Sunday, November 03, 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For
(Department of Honest Toil)

Well, one more Dreiser, but on a hobbyhorse of mine.  That is: we talk with nostalgia about the good old days when we all had jobs. Well, maybe, in a sense, sort of, sometimes.  But one thing we forget is how many of those jobs were god-awful--demeaning, soul-killing exercises in extraction, designed to bleed you dry before your time.  "But they never worked in the mills," my grandmother is said to have said of her children; "they never worked in the mills."  I don't think she had contempt for millworkers or mill work; just compassion for her own, and delighted that they escaped such a fate.  

Which brings me back to Dreiser, and his first great hero(ine)--Sister Carrie, making or taking her chances as she found them, never particularly happy (I suspect she didn't have a clear notion what happiness might be), but sometimes a keen observer:
It was so sad to be ragged and poor. The hang of faded clothes pained her eyes. 
 "And they have to work so hard!" was her only comment.

On the street sometimes she would see men working— Irishmen with picks, coal-heavers with great loads to shovel, Americans busy about some work which was a mere matter of strength— and they touched her fancy. Toil, now that she was free of it, seemed even a more desolate thing than when she was part of it. She saw it through a mist of fancy— a pale, sombre half-light, which was the essence of poetic feeling. Her old father, in his flour-dusted miller's suit, sometimes returned to her in memory, revived by a face in a window. A shoemaker pegging at his last, a blastman seen through a narrow window  in some basement where iron was being melted, a bench-worker seen high aloft in some window, his coat off, his sleeves rolled up; these took her back in fancy to the details of the mill. She felt, though she seldom expressed them, sad thoughts upon this score.  Her sympathies were ever with that under-world of toil from which she had so recently sprung, and which she best understood.

--So Theodore Dreiser. Sister Carrie: a Novel (Kindle Locations 1932-1938).

So much for honest toil. But the thing is in Carrie's world, plenty of them didn't even have the privilege of being exploited.  Her companion and sometimes protector, George Hurstwood, supports himself variously as a saloon keeper and embezzler, and at last falls from grace. Whereupon he discovers a new slice of life among the bums on the Bowery:
He mingled with a crowd of men— a crowd which had been, and was still, gathering by degrees   It began with the approach of two or three, who hung about the closed wooden doors and beat their feet to keep them warm. They had on faded derby hats with dents in them. Their misfit coats were heavy with melted snow and turned up at the collars. Their trousers were mere bags, frayed at the bottom and wobbling over big, soppy shoes, torn at the sides and worn almost to shreds. They made no effort to go in, but shifted ruefully about, digging their hands deep in their pockets and leering at the crowd and the increasing lamps. With the minutes, increased the number. There were old men with grizzled beards and sunken eyes, men who were comparatively young but shrunken by diseases, men who were middle-aged. None were fat. There was a face in the thick of the collection which was as white as drained veal. There was another red as brick. Some came with thin, rounded shoulders, others with wooden legs, still others with frames so lean that clothes only flapped about them. There were great ears, swollen noses, thick lips, and, above all, red, blood-shot eyes. Not a normal, healthy face in the whole mass; not a straight figure; not a straightforward, steady glance. 

Theodore Dreiser. Sister Carrie: a Novel (Kindle Locations 6435-6439).

No comments: