I often find myself bashing Dreiser as a stylist. This post is a sort of addendum or coda to my recent post: “Some Thoughts About Dreiser; What a Close Acquaintance With His Life and Works Reveals.”
Here is an excerpt from Dreiser’s sketch ”Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher,” from his Twelve Men:
Sometimes a single life will clearly and effectively illustrate a period. Hence, to me, the importance of this one.
I first met X____ at a time when American financial methods and American finances were at their apex of daring and splendor, and when the world was in a more or less tolerant mood toward their grandiose manners and achievements. It was the golden day of Mr. Morgan, Senior, Mr. Belmont, Mr. Harriman, Mr. Sage, Mr. Gates, Mr. Brady, and many, many others who were still extant and ruling distinctly and drastically, as was proved by the panic of 1907. In opposition to them and yet imitating their methods, now an old story to those who have read Frenzied Finance, Lawless Wealth, and other such exposures of the methods which produced our enormous American fortunes, were such younger men as Charles W. Morse (the victim of the 1907 panic), F. Augustus Heinze (another if less conspicuous victim of the same “panic”), E. R. Thomas, an ambitious young millionaire, himself born to money, David A. Sullivan, and X____. I refuse to mention his name because he is still alive although no longer conspicuous, and conscious perhaps to avoid the uncomfortable glare of publicity when all the honors and comforts which made it endurable in the first place are absent.
The person who made X____ essentially interesting to me long before I met him was one Lucien de Shay, a ne’er-do-well pianist and voice culturist, who was also a connoisseur in the matters of rugs, hangings, paintings and furniture, things in which X____ was just then most intensely interested, erecting, as he was, a great house on Long Island* and but newly blossoming into the world of art or fashion or culture or show—those various things which the American multi-millionaire always wants to blossom or bloom into and which he does not always succeed in doing. De Shay was one of those odd natures so common to the metropolis-half artist and half man of fashion who attach themselves so readily to men of strength and wealth, often as advisors and counselors in all matters of taste, social form and social progress. How this particular person was rewarded I never quite knew, whether in cash or something else. He was also a semi-confidant of mine, furnishing me “tips” and material of one sort and another in connection with the various publications I was then managing. As it turned out later, X____ was not exactly a multi-millionaire as yet, merely a fledgling, although the possibilities were there and his aims and ambitions were fast nearing a practical triumph the end of which of course was to be, as in the case of nearly all American multi-millionaires of the newer and quicker order, bohemian or exotic and fleshly rather than cultural or æsthetic pleasure, although the latter were never really exactly ignored.
But even so. He was a typical multi-millionaire in the showy and even gaudy sense of the time. For if the staid and conservative and socially well-placed rich have the great houses and the ease and the luxury of paraphernalia, the bohemian rich of the X____ type have the flare, recklessness and imagination which lend to their spendings and flutterings a sparkle and a shine which the others can never hope to match.
Said this friend of mine to me one day: “Listen, I want you to meet this man X____. You will like him. He is fine. You haven’t any idea what a fascinating person he really is. He looks like a Russian Grand Duke. He has the manners and the tastes of a Medici or a Borgia. He is building a great house down on Long Island that once it is done will have cost him five or six hundred thousand. It’s worth seeing already. His studio here in the C____ studio building is a dream. It’s thick with the loveliest kinds of things. I’ve helped buy them myself. And he isn’t dull. He wrote a book at twenty, Icarus, which is not bad either and which he says is something like himself. He has read your book (Sister Carrie) and he sympathizes with that man Hurstwood. Says parts of it remind him of his own struggles. That’s why he wants to meet you. He once worked on the newspapers too. God knows how he is making his money, but I know how he is spending it. He’s decided to live, and he’s doing it splendidly. It’s wonderful.”
I took notice, although I had never even heard of the man. There were so very, very many rich men in America. Later I heard much more concerning him from this same de Shay. Once he had been so far down in the scale that he had to shine shoes for a living. Once he had walked the streets of New York in the snow, his shoes cracked and broken, no overcoat, not even a warm suit. He had come here a penniless. emigrant from Russia. Now he controlled four banks, one trust company, an insurance company, a fire insurance company, a great real estate venture somewhere, and what not. Naturally all of this interested me greatly. When are we indifferent to a rise from nothing to something?
At de Shay’s invitation I journeyed up to X____’s studio one Wednesday afternoon at four, my friend having telephoned me that if I could I must come at once, that there was an especially interesting crowd already assembled in the rooms, that I would meet a long list of celebrities. Two or three opera singers of repute were already there, among them an Italian singer and sorceress of great beauty, a veritable queen of the genus adventuress, who was setting the town by the ears not only by her loveliness but her voice. Her beauty was so remarkable that the Sunday papers were giving full pages to her face and torso alone. There were to be several light opera and stage beauties there also, a basso profundo to sing, writers, artists, poets.
I went. The place and the crowd literally enthralled me. It was so gay, colorful, thrillful.
Note the use of thrillful. Not the ordinary way to say it, but the word works here; gets the reader’s attention, so to speak. Dreiser can get away with such things.
According to Thomas P. Riggio:
Twelve Men has long been recognized as Theodore Dreiser’s finest work apart from his novels. …
These twelve biographical portraits belong to a distinct species of writing in Dreiser’s oeuvre, a form born of his reluctance to make sharp distinctions between the art of the chronicler and that of the novelist. These essays, which he called “narratives,” combine the character sketch and autobiography within the framework of the short story. Written in the clear, unobtrusive manner of the reporter, they show Dreiser’s command of dialogue and his novelist’s eye for the details of scene and setting. The structure of each narrative—the presentation of selected fragments of a life with the counterpoint of Dreiser’s presence and reaction to the personality—gives the collection a dual direction: outward to objective portraiture of character and place and inward to a portrait of Dreiser himself. … The stories are among the best examples of the imaginative possibilities of autobiographical literature as Dreiser practiced it.
— Thomas P. Riggio, Preface, Theodore Dreiser, Twelve Men , edited by Robert Coltrane, Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
Very true. The writing here is powerful and focused. It could be said that much of Dreiser’s strengths as a writer came from his experience in journalism and his eye for the telling detail. This does not say it all, but I think it accounts for a lot.
*Robin’s Long Island home was known as Driftwood and was in the town of Riverhead.
— posted by Roger W. Smith