Thursday, May 14, 2015

Theodore Dreiser

I am not sure if anyone reads much anymore. I am even less certain that people read classics of American literature.  This is notably true for long, complicated novels.  Which means there is a very good chance that nobody is reading the novels of Theodore Dreiser. That is a pity. 
For whatever reason, literary titans go in and out of favor. Some never achieve a great deal of fame. I think that prominent in that group is Dreiser.  He wrote at least two book that are among the greatest of all American novels: Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925). You may be generally aware of American Tragedy because it was the basis of the movie A Place in the Sun (1951). As wonderful as that film is, the book is even better.  Notably, both Carrie and Tragedy feature men who find themselves in impossible positions with a woman in their lives.  In each case, the role of fate is central to what happens. In Carrie, it is the safe swinging shut after Hurstwood takes the money. In Tragedy, is it the tipping of the boat on the lake where Clyde Griffiths took the pregnant Roberta. Both Hurstwood and Griffiths are overcome by the absurd, by random chance. In that sense, I think that Dreiser anticipated some of the literature of the later 20th Century that focuses on how random acts in a chaotic world can cause significant events to unfold. See if you don't hear echoes of Tragedy in The Stranger by Albert Camus. 
Even if you are not persuaded by my literary arguments, you should still read Dreiser.  His novels are damn good stories if nothing else.  The scenes at the end of Tragedy where Griffiths' mother is trying to save him from execution are extraordinary. So, too, are the scenes of Hurstwood after he has come to ruin in New York.   If you seek out these two novels, be sure to get the restored versions. Dreiser's editors had to impose a lot of cuts to get the books onto shelves.  These forced edits did not serve the stories.  Read them in the original if you can.  Dreiser was a huge influence on me.  I see evidence of his style and technique in almost everything I wrote. Check him out. I think you will be very glad you did.

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