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.


Blogger Bookkat said...

Mr. Ewing,

I enjoyed your thoughts on "action." Action is an interesting noun and, to my knowledge, never used as a verb (slightly ironic).

My immediate reaction to your comments is that the action in Sister Carrie probably wouldn't translate to making an exciting action film. Yet your description of the characters' thoughts,shifts in the landscape, as "these kinds of modulations propel action and advance the story" is most compelling.

Interesting how such thoughts can be riveting only in the form of written words.

You make Dreiser's books sound irrestible. Please continue the excellent blog posts.

Your fan,

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Ewing

Thanks for your insight concerning action in Dreiser's books. It is interesting how the reader is somewhat removed from getting to know Frank in The Financier.

Frank is only 20 years old so far in my reading and I must confess he seems to be a superman figure that doesn't quite match with reality.

I do find Dreiser's choice of words and descriptive language to be varied and unexpected. A delight to read! Quite a masterful writer!

12:29 PM  

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