Lester Cohen, ‘Theodore Dreiser; A Personal Memoir’
Posted here is the complete text of an article by Lester Cohen: “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir,” Discovery no. 4 (1954), pp. 99-126. It is an excellent source of biographical/anecdotal information, and Cohen writes perceptively and with insight about Dreiser the man and his works.
Lester Cohen (1901-1963) was an American novelist and screenwriter, He was a member of the Dreiser Committee which visited the Kentucky coal fields in 1931 to document the labor struggles of Harlan County coal miners.
A portion, about half, of Cohen’s Discovery article has been published in Theodore Dreiser Recalled, edited by Donald Pizer (Clemson University Press, 2017).
Cohen, in discussing extensively the activities of the Dreiser Committee in Harlan County, mentions that Dreiser had “a girl with him, a Miss X” and he alludes (without going into detail) to the “Toothpick trap” incident, which resulted in Dreiser and the woman being charged for adultery. The woman’s name was Marie Pergain.
“I am not at all sure [Dreiser] was interested in the girl he brought down to Kentucky, he never seemed interested in her, in fact he might have paid her a salary to come along, puzzle his compatriots and shock the natives,” Cohen wrote. Cohen may, at least in part, be right about Dreiser’s motives in bringing Marie Pergain with him, but she was more than a fleeting romantic interest for Dreiser. See my post on this site:
“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain”
Roger W. Smith, “Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain”
The “Mr. K.” of Cohen’s article was Hyman Solomon (Hy) Kraft (1899-1975), who was credited as a collaborator on The Tobacco Men: A Novel Based on Notes by Theodore Dreiser and Hy Kraft, written by Borden Deal, published in 1965.
Cohen states, writing of Dreiser’s early days in New York City, and his composing, with his brother Paul. the song “On the Banks of the Wabash” (noting that Theodore was not looking to profit from the song): “Theodore took not the cash and let the credit go … and one day found himself down by the river, waiting to jump in. And the work he did to keep alive–he worked on one of the tunnels, under the waters of Manhattan, became partly deaf.” (italics added)
Did Dreiser work (briefly) as a sandhog on the North River Tunnel? The tunnel project began at a time commensurate with Dreiser’s experience of unemployment (as an editor/writer) and poverty which resulted in his working briefly as a laborer (as well as a clerk) in 1903 for the New York Central Railroad. Dreiser did write a well-known short story about sandhogs: “St. Columba and the River.”
As noted by Joseph Griffin in his The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser’s Short Stories (and by Scott Zaluda in his entry “St. Columba and the River” in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia), the initial source for “St. Columba and the River” was an article by Dreiser published in the New York Daily News in 1904: “Just What Happened When the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel.”
It is apparent from a reading of “St. Columba and the River” how well Dreiser had researched his subject matter — perhaps he had himself experienced it. (There is a feeling of immediacy and verisimilitude in the descriptive passages.) It seems likely (or at least possible) that he got his details from interviewing sandhogs.
None of Dreiser’s biographers appears to have mentioned anything about Dreiser working on the North River tunnel. This includes the introduction by Richard W. Dowell to the University of Pennsylvania Press edition of Dreiser’s An Amateur Laborer.
There seems to be verisimilitude to what Cohen writes — he got it from Dreiser. It sounds convincing what he says about Dreiser’s partial deafness. And an autobiographical fragment confirms what Cohen says about Dreiser once considering suicide by drowning in the months before he began working for the New York Central Railroad. But additional evidence would be required to prove the truth of Cohen’s statement that Dreiser worked as a sandhog. I think — on balance — that in this instance Cohen was mistaken in reaching a conclusion from inferences.
It should be noted that in an unpublished retrospective account of that period by Dreiser, “Down Hill” (published in Dreiser Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, fall 1988, as Thomas P. Riggio, “Down Hill: A Chapter in Dreiser’s Story about Himself”), Dreiser does mention the period of despair when he was living in Brooklyn and contemplated suicide, but there is no mention by Dreiser of his working on the Hudson tubes.
— Roger W. Smith