Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dreiser Visits the Allegheny County Library

Does anybody read Dreiser these days?  Mencken admired him, but then, does anybody read Mencken?  I read Dreiser when I was young, thanks to Mencken as presented in (I think) the old Vintage Mencken, with an inviting introduction by Alistair Cooke.  I'm pleased to see that the Mencken is still in print--there appears even to be a Kindle and wonder of wonders, it appears to be free (I haven't tried it).

But Dreiser--as Mencken understood (how could he miss?)--Dreiser is one of those great paradoxes of the literary world: a gripping, hypnotic novelist who is at the same time a terrible writer: clunky, ham-handed, overdone in almost every way.  Like Faulkner on his (too frequent) bad days.  And most of all, like Balzac. Yes, Balzac.   Two of a kind, those guys.   They both get drunk on the city--on its richness and on their struggle.  And neither one can write a simple sentence.You find yourself sucked in, and you can't imagine why.

I'm thinking of Dreiser as I disport myself with his autobiography Newspaper Days, finished in 1920 when he was 48 (he had another 25 years to live). which I've got a Black Sparrow edition from 2000, edited by T. D. Nostwich.  It has all the Dreiserian virtues and defects and it offers what is, for the moment, one remarkable insight.  How, you ask, did Dreiser becomes so--well, so Balzacian?  I suppose the answer should be obvious.  But here he is prowling the stacks at the Allegheny County Library in Pittsburgh in 1894 (which would make him 22):
[H]having nothing else to do, or at least nothing immediately pressing, I came here and by the merest chance picked up a volume entitled The Wild Ass' Skin, by one Honoré de Balzac, no less,.  I examined it curiously, reading incidentally a preface which fairly shimmered with his praise. ...  I turned to the first page and began, and from then on until dusk I was sitting in this charming alcove , beside this window, reading.  And it was as if a new and inviting door to life had been suddenly thrown open to me.  Here was one who, as I saw it then, thought, felt and understood and could interpret all that I was interested in.  Through him I saw at a glance a prospect so wide that it fairly left me breathless--all Paris all France, all life through French eyes, and those of a genius. ... It was for me a literary revolution, and this not only for the brilliant and incisive manner in which the man grasped life and invented themes or vehicles whereby to present it.  In my own estimation at least, the type of individual he handled with most enthusiasm and skill, the brooding, seeking, ambitious beginner in life's affairs--social, political, artistic, commercial (Rastignac, Raphael, de Rubempré, Bianchon) was, as I thought, so much like myself, their exact counterpart.
Afterthought:  Well yes, of course.   Might have guessed it, had I given it any thought (maybe it's in Mencken).  Balzac, c'est moi, he might have said, as Flaubert said of Madame Bovary.  As Thoreau said, the shock of recognition.  But one point sidetracks me.  Dreiser responds to Balzac's great gallery of young men.  Well he might, but it seems to me that Balzac is just as good at characterizing the old: Old Goriot, Cousin Pons, Cousine Bette, and (for my money, perhaps the best of them) Eugénie Grandet.  In fact Dreiser mentions the old ones, in a paragraph next to the one just quoted.  But it is clearly the young--those his own age, facing life the same way he felt he faced life--who capture his attention.  And their creator, one might say, who taught him how to write.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't read Mencken but a link to his quotes is bookmarked.