Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

The Financier: Deflated Reading

It’s a sure sign that what I’m reading isn’t holding my interest if I’ve gone this long without posting.  I’m always in the process of reading something, and some combination of work ethic and refusal to acknowledge defeat sometimes makes me continue even when I’m not exactly enjoying myself.  It’s taken months for me to admit that I’m not going to finish Dreiser’s The Financier. I just can’t. I’ve been plodding through it at a snail’s pace, and though I’m a good deal in, I’m going to put it to bed.

Dreiser is the Sybil of authors.  I can’t understand him for the life of me.  When he’s good, his books are just entrancing. When he’s bad, it’s…well, it’s quite bad.  And he’s bad in exactly the areas he’s so good in other books.  The character development in The Financier is just abysmal. The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is so very appropriate here. Dreiser knows so well how to develop an amazing, nuanced character, so I just can’t comprehend the laziness here.

His main character, Cowperwood–I’m so uninvested after a few hundred pages that I can’t remember his first name–is flat in a way that defies flatness.  He is not vanilla.  He is like whatever the thing tasted like before vanilla flavoring was added.  He is like a chunk of drywall.  He is a chalkpit of bleh.  And it shouldn’t be that way. He’s supposedly brilliant, as Dreiser constantly reminds us, and every time I’d turn the page Cowperwood would be reportedly the youngest person to ever be making these kind of advancements in the financial world.  And he certainly has all the moral ambiguity of Eugene from The Genius and Clyde from An American Tragedy.  That often makes for an intriguing character, if not always a likable one. There’s a particularly repulsive scene not too far in where things get pretty rapey with Cowperwood’s wife-to-be, but it’s just the scene I found repulsive.  I didn’t find the idea that Cowperwood would take any kind of action, good or bad, believable, so I never got the chance to even hate him.  The only reason the reader knows anything about this character is because the author tells us directly or tells us through another character’s thoughts.  And this is the unforgivable sin, in my mind, especially if it seems stilted or gimicky.

The reader encounters this telling-not-showing really quickly into the book.  The main character is introduced as a child, and only a few pages later, Dreiser just cheats. I’ll show you what I mean in a moment.

In his books, Dreiser often drifts from character’s mind to character’s mind.  He actually does quite fluidly and I enjoy it, so no problem there. But it’s as if he drifts into the other characters’ minds in this case solely to escape needing to advance the plot by, well, plot.  Here’s Cowperwood’s mother thinking to herself after her son had bought and sold something at an auction:

“Mrs. Cowperwood looked at her boy curiously at dinner. Was this the son she had nursed at her bosom not so very long before? Surely he was developing rapidly.”

So, reader, in case you missed it, things are moving forward, says Dreiser!  The whole book is like that.  And everyone always says the same thing: “Wow, this person is very strong and determined and I am so very impressed by him. Never before have I been this impressed.” YAWN.

But what’s worse is the insult that underpins the message.  The other characters, in essence, say, “in case you’re not getting what you need to know about this character from the plot, I’ll just go ahead and say what you should be thinking.” And with that, I think I’ve gotten to the heart of what I dislike so much about the book.  It’s not just poor character development.  It’s an affront on my intelligence. And it takes the power out of my hands to decide how I think the character is developing.   I’m being assaulted on all sides from all characters in unison instructing me to be impressed by a character that is not impressive.

I’m far too rebellious to do what I’m told.

A Quick Observation on An American Tragedy Upon Completion…

A bout of insomnia allowed me to finish An American Tragedy at about 3:30 AM this morning.  Here’s where I announce the fact that this quick post contains a


SERIOUS SPOILER–Abandon all hope of surprise, ye who have not read and enter here.



Have you left?  Okay.


Clyde never once feels bad about killing Roberta.  (And by the way, he totally killed her–I don’t think that was ever really up for debate.)  He feels bad that he will be forever haunted by the deed, he feels bad that he got caught, he feels bad that he’s done something society thinks is wrong, he feels bad that he lost everything important to him, he feels bad that his mother is freaking out, he feels bad about all sorts of things. But does he ever feel bad that he took someone’s life, as if it was his to dispose of as he saw fit?  Does he ever feel bad that Roberta was once alive, had thoughts, had a past, a family, ideas for the future, and now is dead–because of him?  Not even at the very end does he feel actual remorse for anything except that his life went in a downward trajectory instead of an upward one.  

Clyde is one of the most repulsive characters I’ve ever encountered in literature.  My disgust was physical during the portion of the novel where he was contemplating killing her–I could feel my face scrunching up as I read, and I felt like I was going to throw up.  I’m not a believer in capital punishment, and I’m a little ashamed to say I found the electric chair to be an satisfying ending for this character.  There have been a lot of baddies in literature, but I don’t think anyone has turned my stomach quite like Clyde.  

Dreiser is an AMAZING author. I know–it’s no secret I think that.  But I’m again struck by his character development. It’s his way of taking you inside the character’s mind, showing you how the character came to be…he does it so naturally and with such finesse.  The way he handles long periods of time and subtle changes is perfect.  Clyde’s supposed to be our protagonist.  We watch him grow up.  We see his struggles.  We understand why he is the way he is.  It’s most natural that we’d sympathize with him, root for him even when we don’t really want to.  Dreiser makes his personality turn ugly in such a convincing way that I actually wanted to see him sent to the chair.  That’s something else.    

An American Tragedy was one of the most satisfying, moving literary experiences I’ve had in awhile.  I don’t know if I would call it a delight to read, the same way I wouldn’t call Othello or Wuthering Heights a “delight.”  But it’s a masterpiece. I don’t read for warm, fuzzy feelings, anyway.  I read because there’s nothing like getting wrapped up in the experience of an author displaying his/her craftsmanship.  Dreiser is wonderful for that.

The Society of An American Tragedy

I made a critical error and picked An American Tragedy back up one night this week, ignoring the onslaught of forthcoming deadlines which punctuate the end of my undergraduate journey with a series of exclamation points. (Or maybe, more accurately, “@$#%!*”.)  Big mistake.  Now I’ve spent the week throwing aside the literally fifteen books I have to read for my Russian Revolution class research paper, and I instead find myself sucked into an orbit around the Kindle, unable to resist the gravitational pull of Planet Dreiser.

Planet Dreiser is populated by the society of the 1920s.  If anyone’s seen Boardwalk Empire, you might imagine that the twenties were filled with topless women and gunfire.  (Thank you, Hollywood, for your ever-accurate history lessons–though I shouldn’t judge too harshly, as I imagine the criminal underground did have plenty of both those things to go around in the twenties. I just think it’s a mistake to think that small circle of folks are representative of society.)  But society in An American Tragedy is a prison. Both Roberta and Clyde are inmates, but in different ways.  Considering my feminist leanings, (and considering that Clyde is highly unlikable at this point in the novel) I’m much more moved by the way Roberta is imprisoned. Clyde is trapped by society in that he can only think about the struggle to climb upwards in rank.  But Roberta is a different story.  Clyde pressures her into forsaking her moral qualms about sex with his unspoken threats of not just withdrawing his affection but also making her time at work an emotional nightmare.  Then, when she becomes pregnant–hardly a surprise in a society that considers the subject of birth control taboo–her options are few and terrible.  And the very society that makes her options so terrible is what has placed her in the position in the first place.  Women are supposed to serve the needs of men but remain pure.  Women are to show deference to men’s authority, to be meek and compliant,  yet they are ostracized if they allow men access to their bodies.  But this is an old, old complaint, of course, with roots in the familiar reductionist Madonna/whore dichotomy.  I think Roberta is a perfect example of how real human beings are neither one nor the other.    But her society must slap polarizing labels on her, and her time as the Madonna is about to end.

A good example of this is when she finally finds access to a doctor who, as rumor has it, has performed an abortion before.  Thanks to Dreiser’s inclusion of the doctor’s internal monologue, we get to hear him wavering back and forth as he tries to make a judgement about who Roberta is.  First, she seems too innocent to have that kind of problem, so surely she is here about some trivial health problem which makes an exceedingly modest girl shy.  Then, he remembers how even the most innocent-looking patients have had the darkest, most immoral secrets.  When he finally understands her situation–that she is unmarried and pregnant, he is consumed with distaste toward the situation.  In his defense, his excuse that there is no reward in performing the abortion, only risk to his career and danger to her…well, that seems pretty unarguable.  And yet, he clearly possesses this Madonna/whore mindset that is so prevalent in An American Tragedy’s society–either she’s an innocent, sexless waif or a scarlet woman meant for the streets.  I love Dreiser because a reader can clearly see how the people in his books want to reduce things to categories of black and white.  The reader, at the same time, sees at the same time how resistant to categorization these characters are.  Complicated characters struggling to uncomplicate each other.  This is Planet Dreiser.

Back to Planet Russian Revolution Research, whose gravitational pull is no match for that of luxury reading these days.

An American Tragedy–The Manufactured Scarcity of Hortense’s Presence and Dreiser’s Daring Characters

It’s been a bit, yes.  There’s this whole thing where I’m in school and have to produce an amount of writing and research that would kill a mere mortal.  Luckily, I am not a mere mortal.  I prove this now and will continue to prove this later by not dying.

After a flurry of holiday activity, I am happily back to reading Dreiser.  Actually, I was happy to read most of this semester’s selections as well–Keats, the Shelleys, Gretchen Henderson’s amazing Galerie de Difformite, the lesser-known charlatan William Hazlitt, and some super-interesting art criticism.  Frankly, though, I’m relieved to come back home to the book I’ve been trying to find time to read all semester, and I’m really loving it.  More about why later.

Though I’m well into Part Two of An American Tragedy, the thing I’m most interested in writing about is the captivating section in Part One in which two teenagers are beginning to understand the politics of dating.   Hortense (what a name, huh?) is blossoming into a full-blown gold-digger in record time.  She has discovered that she has looks upon which she can capitalize, and now she is fine-tuning her ability to manipulate circumstance so that she gives the least and gains the most.  She has already divined a counterintuitive fact:  the more spoken for she appears to be, the more attractive she is to others.  So Hortense continually makes it clear that her free time is consumed by dates in order to make Clyde feel as if he is lucky to get a mere moment of her time.  She procures “gifts” the same way.  If so many men are willing to buy her things, as she implies, Clyde must prove he is different.  He plays right into her hands, setting himself apart by his willingness to spend the most money on her.  She balances affection, condescension, and rejection perfectly, making herself just impossible enough to win.  This balance–not her looks or her personality, as he would think–keeps Clyde’s attention.

Clyde is ruled by hormones.  Though it might seem as though he is the tragic hero in this situation, and Hortense the villain, he is just as ruled by crooked motives.  He is focused solely on conquering her and would have little interest remaining once the challenge was over.  Hortense is smart to keep him wanting more.

They feel out the same game, and they play it by the same rules: it’s a sex/bribery quid pro quo, almost explicitly discussed between the two. But they understand the game in fascinatingly different ways, and their ideas of fairness evolve as the stakes go up.  It’s  a delight to read, and it’s agonizing that it’s left unresolved.  I desperately wanted Clyde to give up on her.  Just I felt as if it was going to happen, Dreiser makes the novel take a dramatic turn.  I suspect I’ll hear more about that later on in the book.

Dreiser books with male protagonists are better than his ones with female protagonists.  Why is this?  Dreiser exhibits so much sympathy to the plight of the nonconforming woman.  Yet his books about them are maddening because the women are awful.  They are too sweet, too submissive, too self-sacrificing.  His men are needy and immature, but they have an independent streak that keeps me reading with delight.  They are daring.  Now, Sister Carrie was quite good, and I think it’s because Carrie had her moments of daring (quite unlike Jennie Gerhardt).  But most of the book shows her acquiescing to the desires of men.  In contrast, even as Clyde follows Hortense like a puppy, we hear his inner monologue, and it displays the thoughts of  a bitter, despondent, and rebellious character, not a gentle lamb.

At any rate, I am really loving An American Tragedy.  Clyde is a selfish, shallow, sour character, but I don’t have to like him to be interested in what happens to him.  I just have to think he has daring, apparently.

Jennie Gerhardt as Budget Sister Carrie

I really liked Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, as I indicated in my last post.  Jennie Gerhardt provided me with my first Dreiser disappointment, and I was willing to forgive it until I read the author’s Wikipedia page.  I had pegged this as a young Dreiser work, and I was right.  It was his second.  The novel, though characteristically sensitive to poverty and the ostracism of “impure” women, lacked the character development, depth, and narrative coherency of both Sister Carrie and The Genius.  I assumed that this was a book written as Dreiser attempted to develop skills that would lead him to the creation of a balanced novel.  With that assumption, Jennie Gerhardt could be seen as a step in authorial development rather than a misstep.  But, as it turns out, Sister Carrie was his first novel.  That makes this second bookalso about a young female protagonist carrying on an extramarital affair, seem like an attempt to rewrite Sister Carrie with a miserable ending instead of a happy, or even well-rounded one. Since Dreiser had already proved he knew how to construct a beautiful novel, there isn’t really any excuse for Jennie Gerhardt.

It started out promising.  A young girl was taken advantage of by a man so rich and generous she was not in a position to refuse him if she wanted to save her impoverished family.  But the rest of the novel detailed an incredibly long affair with another man, reportedly (but not demonstrably) charismatic, and it’s simply drudgery to read.  That is of course until the end, where the book doesn’t get better, but things happen.  Things like everyone dying except Jennie and her resigning herself to a wretched, lonely life.  Eeyorrrreee.

I think the difference between this novel and the other Dreiser works is that you both don’t like the characters and you don’t understand them.  As I argued in my post about Sister Carrie, a collection of people you don’t like but understand can be the stuff of a great novel.   I didn’t like Jennie for the same reason I didn’t like Carrie–she seemed like the typical Shakespearean waif (see Desdemona, Hero, etc.) who just wanted to humbly martyr herself while knitting children sweaters and trying not to think of the giant empty hole in her where a personality should be.  Actually, Jennie is even more this way than Carrie was–at least Carrie protested and eventually left abusive situations.  The thing that really bothered me was that Dreiser kept insisting that Jennie was an amazing, exceptional woman and there was no one on earth like her.  It’s a glaring example a writerly sin: he’s telling instead of showing.  If this were a paper I was tutoring, I would say, “Jennie is an exception woman, alright–let’s cite some specific examples to back up that claim.”

As I implied earlier, her supposedly charismatic lover Lester is also not revealed to be anything of the sort in Jennie.  He’s a silly, capricious snob who, with all the proclamations that he owns Jennie, should try out for a leading male role in an Ayn Rand book.  Dreiser tries to explain what makes Lester so complicated in a way that won’t turn us against him, but he doesn’t do a very good job of making us understand him or making us like him.  Lester does a number of unpredictable things, and the most unpredictable of all is that he stays with Jennie despite how amazingly boring and weepy she is.  I could see him being taken with raising the station of  a poor girl and then leaving.  I could understand him throwing social mores to the side and marrying/staying with Jennie just to annoy his family.  But he hates being cast aside.  If he loves being with Jennie so much and can’t bring himself to leave her, I just can’t understand why he wouldn’t marry her if it would solve all the problems he has with family and society, which Dreiser seems to imply it would.

I suppose the lesson here is that you can have unlikable characters, and you can have characters you don’t understand, but if your characters are both unlikable and mind-boggling, your chances of creating a masterpiece are virtually nil.

Nonetheless, I am not deterred.  On to An American Tragedy!  Will be a recipe out of Aristotle’s cookbook?  Or will it be an organic form, growing out of itself and creating its own rules?  Anticipate a full report!

Sister Carrie and the Nuance of Theodore Dreiser

The main reason you should read Dreiser is because you won’t really like any of his characters.

That’s not at all to say you won’t feel for them or enjoy reading about them–you will, which is why I’ve started with the (perhaps rhetorically obnoxious) provocative statement.  Besides having oodles of delicious moral ambiguity, Dreiser’s books are populated by characters are decidedly not-stock (unstock? antistock? stock-taneously combusted?).  There’s not any black and white in the palate to mix and get gray.

All of the characters in his novels do things you won’t like. Yet you’ll understand why they do them.  Take Carrie.  She wants to learn how to be a refined, cosmopolitan lady who exudes the kind of grandeur she sees in other women about town.  She trades in her country charm and earnest naivete for affectation and imitation.  She becomes a fancy carbon copy, practicing faces in the mirror, worrying constantly about the image she cuts, mimicking the mannerisms and gestures of all the grande dames she admires.  It’s awful to read about.  Yet you’ve just read about how underestimated and disrespected she had been, and now people are starting to notice her and treat her like a human being.  Wouldn’t you do the same?  Then you learn that she is a born actress, and all this imitation comes naturally to her because her calling is the theater.  The primping and preening still seems obnoxious, but it’s all forgivable now.  It’s as if her life is a dress rehearsal for playing other characters.

Then, when she is practically kidnapped by her overzealous, possessive lover who won’t take no for an answer, instead of giving him a black eye and and hightailing it as far away from him as possible, she feels sorry for him and marries him.  And you’re disgusted with her again.  But you know she’s trapped, so…

Speaking of the overzealous possessive lover, Hurstwood is the same way.  There is so many things about him to hate.  Stealing.  Treating Carrie as a amusing little possession.  Cheating on his wife.  Leaving his wife and kids without a word.  Lying.  Lack of motivation in getting a job. Gambling all his money away instead of making sure he and Carrie were taken care of.  Yet, when he looks for work (less often than you think he should, but still, he looks), you understand his problem.  He has no money, but he has the air of wealth still about him.  No one will hire him for menial tasks until it’s too late–eventually, he becomes such a wreck he can’t get any kind of job at all.  He’s so pathetic, but his difficulties are so empathetically recounted and his memories of success and happiness are so bittersweet that you can’t help but understand why it’s so hard for him.

I love this.  The way Dreiser crafts his characters is so authentic, because so often I feel this way about real people (in essence, “I hate what you’re doing, but I understand it.”)  Human beings ARE this complicated, and I think Sister Carrie is such a beautiful testament to Dreiser’s brilliance.  With great finesse, he really conveys human complexity.  The Genius also does this (a book which is free, thanks to the wonderful folks at–it’s long, but SO, SO worthy of your investment of time.  I liked it better than Sister Carrie.) The main character in The Genius is another example of someone who does terrible, terrible things, and yet you understand him.  You even cheer for him as he’s wrecking other people’s lives around him.  It’s amazing.

Another thing that makes Dreiser so interesting is that his books just contain snippets of people’s lives.  It’s like if someone’s life story was film on a reel, and Dreiser takes a scissors and makes two casual, random cuts.  Poof, there’s the plot he works with.  Then, through magical, crafty, authorly powers that I can’t imitate, only recognize, he finds a way for the sequence of events to seem rounded out when it comes to an end.  For Sister Carrie, he ended with a kind of life lesson that could be applied to all the characters. In The Genius, he leaves you with the hopes that Eugene has finally grown up, at least a little.   But the actual plot really has no rhyme or reason to its beginning and end–it’s as if Dreiser is simply handing you a snapshot and letting you examine it close up to feel what the moment in time was like.