Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Sister Carrie," "Jennie Gerhardt," "Twelve Men," by Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser's works in "Theodore Dreiser : Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men" (Library of America)
hold up well as storytelling while offering the added advantage of being timepieces.

"Sister Carrie" and "Jennie Gerhardt" are similar tales of young girls whose youthful sexuality aid their flight from poverty.

Carrie and Jennie are sympathetic, nonetheless, because their climbs up the social latter are propelled, not by their own guile, but by that of the wealthy men who would deign to enjoy their youthful bounty.

Both attain fates that are only satisfactory and we will leave it at that so as not to spoil either novel's end point.

Dreiser wrote in a smooth style with more than a touch of density to it. He often erred on the side of expository writing, describing events and also telling you what they meant, rather than hitching them to action.

Nonetheless, the tales can hook you and make for engrossing reading because of the writer's thoroughness and the extreme polish he gave the prose.

The "Twelve Men" portion of the book is lengthy as either novel, without the advantage of narrative continuity, but still offers much. The characters are colorful, but unique mostly as products of a time that has passed and therefore impossible to duplicate or find in contemporary types.

Althought he lived well into the 1940s, these works are essentially post-Civil War works rendered by a younger man of German family reared in Indiana. His America is that of the Industrial Revolution. It is that bygone America where the beehive of industry is clustered along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Its gritty capitals are Chicago and Detroit and their supporting casts are the smaller towns of his home state, Illinois, and Ohio. Railroads are king and the poor loiter around tracks looking for spare bits of coal that drop from hopper cars to warm their homes.

His New York is the New York of Broadway when Broadway was alone and uncontested by the film business for supremacy in the world of spectacle. It is the New York of the horse-drawn carriage and mule-driven dray, of the great Gilded Age fortunes.

This Library of America collection offers a view of these bygone eras and the people who strove in them through the skilled writing hand and practiced journalist's eye of an American literary stalwart.

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