Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser “St. Columba and the River”

Theodore Dreiser, “Just What Happened when the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel”

 

 

‘Just What Happened When the Waters of the Hudson Broke Into the North River’

 

 

Posted here (downloadable Word document above) is the text of a very rare (now), hard to find article written by Dreiser, transcribed by Roger W. Smith.

I found this article on microfilm at the New York Public Library. It may be the only available existing copy. The article:

 

 “Just What Happened when the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel”

New York Daily News

January 23, 1904

Magazine Section, pp. 6-7

 

was published anonymously in the Daily News’s Sunday supplement.

After a period during 1903 as a laborer on the New York Central Railroad, Dreiser was hired as a feature editor at the Daily News with the help of a recommendation from his brother Paul — it turned out to be a short-lived job. The paper is not the same one as the current New York Daily News.

 

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The disaster and ensuing tragedy which Dreiser recounts (with true reportorial skill and great attention to detail) occurred on July 21, 1880 during the construction of the first Hudson River Tunnel between New York City and Jersey City, New Jersey. A portion of a connecting chamber, on the New Jersey side of the river, caved in at 4:30 on the morning of the 21st. Twenty men were buried alive (not twenty-one as per Dreiser’s account). There were twenty-eight men working there, of whom twenty suffocated or drowned, with eight surviving. “The eight who escaped did so though the air-lock, and their rescue was almost a miracle,” The New York Times reported. (“Twenty Men Buried Alive: Caving In of the Hudson Span.” The New York Times, July 22, 1880, pg. 1)

The bodies of the men who perished were not recovered until months afterwards. The search for the bodies was completed on October 30, 1880 with the recovery of the last four bodies.

The Hudson River Tunnel Company was absolved of liability for the accident. It paid a final settlement of $500 to the widow of each of the married men who perished, and $200 to the relatives of unmarried men who perished.

 

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Material from “Just What Happened” was reused by Dreiser in his story “Glory Be! McGlathery,” published in the Pictorial Review of January 1925. (Pictorial Review 26 [January 1925]: 5-7, 51-52, 54, 71)

The Pictorial Review  story was reprinted under the title “St. Columba and the River” in Dreiser’s Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories (New York, Boni & Liveright, 1927).

“St. Columba and the River” was dramatized in the form of a musical under the title Sandhog: A Folk Opera in 3 Acts — in a “re-creation” by Earl Robinson (singer and pianist) with Waldo Salt (narrator). Sandhog was performed at the at the Phoenix Theater in New York from November 1954 through January 1955.

 

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The library’s copy has been torn and smudged in places, making some words and lines undecipherable.

Another post will be forthcoming in which I will discuss how Dreiser adapted the actual story for his short story “Glory Be! McGlathery”; Dreiser’s sources; and how Dreiser might have gained knowledge of the tunnel disaster and about the tunnel workers called sandhogs.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

Lester Cohen, “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir”

 

 

 

Lester Cohen, ‘Theodore Dreiser; A Personal Memoir’

 

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”

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/theodore-dreiser-ervin-nyiregyhazi-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.

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

   February 2020