An Encounter with Theodore Dreiser
Brick: A Literary Journal
It was on my first furlough, the furlough of 1943. [Jim] Harmon and I got leave to go down to San Francisco. We took the coast stage south to Marshfield where we had to lay over in order to pick up the Portland bus southbound for San Francisco the next morning.
As we boarded the bus in Marshfield [Oregon] I noticed a man who seemed familiar. I said to myself, “That man looks like Theodore Dreiser.” Harmon said it couldn’t be, but [Robinson] Jeffers had spoken of Dreiser as a “tough old mastodon,” and that’s just the way this character looked. Hulking shoulders. Slack jaws. Strangely inattentive eyes that missed nothing. Even in his photographs his configuration was unmistakable.
During the war the bus travel was simply awful. In order to save rubber the law held their schedule down to thirty-five miles an hour, but the drivers went like hell between stops and waited at the next depot for time to catch up. So we had plenty of opportunity to look each other over.
At Gold Beach, Oregon, we pulled in for lunch. By this time I was sure it was Dreiser. As Harmon and I got ready to sit down, Harmon forgot about lunch and followed the man into the lavatory. He came right out as if he’d really found gold on that beach. “It’s him!” he exclaimed excitedly. “It’s Dreiser, all right. Come on!”
Even as I got up I had my misgivings, but curiosity got the better of judgment, Dreiser was standing at the urinal relieving himself, and not knowing what else to do I began to talk. I had never read any of his books, so I began with us. It was a fatal mistake.
“Mr. Dreiser,” I began, “we’re two poets on furlough from a camp in Waldport [Oregon]. We are going down to San Francisco. We hope to meet some of the other writers there and renew our acquaintance with the literary scene …. ”
Dreiser looked at me, and I suddenly discovered I had nothing more to say. He slowly buttoned his fly, and as he turned to wash his hands, he said two words with extreme irony: “So what!”
Then he started in. Ripping a paper towel from the rack, he crumpled it in those fearsome hands and proceeded with contempt. “There are thousands of you. You crawl about the country from conference to literary conference. You claim to be writers, but what do you ever produce? Not one of you will amount to a goddamn. You have only the itch to write, nothing more … the insatiable itch to express yourself. Everywhere I go I run into you, and I’m sick of you. The world is being torn apart in agony, crying out for truth, the terrible truth. And you … “He paused and his voice seemed to suddenly grow weary. “You have nothing to say.”
I turned to go. Harmon was already gone. Opening the door into the restaurant, I looked back to let him know how sorry I was that I had accosted him, but I couldn’t open my mouth. Then Dreiser stepped past me, as if I had opened the door only for him. For a moment the contempt seemed to fade in his face and a kind of geniality gleamed there. “Well,” he said, “take it easy. It lasts longer that way.” Then he was gone.
Not really gone. His seat was ahead of ours, and we had already noticed that he was travelling with a young woman. After Gold Beach [Oregon] aware of our presence behind him, he kept stiffly aloof, conversing with her circumspectly. But far down the coast, at the end of the long hot afternoon, when everyone was collapsed with fatigue, she could stand it no longer. Reaching out her hand she stroked with tender fondness the balding head. Dazed with exhaustion, he accepted it gratefully until he remembered us. Suddenly thrashing his head like a mastodon caught red-handed in a pterodactyl’s nest, he flung the hand from him. She never tried it again.
William “Bill” Everson (1912-1994), also known as Brother Antoninus, was an American poet of the San Francisco Renaissance and was also a literary critic, teacher and small press printer. Everson registered as an anarchist and a pacifist with his draft board, in compliance with the 1940 draft bill. In 1943, he was sent to a Civilian Public Service (CPS) work camp for conscientious objectors: Camp Angel at Waldport, Oregon, with other poets, artists and actors.
At Camp Angel, Everson founded a fine-arts program in which the CPS men staged plays and poetry readings and learned the craft of fine printing. During his time as a conscientious objector, Everson completed The Residual Years, a volume of poems that launched him to national fame. (Wikipedia)
Dreiser was undoubtedly traveling with his mistress Helen Richardson (née Patges), a native of Oregon. In June 1944, Dreiser and Helen were married in the state of Washington.
— posted by Roger W. Smith