Thursday, October 31, 2013

Theodore Dreiser Tells You All You Might Want to Know about Sex

Theodore Dreiser and Henry James.   Perhaps not an obvious pairing, but perhaps more durable than might appear at first blush.  Start with the simpler stuff.  You'd have to admit that James could write, after a fashion, if you like that sort of thing (I'm ambivalent).  Dreiser, strangely, couldn't write at all.  Further: I think it's fair to say that they both wanted to tell the truth about their world, although it is an interesting question what kind of world each thought his to be.  Dreiser surely saw him as an expositor of "America," though probably understood that it was only a slice of American life.  I take it that James, too, though of himself as "American" and he may not have noticed how much of his time and  life took place overseas (for my money, one of his best pieces of work is his story "The Jolly Corner," about a narrator who comes back after a long stay away and finds the old place a ghostly shadow of its former self).

And here's an intriguing convergence: both took women seriously.  I was going to say "understood women," but who am I (and who were they?) to say?--we are not, after all, women.   Still, "understand" or not, they both seemed to recognize women as creatures with lives of heir own--lives with purposes and disappointments that they  might not even share with men.

But there is one interesting and glaring difference.  Thus James, for all his seriousness doesn't seem to understand how babies are made.  Dreiser seems at times to understand it almost too well.  It got him in trouble; it gained him notoriety it drove him and almost defined him.  

Here's a remarkable instance, perhaps not Dreiser at his best but in a sense perhaps most typical.  Once again, we're lifting from Newspaper Days, his autobiography, perhaps best characterized as a monumental effort at self-understanding:

Mrs. X, as I shall have to call her, for I have entirely forgotten her name as well as the number of the house, was entirely different to the two or three women I had known thus intimately heretofore.  She was so small, well formed, pretty, chirpy, with a pagan practicality and directness which was tonic to me at this time, but, for all that, with distinct signs of her thirty years about her.  I liked her very much indeed.  As it was, however, I still had such a sniveling and sniffy attitude in regard to all sex relations that I considered myself very much of a wastrel, if not a deep-dyed villain.  Say what one would, according to my point of view a the time, due to my raising, of course, fornication was a crime—a mortal sin, as he Catholics say—but alas, somehow vastly delicious and humanly unescapable.  No one should really do it—t was not right—but still, if one could and never be found out--.  You know the  American point of view.  In addition I was dreadfully fearful lest I be led into a life of crime or shame by this, or disease—the various diseases springing from this relation being so very much discussed at the time.  And I was always fearful lest (she being promiscuous and I not!) I would acquire some contagion, so that I was for purifying myself with the greatest care, afterwards.  I fancy, due to her American or Midwestern bringing-up, of course, that she may have entertained, or had in the pat, many notions to the same end.  Still, compared to myself, she was a creature of the world and probably noted and was amused by many of my shy puritan ways.  The mere act of silent secretive friction was sufficient for me, whereas I recall now that I was quire shocked—deliciously show of course (even if I looked on it as evil)—at some of her expressions in the process, the direct vigorous way in which, after the first two or three times, she approached this pleasure.
 “You like that!”
 “You like to do it to me?”
 .And the way she bit my neck and cheek, in lieu of love-savageries which I should have indulged in, I presume.  She was so small, and curled herself about me so tightly and pinched and uttered such muttered scrams when her orgasm was upon her that I was astonished, even if pleased.

Once again, that is the Black Sparrow reprint from 2000, T.D. Nostwich editor.

Update:  I've just now stumbled on this lovely narrative account of Dreiser's long and sometimes troubled friendship with H. L. Mencken.


The New York Crank said...
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The New York Crank said...

Sorry for zapping this post a moment ago, it was so full of typos it needed to die. Here it is again, at least somewhat better proofread, I hope:

I haven't read any of James in years. I once thoroughly enjoyed "Washington Square" – so much so that I went on to start reading"Turn of the Screw." Never got past page 40.

The prose in Screw was so dense, you'd need a machete to hack your way through it. Or a screw-tipped borer powered by a diesel engine. At least that's the impression I had, back in the day when I was young and impressionable.

As for Dreiser, despite being a "lit" major at what was then a respectable college, I managed avoid ever reading a word of him, until your blog post. Now, damnit, I'll have to go out and buy one or two of his books.

Very Crankily Yours,
The New York Crank