literary critic, stumbled in trying to elevate Dreiser by selecting among his ideas and viewing him as an “echt” man of The People.
In his important essay “Reality in America,” Lionel Trilling tried to execute Dreiser. Published earlier in parts in magazines, this essay appeared between hard covers in “The Liberal Imagination” (1950).
Trilling argues that “reality” in American culture is crudely conceived and excludes the operations of “mind.”
This thought had been anticipated by the James brothers, William and Henry, but Trilling makes the case powerfully, and he puts Dreiser in the dock. “It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy, as in the old plays.”
Up to a point, Trilling is absolutely right. There is an American democratic sentimentality that views slow-thinking clumsiness as a sign of moral virtue. There is a mainstream American opinion that suspects serious activity of the mind as being aristocratic and considers it “unreal,” as distinguished from the “odors of the shop.” Trilling convicts Dreiser of intellectual thuggishness, also noting that he was an anti-semite, as indeed he was.
Trilling’s climactic charge against Dreiser is moral and religious. In his last novel, “The Bulwark” (1946), Dreiser turns religious. He does so all too easily. Trilling compares this revolving-door Dreiser shift with the struggles of St. Augustine in the “Confessions.”
Dreiser’s hero in “The Bulwark,” Solon Barnes (you gag at the tacky “Solon”) affirms a simple Christian faith and a submission to the higher “powers,” the very same “powers” that Dreiser had earlier thought to be totally indifferent.
But egad! The same year “The Bulwark” appeared, Theodore Dreiser joined the Communist Party.
All of this Trilling can’t stand. And here the prosecution of Theodore Dreiser rests.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I will now speak in defense of the accused:
I will not defend Theodore Dreiser’s ideas.
I note, however, that in Trilling’s essay, which has much on its mind besides Theodore Dreiser – much, that is, including the politics of the Democratic Party and the fight against fellow-traveling (remember that the time is the late 1940s) – Trilling remarkably quotes very little from Dreiser’s own prose. He does quote a couple of collectors’ items, where Dreiser interpolates some idiotic “philosophizing” (Dreiser himself evidently valued this stuff) and Trilling certainly convicts Dreiser of intellectual fatuity and moral foolishness.
But Trilling does not in his prosecutor’s brief offer to locate the power of Dreiser as a novelist. It is as a novelist that his power must be assessed.
The title “An American Tragedy” has the aroma of the year 1925. Such writers as Dreiser, Hemingway and Fitzgerald aspired to write “the great American novel,” by which they meant an epic novel that would encompass the vast and contradictory “American” experience. Of course, none of them could do that probably impossible task, but it was certainly a nobler ambition than the minimalism of Ann Beattie or the current “minority” whining.
Trilling in his otherwise great essay does not address Dreiser specifically as a novelist, does not locate his actual power, the power that makes us emotionally exhausted by the fate of Carrie or Clyde. It is the best of Dreiser that matters, not his foolishness, and it is the best that will endure.
Throw old Dreiser’s ideas into the wastebasket. He did something new as a writer. He wrote a prose that almost alone in our literature celebrates the magic of the city, and he did this in the teeth of his moralistic superego, which kept telling him that the city and riches were evil.
It is a peculiar fact that American literature hates the city and always has. Thomas Jefferson did. T.S. Eliot did. So did Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane. Poor Hart Crane tried to celebrate the city with the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he collapsed as a poet in doing so.
Dreiser, perhaps despite himself, is the great poet in prose of the delights – the heretofore forbidden delights – of the city:
“Carrie was an apt student of fortune’s ways . . . fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion. They spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear. Ah, ah! the voices of the so-called inanimate. Who shall yet translate the language of the stones?”
Dreiser translated in his best prose the language of the stones. This is not fancy or “philosophical” writing. Dreiser – continue thinking of him as a writer – keeps expressing the aesthetics of the city. As Gustave Flaubert remarked, “Emma Bovary c’est moi,” Dreiser could certainly say of Carrie or Clyde, “C’est moi.”
Moralists would think of the following passage in “An American Tragedy” as part of the miseducation of Clyde Griffiths. He is here a bellhop at the luxurious Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City:
“There, at midnight even, before each of the three principal entrances – one facing each of three streets – was a doorman in a long maroon coat with many buttons and a high-rimmed and long-visored maroon cap. And inside, behind looped and fluted French silk curtains, were the still blazing lights, the a la carte dining-room and the American grill near the corner still open. And about them there were many taxis and cars. And there was music always – from somewhere.”
Music from somewhere? Well, certainly from Dreiser’s love for that Green-Davidson urban hotel.
Wherever you touch Dreiser’s prose at its best you get this direct blast of unphilosophical love:
“Clyde first stared, felt himself tremble the least bit with excitement, then thanking his advisor for his kindness, went directly to a green-marbled doorway which opened from the rear of this drug-store into the lobby of the hotel.
“Once through it, he beheld a lobby, the like of which, for all his years but because of the timorous poverty that had restrained him from exploring such a world, was more arresting, quite, than anything he had seen before. It was all so lavish. Under his feet was a checkered black-and-white marble floor. Above him a coppered and stained and gilded ceiling. And supporting this, a veritable forest of black marble columns as highly polished as the floor.”
There is no “philosophizing” in such passages, no paste gems such as Trilling correctly quotes against Dreiser. When Dreiser is telling the truth about the beauty and the possibility of the city, he writes in a direct and muscular prose, a prose that expresses the city and what it offers.
It is too bad that Clyde Griffiths could not exercise prudence and had to die in the electric chair. It is too bad that Dreiser held revolving-door “opinions.”
It remains a fact that the defendant, Theodore Dreiser, accomplished something new in our literature, perhaps accomplished it despite his moralistic predispositions. He wrote about the aesthetic possibilities of the American city with a power that no one had done before.
The defense rests.
Jeffrey Hart is professor of English at Dartmouth College.
— Jeffrey Hart
The Washington Times
May 7, 1990
The following is a partial transcription of an article in the Atlanta Constitution, November 7, 1931.
— Roger W. Smith
Dreiser and Editor Exchange Jibes on Income and Service to Society
HARLAN, Ky., Nov 6 – (AP) – Theodore Dreiser, who came to Kentucky’s hills to investigate the sanguinary coal field controversy of the Harlan district, was transformed from prosecutor to witness today by a newspaperman who sought to learn if the famous novelist practiced what he advocated.
The newspaperman—Herndon Evans, publisher of the Pineville Sun—learned from the author of “An American Tragedy” that his annual income was approximately $35,000 and that he gave none of it to charity, but supported financially the Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Dreiser and other New York writers were conducting the first session of their inquiry into conditions in the coal fields and were questioning Mr. Evans.
Dreiser questioned the Kentucky editor about his religion, income and other personal matters and asked Evans if he thought it fair to earn between $50 and $75 a week, while miners of the district worked for $30 and $40 a month. He had expressed the opinion the editor’s sympathies were with mine operators.
“May I ask you some questions?” Evans asked, and when Dreiser responded “Certainly,” he asked:
“What is your annual income?”
“Approximately $35,000,” said the author.
None for Charity.
“Do you give any of it to charity?”
“That’s all,” said the newspaperman.
Dreiser asked him not to stop, but “ask me some more questions.”
Evans then asked: “Do you give to any organization?”
To which Dreiser replied he contributed to the Civil Liberties Union and “other similar organizations.”
Dreiser recounted some personal matters and said there were 13 members of his family “and they were not very shrewd and couldn’t take care of themselves.”
“I am trying to take care of them,” he said, and estimated he spent between $5,000 and $6,000 a year on his family.
“You know,” he said, “I am a radical and interested in equality in government. I’m interested in social organization.”
Dreiser said he did not make any “real money until I wrote the ‘American Tragedy,’ at the age of 55.”
“Averaging my income over my life period,” he said, “I think you will find it to have been very moderate.”
Evans interrupted to say he believed he could show he had done more for charity of his income and along civic lines than Dreiser could on his earnings.
“Does that represent your theory of equality?” asked the Kentucky editor.
During Evans’ questioning, Dreiser denied he was a member of the communist party, but said he was in sympathy with some of its policies.
“I’m not a communist,” Dreiser said. “They wouldn’t take me, but I see an equity there, and that’s what I’m after. I believe we should let every country start on an equity basis and see what we get.”
“I don’t propose to import a Stalin or a Trotzky here, but there should be equity in all things.”
Both Evans and Dreiser were smiling when the session recessed after their exchange, which came at the end of a morning or routine questioning of miners and one miner’s wife.
[remainder of article not transcribed]