Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dreiser is a bad writer - or maybe he is good - those odd and mentally disturbed or distrait souls who are to be found in every place

I have a question.  When does bad writing become merely odd and then maybe interesting and perhaps even good?  Let’s stop at interesting.  Theodore Dreiser is a good test.  The Library of America edition of An American Tragedy (1925) is 930 pages of prose that is never good as such, and is often quite bad.  But those categories in between, how much of it lands there?

Dreiser may be, among great novelists, the worst prose writer.  I was surprised to see how little he had changed in the twenty-five years since Sister Carrie (1900).  Decades later, he is the same giant klutzo.  His virtues are the same, too.  As bad as he can be, in key scenes, the ones on which the novel succeeds or fails, his prose kind of snaps into place, turning into an intense, focused plain style.  The streetcar strike, or Hurstwood staring at the safe, are good examples from Sister Carrie.  An American Tragedy is, or turns into, a crime novel, so just about anything relating to the murder, the detective investigation, the trial, or prison qualifies.  That’s about half of the novel – the 900-page novel.  Which leaves a lot of pages.

If it possible to be a bad writer but a great novelist, Dreiser is that thing.  Even I can see that.

Critics have traditionally amused themselves by collecting the worst examples of Dreiser’s sentences.  I swore I would not do that, and I did not, but I will borrow one from Francis Ludlow's 1946 article “The Plodding Crusader” (The English Journal, Oct. 1946, pp. 419-25):

And yet hang it all, most of them did not live at home as he did, or if they did like Ratterer, they had parents who didn’t mind what they did.  (I.8)

What an ear for prose, and this is a line without any misshapen Latinisms, words like “tergiversation” or “staccatically” or Dreiser’s great favorite “distrait” – he often describes women as “distrait” – that are real English words, available for novelists to use, I guess, but sparingly, please.  “She grew tense and staccato” (II.38).  It is not as if I do not get what Dreiser means.  Bad, odd, interesting?

Here we see Jonathan Yardley, in 2003 in The Washington Post, argue, upon the publication of the Library of America edition of An American Tragedy, that the novel is so bad that it casts doubt on the value of the Library of America project!  “[A]ll this suggests that editorial judgment and discrimination no longer matter at the Library of America” – for publishing what I think of as a pretty solidly canonical novel.

I’ll do another day on this monster, arguing with myself about whether the first 300 pages or so should have been cut, and looking at some sentences that maybe move from “interesting” to “good.”  I had not known that Dreiser owed such a debt to Poe.

That title "distrait" is from Book 3, Chapter 2.  I said it is Dreiser's women who are "distrait," but Clyde becomes "distrait and gloomy" in prison.


  1. I haaated An American Tragedy. The first 2/3 weren't too bad, but the final 1/3 just went on forever, he could not stop belaboring the point. I'd forgotten about the bad writing, but that sentence is particularly terrible. It's like an entry into the Bulwer-Lytton Bad Fiction Contest.

  2. I think the labor is the point! There, that's my post for later today. Done.

    I would cut the first third, not the last, on the grounds that the first third has the highest proportion of bad writing, and is all preliminary to the main story, but I fear it has a purpose, too.

    The first third of Sister Carrie is also the worst(-written) part.

  3. The 20s were an awkward time for prose, especially American prose. I don't know the cause of it. Maybe a raft of journalists taking on the novel, or a sudden interest in colloquialisms that keeps tripping over a misguided urge to elevated prose? Really, no idea, but I have noticed that writing gets plain weird around that time. Fitzgerald with his "yellow jazz" and all of that. Hemingway with his "she smiled smally." Honestly, smally? Lawrence caught the bug too, sometimes sailing, sometimes stumbling. Maybe everybody was trying to be jazzy and modern, putting on clothes that didn't fit (supply your own metaphor). Nobody seems to have noticed at the time how clumsy things were.

    I've never read either of these Dreiser novels. I've heard all my life that they're pretty heavy going, but that's almost a good reason to try them. Well, one of them anyway.

  4. Try Sister Carrie. It's 300 pages shorter than An American Tragedy. I can't blame Dreiser's prose on the Spirit of the '20s, because it hadn't changed since 1900. Kind of a feat, actually.

    Younger hipper American writers, the Smart Set smart set, were doing pretty much what you described. Make it snap, make it, dare I say, new. The Edith Wharton of the 1920s at her worst sounded old-fashioned, and at her best sounded classic, and what young writer wanted to sound like either of those?

    And she is turning back to the 1880s or whenever. Lewis and Fitzgerald and Hammett want to right about now. One odd thing for me was that Lewis's "now" sounded a lot like the television of the 1950s ("Aw gee, pop!") but I guess that is an artifact of cultural transmission across genres or something.

    Lawrence, by the way, I think had a whole 'nother bug. He was truly doing his own thing. The spirit of the age in England was light and playful and quietly savage: Huxley, Waugh, and Wodehouse.

  5. That was also my impression when I first read Main Street, how much it felt like a 50s television show, say I Love Lucy, specially the extended party scene that comes near the end of the novel.

  6. I suppose it is a generational process. Jess Oppenheiimer, creator and head writer of I Love Lucy, was just the right age to have grown up on Sinclair Lewis novels.