In Dreiser's Footsteps

Theodore Dreiser died on this day in 1945. Among the funeral tributes was H. L. Mencken's description of Dreiser as "a man of large originality, of profound feeling, and of unshakable courage," one who left American writing changed "almost as much as biology before and after Darwin." Mencken had for decades championed Dreiser's gritty realism and his shared habit of going against the stream, but their friendship had often been combative. Dreiser had inscribed one of his books, "To H. L. Mencken, my oldest living enemy," and Mencken had trashed An American Tragedy as "a vast, sloppy, chaotic thing of 385,000 words — at least 250,000 of them unnecessary."

 

Many had expressed similar criticism of Dreiser's writing, and similar praise for his accomplishment. Sherwood Anderson's 1923 story collection, Horses and Men is dedicated to Dreiser and prefaced with Anderson's tribute to Dreiser's embattled path as a pioneer in American naturalism:

Heavy, heavy, the feet of Theodore. How easy to pick some of his books to pieces, to laugh at him for so much of his heavy prose.

The feet of Theodore are making a path, the heavy brutal feet. They are tramping through the wilderness of lies, making a path. Presently the path will be a street, with great arches overhead and delicately carved spires piercing the sky. Along the street will run children, shouting, "Look at me. See what I and my fellows of the new day have done" —forgetting the heavy feet of Dreiser.

The fellows of the ink-pots, the prose writers in America who follow Dreiser, will have much to do that he has never done. Their road is long but, because of him, those who follow will never have to face the road through the wilderness of Puritan denial, the road that Dreiser faced alone.

The road theme is echoed in the Dreiser poem which Charlie Chaplin, another friend, read at the Hollywood funeral:

Oh space!
Change!

Toward which we run
So gladly,
Or from which we retreat
In terror—
Yet that promises to bear us
In itself
Forever.

Oh, what is this
That knows the road I came?

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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