Category Archives: miscellaneous

Dreiser’s favorite fiction character

 

 

Theodore Dreiser, ‘My Favorite Fiction Character’ – The Bookman, April 1926

 

See above PDF file.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2021

stock characters in Dreiser’s novels

 

 

 

Sondra Finchley … An American Tragedy

Letty Pace … Jennie Gerhardt

Berenice Fleming … The Titan

are stock, papier-mâché high class woman characters.

Straight out of soap opera.

Not believable

 

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Robert Alden is very real. Her ingenuousness. Her emotions. Her love for Clyde. Her sense of betrayal. Her letters. And so on. She is, in the words of Mary Gordon, a “genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.”

Sondra Finchley, irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich, bestows an occasional kiss on Clyde. She is the prototypical flapper with zero sex appeal. She is too vain to really show love for Clyde. “Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment,” notes Mary Gordon, “are the locus of her sexual allure.”* Her main reaction and main worry after Clyde is arrested are to keep her name out of the papers.

Characters like Sondra Finchley and Dreiser’s other high class women seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real.

Bob Ames in Sister Carrie — a stand in and mouthpiece for the author, Dreiser — has no purpose or reason for being in the novel. He does not seem real and is not brought to life.

 

* Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1991), pp. 8-10

 

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For purposes of comparison, let’s take an author such as Charles Dickens.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol could be considered to be a stock character: miser, skinflint, coldhearted businessman — crotchety curmudgeon.

He receives visitations from ghosts (spirits). This is realistic?

Yet …

Scrooge is realer than real. He LIVES in our imaginations.

So does Bob Cratchit, who might have been portrayed one dimensionally as the poor, overworked worker ground down by ruthless capitalism.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are so real that it sometimes seems that they actually existed and lived in Victorian London.

Or Tolstoy.

Levin in Anna Karenina is a stand in for Tolstoy the aristocratic landholder, and his views. But he is not a stock figure in the novel. His character is fully developed.

In a novel which Dreiser greatly admired, Balzac’s Père Goriot, there are characters who could be seen as types:

Goriot, old man rejected by his heedless daughters; miser out of necessity

Rastignac, prototypical social climber. Goriot’s self-centered daughters: the same

All are portrayed by Balzac in a manner that makes them fully human, idiosyncratic, and believable.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

an exchange about Dreiser

 

 

The following are emails — the content of which I believe make for interesting reading — between myself and my brother Pete Smith today (plus a follow up comment from my brother several days later).

 

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Roger Smith:

I happened to reread this post of mine today

link below

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/roger-w-smith-biographical-sketch-of-theodore-dreiser/

and was very pleased with myself.

I think it’s one of the best overviews and appraisals of Dreiser.

 

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Pete Smith:

Just read this again myself. Can’t imagine it could be any better written by anyone. Perfect summary and very thoughtful; I especially like the ending where you explain why, even though he was a dirtbag plagiarist (just kidding but not totally kidding), his work lasts.

 

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Pete Smith:

I’ve been busy with work, but still finding a few moments for [Dreiser’s] “Newspaper Days” and just today have begun reading about the Chicago World’s Fair trip he was dreading. What a riot. Incredibly revealing and often unintentionally hilarious. … I’m saving judgment on Dreiser until I finish. but based on what I’ve read so far, he’s a much better writer, and a much worse person, than I had thought. . .

 

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Roger Smith:

You may have heard of the book “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson.

I was a very popular book. I think I own it. I believe I read a bit of it.

The main thing about the World’s Fair trip is that Dreiser met his future wife Sara (Jug), who was one of the schoolteachers on the train.

Dreiser honestly, candidly reveals things about himself in “Newspaper Days” — his stupid adolescent mistakes and sex longings and indiscretions, his successes and failures. I admire his sincerity. He did not engage in image “window dressing.”

Dreiser the cad seems to be to more apparent in his adult years.

His primarily failings (major) — as I see it — were his shameless womanizing, believing he could have multiple, serial relationships and they couldn’t, hitting on young unsuspecting woman (personal “secretaries”) and, in one shameless, well documented case (there may have been others) a teenager in high school when he was in middle age or past it; plagiarism; and — I think this is most significant — a deep insecurity and lack of love from early age so that he could never trust or love anyone; also (less important but true), becoming a would be snob once he got well known and rich, putting on airs and admiring the rich and high class (which made him look ridiculous).

I think, as if often the case with writers, some of Dreiser’s early works are better than later ones; and when he was simply attempting to narrate and tell the truth — or engage in reportage (of, say, the Brooklyn trolley strike or the Hudson River tunnel cave in), he could be surprisingly good.

When he attempts to philosophize or pose as an intellectual, he is out of his depth. He was basically uneducated. He was often on the wrong side of political and social issues.

 

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Pete Smith:

Yes, read “Devil in the White City” years ago. Excellent book; reading Dreiser’s excitement about the World’s Fair there reminded me of the book; that part is well written.

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion [in the St Louis Republic; recounted in Newspaper Days] which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours are himself.

 

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Roger Smith:

Re your comments (in bold):

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His treatment of women is horrifying, inexcusable.

I doubt you would wish to read Dreiser’s “serialized” novella “This Madness,” posted by me at:

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2020/04/16/theodore-dreiser-this-madness/

The woman characters were real lovers of his.

I spent days and weeks copying the whole “This Madness” — 56,000 words — at the New York Public Library and typing and proofreading it at home.

It comes though clearly how Dreiser regarded and treated women. How could he not see how it made him look? (Self-awareness was not one of his strong points.) Dreiser is posturing as, bragging about, his quest for the ideal woman, who, of course, he never finds; he finds faults in all of them. And leaves them. Will never commit to an enduring relationship. It never occurs to him to empathize (as yon note) with them.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours is himself.

I remember well this part of the book. But did not think about this (what you say about not empathizing with the victims). Undoubtedly true and on the mark.

 

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Pete Smith:

Thanks, Roger. This is very well written and very interesting; based on my reading of “Newspaper Days” (nearing the finish line) everything the writer says rings true. (In reference to an article I shared with my brother: “Moby Theo” by Oliver Edwards, The Times of London, January 19, 1956; see PDF below.),

I would have stopped reading “Newspaper Days” hundreds of pages ago if it weren’t so damned interesting. Embarrassingly interesting and revealingly interesting often, but interesting nonetheless. And there is something odd about Dreiser’s writing style — there are almost always far too many words, but it’s almost always not bothersome.

 

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Roger Smith:

 

Pete,

I often, continually. am recasting, reformulating, refining thoughts and opinions in my mind.

Re “Newspaper Days” — this probably (if not certainly) also applies to Dreiser’s fiction — there is no (Joycean, Hemingway-ish, Nabokovian) wall.

You, the reader, can walk right in and he shares his unscripted, plain, inchoate, actual experience with you. His memory may be faulty and, like any good raconteur, he will present the story in a certain light.

But it feels very true. And real.

Dreiser is very easy to read. This is a GOOD thing.

And, as true as this is (his readability), there is a substratum, a bedrock, of fact and actuality.
It is not fiction for philistines and those who choose the next book to read or recommend to a friend from the bestseller lists,

Which is why people who like to read still read Dreiser

While (although) he and many of his works are otherwise largely forgotten and perhaps considered out of fashion.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

 February 6, 2021

 

oliver-edwards-moby-theo-the-times-london-1-19-1956

 

 

“As we boarded the bus … I noticed a man who seemed familiar.” (William Everson, an encounter with Theodore Dreiser)

 

 

 

William Everson

An Encounter with Theodore Dreiser

Brick: A Literary Journal

Number 93

summer 2014

pp. 36-37

 

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.

 

 

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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

    January 2021

Dreiser Receives Bourne Award (Daily Worker)

 

 

 

RECEIVES BOURNE AWARD

Daily Worker

Saturday, June 7, 1941

pg. 7

 

The Randolph Bourne Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Culture and Peace was given to Theodore Dreiser at the Anti-War Meeting in Defense of Culture, sponsored by the League of American Writers, which was held at Manhattan Center last night. Dreiser, who is now in Hollywood, was one of the initial signers of the call to the Writers’ Congress. The presentation, on behalf of the National Board of the League, was made by its president, Donald Ogden Stewart.

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2020

Hurstwood, the trolley strike … Dreiser

 

 

Chapters 40-41

 

Sister Carrie

In Chapters XL and XLI of Sister Carrie, the Brooklyn trolley strike of 1895 is described in great detail. Hurstwood, who is at first sympathetic to the strikers, becomes a scab out of desperation to find employment. He works as a trolley car motorman for a single day, and is subject to obloquy and physical abuse by strikers and their sympathizers.

See text of Sister Carrie, Chapters XL and XLI (downloadable word document above).

 

 

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The Strike

On the morning of January 14, 1895, none of the streetcars on four of Brooklyn’s six main trolley roads left their barns. The strike that followed lasted over five weeks and was the largest and most violent labor dispute that Brooklyn had ever witnessed. Before it was over, thousands of scabs had been brought in from all over the country, the National Guard of Brooklyn and of neighboring New York City had been called out, and at least two civilians had been killed. Throughout the nation, the press depicted Brooklyn as an armed camp, where the striking Knights of Labor and their sympathizers clashed hourly with the militia and the police. …

Public attention centered on the trolleys themselves: their effect on the city, the impact of their changing technology, and the behavior of the companies that built and operated them. These issues were debated passionately by many Brooklynites and public opinion was considered crucial to the success or failure of the strike. Although the little attention that has been paid to this strike by historians has tended to emphasize public support for the companies, the strikers also received widespread support in their struggle. …

On January 11 the strike question was put to a vote of the membership, and the result was overwhelming: 3997 in favor, 133 opposed. On Monday morning, January 14, almost no trolleys ran on Brooklyn’s streets.

It had been reported that the companies were advertising for nonunion men to come to Brooklyn well before the strike vote was even taken. In any case, once the strike was declared they lost little time in hiring non-union men. The companies had placed notices in the papers of 20-30 different cities–virtually every American city with a trolley system. [Daniel] Lewis and [Cassius] Wicker [officials of the transportation companies affected] made it known that they considered that the men who refused to take out their cars had quit, and that they would replace them as soon as possible. [Benjamin] Norton [president of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad
Company] said that he would run no cars until Wednesday, in order to give his men a chance to reconsider and to return to work.

The cars started running slowly–on Monday, Brooklyn Heights succeeded in operating only 17 of its usual 900 cars, while the Atlantic Avenue company ran only a single mail car, with an engineer as the motorman and a purchasing agent as a conductor. In Norton’s words: “As a means of transportation, it was a complete failure.” In the days that followed men looking for work flocked to the companies’ offices, and gradually more cars were run and more lines were open. Men came from literally all over the country to work on the Brooklyn lines, and their stories are a testimony to the hard times that prevailed in the nation. Like fictional George Hurstwood, who came to Brooklyn to try his luck on the trolley lines in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie,  the scabs were generally desperate for work. …

The Brooklyn trolley strike was defeated in spite of public support, not for lack of it. The entire military force remained on active duty in Brooklyn until January 28, and some troops remained until February 1. The strike officially lasted for another two weeks, and strike arrests were still occurring as late as February 24. On February 9, more than a week after the troops were withdrawn, there were still eight lines on which not a car was running.”

The principal reason the strike failed was the determination of the companies to wait the strikers out. As Norton said, “As long as I have a man left to operate a car, as long as I have a powerhouse to move a car, as long as I have a car to run, I shall operate the railroad. When I have not a wheel that will turn around then I will stop and wait to see what will happen next.” In the face of such resolve, the men needed both strength and staying power. However, the economic depression, the ready availability of scabs, the bitter cold weather, the failure of all legal and legislative remedies, and, of course, the city’s use of force against the strikers all combined to erode their ability to outlast the companies. The strike ended with some strikers drifting back to work, and it was officially declared off on February 16. When the companies failed to hire back more than a fraction of the old men as individuals, labor called a boycott of the lines which lasted until August 9, when the companies agreed to reinstate old employees as quickly as places opened.”

— Sarah M. Henry, “The Strikers and Their Sympathizers: Brooklyn in the Trolley Strike of 1895,” Labor History 32.3 (summer 1991): 329- 353

 

Among the issues underlying the strike were the following: schedules, timetables, and allocation of work to different classes of drivers; the length of the working day (then set at twelve hours); wages (wages were around $2 to $1.50 a day, depending on seniority and job classification of drivers); and the change from horse-driven to electric trolley cars, which appeared to threaten a reduction in trips made by full-day cars, whose drivers were paid the at the highest rate.

 

 

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THOUGHTS

Sister Carrie is a very good first novel.

It is not as if Dreiser somehow blundered his way into a classic; or as if, with no idea what he was doing — with blinkers on, so to speak — he succeeded as he did.

As a novelist, he can be most closely compared to Balzac, whose influence on Dreiser is evident.

As a stylist, Dreiser (not often in Sister Carrie, often in later works) could be atrocious. The writing — which is to say prose style — in Sister Carrie is adequate, but the book would not on that score have earned praise or critical regard, or earned for Dreiser rights to be taken seriously as a writer.

Dreiser’s strengths lay in plot and characterization. In storytelling.

Could the same be said of James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, or Henry Miller? I think not.

Dreiser absorbed, digested, made his own what makes Balzac a great and unequivocally readable novelist.

And there was also Dreiser’s apprentice work: his journalism for the St. Louis Republic (mostly) and other papers. Read his Republic stories and you will see diligence in reporting — the pains he took, the lengths he would go to, to get the story — combined with an unmistakable genius for narration, storytelling ability.

Facts plus narrative. There is a strong factual underpinning in Sister Carrie, as evidenced by the skillful interweaving by Dreiser of real people and incidents, real places, and real events (researched by Dreiser using his reportorial skills) such as the Brooklyn trolley car strike into the narrative.

Dreiser had an inborn talent to take a substratum of actual facts and with it, flesh out a story with characters embedded in it (the principal ones often drawn from real life) who bring the story to life.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

 

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Addendum:

 

Posted here, for reference, are several news stories covering the strike.

 

1 – ‘They May Strike and They May Not’ – NY Times 1-11-1895

 

2 – ‘Trolley Men Will Know To-Day’ – NY Times 1-12-1895

 

3- ‘Will Tie Up Trolleys’ (strike considered certain) – NY Times 1-14-1895

 

4 – ‘Cars Tied Up’ (trolley strike) – St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1-14-1895

 

5 – ‘Trolley Strike Is On’ – NY Times 1-15-1895

 

6 – ‘Violence by Strikers’ – NY Times 1-16-1895

 

7 – update on trolley strike (various stories) – NY Times 1-17-1895

 

8 – ‘Strike Must Be Ended’ (Mayor says) – NY Times 1-17-1895

 

9 – ‘Men Still Holiding Out’ – NY Times 1-18-1895

 

10 – Big Mobs Attacked Cars’ – NY Times 1-18-1895

 

11 – ‘Militia Called Out’ – NY Times 1-19-1895

 

12 – ‘More Acts of Violence’ – NY Times 1-20-1895

 

13 – ‘With Fixed Bayonets, Troops Drive Back a Mob’ – NY Tribune 1-20-1895

 

14 – ‘Only a Few Cars Run’ – NY Tribune 1-20-1895

 

15 – ‘Number of Cars That Ran,’ etc – NY Times 1-20-1895

 

16 – ‘More Troops Called For’ – NY Times 1-21-1895

 

17 – ‘The Brooklyn Strike’ (editorial) – NY Times 1-21-1895

 

18 – troopers disperse mob – NY Times 1-22-1895

 

19 – ‘The Law and the Trolley Companies’ (editorial) – NY Times 1-22-1895

new post – “looking for work”

 

 

To fellow Dreiserians

Please see my post

“looking for work”

looking for work

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

Once I read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer …

 

 

“Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer

 

 

 

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If a follower of this blog can help, I would appreciate it. It may be obvious who the writer Dreiser was referring to is, but I don’t have a clue.

 

— Roger W. Smith

thoughts about Dreiser, mine (today’s)

 

 

 

The following is the text of an email from me, today, to Thomas Kranidas, a Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University who has had a lifelong interest in Dreiser.

 

 

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Good morning, Tom.

I am busy with several projects, including getting back to some Dreiser stuff.

Now I am trying to write a long-delayed essay/article that I started quite a while ago. It is again about Dreiser’s family.

His sister Emma (Sister Carrie) married a second husband — actually, her first husband (her marriage to Hopkins/Hurstwood seems to have been a common law marriage) — John Nelson, who was a Swedish immigrant and who was known for being moody and difficult to get along with.

I think he is, possibly, a prototype for a minor character in the early chapters of Sister Carrie.

Dreiser was a TERRIBLE WRITER. His views and philosophizing were addled and (to put it kindly) jejune.

But I have not lost interest in or (entirely) enthusiasm for Dreiser.

He evokes a time and a period. He never really assimilated to the dominant American culture. Yet his characters and plots resonate. This is going out on a limb, but I would say more so than do James Joyce’s. I care more about Hurstwood than Stephen Dedalus. I am not sure about Leopold Bloom. He was my favorite character in Ulysses.

Best wishes,

Roger

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 14, 2020

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt

 

 

 

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt- NY Times 11-21-1911

 

 

 

advertisement for Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser

The New York Times

November 21, 1911