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Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945
American short story writer, novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and essayist. See also Theodore Dreiser Criticism.
After the publication of his novel An American Tragedy in 1925, Theodore Dreiser was generally considered the United States's greatest living author. He received early encouragement from the influential critic, H....
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- Critical Essays
Theodore Dreiser 1871-1945
American short story writer, novelist, playwright, journalist, critic, and essayist. See also Theodore Dreiser Criticism.
After the publication of his novel An American Tragedy in 1925, Theodore Dreiser was generally considered the United States's greatest living author. He received early encouragement from the influential critic, H. L. Mencken, and his novel Sister Carrie (1900) enjoyed a warm critical reception in England, though its poor sales in the United States drove Dreiser to clinical depression. Dreiser wrote thirty-one short stories, and many of these were revised and collected in two volumes: Free and Other Stories (1918) and Chains (1927). Dreiser pioneered Naturalism in the United States along with Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and James T. Farrell, all of whom maintained that men and women had very little agency in their lives, and that their fate was determined largely by such ungovernable forces as biology, economics, and society.
Dreiser's formative years were marked by poverty and personal struggle; he was one of thirteen children whose lives were strictly governed by their father, a staunch Catholic who steadfastly adhered to the conservative doctrines of his faith. Largely because of his early experiences, Dreiser came to view the world as an arena for struggle and survival. He left his family home in Terre Haute, Indiana, when he was sixteen, and eventually began a journalism career, moving to Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. In New York, Drieser's brother Paul, a successful Tin Pan Alley song writer, helped him achieve the editorship of Ev 'ry Month, and Dreiser published his first story in that magazine. After his sixteen-year marriage to Sara Osborne White ended, Dreiser lived with his distant cousin, Helen Richardson, whom he eventually married in 1944. Following a long illness, Dreiser died in Hollywood on December 28, 1945, leaving his novels The Bulwark and The Stoic unfinished.
Major Works of Short FictionPerhaps more so than with his novels, Dreiser tended to revise his short fiction nearly obsessively, and those pieces which he collected for his two volumes of stories were almost all rewritten after their first appearance in magazines. Scholars have singled out several of Dreiser's stories as worthy of re-evaluation: "Free," "McEwan of the Shining Slave Makers," "The Lost Phoebe," "Chains," and "Marriage—For One." "Nigger Jeff," however, became Dreiser's most widely-anthologized story, and, like many of his short works, was based upon actual events. In this case, the plot revolves around the criminal trial and eventual lynching of an alleged rapist. This early story, written in 1901, evidences a common theme in Dreiser's fiction: his concern with legal justice, and his contention that all men and women are driven by primal instincts.
Of his initial attempts as a short story writer, Dreiser wrote: "After every paragraph I blushed for my folly—it seemed so asinine." Known for his long, ponderous novels, the short story form at first appeared alien to Dreiser, and editors rejected many of his stories even when he was at the height of his popularity. While some scholars have lauded Dreiser's willingness to explore grand themes in the short form, many more have maintained that his literary talents were uniquely suited to the long novel form and that his writing style was far too loquacious and circuitous for shorter narratives. Even so, commentators have praised Dreiser's stories for their departure from the conventions of highly-plotted fiction. Moreover, Dreiser's works significantly influenced the realistic narratives by such authors as Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway.
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Free and Other Stories 1918
Twelve Men (sketches) 1919
Chains, Lesser Novels and Stories (short stories and novellas) 1927
A Gallery of Women (sketches) 1929
Fine Furniture 1930
The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser 1947
Other Major Works
Sister Carrie (novel) 1900
Jennie Gerhardt (novel) 1911
The Financier (novel) 1912
The Titan (novel) 1914
The "Genius" (novel) 1915
Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (essays) 1920
A Book About Myself (autobiography) 1922
An American Tragedy (novel) 1925
The Stoic (novel) 1947
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SOURCE: "Dithyrambs Against Learning," in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972, pp. 313-14.
[In the following review of Free and Other Stones, which was originally published in Smart Set, Vol. 57, in November, 1918, Mencken asserts that the most successful of the stories in the collection are constructed as chapters of novels, and that the works which are self-contained, more traditional short stories are failures, because Dreiser's writing style does not lend itself to this form.]
The eleven pieces in Free and Other Stories, by Theodore Dreiser, are the by-products of a dozen years of industrious novel-writing, and are thus somewhat miscellaneous in character and quality. They range from experiments in the fantastic to ventures into realism, and, in tone, from the satirical to the rather laboriously moral. The best of them are "The Lost Phoebe," "The Cruise of the Idlewild," "The Second Choice" and "Free." The last-named is a detailed and searching analysis of a disparate marriage that has yet survived for forty years—an elaborate study of a life-long conflict between impulse and aspiration on the one hand and fear and conformity on the other. Here Dreiser is on his own ground, for the thing is not really a short story, in any ordinary sense, but a chapter from a novel, and he manœuvres in it in his customary deliberate and spacious manner. "The Second Choice" is of much the same character—a presentation of the processes of mind whereby a girl deserted by the man she loves brings herself to marriage with one she doesn't love at all. Those of the stories that are more properly short stories in form are less successful; for example, "A Story of Stories," "Old Rogaun and His Theresa" and "Will You Walk Into My Parlor?" The true short story, in fact, lies as far outside Dreiser's natural field as the triolet or the mazurka. He needs space and time to get his effects; he must wash in his gigantic backgrounds, and build up his characters slowly. The mountebankish smartness and neatness of the Maupassant-O. Henry tradition are quite beyond him. He is essentially a serious man, and a melancholy. The thing that interests him most is not a deftly articulated series of events but a gradual transformation of personality, and particularly a transformation that involves the decay of integrity. The characters that live most brilliantly in his books, like those that live most brilliantly in the books of Conrad, are characters in disintegration—corroded, beaten, destroyed by the inexplicable mystery of existence.
In the midst of many reminders of his high talents, Dreiser's worst failing as a practical writer appears with painful vividness in this book. I allude to his astonishing carelessness, his irritating slovenliness. He seems to have absolutely no respect for words as words—no sense of their inner music, no hand whatever for their adept combination. One phrase, it would seem, pleases him quite as much as another phrase. If it is flat, familiar, threadbare, so much the better. It is not, indeed, that he hasn't an ear. As a matter of fact, his hearing is very sharp, and in his dialogue, particularly when dealing with ignorant characters, he comes very close to the actual vulgate of his place and time. But the difficulty is that this vulgate bulges beyond the bounds of dialogue: it gets into what he has to say himself, unpurged by anything even remotely resembling taste. The result is often a series of locutions that affects so pedantic a man as I am like music on a fiddle out of tune, or a pretty girl with beer-keg ankles, or mayonnaise on ice-cream.
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SOURCE: Introduction to Free and Other Stories, The Modern Library, 1918, pp. v-x.
[In the following introduction to Dreiser's Free and Other Stories, Anderson offers a laudatory assessment of Dreiser's literary achievements as well as of his personal integrity and commitment to honesty in his writing.]
Theodore Dreiser is a man who, with the passage of time, is bound to loom larger and larger in the awakening aesthetic consciousness of America. Among all of our prose writers he is one of the few men of whom it may be said that he has always been an honest workman, always impersonal, never a trickster. Read this book of Dreiser's, Free and Other Stories, and then compare it with a book of short stories, say by Bret Harte or O. Henry. The tradition of trick writing began early among us in America and has flowered here like some strange fungus growth. Every one knows there are no plot short stories in life itself and yet the tradition of American short story writing has been built almost entirely upon the plot idea. Human nature, the strange little whims, tragedies and comedies of life itself, have everywhere been sacrificed to the need of plot and one reads the ordinary plot story of the magazines with a kind of growing wonder. "Is there no comedy, no tragedy, no irony in life itself? If it is there why do not our writers find it out and set it forth? Why these everlasting falsehoods, this ever-present bag of tricks?"
One is sometimes convinced, in thinking of the matter, that, among most of our prose writers, there is left no feeling at all for life, and the prose writer, at least the tale teller, who has no feeling for life is no artist. There is the man or woman who walks beside me in the street, works beside me in the office, sits beside me in the theatre. What has happened in the lives of all these people? Why do our writers so determinedly spend all their time inventing people who never had any existence—puppets—these impossible cowboys, detectives, society adventurers? Are most of our successful short story writers too lazy to find out something about life itself, the occasional flashes of wonder and strangeness in life? It is apparent they are. Either they are too lazy or they are afraid of life, tremble before it.
But Theodore Dreiser is not afraid. He does not tremble. Often I have thought of him as the bravest man who has lived in America in our times. Perhaps I exaggerate. He is a man of my own craft and always he has been a heroic figure in my own eyes. He is honest. Never in any line he has ever written will you find him resorting to the trick to get himself out of a hard situation. The beauty and the ironic terror of life is like a wall before him but he faces the wall. He does not mutter cheap little lies in the darkness and to me there is something honorable and fine in the fact that in him there is no lack of courage in facing his materials, that he needs resort to tricks of style to cover.
Dreiser is a middle-westerner, large of frame, rather shy, brusque in manner and in his person singularly free from the common small vanities of the artist class. I often wonder if he knows how much he is loved and respected for what he has done by hundreds of unknown writers everywhere, fellows just trying to get ground under their feet. If there is a modern movement in American prose writing, a movement toward greater courage and fidelity to life in writing, then Theodore Dreiser is the pioneer and the hero of the movement. Of that I think there can be no question. I think it is true now that no American prose writer need hesitate before the task of putting his hands upon his materials. Puritanism, as a choking, smothering force, is dead or dying. We are rapidly approaching the old French standard wherein the only immorality for the artist is in bad art and I think that Theodore Dreiser, the man, has done more than any living American to bring this about. All honor to him. The whole air of America is sweeter to breathe because he had lived and worked here. He has laid a foundation upon which any sort of structure may be built. It will stand the strain. His work has been honestly and finely done. The man has laid so many old ghosts, pounded his way through such a wall of stupid prejudices and fears that today any man coming into the craft of writing comes with a new inheritance of freedom.
In the middle-western country in which Dreiser grew to manhood there could have been no awareness of the artist's obligations. How his own feet found the path they have followed so consistently I do not know. One gets so little from his own writings, from those little flashes by which every artist reveals himself in his work, that helps toward an understanding of his fine courage. Grey smoky hurried towns, Terre Haute, Indiana, Chicago, St. Louis, and the other places wherein he worked and lived, a life of hard work for small pay in dreary places. Twain had at least the rough and tumble heartiness of western life, the romance of the old Mississippi river days, and as for the eastern men who came before Dreiser, the Hawthornes, Emersons (and one is compelled to include the Howellses) they grew out of a European culture, were the children of a European culture, a fact that no doubt advantaged them while it has been of so little help to the Americans who are seeking masters to aid them in finding a life and a basis for a culture of their own.
Our earlier New England writers knew Europe and Europe knew them and accepted them as distant cousins anyway, but in Terre Haute, Indiana, in Dreiser's day there, when his own life was forming—if any of his fellow countrymen of that day and place ever crossed the sea I dare say they went to the Holy Land and came back with a bottle of Jordan Water. The only knowledge they had of the work and the aims of European artists was got from reading that most vulgar of all our Mark Twain's books, The Innocents Abroad. The idea of an artist, with all of the strange tangle of dreams and hopes in his brain being also a workman, owing something to his craft and to the materials of his craft, would have been as strange to the Terre Haute or the St. Louis of twenty-five years ago as a camel sitting and smoking a pipe on the court-house steps.
And it was out of such a grey blankness (from the artist's point of view, at least) that the man Dreiser came and he came alone, making his own path. What a figure he has made of himself, always pounding at the wall of stupidity before him, throwing aside always the cheap triumph to be got by trickery, always giving himself fully and honestly to the life about him, trying to understand it, never lying to himself or to others. One thinks of such a life and is appalled.
There is that story we have all heard of the young Dostoevsky, when he had written his first book, Poor Folks. He gave the manuscript to a writer friend who took it home and read it and in the middle of the night drove to the home of a publisher, filled with excitement. The two men sat up together and read the manuscript aloud and then, although it was four in the morning drove through the wintry streets to the young writer's lodgings. There was joy, excitement, happy fellow craftsmen, even tears of joy. A new and great writer had come into Russian life. What glad recognition. It was like a wedding or a birth. Men were happy together and you may imagine how the young craftsman felt.
That happened in Russia and in America Dreiser wrote his Sister Carrie and it was published and later buried out of sight in the cellar of a publishing house, for some ten years I believe, and might have been there yet but for the fighting impulses of our critics, our Hacketts, Menckens and Dells. Some woman, a relative perhaps of some member of the publishing firm, had decided the book was immoral and today one reads with wonder, seeking in vain for the immorality and only made glad by its sympathetic understanding of life.
Theodore Dreiser, whose book Free and Other Stories is now included in the famous Modern Library series, has lived out most of his life as a comparatively poor man. He might have grown rich had he but joined the ranks of the clever tricksters or had he devoted his energies to turning out romantic sentimentalities. What amusing and clever men we have had in his time, what funny fellows, what masters of all the tricks of writing.
Where are they? What have they given us?
And what has Dreiser given us? A fine growing and glowing tradition, has he not, a new sense of the value of our own lives, a new interest in the life about us, in offices, streets and houses.
Theodore Dreiser's nature is the true artist's nature, so little understood among us. He is no reformer. In his work, as in the man himself, there is something bold, with all the health of true boldness, and at the same time something very finely humble. He stands before life, looking at it, trying to understand it that he may catch its significance and its drama. He is not always crying, "Look at me! See what I am doing!" He is the workman, full of self-respect, and—most strange and wonderful of all for an American writer—full of respect for his materials, for the lives of those who come close to him, for that world of people who have come into life under his pen.
As for my trying to make in any detailed way an estimate of the value of the man's work, that is beyond me. The man has done, is doing, his job, he has fought his way through darkness into the light and in making a pathway for himself he has made a pathway for us all. Because he had lived and worked so honestly and finely America is a better place for all workmen. As for his work, there it stands—sturdy, strong, true and fine and most of all free from all the many cheap tricks of our craft.
And as for the man himself, there he also stands. One knows Dreiser will never stoop to tricky, second rate work; cannot, being Dreiser, ever so stoop. He is, however, not given to advertising himself. He stays in the background and lets the work speak for the man. It is the kind of fine, honest work that is coming to mean more and more every year to a growing army of sincere American craftsmen.
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SOURCE: "As Usual, Mr. Dreiser Spares Us Nothing," in Theodore Dreiser: The Critical Reception, edited by Jack Salzman, David Lewis, 1972, pp. 504-06.
[In the following review of Chains, which was originally published in The New York Times Book Review on May 15, 1927, Stuart dismisses the collection as tedious and carelessly written.]
One of those clever Frenchmen whose perceptions every one is glad to remember, but whose names every one is resigned to forget, has told us that, in literature, all styles are permissable except one—the boring style ("sauf l'ennuyeux"). No critic with any self-respect, it may be stated at once, is likely to take shelter behind any such aphorism. In the first place, it strikes at the root of his own reason for being. In the second, it leaves the judgment of what is possible or impossible writing too nakedly at the mercy of an individual appetite for coarse fare. People exist, some of them very finicking over their own production, who make no shame in owning to an occasional relish for the corn beef and cabbage of letters. It is not by what readers will resign themselves to on occasion, but by what they would be content, at need, to live with, that a standard of taste is to be judged.
Even Mr. Dreiser's most ardent admirers, one presumes, would be prepared to admit some very serious disabilities in their idol. To begin with he has no perceptible sense of humor. The spark that can be struck out by the contact of two minds moving on different planes of intelligence and which is the most fertile source of the ludicrous, is out of his ken. He writes with no appreciable relish, being perhaps the most eminent drudge among our native practitioners. Syntax is continually presenting him with difficulties, as whom does it not? But instead of solving them as they arise with the contrivances out of which style is hammered, he has recourse to sorrowful expedients that Ring Lardner at his happiest could not better.
Yet it would be both unjust and absurd to deny that with all these faults goes an equipment that many a felicitous writer must envy. His patience is untiring. No one has written more convincingly of a man or woman thinking and brooding, because no one can more naïvely and convincingly cling to the trail of a thought, discarding nothing, selecting nothing, but following each sad convolution into its innermost recesses and blindest alleys. In this respect he has all the candor of George Moore, whom one suspects he follows in his own leaden-footed fashion, without the occasional frivolity of the Irish master. And only a prodigious memory, a faculty for impressibility that never lets the sharp edge of what has once been observed be dulled, can account for his uncanny power of so taking over the sensory apparatus of his characters that one cannot read his criminal trials without sharing in some degree the vertigo of the man in the dock, nor his murders without every silly, vulgar hue and cry registering upon exasperated nerves, nor of death in a tunnel accident without feeling the slime and ooze and drip underfoot and overhead.
One is hardly well started on Chains, a series of fifteen "lesser novels and stories" by the author of An American Tragedy without being plunged in a sea of slovenly writing. "Sanctuary" is the story of a sensitive tenement child born amid foul smells and fouler language, who falls into prostitution, is "reformed" in a home conducted by gentle nuns, leaves it to become the prey of a pimp and bully, and creeps back to it convinced that what has been assigned her as punishment is really the only condition under which life is possible. As we read it wonder grows that it can be humanly possible, talent apart, for any practicing writer to advance to where Mr. Dreiser had advanced, while retaining a construction and syntax that would bring down the blue pencil in any composition class in a high school. Worse even than the flaws in syntax are vulgarities of diction repeated over and over again so unbelievable in a writer of the slightest distinction that one asks one's self whether Mr. Dreiser may not perhaps be hovering on the brink of a new literary experiment and striving to convey banality of mind by banality of phrase.
. . . One of those suave masters of the art of living by one's wits, with a fortune of looks, to whom womanhood is a thing to be taken by an upward curl of a pair of mustaches, the vain placement of ringed locks, spotless and conspicuous linen, and clothes and shoes of a newness and lustre all but disturbing to a very work-a-day world.
Where all is so precious it is an ill task to pick out any one gem of language, but surely "all but disturbing" deserves mention.
"Chains," the story which gives the collection its title, affords Mr. Dreiser's talent its happiest chance. The musings of an elderly and doting husband, returning to a young wife whom he has married in an afterglow of passion and against all sense and reason, are retailed for us with unsparing deliberation. No one of the illusions at which men snatch under such circumstances to allay the intolerable bitterness of jealousy fails to find a place. The strange faculty of jealous and hapless lovers gradually to build up for themselves a picture of what they suspect, image upon image, and at the very moment that the phantom is taking on reality to recoil and fly back to the old drug of self-deception, has never been more convincingly identified. On this one essay Mr. Dreiser, it seems to us, might base a claim to be not only an investigator but to some extent a pioneer in a field that might be called sentimental pathology. . . .
It is not likely that Chains will unsettle the reputation of the author of An American Tragedy with those who hold a belief in his excellence an article of national faith, nor improve it with those who believe his reputation to be a victory won by sheer bulk and persistence and regard the place given him as not much short of literary imposture. Every writer has the faults of his qualities. What is most exasperating about Dreiser's faults is that they are not a part of his qualities at all. They are gratuitous ugliness and slovenliness, poor literary manners that have been suffered to persist (just why is his own secret) from prentice days, and to mar a thought which is, on the whole, fine, austere and pitiful. Their danger resides in the bad example they afford through the very eminence of the man who insists on practicing them. Nothing worse could happen to the American novel, already subject to danger enough at careless and disingenous hands, than a belief that genius can dispense with taking pains.
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SOURCE: "Ladies, Mainly Sad," in American Mercury, Vol. 19, February, 1930, pp. 254-55.
[In the following review of A Gallery of Women, Mencken faults Dreiser's wordplay and narrative style, but praises his ability to capture the essence of his characters. Mencken asserts that A Gallery of Women is "not quite as interesting" as Twelve Men because "women themselves are considerably less interesting than men."]
A Gallery Of Women is a companion to Twelve Men, published in 1919. There are fifteen sketches, each dealing with some woman who impinged upon the author at some time in the past; if the collection is not quite as interesting as its forerunner, then that is probably because women themselves are considerably less interesting than men. Not one of them here is to be mentioned in the same breath with Dreiser's brother Paul, the shining hero of Twelve Men, or with Muldoon the Iron Man, who plainly posed for the stupendous Culhane. Perhaps those who come closest to that high level are Regina C—, who succumbs to cynicism and morphine, and Bridget Mullanphy, almost a female Culhane. The rest are occasionally charming, but only too often their chief mark is a pathetic silliness. What ails most of them is love. They throw away everything for it, and when they can't get the genuine article they seem to be content with imitations. And if it is not love, real or bogus, that undoes them, then it is some vague dream that never takes rational form—of puerile self-expression, of gratuitous self-sacrifice, of something else as shadowy and vain.
Dreiser draws them with a surety of hand that seldom falters. He is at his best in just such character sketches, and he has a special skill at getting under the skins of women. In all of his books, indeed, the matter chiefly dealt with is female vagary, and to its elucidation he has brought an immense curiosity and no little shrewdness. As I have said, men are naturally more interesting, if only because they show a higher variability, but women remain more mysterious, and hence more romantic. Why should Regina C——throw herself away as she does? Why should Esther Norn waste her devotion upon men who have no need of her, and set no value upon her? Why, indeed, should old Bridget Mullanphy stagger through life in shackles to her loafer of a husband and her abominable daughter? The common answer is that there is something noble about that sort of immolation, but Dreiser is too wise to make it. He simply sets forth the facts as he has seen them, and leaves the philosophizing to less conscientious sages. He sees into all these women, but he would probably be the last to claim that he really sees through them. They remain figures in the eternal charade, touching always but inscrutable to the last.
Dreiser's writing continues to be painful to those who seek a voluptuous delight in words. It is not that he writes mere bald journalese, as certain professors have alleged, but that he wallows naïvely in a curiously banal kind of preciosity. He is, indeed, full of pretty phrases and arch turns of thought, but they seldom come off. The effect, at its worst, is that of a hangman's wink. He has been more or less impressed, apparently, by the familiar charge that his books are too long—that his chief sin is garrulousness. At all events, he shows a plain awareness of it: at one place he pauses in his narrative to say, "But hold! Do not despair. I am getting on." The point here, however, is not well taken. He is not actually garrulous; he always says something apposite, even though it may be obvious. What ails him is simply an incapacity to let anything go. Every detail of the human comedy interests him so immensely that he is bound to get it down. This makes, at times, for hard reading, but it has probably also made Dreiser. The thing that distinguishes him from other novelists is simply his astounding fidelity of observation. He sees every flicker of the eye, every tremor of the mouth, every change of color, every trivial gesture, every awkwardness, every wart. It is the warts, remember, that make the difference between a photograph and a human being.
Most other American novelists of his generation have been going downhill of late, but Dreiser seems to be holding on pretty well. The youngsters coming up offer him nothing properly describable as serious competition. They all write better than he does, but they surely do not surpass him in the really essential business of their craft. As year chases year, such books as Jennie Gerhardt and The Titan take on the proportions of public monuments; they become parts of the permanent record of their time; there is a sombre dignity in them that will not down. The defects that are in them are defects that are common to all latter-day American fiction. They may be imperfect, but they remain the best we have.
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, edited by Howard Fast, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1989, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay from a collection that was originally published in 1947, Fast asserts that "Dreiser has no peer in the American short story," and argues that the key to Dreiser's success as a short story writer lies in the author's tremendous capacity for compassion in creating his narratives and characters.]
One evening recently, a group of us set about making, for our own amusement, a list of the finest short stories in the world. Actually, they were by no means the finest—there are no real absolutes in art—but rather a reflection of personal taste and preference; yet, it was curious how much unanimity of opinion there was—or perhaps not so curious, when you consider what universal and ageless appeal a rich and well-rounded tale has.
One of the rules of this game was that a person bringing forth a story the others did not know had to tell it, and it was revealing how many stories, bright in our memories, failed utterly in the telling. While at the time of reading, these tales had evoked a certain mood and emotion, the substance did not stand up with time. Flesh and blood were absent; the type of story called a "casual" by the editors of The New Yorker magazine, is just that: a casual, a glimpse of life that lacks form and meaning. For a story to last, it must hold up in telling; it must partake of something of the richness and complexity of life, the action, reaction and interaction of the human beings who make up our society. More than by the story-teller's art, mood and emotion must be determined by the characters themselves, by what they do to each other and by what society does to them.
Concerning this last, I know of no better example in American story telling than Theodore Dreiser. Certainly, we are a land not poor in story-tellers, and, with the possible exceptions of Russia and France, the short story has nowhere else developed to the height and richness it has here. But for all of that, Dreiser has no peer in the American short story. If his short stories are not yet sufficiently known his own genius is to blame; for his monumental novels overshadow them—perhaps rightly so, perhaps not. As fine as his novels are, they do not attain the artistic wholeness of his short tales; and I say this along with the opinion that no American has ever equalled Dreiser in the field of the novel.
Among the moderns, there is almost no one capable of writing tales like these. The best of today is pallid and non-human when compared with Dreiser's compassionate searchings; the average of today is another medium, outside the pale of comparison.
Now, this is much to be said of any writer, and wherein is the key? It is not enough simply to state that Theodore Dreiser was a unique genius of American letters; that he was, indeed, but, more than that, he was a man born at a certain time and in a certain place, and moulded by time and place, so that he could become the articulate and splendid spokesman for that time and place. The turn of the century, the coming of age of American industrialism, the withering away of the independent farmer, the onrush of imperialism, the first great world conflict, the rise of the labor movement, the movement for women's rights, the disillusionment and moral wreckage that followed World War I, the brief intellectual renaissance that spread like a flame across America, the mighty yet earthbound heroes of his native Midwest—all of these in turn and together reacted upon a man who was large enough to receive them and understand them, a man who was a curious mixture of pagan and Christian, provincial and urbane, a great mind and a great heart, turned by the endless search for the truth into a splendid artist.
The key to Dreiser the artist is compassion, the compassion of a Hugo or a Tolstoy. I can think of no tale of his wherein hatred or contempt or cynicism is the theme motif, either primarily or secondarily. His understanding was wide and extraordinary, and where he could not understand he presented the bare facts, as a historian might, leaving the explanation to time. How he pitied those—and their number is legion—whom society had trod on, ground down, distorted and perverted!
In "Phantom Gold," for example, and in "Convention," he takes human wreckage and somehow extracts from it all the dignity and beauty of which life could be capable. It is not that he is charitable in his appraisal, but rather that he gives, as does Charlie Potter in "A Doer of the Word," of himself.
A friend of mine met Dreiser in the street one day, and seeing that Dreiser's eyes were filled with tears, asked whether something terrible had happened, some personal tragedy? Dreiser shook his head; he had been unaware of the tears; he had simply been walking along, watching the life he saw, reflecting on it. He was that sort of man. In all my reading, I know of no better statement of the love of one brother for another than Dreiser gives in "My Brother Paul." It is an incredibly sweet and gentle tale, yet never does it partake of the saccharin of the cheap, of the vulgarly sentimental. A singular love of his fellow man, along with direct sincerity, gave Dreiser the prerogative to go where all others feared to tread.
Combined with this, there was a flair for fancy, an imagination that literally soared. How little those who call Dreiser "earthbound" understand of him! It was no earthbound mind that sent McEwen down among the shining slave makers, so that he might do battle with the ants, and thereby come to understand the wondrous variety and complexity of life, the goodness of it, and the eternal value of comradeship.
Through all his stories, the theme of brotherhood runs as a constant. He saw no lonely existence for man; man was a part of the whole, and if that was taken away, there was little reason for man to exist; over and over again this theme recurs, in "The Lost Phoebe," in "Marriage—For One," in "My Brother Paul"—and to a degree in all the other tales. Yet he did not write preachments; the very idea of writing a preachment would have repelled and disgusted him; his stories are filled with men and women and children, with the ebb and flow of life, the color and taste of it. There is no revengefulness in him, no hell fire. He sees life as it is; he would want it different; but until that time when life is different, the task is to know why it is what it is.
And what of his writing?
As I have said, I believe that Dreiser practiced his craft better in his short tales than in his novels. Most of these tales are superbly written; he had none of the staccato fears of the modern school. If the need dictated, he wrote leisurely, comfortably, in well-turned and thoughtful sentences. In evoking a mood, in painting a pastoral scene, in baring the soil and contour of his own beloved Midwest, he has no master; nor has he a master in describing men and women—not their surface features, but the essential and deep-rooted conflicts in their egos. He painted not with the quick, nervous brush of today, but in large planes and solid masses.
Occasionally, too, he told a story with such delightful zest, such light mastery, that the reading of it is a rare adventure. His two stories of Arabia, "Khat" and "The Prince Who Was a Thief," are of that category.
I don't know whether or not Dreiser was ever in Arabia; in "Khat," he evokes a very real image of Arabia, however, and I was affected nostalgically in terms of my own Arabian memories. Yet the point here is that Dreiser, in these two tales, writes not of Arabia, whatever of the setting he may use, but of the wonderland that some writers create, the land wherein a casual wayfarer may come upon the Sire de Maletroit's door, or again upon the four directions of O. Henry's roads of destiny. In both tales, his protagonist is essentially the same, the professional beggar and story-teller who is too old to be of any use. In "Khat," the old entertainer finds every gate closed to him, the world walled up, barred, and shut off, a cynical, colorful world, yet somehow not so different from our own.
In "The Prince Who Was a Thief," there is a story within a story, an ageless romance told by the old mendicant with priceless skill, humor, verve—but one which brings him only half the price of bed and board, leading him to remark:
By Allah, what avails it if one travel the world over to gather many strange tales and keep them fresh and add to them as if by myrrh and incense and the color of the rose and the dawn, if by so doing one may not come by so much as a meal or a bed? Bismillah! Were it not for my withered arm no more would I trouble to tell a tale!
Rarely is Dreiser's tongue in his cheek, but when it is his wit is gentle and beguiling. And meaningfully enough, in all his stories, he laughs only at someone who practices his own trade: the making and the telling of tales—and, of course, the selling of them, since even story-tellers must eat.
I imagine that the moral there was very close to him. He was a giant in a world of Philistines, and the level upon which he practiced his art was beyond the sight, much less the comprehension, of the critics of his own day—yes, and of this day, too. Like Melville, he had little enough gain from his writing; but, again like Melville, he remains in a process of growth. His stature will increase with the years—and his wise, searching tales will be read and re-read.
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 9-12.
[In the following essay, Farrell praises Dreiser for his achievement in the short story form and for his "healthy pessimism."]
Theodore Dreiser was a good storyteller and this collection contains some of his best stories. Due to the fact that his novels are so powerful and caused so much controversy, his stories have been neglected by critics. But among them are some of the finest and most moving short stories written by an American in this century.
In these tales there is variety of scene and range and depth of emotion. The emotions of mismated married people; the crazed feelings of a simple Midwestern old farmer who has lost his Phoebe, the partner of his life; the greed for gold of an illiterate farmer and his equally illiterate family; the despair of an Arabian beggar who approaches his end, poor, ragged, and despised; the feelings of Dreiser himself for Paul Dresser, his song-writing brother; the words and personality of a New Englander who lives by the Word of the Bible; the superstitious feelings of an Irish immigrant who works as a sand-hog under the Hudson River—here is range and variety. Dreiser paints and re-creates a broad human scene and, in each instance, he reveals his probing, searching mind, his ability to assimilate and make use of many details, and a compassion for humanity, its dreams and tragic sufferings, which is linked up with a sure insight into the nature of people.
During his entire literary life, Theodore Dreiser sought for a theory of existence. His mind seems constantly to have been filled with "whys." Why was life? Why was there this human spectacle of grandeur and misery, of the powerful and the weak, the gifted and the mediocre? Why did men drive and struggle for the prizes of this world—sometimes with little more than a jungle morality? And his fiction was a revelation of what he saw and how he felt about these questions. He found no answers, and most certainly he avoided cheap answers as he did the cheap tricks of commercial and plot short story writers. He was a deeply serious and brooding man, and in his writing he treated his characters with seriousness. They became intensely human in their dreaming, aspiring, and struggling as well as in their unhappiness, bewilderment, and moments of tragedy.
Dreiser saw a struggle between instinct and convention, and this was a major motif in both his novels and his stories. He saw how convention and conformity frustrates men and women. Here in this volume, there are several stories which deal with this subject matter. "Free," the story of a gifted architect with definite artistic ability and of his dying wife dramatizes the frustrating role of Convention in the life of a man with singular gifts. All of his life, Rufus Haymarket has been loyal and faithful to his wife in deed and action. She has controlled and dominated their social life. He has sacrificed his own impulses and many of his tastes in order that she will be happy. And when she lies dying, he dreams of freedom. He gazes out of the window of their apartment on Central Park West in New York City, thinks over their common life together and of his many frustrations. With her he has not found happiness or fulfillment. But she will die and then, for a brief span of years, he will be free. He is troubled by such thoughts. He does not want to have to think in this manner. But he has missed so much, a love that would be deeply satisfying, a life less bound by conventional tastes and values, and his need for freedom is rooted within him. And then his wife dies. Then he is free. But he realizes the meaning of his freedom. "Free! . . . Yes—free . . . to die!" This is a story of futility, but it is told with such sympathy and compassion that it acquires emotional force. Its simple tragedy becomes awesome, almost mysterious in the way that tragedy in real life is sometimes awesome and full of mystery. There are other stories of unhappy marriages, "Convention," "Marriage for One," and "The Shadow." These, again, are marked by a sympathy and understanding on a parallel with these same qualities that endow "Free" with such depth of feeling.
Along with "Free," there are two other Dreiser stories in this volume that have already become acknowledged classics, "The Lost Phoebe" and "Nigger Jeff." Henry and Phoebe lived together on their farm for forty-eight years. Their love had changed into a condition of habit and mutual need. Then, Phoebe died. Henry lived alone, and in time his mind became deranged. Day after day, he tramped the countryside searching for his lost wife. He could not accept the fact that she was dead—she had merely gone away. He would find her. The memory of Phoebe when young returns to him vividly. His search is not for the old woman who died, but for the young girl who had been his bride: his search is for dreams long since faded. He dies in deranged happiness, seeking the beautiful young Phoebe he knew years ago. In this story, it is as though life itself were speaking to us through the author. And it is a tale not only of the sad end which comes to us in old age; also, it is a tale of a lost dream, a dream that once endowed life with a beauty that was akin to poetry. Time, the enemy of all men, has eaten away beauty and rendered dreams obsolete. And yet the dreams remain. Dreiser's handling of this theme is truly poetic.
"Nigger Jeff" is a sympathetic and vivid account of a lynching. The main character is a reporter from a big city newspaper (undoubtedly a St. Louis journal) who is sent into a country district to cover a story where there might be a lynching. The description of the lynching, and the account of its impact on the young reporter, is presented so vividly and movingly that we feel that we are on the scene ourselves. And the "cruel sorrow" of the colored mother whose son has been hanged by a mob can only bring a choke in our throats. The young reporter says, in the last line of the story, "I'll get it all in!" Dreiser did get it all in and this means the human feelings, the terribleness of human sorrow that is caused by such a lynching.
Totally different is "My Brother Paul," Dreiser's account of his older brother. The feeling he had of brotherly affection is finely and sensitively revealed. Also, the story is quite genuinely nostalgic. It creates the Broadway atmosphere at the turn of the century so well that I found myself longing to have lived in that era and in Paul Dresser's world. Often, Dreiser has depicted emotions of greed, and he has described how human beings can destroy one another. Here, he writes of generosity of feeling, of manly affection, of kindness and helpfulness.
But every story in this book bears the mark of genuineness and caliber. In every story, there is respect—deep respect for human beings. Great art reveals the importance of human feelings and emotions. This is what Dreiser achieved. He cut beneath the surfaces of conventional attitude and sought, painstakingly, carefully, and sensitively to see human beings as they are and to render and re-create them truly but with sympathy.
We all must come to terms with time and death. Growth and maturity are evidenced in the way we make our terms with these. Dreiser's lifelong quest for a theory of existence was bound up with his own answers to time and death, his own willingness to face them in a spirit of moral bravery. This is one of the sources of his pessimism. It is a healthy pessimism, and when we encounter it we can gain a deepened sense of and respect for life. And these fifteen stories are but some of the works which Dreiser left us in his own quest and journey through the world. They tell us of men and women dreaming, struggling, and becoming caught in tragic bewilderment; they create a sense of wonder about those feelings which are the common clay, the common ground, the common elements of our humanity. Often they are somber, but their somberness breaks out in a revelation of that wonder and mystery of life which Dreiser felt so deeply.
Theodore Dreiser was a great writer of our century, and these tales of his fully bear the mark of his greatness, his sincerity, and his genius. Written years ago, they remain vital today. They belong to our literary tradition and they should long stand among the major short stories written in twentieth-century America.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2911
SOURCE: "The Short Stories: No Lies in the Darkness," in Theodore Dreiser: Our Bitter Patriot, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, pp. 114-23.
[In the following essay, Shapiro examines several of Dreiser's short stories, asserting that while some of them are effective literary achievements, Dreiser's style was more suited to the novel form.]
Students usually get an unfortunate and inadequate introduction to Dreiser's fiction, for though his talent lies in the lengthier form of the novel, he too often is presented as a short-story writer. Assorted collegiate anthologies sandwich his contributions between the shorter efforts of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, and it would, in truth, take a truly dedicated reader to be inspired to sample more of Dreiser's work.
Much of Dreiser's effects in his novels depends on a steady, cumulative emotive presentation, small, pointed, meaningful additions which add to the formal action of the fiction. The short stones too often read, not as complete architectonic units within themselves, but as compressed, dehydrated novels. In these cases the famed Dreiserian defects bulge out. Pompous, essentially show-off expressions are trotted out for no specific purpose. In "Free," for example, at an inappropriately dramatic moment we have the following: "It was a mirage. An ignis fatuus." Superficial, sophomoric psychologizing is abundant. "They were amazing, these variations in his own thoughts, almost chemic, not volitional, decidedly peculiar for a man who was supposed to know his own mind—only did one, ever?" Worst of all are the stretches of clumsy, overwritten prose, much too typical of the magazine fiction of the time. A child dies, and "little Elwell had finally ceased to be as flesh and was eventually carried forth to the lorn, disagreeable graveyard near Woodlawn." As for the father: "How he had groaned internally, indulged in sad, despondent thoughts concerning the futility of all things human, when this had happened!" And these lapses, lamentable in Dreiser's realistic tales, become absurd in his feeble efforts at fantasy (such as in "McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers," "Khat," and "The Prince Who Was a Thief").
Though a few of the stories are of interest (especially two of the three we will look at—"Nigger Jeff," and "The Lost Phoebe") there is little to support James T. Farrell's contention [in the introduction to The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, 1961] that they rank among the best written in America during this century or Howard Fast's belief that Dreiser has "no peer in the American story" [Best Short Stories]. It is interesting that Sherwood Anderson, who wrote the introduction to a 1918 edition of Dreiser's stories, never becomes specific with his judgments. His tribute is a general one, in praise of a man "who with the passage of time is bound to loom larger and larger in the awakening consciousness of America," who is brave, and who was no trickster. Most important of all, he sees Dreiser the hero of an American movement aiming "toward courage and fidelity to life in writing," and notes that "the beauty and the ironic terror of life is like a wall before him but he faces the wall" [Introduction to Free and Other Stories]. Certainly Dreiser is, as always, sincere and honest, boy scout virtues which are not, in themselves, enough for a writer. Only in a very few controlled, shorter works did he manage to approach the strength of his better novels.
Howard Fast was right in commenting that Dreiser "painted not with the quick, nervous brush of today, but in large planes and solid masses." This slabbish quality is probably best seen in "Free," a flashback tale which depressingly plunges us into the study of a seemingly successful architect whose wife is dying and who realizes, to his horror, that life, for him, was but a series of pitiful compromises. "Like the Spartan boy, he had concealed the fox gnawing at his vitals. He had not complained." Now he complains, and with a vengeance.
A longer story than most of Dreiser's, "Free" has a structural unity, an action based on the wife as the symbol for the architect's essential lack of nerve.
But even that was not the worst. No; that was not the worst, either. It had been the gradual realization coming along through the years that he had married an essentially small, narrow woman who could never really grasp his point of view—or, rather, the significance of his dreams or emotions—and yet with whom, nevertheless, because of this original promise or mistake, he was compelled to live. Grant her every quality of goodness, energy, industry, intent—as he did freely—still there was this; and it could never be adjusted, never. Essentially, as he had long since discovered, she was narrow, ultraconventional, whereas he was an artist by nature, brooding and dreaming strange dreams and thinking of far-off things which she did not or could not understand or did not sympathize with, save in a general and very remote way. The nuances of his craft, the wonders and subtleties of forms and angles—had she ever realized how significant these were to him, let alone to herself? No, never. She had not the least true appreciation of them—never had had. Architecture? Art? What could they really mean to her, desire as she might to appreciate them? And he could not now go elsewhere to discover that sympathy. No. He had never really wanted to, since the public and she would object, and he thinking it half evil himself.
Rufus Haymaker (other names in the narrative include Elwell, Ethelberta, and Ottilie) is vague in his anger, never really focusing on specific targets and less intense than the middle-aged heroes of, say, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe, or William Faulkner. It is a formless rage aimed, not at his wife, his spoiled children, or even American society, but at heavy, Dreiserian fate. "Cruel Nature, that cared so little for the dreams of man—the individual man or woman." If ever there was a tale nakedly revealing the naturalistic movement's effect on the American writer, this is it. "Almost like a bird in a cage, an animal peeping out from behind bars, he had viewed the world of free thought and freer action."
Perhaps the ruminations and outbursts of Haymaker have relevance to Dreiser's own peculiar marital troubles; in any case they do betray some of the blatantly adolescent attitudes about sex which marred The "Genius," "Think of it! He to whom so many women had turned with questioning eyes!"
After a long chronicle of repressions and chances missed, Haymaker looks into a mirror. The theme of the story is recapitulated. "The figure he made here as against his dreams of a happier life, once he were free, now struck him forcibly. What a farce! What a failure!" And summarizing it all, the meaning of his failure, he wonders just what he had missed. With his wife's death he will be free; but it is too late. He is free only to die. What has happened here is that a novel is compressed into shorter form. We never understand even a small part of Haymaker, his life or his development; in consequence his problem, stated over and over, is essentially meaningless as it doesn't involve a defined character. Dreiser misuses the short-story form here, and "Free" unfortunately becomes a parody of his poorer novels.
While "Free" is an artistic failure, "Nigger Jeff," which at first seems just one more protest tale of a lynch mob and its victim, develops into a well-structured, meaningful story centered on the reactions of a bewildered young city reporter who faces organized violence for the first time. The action lies in our discovery of how Elmer Davies reacts to the horrifying event and what he discovers about America and himself.
Davies is introduced as "a vain and rather self-sufficient youth who was inclined to be of that turn of mind which sees in life only a fixed and ordered process of rewards and punishments." At first he believes in the justice of the forthcoming lynching and is concerned only with the story he must write. Arriving at Pleasant Valley he notices the white houses "and the shimmering beauty of the small stream one had to cross in going from the depot." Throughout the narrative Dreiser, as Crane before him, will inject descriptions of the placid countryside, almost as direct counterpoint to the frightening events taking place. As the mob hurries on, "the night was so beautiful that it was all but poignant . . . and the east promised a golden moon." Again: "Slowly the silent company now took its way up the Sand River Pike whence it had come. The moon was still high, pouring down a wash of silvery light." At the lynching "the pale light over the glimmering water seemed human and alive." And as Davies sits, watching the dangling form, "the light of morning broke, a tender lavender and gray in the east. . . . Still the body hung there black and limp against the sky, and now a light breeze sprang up and stirred it visibly." Finally, after the body is cut down, it is placed in a small cabin and Davies watches the rapist's mother weeping over her son Jeff. "All the corners of the room were quite dark. Only its middle was brightened by splotches of silvery light."
Along with balancing the transcending wonders of nature with the human agonies, Dreiser also details Davies' petty dealings which are necessary to his reporting assignment.
He is forced to haggle and connive. These three elements: the powerful landscape, the tragedy played out in front of it, and the reporter's small movements have their effects on Davies. His attitude towards life is different. "The knowledge now that it was not always exact justice that was meted out to all and that it was not so much the business of the writer to indict as to interpret was borne in on him with distinctness by the cruel sorrow of the mother, whose blame, if any, was infinitesimal."
[In his Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature, 1970] Robert Elias feels that in his stories Dreiser restates "his belief that nature must prevail . . . the subject of each story served to show that individuals were limited by circumstances or feelings for which only an inscrutable and indifferent nature appeared to be responsible. Men and women, created in one image, could not make themselves over in any other, and if there was a solution to their predicaments, no one knew it." Perhaps. But man can learn. "Nigger Jeff" ends with the reporter's crying out his new ambition, as a man and as a writer. "I'll get it all in!" In no sense does Jeff become a Joe Christmas, for Dreiser, unlike Faulkner, did not write a complicated allegory of modern man's betrayal. He simply told of one man's discovery; and this tale, carefully constructed, is a strong and moving work.
Dreiser's strangest story, "The Lost Phoebe," had a curious publishing history. Though completed in 1912, four years elapsed before it was finally accepted for publication. Even Dreiser's champions were shocked by the tale. In a letter to Dreiser, H. L. Mencken noted: "Nathan is so full of the notion that this 'Lost Phoebe' lies far off of the Dreiser that we want to play up that I begin to agree with him" [Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959].
"The Lost Phoebe" relates the pathetic wanderings of an aged, lonely farmer who is unable to accept the reality of his wife's death. For seven years he stumbles around the countryside, kept up by "spiritual endurance." Finally, one night, he believes he truly sees his late wife, younger, more beautiful. "He had been expecting and dreaming of this hour all these years, and now as he saw the feeble light dancing lightly before him he peered at it questioningly, one thin hand in his gray hair." Old Henry Reifsneider chases the phantom over a cliff. "No one of all the simple population knew how eagerly and joyously he had found his lost mate."
This depressing story does have its rough moments. The steady, dreary chronicle is too often interrupted with the familiar Dreiserian asides, especially forced commentaries on the simple nature of his protagonists. And at times Dreiser, the pseudo-scientist, interrupts: "That particular lull that confies in the systole-diastole of this earthly ball at two o'clock in the morning." But the story is successful, combining a lyric quality epitomized in the title and the descriptions of the landscape, with the hard facts of farm life.
They had lived here, these two, ever since their marriage, forty-eight years before, and Henry had lived here before that from his childhood up. His father and mother, well along in years when he was a boy, had invited him to bring his wife here when he had first fallen in love and decided to marry; and he had done so. . . . Of the seven children, all told, that had been born to them, three had died; one girl had gone to Kansas; one boy had gone to Sioux Falls, never even to be heard of after; another boy had gone to Washington; and the last girl lived five counties away in the same State, but was so burdened with cares of her own that she rarely gave them a thought. Time and a commonplace home life that had never been attractive had weaned them thoroughly, so that, wherever they were, they gave little thought as to how it might be with their father and mother.
The petty details of farm life are noted, and the minor quarrels of the elderly couple are presented in some detail. F. O. Matthiessen is quite correct in calling this Dreiser's most poetic story, yet it is the artful juxtaposition of the dreary, daily existence with the later mystic quality of the search that makes the tale so successful [Theodore Dreiser, 1973]. We feel we are face to face with pain and truth, just as we were with "Nigger Jeff," and this is truth given us by an accomplished artist. As Sherwood Anderson noted [in his introduction to Free and Other Stories], "If there is a modern movement in American prose writing, a movement toward greater courage and fidelity in writing, then Theodore Dreiser is the pioneer and the hero of the movement."
My study, while facing some of the critical questions which inevitably arise in any discussion of Dreiser's work, deals, for the most part, with the themes present in his novels. There are, however, some qualities evident in all his books, qualities of spirit rather than tone, subject, or artistry. Man's courage in the face of tragedy, the bitterness, the sadness of America is usually at the heart of most of his fiction. Such an attitude towards life, of course, could slop over into a maudlin sentimentality if it were not for Dreiser's sense of wonder, his sympathy for and amazement at the way his characters operate, and survive. In this he is close to Faulkner. There is an energy and fierce sense of purpose common to both novelists.
I have concentrated on Dreiser's novels, but he was also the prolific author of poetry, plays, short stories, and nonfiction. The less said about his poetry and drama, the better. Dreiser simply wasn't a poet or dramatist. His shorter works of fiction contain many of the attributes of his novels, though very few come close to An American Tragedy or The Bulwark. Dreiser needed a large canvas. His nonfiction, especially his autobiographical works, have never been adequately dealt with, and I believe it is in this area that new studies of Dreiser will be most needed. The University of Pennsylvania recently issued an edition of Dreiser's collected letters, and this material will undoubtedly focus attention on biographical matters. Dawn, Dreiser's account of his early life, especially deserves revival and re-evaluation.
In the field of his novels most of the criticism has been in the nature of violent attacks or spirited defenses. As Dreiser comes to be an accepted part of American literary history, however, there will be more scholarly and critical, and less polemical, attention paid to his work. Indeed, such a trend is already established; we have begun to assess and appreciate the various aspects of Dreiser's achievement as a novelist.
And this achievement, I believe, marks him as one of our best novelists, a rare man who was able to make art out of his vision of life. Admittedly, Dreiser still bothers many readers. Perhaps Alfred Kazin is right when he observes that we often don't know how to react to Dreiser because a sense of contemplativeness, wonder, and reverence is at the center of Dreiser's world: "It is this lack of smartness, this puzzled lovingness for the substance of all our mystery, that explains why we do not know what to do with Dreiser today" [Introduction to The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, 1955].
But this refers to emotive reactions which are qualified by the time in which we live. If we often are unable to know how to handle our reactions to Dreiser, we can certainly appreciate these important chronicles of our American experience. For as Randolph Bourne said of Dreiser [in Stature of Dreiser], "his faults are those of his material and of uncouth bulk, and not of shoddiness. He expresses an America that is in process of forming. The interest he evokes is part of the eager interest we feel in that growth."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4121
SOURCE: "Theodore Dreiser's 'Nigger Jeff': The Development of an Aesthetic," in American Literature, Vol. XLI, No. 3, November, 1969, pp. 331-41.
[In the following essay, Pizer examines three versions of "Nigger Jeff" to illustrate how Dreiser's artistic emphasis in his writing moved from sentimentality toward moral polemics.]
Thanks to the work of Robert H. Elias and W. A. Swanberg, we are beginning to have an adequate sense of Dreiser's life. But many aspects of Dreiser the artist remain relatively obscure or unexplored—in particular his aesthetic beliefs and fictional techniques at various stages of his career. An excellent opportunity to study Dreiser's developing aesthetic lies in the existence of several versions of his short story "Nigger Jeff." The extant versions of this story reveal with considerable clarity and force Dreiser's changing beliefs concerning the nature of fiction.
Dreiser's first attempt to write a story about the lynching of a Missouri Negro is preserved in an unpublished University of Virginia manuscript called "A Victim of Justice." Although "A Victim of Justice" is clearly a work of the 1890's, it is difficult to date its composition precisely. The narrator of the story begins by noting that he has recently spent "a day in one of Missouri's pleasant villages." While visiting a Potter's Field, he recalls a rural Missouri lynching that he had witnessed "several years since." This opening situation is the product of a number of events of the mid-1890's. Dreiser was a reporter on the St. Louis Republic in the fall of 1893, and it was during this period that he observed the lynching on which the story is based. In addition, on July 23, 1894, Dreiser wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch an article entitled "With the Nameless Dead" in which he described an Allegheny County Potter's Field. A few weeks later he visited his fiancée, Sallie White, who lived in a small town near St. Louis. Dreiser's only attempts at fiction before the summer of 1899 occurred in the winter and spring of 1895 when he wrote several stories after leaving the New York World and before becoming editor of Ev'ry Month. In view of these facts, it is possible to speculate that Dreiser wrote "A Victim of Justice" in early 1895 and that he combined in the story his memory of the 1893 lynching, his July, 1894, article (from which he quoted several passages verbatim), and his visit to Missouri in the summer of 1894.
The next extant version of the story is a manuscript in the Los Angeles Public Library entitled "The Lynching of Nigger Jeff." This manuscript served, with minor changes, as the text for the November, 1901, publication of "Nigger Jeff" in Ainslee's Magazine. Encouraged by his friend Arthur Henry, Dreiser had begun writing stories in earnest during the summer of 1899, and he later recalled [in a letter to H.L. Mencken dated May 13, 1916] that "Nigger Jeff"—that is, the Los Angeles Public Library-Ainslee's version—dates from this period. The fourth version of the story is Dreiser's revision of the Ainslee's version for inclusion in his Free and Other Stories, published in August, 1918. Since the changes in this last version are primarily additions to the Ainslee's text, and since this added material is not in the Los Angeles Public Library manuscript, the revision can be attributed to the period shortly before the appearance of Free, when Dreiser collected and revised his stories for republication.
There are thus three major versions of "Nigger Jeff." Although none of these versions can be dated exactly, each can be associated with an important segment of Dreiser's career. The Virginia manuscript of the mid-1890's reflects the Dreiser depicted in A Book About Myself, the young journalist who was viewing much of the tragic complexity of life but understanding little of it. The Ainslee's publication represents the Dreiser of Sister Carrie. The story has been rewritten by an author with a characteristic vision of life and with a distinctive fictional style. The 1918 publication suggests a writer whose ideas have become increasingly self-conscious and polemical, the Dreiser of the essays of Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920) and the Dreiser who was eventually to devote a large portion of his later career to philosophical inquiries. The three versions, in short, span the principal periods of Dreiser's career, and their differences can tell us much about Dreiser's developing aesthetic.
Although the three versions of "Nigger Jeff" differ in a number of important ways, all have the same basic outline. A young man is sent in early spring to investigate reports of a possible lynching in a rural Missouri community. He discovers that a farmer's daughter has been attacked by a Negro and that the farmer and his son are in pursuit of the Negro in order to lynch him. The Negro is apprehended by a local peace officer, however, and is taken to another village for safekeeping until the arrival of reinforcements. A mob gathers, overpowers the peace officer, and returns with the Negro to its own community, where he is hanged from a bridge. The following day the investigator visits the home of the Negro and views his body.
Dreiser's earliest version of this story, "A Victim of Justice," is told in the first person and uses a frame device. The story opens with the unidentified narrator visiting a Potter's Field near a small Missouri town. After much soulful lament over the "strange exigencies of life" that have brought the denizens of the graveyard to their mournful fate, the narrator is disturbed by the "grieving orisons" of an elderly woman. Before he can question her, she departs. But she has stimulated still further his moody reflections on the "wounding trials of life," and it is on this note that he introduces his recollections of the lynching. He begins by explaining that he was "commissioned to examine into the details" of the incident, but he does not identify himself as a reporter. Nor do we have a sense of his involvement in the action of the story. His narrative "voice" is principally an omniscient authorial voice, telling us about the lynching (often in summary form) but devoid of personal participation. The story concludes with the second half of the frame device. The narrator describes the Negro's lonely grave on a hillside, a burial place marked by a wooden cross. "Day after day it stands, bleak, gray, desolate, a fitting emblem of the barren life now forgotten, wasted as sparks are wasted on the night wind." Again the narrator broods over the vicissitudes of life, though his melancholy is lightened somewhat by the thought that nature is ever-beautiful even in this forsaken spot.
"A Victim of Justice" has three major themes. The first is suggested by the ironic title of the story and by several authorial comments. The Negro (named Jim in this version) is the victim of the "hasty illegalities" and "summary justice" of the mob. The second theme involves a more generalized sorrow over the fate of most men, a theme which arises out of the narrator's "mediations" in the graveyard. Dreiser's lugubrious exploitation of the conventional rhetoric of injustice and melancholy suggests that both themes have their source in the traditional literature of sentiment. Jim is a "poor varlet," and the graveyard scene echoes the diction and sentence structure of a Hawthorne or an Irving. Life is sad, Dreiser says, and he asks us to share this sentiment by imitating the prose of writers known for their ability to evoke melancholic moods. The third theme of the story is that of the powerful human emotions that arise out of the lynching itself—the quest for vengeance by the father, the resoluteness of the peace officer, the terror of the Negro. In a sense these emotions constitute a suppressed or unacknowledged theme, since they are extraneous to the explicit themes imposed upon the story by the narrator. The peace officer could have been a coward and Jim brave and unflinching, and the narrator would still have been able to enclose the story within his reflections on injustice and melancholy. These reflections may be apt responses to a lynching, but Dreiser's failure to integrate them into the account of the lynching itself implies that he has indeed imposed them on his response. His "true" response is "buried" within the narrative of the lynching, for Dreiser at this point was unable to articulate his response—that is, he was unable to recognize what moved him in the lynching. Thus, though he depicted the lynching as a moving event, he confused the nature of his response with those "deep" emotions readily available to him in traditional literary forms.
The Ainslee's version of "Nigger Jeff" omits the frame sections. The story, now told in the third person, focuses on the experiences of a young reporter, Eugene Davies, who has been sent to look into a possible lynching. It is a beautiful spring day and the insouciant, self-confident Davies undertakes his assignment with relish. Arriving in Pleasant Valley, he is drawn into the events of the lynching as he pursues his story. Davies is at first a passive observer of these events. But when the blubbering, terrified Jeff is seized by the mob, the reporter uncontrollably "clapped his hands over his mouth and worked his fingers convulsively." "Sick at heart," he accompanies the mob back to Pleasant Valley. The hanging itself stuns him into a deep torpor. By the close of the story, when he encounters Jeff's weeping mother, he has viewed a wide range of character and emotion—the competent, strong-willed sheriff, the cowardly mob, the father intent on vengeance, and above all the terrified Jeff and his heartbroken mother.
In "A Victim of Justice" Dreiser mentioned the grieving mother early in the narrative but not afterward. In "Nigger Jeff" he reserved introducing her grief until the final, climactic scene of the story, a scene which is present only in brief summary form in the earlier version. As Davies views Jeff's body, he hears a noise in the room.
Greatly disturbed, he hesitated, and then as his eyes strained he caught the shadow of something. It was in the extreme corner, huddled up, dark, almost indistinguishable crouching against the cold walls.
"Oh, oh, oh," was repeated, even more plaintively than before.
Davies began to understand. He approached lightly. Then he made out an old black mammy, doubled up and weeping. She was in the very niche of the corner, her head sunk on her knees, her tears falling, her body rocking to and fro.
On leaving the cabin, Davies "swelled with feeling and pathos. . . . The night, the tragedy, the grief, he saw it all."
"I'll get that in,' he exclaimed, feelingly, 'I'll get it all in.'"
Dreiser has thus shifted the axis of the story. Unlike "A Victim of Justice," in which the narrator presents us with a response to a lynching, "Nigger Jeff" dramatizes a growth in emotional responsiveness by the principal viewer of the action. The narrative is now primarily an initiation story—the coming into knowledge of the tragic realities of life by the viewer. And since the viewer is a reporter who will attempt to "get it all in," the story is also the dramatization of the birth of an aesthetic.
Briefly, the conception of the theme and form of art symbolized by the "it" in the last sentence of "Nigger Jeff" contains three major elements, each rendered in dramatic form within the story. These are: a belief that two emotions in particular pervade all life; a belief that these emotions are often found in moral and social contexts which lend them a special poignancy; and a belief that these emotions adopt a certain pattern in life and therefore in art. Let me discuss each of these beliefs more fully, beginning with the central emotions of life as Dreiser depicts them in this story.
One such emotion is sexual desire. It is the first flush of spring, and Jeff, a poor, ignorant Negro, attacks a white girl—a girl who knows him and whom he meets in a lane. "Before God, boss, I didn't mean to. . . . I didn't go to do it,'" he cries to the mob. Although sexual desire may not lead to the destruction of such figures as Frank Cowperwood, it is nevertheless a dominant, uncontrollable force in almost all of Dreiser's principal male characters. Hurstwood, Lester Kane, Eugene Witla, and Clyde Griffiths are at its mercy. In addition, the "it" of the final sentence includes the unthinking love and loyalty which exists within a family and particularly between a mother and a child. When Davies arrives at Jeff's home after the lynching, he asks the Negro's sister why Jeff had returned to his cabin, where he had been captured by the waiting sheriff.
"To see us," said the girl.
"Well, did he want anything? He didn't come just to see you, did he?"
"Yes, suh," said the girl, "he come to say good-by."
Her voice wavered.
"Didn't he know he might get caught?" asked Davies.
"Yes, suh, I think he did."
She stood very quietly, holding the poor battered lamp up, and looking down.
"Well, what did he have to say?" asked Davies.
"He said he wanted tuh see motha'. He was a-goin' away."
The son come back to say good-by to the mother, the mother mourning over the son's body—here is emotion which in its over-powering intensity parallels the sex drive itself. It is the force which binds the Gerhardt family together, which is the final refuge of Clyde Griffiths, and which creates the tragic tension of Solon Barnes's loss of his children. In "Nigger Jeff" this force appears not only in the relationship between Jeff and his mother but also in the figure of the assaulted girl's father. Although Dreiser depicts the mob as cowardly and sensation-seeking, he respects the motives of the father. Both victim and revenger and caught up in the same inexplicable emotional oneness which is a family.
"Nigger Jeff" thus contains two of the most persistent themes in all of Dreiser's work—the power of desire and the power of family love and loyalty. Davies's awakening to their reality can be interpreted as Dreiser's declaration of belief in the dominance of these emotions in human affairs. Indeed, in his later autobiographies Dreiser depicted these emotions as two of the principal inner realities of his own youth. His ability to identify himself with these emotions as early as "Nigger Jeff" is revealed by a sentence omitted in Ainslee's but present in the Los Angeles Public Library manuscript of "The Lynching of Nigger Jeff." Immediately following "The night, the tragedy, the grief, he saw it all," there appears in "The Lynching of Nigger Jeff": "It was spring no less than sorrow that ran whispering in his blood." The sensuality of youth, the family love taking its shape in sorrow—these appear in Dreiser's work as complementary autobiographical themes until they coalesce most fully and powerfully both in Dawn and in An American Tragedy.
The second major aspect of Dreiser's aesthetic contained in the final "it" involves the moral and social context in which these emotions are found. Like most of Dreiser's characters, the principal figures in "Nigger Jeff" have little of the heroic about them. Even the sheriff loses his potential for such a role once he is easily tricked by the mob and complacently accepts its victory. Jeff himself is described at the moment of his capture by the mob as a "groveling, foaming brute." But the major figures in "Nigger Jeff," despite their often grotesque inadequacies, feel and suffer, and the young reporter comes to realize the "tragedy" of their fate. To Dreiser, tragedy arises out of the realities that nature is beautiful, that man can desire, and that a mother or father can mourn. These realities do not lend "nobility" to Dreiser's figures; like Jeff, they are often weak and contemptible despite their fate. But their capacity to feel combined with their incapacity to act wisely or well is to Dreiser the very stuff of man's tragic nature. The realization which the young reporter must "get in" thus involves not only the truths of lust and of mother love but also the truth that the experience of these emotions gives meaning and poignancy to every class and condition of man.
The third aspect of the aesthetic symbolized by the final "it" concerns the pattern assumed by the two principal emotions of the story. Most of Dreiser's novels involve a seeker or quester—sometimes driven by desire, sometimes by other motives—who finds at the end of the novel that he has returned to where he started: Carrie still seeking beauty and happiness; Jennie once again alone despite her immense capacity to love; Cowperwood's millions gone; Clyde still walled in; Solon returning to the simplicity of faith. It is possible to visualize Dreiser's novels as a graphic irony—the characters believe they are pushing forward but they are really moving in a circle. Dreiser occasionally makes this structural principle explicit by a consciously circular symbol, such as the rocking chair in Sister Carrie and the street scene in An American Tragedy. "Nigger Jeff contains a rough approximation of this pattern. The passions which have driven the narrative forward in its sequence of crime and punishment are dissipated, and Jeff returns to where he has started both physically and emotionally. That is, the bleak room in which he rests and his mother keening over his body represent the permanent realities of his life and his death. He, too, has come full circle.
Despite his reputation as stylistically inept, Dreiser was capable of a provocative and moving verbal symbolism. This quality appears in his use of "beauty" in connection with Carrie at the close of Sister Carrie and in his use of "life" in the next to last paragraph of The Bulwark ("'I am crying for life'"). These otherwise banal abstractions represent the complexity and depth of experience depicted in the novels concerned, and they are therefore powerfully evocative. The word "it" at the close of "Nigger Jeff has some of the same quality. The word symbolizes a deeply felt aesthetic which Dreiser never explained as well elsewhere, just as he never discussed "beauty" and "life" in his philosophical writings as well as he dramatized their meaning for him in his novels.
The Free version of "Nigger Jeff" omits almost nothing from the Ainslee's text. Aside from stylistic revisions, the changes in the Free version consist of additions, many of which merely flesh out particular scenes. Some of the additions, however, extend the themes of the story in two significant ways.
One such extension is revealed in Dreiser's addition to the first sentence of the story (here and elsewhere the added material appears in brackets):
The city editor was waiting for one of his best reporters, Elmer Davies [by name, a vain and rather self-sufficient youth who was inclined to be of that turn of mind which sees in life only a fixed and ordered process of rewards and punishments. If one did not do exactly right, one did not get along well. On the contrary, if one did, one did. Only the so-called evil were really punished, only the good truly rewarded-or Mr. Davies had heard this so long in his youth that he had come nearly to believe it.]
By the next to last paragraph of the story, Davies has come to realize that "[it was not always exact justice that was meted out to all and that it was not so much the business of the writer to indict as to interpret]." In these and similar additions Dreiser has extended the nature of Davies's initiation. In the Ainslee's version, Davies's growth is above all that of his awakening to the tragic nature of human experience. The Free version associates this awakening with his conscious awareness that moral absolutes are based on naïveté or inexperience and are inapplicable to the complex realities of life. In a sense even "A Victim of Justice" contains an aspect of this theme, since Dreiser in that version noted the injustice of the "summary justice" of mob rule. But in the Free "Nigger Jeff" this theme is both more overt and more central. Its presence in this enlarged and emphatic form suggests Dreiser's increasing tendency throughout the later stages of his career (beginning about 1911) to associate the function of art with the explicit inversion of conventional moral and social beliefs. It is during this period that Dreiser the polemicist (as revealed in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub) and Dreiser the novelist combine to produce An American Tragedy, in which the putative reader is placed in the position or Davies. Like the naïve beliefs of Davies, the reader's faith in the American dream of success and in the workings of justice is destroyed by encountering the reality of a tragedy.
A second major extension of theme in the Free "Nigger Jeff" occurs in the scenes following the capture of Jeff by the mob. As Davies accompanies the mob on its way to hang Jeff, he reflects that
[both father and son now seemed brutal, the injury to the daughter and sister not so vital as all this. Still, also, custom seemed to require death in this way for this. It was like some axiomatic, mathematic law-hard, but custom. The silent company, an articulated, mechanical and therefore terrible thing, moved on. It also was axiomatic, mathematic]
After the hanging, Davies sits near the bridge and muses: "[Life seemed so sad, so strange, so mysterious, so inexplicable]." These additions reflect two of the principal areas of Dreiser's philosophical speculation during the last half of his career. On the one hand, he believed that every phase of life is governed by law. During the period from approximately 1910 to the late 1920's he often, as in the Free "Nigger Jeff," associated this law with the harsh extermination of the weak. Dreiser the mechanist called this law an "equation inevitable" in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub. But by the end of his career Dreiser the quasi-pantheist had come to call it "design" in The Bulwark and to associate it primarily with beauty and with cosmic benevolence. His particular conception of law at various stages of his later career, however, is perhaps less important than his enduring search for a principle of meaning which would encompass the cruelty and the beauty, the destructiveness and the continuity, which he found in life. On the other hand, Dreiser affirmed throughout his later career a belief in the essential mystery at the heart of life. Both attitudes-the search for meaning and the belief in mystery-are present in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, in which the often doctrinaire mechanistic philosophizing is counterbalanced by the subtitle of the work: "A Book of the Mystery and Terror and Wonder of Life." And both are present in The Bulwark, in which Solon's discovery of the principle of design is inseparable from his discovery of the mystery of life. In his Free version of "Nigger Jeff" Dreiser has thus expanded his aesthetic to include not only an explicit ironic reversal of moral certainties but also a dramatization of the vast philosophical paradoxes underlying all life. Davies's discovery of what art must do—"[to interpret]"—now has a conscious philosophical element which was to play an ever increasing role in Dreiser's career.
The various versions of "Nigger Jeff which I have been discussing incorporate Dreiser's principal beliefs about the nature of art. From the imposed sentimentality of "A Victim of Justice" to the moral polemicism and incipient philosophizing of the Free "Nigger Jeff," the three versions reflect much that is central in Dreiser's thought and in his practice as a writer. No doubt there is room for qualification of some of the generalizations about Dreiser's developing aesthetic which I have drawn from this study of the three versions of "Nigger Jeff." Nevertheless, there is much to be said for the attempt to deduce a writer's beliefs about art directly from a creative work dealing with the nature of art rather than from his literary criticism. For Dreiser, there is a special need for this kind of attempt, since most of his overt comments about art are either vague or overpolemical. Moreover, we are coming to realize that Dreiser is not only a writer of stature (as Alfred Kazin has maintained [in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, 1955]) but also of finesse (as Ellen Moers believes [according to "The Finesse of Dreiser," American Scholar XXXIII, Winter, 1963-1964]). He is a writer, in other words, whose stories and novels in their various revisions can often be explored for the complex intertwining of permanence and change characteristic of the creative work of a major literary figure.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1256
SOURCE: "The Short Story in Transition: Stephen Crane, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Theodore Dreiser," in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 157-82.
[In the following excerpt, Voss surveys several of Dreiser's short stories, and maintains that while the short story form did not lend itself to Dreiser's particular writing style, "few other short-story writers have written more powerfully and movingly on the theme of entrapment."]
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, of German stock, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1946) was a journalist in his late twenties, who had worked in St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh when he began to write fiction. He was unfavorably regarded for a number of years by many readers and critics because of the uncompromising naturalism and alleged immorality of Sister Carrie (1900), suppressed after publication by the publisher and not reissued until 1907, Jennie Gerhardt (1911), and later novels. It was not until the 1920's, by which time he had published his best-known novel, An American Tragedy (1925), that he attained a substantial measure or popularity and prominence.
Dreiser's earliest short stories, written at about the same time as Sister Carrie, are notable for their variety but are a good deal less impressive than that novel. "When the Old Century Was New" is a somewhat stilted historical narrative laid in New York City at the beginning of the nineteenth century. "McEwen of Shining Slave Makers" is an allegory with a deterministic theme, in which a man falls asleep on a park bench and dreams he is an ant fighting with his tribe against another tribe of ants. The conflict, characterization, and setting of the much more realistic "Old Rogaum and His Theresa" are handled convincingly, although Dreiser perhaps overemphasizes his point that if the strict old German father had not relented after locking his rebellious teen-age daughter out of the house one evening when she does not come in as soon as he calls, she would have been compromised by the young tough she has been meeting on the street and would have suffered the fate of other young girls for whom such a situation had been the first step in becoming a prostitute. "Nigger Jeff," based on a lynching which occurred during Dreiser's early newspaper days in St. Louis, has less impact than later lynching stories by Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner but achieves considerable force by focusing on the reactions of a somewhat naïve young reporter whose belief that justice prevails is destroyed by the event.
Free and Other Stories (1918) contains these early stories and seven others. Two or three of the latter are little more than journalistic pieces. Dreiser employed the manner of O. Henry in "A Story of Stories," an entertaining account of the rivalry between two newspaper reporters. Very different is the poetic tone and poignant situation of "The Lost Phoebe," in which an old man suffers from a hallucination that his dead wife is still alive. Also moving without being sentimentalized is the plight, in "The Second Choice," of the working girl who is thrown over by the man she loves. There is likewise little hope for happiness for the young husband in "Married," a story which appears to reflect Dreiser's own unhappy first marriage. A musician married to a farm girl, whose background prevents her from sharing his aesthetic interests, the husband increasingly feels their incompatibility, but because of her devotion and her obvious fear that she will lose his love, he cannot bring himself to leave her. In "Free," also, a sense of duty has long tied a much older man to a woman whose attitudes and values he could never agree with, even though he deferred to them. Should he not, he reflects, have ignored convention and left her? Yet his wife had tried to do her best according to her lights, and he reproaches himself for hoping that she will die now that she is seriously ill. She does die, and he is free, but, ironically, free only to die also. "Now the innate cruelty of life, its blazing ironic indifference to him and so many grew rapidly upon him."
The retrospective method of narration in "Free" has certain drawbacks. When a character is made to review past actions in his mind, the story is likely to seem tedious and lacking in dramatic quality, and if the actions are a cause for regret there is a danger that the character will be made to seem too sorry for himself. Yet Dreiser manages to a considerable extent to make a virtue of the method. The very weight of the slow-paced, sometimes repetitious, relentless accumulation of details bearing on the situation of Rufus Haymaker gives power to his story.
Dreiser was so preoccupied with the theme of unhappiness in marriage that he also treated it in seven of the fifteen stories collected in Chains, Lesser Novels and Stones (1927). Like "Free," three of them—"Chains," "The Old Neighborhood," and "Fulfilment"—are retrospective in their telling, repeat its tone of irony and futility, and emphasize that life traps and deludes us. More like some of Sherwood Anderson's stories are "Convention" and "Marriage—For One." In the first story, of which Dreiser said, "I set it down as something in the nature of an American social document," a man is unfaithful to his dull, drab wife. When the wife sends herself a box of poisoned candy, attempting to make it appear that it came from the other woman, the affair is exposed and brought out in the newspapers. What concerns the narrator is the effect this incident has on the husband, who is so bound by convention that he can easily abandon the mistress whom he had loved to go back to his wife. He is a psychological mystery to the narrator, who is left feeling "cold and sad." In the second story the narrator is profoundly moved by "the despair, the passion, the rage, the hopelessness, the love," of a man whose wife has left him. The other stories in Chains either are journalistic pieces written to entertain or treat themes which Dreiser had developed to better advantage in his novels. "The Victor" is a miniature companion piece to The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914), Dreiser's two lengthy novels of unscrupulous financial dealings, being the history of a shrewd and ruthless financier who becomes a multimillionaire oil king. "Typhoon" and "Sanctuary," stories of girls betrayed by faithless lovers, are reminiscent in some respects of Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy.
Twelve Men (1919) and A Gallery of Women (1929) are other collections of Dreiser's shorter pieces, but they are not properly short stories. The former is made up of sketches of actual persons who were Dreiser's friends and acquaintances, while the latter contains descriptive portraits—partly factual, partly fictional—of the personalities of various kinds of women. Dreiser once said, in explaining why he did not write more short stories, "I need a large canvas." His novels and stories seem to confirm that this statement was usually true, though certainly not in every instance. The comment of one critic that Dreiser was never at home in the short story does not give us a fair picture of his shorter work. It has obvious limitations—an almost relentless and sometimes tiresome imposing of his deterministic philosophy on the reader, a lack of psychological penetration into his characters, and stylistic lapses—yet Dreiser succeeds nevertheless in leaving an impression on us, and few other short-story writers have written more powerfully and movingly on the theme of entrapment.
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SOURCE: "Dreiser's Ant Tragedy: The Revision of The Shining Slave Makers'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 41-8.
[In the following essay, Graham compares two versions of "The Shining Slave Makers" and notes how Dreiser stressed the struggle for life and "humanistic" values in the latter version.]
In 1900 Theodore Dreiser wrote a long letter to Robert Underwood Johnson, the associate editor of the Century, protesting his decision not to publish Dreiser's "ant tragedy," a short story titled "The Shining Slave Makers" [Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959]. The letter championed imagination and emotional power over rigid adherence to scientific fact. Far from overturning Johnson's decision, Dreiser was obliged, upon receiving a second letter from Johnson, to apologize for his charge that no literary editor had read the story [Letters]. Sometime later, Ainslee's Magazine accepted the work and published it in June, 1901.
The "allegory" that Johnson disliked and refused to publish begins with a frame opening in which a man named Robert McEwen, sitting beneath a tree on a hot summer day, discovers an ant on his trousers, looks for others, and kills one on the walk. Fixing his attention then on an ant moving erratically to and fro, McEwen feels himself suddenly amidst a new world where, as he gradually realizes, he is an ant himself. A series of encounters with other ants ensues. One ant alludes to the coming war with the Sanguineae and predicts a famine. A second, Ermi, refuses to share some bread with the now ravenously hungry McEwen. A third, also hunting for food, angrily refuses to offer McEwen aid. Then McEwen comes upon the third ant again, who, dying from a wound inflicted by a falling boulder, offers his bread to him. After eating and resting, McEwen watches as four enemy warriors attack Ermi. He rushes into the fray on Ermi's behalf, and together they defeat the enemy. The comrades-in-arms return to Ermi's home where McEwen observes the ants' daily life and is caught up in their plans for war. He participates in a raid on a weaker tribe, the Fuscae, and exults in the fighting. In the next fight, an all-out battle with the Sanguineae, McEwen does not fare well however. Wounded to the point of death, he closes his eyes to die, only to awaken, in the frame conclusion, back in the place where the revery began and restored to his former human status.
When Dreiser put together his first collection of short fiction, Free and Other Stories (1918), he included the 1901 story under the title "McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers." He made other changes as well. The Free text contains approximately 169 instances of revision, including changes in punctuation, diction, syntax, and the addition of passages, some of which are over 150 words in length. Although many of these revisions are primarily stylistic modifications with little substantive effect, the added passages are of a different order and have important consequences for the conceptual movement of the story. The new material, which contains Dreiser's discursive commentaries and amplifications and which perforce affects both characterization and theme, makes comparison of the two versions a necessary act of criticism.
Comparison also helps resolve an interpretational conflict regarding the meaning of "The Shining Slave Makers." The question of whether the story presents a positive or negative vision of experience has led critics to opposite conclusions. According to Robert Elias, for example, "The Shining Slave Makers" expresses Dreiser's social Darwinism: "an allegory of life, in which the struggle to survive is carried on blindly, uncritically, and in which strength rather than notions of good and evil determines one's fate" [Theodore Dreiser, Apostle of Nature, 1970]. Ellen Moers, however, reads the story quite differently: "'The Shining Slave Makers' is a celebration of the capacity for feeling in humble creatures—their sensitivity being perhaps more highly developed than that of the man who coldly observes and carelessly destroys them [Two Dreisers, 1969]. Elias' view, as Moers demonstrates and as he confirmed to her, is but half of a satisfactory interpretation. From the Ainslee text one can array a quantity of evidence supporting a social-Darwinist reading and at least an equal quantity supporting an anti-social-Darwinist reading—that is, in the first view the ants are warriors; in the second, they are brothers. Moers' interpretation is a necessary corrective of Elias', but it seems clear that what she says of "The Shining Slave Makers" exaggerates the story's commitment to the positive values discovered among the ants. In fact, when she seeks to prove that McEwen "awakens at the end . . . to marvel at the oneness of life," she quotes from the Free text which, as she points out in a note, "underline[s] the mood of melancholy wonder with which Dreiser always surveyed parallels between man and the simplest organisms." Precisely, except that Dreiser in 1918 was more inclined to write of melancholy wonder than he was in 1899. Conflating the two texts blurs their essential differences in meaning: in the second Dreiser kept and even intensified the degree of struggle necessary for survival (Elias) and clarified, emphasized, and made unmistakable the degree of "humanistic" values observable among the ants (Moers). The added material clearly reveals this pattern emerging.
The first addition to the Ainslee text occurs in the seventh paragraph. Up to this point in both versions we know that Robert McEwen, lolling on a summer day, has observed some ants; has casually killed one; and has suddenly found himself in an "unknown world, strange in every detail." The paragraph in the Ainslee text concludes with "Only the hot sun streaming down and a sky of faultness blue betokened a familiar world," whereupon the story moves directly to McEwen's next act: "Then McEwen set out and presently came to a broad plain, so wide that his eye could scarce command more than what seemed an immediate portion of it." But the Free text contains new commentary between the "familiar world" and the movement to the plain. Dreiser has added:
In regard to himself McEwen felt peculiar and yet familiar. What was it that made these surroundings and himself seem odd and yet usual? He could not tell. His three pairs of limbs and his vigorous mandibles seemed natural enough. The fact that he sensed rather than saw things was natural and yet odd. Forthwith moved by a sense of duty, necessity, and a kind of tribal obligation which he more felt than understood, he set out in search of food and prey and presently came to a broad plain, so wide that his eye could scarce command more than what seemed an immediate portion of it.
This passage seems almost to be a response to the Century reader of eighteen years before who had complained about the handling of the transformation from man to ant, arguing that Dreiser should have made the ant female and dropped the human name McEwen. Dreiser replied by wondering about the archetypal audience in Indiana: "What, pray, does the Elkhart, Indiana, reader care whether McEwen was a male or a female so long as he fulfilled the dramatic requirements of the situation and held his interest?" [Letters]. In the revision Dreiser underscores the odd and unusual metamorphosis while at the same time he tries to ground the miraculous change in something more concrete than the fanciful prerogatives of allegory. He tries, in fact, to give McEwen a more credible psychology.
The key phrase in the new passage is tribal obligation, a concept which becomes the focus of the altered psychological presentation of the man-ant. The concept works perfectly in expressing necessity in a positive way. Under the pull of tribal obligation McEwen learns to act for the benefit of others. Several lengthy additions develop this growing understanding of McEwen's ant-hood in relation to tribal identity. In one new passage, for instance, McEwen, hearing a dying ant pronounce the word tribe, remembers a past in which he himself was a member of a "colony or tribe" governed by "the powerful and revered ant mother" (Free). This knowledge leads him to gather food for other ants and to merge his individualism with the common good. On another occasion the death of a fellow ant produces in McEwen an atavistic memory of having seen "so many die that way" (Free). His tribal identity receives climactic force in his effort to save the life of his friend Ermi. The Ainslee text conveys the action swiftly and without attributing motive: "McEwen gazed, excited and sympathetic. In a moment he sprang forward and rushing upon the group, landed upon the back of 0g, at whose neck he began to saw." The Free text, however, contains an intervening explanation which stresses motive: ". . . but a moment later [he] decided to come to his friend's rescue, a feeling of tribal relationship which was overwhelming coming over him."
Part of McEwen's new psychology is a more intensified capacity for violence and war. Tribal loyalty means not only peaceful support but martial defense as well. In the last and fiercest battle of the story, the one which results in McEwen's "death," he is shown in the revised version to share the group excitement in a way that he does not in the original. The Ainslee text reads:
Ever and anon new lines formed, and strange hosts of friends or enemies came up, but McEwen thought nothing of it. He was alone now—lost in a tossing sea of war, and terror forsook him. But he was very calm.
And the Free text:
Ever and anon new lines were formed, and strange hosts of friends or enemies came up, falling upon the combatants of both sides with murderous enthusiasm. McEwen, in a strange daze and lust of death, seemed to think nothing of it. He was alone now—lost in a tossing sea of war, and terror seemed to have forsaken him. It was wonderful, he thought, mysterious—.
Here one sees a participatory interaction between McEwen and the warring ants and an important individual perception by McEwen alone: "It was wonderful, he thought, mysterious."
This sense of wonder and mystery emphasizes a motif that is one of the most characteristic touches of Dreiser in 1918. He added such speculative notes to several stories in the Free volume. The vague suggestiveness of impenetrable philosophical meaning evident in such lines as the final one of the quotation above, becomes the dominant mood of the story's close. The frame at the end, which returns McEwen to his human state, combines philosophical bewilderment with the now familiar psychological fluidity of McEwen's mental processes. The Ainslee frame begins with a brief paragraph restoring McEwen to the human city:
McEwen opened his eyes. He was looking out upon jingling carriages and loitering passersby. He shut his eyes again, wishing to regain a lost scene. A longing filled his heart.
The Free text expands this paragraph into three:
McEwen opened his eyes. Strangely enough he was looking out upon jingling carriages and loitering passersby in the great city park. It was all so strange, by comparison with that which he had so recently seen, the tall buildings in the distance, instead of the sword trees, the trees, the flowers. He jumped to his feet in astonishment, then sank back again in equal amaze, a passerby eyeing him curiously the while.
"I have been asleep," he said in a troubled way. "I have been dreaming. And what a dream!"
He shut his eyes again, wishing, for some strange reason—charm, sympathy, strangeness—to regain the lost scene. An odd longing filled his heart, a sense of comradeship lost, of some friends he knew missing. When he opened his eyes again he seemed to realize something more of what had been happening, but it was fading, fading.
Three kinds of detail have been added. One simply amplifies the contrast between the urban setting and the miniature jungle of grass where McEwen formerly was. A second kind stresses psychological verisimilitude by revealing McEwen's confusion and rational attempt to explain his previous dreaming state. The third amplification contains another familiar motif, the value that McEwen discovered among the ants—comradeship and friendship.
The second and closing paragraph of the frame incorporates another lengthy addition which illustrates in both method and content Dreiser's process of revision. The Ainslee text reads:
At his feet lay the plain and the ants. He gazed upon it, searching for the details of an under-world. Only a few feet away in the parched grass, lay an arid spot, overrun with insects. He approached it, and stooping, saw thousands and thousands engaged in a terrific battle. Looking close, he could see where lines were drawn, how in places, the forces raged in confusion, and the field was cluttered with dead. A mad enthusiasm lay hold of him, and he looked for the advantage of the Shining Slave Makers, but finding it not he stood gazing. Then came reason, and with it sorrow—a vague, sad something out of far-off things.
The Free version reads:
At his feet lay the plain and the ants with whom he had recently been—or so he thought. Yes, there, only a few feet away in the parched grass, was an arid spot, overrun with insects. He gazed upon it, in amazement, searching for the details of a lost world. Now, as he saw, coming closer, a giant battle was in progress, such a one, for instance, as that in which he had been engaged in his dream. The ground was strewn with dead ants. Thousands upon thousands were sawing and striking at each other quite in the manner in which he had dreamed. What was this?—a relevation of the spirit and significance of a lesser life or of his own—or what? And what was life if the strange passions, moods and necessities which conditioned him here could condition those there on so minute a plane?
"Why, I was there," he said dazedly and a little dreamfully, "a little while ago. I died there—or as well died there—in my dream. At least I woke out of it into this or sank from that into this."
Stooping closer he could see where lines were drawn, how in places the forces raged in confusion, and the field was cluttered with the dead. At one moment an odd mad enthusiasm such as he had experienced in his dream-world lay hold of him, and he looked for the advantage of the Shining Slave Makers—the blacks—as he thought of the two warring hosts as against the reds. But finding it not, the mood passed, and he stood gazing, lost in wonder. What a strange world! he thought. What worlds within worlds, all apparently full of necessity, contention, binding emotions, and unities—and all with sorrow, their sorrow—a vague, sad something out of far-off things which had been there, and was here in this strong bright city day, had been there and would be here until this odd, strange thing called life had ended.
The revised version is a microcosm of Dreiser's techniques and themes. We observe him making inner-sentence modifications and adding new passages. In the first paragraph he changes the unfortunate "under-world" of Ainslee's to "lost world," which better conveys the emotion and avoids the connotation of hell or inferiority. Familiar detail about the number of warriors and ferocity of battle recalls McEwen's war experience among the ants. Further, McEwen is moved to philosophical speculation by what he sees. Typically, the speculation is ambiguously unresolved. A series of questions poses the essential problems of (1) which, if either, existence has significance and (2) what life is if ants and men are equally under the sign of passional necessity and conditioning.
The second paragraph also recapitulates the revised characterization of McEwen, as we see him confounded once more as to whether he dreamed the ant life and death or not. His final observation balances the ambiguity nicely: "At least I woke out of it into this or sank from that into this." We can say for certain that McEwen of the Free version takes a great deal longer to wake up than he does in the Ainslee text and that the dream will remain with him appreciably longer. In the first version McEwen has had a dream; in the second, his dream, its import, and the very process of dreaming become symbolic of ail existence.
The third paragraph substantiates the "mad enthusiasm" of the Ainslee text by inferentially connecting the present slaughter with the carnage McEwen has witnessed in his ant-life. After exhibiting McEwen's inability to determine whether his tribe is winning, the revised paragraph extends his reaction far beyond the quick return of "reason" and the "vague, sad something" of the Ainslee text. McEwen is "lost in wonder," one of the prototypical stances of the Dreiserian hero. What is true of the ants on their darkling plain, McEwen is convinced, is true of his human sphere. When Dreiser modifies the "vague, sad something out of far-off things" of the Ainslee text with this crucial clause—"which had been there and was here in this strong bright city day, had been there and would be here until this odd, strange thing called life had ended"—he is insisting upon a continum between ants and human beings. The Ainslee text, in toto, is a dream allegory that leaves its hero finally quite distant from the content of the dream; the Free text is a study in psychological verisimilitude and evolutionary correspondences that involves the hero more deeply and more permanently in the content of the dream. Thus the change in title reflects what textual comparison shows: the focus shifts from the ants to McEwen of the ants.
Along with "Nigger Jeff" and "The Cruise of the 'Idlewild'" Dreiser's ant tragedy is one of those stories in Free that repays close attention. To understand Dreiser's social thought, his fictional use of science, and his sense of craft, it is imperative to study the process of revision. What his story said at the turn of the century may not in fact be what it is saying in 1918; and, as we have seen, its manner may not be the same either.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7237
SOURCE: "The Making of Dreiser's Early Short Stories: The Philosopher and the Artist," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 47-63.
[In the following essay, Hakutani traces the common belief that Dreiser's thought was inconsistent—romantic, realist, mystic simultaneously—to the early short stories.]
In the summer of 1899, shortly before the writing of Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser tried his hand at the short story, his first concentrated effort to write fiction. Whatever technical devices he might have conceived, or whatever technical difficulties he might have encountered in producing his first short stories, the disposition of mind which lay behind and shaped these stories must have grown out of the disposition of the previous years. In fact, as a newspaperman in the early nineties, Dreiser felt severely restricted. He often detested the city editor's control over his selection of news material and his interpretation of it before the draft of an article was sent to press.
There is a great deal of information in A Book About Myself concerning the restrictions imposed by the press. But an article Dreiser wrote as late as 1938 still poses a question of the difference between literature and journalism. In this article Dreiser recalls a routine assignment while he was a young reporter in St. Louis. He was to interview an old millionaire about the city's new terminal project, and naturally he expected to meet a forceful experienced businessman. Unexpectedly, however, Dreiser met a pathetically aged and feeble man who thought of his success and power as useless. During the interview the old man could only say to Dreiser: "My interest in all these things is now so slight that it is scarcely worthwhile—a spectacle for God and men. . . ." Upon his return to the city desk, Dreiser asked the editor whether he should write about the old man's age. "No, no, no!" the editor almost shouted. "Write only his answers. Never mind how old he is. That's just what I don't want. Do you want to queer this? Stick to the terminal dope and what he thought. We're not interested in his age." "No doubt," Dreiser reflects, "the vast majority of the people thought of him even then as young, active, his old self. But all this while this other picture was holding in my mind, and continued so to do for years after. I could scarcely think of the city even without thinking of him, his house, his dog, his age, his bony fingers, his fame." Dreiser then concludes:
Those particular matters about which the city editor had asked to know concerned, as I now saw, only such things as were temporary and purely constructive in their interest, nothing beyond the day—the hour—in which they appeared.
Literature as I now saw, and art in all its forms, was this other realm, that of the painter, the artist, the one who saw and reported the non-transitory, and yet transitory too, nature of all our interests and dreams, which observed life as a whole and drew it without a flaw, a fact, missing. There, if anywhere, were to be reported or painted such conditions and scenes as this about which I had mediated and which could find no place in the rush and hurry of our daily press.
Then it was, and not until then, that the real difference between journalism and literature became plain.
["Lessons I Learned from an Old Man," Your Life, Vol. 2, January, 1938]
Compared with such an experience, his editorial and freelance work (1895-1900) was less inhibited in the expression of ideas. It is true that as editor and "arranger" of Ev'ry Month (1895-97) Dreiser was not always in command of its material; he complained of the limitation imposed by the publisher and of the necessity to cater to the predilection of readers. In his free-lance articles his freedom in selecting topics, of course, became much greater. There is no doubt that by the time he became involved in magazine work, particularly his free-lance writing, the kind of restriction he suffered in his newspaper experience had become less severe.
During this period Dreiser managed to express himself on the concepts that had been latent in his mind for a long time. It is clear that when he first read Herbert Spencer's work, he absorbed the technical theories of Spencerian determinism as he confessed in Ev'ry Month. Seeing the proof of determinism in his own experience, he ignored Spencer's inherent theory of unending progress and chose to believe that man was a victim of natural forces. Dreiser's conclusion then was that "man was a mechanism, undevised and unrelated, and a badly and carelessly driven one at that." More significantly, he declared with an implication of pessimism,
I felt as low and hopeless at times as a beggar of the streets. There was of course this other matter of necessity, internal chemical compulsion, to which 1 had to respond whether I would or no. I was daily facing a round of duties which now more than ever verified all that I had suspected and that these books proved. With a gloomy eye I began to watch how the chemical—and their children, the mechanical—forces operated through man and outside him, and this under my very eyes.
[A Book About Myself, 1922]
Whatever else he might have been in these years, Dreiser was a thoroughgoing determinist. He observed behavior in terms of natural laws: the complexities of individual life were to be explained by physical and chemical reactions.
Despite the pessimistic conclusion at which he arrived in his interpretation of deterministic theory, it is still possible to find optimism in his belief that there is an inward, driving force, which is pushing mankind upward and onward. It is important here to point to three related quotations from Ev'ry Month. First, as Dreiser wrote with a sign of optimism, Spencer showed "how life has gradually become more and more complicated, more and more beautiful, and how architecture, sculpture, painting and music have gradualy [sic] developed, along with a thousand other features of our life of to-day." Secondly, he expressed his latent hope: "We will be concerned with making things good, and with living so that things shall be better . . . there will be naught but hope, unfaltering trust and peace" [Vol. 3, No. 2, Nov. 1, 1896]. Finally, he quoted a Western journal as saying: "The world is not going downward to ruin, as the writer would have us believe. Everything in this splendid country has an upward trend, despite the wail of the cynics" [Vol. 3, No. 4, Jan. 1, 1897].
Such an apparent discrepancy in Dreiser's thoughts that can be seen in the period preceding the writing of his early fiction may account for a disharmony in his mind reflected in his novels. His critics, of course, have noticed this disharmony in discussing his fiction. R. L. Duffus, an early critic of Dreiser, felt that his mind was not all of a piece, and regarded him as romantic, realistic, and mystic all at once. As many critics have already pointed out, his reasoning was not reliable. He leaped to conclusions, generalized too easily, failed to examine narrowly enough. James T. Farrell remarked:
He accepted as science generalizations based on the ideas of nineteenth-century materialism. From these he adduced a deterministic idea, and this, in turn, was represented as biologic determinism. In The Financier and The Titan this biologic determinism is usually explained by the word "chemisms." Paradoxically enough, Dreiser's appeal to "chemisms" is made quite frequently in specific contexts concerning motivations of characters, where we can now see that the real rationale of these motivations can be most satisfactorily explained by Freudianism. Often his "chemisms" are overall generalizations of impulses of which the character is not aware. In this respect Dreiser asserted a biologic determinism, which, in terms of our present state of knowledge about man, is crude.
["James T. Farrell Revalues Dreiser's Sister Carrie" The New York Times Book Review, July 4, 1943]
This observation, perhaps, not only holds true of The Financier and The Titan but also is significant in revealing the loose formulae that Dreiser understood as laws. It must be added in this connection that Dreiser himself admitted to the existence of discrepancies in his fiction. In reply to the question as to what motives were important in writing his fiction, he said, "From time to time I have had all the motives you list and many variations of the same. In connection with a work of any length, such as a novel, I don't see how a person could have a single motivation; at least I never had."
In the making of his first stories, therefore, Dreiser might have had discrepant, or even contradictory, thoughts. Significantly enough, "The Shining Slave Makers," Dreiser's first fictional effort, submitted to the Century Magazine late in 1899 and subsequently rejected by its editor, is an allegory embodying a deterministic world view. What Dreiser tells by way of this allegory is reiterated in another short story, "Free," with which "The Shining Slave Makers" and the other early stories were later collected in a volume. Speaking for the plight of Rufus Haymaker, the protagonist of "Free," Dreiser makes this statement:
One of the disturbing things about all this was the iron truth which it had driven home, namely, that Nature, unless it were expressed or represented by some fierce determination within, which drove one to do, be, cared no whit for him or any other man or woman. Unless one acted for oneself, upon some stern conclusion nurtured within, one might rot and die spiritually. Nature did not care. . . . All along he had seen what was happening to him; and yet held by convention he had refused to act always, because somehow he was not hard enough to act. He was not strong enough, that was the real truth—had not been.
In the second short story, "Butcher Rogaum's Door," Dreiser dramatizes a conflict between parent and child in much the same way as Stephen Crane deals with it in Maggie. Unlike the first two stories, the other stories in this group seem to mirror a considerable optimism and hope for man's condition. In "Nigger Jeff" the protagonist recognizes how a helpless man, a victim of natural forces within him and a prisoner of hostile forces in society, encounters his tragedy, his death. But this story by no means paints a hopeless predicament for man; man is also destined to ameliorate. "Nigger Jeff" ends with the hero's proclamation of his new ambition and hope not only for himself as an artist but for all men. And somewhat blatantly, in "When the Old Century Was New," the fourth story, there is more social optimism than Darwinism, so that Dreiser looks upon life as an easy struggle for Utopia rather than as a bitter struggle for survival.
It is also important to recognize that Arthur Henry, who later urged Dreiser to work on Sister Carrie, influenced him to write these stories. What philosophical influences Henry exercised on Dreiser during their friendship, especially before Dreiser wrote the early stories, are hard to define clearly. His letters show that Henry warned Dreiser against the dangers inherent in the contemplative disposition that Dreiser as editor revealed in the "Reflections" of Ev'ry Month. At that time Henry contributed essays entitled "The Philosophy of Hope" and "The Good Laugh" to Dreiser's magazine. Criticizing his despairing mood with a suggestion of optimism, Henry argued that Dreiser should turn to creative writing rather than pursue further his editorial work. So Henry, in the summer of 1897, invited him to visit the house at Maumee, Ohio, which Henry and his wife had bought, and suggested that they work together on various projects.
Because of further involvement in his work on Ev'ry Month and of his later venture into free-lance writing, Dreiser's visit to Maumee was postponed until the summer of 1899.
In the meantime, Dreiser and Jug (Sara Osborne White) were married in December 1898 in Washington. It was Henry again who, calling upon the newly wedded couple in their New York apartment, insisted that he write fiction. However, as late as 1898 Dreiser was not at all enthusiastic about becoming a novelist. As he told Mencken later, he had a desire to write drama in these years. But Henry, seeing short stories in him, finally forced him to work on a story:
I wrote one finally, sitting in the same room with him in a house on the Maumee River, at Maumee, Ohio, outside Toledo. This was in the summer of 1898 . And after every paragraph I blushed for my folly—it seemed so asinine!.] He insisted on my going on—that it was good—and I thought he was kidding me, that it was rotten, but that he wanted to let me down easy. Finally HE took [it], had it typewritten and sent it. . . . Thus I began[.]
The theme of "The Shining Slave Makers," as might be expected from Dreiser's current preoccupation with the deterministic philosophy, is the survival of the fittest. The setting of the story soon moves from the human world to the world of ants. As Dreiser describes the environment and the action of the inhabitant, the ants' world is bizarre and fantastic yet turns out to be the same world with which he was familiar. It is characterized by self-interest, greed, and the struggle for power.
"It was a hot day in August," Dreiser begins his tale. "The parching rays of a summer sun had faded the once sappy, green leaves of the trees to a dull and dusty hue." The observer of this spectacle is a man named Robert McEwen, a sensitive and sympathetic student of life much like Dreiser himself. McEwen, taking leave of the drudgery of the busy city life, comes out to take a seat under a soothing old beech tree. And for a while he sinks into his usual contemplative mood. Suddenly his meditation is interrupted by an ant crawling on his trousers. Shaking it off and then stamping on another running along the walk in front of him, McEwen now finds a swarm of other black ants hurrying about. At last, when one more active than the others catches his eye, McEwen follows its zigzag course while it stops here and there, examining something and considering the object's interest value. Suddenly, with a drowsy spell, McEwen discovers himself in an imaginary world in which, during a famine, the black ants are at war with the red ants.
Some critics have noticed a similarity between the setting of this tale and one of the interpolations Balzac makes towards the end of The Wild Ass's Skin. Balzac's passage reads:
Who has not, at some time or other in his life, watched the comings and goings of an ant, slipped straws into a yellow slug's one breathing-hole, studied the vagaries of a slender dragonfly, pondered admiringly over the countless veins in an oak-leaf? . . . Who has not looked long in delight at the effects of sun and rain on a roof of brown tiles, at the dewdrops, or at the variously shaped petals of the flowercups? Who has not sunk into these idle, absorbing meditations . . . ?
In Balzac's story, however, its character, Valentin, is weary of his life and yet feels desperate at the thought of his approaching death. In order to divert his thoughts, Valentin tries to observe nature, thereby consoling himself with the equation of man and natural beings. "The leading idea of this human comedy," Balzac writes, "came to me first as a dream. . . . The idea came from the study of human life in comparison with the life of animals." Balzac's vision, in his writing of The Wild Ass's Skin, is that of a human biologist. In writing "The Shining Slave Makers" Dreiser is not viewing man's life in terms of animal life. Rather, as in Thoreau's ant war in Waiden, Dreiser is looking at ants in terms of man.
In its outline the first feature story he wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. "The Fly," had the same intention as "The Shining Slave Makers," though less developed in its treatment than the short story in question. In "The Shining Slave Makers," the first ant that encounters McEwen in the dream interrogates him in a friendly manner but in a selfish tone: "'Anything to eat hereabout?' . . . McEwen drew back.'I do not know,' he said, 'I have just—' 'Awful,' said the stranger, not waiting to hear his answer. 'It looks like famine. You know the Sanguineae have gone to war.' 'No,' answered McEwen, mechanically." McEwen, upon seeing another ant carrying a crumb as large as the ant's body, asks the ant where it has found the crumb. "'Here,' said Ermi. 'Will you give me a little?' 'I will not,' said the other, and a light came in his eye that was almost evil."
With vivid dramatic force this situation projects a jungle-like world. More interestingly, McEwen, who is now a member of the same tribe, the black ants, cannot secure help from the ants of his own family. Needless to point out, the persistent, reciprocal warfare among members of the family is more evocative of life in the animal kingdom than it is of the world of civilized man. Ironically, Dreiser intended to project an image of the survival of the fittest, not in the world of men but in the world of ants.
Dreiser's major motif here is man's selfishness as it is illustrated by the ants' behavior toward their fellow beings at the time of a strife:
"All right," said McEwen, made bold by hunger and yet cautious by danger, "which way would you advise me to look?"
"Why, any way," said Ermi, and strode off.
He eagerly hailed the newcomer, who was yet a long way off.
"What is it?" asked the other, coming up rapidly.
"Do you know where I can get something to eat?"
"Is that why you called me?" he answered, eyeing him angrily.
"Certainly not. If I had anything for myself, I would not be out here. Go and hunt for it like the rest of us."
"I have been hunting," cried McEwen, his anger rising. "I have searched here until I am almost starved."
"No worse off than I or any of us, are you?" said the other. "Look at me. Do you suppose I am feasting?"
This is, to be sure, an allegory of life, but more importantly it is an allegory of Dreiser's own struggle in the past. In the newspaper experience of the early nineties, Dreiser viewed "life as a fierce, grim struggle in which no quarter was either given or taken, and in which all men laid traps, lied, squandered, erred through illusion" (Book). One ant's angry reply to McEwen, the newcomer, "Is that why you called me? . . . Go and hunt for it like the rest of us" is reminiscent of the very scene of the survival of the fittest that Dreiser witnessed in the office of Pulitzer's World when he managed to be on the staff of the paper in the cold winter months of 1894-95. In that newspaper office, as Dreiser later remembered, the men working under Pulitzer appeared to him like tortured animals. They were concerned only with themselves, and whenever Dreiser as fellow reporter asked them a question or favor, he would be stared at by them as if he were an idiot or a thief. This motif in "The Shining Slave Makers" is not contrived to fit the doctrine of survival but is based on an actual experience.
Later in the story, when another ant is facing death, the compassionate McEwen attempts to offer him aid, but the ant, now overwhelmed by his own despair and resignation, declines. McEwen now realizes how helpless a creature can be under these circumstances. He cannot but simply look silently on the ant. "The sufferer," Dreiser remarks, "closed his eyes in evident pain, and trembled convulsively. Then he fell back and died. McEwen gazed upon the bleeding body, now fast stiffening in death, and wondered." Dreiser's inference on the scene is clear cut: man, just like an insect, is powerless against those incidental forces that always surround him. This scene also resembles the aftermath of a train accident Dreiser reported a few years earlier in St. Louis. He then asked, viewing the dead bodies which were twisted and burned beyond recognition, "Who were they? The nothingness of man! They looked so commonplace, so unimportant, so like dead flies or beetles" (Book).
When a war breaks out between the black slave makers and the red Sanguineae (in Theoreau's ant war, between the black imperialists and the red republicans), McEwen, of course, sides with the black ants, but finally meets his own death. Dreiser seems to be telling himself: join the crowd, fight for the crowd, die for the crowd. The struggle for survival continues without purpose or a goal in sight. Only the fittest will survive; death alone is safe. After McEwen finally returns to reality, he is now possessed by a "mad enthusiasm." He tries to figure out the advantage of having met his recent comrades, the Shining Slave Makers, but, Dreiser writes, "finding it not he stood gazing. Then came reason, and with it sorrow—a vague, sad something out of far-off things."
By projecting a serious and significant human dilemma onto minute sub-human life, Dreiser achieves detachment. But, in the allegory, though detached from the violent scene in which the struggle for survival is carried on, he can look at McEwen somewhat in the same way that McEwen looks at these ants in the insect kingdom. In this way he does not reduce his life experience to a mere objective show but dramatizes it from a clumsy but instinctively derived point of view. By the solid material behind the theme and plot, the story became a powerful expression of his preoccupation at the time.
What Dreiser had to say in his first piece of fiction was exactly what brought about its rejection by the editor who first read the manuscript and returned it to the author with a letter protesting the "despicable philosophy." If this were the way the young author thought about man's life, the less he wrote about it the better. The editor thought that Dreiser was saying that men are cruel and deceptive just as nature is. The editor's reasoning was that Dreiser enjoyed these qualities of man—the brutal, the deceptive, the violent—and that Dreiser was, therefore, dangerous to human society. However, Dreiser, who was blazing in those years with a strong passion for society and fellow men, was still lined up against them.
Despite this slap from the timid and conventional editor-ambassador, Dreiser was soon to discover an ally. "The Shining Slave Makers" was accepted by Ainslee's Magazine for publication and Dreiser probably took this acceptance as an encouragement for the continuing adherence to his own philosophy. He then wrote "Butcher Rogaum's Door," "The World and the Bubble," "Nigger Jeff," and "When the Old Century Was New," and had all of them published. In "Butcher Rogaum's Door," Dreiser again justifies the value of Spencerian determinism. The events of the story happen with the mechanical consistency of the so-called "chemisms." The story is a study of an incident which Dreiser sees as inevitable, granted the incipient milieu in which the character is placed.
The plot first develops with the tension between an old father and his teen-age daughter, who has begun to be allured to the street lights and the boys loitering outdoors on summer evenings. As the title suggests, the door to Rogaum's apartment above his butcher shop on Bleecker Street, New York City, becomes significant. Old Rogaum tries to exhort against her going out after dark. But adolescent Theresa, awakening to a burgeoning sexual feeling, now wants "to walk up and down in the as yet bright street, where were voices and laughter, and occasionally moonlight streaming down"; thus she cannot help disregarding her father's discipline. The stubborn German father's last resort is threatening to lock her out, and indeed one night the determined old Rogaum does lock her out when she fails to return by nine from dallying with her young friend. At the door Theresa overhears her father talking savagely to Mrs. Rogaum, "Let her go, now. I vill her a lesson teach." Rattling the door again and getting no answer, she grows defiant. "Now, strangely," Dreiser observes, "a new element, not heretofore apparent in her nature, but, nevertheless wholly there, was called into life, springing in action as Diana, full formed. The cold chill left her and she wavered angrily." She walks back to George Almerting. The night deepens, no sound of Theresa, and Rogaum starts searching for her. Returning in fear and without success, he sees at the door a young woman writhing in unmitigated pain as a result of her having drunk acid in a suicide attempt. Rogaum at first mistakes the woman for his daughter Theresa. However clumsy the coincidence Dreiser devises to suggest Theresa's possible fate, this story in the simple truth of its setting and characters mirrors the world Dreiser had grown to accept. The suicide, like Theresa, was once locked out, but Theresa, unlike the suicide, is never to become a prostitute or suicide or both like Crane's Maggie. Theresa obviously was written about as though she were one of Dreiser's own sisters. He was portraying the life of the people he knew by heart and what they could have become.
Fortunately, Theresa comes back safely, unlike the girl who sees a tragic end. But this was exactly his own family, since the religious old father, strict with the wanton daughter, locked her out one night and then worried, so that when he regained her unharmed, he refrained from beating her as he had intended. In the story Dreiser, as elsewhere (Dawn, Jennie Gerhardt, The "Genius," An American Tragedy) treats the father with a sympathetic tone. A too Calvinistic German butcher, Rogaum emerges as a strangely appealing and rather pathetic figure. As in another of Dreiser's short stories, "Typhoon," the father is a German immigrant with a heavy accent and has a moderately prosperous small business. The children in the Dreiser family, and indeed those in the Gerhardts' and Griffiths' families, attempted to run away from their oppressive poverty-stricken household. The chief difference between the Rogaum family and the other families is that it is not poverty stricken. But here Dreiser's emphasis is upon the inability of parents to understand not only the social desires, in this case money, but the natural desires and inclinations of their children.
Mrs. Rogaum, "a particularly fat, old, German lady, completely dominated by her liege and portly lord," is warmhearted but is in no position to advise her daughter. Dreiser's image of the mother is a significant departure from that of a modern American mother. This is exactly the scene of the family he knew in his youth. Thus Dreiser delineates not so much the social conditioning of his individuals, as critics maintain, but the historical complexities that make understandable the uniqueness of each individual's experience.
The city life to which Theresa is attracted is also important historically. Dreiser is here interested in the American family of the 1890s, as in Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, which was changed and perverted by artificial lures. Theresa, like the children of the Dreiser family, is discontented with family ties and enchanted by the outside forces which sever her from the family. This is the same situation in which Dreiser describes Carrie's approaching the city in the summer of 1889 with the same "wonder and desire" he himself had felt in approaching Chicago two summers earlier. The role of the parent in the family structure was diminishing; the truth of this becomes obvious when the family of Dreiser's fiction is compared with that of the present day. And this change, while important in the values of the children, was devastating in its effects on the parents.
In "Butcher Rogaum's Door," concepts of individual morality are bound to the larger, overall concept of man in a society where the artificial restraints of social position are removed and where the chemical urges of the blood are observed and respected. If Theresa could become enthralled with the lures of the city and meet a fine young man with "a shrewd way of winking one eye" within the boundary of her household, she would not have gone out to the streets at night. Dreiser's point is that evil in man results not so much from an inherent tendency for evil in the individual as from the unreasonable and often unjust demands in society—in Theresa's case, the father, his customers, the police, and the townsmen in Bleecker Street. She is, first of all, the result of a home environment which has alienated her from life, so that when she faces its risks and might possibly be betrayed, it is the society that has provided such a milieu which is to blame. Likewise, whoever might exploit Theresa is not so much the result of a limitation of character as the result of society's failure to develop necessary virtues in the would-be exploiter. These are represented less as the natural virtue of the passively innocent than as the qualities of aggression, selfishness, deceptiveness, competition, which Dreiser perceives as the law of nature. In this sense "Butcher Rogaum's Door" is analogous to his first story, "The Shining Slave Makers."
In both stories the image of life Dreiser presents is necessarily colored by a rather pessimistic frame of mind in accord with the philosophy of the gloomy determinism that accounts for human conditions. This is, perhaps, most obviously shown at the end of "The Shining Slave Makers," where McEwen's vision of life as he is awakening from his recent dream is tinged with sorrow. This is also shown in the story of Rogaum and Theresa, but in this story the sense of sorrow is somewhat lightened by the hopeful tone Dreiser gives to the outcome of the incident. The story, of course, does not say that one should not lock out his daughter at night lest a dire fate befall her. Nor does it say that Theresa has learned a lesson so that she will not wander off at night again. For the author does not believe that man's life is only at the mercy of fate. Old Rogaum has learned that he must not be too harsh toward his daughter because he now recognizes the necessary demands of a young woman.
In the second story, then, Dreiser was to tell the reader that such a conflict between father and daughter can be adjusted. Man's unreasonable environment being ameliorated, man can learn. In "Nigger Jeff," the third story, Dreiser was yet to weave this sign of hope into patterns of action with architectonic skill. As a result, he achieved in the texture of the story a cumulative effect of no little significance. Because his two earlier stories derive from his own experiences (the characters in them are like himself, his family, and the people he knew, and the incidents are those he saw) his expression is spontaneous and markedly consonant with the feelings deeply rooted in his heart. Also in "Nigger Jeff" he was to express such congenial feelings as he remembered from an incident that occurred in his newspaper experience in St. Louis. The story develops around a report of an apparently nefarious rape; it is not simply an illustration of man's conduct observed in terms of the deterministic philosophy but rather the process of revelation a newspaper reporter goes through. One day he is sent out by the city editor to cover the lynching of a Negro rapist. The reporter, Eugene Davies, much like the young Dreiser in St. Louis, is portrayed as a naive youth. On that day, a bright spring afternoon, Davies "was feeling exceedingly well and good natured. The world seemed worth singing about." But, after learning the circumstances of the rape, the Negro's behavior, his family's grief, and above all the transcending beauty and serenity of nature in contrast with the human abjection and agonies, Davies realizes that his sympathies have shifted. This reporter, then, is not simply the obtuse observer, a mystery story character who watches the plot unfold. He is the perceiving center; he recognizes that the world is not neatly dichotomized as black and white. The action of the story takes place in the hero's reaction to the dreadful violence and in his understanding of American society and himself as artist.
One of the most salient technical devices displayed in this story is the contrast in the images of man and nature. Although in the beginning the reporter is convinced that Jeff is guilty, he grows increasingly less certain. Even before he reaches the site of the lynching, he takes note of "the whiteness of the little houses, the shimmering beauty of the little creek you had to cross in going from the depot. At the one main corner a few men [a part of the mob] were gathered about a typical village barroom." As the mob hurries on with the horror impending, the "night was exceedingly beautiful. Stars were already beginning to shine. . . . The air was fresh and tender. Some pea fowls were crying afar off and the east promised a golden moon." Again, a contrast of the light and the dark is maintained in a later scene:
. . . The gloomy company seemed a terrible thing. . . .
. . . He was breathing heavily and groaning. His eyes were fixed and staring, his face and hands bleeding as if they had been scratched or trampled on. He was bundled up like limp wheat.
. . . Still the company moved on and he followed, past fields lit white by the moon, under dark, silent groups of trees, through which the moonlight fell in patches, up hilltops and down into valleys, until at last the little stream came into view, sparkling like a molten flood of silver in the night.
As Davies watches the limp body plunging down and pulling up with the sound of a creaking rope, in the weak moonlight it seemed as if the body were struggling, but he could not tell. . . . Only the black mass swaying in the pale light, over the shiny water of the stream seemed wonderful.
. . . The light of morning began to show as tender lavender and gray in the east. Still he sat. Then came the roseate hue of day, to which the waters of the stream responded, the white pebbles shining beautifully at the bottom. Still the body hung black and limp, and now a light breeze sprang up and stirred it visibly.
On the one hand, the hero clearly recognizes the signs of evil indicated by "the struggling body," "the black mass," and "the body hanging black and limp." On the other, the images of the dark are intermingled in Davies' mind with those of the light that suggest hope: "the weak moonlight," "the pale light," "the shiny water of the stream," "the light of morning," "tender lavender and gray in the east," "the roseate hue of day," "the white pebbles shining beautifully at the bottom." As the story progresses toward the end, the images of good increasingly dominate those of evil, a pattern already revealed in this scene.
Later, visiting the room where the body is laid and seeing the rapist's sister sobbing over it, Davies becomes aware that all "the corners of the room were quite dark, and only in the middle were shining splotches of moonlight." For Davies, the climactic scene of his experience takes place when he dares to lift the sheet covering the body. He can now see exactly where the rope tightened in the neck. The delineation of the light against the dark is, once more, focused on the dead body as Dreiser describes it: "A bar of cool moonlight lay across the face and breast." Such deliberate contrasts between the light and the dark, hope and despair, suggest that man has failed to appreciate "transcending beauty" and "unity of nature," which are really illusions to him, and that he has only imitated the cruel and the indifferent which nature appears to symbolize.
At the end of the story, Davies is overwhelmed not only by the remorse he feels for the victim but also by his compassion for the bereft mother he finds in the dark corner of the room. "Davies," Dreiser writes, "began to understand. . . . Out in the moonlight, he struck a pace, but soon stopped and looked back. The whole dreary cabin, with its one golden door, where the light was, seemed a pitiful thing. He swelled with feeling and pathos as he looked. The night, the tragedy, the grief he saw it all." The emphasis of the story is not, therefore, upon the process of the young man's becoming an artist; it is upon the sense of urgency in which the protagonist is compelled to act as a reformer. With his final proclamation, "I'll get it all in," the hero's revelation culminates in a feeling of triumph. Although, to Dreiser, man appears necessarily limited by his environment and natural feeling, Dreiser asserts that man can learn.
"Nigger Jeff," in disclosing true social conditions, can be construed as a powerful expression of Dreiser's hope for the better in American society. And it is quite reasonable to suppose that all this time there was in Dreiser as much optimism in viewing life as a struggle for Utopia as there was pessimism. For among his earliest short stories the last, "When the Old Century Was New," though generally considered inferior, is clearly more a wistful Utopian picture than the others. He reconstructs one day in the spring of 1801 in New York City after the turn of the century. In such a world there is no misery, no struggle; the gulf dividing the rich from the poor is unimportant, and the friction between social classes is totally unknown. William Walton, a dreamer, taking a day off from his business engagement, strolls down the social center of New York. There he notices the celebrities of the city, even Thomas Jefferson and "the newly-elected President" Adams.
Walton is also Dreiser himself; Walton, too, like Dreiser with Jug in New York, is accompanied by his fiancée:
Elatedly they made their way to the old homestead again, and then being compelled to leave her, while she dressed for the theatre, he made his way toward the broad and tree-shaded Bowery, where was the true and idyllic walk for a lover. . . . Here young Walton, as so many others before him, strolled and hummed, thinking of all that life and the young city held for him. Here he planned to build that mansion of his own—far out, indeed, above Broome Street.
Unlike Walton, however, Dreiser cannot help noticing "the aristocracy, gentry and common rabble forming in separate groups." Although Walton at heart feels optimistic toward the new century, Dreiser at his side could not escape the prospect of misery and oppression. Dreiser observes with a touch of satire that Walton "had no inkling, as he pondered, of what a century might bring forth. The crush and stress and wretchedness fast treading upon this path of loveliness he could not see." F. O. Matthiessen can legitimately call "When the Old Century Was New" only a sketch "with nothing to distinguish it from other paper-thin period pieces." But it is worth noting that even in such a slight piece of fiction there is Dreiser's dramatization of the American success story with his world of changing cities, where new careers and new fortunes are made daily. Despite the gloom hovering under the deterministic theory of life at his disposal, there was in his mind during this period much joy and optimism that influenced his writing.
Robert E. Spiller, in the Literary History of the United States, maintains that Dreiser's short stories "in theme and treatment add little to an analysis of the novels and may be compared to a painter's sketches." But these prenovel short stories are, nonetheless, closely related to his early novels. In subject matter these stories are studies on the conditions of men and women in society, sometimes as individuals and at other times as groups. Man tends to be a victim of forces not only within him but about him. Dreiser, moreover, views men not only as social individuals but also, as in "Butcher Rogaum's Door," as historical individuals. Much can be learned from the pages of Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt about the nature and structure of American society and the American family in the years before the turn of the century. But, delineating the growth of cities, exhibiting the forceful lures of city life, and emphasizing the conflict between convention and individual demands, Dreiser shows one of the basic motifs of his early novels in such stories as "Butcher Rogaum's Door" and "When the Old Century Was New."
His early stories, like the ant tragedy developed in "The Shining Slave Makers" give him a congenial means of expression, primarily because they contain characters, whether in an allegory or a historical romance, like Dreiser himself, personages he knew or events he remembered from his experience. It is arguable that Dreiser's early short fiction would have been more significant had he not been influenced by many of the specific technical concepts of the Spencerian world. More important for the argument here is that, as an artist, Dreiser transcends these technicalities and writes fiction with living individuals, whose personalities express their historical milieu and do not reflect merely the abstract motivations of "chemisms." This is, perhaps, why Eliseo Vivas has observed: "Fortunately the sincere artist magnificently contradicted the self-taught materialist and found a purpose that, had he been consistent, he could not have found. . . . And if life's meaning is something sad or tragic, in Dreiser's own life, in his enormous capacity for pity, we find an example of a man who, through his work, gave the lie to his own theories." What prompted Dreiser to write fiction was his overwhelming desire to understand human beings. Unlike other literary naturalists, Dreiser attempted to discover an ideal order in man's life as he does in these stories. In this sense, he is more an idealist than a pessimist. And his understanding of humanity often goes beyond the deterministic philosophy he learned from Spencer.
This ambivalence in Dreiser's thoughts in the making of the early stories gave rise to his practice of applying the theory of determinism as well as designing his stories with a historical, and often personal, significance. This is why consistency in these stories is nearly impossible. Even though his characters tend to be controlled by circumstances, the focus of the stories is upon the individual and the moral consequences of his actions, as shown by Eugene Davies in "Nigger Jeff." Dreiserian characters are sometimes larger than the author's occasional philosophy, and then they are able to speak for themselves. Dreiser the philosopher only gets in their way; Dreiser the artist remains true to them. In the end the interest of the story lies not in his mind, but in his heart. Hence, his frequent tone of optimism, mingled, as it frequently is, with his pessimism, can be reasonably accounted for.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5489
SOURCE: "The Dream of Success in Dreiser's A Gallery of Women" in Zeitschrift Fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1979, pp. 236-46.
[In the following essay, Hakutani examines Dreiser's treatment of women characters in A Gallery of Women, paying particular attention to the character's dream of success.]
Although Theodore Dreiser is often regarded as a pioneer among modern American novelists for the characterization of woman, very little critical attention has been paid to A Gallery of Women (1929). Upon its publication, this collection of fifteen semifictional portraits was compared to his Twelve Men (1919), a well-received volume of biographical portraits. Despite his disclaimers to the contrary, Dreiser did not have the same intimate knowledge of his women as he did of his men. Undoubtedly Dreiser portrayed women whom he had come across in his career, but his portraits lack conviction. Critics agree that the best portraits in Twelve Men are those of his brother Paul and his father-in-law Arch White, or men like Peter McCord and William Louis Sonntag, Jr., both most inspirational in his early journalism. Dreiser's readers had thus expected as much authenticity in A Gallery of Women as in Twelve Men, but they were disappointed. And yet later readers still persisted in the same expectation. Considering A Gallery of Women as the companion volume to Twelve Men, F. O. Matthiessen, for instance, looked for Dreiser's technique in differentiating women characters but concluded that such skills "deserted him when he tried to handle details that must have seemed to him more intimate" [Theodore Dreiser, 1951].
But the comparison was grossly unfair. The cool reception that has attended A Gallery of Women might have resulted not so much from Dreiser's treatment as from his subject-matter. Readers in twentieth-century America have shown a tendency to minimize the importance of woman in fiction. Only recently have Kate Chopin's short stories attracted serious attention; Sister Carrie was suppressed for seven long years. Such a tendency is hard to understand, for in the late nineteenth century the public accepted as a matter of course the greater freedom in the selection of themes in fiction than before. Needless to say, James' The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is a monumental work concerned with the problem of an American woman. A realist like Howells, too, responding to the libertarians' attack on the socially enforced misery of marriage, successfully treated a divorce for his subject in A Modern Instance (1882). In modern times, there has been no question about American novelists' willingness to deal with the woman question.
The difficulty, however, lies with the reading public. Ironically, even H. L. Mencken, Dreiser's staunch supporter, dismissed A Gallery of Women as a work inferior to Twelve Men:
. . . if the collection is not quite as interesting as its forerunner, then that is probably because women themselves are considerably less interesting than men. Not one of them here is to be mentioned in the same breath with Dreiser's brother Paul, the shining hero of Twelve Men. . . . The rest are occasionally charming, but only too often their chief mark is a pathetic silliness. What ails most of them is love. They throw away everything for it, and when they can't get the genuine article they seem to be content with imitations. And if it is not love, real or bogus, that undoes them, then it is some vague dream that never takes rational form—of puerile self-expression, of gratuitous self-sacrifice, of something else as shadowy and vain.
["Ladies, Mainly Sad," American Mercury, Vol. 19, February, 1930]
Moreover, what disappointed many early readers was the lack of variability they felt in Dreiser's characterization. For a reviewer who had expected to find as great a variety of preoccupations in women as in men, A Gallery of Women left the impression that "Mr. Dreiser believes there is one kind of women—the one who is over-troubled with sex" [Rollo Walter Brown, "Fifteen Women," Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 6, February 8, 1930]. But this is far from true, for many of the heroines are not even remotely concerned with sex. Ernita, for example, is an American revolutionary who has voluntarily joined the communist movement in Siberia and is not at all tormented by sex. If she is over-troubled by her life, it is not because of sex, but because she immerses herself in the ideology of communism. If Dreiser's ideal woman calls for an equilibrium of mind and heart, Ernita serves as an example of the woman who lacks heart. After an unwilling experience with what Dreiser calls "free love", in which she fails to satisfy herself, Ernita finally decides to return to her lawful husband. She confides to Dreiser: "I walked the floor, suffering because of my mind—this unescapable Puritan conscience of mine". In Dreiser's denouement, Ernita, if anything, is "under-troubled" with the problem of sex.
The same holds true of the portraits of the fortuneteller Giff and an invincible ghetto woman named Bridget Mullanphy. Both are the types that are untroubled with sexual problems of any kind, and they are the ones who survive the most persecuting tyranny of life itself. In that world, however, as one critic observes, Dreiserian women are temperamental rather than intellectual; "so inevitably, as they strive to escape a dilemma not truly of their own making, they fare badly" [John J. McAleer, Theodore Dreiser: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1968]. This dilemma destroys an ill-prepared woman like Esther Norn, who lets her lovers exploit her. But such a predicament is not what distresses other women in the same book. Under the circumstances, stoic women such as Bridget and Albertine fare magnificently because they are the types of women that Dreiser knew are endowed with unusual strength of character. Their success in life, furthermore, is demonstrated in terms of the qualities of mind and heart that make those of men glaringly inferior and shameful.
Whether heroines in A Gallery of Women fare well or not thus depends upon their individual merits and faults. For some, their lovers are wealthy and only seek sexual enjoyment in them; for others, their lovers are sexually content but only interested in their money. Being women, they are all subjected to various predicaments, but their ultimate success or failure in life is determined not by their circumstances but by themselves. In case after case, Dreiser's portraits suggest not a seemingly meaningless and ferocious struggle for existence, but an affirmation of individual worth. Always sympathetic with his heroine's potential as an individual being, Dreiser strives to present her in the best light. In their quest for success, Dreiser's women are unmistakenly drawn here to emphasize their own special needs for fulfillment. In brief, his intention was not a rehash of social determinism.
Thus, what distinguishes A Gallery of Women from a book like Twelve Men is that Dreiser's attitude toward his material is more psychological than social. The character traits that fascinated him in A Gallery of Women are not defined in terms of the social patterns that determined the characters in Twelve Men. The idiosyncrasies of Dreiser's women seemed more internal to him than those of men. This was perhaps why Mencken, commenting on Dreiser's difficulty with A Gallery of Women, argued that women in general "remain more mysterious and hence more romantic". Even though Giff appeared strangely nebulous in her intellectual outlook, or Olive Brand seemed only vaguely motivated by her sexual freedom, Dreiser did not fill in his abstract moral equations with the kind of realistic detail expected of a naturalist writer. Rather, he left the mystery inscrutable to the last.
Dreiser's attempt to be a "romantic" writer, however, did not result in ambiguities in his characterization. He made the best of his material, and of his knowledge about woman. He was persistent in search of truths about feminine temperament and what he understood to be woman's fate. His method was thus analytical, and to some of the portraits he adopted a psychological, if not consistently psychoanalytical, approach. For revelation of feminine secrets, Dreiser was occasionally preoccupied with Freudian theory, which was already fashionable in the 1920s. But here, too, Dreiser was curious rather than convinced, openly experimental rather than theoretical. Dreiser's open-mindedness about his subject and treatment in A Gallery of Women was thus indicated by his mention of the project as early as 1919. "God, what a work!" he told Mencken, "if I could do it truly—The ghosts of Puritans would rise and gibber in the streets" [Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959].
One of the major themes that bind together the various portraits in A Gallery of Women is the American dream of success. Dreiser's women regard themselves as protagonists in their battle for success among male antagonists. In many of the stories, however, the heroine craves for success in her profession not so that she can rise superior to men, but so that she can achieve pride and peace of mind as an individual. By the time Dreiser planned to formulate these portraits, the dream of success for men had been so finely engrained in American life that it had become an essential part of the American psyche. Dreiser was only expected to modify this tradition as it would have applied to women. Unlike the characterization of the hero in a success story—in which the author's avowed emphasis was on the man's natural survival tactics in society—Dreiser's focus in A Gallery of Women was upon the heroine's personal motives and actions rather than the social and economic forces that would also determine her life.
Despite the variety of women portrayed in the book, and its length, the details of social and familial contexts that mark a Dreiserian novel are indeed scarce. This is a clear departure from Dreiser's use of imagery and symbolism derived from the concrete details of the character's reality—streets, houses, rooms, furniture, and clothes—as in Sister Carrie or a short story like "The Second Choice". Instead his portraits abound in verbal impressions, conversations, confessions, points of view, and abstract authorial explanations of various kinds. The successful portraits are those in which Dreiser effectively structures these details to show how his heroines are trying to fit their temperaments to their struggles despite repeated failures. In particular, Dreiser's primary interest lies in an exposé of the intricate and complex relationships which a woman writer, painter, or actress holds with her husbands, lovers, and gigolos. In the most successful of his portraits, such as "Esther Norn", Dreiser's denouement creates pathos, since the heroine's "pursuit of happiness" is constantly hindered by the turn of the events that stem from her own errors in judgment.
Dreiser's portraits of the women professionals derive in large part from his own experiences in Greenwich Village in the twenties. He was fascinated by their lives, as he says at the beginning of each tale, because they were young and beautiful and they appeared intellectually competent. But as the story develops, the narrator—in most cases Dreiser himself—gradually informs the reader with some hesitation that the woman in question lacks the qualities of mind necessary for the realization of her dream. Clearly, Dreiser is dealing here with a "second-rate" personage in a particular profession. It is interesting that Dreiser as a magazine writer in the 1890s was convinced of the gift and originality attributed to many a woman professional—artist, writer, composer, lawyer, musician, singer. Perhaps Dreiser of the twenties was a much more severe critic of woman's abilities than Dreiser of the nineties.
In any event, A Gallery of Women as a whole suggests that the dream of success in fields like art and writing could be realized only by independent, strong-willed women. This implication does have some relationship with Dreiser's latent prejudice against woman's intellectual abilities. In 1916 Dreiser told his first biographer, Dorothy Dudley Harvey, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, that he had found it difficult "to name one woman of any distinction or achievement out of the twenty-five years of that institution" [Dudley, Dreiser and the Land of the Free, 1946]. Later in "Life, Art and America", included in Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Dreiser thus declared:
There is not a chemist, a physiologist, a botanist, a biologist, an historian, a philosopher, an artist, of any kind or repute among them; not one. They are secretaries to corporations, teachers, missionaries, college librarians, educators in any of the scores of pilfered meanings that may be attached to that much abused word. They are curators, directors, keepers. They are not individuals in the true sense of that word; they have not been taught to think; they are not free. They do not invent, lead, create; they only copy or take care of, yet they are graduates of this college and its theory, mostly ultra conventional, or, worse yet, anaemic, and glad to wear its collar, to clank the chains of its ideas or ideals—automatons in a social scheme whose last and final detail was outlined to them in the classrooms of their alma mater. That, to me, is one phase, amusing enough, of intellectual freedom in America.
What ultimately prevents Ellen Adams Wrynn, one of the heroines in A Gallery of Women, from becoming a successful painter is the lack of independence and freedom in her character. Although Dreiser emphasizes at the outset how this "young, attractive, vigorous, and ambitious" blonde will benefit the free spirits and creativity associated with the bohemian life of the Village, he predicts that "her enthusiasm would not last the numerous trials and tribulations of those who essay illustration and painting in general" (Gallery). Ellen marries Walter Wrynn, a young broker, for "the delight of sex as well as the respect and material prosperity and social advancement that sometimes went with marriage for some". The marriage is obviously doomed and Dreiser uses Jimmie Race, a novice in painting much like Ellen, to serve as a foil to Walter. Dreiser's argument is that there is nothing wrong with a young woman's—much less an artist's—being a "varietist". More significantly, Ellen's problem is caused by her attitude toward sex; she takes sex lightly and lets her success dream pre-empt her desire for fulfillment. Despite her innate beauty and intelligence, she deliberately seeks the habits and mores antithetical to those one must acquire as an artist. For the benefit of her husband, she functions merely as a form of "sex worship"; for Race, her first lover, she remains a listener to his sophormoric discourse on art and poetry.
Ellen's static personality, shown by the lack of spiritual communion with her sexual partner, is also reflected in her work. Though she travels to Paris and studies first hand the Post-Impressionists by living with one painter after another, she fails to he recognized for her work. One of her most influential lovers and mentors is a Scotish painter, Keir McKail, whose workmanship gives a clue to what is lacking in hers. While Dreiser admires the exotic color and thought in her painting, he notices the internal solidity behind the paint in McKail's work. "Naturally", Dreiser comments, "he avoided with almost religious austerity any suggestion of the sterile eccentricities that spoiled so much of the work of others . . . whereas beneath her surfaces was no real depth".
Another flaw in her character is reflected in a rigid and extreme relationship she establishes with her lover. She either dominates him or lets herself be dominated by him. Domination, in Dreiser's scheme for this story, means some compensation for the one who is dominated. Thus Ellen, dominated by McKail, learns a great deal from him about painting, and her workmanship improves. The irony is that from the other men she has dominated, she gains nothing but what she does not need for purposes of her art. From her husband she gets his physically strong manhood and their unwanted child; from Race, his complaints and lectures on abstract subjects. The most significant point is that Ellen lacks an independently motivated discipline of art. This initial deficiency in her character is proved by the fact that as soon as McKail leaves her, her workmanship declines and she is once more doomed to be a failure.
Another heroine in A Gallery of Women who fails in her career is an Hollywood actress named Ernestine De Jongh. She later commits suicide in New York at twenty-nine. At the close of the story, Ernestine relates to Dreiser another tragic story in which an actress she knew in Hollywood went downhill and committed suicide. Dreiser listens to her observation that Hollywood actresses "counted the years from sixteen to twenty-eight as the best of those granted to woman. After them came, more than likely, the doldrums" (Gallery). Ernestine's account here not only points to the age phobia from which many women in that profession suffered but more significantly reveals the lack of confidence underlying her own character. As in Ellen Adams Wrynn's career, Ernestine always ecounters the problem of identity. She is an actress as anyone recognizes, but she does not take advantage of her own beauty and "sex appeal"—the undeniable asserts in her that Dreiser emphasizes.
The most serious problem Dreiser discovers, however, in Ernestine's career as in that of any other woman here is the lack of development in her character. It is true that Ernestine's becoming the mistress of Varn Kinsey, a poet and an altruistic intellectual of the community, enables her to reject the tinsel world of Hollywood. She recognizes through him, for example, that the order of the day in Hollywood is an orgy of self-satisfaction totally oblivious of art and creativity. And yet she deliberately seeks fame and power in that world by succumbing to an incompetent director whose main interest is in sexual orgies rather than in film-making. Despite her gift and ingenuity, she always remains secondary to a leading actress. Ironically, "she was looked upon as rather serious . . . and directors desired and required types which were all that youth and beauty meant but without much brains. In Dreiser's assumption, then, she is neither brilliant nor ignorant; she is neither accomplished nor innocent. Like Ellen Adams Wrynn, Ernestine is denied possible success because of a dilemma: although she has sufficient intelligence to reach the top of her profession, given the guidance of a lover like Kinsey, she can never reach her goal, nor is she content to take a secondary role in her profession.
In Dreiser's conception of the success dream, the lack of flexibility and growth in the woman's training for her profession has a direct corollary to the degree of her failure. Ernestine's failure, unlike Ellen's, is tragic not because of her suicide, but because there has been less interaction in her relations to her lovers than in the case of Ellen. The problem Ernestine faces in her life with Kinsey is thus more serious than that of Ellen in her relations with McKail. Ellen can gain artistic insights from her domineering lover; for Ernestine, however, her lover's dictatorial demeanor does shut off the channels of intellectual and artistic influence which she desperately needs. Even though Ernestine, like Ellen, displays her sympathy and admiration for her lover's noble spirits, she must dictate her own code of behavior and thus ruin her meaningful relationship with him. This naiveté is also evident in her sexual life. Ernestine's attitude toward sex is immature, for her beauty and physical appeal are used only for self-satisfaction and for mercenary gain. Dreiser suggests that she is guilty of isolating her sexual life from the meaningful communion between man and woman. For she makes sex the touchstone of her own pleasure and, in particular, her vanity in quest of success.
Ernestine's attitude toward sex thus contrasts with Albertine's. Albertine is a strong-willed but graceful woman—a wife, a mother, and the mistress of a sculptor. Dreiser admires Albertine because she is capable of making sex grow beyond the realm of the physical. For her, unlike Ernestine, sex represents a search for human relatedness, a way out of her otherwise meaningless social and economic struggle. Besides saving herself from loneliness and isolation, she gives birth to an illegitimate child whose identity is kept only to themselves. Ernestine's way of life, on the contrary, is sterile. For Ernestine, the call of sex is not transformed in character since it is not supported by a genuine feeling of love and responsibility. In short, Ernestine's sexual life neither enriches her life nor improves her talent as an actress.
The weaker qualities of mind and heart exhibited in the failures these heroines have faced in their careers can be related to their backgrounds. Except for Esther Norn, all of the women in search of success in their chosen fields come from wealthy, conservative families. In the case of Emanuela, her family's Puritan heritage—despite her broad education in literature—has made her sexually frigid for life. Failing to seduce her at a crucial point in their relations, Dreiser bluntly tells her: "You're suffering from an inhibition of some kind against sex, your normal relationship to men and life" (Gallery). Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who seems to live with a fear of over-sexed men, is nevertheless capable of feeling the power of sex as shown in her final encounter with Goodwood. If Isabel is considered a morally and sexually independent spirit, as she is by most critics, Emanuela in A Gallery of Women is clearly a pathological case. At the final moment in her encounter with Dreiser—who has by then lost all his passion for her—she confesses: 'Oh well, you may be right, I don't know. I'm not going to try to explain or adjust myself now". Ernestine De Jongh's background is equally conservative and affluent: she is the daughter of a prosperous dairyman in America's northwest. Although she is not sexually inhibited as Emanuela is, her family education has not helped her become a free spirit. The irony in her life is that her most esteemed lover is involved in many liberal causes—woman suffrage, child labor, and publication of radical magazines.
Thus, Dreiser's women professionals like Emanuela and Ernestine share their common family backgrounds that are intellectually stifling and detrimental to their growth and development. Esther Norn, on the other hand, does not come from such a family, but she is handicapped in another way. Losing her mother in her youth, she was raised by her father. Because he was often unemployed, as in many of Dreiser's stories as well as in his own life, Esther was forced to subject herself to a series of menial jobs. Like Sister Carrie, she manages to obtain a small part in a play and thus begins her career to realize her dream. She falls in love with a young poet of the Village—"an on-the-surface eccentric and clown or court-jester". As this relationship wears off, another self-styled poet, Doane, comes into her life. Though she marries him. Doane turns out to be financially dependent upon her. The significant point in her character, however, is that her actions of sacrifice for the benefit of her husband are not caused by his inability or unwillingness to secure a livelihood for them, but derived from her own upbringing. The reader is constantly reminded of the fact that Esther's father, like her lovers, has always been what Dreiser calls a "loafer" and "woman-chaser". This image in her girlhood was so strongly imprinted in her mind that she takes her father's way of life for that of all men. Unlike Hurstwood, who falls a victim in a similar predicament, Doane can instead prey on Esther. For example, Doane encourages Esther, his lawful wife, to be sexually involved with a theatre manager so that she may succeed on the stage. Dreiser's advice against such an adventure for Esther's sake suggests that not only is Doane a moral coward, but also that she is destined to be a failure as well.
In A Gallery of Women, then, the loss of self-confidence an heroine suffers in seeking success seems to result partly from her early life. The respective backgrounds of Esther and Ernestine, for example, represent two extreme cases of family influence. Esther's life is perverted by the ever-present parasitic way of life led by her father; Ernestine's is misdirected by the cloistered existence in her early life. Each in her own way struggles to lead an independent life in spite of the earlier influences and experiences which are detrimental to her new spirit. Some women, such as Ellen, come close to the realization of their dreams. In fact, Ellen does reach a point of excellence in her career. But she cannot maintain that excellence, let alone go beyond, without the help of a superior artist and philosopher who also serves as her lover.
This pattern of failure, however, applies to Dreiser's heroines who are deliberately seeking success in the professions formerly monopolized by men. There are no such dreams cherished by women like Bridget and Albertine. Bridget, a wife and mother, is the virtual head of a household inhabited by her drunken husband, an old daughter with an illegitimate child, and relatives: and yet she succeeds in putting her family together and survives with dignity. Albertine is the loyal wife of a businessman who is bankrupt and charged with a fraud, but she too survives the ordeal and successfully raises her children. For the woman whose function in life is to be a wife and mother, her dream of success is survival. But for the woman whose dream is to achieve success in a man's world, she is necessarily handicapped, and no matter how bravely she pursues her goal she fails to reach it.
Why is it that a woman professional fails in America despite her promising potential? Dreiser attempts to answer this central question in A Gallery of Women. The international critic of women who appears in "Ernestine" describes American women in a lengthy commentary:
These American girls are astonishing, really. They are not always so well equipped mentally, but they have astounding sensual and imaginative appeal as well as beanty and are able to meet the exigencies of life in a quite satisfactory manner, regardless of what Europe thinks. . . . By that I mean that your American girl of this type thinks and reasons as a woman, not as a man, viewing the problems that confront her as a woman, studying life from a woman's viewpoint and solving them as only a woman can. She seems to realize, more than do her sisters of almost any other country to-day, that her business is to captivate and later dominate the male, with all his special forces and intelligence, by hers, and having done that she knows that she has bagged the game. Now I do not count that as being inferior or stupid. To me it is being effective.
However, what is finally lacking in a woman like Ernestine De Jongh is a stable and independent philosophy that transcends the narrow confines of feminine mentality. Dreiser's prediction, stated before her story unfolds, is that she is "too much inclined, possibly, to look for worth in others—too little to compel it in herself". Dreiser's conclusion, therefore, is just opposite of the European observer's view: the way in which an American woman of Ernestine's type is prepared in her quest for success is simply not effective.
There is no doubt about Dreiser's compassion for these ill-prepared heroines in A Gallery of Women, just as one is reminded that Dreiser has shown more sympathy for Jennie Gerhardt than Carrie Meeber. A Gallery of Women, moreover, exhibits a consciously developed pattern in which the less self-reliant the heroine is the higher price of injury she has to pay for the battle of life. Because she is not mentally well equipped, she develops a tendency to rely on men for spiritual and financial securities. Because she has a limited vision and understanding of her lover's worth, she can be swiftly exploited by him. All this happens to Ernestine, Emanuela, and Ellen with equal intensity.
The most complex pattern Dreiser weaves into the success stories in A Gallery of Women is that of Esther Norn. It bears a structural resemblance to Sister Carrie. Both women, under twenty, start out in a huge, friendless city, looking for employment but in vain. Then they are both rescued by men. Esther's first lover is, like Drouet, a good, carefree man "in search of pleasure and things to interest him", and he maintains a bachelor apartment on the borders of the Village. Esther's second lover is Doane, who is, like Hurstwood, more sophisticated than his rival in every way. Once Esther and Doane are married, Doane's infatuation with Esther wears off and Doane, like Hurstwood, becomes financially dependent upon his wife who can make more money in the theatre. Unlike Carrie, however, Esther lets Doane take advantage of her livelihood. The third man who appears on the scene for Esther is a liberal social worker named J. J. As in Carrie's relationship to Ames, Esther is greatly fascinated by J. J.'s intellectual abilities but avoids any emotional, much less sexual, involvement with him. The most important difference between the two heroines is obvious: while Carrie is "bright" to begin with and able to cultivate a free spirit in her development, Esther is not.
Dreiser's conception of the success dream in A Gallery of Women is thus crystalized in the story of Esther Norn. For Esther figures as a clear antithesis to what Carrie stands for in a woman's struggle for success in the modern world. Esther is not motivated by honorable intentions as Carrie is; financially Esther becomes the mistress of her fate as Carrie does not. From the beginning Esther falls in love with a well-intentioned rich man only for security, but she does not possess a temperament, a vital spirit, that must serve as proof against the wheel of life. As her consumptive health well demonstrates, her striving for success is set back by every change of fortune; Esther is the type of woman that cannot fulfill ever higher potentialities of being. Each of her affairs, unlike Carrie's, does not serve to facilitate her emotional and artistic growth. Even when Doane becomes unemployed and his character begins to degenerate, she fails to take over and dominate him. She has none of Carrie's resourcefulness and eagerness to face up to and venture into all that life has to offer. Most pathetically, while Carrie at the end of the novel is on her way to "success" in her profession, Esther dies in a sanatorium only wondering about her husband who has long neglected her.
The most serious failing Dreiser finds in the women who cherish the dream of success is their dependence upon men. This idea which pervades A Gallery of Women is based on Dreiser's conviction that success attends only those truly liberated women who can resist men's intellectual and economical influences. Marguerite Tjader, who perhaps knew Dreiser more than anyone else living today, writes [in Theodore Dreiser: A New Dimension, 1965]:
Women's characters and experiences interested Dreiser endlessly. He loved to question them about themselves, their impressions, their reactions to this and that. He was never tired of studying the likes and dislikes that made up, what was to him, the mystery of feminine behavior Women were tremendously stimulated by him, because he always wanted to build them up to whatever superior qualities they might have, wanted them to be their best, most daring, selves. At the same time, he had come to be afraid of making commitments to any woman who might want to depend on him too much.
Such testimony by a woman reader clarifies the places of various heroines in Dreiser's feminism. A woman of Esther's type that immediately reminds us of Jennie Gerhardt is a battered heroine of beauty and gentleness, thus generating our pity and sympathy. But the character of such a woman is decidedly inferior to the contrasting stature of Carrie, whom Dreiser calls a "little soldier of fortune" (Sister Carrie). Carrie is better armed for the battle of life, can outlast any man placed in a similar predicament. And, in the end, even after breaking the conventions of society—in which "All men should be good, all women virtuous"—by becoming the mistress of one man after the other, she is still too strong to suffer any anguished pangs of remorse as a Jennie or an Esther is not. It is understandable that genteel American readers could swallow neither Carrie's success at the close of the novel nor her indifference to society's so-called "moral" laws. From the standpoint of liberated women, however, Dreiser's ending of Sister Carrie could have elicited nothing but their admiration and respect. Given a male point of view, on the other hand, it is not difficult to understand why the stories of Jennie and Esther can bring in the reader not only compassion but a deluded sense of relief and satisfaction.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3982
SOURCE: "Don Juans and 'Dancing Dogs': A Note on Dreiser's A Gallery of Women," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, July, 1983, pp. 147-55.
[In the following essay, Vinoda suggests that Dreiser's portrayal of women in A Gallery of Women is far from being as woman-affirming as other critics have argued, presenting women primarily as physical objects and defining them mainly in terms of their relationships with men.]
American society was not ready to receive Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911) when they appeared, since the portraits of women presented in them were far ahead of the times: the female protagonists in them were shown to adopt unconventional social means in their struggle for success and fulfilment. As F. O. Matthiessen has argued [in "A Picture of Conditions," Sister Carrie, 1970], contrary to the prevailing ideology concerning projection of women in fiction, Dreiser created characters who deserved punishment but who were set free in a manner that outraged his contemporaries; worse still, he did not even regard them sinful for their transgressions. Many contemporaries of Dreiser, like Sherwood Anderson and Dorothy Dudley, are said to have hailed him for his forward-looking views on women, although his books were often published without enthusiasm and some were even sought to be suppressed ["A Picture of Conditions"]. Dreiser was aware of his unconventionality himself:
The world, as I see it now, had trussed itself up too helplessly with too many strings of convention, religion, dogma. . . . Is it everybody's business to get married and accept all the dictates of conventional society—that is, bear and rear children according to a given social or religious theory? . . . And, furthermore, I am inclined to suspect that the monogamous standard to which the world has been tethered much too harshly for a thousand years or more now is entirely wrong. I do not believe that it is Nature's only or ultimate way of continuing or preserving itself.
[A Book About Myself, 1922]
The moral and ethical agnosticism of this confession should sound the key-note to many of the attitudes and assumptions that manifest in his fiction especially in regard to woman and her relations with man. Dreiser's views naturally appeared anarchistic to the nation founded by Puritans. His writings aroused a great deal of antagonism as they were unlike anything written before.
The American novel has traditionally reflected the sexist bias emphasizing the role-conception of woman as a home-keeping private creature who must be dependent, submissive, pure and loyal; transgression and violation of the social degree were generally punished in American fiction. Wendy Martin has effectively demonstrated that American novelists from Susanna Rowson through Hawthorne to Hemingway have enacted in their tales the lives of fallen women who, like Eve, have paid for their sin through dependency, servitude and ignoble death. Contrary to this image Dreiser's fictional women reject the social norm, declare their independence and venture forth in pursuit of higher ambitions. Their asocial placement has predictably offended the Puritan sensibility of his contemporaries. However we will be amazed to find, on closer examination, that these women do not always seem real in their unconventionality. Matthiessen's perceptive observation that Dreiser robs Carrie of warmth and that "she is never a woman in love" should be a pointer. This weakness of Sister Carrie points today to a much larger artistic failure—a failure on the part of Dreiser to follow the situation of his fictional women to its logical end by endowing them with a psychology that makes them truly liberated. The artistic failure, then, would turn out to be a failure of imagination. From this study it will be seen that Dreiser, thwarted by a sexist bias, created women who are not as liberated as they are mistaken to be.
Dreiser has often claimed to see life as it really is from a detached distance, but after Wayne C. Booth, George P. Elliot and such others we know today that there is no such thing as absolute detachment and that writer's judgment of facts is always implicit in his fictional transmutations. The author as "meddler" could be accordingly seen in the particular situations and events in Dreiser's fiction where his assumptions about women clearly suggest themselves. This study attempts to crystallize these assumptions from the examination of a limited number of fairly representative stories to which women are central. The stories I examine here are all included in A Gallery of Women which Dreiser scholars have significantly included in the category of "non-fiction" or "sketches." If the account of Dreiser's secretary, William C. Lengel, could be relied upon, the "sketches" of women in A Gallery were all based upon Dreiser's knowledge of real life figures [Introduction to A Gallery of Women, 1962]. The flimsy fictional garb given to the narrator-spokesman-painter of these portraits has furnished me a further reason for choosing A Gallery for study here since the attitudes crystallized from them would be even more authentic than those elicited from pure fiction.
William C. Lengel was probably unaware of the devastating irony of his words when he said that in Dreiser America found a genius whose fiction presents "evidence of one man's mastery of 'the eternal feminine'." Lengel seems to have meant that Dreiser's portraits of women transcend limitations of time and that they are of universal interest. But Goethe's phrase "eternal feminine" [in Faust] applied to Dreiser is really misplaced since Goethe attributed an upward influence to the female. Goethe was in a long tradition of mythology, poetry and religion where woman has been glorified as transcendence (as opposed to immanence), as the divine grace, as Beatrice guiding Dante in the beyond, as Laura beckoning Petrarch to sublime heights of poetry, as harmony, Reason, as Minerva, as glorified substance (and not flesh) to be adored, as an eternal being Virgin Mary representing pity, tenderness, and so on. Lengel unwittingly evokes all the associations surrounding this feminine mystique by applying the resonant words "eternal feminine" to the women in Dreiser's A Gallery, but he seems to be swayed off his feet by his personal admiration for Dreiser. In truth Dreiser deflates the myth of the eternal feminine by projecting an image of the female whose terms of being do not extend beyond the fact of her gender appeal to the male and who is never allowed to achieve the dignity of interacting with man's world in the way she aspires. To be sure, Dreiser's much vaunted realistic method might claim that in man's world woman's presence is directly felt in desire, in embrace and love, but Dreiser could never conceive that from even a commonsensical point of view there is more to woman's being than this. Aspiring women of whom we see many in A Gallery do nothing more than try to define their existence in relation to man; they never aspire away or apart from man as if such a thing does not exist. There were indeed women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller and Anne Bradstreet in America and it was not as if Dreiser was unaware of such women. In fact one of the stories of A Gallery, "Olive Brand," mentions the rebel woman Emma Goldman who was his contemporary. Paradoxically, Dreiser received much undue praise for being unconventional although his projections of woman were not unconventional enough: they were far from being such revolutionaries as Emma Goldman. In fact Olive Brand appears in the story of that title as an activist writer who is said to have participated in labor strikes and met Emma Goldman, but she is nevertheless shown to end up as the Muse of a failed writer called Jethro whom she desired to inspire to good writing. The story thus betrays its own promise and conception.
It has never been sufficiently recognized that women in Dreiser's stories do not transcend their physicality since they are essentially creations of a "hedonist, a voluptuary and a varietist" [Lengel]. As a consequence we find in the tales an unresponsiveness to the self-generated moral issues; they even reveal a double standard that men have always adopted in their relations with women. Worse still, the "center of consciousness" in the stories approves of this double standard. The source of this double standard morality, it seems to me, could be traced to Dreiser's views said to be "loose in formulation, and inconsistent . . . his theory of the relativity of morals is as inconsistent as it is challenging" [Literary History of the United States: History, 1963]. In a way the stories reflect what Lengel observed of Dreiser the man:
He displayed a casual indifference towards women. He was a hedonist, a voluptuary and a varietist—but he did believe in a double standard. While he was a free agent and let his fancies roam, the girl who was the temporary object of his affection had to be, as Caesar's wife, beyond suspicion (italics added).
It may not be unfair to speak here of the author's own attitude to women, especially when the evidence of the stories points beyond their fictional frame and reinforces Lengel's personal observations. It would indeed be methodologically wrong to state these personal attitudes first because that might prejudice the discussion of the stories. But the evidence presented in the next few pages will be seen to refer back to what Mark Schorer called the "author's secret world of value" regarding women ["Technique as Discovery," Critical Approaches to Fiction, 1966]. It is, however, possible to consider the evidence independent of the external support and arrive at the same conclusions as those we arrive at after reading Lengel's personal observations.
Most stories in A Gallery are patterned to show relationships between men and women which are governed by more or less similar assumptions and attitudes. Women in them generally take to unconventional professions—unconventional for those times—while uncommitted men are continually on the look out for sexual adventures. The ambitious pursuit of these sexually liberated women generally forces them out of their rigidly puritanical backgrounds and leads them to challenging occupations: they struggle for success as writers, movie stars, actresses, intellectuals, painters, and so on, but eventually are thwarted by the relations they bear to men. For in the course of their search they meet what Dreiser repeatedly calls "varietistic" men. It would be interesting to note that the word "varietistic" is often used in the stories without a trace of disapproval. In fact loyalty and marriage appear to be despised bourgeois virtues for these men. Women's higher search in these stories, then, is generally matched by the libidinous search of the men. Paradoxically however the writer's heavy hand seeks to present the Don Juans as saviors of these women. As it turns out fulfilment for the woman often defines itself as nothing more than a sexual liaison with a man of taste and culture or with a man of superior achievement in the field in which she aspires.
In "Ellen Adams Wrynn" Ellen at first has a "foolish" notion that marriage was necessary for woman, but two or three years after her first marriage she realizes that it is a "reprehensible illusion or mistake." Soon she dispenses with the "silly business of wife and mother and social flutterings," leaves the child to the care of her in-laws never to think of it again, and goes off with a painter, Jimmie Race because she believes at that time that Race satisfies her artistic craving, her need for "spiritual depth and sincerity." Eventually Race gives way to McKail when she realizes that he lacks "material strength which she could truly respect." In McKail she finds vigor, liveliness, aggressive masculinity, sincerity, superior artistic skill and talent, iron will and so on. Her art flourishes while she is with him, her paintings partaking of the nature she admires most in him. As the narrator suggests, Ellen reaches the highest success in her painting career while working under McKail's shadow:
At any rate in the case of McKail and Ellen, it had been as plain as anything that artistically and emotionally she was his slave. . . . As an artist Ellen rested on McKail as on a rock, and from heavy but sure physical base took her flight.
On his part McKail does not take seriously either her art or her as person. The narrator makes this clear: "And I could see that at last and probably for good she was dominated by one who was not likely to take her too seriously, not he." Ellen finds artistic success and personal happiness while under McKail's powerful influence, but when he abandons her for another fascinating woman she loses grip on her life and art. She withers like a wilted flower; her success seems to derive from McKail's superiority as a man and as an artist although, however, she or any woman in her place makes little difference to his own professional success. The assumption here is that Ellen and McKail represent, as the narrator explains, the "essentially masculine and feminine" and that woman's growth and success needs man's superior strength while the man himself can find his destiny quite independently. The narrative further assumes that male and female natures are distinctly antithetical and that however socially liberated the latter is, it is essentially physical and sensuous, as opposed to the mental or intellectual. These assumptions become explicit especially in the narrator's interpretations of Ellen's paintings which relate, rather subjectively, the various phases of her life with the paintings of those periods:
There was a certain homey femininity about her which puzzled me. For how came this unity of something extremely feminine with these quite powerful and almost gross canvases on her walls? For they were not only lush and fecund and floreate—canvases which might well spring of an aphrodisiac mood—but broad and comprehensive and strong . . . broader and more comprehensive, more colorful and imaginative than anything which came from McKail. Yet, with all this, an exceedingly soft, feminine, and even sensuous voice and manner, a body that suggested graceful rhythms of flesh: eyes, arms, shoulders, neck, cheeks, all speaking of harmonies physical rather than mental (italics added).
In this description the narrator defines not merely Ellen's difference but that of what he regards as distinctively feminine. That such a bold, free and apparently independent minded Ellen should manifest this essentially female nature "puzzled" the narrator. But the narrator succeeds in seeing in Ellen's paintings the qualities of female of which he has definite notions. Ellen should represent the female in spite of her unfeminine worldly success; in spite of her proven ability to pursue her artistic ambitions without leaning on a man, she must achieve success only under the shadow of a superior man. These notions are borne out by her art as well as her life. So Ellen must fail when McKail abandons her. Had it not been for Dreiser's inability to conceive of success for woman independent of man's redeeming support, Ellen at the end of the story would not be looking for a substitute for McKail, for "some one man of force or distinction or both in the walk of arts."
More or less similar assumptions have given shape to the lives of women in the stories, "Ernestine" and "Emanuela." Like Ellen, Ernestine preferred career to marriage, and her restlessness for higher achievement goads her, in much the same way as does Ellen's to abandon the comfort and security of marriage in her challenging search for success as an actress. Much against her first man's pleasure Ernestine accepts even the corruptions of Hollywood in order to get opportunities of acting in films. On his part Varn Kinsey, her first man, decides to leave her because he was "too vigorous and interesting a man to share the favors of any woman, however attractive, with another, and that was what success in this work [in Hollywood] for Ernestine appeared to mean." The narrative here coolly glosses over Kinsey's hypocrisy either when he swindles large sums from charity collections or when he practices duplicity for a while living with his wife (a woman of "ability and charm who was a painter and illustrator") as well as Ernestine. If anything, the moral center of the story seems to approve of him as the ideal whose absence in Ernestine's life creates an inconsolable emptiness at the height of her success in Hollywood. What is especially significant in this story is that Ernestine, like Ellen, could not live without man's nutritive love and security in spite of her liberating worldly success.
"Emanuela" too shows the life of an intellectual woman going to seed for want of love and union with man. The narrator's opening description of what he regards as unfeminine intellectuality should anticipate the hollow conclusion to the life of the woman intellectual. It surprises the narrator that woman's life should find a meaningful context other than that of man's 'love':
How could any one so beautiful, so voluptuously formed, be so indifferent to every eligible and likable youth within her ken? No visible emotional interest in any one! Only thoughts, lofty thoughts. . . .
It appears incongruous that so much beauty should be so coldly intellectual; it is shocking that the woman intellectual should reject femaleness as the primary condition of her being. After such rejection what can be expected of her? What is essentially wrong in this perspective is that woman's being is seen opposed to intellectuality. Why should a woman be imagined as an intellectual if she should at all be damned for being frigid unless intellectuality is held responsible for it in some way? The basic question is whether woman would be unsexed, Lady Macbeth like, if she takes over what has been a man's province? If Dreiser faced this question Emanuela at the end would not feel that her life was wasted because she neither married nor gave herself to the narrator:
Oh, what's the use of life anyhow? I used to think I understood what it was about, but now I know I don't. And I'm indifferent or not suited to it any more I guess. I should have married or given myself to you. I know that now, but just knowing what life is really like now doesn't help me. It's too late, I guess.
Of all the other stories of A Gallery "Emanuela" is perhaps the most explicit in positing the view that nothing at all would make a woman's life complete if she does not find her man.
Man, however, is not similarly placed in Dreiser's worldview. For his men do not see love as the beginning of responsibility—not in the narrow sense of taking on the burdens of marriage, family, etc.—but as what Dreiser elsewhere termed "an intellectual sublimation" of lust [Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub, 1920]. To understand a self-confessed immoralist like Berenson it would be necessary to know Dreiser's views on sex stated plainly quite early in his literary career:
What is actually true is that via sex gratification—or perhaps better, its ardent and often defeated pursuit—comes most of all that is most distinguished in art, letters and our social economy and progress generally. It may be and usually is "displaced," "referred," "transferred," "substituted by," "identified with" desire for wealth, preferment, distinction and what not, but underneath each and every one of such successes must primarily be written a deep and abiding craving for women, or some one woman, in whom the sex desires of any one person for the time being are centered. "Love" or "lust" (and the one is but an intellectual sublimation of the other) moves the seeker in every field of effort.
This attitude seems to explain the conduct of many such men as Dan of "Relia," Doane of "Esther Norn," McKail of "Ellen Adams Wrynn," and so on. "Varietism" in sexually liberated women, of course, is welcomed, but the way it affects men and women is shown to be radically different. McKail of "Ellen Adams Wrynn" and Varn Kinsey of "Ernestine" are men to whose success their women contribute little; they continue to thrive in their chosen vocations even after separation from their women. The women, however, lose all sense of direction in life when abandoned by men. This double standard, already referred to earlier, is even more obvious in the story, "Albertine." In this Berenson seduces the faithful housewife Albertine in the name of gratifying her finer longings for culture and art. Eventually when an illegitimate child is born he complacently thinks that he had done her a good turn because she wanted a child by a man of culture:
. . . she [Albertine] had wished that she and I might have a child. And now here it was! And should she, for want of a little courage, throw away this opportunity? Never! Besides, then and always she would have something of me with her, something of me that she could love and he happy with, and that long after I was gone—as soon ! would be, never fear! . . . Yet all things considered, and particularly since Albertine wished it [the child], I was not opposed. For this was not the first instance of the kind. Others. Others. But not without the consent and wish of the woman in each instance. I never forced any one to go it alone, to do what they did not wish to do (italics added).
Berenson's "love" knows no commitment and for him Albertine is only one woman in a series. His "varietism," however, cannot be extended to Albertine since that would upset him, as indeed he is when he hears that she is attracted to another man during her tour of Europe. If he expected Albertine to be like him—i.e. without loyalties—he would not feel enraged on hearing about her involvement with Stetheridge. In anger he flails and flagellates all womankind along with Albertine for its weakness for "brains and taste . . . as well as an exceedingly grand manner." Far from feeling guilty for betraying his best friend by taking on his wife, Berenson feels revulsion for being betrayed by her when in fact his own value system allowed such a free "love." Varn Kinsey of "Ernestine" similarly refuses to share Ernestine with the movie producers when he had himself lived with her while still married to a woman of charm. The irony in this story is that it is Ernestine who in spite of her sexual amorality has loved Kinsey deeply enough to carry with her the emptiness created by him to the willed end of her life. The "center of consciousness" in these stories, as in others, no doubt sympathises with these women but at the same time it does not seem to disapprove of the wantonness of the men.
The point that needs special emphasis is that the finer longings of women, as in the case of Albertine, become a mere pretext in these stories for bringing them close to men like Berenson, just as the liberating aspirations of women turn out to be a helpful ground on which Dreiser's Don Juans enact their erotic fancies. "Olive Brand" and "Emanuela" provide yet another pattern where women aspire to a life of intellect, but one of them ends up as what Cynthia Ozick calls the "Muse," the inspirer of man, and the other finds her life sterile for not being similarly useful to man.
A truly liberated woman, then, has no place in Dreiser's gallery of women. His inability to imagine a woman for whom man is only a part of her aspirations has consistently thwarted him in presenting convincing portraits of women in these stories, although they have been traditionally admired for wrong reasons. The reason why Hurstwood sounds more convincing than the central figure Carrie could now be attributed to the sexist bias in Dreiser's imagination. Carrie succeeded in offending the sense of propriety of his contemporaries, but her portrayal prefigured the sexist bias so obvious in A Gallery.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5347
SOURCE: "The Marriage Group," in Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, pp. 113-25.
[In the following essay, Hussman illustrates how in his "marriage group" tales, which Hussman argues are the best of Dreiser's short stories, Dreiser explores his thematic struggle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. ]
In a series of short stories that first appeared in various magazines, Dreiser examined in detail the mostly harmful effects of marriage on both husbands and wives. Like Chaucer's "marriage group," the set of tales told by certain of the Canterbury pilgrims, Dreiser's stories focus on the need for balancing the interests of the parties to the marriage contract. For Dreiser, however, such balance is at best achieved only temporarily by two parties whose needs mesh at a given time. Since needs are constantly changing, the delicate balance cannot be sustained without the continual compromising of personal dreams and desires, but that effort at accommodation inevitably diminishes either the husband or the wife or both. The stories in Dreiser's "marriage group" turn on the conflict between one's duty to oneself and one's obligations to another which marriage imposes. They play an important role in Dreiser's continuing existential search, framed by his fiction, for ethical moorings. In the give and take of marriage, he found a paradigm of the larger conflict between self-interest and self-sacrifice that is at the center of all social relationships.
"Married," which first appeared in Cosmopolitan in September 1917, was an episode dropped from the manuscript of The "Genius" and some-what altered for separate publication. The most autobiographical of the "marriage group," it concerns a concert pianist named Duer and Marjorie, his wife of several months. The conflict in the story arises out of the differing values that the two bring to their marriage. Duer (patterned after Dreiser) is a connoisseur of the New York studio life, a man with a rich and volatile artistic nature, while Marjorie (patterned after Sara White) is a conventional and conservative farm girl from Iowa. The first indication of trouble in this marriage occurs when Marjorie becomes jealous of the women invited to the studio—women with "their radical ideas, their indifference to appearances, their semisecret immorality." Since she is thoroughly grounded in the doctrine of "one life, one love," she cannot understand her husband's attraction to such women, and when she reproves him for being flippant with one of them at a studio gathering, Duer begins to see the dimensions of his mistake in marrying. He dreads his wife's increasing censure and control, an encumbrance that was not in evidence before their marriage. But mindful of the concessions demanded by marriage and already disposed to compromise out of a sense of guilt for having failed to be faithful to his engagement vows, he chastises himself for being too free, for laughing and singing too boisterously. Dreiser's meaning is clear. With each such adjustment, freedom is eroded and personhood diminished.
When Duer and Marjorie are invited to a dinner party at the Plaza, they are thrust into the company of social types different from the artists. They meet a music critic, a museum curator, a wealthy opera sponsor, and their wives. Marjorie is attracted to these men with their airs of impressive business achievement and their wives whose interests cluster about children and housework. After the dinner, Marjorie comes to feel that Duer should choose such solid people for his friends. She believes that if he were limited to this sort of society, he could be remade into a "quiet, reserved, forceful man"—her idea of the perfect husband. But he cannot give up his artistic friends, and when he neglects her at a studio party, the first marital crisis ensues. Marjorie, having been "unable to hold her own in the cross-fire of conversation, unable to retain the interest of most of the selfish, lovesick, sensation-seeking girls and men," throws herself on Duer's pity, pathetic in her humiliation. Seeing that she is "feeling neglected, outclassed, unconsidered, helpless," which is "more or less true," he is led by his compassion for her to falsely deny that he finds her dull and conventional. Dreiser attributes Duer's lie to the demand in such a situation for "kindness, generosity, affection, her legal right to his affection." In a speech reminiscent of Ames's attempt to bolster Carrie, Duer tells Marjorie that she is "emotionally great" beyond the hopes of the studio types and that no common soul could have such depth of feeling. Duer partly believes what he says, for the quality that had originally attracted him to her had been her emotional side, developed through her closeness to nature on the prairie farm. But unlike Carrie, Marjorie has no artistic talent through which to channel her emotions, and Duer reflects that her self-portrait of dullness had been just. With sad resignation, he looks forward to the necessity for reassuring her with lies: "He would always be soothing and coaxing, and she would always be crying and worrying."
"Married" explores not only the tragedy of temperamental incompatibility of husband and wife, but also several of the negative aspects of what has recently come to be called the "closed marriage." Marjorie's jealousy of Duer's female friends, her assumption that she owns her husband, her unwillingness to allow him to be himself, her attempts to fit him into a mold of her own design—all of these things contribute to the undoing of the relationship. Instead of loving Duer for what he is, for his ability to function in his artistic circle, she loves him in spite of his interests and friends. His response is predictable—not an increase in love but a demeaning pity spurred by guilt and the first questioning about whether he has ever loved her at all. But neither Duer nor Marjorie is cast as the villain of the piece. The wife's point of view is as sympathetically portrayed as the husband's, the simple virtues of Midwestern life as admirable as Eastern sophistication. This inherent fairness was one of the reasons that Sherwood Anderson was so taken with the story. But if Duer and Marjorie come off reasonably well, the institution of marriage does not. The tragedy is that the structure of marriage often traps two very different people in a situation they are incapable of handling or escaping. Marriage calls for a legislated self-sacrifice which few spouses can achieve without a residue of resentment. Marjorie cannot understand or tolerate Duer's social dreams. Duer's very recognition of his obligation to be compassionate to and understanding of Marjorie detracts from the freedom that alone can purify those virtues.
"The Second Choice" appeared in Cosmopolitan in February 1918. This story concerns a woman named Shirley whose commonplace life is uplifted by the arrival of a brilliant and attentive suitor named Arthur. For a while they enjoy an idyllic affair together, and his buoyant personality and passionate nature put all of Shirley's previous acquaintances in a demeaning perspective. But Arthur's visits become less frequent and finally he writes to her that he is taking a job in Java and that he is too young to marry anyway. The romantic world Arthur had created suddenly crashes around her, and she is forced to consider marriage to Barton Williams, a "stout, phlegmatic, good-natured, well-meaning" and essentially boring admirer, whom she had been keeping at a distance while Arthur was seemingly available. Since marriage is "her only future," she decides to take up with Barton again, but she cannot expunge the memory of what it would have been like to be married to Arthur or cease her conjecture about what would happen if Arthur returned to find her married to Barton. After reviving her relationship with Barton, she feels that she has been forced by something beyond her control to sever her ties to the romantic past. When the train taking her to her suburban home passes over a river whose destination is the sea which she and Arthur had loved so much, her infinite longing is stirred: "Oh, to be in a small boat and drift out, out into the endless, restless, pathless deep! Somehow the sight of this water, to-night and every night, brought back those evenings in the open with Arthur at Sparrows Point, the long line of dancers in Eckert's Pavilion, the woods at Atholby, the park, with the dancers in the pavilion—she choked a sob." When she arrives home she watches a neighbor preparing dinner in her kitchen while her husband reads the newspaper on the front porch, and she contemplates the flow of sad, gray years that lie ahead of her with Barton: "'My dreams are too high, that's all. I wanted Arthur, and he wouldn't have me. I don't want Barton, and he crawls at my feet. I'm a failure, that's what's the matter with me.'"
"The Second Choice" concerns the tragedy of marriages of compromise, which most seem to be. Seldom, if ever, do two souls who share the same dreams with equal intensity marry one another. The implication in the story is that Arthur's aspirations were larger than Shirley's, just as Shirley's were larger than Barton's. Arthur wants the world, Shirley wants love and marriage, and Barton wants only Shirley. Caught in the middle, Shirley will be forced by society's irrational insistence on marriage—she capitulates to Barton in order "to save her face before her parents, and her future"—to compromise before she becomes too old to make any match at all. Dreiser's point is that a marriage based on such self-sacrifice cannot bring fulfillment to anyone.
"Free," first published in the Saturday Evening Post in March 1918, is Dreiser's finest story and one of the most compelling in American literature. A long narrative concerning the thoughts of a sixty-year-old New York architect during his wife's medical crisis, "Free" describes the conflicts of a man caught between his dreams of personal fulfillment and the obligation to forego those dreams for the good of his family. The architect, ironically named Haymaker, has devoted over forty years of quiet desperation to his conventional, socially sensitive wife and to his children, all the while lamenting the fact that he has never had the kind of woman that he really desires. The story opens with Haymaker, his eyes "weary and yet restless," brooding over the news from his wife's physician that she is in imminent danger of death because of a heart lesion. His wife's condition has revivified his longing to be free, to spend his last few years doing only what he really wants to do. But this longing is balanced by his recognition of his selfishness, and throughout the story he vacillates, alternately wishing his wife will die, and being ashamed of his thoughts. Haymaker is described like other Dreiserian drifters, "wondering if time, accident or something might not interfere and straighten out his life for him, but it never had." The drift is caused by the paralyzing curse of the thinking person—the ability to see all sides of a given situation. The more he longs to be free of his wife the more tender and compassionate toward her he becomes, all the while sacrificing his own fulfillment in his wish to see her and the children happy. But outside his home the call of desire induces in him the infinite ache, and on the way to his office, he longs to be one of the bustling young businessmen possibly destined for a rendezvous with a charming young wife. The spires of the city skyline evoke in him his unextinguished hope. He does not recognize that the young men he envies are doubtlessly headed for their own marital tragedies and that the city is a seducer dealing in doomed dreams. Instead, Haymaker longs still, even though he remembers that his marriage to his wife so many years before had been an ideal love match—that she had appeared to him "a dream among fair women." But like Dreiser, he had been unable to marry immediately, and between the first promise and the marriage, his point of view had been altered by larger experiences. Nonetheless, he had married because of his belief that "an engagement, however unsatisfactory it might come to seem afterward, was an engagement, and binding." His duty to go through with the marriage had been compounded by his duty to stick by it for the rest of his life, acting as if he were satisfied.
Of late, however, Haymaker had begun to wonder what the compensation for a life of such sacrifice might be. He sees in the possibility of his wife's death a last chance at fulfillment with a woman who could truly understand him, but his conscience will not allow him even now to contemplate with equanimity such a denouement. Haymaker has insight into his own futility and recognizes the remedy: "Unless one acted for oneself, upon some stern conclusion nurtured within, one might rot and die spiritually. Nature did not care. 'Blessed be the meek'—yes. Blessed be the strong, rather, for they made their own happiness." One such strong personality is Zingara, another architect and former friend of Haymaker's who had never married and had become a distinguished success in his field. Despite the fact that earlier Haymaker's wife had disapproved of Zingara's poverty and had forbidden Haymaker to associate with him, Zingara had pursued his profession indifferent to what might be said about him. But Zingara's life is meant to show that even those who live free cannot make their own happiness. He has spent his last years a "dreamy recluse," the equally sad destiny of those who, refusing to submit to fatal compromise, find themselves alone.
After Haymaker's wife's rally and relapse, which induce in him a variety of emotional responses ranging from hope to sorrow that she might not recover, she does, in fact, die. Haymaker is finally free, but a glance into a tall pier mirror tells him that his freedom has come too late, for he is "old, weary, done for!" The story ends with Haymaker musing on the innate cruelty of life: "'Free! I know now how that is. I am free now, at last! Free! . . . Free! . . . Yes—free . . . to die.'"
"Free" is perhaps the most brutally honest story about the married state ever written. Haymaker's marriage, undertaken in a state of youthful idealism and transient sexual attraction, is portrayed as a tragic mistake, compounded with each passing day of self-sacrifice and burning longing to be free. But clearly, the architect's life would have been blighted even had he left his wife years earlier, because the guilt he would have felt over his failed obligation and responsibility would have allowed him no peace of mind. This is made clear at the end of the story when Haymaker, finally released by his wife's death, reproaches himself for having caused her to die with his thoughts: "So then his dark wishing had come true at last? Possibly his black thoughts had killed her after all. Was that possible? Had his voiceless prayers been answered in this grim way? And did she know what he had really thought? Dark thought. Where was she now? What was she thinking now if she knew? Would she hate him—haunt him?" Mrs. Haymaker's reach beyond the grave at the conclusion of "Free" may well have influenced Steinbeck's classic short story "The Harness." In that piece, the devoted husband and farmer Peter Randall, whose life is defined by his ministering to his sickly wife, decides at her death that he will cut himself loose from his past and live a new life unencumbered by care. But like Haymaker, he discovers that his self-denial has become so ingrained that he cannot change, and he is led to remark ruefully that his wife "didn't die dead."
Dreiser's analysis of Haymaker's sacrifices in "Free" is not altogether negative. He does not disparage the intimate feelings the architect has displayed toward his wife during their marriage. There is no reason to regard them as anything but genuine. The compassion and tenderness he shows for his wife is as close to love as one can approach in marriage, which is an institution based on the denial of the most fundamental law of life—the law of change. In stories like "Free," Dreiser uses marriage as a stage set within which the conflict between man's desire for both freedom and structure, for personal fulfillment and loving dedication to another, for the many and the one is played out with no resolution forthcoming. "Free" is especially disturbing since its considerable length allows for a full exposition of the crippling ambivalence that is the inevitable outcome of marriage for the man or woman who is introspective. In The "Genius," Dreiser had imagined himself confronted with the premature death of the wife he no longer loved. In "Free," he showed what life is like for the many who lack the courage to end a marriage that has been frustrating or disappointing.
"The Lost Phoebe" first appeared in Century magazine in April 1916. One of the most frequently anthologized of Dreiser's stories, it is also atypical in that it deals with a happy marriage. It concerns an old farmer named Henry Reifsneider, whose wife of forty-eight years, Phoebe Ann, has just died. Henry and Phoebe Ann had been devoted to each other, and when death separates them, Henry slowly loses his grip on reality until he hallucinates his wife back among the living. Spurred on by a vision he believes to be Phoebe Ann, the farmer is finally led over the edge of a cliff to his own death. Some readers have been tempted to see in this poignant story Dreiser's underwriting of the doctrine of "one life, one love," but it should be remembered that he attributes this enduring marriage to a want of imagination in both Henry and Phoebe Ann: "You perhaps know how it is with simple natures that fasten themselves like lichens on the stones of circumstance and weather their days to a crumbling conclusion. The great world sounds widely, but it has no call for them. They have no soaring intellect. The orchard, the meadow, the corn-field, the pig-pen, and the chicken-lot measure the range of their human activities." Hence: "Old Henry and his wife Phoebe were as fond of each other as it is possible for two old people to be who have nothing else in this life to be fond of." In its rustic subject matter, "The Lost Phoebe" is as anomalous among Dreiser's works as Ethan Frome is among Edith Wharton's. But the story evokes the devotion of a simple man in such a moving manner that it deserves the critical attention it receives. And in it Dreiser reveals that if he could not devote himself exclusively and unlongingly to one woman, he could see beauty in the lifelong devotion demonstrated by Henry Reifsneider. "The Lost Phoebe" foreshadows the treatment of marital fidelity in The Bulwark, wherein Solon and Benecia Barnes abide in commitment and peace.
"Chains" first appeared under the title "Love" in the New York Times in May 1919. A long stream-of-consciousness narrative, it recreates the thoughts of a businessman named Garrison during a train trip from a convention city to his hometown. The subject of his thoughts is Ideile, a woman half his age to whom he has been married for three years and to whom he is "chained" through his irrational need. He had met her by chance in the office of a physician friend of his, and he had fallen in love with her because she was so beautiful and because she reminded him of a former lover. In Garrison's mind, Ideile turned out to be like her predecessor in many ways—restless, selfish, cruel, and varietistic. "Chains" explores the resistless attraction some men have for women whom they know or perhaps wish can only hurt them. Garrison is portrayed as conservative and society-minded, but also as a self-destructive fool with a weakness for beauty and a need to show off a younger woman to his envying associates. The more Garrison gives to the relationship, the more he believes Ideile has heartlessly toyed with him. As the train carries him closer to his home, he rehearses all of his wife's lies and assorted transgressions (perhaps inventing some of them and perversely enjoying his own torture), and he resolves to leave her if she does not meet him on his arrival as promised. When he gets to the house he discovers that she has left him a note asking him to join her at a friend's house party. Intent on following through with his plan to leave, Garrison packs his bags but decides to join his wife at the party instead, unable to break the bonds of his peculiar passion. While Garrison is on the train, his stream-of-consciousness is frequently interrupted by the sights and sounds along the way. At one point, his musing is appropriately disturbed by "the crashing couplings" of the train cars, for this is the story of the helplessness of a man who may be seen as the self-willed victim of his own "crashing coupling."
Wray, the subject of "Marriage—For One," a story which first appeared in Marriage magazine in 1923, tries purposefully to avoid making the kind of mistake that ruins Garrison's later life in "Chains." With his "clerkly mind," he methodically sets out to find "a woman of sense as well as of charm, one who came of good stock and hence would be possessed of good taste and good principles." She must be liberal and intelligent as well—in short, someone whom he can regard as his equal. And he takes care to seek out a woman he could genuinely love. Soon he meets a stenographer who seems to fit his requirements except that she has a rather conservative religious background. Unbeknown to her parents, Wray sets about remaking her in a more liberal mold. He succeeds in developing in her an interest in books and art to the point where he deems her worthy to marry him. Soon after the wedding, however, she comes under the influence of several "restless, pushing, seeking" New York women who so embellish her education in books and the arts that she begins to regard her husband as excessively narrow. When she leaves Wray, he is left to contemplate the ashes of his dreams until, on the advice of the narrator of the story, he induces his wife to return on her terms and convinces her that they should have a child. This proves not to be the solution, however, since the intellectual gap remains. Before long, the wife has found a more suitable man, and the Wrays have separated permanently.
It remains for the narrator of the story to gloss Wray's attempt at playing Pygmalion. When Wray comes to him for advice, he is hesitant to provide it because he realizes that "the mysteries of temperament of either [Wray or his wife] were not to be unraveled or adjusted save by nature—the accidents of chance and affinity, or the deadly opposition which keep apart those unsuited to each other." He concludes that the couple had represented "two differing rates of motion, flowing side by side for the time being only, his the slower, hers the quicker." The more Mrs. Wray had come to despise her husband, the more her husband had loved her, and the narrator is "shaken" by this irresolvable situation. The story ends with the narrator brooding over "the despair, the passion, the rage, the hopelessness, the love" which the situation bespeaks: "He is spiritually wedded to that woman, who despises him, and she may be spiritually wedded to another man who may despise her." In Dreiser's world, feeling within marriage is almost never reciprocal because men and women constitute "differing rates of motion," which by their very nature seldom "flow side by side" and only during brief interludes. The mutual needs that must be addressed if marriage is to fulfill both partners demand a brittle balance between giving and receiving which is nearly impossible to sustain.
"The Shadow," originally entitled "Jealousy," appeared in Harper's Bazaar in August 1924. The story is divided into two parts. The first is written from the point of view of Gil, a man who fears that his wife, Beryl, is guilty of infidelity because of his fleeting glimpses of a person he takes to be her in various suspicious situations. He eventually decides on the basis of circumstantial evidence that she is having an affair with a violinist, but her denials lead him to doubt the justice of his accusation. In the second part, the same situation is described from Beryl's point of view. We learn that she has indeed had an affair, but with a novelist named Barclay whose realistic portrait of a woman much like herself had inspired her to write to him. Her motivation is familiar. Gil is a clerk "with a clerk's mind and a clerk's point of view," whose love for Beryl exceeds her love for him. Beryl's dissatisfaction with the marriage is fueled by her husband's propensity to be "too affectionate and too clinging." She had married him primarily because he was "rather handsome" which had "meant a lot to her then." She had realized her mistake "only after she was married and surrounded by the various problems that marriage includes." Like the wife in "Marriage—For One," Beryl had quickly grown past her husband. She gives up her affair and resolves to stay with him only because she realizes that if her indiscretion is discovered, she will lose her right to her three-year-old son, whom she loves deeply. Thus, the price she pays for her child is a married life of repressed hostility. The story ends on a note of Dreiserian irony as Beryl remembers that in Barclay's novel, which had drawn her to him, "the husband had gone away and the architect had appeared."
If Dreiser's portrait of the institution of marriage in the fiction of his middle career was almost uniformly depressing, he was sometimes able to see some advantages in the married life, as he demonstrates in one of his unpublished essays, "Rebellious Women and Marriage." The essay was produced after he had been totally immersed in the question of individual responsibility while writing An American Tragedy. It sets out to examine the modern woman's restless absorption with rights and freedom and the strain this puts on the traditional marriage. It begins with an analysis of the moral situation at the moment, an analysis in which Dreiser offers a self-revealing explanation of the temptations of modern society: "I myself think that in the matter of our emotions and our morals many of us are at loose ends. We are perhaps too much shaken by the passing of dogma, if not convention and most certainly we are considerably loosened by not only the vastly increased opportunities for social contacts and exchange, but the amazing and arresting lures to the same." But he cautions those who want sexual freedom: "one thing is sure and that is that apart from such passing pleasure or entertainment as there may be in either polygamy or polyandry or the varietistic attitude in general there is little or no genuine romance." The reason is: "Romance centers around two and two only." Although the so-called varietist does not consciously recognize his need, he is always desperately searching for real romance, which is necessary for personal peace: "without that capacity for love of one and one only—or a genuine understanding of and so harmony with one other, how is any single individual to be content, let alone happy in marriage." Dreiser goes on to say that he approves of divorce, but only as a necessary instrument through which the unhappily married person can renew the search for the one partner who can bring peace and bliss. But he is quick to point out that his recognition of the necessity of divorce does not lessen his respect for marriage: "I am for more marriages of an enduring character where they can be built on genuine understanding and sympathy and so mutual helpfulness—none more so." The rest of the essay constitutes some gratuitous advice to married couples, admonishing them to work at preserving their marriages. He suggests trying "all forms of compromise" before ending a marriage because, "as the years roll on, both sexes are certain to find that more and more they require a certain personal as well as social stability which they can never find in varietism and without it they are likely to prove mental as well as emotional tramps of the road—hoboes." The effort expended in sustaining a good marriage is worthwhile because: "In the long run—the later and soberer years—how wise and even beneficial will seem the compromise." Dreiser seldom wrote in this vein before The Bulwark, but another instance occurs in the sketch of a woman he had known, fictionalized as "Reina" in A Gallery of Women, He portrays the profligate Reina as a lazy loafer married to a "workaholic" and excoriates her for taking no pains to fulfill her half of the couple's marital vows. But even in "Rebellious Women and Marriage," Dreiser recommends that if a person finds himself in a union in which there is no romance, he should immediately "move and seek the real thing." Indeed, in the midst of his discussion of the strengths of marriage, Dreiser interjects a set of questions that implicitly and contradictorily applaud his own proclivities and undercut his whole argument: "Have you the strength of the varietistic life? The real courage? If not,—then what?—." The essay clearly demonstrates his characteristic need for the one and the many in his sexual relations—a need that he was never to outgrow. Throughout his life, he longed for and actively pursued the tempestuous exhilaration of sexual variety at the same time he desired the emotional stability of monogamy. Whatever attitudes Dreiser expressed about marriage in his essays, his fiction remains the repository of his deepest feelings about this as well as most other subjects. The short stories of the "marriage group" reveal that "genuine understanding and sympathy and natural helpfulness" within the married state are extremely rare. When two people join in a sanctioned and sustained relationship in Dreiser's stories, they form an unstable compound—each striving for control, seldom intersecting spiritually, socially, emotionally; changing and growing at differing rates; never achieving the elusive balance between giving to and receiving from the other that could create harmony and happiness. This unstable compound is inevitable since most marriages result from short-lived sexual passion or temporary individual dreams or social pressure. The many personal tragedies that follow are owing, not only to the relative inaccessibility of divorce in Dreiser's day, but also to the fact that divorce does nothing to ease the inevitable guilty self-questioning which often leaves permanent emotional scars.
Ironically, however, Dreiser achieved a harmonious and happy wedding of content and form in his short stories about marriage. The expression of certain writers' ideas is better suited to one genre than another. Sherwood Anderson, for example, was a master of the short story. But the ideas in his novels, stretched beyond the requirements of the single moment of character illumination, did not hold up well. On the other hand, Dreiser's lumbering style and gigantic, brooding imagination were best suited to the form of the novel. Not often was he able to narrow his focus and effectively encase his ideas within a short story. By far his most successful ventures into the shorter form were the stories in the "marriage group." They allowed him to concentrate on the dialectic which was at the very core even of his most sprawling and sometimes directionless novels—the dialectic between giving and getting, observable in the microcosm of marital relationships. His next novel would dramatize his deepest soundings yet of the human heart, torn between desire and responsibility.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4348
SOURCE: "Dreiser's Later Sketches," in The Dreiser Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 1-13.
[In the following essay, Griffin surveys the character sketches collected in Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women, as well as the uncollected stories known as the "Black Sheep" series.]
In 1919 and 1929 respectively Theodore Dreiser published his two collections of character sketches Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women. Several months before the publication of the latter on November 30, 1929, his six-part serialization of "This Madness—An Honest Novel about Love" began appearing in Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan. Twelve Men and A Gallery of Women were constituted for the most part of pieces that had already appeared in periodicals; "This Madness," essentially a series of three sketches of women with whom Dreiser had intimate relationships in his early middle age, contained material not published before. Together these three collections comprised thirty character sketches. Their number suggests Dreiser's healthy interest in the genre; their generally favorable critical reception indicates that he had achieved considerable success with something of a bastard form. After 1929, however, Dreiser's output in the genre fell off radically. During the last fifteen years of his life he returned to the form only in two brief bursts of activity, and, with one notable exception, did not maintain his earlier standard. Between 1933 and 1945, nine sketches appeared under Dreiser's by-line: three during the thirties (two in the American Spectator and one in Esquire), and six, at least two of which were ghost-written, as an Esquire series in 1944-45.
It was the sketches in Twelve Men that established the genre, at least as Dreiser conceived of it, and against which his subsequent work would be measured. Characteristically, Dreiser's subjects here are men whom he had known personally or to whose personality he had been drawn by hearing about them through third persons. Patently biographical in orientation, the sketches are autobiographical—Dreiser invariably leaves himself in the picture—as well as fictional—he plays freely with time, place, and other detail so as to construct not so much portraits that are factually accurate as ones that, though recognizably modeled on men of his acquaintance, become new creations on the pages. In his choice and conception of subjects Dreiser is drawn by an enigmatic quality, which he renders and does not seek to solve. His attitude in the sketches is one of puzzlement and wonder at the human enigma: his is more than merely a narrative and observing presence, but an emotionally responsive and often philosophizing one as well.
Dreiser set a high standard in Twelve Men and reviews were generally laudatory. Some comments, such as H. L. Mencken's "rotund, brilliantly colored, absolutely alive," were especially flattering [review of Twelve Men, in New York Sun, April 13, 1919]. Reviews pointed explicitly to the variety of subjects presented: the fact that nearly all the sketches came in for special attention as the particular favorite or favorites of one or another reviewer attests to their broad appeal.
One is not struck as favorably by A Gallery of Women as a collection as by Twelve Men. Although several individual sketches equal or approach the high quality of Dreiser's male portraits, there is a sameness about the pieces, even though they picture women of different ages, backgrounds, avocations and occupations. Dreiser's frequently cited comment to Mencken in 1919 when the sketches for A Gallery of Women were in their preparatory stages suggests that he saw these pieces as being of a mold:
For years I have planned a volume to be entitled A Gallery of Women.
God, what a work! if I could do it truly—The ghosts of Puritans would rise and gibber in the streets.
[Letters of Theodore Dreiser, 1959]
Although the portraits turned out not to be nearly as sensational as Dreiser predicted, nevertheless their grounding in the central theme of the liberation of the American woman gives them a certain homogeneity. Observations by Yoshinobu Hakutani in his close study of A Gallery of Women encourage the notion that Dreiser sought more to startle than to portray unique women: "Despite his disclaimers to the contrary, Dreiser did not have the same intimate knowledge of his women as he did of his men. Undoubtedly Dreiser portrayed women he had come across in his career, but his portraits lack conviction" ["The Dream of Success in Dreiser's A Gallery of Women," Zeitschrift fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 27, July, 1927]. "Dreiser . . . privately admitted that A Gallery of Women was clearly more fictional than otherwise and that at its planning stage it was not equated with Twelve Men."
Reviewers of A Gallery of Women commented on the similarity among Dreiser's subjects and on the fictional quality of the sketches, often labeling them "short stories." There was, also, frequent allusion to Dreiser's strong presence in his work: at least two publications, Vanity Fair and Book League Monthly, titled their reviews of the book "A Gallery of Dreiser." The reviewers, generally, were not as complimentary as they had been with Twelve Men, and according to Hakutani, Dreiser's readers, "who had expected as much authenticity in A Gallery of Women as in Twelve Men, . . . were disappointed."
At the same time as he was preparing the contents of A Gallery of Women for publication, Dreiser was at work on his serialized novel, "This Madness"; indeed, there is evidence that one of the studies that became a major portion of "This Madness" was originally meant for A Gallery of Women. Louise Campbell, who was typing manuscripts for Dreiser in the summer of 1927, states that of the fifteen sketches that were to constitute the latter, "Sidonie" [which was published as installments 5 and 6 of "This Madness"] was to be one. Although "This Madness" was billed and presented as a novel by Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan, its contents and presentation have more in common with the sketches in A Gallery of Women than with an extended piece of Dreiser fiction. Dreiser had difficulty setting up "This Madness" "with the continuity it lacks now and which I am sure you realize it should have for present purposes," as William Lengel, an editor at Hearst's told him. "Each of these stories quite naturally winds up a complete episode and stands by themselves. Be a good fellow won't you, and at the end of Aglaia write a couple of paragraphs that will lead into Althea and do the same thing at the end of Althea leading into Sidonie," Lengel directed.
Dreiser did little to repair the seams in "This Madness," but what does give the serialization considerable cohesiveness despite this is the sustained presence of the autobiographical narrator. Early in Part IV, the second half of "Elizabeth," Dreiser writes "I could fill a volume with brief pictures of many, but they would be too much alike to be interesting." In fact, the problem with "This Madness" is that even the three women who are the major subjects are not very interesting—not so much because of what they are themselves as because of the use Dreiser puts them to. For Aglaia, Elizabeth, and Sidonie, and the minor women who fill the gaps in Dreiser's life, become little more than case examples of the work's underlying philosophy, "the knowledge that my nature was not given to a single affinity or fever. I could not hold fast to one only" ["This Madness"]. Hearst's played up the shock value of the series. Editor Ray B. Long wrote in a blurb promoting "This Madness" in the issue preceding its first episode: ". . . in it, Theodore Dreiser reveals the impulses and the results of love with a candor that will surprise you, may shock you, but will so impress you that you'll never forget it."
It is difficult to assess the reception of "This Madness" since there were no reviews. It would not be surprising to hear that, despite Long's enthusiasm, and Dreiser's own commendation, cited by the editors in a preamble to the fifth installment: "You people may not realize it, but in 'This Madness' you are publishing the most intimate and important work so far achieved by me," the series did not create the deep impression so ardently desired by its author and publishers. The flaws noted about A Gallery of Women were multiplied many times over in "This Madness," particularly the lack of variety, the grinding at a thesis and the too pronounced presence of the narrator, Dreiser himself. It is a fact that after he published "This Madness" and A Gallery of Women in 1929, Dreiser produced no sketches of women until 1944, and the one that appeared under his by-line then may not have been his own. While the reasons for Dreiser's virtual abandonment of sketches of women must remain speculative, it is possible that he was leery about returning to this form because of negative criticism of A Gallery of Women and "This Madness" and of himself as their author.
Dreiser's brief return to sketch-writing during the early thirties began with two appearances in the American Spectator, "a literary newspaper" of which he was one of the founding editors. According to its prospectus the American Spectator sought to publish "the type of critical reaction which ignores the conventionalist, the moralist, the religionist, and favors the unaccepted and the misunderstood as opposed to the accepted and understood" [Marguerite Tjader, Theodore Dreiser: A New Dimension, 1965]. It wanted articles of 1000 or 1200 words and paid contributors at the rate of a cent a word (although as an editor Dreiser was also eligible for ten per cent of the profits).
Dreiser's sketch "Townsend" appeared in the June 1933 American Spectator. Although far in excess of the 1200-word limit, "Townsend" is nevertheless too brief to develop a portrait in the tradition of the Twelve Men sketches. Walter Townsend, when Dreiser first meets him, is an ambitious young clerk who aspires to a high position in the world of finance, whose heroes are Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. For a time Townsend advances to better-paying jobs and more prestigious positions, but his progress is slow and, finally, very limited, and as Dreiser recalls his later contacts with him—which have been at intervals of several years—he records his subject's inevitable decline. Finally, he hears of Townsend's lonely death: victimized by the Depression, left a widower after his wife's premature death, and out of contact with his married daughter, he passes away in a rooming house, leaving a half-written note to Dreiser requesting that he call. Dreiser has recorded the limited rise, and fall of Townsend rather than rendered it. The sketch's length does not allow for that multiplication of anecdote that had given the Twelve Men pieces their vitality. "Townsend" is, finally, another example of that favorite Dreiser theme of the American victimized by the dream of success—this one not developed much beyond the type.
Dreiser's second publication of a sketch in the American Spectator was in the December 1933 issue, a short time before he severed his editorial association with the newspaper out of dissatisfaction with its orientation. "Winterton" is more in the American Spectator spirit of "favor[ing] the unaccepted and misunderstood as opposed to the accepted and understood" than "Townsend" and, though not a great deal longer, is a more successfully achieved portrait than its predecessor. Here Dreiser has gone beyond the generalizations of "Townsend" and fleshed out his picture of Winterton with more anecdotal detail.
Dreiser's acquaintance with Stanley Winterton dated back to the time of his own attempts to make it in the newspaper business in New York in the 1890's. A newspaper columnist noted shortly after the sketch's appearance that "it brings up memories of events that tally with [Dreiser's] story and suggest that he has again written close to his material" [Harry Hansen, "The First Reader," New York World Telegram, Vol. 25, November, 1933]. Winterton is the Sunday editor of the New York Express Metropolitan Feature Section with whom Dreiser has attempted to place material. Dreiser becomes intrigued by the enigmatic personality of the man, on the one hand the professional "slowly but surely achieving a place for himself as a Sunday editor of real awareness and selective skill," on the other hand the human being not particularly favored by nature with physical attractiveness or ease of manner, unsure in his contacts with women, "marked for frustration" in fact. Winterton's frustrations become evident when Dreiser notices his penchant for collecting "French Follies posters by Cheret, Grasset and Willette, drawings and etchings by Rops, Beardsley and Boucher together with endless nudes, photographic as well as semi-pornographic, by various young Americans of the time," and for entertaining gullible juvenile girls in his studio. Quite possibly framed by someone about whom he has published unfavorable comments, Winterton becomes one of Cornstock's victims: "his quarters are raided, his books and pictures are seized, and he is accused of corrupting the morals of minors" and of "a statutory offense, third degree." The charges hold up, Winterton is jailed, and upon his release after a shortened sentence, escapes to anonymity in the west, his career ended.
Stanley Winterton is, like Walter Townsend, a pathetic figure. Dreiser grants him no stature; he is seen entirely as victim, first of an ungenerous Nature, then of Comstockery, and finally of the indifference and cowardice of the members of his own profession, who do or say nothing in his defense. Given the limitations of his subject, and the American Spectator word ceiling, Dreiser's portrayal of Winterton is effective enough. More importantly, it seems to have prepared the ground for "Mathewson," a much fuller study of another frustrated newspaperman, one Dreiser knew as a young journalist in St. Louis.
Rejected initially by Liberty, "Mathewson" was serialized in the May and June 1934 numbers of Esquire, a magazine in which Dreiser made several appearances during the first decade of its existence. Correspondence shows that Arnold Gingrich, Esquire's founder and editor, actively solicited manuscripts from Dreiser, and explained thoroughly why he made cuts and changes in accepted material. "Mathewson" benefited from Gingrich's editorial skill and generous word allowance, and Dreiser accepted Esquire's $200 for each part (although he had requested $300).
Dreiser's acquaintance with Wilson Mathewson was a brief but intense one: he had known him during the period between November 1892 and March 1894 when he worked in St. Louis for the Post-Democratic and Republic. Introduced to Mathewson in the course of his professional duties—as acting city editor, Mathewson gives Dreiser an assignment at one point—Dreiser is taken immediately with his "gentility, apprehension, sensitivity, speculation and more, brooding and very likely poetic thought. How different from the broad, solid, sullen, conventional, contentious" newspaper editors of his experience [Dreiser, "Mathewson"]. His fascination with Mathewson increases as he learns from his fellow journalists and then sees at first hand the squalor of his living conditions and life style: his lodgings in a rundown part of the city, and his drinking and drug addiction. Thus Mathewson has the stuff of which the best Dreiser sketches are made, the enigmatic quality, "the mystery of character," to use Robert II. Elias's term. Part of the Mathewson appeal is related to his writing, particularly to an essay about Zola that has appeared in one of the St. Louis dailies. The essay reinforces Dreiser's sense of the compelling ambivalence of Mathewson: "in the office . . . he had seemed so frail, so pale and retiring, whereas in this article, smooth and stylized to no small degree, he conveyed a genuinely stirring mental force and acumen." Yet the mystery about him remains unsolved.
It is a dramatic chance meeting that he has with Mathewson that draws back the veil and allows Dreiser some glimpse into his subject's make-up. Mathewson's drunken outburst on this occasion startlingly expresses his concept of a senseless world and his confronting of it:
"Look at 'em!" (And once more waving a feeble hand.) "Ignorant! Dirty! Useless! Eating and drinking and loafing, and, and, reproducing themselves. For what? For what? So's there'll be more of 'em to eat and drink an' loaf an' reproduce. An' they're supposed to be sober. An' I'm drunk. An' everybody else that wants to eat and drink and . . . reproduce themselves in St. Louis an' everywhere. You're sober. An' I'm drunk. An' you want to reproduce. An' I don't. An' I want to think. An' they don't—or can't. An' they're sober. An' you're sober. An' I'm drunk. Ha! Ha!"
Dreiser's subsequent meetings with Mathewson—he becomes something of a confidant for Mathewson—reveal the tortured psyche, the brilliant mind capable of deep insight into the human predicament but without the resources, emotional or physical, to cope with the consequences of that insight. When Dreiser hears of his friend's suicide, he registers no surprise. Nor does the reader. The outcome is entirely credible given the nature of Mathewson's dilemma.
With "Mathewson" Dreiser repeats the early success of the best sketches in Twelve Men. The autobiographical element is kept in control and secondary to the biographical focus on the subject; the delineation of the subject is particularized by anecdotal and background detail. Most of all, the subject himself, especially in his embodiment of profoundly human tensions, engages the reader's sympathetic interest. It is this last element especially that distinguishes "Mathewson" from "Winterton." Whereas Stanley Winterton may elicit interest he remains a cause celebre. Wilson Mathewson, for all his apparent misanthropy, is a deeply caring person. His sensitive plea on behalf of the widow of the deceased engineer, his baby-sitting for his widowed landlady (so out of character for a hard-boiled newspaperman), and his feeding of the mouse in his room all establish his essential warmth.
Marguerite Tjader, who typed the "Mathewson" manuscript for Dreiser, was much taken by the sketch, in particular by the special revelation it made about the Dreiser she knew. As she recalled in 1965,
It was so different from the political, combative work he had been doing, that I was transported into another world—to the plane where Dreiser, the creative mystic, brooded over the fate of men. . . . This sketch was a sort of memorial dirge for [Mathewson] almost a tone-poem of the defeat of a human life through supersensitivity. It was what Dreiser . . . at times felt his own life might have been, had there not been that other side of his nature, the positive, materialistic, sensual side, loving the earth and violence. . . . This, was the first Dreiser I had known, the brooding philosophical mind partaking of the woes of humanity without the political violence, the constant fight that seemed to be in him. Now in all the welter of action, he had been writing this.
After "Mathewson" Dreiser did not return to sketch-writing for another ten years, and then only in a minor way. Taking advantage of his long-standing ties with Esquire he wrote Gingrich in October 1943:
This is to advise you that I have just thought of a series idea which may interest you. For, annoyed by the highly moral as well as spiritual characters and deeds of the most unforgettable characters in the Literary Digest [Dreiser meant the Reader's Digest] it suddenly occurred to me that your readers might be interested in a series of Unworthy Characters. . . . I do not mean criminal or wholly worthless or intentionally evil creatures—but rather men and women—young and old—who are mostly their own, not the public's worst enemies and who frequently serve to amuse one and another of us.
He went on to say that he had several subjects in mind that could be "arrestingly drawn in fifteen hundred or two thousand words" [Letters]. Gingrich promptly accepted the idea and the project was underway, but Dreiser was to go about producing the series in novel fashion.
Over a year before, in July and August of 1942, Dreiser had been visited in Los Angeles by an old friend from Canada, Sylvia Bradshaw. Learning that she had worked for a literary magazine during the thirties and had at one point entered a writing contest, Dreiser encouraged her to take up writing seriously. "He urged me," recalls Sylvia Bradshaw, "to begin writing some character sketches of persons I knew well in Maine. I managed to get several done" [Bradshaw, "Reunion," unpublished]. Now, with Esquire's order for six sketches, to be called Unworthy Characters or Baa! Baa! Black Sheep, he wrote Louise Campbell explaining the concept behind the series and wondering if she would contribute to it:
I've been thinking that you might have some characters, male or female, who as described by you might fit the series, only and also they have to be signed by me. And they can only be 2000 words long. The amount offered me is $300—and of that I would see that you get $100. And I would have to retain the privilege of editing the same.
Both Sylvia Bradshaw and Louise Campbell submitted more than one sketch for the series and at least one sketch written by each of them was published as part of it.
The six sketches of the Black Sheep series, as it was finally called, appeared in consecutive issues of Esquire beginning in October 1944, each under Dreiser's by-line and each labelled "semi-fiction." The editorial caption "Introducing a series of unregenerate characters, each a bad piece of work, ranging from worthless to pernicious," appeared under the title of the first installment. Of the six sketches, "Black Sheep No. Three: Bill" and "Black Sheep No. Four: Ethelda" were written by Sylvia Bradshaw and Louise Campbell respectively: correspondence shows this clearly as does Sylvia Bradshaw's recollection of events. It has been suggested, as well, that "Of the other four sketches, the prose style of numbers one, five and six resembles Dreiser's while that of number two does not" [Pizer, et. al., Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography], "Black Sheep No. Two: Otie," a one-page lacklustre account of a young Chicago woman whose purpose in life is to "spar with the law," in the words of the editorial caption, has nothing to recommend it; it is doubtful Dreiser would have turned out anything so irrelevant. Of the remaining three, the least remarkable is "Black Sheep Number One: Johnny," while "Black Sheep No. Five: Clarence" and "Black Sheep No. Six: Harrison Barr" have a certain appeal. None of the Black Sheep sketches reaches anywhere near the standard achieved in Twelve Men, A Gallery of Women and "Mathewson."
The subject in "Johnny" is the parasitical father of three sons who have achieved considerable success, and it is through information furnished by two of the sons that Dreiser constructs his sketch. Initially, "Johnny" lacks focus: much of the narrator's attention is given to the subject's father—and mother-in-law and sons. When Johnny is finally centered on, one wonders why, for the character is not made engrossing or even interesting. Dreiser's problem here was surely the concept behind the series: he was temperamentally unable to commit himself to the portrayal of a subject he could not take seriously.
The same criticism can be made of "Harrison Barr," although the fact that the sketch is firmly set in Greenwich Village during the twenties and that Dreiser observed and met the subject personally give it more vitality than "Johnny" has. Barr has struck Dreiser's attention because he manages to live off succeeding waves of aspiring writers by creating the grand hoax that a play has to be written for the magnificent set he, as a designer, will create. But if Harrison Barr has more potential for effective characterization than Johnny has, the possibility is not realized, no doubt because of a lack of commitment to the subject as well as to space constrictions.
"Clarence" is the most readable of the Black Sheep pieces. Dreiser has written not so much a character sketch as a modern morality or parable. What begins as an examination of Clarence McGaven, an over-confident young movie executive, develops into a contemporary exemplum of the pride-cometh-before-the-fall maxim. There is a directness and purposefulness about "Clarence" that is not found in the Black Sheep series generally. It is as if Dreiser, acknowledging his incompatibility with the underlying principle of the series and being unwilling to put himself through the motions any longer, redirected "Clarence" into something he could live with.
Dreiser's interest in producing sketches and in having others write about people they knew under his by-line did not end with the publication of the Black Sheep pieces, although he seems to have abandoned the idea of picturing disreputable characters. Writing Louise Campbell in September 1944, after the Esquire Black Sheep series had been arranged for, he proposed: "If you think of another character yarn, let me see it. My agent Duffy says that he could sell one that had a touch of pathos—something that would arouse a feeling of pity at the same time that it had the feeling of reality." Later he told her about his plans to publish a book called My Natal Health, in which writers would describe characters who "made or filled their lives between ages six and twelve" [Letters]. None of these projects saw print and effectively the Black Sheep sketches were the last Dreiser wrote in the genre.
Marguerite Tjader has told a fascinating story about Dreiser and the "Mathewson" manuscript. The following incident occurred after she had completed the typing and was turning over manuscript and typescript to Dreiser:
He put away his new script and carbons, and holding out the original, looked down at me: "Here—Do you want this? You can keep it—" He was looking at me with that intense gaze which had in it, unpredictably, a wild challenge.
"No, I don't particularly want it," I said. . . .
His eyes darkened like skies before a storm. Without a word, he savagely tore the thick pile of papers and threw them into the waste-basket.
Marguerite Tjader's story can serve as a dramatic symbol of what happened to Dreiser the sketch-writer in the middle of the thirties: he tore up the script. The symbol can also serve a larger purpose: the falling off in the quality of the sketches after "Mathewson" corresponds generally to a diminution in the quality of Dreiser's short stories written during the same period as well as to an abandonment of new work in the novel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7537
SOURCE: "Later Stories: 1929-1938," in The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser's Short Stories, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, pp. 111-27.
[In the following essay, Griffin discusses the stories that came after the publication of Chains: "Fine Furniture," "Solution," "Tabloid Tragedy," "A Start in Life," and "The Tithe of the Lord. "]
Two years after the publication of Chains, Dreiser's short fiction was in the magazines again with the two-part serialization of a story entitled "Fine Furniture" in Household Magazine, a Topeka, Kansas, monthly of excellent quality, according to [Frank Luther] Mott [in A History of American Magazines, 1938-68]. Available as early as 1923, this story was rejected by nine magazines between 1923 and the time of its acceptance. On 2 April 1929, Household's editor, Nelson Antrim Crawford, wrote Dreiser's agent, George T. Bye, expressing the hope that Dreiser would publish the story in his magazine. Crawford felt that a Dreiser appearance would give his small-town readership fiction of high quality, and apologized for the small stipends he was forced to pay in contrast to the big-city slicks. In fact, Household paid Dreiser $1,000 for "Fine Furniture." It gave him a new audience as well: Bye wrote Dreiser in 1931 relaying Crawford's enthusiasm about the positive response the story had received and his hope that Dreiser would submit another short story. The year after its publication by Household Magazine, "Fine Furniture" appeared again, this time as Number 6 in the Random House Prose Quarto series in a limited edition of 875 copies.
Although it shares with an early Dreiser story, "Old Rogaum and His Theresa," the use of a happy ending, "Fine Furniture" stands apart from the bulk of the short fiction in its preoccupation with a theme that, although serious, is without depressing or tragic implications. If Dreiser ever gave in to the demands of the slick magazine editors—and Household Magazine was a country slick—it was in this story of marital conflict resolved. "Fine Furniture" has a glibness not generally seen in Dreiser fiction. The story is told in a chatty—at times, even breezy—way that tends to impart a note of mock seriousness. The following passage, with its Greek chorus effect, expressing the collective view of Opal's fellow workers about her, illustrates the story's mock-serious tone:
But whether understood by Mr. Broderson or not, the other waitresses about the camp were not long in fathoming the mystery. Who was this upstart, anyway? Why the better clothes? the Renton airs? Upon our united words! Why hadn't she stayed at the Calico Cat? Up here to catch a man as sure as anything, because she couldn't get one down there! And that man, as it soon appeared, none other than Broderson, as fine and innocent a logger as was anywhere to be seen. And earning one hundred and fifty dollars a month. And this upstart now trying to steal him from the older (in point of service) waitresses who naturally had a prior claim on him.
In effect, then, the informality is more than simply that. With its overlay of mock seriousness it draws attention to the social pretentiousness that is the story's main concern.
At times the mock seriousness becomes parody. The following passage describes Opal's reaction to a suggestion by her husband that her fine furniture is something less than an asset in the lumber camp: "Boo-hoo! To think that she should have married a man that didn't want her to have anything nice around the house, an' just after she had married him, too! Boo-hoo! To think that she should have gone to all the trouble of trying to get the nicest things for him, an' that would make his dirty old camp pleasanter for him, an' then that he should tell her he wished she hadn't done it an' that she was not as good as that cheap little Mrs. Saxstrom because she happened to be the wife of the superintendent! Boo-hoo!" The passage is too exaggerated to be taken as a literal rendering of Opal's consciousness; it is rather the parody of her reflections. The purpose of the parody here is to draw attention to the pettiness of Opal's argument and thus to expose her pretentiousness as expressed in her overt striving for social position.
Opal's status seeking is seen in terms of her background, especially of those facets of her experience that suggest for her the possibility of transcending her prosaic world. In her response to two sets of places—two towns and two restaurants—she reveals her desire for upward mobility. Her contrasting views of Renton, a city of 25,000 and a railway junction, and MacCumber, "a dreary hole" of 800 people, "the central provisioning point for some four or five logging camps," establish her desire to escape drab surroundings and a demeaning existence. But within the framework of the Renton-MacCumber contrast is another contrast that more pointedly high-lights Opal's wish to transcend, that between the two restaurants where she has worked as a waitress—the Calico Cat in Renton and McSpeer's Restaurant in MacCumber. The latter was "nothing more than a long counter" run by "a fat greasy nobody . . . as greasy and odorous as his kitchen." On the other hand, the Calico Cat, like Renton itself, resonates in her mind with excitement, color, and glamour because of its appearance and associations. Here "the fine young men in Renton, with their hair oiled so nice and laid so flat" came "with their best girls to sip ice cream sodas and sundaes, talk of Spokane and Seattle. Yes, indeed, some of them had been to both places. And some of them had cars. After eating lunch or dinner, these boys and girls on occasion would leisurely make their way to a waiting roadster outside and buzz off. To what paradise? To what dreamland?" But it is the Calico Cat's interior that inspires her to attempt to take tangible hold of the world for which she years so deeply:
The tables and chairs of the Calico Cat were delicate-legged and grey-stained, scattered most gracefully about a room that was papered in grey. The walls were ornamented with candle-shaped electroliers supporting oval pink silk shades which glowed exactly like some bright, delicious candy. And there was a handsome grey rug on the floor. The front section held a really splashous candy counter on one side—all glass and gilt—and on the other side a fripperous soda fountain of grey marble, with leather-upholstered stools in front of it. Grandeur indeed! And the windows were graced with net curtains of a delicate, creamy hue, with a blue calico cat rampant.
"Fine Furniture" is really the story of Opal's attempt to transport the Calico Cat to a Washington lumber camp, of her attempt to transcend the drabness of the world she is used to by insulating herself with reminders of an enchanted world. In her bedroom will hang "blue chintz or lace curtains, a la the Calico Cat," and "the interior of the cabin was rehung with electroliers similar to those that adorned the walls of the Calico Cat." But her fantasy world collapses in the face of the exigencies of lumber camp existence and she realizes finally that her demands for a better life must be delayed somewhat. Marital tension is resolved and disaster averted. Fine furniture, ironically the cause of the upheaval, is put aside until a more appropriate time. Thus the happy ending, an important ingredient of the story's slickness.
What dictates the slickness of "Fine Furniture" is its subject matter. If Dreiser's style here is untypical it is because he is concerned with a less than gripping human problem. If Opal initially shares with her frustrated sisters, Madeleine Kinsella, Ida Zobel, and Shirley of "The Second Choice," and desire for a more colorful and meaningful existence, "Fine Furniture" is not primarily an analysis of this frustration as are "Sanctuary," "Typhoon," and "The Second Choice." The major concern of "Fine Furniture" is rather to examine certain repercussions of the dream achieved. Opal's problems are not ultimately debilitating but minor and solvable. The flippancy into which the informal tone often lapses is a sign of Dreiser's lack of real involvement in his story. [John J.] McAleer's mention of the fact that "Fine Furniture" is an exception to Dreiser's usual clumsiness with dialogue [in Theodore Dreiser: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1968] is perhaps significant in the context of these remarks. It might be interpreted to suggest that when confronted with trivial themes Dreiser is capable of embellishing his fiction with style and polish. Conversely, it may be legitimate to conclude that, when he is engrossed with examples of significant human misery, Dreiser's smoothness and slickness are set aside in favor of the more powerful, if clumsier, form that seems to derive directly from his forceful themes.
Dreiser continued his flirtation with the women's magazines in the story "Solution," published in the November 1933 issue of Woman's Home Companion, during the thirties an enormously successful monthly with a circulation of between two and three million. Among the usual women's features, this magazine carried four or five short stories in each issue. During the twenties and thirties, the fiction of many of the best American and British writers had appeared there, including the work of Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Ellen Glasgow, Sinclair Lewis, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy. The publication of "Solution" by Woman's Home Companion was something of an honor accorded Dreiser, for the story appeared in a special anniversary number of the magazine.
With "Solution," Dreiser was again molding a story that seemed to suit the prescriptions of the popular magazines. While pursuing its author's investigation into the varieties of the man-woman association, an investigation that occupied so much attention in Free and Other Stories and Chains, "Solution" is without the ultimately tragic orientation of earlier Dreiser love stories. The boygirl relationship, thwarted so often in earlier stories by either callous or ambitious young men and women, and eventuating in either living or fatal tragedy, usually for the young women, here, after an extended period of severe stress, resolves itself satisfactorily for both the principals as well as for their loved ones. But it is not only the presence of a solution that qualifies the story as untypical of Dreiser, but the manner in which the solution is effected. "Solution" in fact, has closer affinities to Dreiser's last novel, The Bulwark, than it has to the body of his fiction as a whole.
"Solution" begins and ends in the house of the patriarchal Isaac Salter, small-town Greenville's "principal and certainly . . . most honest and helpful general storekeeper." And although Salter's physical presence is not frequent in the story, he is a dominant figure in terms of the fashion in which he exerts active influence on the lives of the principals as well as in the extent to which his philosophy of life permeates the story. Possessing some of the rigor and sense of convention that characterize other Dreiser short-story fathers—Rogaum of "Old Rogaum and His Theresa" and William Zobel of "Typhoon" come most quickly to mind—Salter tempers these qualities with sentiments of love and forgiveness which are allied in him to a sensitivity to the beauty and sense of mystery his motherless daughter Marjorie brings to his life. The arrival of his young daughter from school strikes him thus, for example: "What a mystic dreamful thrill it gave him in the midst of his weighing of butter and cutting of bacon and sacking of potatoes, to hear her voice, see her dancing gestures, her dainty dress! Carefully and prayerfully he watched her development, so beautiful to him, seeing her future as innocent, happy, virtuous, until some day she should marry some boy who must meet the approval of himself and Deborah and who because of his worthiness of Marjorie, would inherit Salter's store, his house and whatever possessions he should have at the end of his days or even earlier." At the same time Salter and his sister, Deborah, are conscious that Marjorie is "restless, curious, mischievous and headstrong" and are "at loss for diplomatic and at the same time effective control" of her. What distinguishes Salter from the likes of Rogaum and Zobel is the fact that his "effective control" is moderated by his diplomacy. Whereas the two earlier fathers lack flexibility in dealing with their willful daughters, his sense of Marjorie's intrinsic human worth and his pain at seeing her potential thwarted motivate him to bring his Christian principles to bear on her desperate situation.
Perhaps the character to whom Salter comes closest in all the Dreiser short fiction is Mother St. Bertha of "Sanctuary," the superior of the House of Good Shepherd, who offers Madeleine Kinsella unpatronizing and unqualified Christian love. A practicing Presbyterian, "one of seven vestrymen" of his church, Salter pays more than lip service to his religion. The story's early details of his honesty and helpfulness as a storekeeper are entirely consistent with the integrity and love with which he deals with his daughter's plight. It is he who initiates the restoration of peace between the Stone family and his own, thereby, literally, opening the door to his granddaughter's father and making possible the story's closing scene: "And so Walter and Marjorie married and living in the home of Isaac Salter. And in the evening when the day's work was over. Salter and Walter Stone returning to the old gray house. And then, when dinner was upon the table, Salter bowing his head and reciting: 'Oh, Lord, make us thankful for all Thy mercies and gifts, past, present and to come. We ask Thee in Jesus' name, Amen. Marjorie pass the bread. Walter, how is that new Ringold house coming along?'"
"Solution" dramatizes the conflict between Salter's Christian ideals and the pleasure-seeking preoccupations—centered largely in the sexual attraction—of the younger generation, as they are embodied in Marjorie and her friends. Marjorie, attempting to escape the drabness that characterizes her life in her father's house, engages in all of the frivolities her beauty and thoughtlessness make her heir to. Maturing in taste she eventually recognizes the charm of sober Walter Stone, "the archness of his smile, the unconscious droop of heavy lids and thick lashes over his deep-set contemplative slate-blue eyes; the thickness of his light brown hair; his trim figure and graceful hands; but, above all, his natural poise and courtesy which could not be shaken apparently either by beauty or by jest." Conscious after some time that Walter does not reciprocate her feelings for him, and aware of the power her beauty exerts, she very deliberately sets out to seduce him, with the intention of forcing love and marriage. Her seduction attempt is successful, and she becomes pregnant, but she learns that she has miscalculated Stone's willingness to absorb blame. Hence Marjorie's dilemma and the story's complicating circumstances.
The solution of Marjorie's plight and the resolution of the story bring sharply into focus the moral orientation of "Solution." That resolution is, in part at least, the result of a recognition and acceptance on the part of both Marjorie and Walter of past culpability. Whereas Marjorie had for a long time tended to see her seduction of Walter as unequivocally motivated by love, she ultimately recognizes it as inspired by "that fatal infatuation which had moved her to betray him." Whereas Walter has steadfastly denied responsibility for the impregnation of Marjorie on the basis that she herself had wholly inspired the occasion, moved by Marjorie's repeated and disinterested attempts to comfort him upon his return from the war an amputee, he finally realizes that he must share her guilt. At the same time, circumstances have a large part to play in the story's resolution: an obvious advantage accrues to each of the two young people—not to mention to old Salter—by virtue of the fact that they do take one another. Yet it does not appear to be Dreiser's intention to look upon the young couple's reconciliation with a cynical eye; rather, the emphasis is on the all-forgiving love that motivates Marjorie's attempts to revive the relationship. And Walter's acceptance is based on the realization that "without love, and above all and more than all, without such love as this, its fullness, strength, self-renunciation," his future is grim indeed.
All of this suggests a new Dreiser; "Solution" represents an about-face from the anticonvention position Dreiser invariably took. Here, Salter's, and Greenville's, values are vindicated: unbridled behaviour is seen to be disruptive and peace is restored when conventional moral values are applied. However, there are disquieting elements about "Solution" that raise legitimate questions concerning Dreiser's commitment to his new stance and indeed, about his intentions with the story. "Solution" is suffused with a joylessness that persists to the end—even after things come to a satisfactory conclusion. Some of this joylessness is the result of the emphasis on grayness. Grayness frames the story and recurs within as well. Thus "The old gray faded gabled wooden house," rendered sad as the story begins because of the death of its chatelaine, is the same "old gray house" to which Salter and his new son-in-law return after their daily work. Marjorie first approaches Walter "in the windy grayness of a raw March Saturday morning" later, she ceases her pleas that he marry her on a day of "cold gray fading dusk" and after his departure for the war lives "an almost nun-like existance within the walls of the old gray covered house."
Then, too, there is the story's narrative tone. Told retrospectively, "Solution," especially from the time of Walter's return from the war, is characterized by a sort of grand inevitability, as if, given the circumstance of Walter's visible physical handicap, things must irrevocably move towards a foregone conclusion. Such a paragraph as the following, describing a visit to Walter by Wanda, his one-time fiancée, carries this note of inevitability:
And so more strange days in which anxious and curious people thought and acted variously. Wanda, for instance, calling on Walter in a dubious mood and recoiling at the sight of his empty sleeve in his right-hand pocket, his emaciated body, and so alienating Stone at once and forever. And after her none other than old Salter, only not directly to Walter but to his father.
In this paragraph, composed entirely of sentence fragments, either present or past participles are substituted for verbs. The effect is as of events perceived as having moved swiftly along as if everything were fait accompli. Enhancing the effect of paragraphs similar to the sample is the frequent use of such paragraph openings as "And so," "And then," "And after that." The joint impact of these devices is what gives the closing portions, especially, of "Solution" their particular flavor.
What significance is to be placed on these apparent contrarieties in "Solution"? Is it possible that Dreiser was writing for two audiences at once? Was he deliberately giving the Woman's Home Companion readership what it wanted while imposing on the story a suggestive dimension that would cause at least perceptive readers to question his pat solution? Do the ambiguities in the story reflect Dreiser's inability or unwillingness to commit himself unreservedly to a revised vision of life? Clearly, given the context of "Solution," these and similar questions are relevant ones, if not easily answered. On balance, however, it must be said that the major thrust of "Solution" is towards an affirmation of conventional American moral values.
The month following the appearance of "Solution" saw the publication of another Dreiser short story; "Tabloid Tragedy" was carried in the December 1933 issue of Hearst's International-Cosmopolitan, the magazine that had published "The Wages of Sin" nearly a decade before. The prepublication correspondence regarding this story—it had borne in manuscript form the enigmatic title "It Is Parallels That Are Deadly"—is of considerable interest for it brings into focus the question of Dreiser's apparently changing attitude about resisting the requirements of magazine editors. A dramatization of the tension within a married man caught up between his duty to divulge the truth about a murder to which he has been witness and the pressure on him to protect his own reputation and that of his girl friend, "Tabloid Tragedy," as published, ends with the man cut adrift by both wife and paramour—hardly the stuff of slick magazine fiction. Hearst's editor, William Lengel, apparently told Dreiser's agent, Bye, that he would have preferred a happier ending, for Bye's letter of 17 March 1932 informed the editor that he had talked to Dreiser about changing the ending and felt confident that he could persuade him to do so. Dreiser's penciled addendum on a copy of this letter appears to confirm Bye's assumption that Dreiser might be prevailed upon to change the ending: "Dear Will: This is silly. Bye asked if the ending could be changed. It could in two ways—by returning to his wife, by reconciliation with the girl. In final book form the story will stay as written." Then on June 13, Dreiser wrote from El Paso to an aide: "Airmailed Lengel to-day new ending for "It Is Parallels That Are Deadly," also wired him. If he is not quite satisfied have him change it to suit himself, and mail me through you, final copy of revision."
It is reasonable to assume that "Tabloid Tragedy" "[stayed] as written" even in its magazine form. If Lengel ultimately did prevail on Dreiser to change the ending, one staggers to think what the original ending must have been. As it is, it is dark indeed:
[Thompson's] one inescapable and painful thought was: "I tried to do good, didn't I? And just see how I am rewarded. Just see! That little difference in time that I couldn't explain has made this enormous difference in my life. Whatever else I am, I am no murderer, and these other people are. I was trying to do good. And they, by lying, have got away with evil. If I reestablish myself it is going to be a long, slow fight. These people murder and yet here is Tony in his garden and Frank in his restaurant." Thompson walked on confused, irritated, disillusioned, toward the new life he was going to try to make.
"Tabloid Tragedy"'s concluding paragraph suggests a familiar Dreiserian dilemma. Thompson, having found himself in a predicament in which each of the two obvious solutions he might choose will produce its own distasteful repercussions, attempts to extricate himself by inventing an alibi and finds not only his life ruined as a result but his attempt at seeing justice done thwarted as well. It is the delineation of Thompson's dilemma that is clearly intended to be the raison d'être of "Tabloid Tragedy." The editor's preamble on the title page bears this out:
Suppose you saw a murder committed?
Suppose you were a married man, and with you was a young woman not your wife?
Should you permit the perpetrators of that crime to go free so as to protect the name of that young woman? Or should you go to the authorities and tell what you saw?
That was the problem confronting the man in this powerful story.
What he did and what happened to him truly make another "American Tragedy."
However, the American tragedy of Thompson vies for attention with the sensational tragedy that is conventionally the fare of the tabloid newspapers. The examination of the protagonist's inner turmoil is forced to share attention with the story of the murder of Luigi Del Papa, the ensuing investigation and trial of Frank and Tony Palmeri, and their subsequent release. As in his early "A Story of Stories," where he is taken up with reporting interesting factual detail, Dreiser becomes so absorbed with describing the mildly lurid details of Rosie Palmeri's extramarital antics, Tony's—and his brother Frank's—response to her carryings-on, and the precourt and courtroom examination and cross-examination, that he loses sight of his major subject over extended portions of the story. At least in retrospect, Dreiser seems to have been conscious of the double impact "Tabloid Tragedy" had. His secretary, answering an inquiry about Dreiser's source, wrote, two months after the story's appearance: "TABLOID TRAGEDY really combines two cases which were matters of newspaper comment—the married man and the girl, and the Italian family's difficulties. It simply occurred to Mr. Dreiser that both phases might very easily have been involved, in real life, in one tragedy, and he wrote TABLOID TRAGEDY which combines the two." As for the Hearst's editors, their presentation of the story highlighted its more spectacular features. The title is spread across the top of two pages in large type and framed by cuts of first pages of tabloid newspapers carrying such blaring headlines as MURDER, KILLERS, and SLAYING.
Assuredly the diffusion of interest detracts from the overall effectiveness of "Tabloid Tragedy" as a psychological study. And there are other, and more serious, problems as well. Clearly, the narrator is in sympathy with Thompson and praises his refusal to deny his role in the process of justice. Compared to Marcella, who is "hard," "cold and calculating," he is "impulsive and generous"; compared to the townspeople, who first applaud his act of heroism and then condemn his tactlessness, he is a model of persistence and single-mindedness. But at the same time Thompson is a man whose faults cannot easily be glossed over. If he can excuse his philandering by "[believing] the whole trouble of his life sprang from his wife, who was so cross and faultfinding that he couldn't enjoy himself around his home," the facts remain that he is a liar and a perjurer and that he has induced Marcella to lie and to perjure herself—facts which he seems never consciously to acknowledge as faults. And although his "Whatever else I am, I am not a murderer" betrays a certain vague acknowledgment of his human foibles, he is completely blind to the implications, for himself, of his statement, "And they by lying have got away with evil." Dreiser's discarded title for the story, "It Is Parallels That Are Deadly," has particular application here. The parallels that are fatal to Thompson are those that are unperceived by him; the kind of blindness that renders Thompson unaware of his own lies reveals a soul hardened to deception. To the end Thompson remains "thoroughly convinced that he had been betrayed by his life's finest impulse." It is clear that Dreiser wishes to make this point of Thompson's self-deceit; it is questionable that he renders it altogether effectively. The side of Thompson that is "generous" and courageous is not reconciled with the side of him that is unprincipled and deceitful. We are not sure how he is to be seen—in the same way that we are not sure whether the story is to be seen as a study of interior tension or a feature story from a tabloid newspaper.
There is, furthermore, in "Tabloid Tragedy," a narrative fuzziness characteristic of much Dreiser short fiction. For one thing, the omniscient narrator speaks in many voices, and one is not always certain which voice is meant to predominate in a given instance. A case in point is the narrator as a morally conscious voice who attempts to enlist the reader's sympathy by making him a confidant. The story begins with its direct appeal to the reader, phrased in the imperative mood ("First think of moonlight, romance, illicit love"), pursues a chatty tone in many places ("And so now what of Rosie Palmeri and Tony Palmeri and Frank Palmeri and the late departed Luigi Del Papa? Well, just this") and reverts occasionally to the direct address of the reader ("The reader may guess how feverish and really fatal it all was . . ."). This voice is strongest in the following paragraphs when, having described the lovers' witnessing of the murder, it obtrudes with a sort of "voice over" effect on the action:
But with what thoughts! That murder! Their indifference! For was not Thompson strong, and still young? And might he not have prevented this? But no! There had been this social thing, this social fear, the prospect of their own characters jeopardized that had held them dumb and numb.
And then Thompson seated at the wheel of his car, its lights still dark, listening, and then backing swiftly out and into the main road, but turning in the opposite direction. And without one wish on the part of either to see the body. Whose was it? In what condition now? How mangled? Or was there yet life? And they were running away. God! Both were running away. Yet it was Marcella who first said: "Oh, I hope we don't meet anyone. Think! Think! Oh, how terrible!"
Here one is aware of the moral voice but not always sure when it begins or ends and gives way to the conscience-stricken inner voices of Marcella or Thompson.
The imprecision and diffusion of "Tabloid Tragedy" militate against its effectiveness. If "What [Thompson] did and what happened to him truly make another 'American Tragedy,'" as the editorial preamble claims, "Tabloid Tragedy" is a far cry from Dreiser's 1925 novel in terms of both emotional intensity and artistic execution.
"Start in Life," a piece that appeared a year after "Tabloid Tragedy," is reflective of Dreiser's tendency, especially toward the end of his career, to blur the distinction between the short story and the personal sketch. Carried in the October 1934 issue of Scribner's, one of the quality group of magazines in which Dreiser had long sought to place his fiction, "A Start in Life" had been through hard times. It had been rejected by Cosmopolitarty Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Woman's Home Companion (despite the editor's previously stated request for a story), American Magazine, Delineator, and Pictorial Review. Collier's rejected the story, wrote Dreiser's agent, Maxim Lieber, because it lacked mass magazine appeal. And despite Dreiser's insistence that he would not take less than $500 for it, he had to accept the Scribner's offer of $275.
"A Start in Life" is structured as the first-person narration of one not directly involved in the action he is describing but intrigued by the nature of certain developments in his protagonist-subject's life. It is less a dramatic presentation than a recapitulation, given at such intervals as the paths of subject and narrator cross, of segments of the subject's life. Direct discourse is kept to a minimum; when it does occur it is usually to render brief parts of conversations held between the narrator and his subject or the subject's wife, and it projects more a tone of scientific interest than a feeling of personal involvement in the subject's extremely painful predicament. As such, it most closely resembles Dreiser's earlier story "Marriage—for One," and is in sharp contrast to other stories of first-person narration, notably "Convention," for example, where the narrators are not merely listeners and recounters but become dramatically involved, either actively or psychologically, in the events they detail. "A Start in Life" is the examination of a character that intrigues Dreiser and what strongly suggests that it is more fact than fiction—despite the label on the Scribner's cover and the editorial caption, "A Story by the Author of 'An American Tragedy'" on the title page—is the identification of the narrator as "Mr. Dreiser" by one of the characters.
Dreiser's subject in "A Start in Life" is Nelson Peterson, a Swedish American from "the Dakotas" who comes to New York to fulfill a "very considerable and . . . arresting ambition" to write. The story is the history of how that ambition is brought to fruition. That history is related in the words of the narrator who, although not passionately taken up in the plight of his subject, is nevertheless fascinated by a life that provides insight into the nature of artistic development. The detached stance of the narrator is frequently reflected by a choice of word and phrase that is calculated to play down the potential involvement in his subject's dilemma and resolution of it. At one point he remarks of Peterson: "Curiously enough, as I noted, he was not so much pained and irritated at any time by the difficulties of life as he was by a gnawing doubt as to his own talent for creative writing." Later, commenting on Peterson's girl friend, he says: "What came to the surface, and soon, was the interesting psychological fact that Amalie also was a writer . . .". And, referring to the new Peterson, he says: "My conclusion was that I was facing a man who was facing a second choice and doing his best to make himself like it." Words and expressions such as "curiously enough," "noted," "the interesting psychological fact," "my conclusion," in the context, give the narrator's recapitulation the tone of an intriguing case history.
Beyond this, certain facets of descriptive detail seem calculated to impose more of an atmosphere of reality than would normally be found in a piece of fiction. The following description of the contents of a country school library is a case in point: "There were books there, also the village, as well as an occasional Minneapolis or St. Paul paper, and these, plus some magazines and weeklies—Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's—all had made him conscious of the great world without." Here the mention of three magazines places a documentary note on the passage and one recalls Dreiser's earlier practice of fictionalizing even the most patently autobiographical stories—"A Story of Stories," for example, his short fiction version of three chapters from A Book about Myself, where he changes the names not only of the two reporters competing for a news story but of their two newspapers as well. Because of such documentary touches and because of the tone of scientific interest, the reader is not altogether surprised to find, in the third last paragraph of "A Start in Life," the hitherto unnamed narrator referred to as "Mr. Dreiser."
Dreiser repeated the first-person narrative structure he used in "A Start in Life," but in much more sophisticated fashion, in his last published story, "The Tithe of the Lord." Available as early as 1934, this story appeared in the July 1938 issue of Esquire, the new but immediately successful men's magazine which sought "a breadth of editorial pattern" and published the very top rung of contemporary writers, including Thomas Mann, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald [Theodore Bernard Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, 1956]. Once again Dreiser's hopes for remuneration were far in excess of what he actually received. In 1934 he wanted Liberty to pay $1,500; four years later he accepted Esquire's $300 stipend.
If the appearance of a religious story in Esquire seems inconsistent with that magazine's hedonistic reputation—Esquire actively sought from other magazine editors manuscripts by well known writers "that seemed too daring or too different for them to use"—it can be attributed both to the appeal of the Dreiser byline and to editor Arnold Gingrich's stated editorial policy: "We wanted always to feel that the reader could never feel sure, as he turned from one page to the next and from one issue to the next, of what might be coming up" [Peterson]. "The Tithe of the Lord" must surely have surprised Esquire's fashionable clientele. Although superficially a "man's" story, with it combines, trusts, big businessmen, and bankers, it articulates themes that are essentially philosophical, moral, and religious rather than entrepreneurial and financial.
The central situation of "The Tithe of the Lord" is described in a two-paragraph preamble to the story, printed on the title page and probably written by an editor:
Sitting there, cold and helpless, on a park bench, the thought intrigued Benziger. "Suppose I do just that. . . make a bargain with the Lord? Supposing, here and now, I should try to make such a contract? Would it work?" Would the Lord, for instance, prosper him as He had prospered his father, he who was now so miserable, so at odds with the world? Assuming there was a Lord, and that He really acted in behalf of those who, like him, had sinned, would He forgive him his early errors? Restore him to a decent social position; make him as well off as he was before? Would He?
Then and there he decided he was going to try it. He was going to make a deal with God, or whoever it was that ran the world, just as he would make a deal with anyone in the business world. If God would help him to get over this despair so that he could get work and get on his feet again, he would, from then on until his death, devote ten per cent of everything he should gain to helping those who needed help worse than he did. Furthermore, he would leave women alone. Or better yet, get married, and be helpful—and faithful—to one woman.
The story is, in fact, the account of the cause of Benziger's decision, as indicated in this preamble, and of its aftermath: with the exception of a few passages in which the narrator, Lamborn, a man who is "identified with shipping interests," refers to his own contacts with Benziger, "The Tithe of the Lord" is told via the direct words of Lamborn's two informants, Kelsey, an architect, and Henneberry, a banker. Lamborn is almost exclusively listener, "allowing" first Kelsey and then Henneberry to inform him about the two significant periods of the subject's life and then reproducing their respective stories largely verbatim.
Kelsey's function in the story is almost exclusively a narrative one. His recounting of Benziger's life is chronological and in summary form up to the critical time of Benziger's conversion. After cursory description of Benziger's family background, his rise to business success and leadership, his wife's suicide, and his subsequent personal deterioration and business failure, Kelsey engages in a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding his friend's change of heart. It is clear from the emphasis given by Kelsey to Benziger's conversion—and by Lamborn as well, for it is he who ultimately "selects" what will constitute the story—that it is this event that particularly intrigues them. And if after his account of Benziger's conversion Kelsey vanishes, except in the memory of Lamborn, he has set the state for ensuing events.
Years later, as Lamborn listens to the rendering of the second half of Benziger's life history by Henneberry, he thinks: "Like Kelsey before him [Henneberry] seemed to me to be talking in order to solve something for himself." One senses that Lamborn's interest in Benziger is motivated by the need "to solve something for himself" as well. Henneberry's recounting of the details of Benziger's second deterioration and of his death is much more interpretive than Kelsey's and as such impels a dialogue between himself and Lamborn, the nature of which is at the heart of the significance of "The Tithe of the Lord." Henneberry, characterized by Lamborn as "in the main . . . your typical conservative, cautious, semi-religious banker," tends to interpret Benziger's fall as evidence of Divine retribution. He says to Lamborn: "While I am not a member of any faith, I do belive in a God and in His control in some mysterious way of the affairs of the world. While I cannot personally say whether Benziger deliberately broke this agreement or whether the breaking of it was, as you seem to think, forced upon him, I still believe if he did break it and did believe deeply in the significance of it, it is probable that it might have affected him in some way." Lamborn's view, similarly, reflects his philosophy of life. He says of Benziger: "While he did not very much believe there was a God, he kept fulfilling his agreement just in the event there should be one, and of course his conscience was clear as long as he did. But not being sure of this mysterious Thing, as soon as he stopped fulfilling the agreement he was haunted by the whisperings of his conscience." However, the dialogue, and the story, ends in an accommodation, as the closing paragraphs indicate:
"In other words," said Henneberry, "you are not a religious man."
"Not in the accepted sense of the words, no."
"Well, I am," he said. "You call it conscience, but to me conscience is God, or the only thing we know of as God, our guide. And when we go against that, we go against Him."
"So be it," I said. "And it may be that both of us are talking ofone and the same power."
"I think we are," he said.
Whatever philosophical differences they suggest, both the positions expressed here reflect acknowledgement of and allegiance to a transcendent force that makes moral demands on men. Benziger, by virtue of his early home training, has been schooled in the Protestant work ethic, has repudiated it, accepted it again out of expediency, and, unable to live up to its prescriptions, has failed. Unlike other Dreiser entrepreneur-subjects, notably the Frank Cowperwood of The Financier and The Titan, Benziger bends to the requirements of conventional morality, however tenuous they are for him at times. More significantly, the story's three narrators, all members of the business establishment themselves, judge Benziger according to norms of conventional morality. What is more, they leaven their judgement with understanding and sympathy. Even Henneberry, the most orthodox of them, is more impressed with Benziger's charitable accomplishments than he is disenchanted with his misdemeanors.
The narrative method in "The Tithe of the Lord"—the most complex in the Dreiser fiction canon—is entirely consistent with the story's desired emphasis. If Benziger is in a sense the subject of "The Tithe of the Lord," the story is not primarily about him but about the response he creates in Lamborn and Henneberry and, to a lesser extent, in Kelsey. Lamborn sees Benziger only rarely; most of his knowledge of the man comes at second hand. Moreover, the crucial discussion of Benziger between Lamborn and Henneberry takes place some years after his death. Thus, a distance is maintained assuring an impartial view, a view that recreates Benziger less as a person than as an object lesson. Then, too, the reader sees Benziger, for the most part, two persons removed; he is effectively far away in time and, in a sense, in place, the subject of the narrator's curiosity and conversations more than an entity in himself.
In fact, Benziger serves to vindicate the transcendent view of life held by Lamborn and Henneberry. He serves also as an exemplum of a morality that is essentially Christian. The circumstances of his life and of the lives of those who are associated with him familially and entrepreneurially, implicitly and explicitly illustrate the validity of integrity, forgiveness, love, and service. Thus, the reconciliation of Benziger with his father is seen in the light of the parable of the Prodigal Son, the destructive effects of adultery are recognized, and the integrity of the family unit is upheld. Affirmed also are honesty in business dealings, the care of down-and-outers, the adoption of children, the selflessness of a wife who hurries to the deathbed of an unfaithful husband. A far cry all this is from Cowperwood's dictum, "I satisfy myself."
"The Tithe of the Lord" is reminiscent of Dreiser's earlier story, "The 'Mercy' of God." There, two friends engage in dialogue about the plight of a young woman who, unable to attract men, has slipped into a state of fantasy in which, mercifully, she is assuaged from her anguish. And although the account of the woman's life takes up the greater length of the story, as does the Benziger account in "The Tithe of the Lord," "The 'Mercy' of God" is, again like "The Tithe of the Lord," a story in which a potentially dramatic series of episodes becomes merely the launching pad for a philosophical/ religious discussion. But if Dreiser's narrative method is essentially the same in the two stories there has been a considerable evolution in the nature of the resolution of the dialogue. Against the wistful skepticism of the narrator's closing lines in "The 'Mercy' of God," "Truly, truly . . . I wish I might believe," Dreiser now gives us the agreement of his two conversers as to the existence of a benevolent transcendent force.
Unquestionably the cluster of stories Dreiser published after Chains reflects a consistent change of attitude toward a more reconciled view of the human predicament: this is revealed in the substance of "Fine Furniture," "Solution," "A Start in Life" and "The Tithe of the Lord" as well as in the tone of each of them with the exception of "Solution." As for "Tabloid Tragedy," if it is a more traditional Dreiserian tale, there is surely significance in the fact that its author was not unwilling to allow changes to his story that would give it a more optimistic coloration. However, these five stories do not show Dreiser the short fictionist at his best. Like that portion of E Scott Fitzgerald's fiction written after the Jazz Age or of the fiction of John Steinbeck written after the Great Depression, Dreiser's later stories lack the spark of the best earlier ones; they are generally competent and interesting but no longer passionate and engrossing.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
Boswell, Jeanetta. Theodore Dreiser and the Critics, 1911-1982. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1986, 305 p.
A partially annotated bibliography of selected works by and about Dreiser.
Pizer, Donald, Richard W. Dowell, and Frederic E. Rusch. Theodore Dreiser: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1975, 515 p.
A comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Dreiser.
Asselineau, Roger. "Theodore Dreiser's Transcendentalism." In The Transcendentalist Constant in American Literature, pp. 99-114. New York: New York University Press, 1980.
Exposes Transcendental elements in Dreiser's fiction.
Graham, D. B. "'The Cruise of the Idlewild': Dreiser's Revisions of a 'Rather Light' Story." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 8, No. 1, (Winter 1975): 1-11.
Explores Dreiser's revision process.
Graham, Don. "Psychological Veracity in The Lost Phoebe': Dreiser's Revisions." Studies in American Fiction 6, No. 1 (Spring 1978): 100-05.
Notes changes in style, syntax, and diction that Dreiser made to his story "The Lost Phoebe" between its publication in Century in 1916 and in Free and Other Stories two years later.
Griffin, Joseph. "Dreiser's Short Stories and the Dream of Success." Etudes Anglaises 31, No. 3-4 (July-December 1978): 294-302.
Identifies short stories in which the theme of success plays a prominent role, noting that "what makes Dreiser's stories unique is that, while recognizing the lure as false, they nevertheless attest to its tremendous impact in American life."
——. "'When the Old Century Was New': An Early Dreiser Parody." Studies in Short Fiction 17, No. 3 (Summer 1980): 285-89.
Purports that the early story "When the Old Century Was New" is a social parody or satire rather than a feeble attempt at popular, romantic fiction, as many critics have assumed.
——. "Dreiser Experiments with Form: Five Stories from Chains:" English Studies in Canada 8, No. 2 (June 1982): 174-86.
Documents the use of experimental narrative devices in five of Dreiser's short stories found in the collection Chains: "Chains," "Fulfillment," "The Shadow," "The Hand," and "The Victor."
——. "'Butcher Rogaum's Door': Dreiser's Early Tale of New York." American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 17, No. 1 (Spring 1984): 24-31.
Discusses "Butcher Rogaum's Door" as an experimental work within the context of Dreiser's first "Maumee" stories.
——. The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser's Short Stories. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985, 172 p.
Comprehensive overview of Dreiser's short fiction.
Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Young Dreiser: A Critical Study. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980, 228 p.
Examination of Dreiser's early life, focusing on his youth, journalistic work, and his career as a magazine editor in an effort to demonstrate the significance of these experiences in the shaping of his early short stories and Sister Carrie.
Lingeman, Richard. "Summer on the Maumee." In Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907, pp. 210-20. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1986.
Provides biographical and historical details regarding the composition of five short stories written by Dreiser during one summer in Maumee—"McEwen of the Shining Slave Masters," "Old Rogaum and His Theresa," "Nigger Jeff," "The World and the Bubble," and "When the Old Century Was New"—and offers plot synopses of the stories.
West, Ray B., Jr. "Fiction and Reality: The Naturalists." In The Short Story in America: 1900-1950, pp. 28-58. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952.
Considers Dreiser's stories within the context of his brand of social Darwinism, paying particular attention to 'Typhoon" and 'The Lost Phoebe."
Additional coverage of Dreiser's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 106, 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 12, 102,137; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 10, 18, 35; and World Literature Criticism.