Robert Penn Warren, “Homage to Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Robert Penn Warren

HOMAGE TO THEODORE DREISER

On the Centennial of His Birth

(August 27, 1871)

 

 
Robert Penn Warren, ‘Homage to Theodore Dreiser’

 
Warren’s poem is posted above as a downloadable PDF file.

 

 

 

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[Robert Penn Warren’s] Or Else is actually composed of two intertwining sequences: There are twenty-four Roman-numeraled poems and eight Arabic-numeraled “Interjections” which occur after the first, fourth, fifth, eighth, twelfth, fifteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-first poems of the first group. I will begin with the tenth and eleventh poems in this sequence, “Rattlesnake Country” and “Homage to Theodore Dreiser.”

The first recounts the narrator’s visit to a friend’s ranch in the high country of the American West, a trip from which he recalls wranglers driving horses down a mountain and an Indian named Laughing Boy who was good at killing rattlesnakes by dousing them with gasoline and flicking a lighted match just before they disappeared into their holes.

But it turns out that in “Homage to Theodore Dreiser” the novelist’s Indiana birthplace shares common ground, almost literally–and perhaps ironically, given the name of the town in question–with the first poem’s high-altitude setting: “Past Terre Haute, the diesels pound,/ … Deep/ In the infatuate and foetal dark, beneath/ The unspecifiable weight of the great/ Mid-America loam-sheet, the impacted/ Particular particles of loam, blind,/ Minutely grind … vibrate/ At the incessant passage/ Of the transcontinental truck freight.” In Indiana, loam is pounded by truck freight, while in “Rattlesnake Country” loam was truck freight: “Arid that country and high … but/ One little patch of cool lawn: // Trucks/ Had brought in rich loam. Stonework/ Held it in place like a shelf.” It is on such imported earth that the snakes are set aflame as they disappear into the loam, there to perish, trapped in their holes.

A parallel event takes place within Dreiser’s soul: “the screaming, and stench, of a horse-barn aflame,/ … their manes flare up like torches.” The rattlers and horses are both trapped where they live by flames; and the association of makes and horses had already begun in “Rattlesnake Country,” where the flame at the hole-mouth that “flickers blue” was anticipated by the faces of the wranglers driving horses from the ountain pastures, faces “flickering white through the shadow” as “the riderless horses,/ Like quicksilver spilled in dark glimmer and roil, go/ Pouring downward.” Warren intensifies the connection between this recollected scene and that of Laughing Boy and the snakes by saying that both are “nearer” but that the second is nearer than the first: “The wranglers cry out.// And nearer.// But,/ Before I go for my quick coffee-scald and to the corral,/ I hear, much nearer, not far from my window, a croupy/ Gargle of laughter.// It is Laughing Boy.” The Indian’s method for exterminating rattlers is then recounted. The liquid horses prefigure both the poured gasoline and the snakes slithering down their holes–indeed, prefigure the snakes and burning petrol together “Pouring downward,” like “quicksilver spilled in dark.” The burning horses in the Dreiser poem thus recall not just the burning snakes of “Rattlesnake Country” but the linkage already there established between horses and snakes.

Warren focuses on Dreiser’s mouth–“Watch his mouth, how it moves without a sound”–as he had, in the poem before, on Laughing Boy’s: “Sometimes, before words come, he utters a sound like croupy laughter.” Both Dreiser and Laughing Boy have trouble getting out the utterance that boils within. Dreiser’s mouth, where “Saliva gathers in the hot darkness of mouth-tissue,” recalls the snake-hole as well, appropriately termed “the hole-mouth,” where flames consume snakes in darkness, as flames consume horses in his soul.

 

— Randolph Paul Runyon,  “A problem in spatial composition: on the order of Or Else,” The Southern Review,  September 2002

James T. Farrell, “Some Correspondence with Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

 

from James T. Farrell, “Reflections at Fifty and other essays”

 

Farrell, ‘Some Correspondence with Theodore Dreiser’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chester Gillette’s uncle

 

Craig Brandon is the author of Murder in the Adirondacks, the definitive book about the Chester Gillette murder case. This case, which resulted in Gillette’s execution in Auburn State Prison in New York in 1908, provided the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

Chester Ellsworth Gillette (1883-1908) was arrested on July 14, 1906 at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, New York, an Adirondack outpost, for the murder of Grace Mae Brown (1886-1906).

Brandon gives lectures about the case, about which he is recognized as the foremost authority. In one such lecture, I recall that Brandon spoke of an uncle from Chicago who, learning of Gillette’s arrest from the newspapers, tried to contact either his nephew or the authorities. (I can’t recall which was the case.) Brandon expressed befuddlement over this and implied that the so called uncle was not in fact Chester Gillette’s uncle.

There indeed was such an uncle and his name was Josiah Rice. He was an uncle of Chester Gillette on Chester’s mother’s side.

Attached (see below) is the death certificate of one Josiah Rice. The details are as follows:

Josiah Rice

residence: 5400 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago

died in Edgewater Hospital [Chicago] on April 8, 1939

widower; husband of Matilda Rice

his date of birth: February 5, 1855

his age: 84 years 1 month 23 days

his place of birth: Oxford, Massachusetts

father’s name: Leonard Rice (born Oxford, Massachusetts)

mother’s maiden name: Matilda Coyne (born Rock Island, Illinois)

Now, some facts about Chester Gillette’s mother:

Her maiden name was Louisa Maria Rice;

She was born in Millbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts on May 12, 1859;

Her parents were Leonard Rice and Dulcena (or Dulcimer) S. (Gale) Rice;

Leonard Rice and Dulcena Gale were married in Millbury on April 25, 1855.

So, it is apparent that Josiah Rice was the son of Leonard Rice by a first wife of Leonard — namely, Matilda (Coyne) Rice — and it would seem to be a certainty that Matilda died giving birth to Josiah.

Therefore, it is conclusive that Chester Gillette’s mother, Louisa (Rice) Gillette was the half-sister of Josiah Rice of Chicago. So, it would be quite natural and proper for Josiah Rice to call himself Chester Gillette’s uncle and to inquire after Chester upon learning of his arrest from newspapers.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

Josiah Rice death cert.jpg

 

 

Henry Miller and Dreiser

 

 

Henry Miller was a great admirer of Theodore Dreiser. He admired Dreiser’s realism; admired the size, scope, and power of Dreiser’s novels; admired the cumulative effect of Dreiser’s massive plots.  Dreiser was one of Miller’s major literary influences.

In March 1922, Miller took a three week vacation from his employer, The Western Union Company (the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America in his novel Tropic of Capricorn). During the vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings, which was never published.

Clipped Wings, a novel about twelve telegraph messenger boys, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men,  which had been published three years earlier, in 1919.

Early in his writing career, Miller made efforts to get published in The New Republic which did not meet with success. He wrote a long essay about Dreiser for the magazine that was rejected. However, a brief excerpt from the essay was published in April 1926 in the magazine’s letters to the editor section under the heading “Dreiser’s Style.”

The letter has not hitherto been reprinted. Texts of Miller’s early writings are in many cases unavailable.

The following is the text of Miler’s letter. It was written in response to a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy by T. K. Whipple in The New Republic of March 17, 1926. The text of the Whipple review is appended here as a PDF file

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

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Dreiser’s Style

Sir: In his review of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, Mr. T. K. Whipple raises an interesting problem in the art of the novel in in his discussion of Mr. Dreiser’s style. “Dreiser could not write as he does,” says Mr. Whipple, “mixing slang with poetic archaisms, reveling in the cheap, trite and florid, if there were not in himself something correspondingly muddled, banal and tawdry … a failure in writing is necessarily a failure in communication.” This is all very true when the thing to be communicated is an abstract idea or philosophy. The novel, however, is effective because of images and emotions and not because of its abstract ideas. Mr. Whipple’s error lies in applying intellectual criteria such as logic and profundity to art, which affects us by its vividness or beauty.

From this point of view it becomes evident that Mr. Dreiser’s effects are not achieved in spite of but because of his style. The “cheap trite, and tawdry” enable him to present a world which a more elegant and precise style could only hint at. He uses language, consciously or not, in the manner which modern writers, notably Joyce, use deliberately, that is, he identifies his language with the consciousness of his characters. Mr. Whipple evidently expects all writing to conform to the “mot just’ technique of the Flaubert school. But fortunately style cannot be prescribed by rule.

Henry Miller.

New York, N. Y.

 

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T. R. Whipple, review of An American Tragedy, The New Republic, April 1926

T. R. Whipple, review of American Tragedy New Republic, April 1926

 

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See also: Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New Directions, 1969), pp. 219-220. There, Miller misspells the title of Dreiser’s second novel as Jenny Gerhardt.