Friday, January 17, 2014

`A Delightful Place to Set Up a Writing Shack'

“In the distance we could see the faint outlines of the city of Cleveland, a penciled blur, and over it a cloud of dark smoke, the customary banner of our manufacturing world. I decided that here would be a delightful place to set up a writing shack or a studio, transferring all my effects from my various other dream homes, and spending my latter days. I should have been a carpenter and builder, I think.” 

Anything but a novelist, if you happen to be Theodore Dreiser, the author of this passage from A Hoosier Holiday (1916). The book is his account of the two-week motor tour he, the illustrator Franklin Booth and a driver/mechanic named Speed took in August 1915, driving from New York City to his native state, Indiana, across pre-Interstate America. I braved Dreiser when young, reading most of his books but not this one. Its interest is documentary or historical, not literary, as is usually the case with Dreiser and his pachydermal prose (gray, lumbering, oversized). 

There’s pathos, however, in reading about one’s birthplace before one’s birth. My mother was born in Cleveland five years after Dreiser’s visit, and my father a year after that. Hart Crane was a student at East High School in 1915, living at 1709 East 115th St. Sometimes it takes an outsider, even a Dreiser, to perceive the romance of familiar places (though Crane never found Cleveland romantic – he fled to New York City in 1916). By 1915, Sherwood Anderson had left Cleveland and nearby Elyria (and his wife and kids) and was living in Chicago, but that year he began writing Winesburg, Ohio, based on his childhood home in Clyde, seventy-five miles west of Cleveland. 

Like our own Joyce Carol Oates, Dreiser couldn’t write but did so at great length. He’s the village scold or the garrulous drunk at the end of the bar. He had an opinion about everything and felt morally obligated to share it with the world. He dabbled in the metaphysical bric-a-brac of Charles Fort and shortly before his death in 1945, joined the Communist Party. An anonymous reviewer of A Hoosier Holiday, in the March 8, 1917 issue of The Nation puts it nicely: 

“It is very much like a Dreiser novel without a plot—the same slice of life, the same sense of cutaneous contacts, the same aspersion of law and morality and religion, the same barnyard notions of `love,’ the same sentimental Caliban philosophizing, the same genuflections before the mystery of physics and chemistry, the same difficulties with English grammar.” 

And yet, the book has its charms, at least for a native son. Dreiser moves along my much-transformed Euclid Avenue, “an amazingly long and wide street, once Cleveland’s pride and the centre of all her wealthy and fashionable life, but now threaded by a new double tracked trolley line and fallen on lesser, if not absolutely evil, days.” Dreiser the preacher, sounding very much like an “Occupy” groupie, takes over when he tours “Millionaire Row” and sees the house of John D. Rockefeller: “Yes, in his earlier and poorer years, when he was worth only from seventy to eighty millions, he lived here, and the house seemed to me, as I looked at it this morning, actually to reflect all the stodgy conservatism with which he is credited. It was not smart—which rich American’s house of forty or fifty years ago ever is?—but it was solid and impressive and cold.” After another complaint about “the steady settling of all powers and privileges in America in the hands of a powerful oligarchy,” Dreiser tells us what’s really on his mind: 

“All of these people were living here in Euclid Avenue, and I looked up their houses and all the other places of interest, envying the rich and wishing that I was famous or a member of a wealthy family, and that I might meet some one of the beautiful girls I imagined I saw here and have her fall in love with me.”

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