Monday, November 28, 2011

Theodore Dreiser’s Thoughts of Mark Twain

Herman Theodore Dreiser was born on August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana to Sarah and Johann Dreiser. He was the ninth of ten surviving children. His father had come to America from Mayen, Germany in 1844. He traveled to Dayton, Ohio, where he met his wife, Sarah. The couple was forced to elope due to religious differences between their families. They moved to Indiana where Johann worked as a wool dealer. As Dreiser later recorded in his memoirs, the family never recovered financially or psychologically from an economic fall from grace after a fire at the wool mill left his father injured.

Although Dreiser was a serious student, he never managed to finish high school. Eventually he moved to Chicago and worked numerous jobs to support his suffering family until Mildred Fielding (a former schoolteacher) rescued him from his plight. She paid his tuition for one year so he could attend Indiana University. He then worked as a journalist for the Chicago Globe and other various newspapers. In 1898 Dreiser married Sara Osborne White. With her encouragement Dreiser began writing his historic first novel, Sister Carrie. It is suspected that the novel was based on his own sister’s affair with a married man who had run off with funds embezzled from his Chicago employer.

Dreiser took Sister Carrie to the Doubleday Company to have it published. Frank Doubleday refused to have the book published under his company name because he and his wife thought it was immoral and it was repulsive to have a main character represent a “fallen” woman. The book was eventually published by Doubleday after much protest from Dreiser and his lawyers. Dreiser began writing a second novel, Jennie Gerhardt. Only five months after he started to write the novel he suffered from severe writers block and a nervous breakdown. Dreiser claimed it was on account of the attempted overthrow of Sister Carrie.

In October of 1935 Dreiser published a piece in The English Journal titled “Mark the Double Twain.” The piece discusses whether we should view Twain as a humorous writer or as an “amazingly pessimistic thinker.” Dreiser is quoted as saying “A psychological as well as literary enigma that has much troubled me, as it has many another who has surveyed American literature, is Mark Twain.” Dreiser continues to question Twain’s real intentions within his stories. Is he there to present an actual critical philosophy or just to spin his negative thoughts in a witty way to win over senseless American readers who do not know any better?

In the following quote Dreiser really sums up what he believes all Twain’s stories are about.

“Middle West American of quite humble Tennessee and Missouri village and farm backgrounds- with a few parent and relative owned slaves to complicate the picture. He remains to this hour, in the minds of most Americans, not the powerful and original and amazingly pessimistic thinker that he really was, and that several of his most distinguish contributions to American letters prove- but rather, to this hour, the incorrigible and prolific joker and at best, humorist who, up to the time of his death and since, has kept the world chuckling so continuously that it has not, not even now sobered sufficiently to detect in him the gloomy and wholly mechanistic thinker.”

Dreiser then compares Twain to Jacques Loeb who was one of the most prominent scientists in America in the late 1800’s. Twain had written an essay titled “Dr. Loeb’s Incredible Discovery” which urges the reader not to support a firm general compromise, but instead be open to new scientific advances. Dreiser once again questions who Twain was as a writer. “But how came this to be? Were there two Twain’s from the beginning?”

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