Two Dreiser Novels

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/August 4, 1916

I

Of the five Dreiser novels so far published, the most popular, I believe, is Sister Carrie. After its suppression in 1900 it was half forgotten, but its republication in 1907 brought it into notice again, and since then it has made its way steadily. The causes of its relative popularity are not far to seek. It has, like Jennie Gerhardt, the capital advantage of having a young and appealing woman for its protagonist; and sentimentalists thus have a heroine to cry over and to put into a pigeonhole. And it is, at bottom, a tale of love—the one theme of permanent interest to the average American novel reader, the chief stuffing of all our best-selling romances. But no more than a casual glance is needed to show that it is very much more than that—that its true place is not with the trashy novels of the hour, but with the enduring literature of the nation. No other story I know of gets closer to that blind, hopeful, unyielding struggle, that incessant battle against a hospitable and yet recalcitrant environment, which is the pre-eminent mark of American life; no other makes it more real, more poignant, more genuinely dramatic and moving; and no other evokes with greater skill the failure and heartbreak that must be, for all the easy successes it shows, its normal and preponderous issue. Carrie Meeber is no mere individual; she is a type of the national character, almost the archetype of the muddled, aspiring, tragic, fate-flogged mass, and the scene in which she is set is brilliantly national too. The Chicago of those great days of feverish money-grabbing and crazy aspiration may well stand as an epitome of America. It is made clearer here than in any other American novel—clearer than in The Pit or The Cliff Dwellers—vastly clearer than in any book by an Easterner. Dreiser has not half so well with New York; the city is foreign to him, and its spirit seems to elude him; he cannot get down to its essential drama. And when he goes elsewhere he becomes the frank tourist, seeing only what is on the skin.

II

Sister Carrie is a truly astounding first book, and one marvels to hear that it was written lightly. Dreiser, in those days (circa 1899), had seven or eight years of newspaper work behind him, in Chicago, St. Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and New York, and was beginning to feel that reaction of disgust which attacks all newspaper men when the enthusiasm of youth wears out. He had been successful, but he saw how hollow that success was, and how little surety it held out for the future. The theatre was what chiefly lured him; he had written plays in his nonage, and he now proposed to do them on a large scale, and so get some of the easy dollars of Broadway. It was an old friend from Toledo, Arthur Henry, who turned him toward story-writing. The two had met while Henry was city editor of the Blade, and Dreiser a reporter looking for a job. (The episode is related in A Hoosier Holiday.) A firm friendship sprang up, and Henry conceived a high opinion of Dreiser’s ability, and urged him to try a short story. Dreiser was distrustful of his own skill, but Henry kept at him, and finally, during a holiday the two spent together at Maumee, Ohio, he made the attempt. Henry had the manuscript typewritten and sent it to Ainslee’s Magazine. A week or two later there came a cheque for $75.

This was in 1898. Dreiser wrote four more stories during the year following, and sold them all. Henry now urged him to write a novel, but again his distrust of himself held him back. Henry finally tried a rather unusual argument: he had a novel of his own on the stocks (A Princess of Arcady, published in 1900), and he represented that he was in difficulties of it and needed company. One day, in September, 1899, Dreiser took a sheet of yellow paper and wrote a title at random. That title was Sister Carrie, and with no more definite plan than the mere name offered, the book began. It went ahead steadily enough until the middle of October, and had come by then to the place where Carrie meets Hurstwood. At that point Dreiser gave it up in disgust. It seemed pitifully dull and inconsequential, and for two months he put the manuscript away. Then, under renewed urgings by Henry, he resumed the writing, and kept on to the place where Hurstwood steals the money. Here he went aground upon a comparatively simple problem: he couldn’t devise a way to manage the robbery. Late in January he gave it up. But the faithful Henry kept at him, and in March he resumed work, and soon had the story finished. The latter part, despite many distractions, went quickly. Once the manuscript was complete, Henry suggested various cuts, and in all about 40,000 words came out. The fair copy went to the Harpers.

III

They refused it without ceremony, and soon afterward Dreiser carried the manuscript to Doubleday, Page & Co. He left it with Frank Doubleday, and before long there came a notice of its acceptance, and, what is more, a contract. But after the story was in type it fell into the hands of the wife of one of the members of the firm, and she conceived so strong a notion of its immorality that she soon convinced her husband and his associates. There followed a series of acrimonious negotiations, with Dreiser holding resolutely to the letter of his contract. It was at this point that Frank Norris entered the combat—bravely but in vain. The pious Barabbases, confronted by their signature, found it impossible to throw up the book entirely, but there was no nomination in the bond regarding either the style of binding or the number of copies to be issued, so they evaded further dispute by bringing out the book in a very small edition and with modest unstamped covers. Copies of this edition are now eagerly sought by book collectors, and one in good condition fetched about $25 in the auction rooms. Even the second edition (1907), bearing the imprint of B. W. Dodge and Co., carries an increasing premium.

The passing years work strange farces. The Harpers, who had refused Sister Carrie with a spirit bordering upon indignation in 1900, took over the rights of publication from B. W. Dodge & Co. in 1912, and reissued the book in a new format, with a publisher’s note containing smug quotations from the encomiums of the Fortnightly Review, the Athenaeum, the Spectator, the Academy and other London critical journals. More, they contrived humorously to push the date of their copyright back to 1900. But this new enthusiasm for artistic freedom did not last long. They had published Jennie Gerhardt in 1911 and they did The Financier in 1912, but when The Titan followed, in 1914, they were seized with qualms, and suppressed the book after it had gone into type. In this emergency the English firm of John Lane came to the rescue, and it has remained Dreiser’s publisher ever since.

For his high service to American letters the active head of Doubleday, Page & Co., Walter H. Page, has been made ambassador to England, where Sister Carrie is regarded (according to the Harpers) as “the best story, on the whole, that has yet come out of America.” A curious series of episodes. Another proof, perhaps, of that cosmic imbecility upon which Dreiser himself is so fond of discoursing.

IV

“The power to tell the same story in two forms,” said George Moore not long ago, “is the sign of the true artist.” You will think of this when you read Jennie Gerhardt, for in its objective plan, and even in the details of its scheme of subjective unfolding it suggested Sister Carrie at every turn. Reduce it to a hundred words, and those same words would also describe the earlier book. Jennie, like Carrie, is a rose grown from turnipseed. Over each, at the start, hangs poverty, ignorance, the dumb helplessness of the Shudra, and yet in each there is that indescribable something, that element of essential gentleness, that innate inward beauty that levels all barriers of caste and makes Esther a fit queen for Ahasucrus. Some Frenchman has put it into a phrase: “Une ame grande dans un petit destin”-a great soul in a small destiny. Jennie has some touch of that greatness: Dreiser is forever calling her “a big woman”; it is a refrain almost as irritating as “the trig” of The Titan. Carrie, one feels, is of baser metal; her dignity never rises to anything approaching nobility. But the history of each is the history of the other. Jennie, like Carrie, escapes from the physical miseries of the struggle for existence only to taste the worse miseries of the struggle for happiness. Don’t mistake me; we have here no maudlin tales of seduced maidens. Seduction, in truth, is far from tragedy for either Jennie or Carrie. The gain of each, until the actual event has been left behind and obliterated by experiences more salient and poignant, is greater than her loss, and that gain is to the soul as well as to the creature. With the rise from want to security, from fear to ease, comes an awakening of the finer perceptions, a widening of the sympathies, a gradual unfolding of the delicate flower called personality, an increased capacity for loving and living. But with all this, and as a part of it, there comes, too, an increased capacity for suffering—and so, in the end, when love slips away and the empty years stretch before, it is the awakened and supersentient woman that pays for the folly of the groping, bewildered girl. The tragedy of Carrie and Jennie, in brief, is not that they are degraded, but that they are lifted up, not that they go to the gutter, but that they escape the gutter and glimpse the stars.

V

But if the two stories are thus variations upon the same somber theme, if each starts from the same place and arrives at the same dark goal, if each shows a woman heartened by the same hopes and tortured by the same agonies, there is still a vast difference between them and that difference is the measure of the author’s progress in his craft during the years between 1900 and 1911. Sister Carrie is a first sketch, a rough piling-up of observations an impressions, disordered and often incoherent. In the midst of the story of Carrie, Dreiser pauses to tell the story of Hurstwood—an astonishingly vivid and tragic story, true enough, but still one that, considering form alone, breaks the back of the other. In Jennie Gerhardt he falls into no such overelaboration of episode. His narrative goes forward steadily from beginning to end. Episodes there are, of course, but they keep their proper place, their proper bulk. It is always Jennie that holds the attention; it is Jennie’s soul that every scene is ultimately ‘played out.

I have spoken of reducing the story to a hundred words. The thing, I fancy, might be actually done. The machinery is not complex; there is no plot, as plots are understood; no puzzles madden the reader. Brander finds Jennie at her slavery’s work, lightly seduces her and then discovers that, for some strange gentleness within her, he loves her. Lunacy—but he is willing to face it out. Death, however, steps in; Brander, stricken down without warning, leaves Jennie homeless and a mother. Now enters Lester Kane—not the villain of the books, but a normal, decent, cleanly American of the better class, well-to-do, level-headed, not too introspective, eager for the sweets of life. He and Jennie are drawn together; if love is not all of the spirit, then it is love that binds them. For half a dozen years the world lets them alone. A certain grave respectability settles over their relation; if they are not actually married, then it is only because marriage is a mere formality, to be put off until tomorrow. But bit by bit they are dragged into the light. Kane’s father, dying with millions, gives him two years to put Jennie away. The penalty is poverty; the reward is wealth—and not only wealth itself, but all the pleasant and well-remembered things that will come with it; the lost friends of other days, a sense of dignity and importance, an end of apologies and evasions, good society, the comradeship of one decent woman. Kane hesitates, makes a brave defiance, thinks it over—and finally yields. Jennie does not flood him with tears. She has made progress in the world, has Jennie; the simple faith of the girl has given way to the pride and poise of the woman. Five years later Kane sends for her. He is dying. When it is over Jennie goes back to her lonely home, and there, like Carrie Meeber before her, she faces the long years with dry eyes and an empty heart. “Days and days in endless reiteration, and then”—

A moral tale? Not at all. It has no more moral than a string quartet or the first book of Euclid. But a philosophy of life is in it, and that philosophy is the same profound pessimism which gave a dark color to the best that we have from Conrad, Hardy, Moore, Zola and the Russians—the pessimism of disillusion—not the jejune, Byronic thing, not the green sickness of youth, but that pessimism which comes with the discovery that the riddle of life, despite all the fine solutions offered by the learned doctors, is essentially insoluble. And to me, at least, she is more tragic thus than Lear on his wild hearth or Prometheus on his rock.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.