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A Dreiser Sampler

June 2024
4min read

In describing the suicide of Hurstwood in Sister Carrie (1900), Dreiser adheres to reportorial realism yet achieves a profound note of dignified pathos. The fallen saloon manager has gone to a shabby flophouse and patiently waits among the mass of homeless men until the doors are opened.

A light appeared through the transom overhead. It sent a thrill of possibility through the watchers. There was a murmur of recognition. At last the bars grated inside and the crowd pricked up its ears. Footsteps shuffled within and it murmured again. Some one called: “Slow up there now,” and then the door opened. It was push and jam for a minute, with grim, beast silence to prove its quality, and then it melted inward, like logs floating, and disappeared. There were wet hats and wet shoulders, a cold, shrunken disgruntled mass pouring in between bleak walls. It was just six o’clock and there was supper in every hurrying pedestrian’s face. And yet no supper was provided here—nothing but beds. Of these, Hurstwood was claiming one.

He laid down his fifteen cents and crept off with weary steps to his allotted room. It was a dingy affair, wooden, dusty, hard. A small gas jet furnished sufficient light for so rueful a corner.

“Hm,” he said, clearing his throat and locking the door.

Now he began leisurely to take off his clothes, but stopped first with his coat and tucked it along the crack under the door. His vest he arranged in the same place. His old wet, cracked hat he laid softly upon the table. Then he pulled off his shoes and lay down.

It seemed as if he thought awhile, for now he arose and turned the gas out, standing calmly in the blackness, hidden from view. After a few moments in which he reviewed nothing, but merely hesitated, he turned the gas on again, but applying no match. Even then he stood there, hidden wholly in that kindness which is night, while the uprising fumes filled the room. When the odor reached his nostrils he quit his attitude and fumbled for the bed.

“What’s the use,” he said wearily, as he stretched himself to rest.

Dreiser’s Darwinian vision permeates his trilogy about the freebooting capitalist Frank Cowperwood. In this scene from The Financier (1912) young Frank learns a lesson about life from his daily observations of a squid and a lobster living in uneasy symbiosis in a tank at a fish store. One day he arrives to find that the lobster had made its move and killed the squid.

“That’s the way it has to be, I guess,” he commented to himself. “That squid wasn’t quick enough.” He figured it out.

“The squid couldn’t kill the lobster—he had no weapon. The lobster could kill the squid—he was heavily armed. There was nothing for the squid to feed on; the lobster had the squid as prey. What was the result to be? What else could it be? He didn’t have a chance,” he concluded finally, as he trotted on homeward.

The incident made a great impression on him. It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: “How is life organized?” Things lived on each other—that was it! And what lived on men? he asked himself. Was it other men? Wild animals lived on men. And there were Indians and cannibals. And some men were killed by storms and accidents. He wasn’t so sure about men living on men; but men did kill each other. How about wars and street fights and mobs? He had seen a mob once. It attacked the Public Ledger building as he was coming home from school. His father had explained why. It was about the slaves. That was it! Sure, men lived on men. Look at the slaves. They were men. That’s what all this excitement was about these days [on the eve of the Civil War]. Men killing other men—negroes.

In An American Tragedy (1925) Clyde Griffiths, who has fallen in love with the dazzling, rich Sondra Finchley, takes his former but now-pregnant factorygirl sweetheart, Roberta Alden, for a row on Big Bittern Lake in the Adirondacks, planning to fake an accident in which she drowns. But at the penultimate moment he begins to lose his nerve.

And in the meantime his eyes—the pupils of the same growing momentarily larger and more lurid; his face and body and hands tense and contracted—the stillness of his position, the balanced immobility of the mood more and more ominous, yet in truth not suggesting a brutal, courageous power to destroy, but the imminence of trance or spasm.

And Roberta, suddenly noticing the strangeness of it all—the something of eerie unreason or physical and mental indetermination so strangely and painfully contrasting with this scene, exclaiming: “Why, Clyde! Clyde! What is it? Whatever is the matter with you anyhow? You look so—so strange—so-so—Why, I never saw you look like this before. What is it?” And suddenly rising, or rather leaning forward, and by crawling along the even keel, attempting to approach him, since he looked as though he was about to fall forward into the boat—or to one side and out into the water. And Clyde, as instantly sensing the profoundness of his own failure, his own cowardice or inadequateness for such an occasion, as instantly yielding to a tide of submerged hate, not only for himself, but Roberta—her power—or that of life to restrain him in this way. And yet fearing to act in any way—being unwilling to—being willing only to say that never, never would he marry her —that never, even should she expose him, would he leave here with her to marry her—that he was in love with Sondra and would cling only to her—and yet not being able to say that even. But angry and confused and glowering. And then, as she drew near him, seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it in the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even then with any intention to do other than free himself of her—her touch—her pleading—consoling sympathy—her presence forever—God!

Yet (the camera still unconsciously held tight) pushing at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen to the very water’s edge.…

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