Tag Archives: Lester Cohen. Thomas Kranidas

“a little over-anxious to tell how much money he had made” (Dreiser, Pineville, and Herndon J. Evans)

 

 

 

The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (the so-called Dreiser Committee), which had been organized by Theodore Dreiser, conducted hearings in Harlan County, Kentucky in November 1931 to investigate conditions in the Kentucky coal fields and provide support for striking miners there.

On November 6, the first day of the hearings (over which Dreiser presided), Dreiser was questioned aggressively by Herndon J. Evans, editor of the Pineville (KY) Sun. The hearings, which were held in the Lewallen Hotel in Pineville, in the words of Dreiser biographer Richard Lingeman, “resembled a congressional hearing.”

Dreiser’s exchange with Evans was widely reported. A subhead in the New York Herald Tribune (November 7, 1931) read: “Publisher [Evans] , Questioned as to Gifts to Needy Miners, Cross-Examines Novelist [Dreiser], Who Aids [American Civil Liberties] Union but Neglects Organized Charity.” Evans, The Tribune observed, “sought to learn if the novelist practiced what he advocated.”

From the interview transcript (Dreiser had been questioning Evans):

Mr. Evans: I would like to ask you a few questions, if you do not object.

Mr. Dreiser: Not at all.

Mr. Evans: You are a very famous novelist and have written several books. Would you kindly tell us what your royalties amount to?

Mr. Dreiser: I don’t mind. $200,000, approximately. Probably more.

Mr. Evans: What do you get a year, if you do not mind telling?

Mr. Dreiser: Last year I think I made $35,000.

Mr. Evans: Do you contribute anything to charity?

Mr. Dreiser: No, I do not.

Mr. Evans: That is all.

 

 

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Lester Cohen, one of a group of writers who accompanied Dreiser to Kentucky, wrote the following in his “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir” (Discovery no. 4, 1954):

It looked bad for Mr. Dreiser. Several times, when asked his political views, he had said he was interested in “Equity.” And here he was, making all this money, and not giving anything to charity. In fact, I had felt that Mr. Dreiser was a little over-anxious to tell how much money he had made. It was as if all his life he had faced the accusation that he had not made much money, and finally here was a chance to stand forth not merely as a writer but as a man who had made great sums of money, and who from the deck of these lordly sums yet expressed his sympathies with those in life’s steerage below. [italics added]

 

 

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Reading Evans’s account, I was struck by an observation Thomas Kranidas made, in his master’s thesis on Dreiser (“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” Columbia University, 1953) about “Dreiser’s yearning for the high class”:

Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the ‘great world.’ But he was not familiar with it. And when he wrote about it, he wrote about the surface qualities of it, never once touching the refinement, the sense of superior knowledge and awareness through ease. Dreiser was a snob on one level, a man with exorbitant class yearnings, a man who resented his origins and was scornful of the lower classes. … Dreiser’s vision was clouded many times by this snobbery. It led to certain cruelties and flippancies and certain absurd superficialities. It drove him to portray the rich with absurd, unreal strokes. It drove him in his non-fiction to tolerance of poverty and ugliness as the secret complement to thought and beauty.

 

 

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In his Discovery article, Cohen goes on to say:

Subsequently [to the Harlan County hearings] various members of the party were indicted for Criminal Syndicalism. And other writers went down to Harlan and were beaten up. And still others like Sherwood Anderson made common cause with us. …

The next I knew, Mr. Dreiser was concerned about his gold. How strange life is, and Time, as we know, marches on. Hoover was out of the White House and Roosevelt in. The bank holiday. And then, if you remember, Mr. Roosevelt and the Government called in gold and gold bank notes.

Do you remember Mr. Dreiser’s $200,000 from An American Tragedy? He had put it in it a vault, in gold.

Why gold? Who can say? And indeed, the enigma of life that Dreiser had studied all these many years, had it ever cast up a stranger concurrence than Dreiser and gold?

And yet, it is very understandable, as was everything about Dreiser, his suspiciousness, his surface coldness, the warmth and thoughtful nature of his inner being. Mr. Dreiser had, since his earliest youth, felt betrayed. First by hunger, the everlasting hunger of his youth, not merely the hunger for food, which he often experienced, but his hunger for love, understanding. ….

[Dreiser] looked about the world of the early Thirties, be felt its instability, the senselessness of its speakeasies, the nonsense of apple-selling as a way of life.

All his life he had worked, worked unceasingly. not merely on the novels and stories and plays the world knew, but on many part-finished or contemplated novels on which he and his secretaries had done exhaustive research. He was past sixty; he visualized now, in his fame, a golden age in which he could do all the things he wanted to, And he had $200,000, a fortune, to back him up. Why put it in failing banks, sinking stocks, mere greenbacks? What was the world standard–gold.

He would put it in gold–and now the gold was being called back in order to gold-plate the earth beneath Fort Knox.

I happened by chance to meet him one day, still bluff, hearty, under indictment [for “criminal syndicalism”], but a sorrow and crusty bitterness in his blue-gray eyes. He told me about the gold and then­-

“What would you do,” said he. And he told me, “I voted for him.” It was almost as if he had said: I voted for Roosevelt, now he’s taking my gold away.

I could see he felt again betrayed. “’Well,” I said, “you know what most people are doing.”

I have the rest of the story from a writer [Hy Kraft] we shall call K. … as to Mr. Dreiser and his gold. He talked to K. about it, and K. being one of those clever fellows who sought to turn adversity to advantage suggested that he would go to the papers, tell them about Mr. Dreiser’s resolve to back Roosevelt and the American people and suggested a headline, “Dreiser Turns In His Gold.”

And so he did, with pictures taken down in the vault.

 

 

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I think both Evans and Kranidas were very much on target. Dreiser never had money before An American Tragedy became a best-seller. When he got it, he could not help flaunting it. His compassion for the have-nots was admixed with a desire for wealth and its trappings. The writer formerly living in bohemian Greenwich Village now ensconced in a luxury penthouse apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall (and afterwards in a suite at the Ansonia Hotel), entertaining guests at parties there and on weekends on his Westchester estate. The nattily attired traveler with cane boarding an ocean liner or photographed with his mistress’s wolfhound.

Cohen was right. Dreiser was “a little over-anxious to tell how much money he had made.” Status symbols were very important to him.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2020