Sunday, September 13, 2009

What to Think About Theodore Dreiser

Dear Theodore,

Here is what I said to a friend the other night. "I love Faulkner's sentences, it is his chapters I dislike." Faulkner had a way with words all right. And if I were honest, I would have to say that many of his chapters are fabulous. I would also have to admit that his work has expanded writing styles and approaches in a wonderful way. But, when I read his works, I am always left disappointed. So much promise, yet, for me, so much disappointment.

I am wondering what I will feel about you and your work after I am finished reading and reviewing a few things. The hype is good. As you may know, I have, for a long time been searching for the "Great American Novel." I'm wondering if I will find the great American novel in the books that you have written. Larzer Ziff, some English professor who might be from Johns Hopkins or UC Berkeley, remarked that you "succeeded beyond any of [your] predecessors or successors in producing a great American business novel." Some people think that you succeeded "beyond any of [your] predecessors or successors in producing the great American novel." Hm.m.m. Perhaps.

Well, I'm not ready to vote on that yet. As I've been reading Sister Carrie, I haven't been impressed too much by sentences, but the chapters are faring better. And my gray recall of An American Tragedy is positive if not too clear. That is one I must review before I say much.

Anyhow, it is this quote from H.L. Mencken that got me writing this letter, because it reflects on something that is important in my thinking. He said of you, "that he is a great artist, and that no other American of his generation left so wide and handsome a mark upon the national letters. American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin. He was a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage. All of us who write are better off because he lived, worked, and hoped."

You made a difference, it seems. And that difference was more than the difference of sentence structure. That's what I like about it. Now, I have to repeat, I love a great sentence. Think about the sentences of Annie Dillard. Like the one about the Polyphemus moth walking away from Shadyside school. "He heaved himself down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees, unwavering." Oh, my. And how about the last sentence of Gatsby, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." And Dickens two city "Best of times," "Worst of times." Do you think I should publish a survey to ask what the best sentence of all literature might be?

But sentences are an easy thing, I think, compared to the themes. And that, is what I contemplate. Is a book important because it has good sentences or because it has good theme? It is the difference between the artistry of style and the artistry of truth.

Sherwood Anderson of Winesburg fame, said:
Heavy, heavy, the feet of Theodore. How easy to pick some of his books to pieces, to laugh at him for so much of his heavy prose ... [T]he fellows of the ink-pots, the prose writers in America who follow Dreiser, will have much to do that he has never done. Their road is long but, because of him, those who follow will never have to face the road through the wilderness of Puritan denial, the road that Dreiser faced alone.

Well, I'm not convinced that you were alone. W.E.B. DuBois was there too, with some of your foibles, but certainly with some of your strengths. He had heavy feet, too, treading and opening roads to reveal what was being denied. You and he, did not have quite the strength of the sentence that I love, but you did face down traditional assumptions and called for a truly new way of being.

I hope that as I review your work I will find a new fearless hero of the written word.



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