Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
Jennie Gerhardt (JG), which begins in 1880, seizes the opportunity to capitalize on the success of Dreiser’s first novel, his classic, Sister Carrie (SC). JG starts more slowly and deals with similar, universal themes: the working class; its contrasts to the wealthy class; the torrents of life which seem to sweep most into currents beyond their control (recalling Voltaire’s observation, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation); the emptiness of material things; the joys found only in love and loving and in the beauties of life, which are missed or ignored by many; and, here, above all, and in this quite different from SC, the ways in which society can make an innocent, loving soul into a social outcast for little or no reason. By the 100th page or so, the reader finds himself/herself once again in the grips of characters that are mesmerizingly real. By the end, as with SC, numbness sweeps the reader, who resents giving up the book; yet, it is clearly over.
Despite their working class slant, his books are not tedious “downers”. They rather evoke the best in the reader’s nature: kindness and love. Dreiser forces us to focus on what is really important in life. What is it about Dreiser’s prose that won’t release us? Foremost are his heroines. Jennie, the daughter of a glass blower and a scullery maid, has beauty, of course, and above average intellect but not brilliance (i.e., she’s believable), but, again, it is her tenderness, her genuinely loving nature, a purity of spirit, her ability to see the beauty of life, her capacity to endure suffering and even in silence, and her guilelessness, which draws us ever closer to us.
While SC covered only a ten or so year span, JG spanned some 30 years. When only 18, Jennie was swept off her feet by an older man, a U.S. Senator, who intended to marry her; naïve to a fault, she became pregnant, but, on an extended absence, he died without ever knowing of her expectancy and before he could marry her. Much of the book then deals with the way her family, friends and society in general forced her to live in ignominy as “a bad girl” and later as “a bad woman”. The mores of the late 1800’s were unforgivingly intolerant of so many things (adultery, illegitimate children, poverty, lack of education, elevated manners, ethnicity, religious differences, even living together unwed, etc.). Jennie then found the love of her life, Lester Kane, the scion of a wealthy manufacturing family. They never married (as his family — and society — forbade them) but they lived together with her daughter for a 15-year period that consumes most of this emotional novel. Finally, Kane left Jennie, to avert certain disinheritance, and married another of Dreiser’s appealing heroines, Letty Pace, an immensely wealthy, engaging, kind and intellectual widow. While Kane lived happily with Letty, he could never pry the less complex but adoring Jennie (and her daughter whom he loved as his own) from his thoughts. Jennie lost her mother, her father and, then, her 20-year-old daughter, more of life’s painful wounds. After years of not seeing Jennie (for whom he always provided) in his last illness, his wife was in Europe; he sent for Jennie, who came and ministered to him during his last few days. Their reunion was the reader’s reward: replete with touching, loving and masterfully moving dialogue, thoughts and scenes – suggestions of Pasternak’s immortal love scenes in Doctor Zhivago. Only a marble statue could read these passages with dry eyes.
So what? This is what: Success certainly isn’t tied to material possessions, beyond those needed to survive; indeed, we can’t even define the word. We are driven by society’s rules and by the opinions of others, but who’s to say, really, what is the difference between failure and success? Loving is what matters; whether life has a point or not is not the point; whether there is a God or not is not the point. The point is goodness – and beauty, the beauty of a pure heart and the beauty of everyday nature. In Dreiser’s timeless words, “It is useless to apostrophize a soul such as Jennie’s, which has reached the full measure of its being [and capabilities]. Shall you say to the blown rose, “well done”? Or to the battered, wind-riven, lightening-scarred pine, ‘thou failure’? In the chemic drift and flow of life, how little we know of that which is either failure or success. Is there either?…[Jennie was not able to choose her lot in life] because of an absence of lust…[an inability] to fall upon a fellow-being, tearing that which is momentarily desirable from his grasp, only to drop it and run toward that which…for a brief moment seems more worthy of pursuit…” But, but, Jennie never cared, not about things; she coveted only her good name and her love, Lester. In the end, both eluded her, but somehow we know that, as she aged, she was at peace with herself, as she raised two orphans, which she adopted when her daughter died. She was “a soul with a sense of its own fitness and place…She experienced poverty, love, prosperity, a broken heart and tragedy…Jennie loved and loving gave. Is there a superior wisdom?”
Or can there be superior fiction? With minimal dialogue, he spins his universal themes without violence, sex or other literary chicanery. Yet, he wrings our emotions until we are spent – and inspired to live a little better, to love a little more and to count our blessings with more gratitude. As historian Will Durant admonished, “All adventurous readers return to the classics”. Dreiser is a classic and is not to be missed. It can come as no surprise that the best novelists of our day (such as Dan Brown, author of The Davinci Code) told me that Dreiser as the most influential writer of his life.