Monthly Archives: September 2016

inventory of Dreiserana (books, etc. by and about Theodore Dreiser) in Roger W. Smith’s personal library

 

 

 

inventory of Dreiserana in my private library

 

 

The attached Word document (above) contains an inventory of Dreiserana — books and materials by, about, and related to the author Theodore Dreiser — in my personal library.

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) was an American novelist whose best known works are Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2018

A Seventeenth Century Biographical Sketch of William Shakespeare

 

 

“William Shakespeare” by John Aubrey

 

Mr William Shakespeare

Mr William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick. His father was a butcher and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would doe it in a high style, and make a speech. There was at this time another butcher’s son in this town that was held not at all inferior to him for a natural wit, his acquaintance and coetanean, but died young.

This William, being inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess, about 18: and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act exceedingly well (now Ben Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor). He began early to make essays at dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well.

He was a handsome, well shaped man: very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smoot wit. The humour of … the constable in Midsomernight’s Dreame, he happened to take at Grendon in Bucks — I think it was Midsomer night that he happened to lye there — which is the road from London to Stratford, and there was living that constable about 1642, when I first came to Oxford: Mr Jodas Howe is of that parish, and knew him. Ben Jonson and he did gather humours of men daily where ever they came. One time as he was at the tavern at Stratford-super-Avon, one Combes, an old rich usurer, was to be buried, he makes there this extemporary epitaph:

Ten in the Hundred the Devill allowes,
But Combes will have twelve, he sweares and vowes:
If anyone askes who lies in this tombe,
‘Hoh!’ quoth the Devill, ’tis my John o Combe.

He was wont to go to his native country once a year. I think I have been told that he left 2 or 300 li. per annum there and thereabout to a sister. Vide: his epitaph in Dugdale’s Warwickshire.

I have heard Sir William Davenant and Mr Thomas Shadwell (who is counted the best comedian we have now) say that he had a most prodigious wit, and did admire his natural parts beyond all other dramatical writers. He was wont to say (Ben Jonson’s Undererwoods) that he ‘never blotted out a line in his life’; said Ben Jonson, ‘I wish he had blotted-out a thousand.’

His comedies will remain wit as long as the English tongue is understood, for that he handles mores hominum [the ways of mankind]. Now our present writers reflect so much upon particular persons and coxcombeities, that twenty years hence they will not be understood.

Though, as Ben Jonson says of him, that he had but little Latin and less Greek, he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster, in the country – this from Mr … Breston.

 

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This biographical sketch of Shakespeare was published in John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies written by Aubrey (1626–1697).

The version posted here, which is in slightly edited form, was been published in Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey, My Own Life.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman …

and Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long —  was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said about this:

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (on which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel, Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (Book Two, Chapter XLV) contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book.

Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (yes!) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact.

We almost BECOME Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to become one with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style – to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary.

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend.

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has “muscled” its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

– Roger W. Smith

September 2016

 

 

 

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1925).jpg

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1926).jpg

“I love children”

 

 

“I love children, and people of no importance: but I’m always up against those who boast of wealth.”

 

— The Autobiography of a Turkish Girl by Reşat Nuri Güntekin, translated by Sir Wyndham Deedes

 

 

A Response to the “Cultural Appropriation” Zealots

 

fiction-and-identity-politcs-lionel-shriver-sppech

 

Attached in the above Word document is the full text of a speech by author Lionel Shriver, “Fiction and Identity Politics,” which Ms. Shriver delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival on September 8, 2016.

As noted in The New York Times, “Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” She “was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from cultural appropriation.”

The buzzword used by those who want to institute such bans is Cultural Appropriation.

Ms. Shriver’s speech is a devastating attack on the anti-cultural appropriation faction of the PC crowd. It demolishes their presuppositions, though, of course, they will never admit it; Ms. Shriver has already been subjected to virulent counterattacks.

The piece is extremely well written; well thought out; tightly knit; focused; effectively backed up with and illustrated by cogent argument, counterpoints, and supporting examples. Miss Shriver doesn’t miss a beat.

Her speech speaks for and stands by itself. I cannot imagine, had I been asked or had occasion to write such a speech, ever saying it better.

I would merely like to add the names of a few works of fiction (and one work by a composer) that come to mind, works that would probably be banned if the “cultural appropriation” zealots had their way:

Moby-Dick (Queequeg)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Hadji Murad (Leo Tolstoy)

Huckleberry Finn

James Joyce’s Ulysses (Leopold Bloom)

Porgy and Bess

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      September 16, 2016

 

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Also noteworthy, and right on the money, are the comments of Janice Gewirtz in a letter to the editor published in the The New York Times of September 16, 2016:

Perhaps the most absurd tenet of the spreading political-correctness takeover is the objection to “cultural appropriation.” I hadn’t realized that it had jumped, scarily, from the college campus to the critics of writers. Hats off to the novelist Lionel Shriver for speaking out against it at a writers’ conference in Australia.

One writer actually walked out of Ms. Shriver’s talk because it was a “celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” Isn’t that almost the definition of what fiction is? Will someone soon claim that men should not write about women?

Writers of fiction need to be unfettered to explore the limits of their imaginations, period.

— Janice Gewirtz

 

 

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See also:

“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” The New York Times, September 12, 2016

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?mwrsm=Email&_r=0

 

 

“In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” op ed by Kenan Malik, The New York Times, June 14, 2017

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/in-defense-of-cultural-appropriation.html

 

 

My Father’s Career as a Musician

 

A message from someone who read a post on this blog, asking about my father’s career as a musician, prompted me to respond as follows:

 

— Roger W. Smith

      September 2016

 

 

 

****************************************************************

 

re my father (Alan W. Smith):

Thanks for asking! To respond to your queries:

My father was a pianist.

He also played accordion occasionally.

Plus, he was a church organist and choir director.

And a piano teacher.

He had a music degree from Harvard.

He was not famous.

He started working professionally in his teens while still in school.

He did all kinds of gigs — everything from musicals and ice skating shows to bar mitzvahs.

He played piano for years as a regular at a restaurant on Cape Cod. People loved him. He loved to meet people and socialize. Knew every tune.

He loved his work. He would frequently say to me, “I never worked a day in my life.”

 

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addendum:

 

In response to further queries from the same individual, I have added a little bit more about my father’s musical career:

I was always proud to be able to say that my father was a musician. He didn’t have the same type of job as most of my friends’ fathers did. He hated the thought of a 9 to 5 job.

My father performed with a few famous people, once or twice. I believe he made a demo record with Dinah Shore. And, he was proud to say that he performed once with a backup band behind Cab Calloway.

He hardly ever talked about it, but he played the trombone in high school. Early in his career – when he was still quite young – he performed with the Harry Marshard and his Orchestra in Boston. It was the Big Band Era (1930’s and 40’s). He may have played some trombone then.

He worked with guys from all walks of life and educational levels, ranging from cultured and highly educated (Ph.D. in one case; a bass player who used to accompany him) to crude, uneducated guys who liked to swap dirty jokes. Many of his fellow musicians moonlighted  as musicians while pursuing careers such as dentistry and academics. He learned from this how to get along with people from all walks of life and from various educational and cultural backgrounds.

My father was in the Army during World War II. I don’t think his role was as a musician — in fact, I’m certain it was not. He was proud of his military service. (He did not see combat.)

Roger W. Smith, “A Commentary on Nathaniel Philbrick’s Observations about ‘Moby-Dick'”

 

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

Philbrick is a great admirer of Herman Melville. He states, in the first chapter, that he has read Melville’s novel Moby-Dick “at least a dozen times.”

I read Moby-Dick in a book borrowed from the New York Public Library in the 1970’s. I couldn’t put it down. The book and Melville were a revelation for me.

The following are some thoughts of my own about Moby-Dick based upon my reading of Philbrick’s excellent study cum appréciaton.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

 

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(Page numbers below refer to Why Read Moby-Dick?)

 

 

pg. 9

Philbrick says, “I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs.”

Although I agree with most of the points Philbrick makes, I disagree strongly here. To fully appreciate the book, you’ve got to take it all in, including the cetology.

 

pg. 17

“free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy”; Ishmael’s, approach to life, in his own words.

An apt characterization. Ishmael, the first person narrator, begins the book with the words “Call me Ishmael”—setting the informal, free and easy tone of the book, and establishing a level of UNformality notably American.

 

pg.  21

Philbrick comments on how, at intervals, Melville “slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.”

Well put. The book is like a sea voyage under sail. There are very long stretches where land is not in sight, so to speak, and progress seems slow. By the time one finishes the book, one feels that one’s self has been on a long voyage.

 

pg.  22

I don’t agree with Ishmael’s statement (i.e., a statement made in the novel by Melville indirectly in the words of the main character Ishmael, not by Philbrick) that one ought to “forgo the cloying chunks of needless potato” in clam chowder. Clam chowder, which I love (New England clam chowder, that is), is so much better and filling with potatoes, which, in my view, are indispensable.

 

pg. 37

Melville:  “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”

Shakespearean language.

The influence of Shakespeare on Melville can be seen as plain as day.

 

pg. 44

Philbrick: “Hidden beneath his [Melville’s] lapidarian surfaces were truths so profound and disturbing that they ranked with anything written in the English language.”

YES. Melville fuses narrative with metaphysical speculation, reality with imagination, grim actuality with underlying truths.

 

pg. 48

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] metaphysical preoccupations perpetually threatened to overwhelm his unsurpassed ability to find the specific, concrete detail that conveys everything.”

Very true. A keen observation.

 

pg.  59

Philbrick writes of the “longings: of the twelve-year-old boy [Melville] for his dead father; of the author for fame; and of the almost-middle-aged man for a friend.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne. Such a heart rending story. Hawthorne was discomfited by Melville’s love and shrunk from it.

 

pg. 61

Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics.”

YES. An excellent point.

Waiting until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype.”

A personal observation of mine: Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. Though many admire the book, few, if any, seem to realize this.

 

pg. 64

Philbrick: “There is wonderful slapdash quality to the book.”

Very true. Well put.

Slapdash: The great writers seem to be able to write in this way, as if they were tossing something off and sort of “taking dictation” (from within), telling you a story or something or other in an unrehearsed, unscripted conversation. Their writing does not seem “studied” (does not read that way).

Melville excels at this, beginning with the novel’s opening words:  Call me Ishmael.” He picks up the story there, and, bang, you’re into it.

Another writer who, in my opinion, pulled this off – who would not ordinarily be thought of in this context – was Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn. (It seems to me that Melville might be diagnosed today as having been, at times, manic, as I imagine Henry Miller may also have been.)

Also, Daniel Defoe does the same thing. Defoe seems artless, like he’s merely there to write it down. It actually makes him a great read.

 

pg.  64

Philbrick: “Ishmael is the narrator, but at times Melville invests him with an authorial omniscience.”

A good critical insight.

 

pg.  65

Philbrick: “[T]he plot is [often] left to languish and entire groups of characters [in Moby-Dick] vanish without a trace.”

True. Cf. Bulkington.

 

 pg. 65

Philbrick: “… Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life though his ramshackle art. ‘[C]areful disorderliness,’ Ishmael assures us, ‘is the true method.’ ”

Right on target as concerns Melville the writer (as well as Melville’s view of life).

 

pp.80-81

Philbrick: “Melville has created a portrait of the redemptive power of intimate human relations, what he calls elsewhere [in Moby-Dick] ‘the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.’ It is an ideal world that would sadly elude him for much of his married life.”

The quote is from Moby-Dick, Chapter XCLV.

 

pg. 82

Philbrick quotes from Moby-Dick (Chapter LXXXVII): ‘A low advancing hum was soon heard; and then like to the tumultuous masses of block-ice when the great river Hudson breaks up in Spring, the entire host of whales came tumbling upon their inner center. …’

This is wonderful descriptive prose. (Remember how, in the experience of most of us, one of the first writing assignments we had in school was to write a paper describing something?)

A personal note: In the 1970’s, when I was living in Manhattan a block away from Riverside Park, along the Hudson River, there was a particularly cold winter. The Hudson froze over, and I can remember the hissing and popping sounds as the ice was breaking up slowly.

 

pg.  83

There is a quote from Chapter XCIII of Moby-Dick (not so indicated by Philbrick): “flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest.”

This is undoubtedly an echo of John Donne’s famous poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (another scholar confirmed my opinion):

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Melville, as the scholar put it, “knew seventeenth century English literature.”

 

 pg.  85

“So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense. …” (Moby-Dick, Chapter XCIII).

A profound observation by Melville.

 

pg. 103

Philbrick: “[Melville’s] dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel….”

An apt description — perhaps one should say brilliant — very much on target.

 

pg. 114

Philbrick: “No matter how fantastic it may seem, everything in these last three chapters [Chapters CXXXIII-CXXXV of Moby-Dick] could have happened.”

Very true. And, the ability the pull this off is what makes Melville and the novel great. As philosophic as the book gets, whatever flights of fancy Melville gets carried way with, the book is firmly grounded in reality.

 

pg.  115

Philbrick: “In the destruction of the two whaleboats [in Chapter CXXXIV of Moby-Dick], Melville is also portraying the destruction of his own talent.”

 

pg.  117

“[The Pequod], like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her” (Moby-Dick, Chapter CXXXV).

This passage sounds Miltonic.

 

pg.  119

Philbrick mentions “the loss of [Melville’s] shy muse.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

 

pg.  127

“[A]t my years, and with my disposition, or rather, constitution, one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling. Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless–well, finish the sentence for yourself.” (Melville to his brother-in-law Lemuel Shaw, April 23 1849)