Tag Archives: Theodore Dreiser Twelve Men

a “ ‘past-lack’ motivating impulse”

 

Culhane … resented people using him or his methods to get anywhere, do anything more in life than he could do, and yet he received them. He felt, and I think in the main that he was right, that they looked down on him because of his lowly birth and purely material and mechanical career, and yet having attained some distinction by it he could not forego this work which raised him, in a way, to a position of dominance over these people. Now the sight of presumably so efficient a person in need of aid or exercise, to be built up, was all that was required to spur him on to the most waspish or wolfish attitude imaginable. In part at least he argued, I think (for in the last analysis he was really too wise and experienced to take any such petty view, although there is a subconscious “past-lack” motivating impulse [italics added] in all our views), that here he was, an ex-policeman, ex-wrestler, ex­prize fighter, ex-private, ex-waiter, beef-carrier, bouncer, trainer; and here was this grand major, trained at West Point, who actually didn’t know any more about life or how to take care of his body than to be compelled to come here, broken down at forty-eight, whereas he, because of his stamina and Spartan energy, had been able to survive in perfect condition until sixty and was now in a position to rebuild all these men and wastrels and to control this great institution. — “Culhane, The Solid Man,” in Theodore Dreiser, Twelve Men, edited by Robert Coltrane (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), pg. 152

 

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“[T]here is a subconscious ‘past-lack’ motivating impulse in all our views.” So wrote Theodore Dreiser. This is a clever, original way of saying something by Dreiser, essentially about himself. He had a way of struggling to come with the right word or phrase, and inventing rough-hewn ones, near neologisms to make his meaning plain. Dreiser could identify with Culhane because he himself never overcame the feelings of deprivation and poverty he had experienced growing up — I would be inclined to say emotional deprivation and neglect as well as poverty and want in the commonly understood sense.

 

– posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2021

an exchange of emails about Dreiser, “Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher,” and Joseph G. Robin

 

biographical sketch of Joseph G. Robin

Helen Dreiser re Joseph G. Robin

Joseph G. Robin obit – NY Times 4-10-1929

Theodore Dreiser, Introducton to Odin Gregory, ‘Caius Gracchus’

‘Bank Owner Began on a Shoe-String’ – NY Times 12-28-1910

‘Cheney Shuts Northern Bank’ – NY Times 12-28-1910

‘Robin Hiding Here in Jerome’s Custody’ – NY Times 12-29-1910

‘Robin Indicted; Looted Bank Shut’ – NY Times 12-30-1910

‘Robin Place to be Sold’ – NY Times 2-21-1911

‘Robin Trial Begins; Insanity Plea Vain’ – NY Times 2-28-1911

‘Robin Is Writing Book on Bank Deals’ – NY Times 4-5-1911

 

I received the following email last week:

Been enjoying your Dreiser site. Have to confess I didn’t even know the name of Chester Gillette before reading it on your site. I would very much like to see the Von Sternberg movie (An American Tragedy, 1931] after your review. I never made it all the way through A Place in the Sun.

Do you know if there are any extant recordings of Dreiser’s voice? I read that he did some radio interviews but I have not any luck finding them.

I’d also be interested in finding some more material on Joseph G. Robin aka Rabinowitz aka Odin Gregory, the subject of “Vanity, Vanity Sayeth the Preacher” and for whom Dreiser provided the introduction to the play Caius Gracchus.

 

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The following is my reply.

In the Theodore Dreiser papers at the University of Pennsylvania, there is a 33-1/3 LP recording of a 1939 interview with Dreiser. There must be recordings somewhere of radio broadcasts which Dreiser made, such as those he made over the Mutual Broadcasting System and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1940. I have never heard a recording of Dreiser’s voice.

Regarding the financier called X____ in Dreiser’s sketch ”Vanity, Vanity,” Saith the Preacher” (in Dreiser’s Twelve Men), his name, as you note, was Joseph G. Robin. Dreiser met Robin, a banker and financier, in 1908 when the former was an editor at Butterick Publishing Company.

Information about Robin is provided by Robert Coltrane in his essay “The Crafting of Dreiser’s Twelve Men” (Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1991), in the textual notes to the edition of Twelve Men edited by Coltrane (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), and in Coltrane’s entry ”Vanity, Vanity,” Saith the Preacher” in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia.

In the conclusion to Vanity, Vanity,” the narrator of the sketch (Dreiser) says that he saw Robin passing on the street in New York in 1918 and that “I have never seen or heard from since.” But. as Coltrane points out, Dreiser “had kept up with Robin’s fortunes” in subsequent years (“J.G. Robin is still around–a failure.” Dreiser to H. L. Mencken, April 8, 1919) and entries in Dreiser’s diary “indicate a continuing relationship [between Dreiser and Robin] at least through 1925.”

Coltrane notes that “Dreiser had to some extent ‘novelized’ Robin in The Financier . … [Dreiser] had already used Robin’s personality some years earlier [prior to writing the sketch for Twelve Men] to create Frank Cowperwood.” Indeed, Robin was very much a Cowperwood-like figure, with his taste for finery and art, among other things.

In My Life with Dreiser, Dreiser’s second wife Helen Dreiser discussed the Robin-Dreiser relationship. See attached PDF.

Dreiser’s introduction to Robin’s play Caius Gracchus: A Tragedy  (Boni & Liveright, 1930), written under the pseudonym Odin Gregory, is posted here.

I have also posted here several New York Times articles about Robin.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 25, 2021

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

Henry Miller and Dreiser

 

 

Henry Miller was a great admirer of Theodore Dreiser. He admired Dreiser’s realism; admired the size, scope, and power of Dreiser’s novels; admired the cumulative effect of Dreiser’s massive plots.  Dreiser was one of Miller’s major literary influences.

In March 1922, Miller took a three week vacation from his employer, The Western Union Company (the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America in his novel Tropic of Capricorn). During the vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings, which was never published.

Clipped Wings, a novel about twelve telegraph messenger boys, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men,  which had been published three years earlier, in 1919.

Early in his writing career, Miller made efforts to get published in The New Republic which did not meet with success. He wrote a long essay about Dreiser for the magazine that was rejected. However, a brief excerpt from the essay was published in April 1926 in the magazine’s letters to the editor section under the heading “Dreiser’s Style.”

The letter has not hitherto been reprinted. Texts of Miller’s early writings are in many cases unavailable.

The following is the text of Miler’s letter. It was written in response to a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy by T. K. Whipple in The New Republic of March 17, 1926. The text of the Whipple review is appended here as a PDF file

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

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Dreiser’s Style

Sir: In his review of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, Mr. T. K. Whipple raises an interesting problem in the art of the novel in in his discussion of Mr. Dreiser’s style. “Dreiser could not write as he does,” says Mr. Whipple, “mixing slang with poetic archaisms, reveling in the cheap, trite and florid, if there were not in himself something correspondingly muddled, banal and tawdry … a failure in writing is necessarily a failure in communication.” This is all very true when the thing to be communicated is an abstract idea or philosophy. The novel, however, is effective because of images and emotions and not because of its abstract ideas. Mr. Whipple’s error lies in applying intellectual criteria such as logic and profundity to art, which affects us by its vividness or beauty.

From this point of view it becomes evident that Mr. Dreiser’s effects are not achieved in spite of but because of his style. The “cheap trite, and tawdry” enable him to present a world which a more elegant and precise style could only hint at. He uses language, consciously or not, in the manner which modern writers, notably Joyce, use deliberately, that is, he identifies his language with the consciousness of his characters. Mr. Whipple evidently expects all writing to conform to the “mot just’ technique of the Flaubert school. But fortunately style cannot be prescribed by rule.

Henry Miller.

New York, N. Y.

 

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T. R. Whipple, review of An American Tragedy, The New Republic, April 1926

T. R. Whipple, review of American Tragedy New Republic, April 1926

 

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See also: Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New Directions, 1969), pp. 219-220. There, Miller misspells the title of Dreiser’s second novel as Jenny Gerhardt.