Category Archives: Dreiser’s style

more on Dreiser’s style

 

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.

 

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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

   October 2021

Dreiser’s style is not spare.

 

 

spare: economical in style; using simple language and a minimum of words; restrained

 

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I was amused by William Kent Krueger’s description in his By the Book interview (Aug. 22) of a Midwest voice in literature that is “spare but eloquent,” given the hardly spare style that he uses in his own fiction of the Midwest.

For example, in his novel “Ordinary Grace,” Krueger’s narrator describes his sister’s organ playing at a funeral as “fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.”

When the narrator’s mother sings at the same service, “her voice reached out to wipe away my tears and enfold my heart. … And when she finished the sound of the breeze through the doorway was like the sigh of angels well pleased.” This descriptive flora is anything but “spare.”
One of our great voices of the Midwest was the early-20th-century novelist Theodore Dreiser. His writing was so spare that some critics have complained that it was excessively so.

— Robert Farrell, letter to editor, The New York Times Book Review, September 5, 2021

 

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Dreiser’s style is not excessively spare. Hemingway’s is. Dreiser, on the contrary, is often verbose.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2021

Sally Kusell, “Dreiser’s Style”

 

Sally Kusell, ‘Dreiser’s Style’ – NYTBR 4-8-1951

 

This April 1951 letter  to The New York Times Book Review from Sally Kusell is self-explanatory.

Sally Kusell (1892-1982) was a lover of Theodore Dreiser and one of his many secretarial/editorial assistants. She played a major role as a typist and editor of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet and scholar.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

quotes and comments re Dreiser

 

quotes and comments re Theodore Dreiser

 

Posted here are (downloadable Word document above) are quotes and comments re Dreiser.

 

— compiled and posted by Roger W. Smith, May 2008

  updated May 2022

a message commenting on some aspects of Dreiser studies

 

The following is an email dated December 27, 2015 from me to Claire Bruyère, a professor of American literature who is an authority on Sherwood Anderson. We had been in touch because she was writing an article that included Dreiser.

— Roger W. Smith

 

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Thank you very much for getting back to me.

A few follow-up comments.

I met Richard Lingeman about 25 years ago at a Dreiser conference in Brockport, NY. At that time, the second volume of his Dreiser biography, which is excellent, was being published. He is well respected. I found him to be friendly, modest, and unassuming.

I was invited to dinner with a Dreiser descendant and her husband at their Manhattan apartment several years ago. I gave her a copy of a biography of Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser — the songwriter — that had just been published. I thought she would be very pleased. She thanked me for the gift, but she did not seem interested in the book. Her interest in Dreiser seemed to be based on family ties and perhaps on money inherited from the Dreiser Trust.

The Dreiser Trust exerts control over publishing and performance rights to Dreiser’s works, at least those protected by copyright. (I don’t know which works these would be.) It is my understanding that Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer had a very difficult time getting rights to An American Tragedy for their opera (2005). Picker was thinking of composing an opera based on Sister Carrie instead. From what I can gather, the Dreiser Trust was committed to the stage adaptation of An American Tragedy in Charles Strouse’s musical version. Then they decided to give the rights to Picker for his opera.

The Trustee of the Dreiser Trust for a long time was Harold Dies. He was a cousin of Dreiser’s second wife, Helen, who inherited all of Dreiser’s papers, which were donated to the University of Pennsylvania. I met Mr. Dies about seven years ago. He was in his nineties then and was very active in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group. He held a high position with the organization and had an office in their headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. He was a very nice man, very willing to assist me with Dreiser inquiries. He recently passed away.

I actually think (or at least suspect) that Sherwood Anderson is a better writer (qua writer) than Dreiser. I wish I could say I have read more of him.

Dreiser, who was given to plagiarism and didn’t seem ashamed of it, was guilty on one known occasion of plagiarizing from Anderson in 1926. In the New York World, it was alleged that Dreiser, in his poem, The Beautiful,” published in Vanity Fair, had lifted sentences from Anderson’s story “Tandy.” (The alleged plagiarism was pointed out by columnist Franklin P. Adams.) Anderson, contacted by reporters, said he did not believe Dreiser would have plagiarized: “It is one of those accidents that occur. The thought expressed has come, I am sure, to a great many man. If Mr. Dreiser has expressed it beautifully, it is enough.”

You commented that much of Anderson’s best writing was in the form of short stories. I found this interesting and useful to hear. You mentioned, with respect to Anderson, concision (something Dreiser certainly did not achieve, or aim to achieve), open endings, and ellipses. I have noticed (in passing) Anderson’s use of ellipses.

Dreiser reminds me of Balzac (a writer whom Dreiser discovered early, admired, and emulated), and vice versa. I first read Balzac in French in college. There do not seem to be nearly enough of Balzac’s works available in English translation, let alone good translations.

Both Balzac and Dreiser are easy to get into. Neither seemed to care about style or polish. (Compare, for example, a writer like Flaubert.) I once remarked to a well read acquaintance of mine (he agreed) that when it comes to Joyce — a writer who is in a superior class to which Dreiser does not belong — I find that I do not care about his characters, whereas in the case of the inferior writer, Dreiser (and this is true of Balzac, too), I find that I do care about his characters.

You mentioned your being “forgotten” in bibliographies. I have noticed that foreign works (both by and about Dreiser) tend to get ignored – one might say shamefully ignored – in bibliographies.