Sunday, October 30, 2005

Our attention is diverted.

Dear Readers:

Have you seen the posts from the - I presume - gentleman named "Manley"? He writes well enough, but I'm wondering if he's wandered into the wrong class, so to speak. He wants Dreiser picture books, coffee table books and in one post he asks about a Dreiser tour guide for the Erie Canal. I think that reading - all reading - is something to encourage in an increasingly visual society where information and "knowledge" can seem to arrive instantly via the Internet and television. But I'm at a loss about comment or advice for Mr. Manley, actually, a sense of unease that extends far beyond trying to answer whether or not CVS sells Dreiser's novels. I think Mr. Manley has a boat. It's possible that while working on his boat or waterskiing or keeping his head under the water to watch the propellor spin, perhaps Mr. Manley was in some way afflicted, resulting in a condition that still hasn't resolved completely. I just don't know; complete sanity is not one of my strong points. Another possibility is that the waterways in which Mr. Manely floats are not the purest and that various mind-altering volatile compounds affected him. We'll retain his posts. Perhaps a more clinically trained reader can offer some help. In the meantime, please advise if anyone sees any of Dreiser's novels at Super-X or Costco or Sam's Club. I'm sure they are there.

But now, all seriousness aside, let's turn to Ms. Noe's delightful and well written comments. Thank you. Please keep us posted about works by Alexander McCall Smith.

As I noted in a previous posting I finished Sister Carrie last weekend. It took a while. Not nearly as long as finishing An American Tragedy which I had to renew many times (although I also had to renew Carrie...). But Sister Carrie is an easier book to read. The actual sentences, the words chosen, are not as complex and tightly woven.

For those of you who haven't yet read Carrie, the book tells of a young woman who goes to Chicago to find work. It's not easy - her struggle itself is one of Dreiser's messages. Carrie does find work in a shoe factory but she becomes ill, misses work and is fired. So she starts looking again and runs into a fellow she met on the train that first brought her to Chicago. He's a nice enough guy, although our author literally describes Mr. Drouett as "a masher." Drouett is a successful salesman and he gives Carrie money. Then he starts buying her clothes. Then, when she can't stand living with her provincially minded sister and brother-in-law, who largely like having her around because she pays $4 a week for rent, Carrie lets Mr. Drouett set her up in an apartment. Then we learn that she and Mr. Drouett are, indeed, living in that same apartment. He establishes the lie that Carrie is Mrs. Drouett.

Dreiser masterfully presents the non-choices, the dilemmas, for Carrie as she struggles. The Chicago winter is approaching and Carrie has no coat. She has no food. But here is Mr. Drouett, very friendly, he's not threatening or demanding, with the offer: just take some of my money, Carrie, pay me back when you get work. Carrie has no choice; she either maintains Victorian propriety, and starves or freezes or both, or she takes Mr. Drouett's material offerings. She has no strong feelings for him. If there is any intimacy in their relationship it's not overt, quite possibly because even such a Platonic relationship was scandalous enough for the year 1900, when Carrie was published.

More later - remember, it's a long book.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Short Stories

First, I want to thank Anonymous for her or his comments regarding Frank C.'s status in the Financier. I agree, at 20, or so, Frank has accomplished quite a bit, and compared to many 20 year olds - why it hasn't been that long ago since this writer was 20, or perhaps even 2 X 20 - Frank is "Da Man." But I think that our author has deliberately cast him (i.e., Frank, not your blogger) as a kind of wunderkind. Recall that Frank has it "figured out" early in the novel. He knows what the world's struggles are all about. He knows who wins the battle of the weak and the strong. Recall the tremendous scene in the first 30 pages or so when Frank, as a boy, watches the battle of the sea creatures in the aquarium in the window of the store in Philadelphia. (I would be more specific about that battle but I took my copy of the F. back to the library a while ago and I can't look it up right now.) So, my point is, that at 20, Frank is on a mission, and he's successful. But Anonymous's point is well taken. In a way, Frank is almost two-dimensional; he's just a money making automaton who can do no wrong in the money business.

Now, I want to turn to Short Stories for at least a comment or two. I am reading a collection called "Free and Other Stories." Publication - 1st printing: August, 1918; 6th (and final) printing, April, 1927. Either date - that's a long time ago. The later date is 78 years ago!

The story "Free" might be summarized as "Clyde Griffiths and Roberta get married and live together and have a family." Ohhhh... It's not happy. [For those of you not there yet, Clyde and Roberta are an important twosome in American Tragedy. At first they think about marriage but then Clyde has other ideas and they take a boat ride together... and, well, I can't tell anymore because you have to read the book, but I can write that the boat ride does prevent their marriage.]

Anyway, in Free, our hero (Rufus Haymaker) is trapped in a death watch for his poor sick wife and the dilemma for Mr. Haymaker is that while he hates to contemplate her desperate condition, the truth is he never never liked the lady. So, there are many philosophical riddles and conundrums. The story's OK. It's called a "short story" but it's 53 pages! Dreiser can write, can't he - forever? The man never runs out of words.

Anyway, the story Free has some dark humor. To help the poor wife - remember, this is medicine (so called) as it was practiced at least 78 years ago - Dr. Storm orders "a transfusion." Blood is obtained from "a strong ex-cavalryman out of a position." The wife rallies, but just briefly. So then, a 2nd transfusion is ordered. This time - from a horse! And the husband is worried that his mixed and confused thoughts might somehow affect his wife's demise!

Meanwhile, Mr. Haymaker is thinking about being "free." Get it? And having a few years when he doesn't have to pretend, pretend, pretend. He ogles the nurse: "a smooth, pink, graceful creature, with light hair and blue eyes, the kind of eyes and color that of late, and in earlier years, had suggested to him the love time or youth that he had missed."

So far I have also read "McEwen of the Slave Makers", about a fellow who falls asleep and becomes a soldier with a colony of ants and a story with the very unpolitically correct title of "Nigger Jeff" in which a lynch mob is trying to abduct a black man being held by the sheriff.

Well, so much for happy themes that don't quite ever modulate to the major key.

I still need to comment on Sister Carrie, which I finished last weekend on a dark and stormy and chilly night; not quite as cold and stormy as the blizzard that filled New York's streets as George went for a final night in another flophouse and laid down to rest after he turned on the gas.

Hey, remember, they're just novels...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Thoughts on "action."

Actually, I'm not sure if "action" is the right word. My reference is to an event, or a new personality, that really upends the landscape on which Dreiser's characters are currently set. For example, in a previous comment I thought that the great Chicago fire was the equivalent to hurricane Katrina for Frank Cowperwood's operations in Philadelphia. In Sister Carrie the reader gets the same sense of shift after certain events, e.g., the panicked travel that follows when Hurstwood discovers that his business safe is unlocked or when Carrie goes out with the Vances and, to her surprise, Mrs. Vance's brother will be part of the group for dinner. These kinds of modulations propel action and advance the story. I find them unexpected and surprising; a tactic that makes Dreiser such a good author. The action idea in Dreiser is almost contradictory. In the novels I've read (so far just two and a half) the characters are largely inactive. Clyde works in a collar factory. Carrie seems to spend most of her time in a rocking chair reading penny dreadfuls. Frank does his ciphering (except, of course, when Eileen is around...). Action in these novels is not like in an "action novel" where people climb mountains or go hunting or ride horses or get in gun fights. Rather, the action occurs more fundamentally - the stage itself, the landscape, shifts in some fundamental way and our friends find themselves pushed forward.

In Cincinnati, where I live, we have a great used book store on Main Street called the Ohio Book Store. Truly one of the best - three or four stories of a every kind of book imaginable - from five years old to 125 years old. I was there last week to see which of Dreiser's novels might be available. I found a Modern Libary edition of Sister Carrie which was in pretty bad shape, but it did have an introduction written by the great man himself. Then, I found a two volume boxed set of Tragedy; it, too, was in horrible shape - frayed, torn, faded and really old! I didn't buy either but I did buy two biographies. One is titled "Dreiser"; the author is W.A. Swanberg, pictured on the jacket cover and he is smoking a pipe (that's gotta mean something). It was published in 1965 and it is in pretty good shape. On the first inside page a previous owner signed his name and wrote the date - 1972! You know what? I think I know the guy! My complaint: why did he have to sign his name in ink?

The second book is also titled "Dreiser." It is written by Philip L. Gerber and it seems (I haven't read it yet) to be more commentary than biography. This book is part of a series called "Twayne's United States Authors Series" and it was published in 1964. The Series editor is (was - 1964 was a long time ago...) at Indiana University, a college that has a hold on me - and I am not an IU graduate.

Anyway, when I was paying for these two books I commented that I saw just two of Dreiser's novels. The bookstore owner said that his novels very rarely come in. Why is that? My birthday copy of The Titan is old, purchased from a collector on E-bay. Maybe everyone's keeping her or his copies; maybe there weren't too many printed; or maybe the copies were all burned...

That's not funny. Dreiser's books were ordered to be burned by at least one library board. More on that another time.

Suddenly I remember that there are dishes on the dinner table. Real dishes to pick up or drop or, ugh, clean somewhat and place in the dishwasher. They are not dishes on a table at Hannah and Hogg's on Adam Street or at Sherry's at 5th Avenue and 28th Street. No, these dishes are real, very real.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

a present

Well, yesterday was my birthday, and consequential here only because I was lucky enough to get a present: a copy of "The Titan", from my wonderful spouse, who has found herself having to sit through many one-sided discussions and readings based on or from some of the novels... She said she doesn't mind...

Anyway, I liked The Financier. I thought Frank Cowperwood was cool. He was tough without being mean. He liked life, the arts, beauty. Of course he was also a crook, spending 13 months in the big house, but, hey, it's business.

Then, whose name jumped out at me as I flipped through the pages of my new copy of The Titan?! Frank's! Really. I didn't know that The Titan starts where The Financier ends. You see, my birthday present will be a friendly companion for quite some time. Just think of how many chores will not get done, how many leaves will not be raked... My copy of The Titan is 552 pages.

But I am digressing because first I have to finish Sister Carrie. I am at the point where she is getting ready for her first theatrical appearance, a benefit presentation for Drouet's lodge.

Which book are you reading now?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hello Theodore Dreiser Fans

Hello to everyone who enjoys - perhaps that's not the right word - Theodore Dreiser's novels and writings! "Enjoys" might be too superfluous. A better welcome might be to everyone who is "challenged" or "stimulated" or "enlightended" by Theodore Dreiser's novels (and enjoyment can certainly be a part of such responses).

Here's how I started reading Dreiser: a few years ago - at the turn of the century - many of you might have seen a Modern Library list of the top 100 English language novels of the 20th Century. Well, Drieser has two on that list - Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.

I read Tragedy first and it bowled me over. Jeez. This guy knew how to pen a sentence or two. Then I read "My Life With Dreiser" by Mrs. Dreiser, who, of course, didn't become "Mrs." until the end of the book... Then I read The Financier and I thought it was better - in some ways - than Tragedy. What a remarkable historical novel. Everything's going fine for Frank Cowperwood in Philadelphia and then what knocks him off his perch? The great Chicago fire! I'm thinking: is this a parallel to Katrina or what?

It occurred to me that others might be avid Dreiser readers, folks who might like a place to comment on Ted's writings and ideas. So I thought I'd get this Blog started, an event made possible with the assistance of a professional blogger - my son, a status that is not a joke; he is actually paid for blogging, another story, of course, but important here because he set up this site.

So if you like Mr. Dreiser's novels and other writings, feel free to contribute ideas, thoughts, perspectives, analyses, whatever. See you soon.