... and possibly re-read one of Theodore Dreiser's novels, probably "The Financier" or "The Titan", his exposés of the shaky ethical mentality of the American Self-Made Man. The stimulus for doing so would be my surprise at the quality of the five short stories in this Dover Thrift edition. I ordered this flimsy booklet just to fill out the $25 I needed for free shipping from amazon, whereupon I thought I might as well read it. The five stories, it turns out, were selected from a single collection by Dreiser published in 1918. Judging by this selection, the 1918 publication was not a random sheaf of magazine stories but rather a thematically unified "whole" not unlike the story collections of Alice Munro. These five stories are all set in the culture of the American Middle West, and all but one are tales of marriage. The first and last -- "Free" and "Married" -- are effectively mirror images of each other. In "Free" an aging architect frets his conscience about his lack of love for his dying wife, who has never satisfied his artistic expectations; in "Married" a young 'housewife' and her pianist husband fret each other over their mismatch and the sorry future it implies for both of them. The young have a way of becoming the old. And the very old couple in the story "The Lost Phoebe" provide a bittersweet counterpoint, a perfect match till death parts, and unites, them. "The Second Choice" is also a tale of romantic mismatch, reminiscent of Henry James in every way except writing style. The only story not devoted to the woes of marriage is about a young journalist assigned to report on a lynching in a northern prairie community. It's suitably ghastly.
My memories of Dreiser's novels -- Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, and the financial trilogy, all of which I read forty-some years ago -- are of a writer whose 'realism' was ponderous and plain but eventually powerful. I had the idea that Dreiser knew how to write a novel but had no clue how to write a sentence. The novels are certainly long and slow, and Dreiser's language is, for the most part, unadorned. These five stories, however, are taut and affective. The language is sparse and blunt, but so were the 'people' about whom Dreiser wrote. There's a congruence between the language and the matter of the stories that now strikes me as masterfully crafted. The Midwestern America that Dreiser wrote about was, and still is, culturally sparse and emotionally blunt, a land of broad shoulders that too often sag into broader bellies. Dreiser belongs on the shelf with Hamlin Garland, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other regionalists of the northern states, whose works are less bizarre than those of the Southern Gothics but more 'relevent' to the human condition.
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Aug 14, 2010
Aug 31, 2010 06:58 PM UTC
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