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A Traveler at Forty
By THEODORE DREISER
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTo begin this record right, I should say that on this date, Saturday, November 4th, 1911, I am living in an apartment at 3609 Broadway, New York, which is near the 145th Street subway station. I am living in a really beautiful apartment, small but delightful, in an apartment house known as the Riverview, which faces Broadway at 149th Street, but which runs through to some unimproved property owned by the same man who owns this house, and which therefore-our apartment particularly (being on the fifth floor)-commands a truly magnificent view of the Hudson River which parallels Broadway (or rather, which Broadway parallels) and also of Riverside Drive, one of the most beautiful park residence thoroughfares in all New York. The apartment has six pretty rooms and a bath, beautifully and conveniently arranged. There is an abundance of hot water, steam heat, gas and electricity, a gas range, elevator, telephone, uniformed hall service, a courteous superintendent and all those things which go to make the best type of apartment life in New York City-the first city in America.
I have just turned forty. I have seen a very, very great deal of life. I have been a newspaperman, editor, magazine contributor, author and, before these things, severalodd kinds of clerk before I found out what I could do. This past winter I have been engaged in writing a novel-Jennie Gerhardt-which is just now on the market and, thank heaven, much to my astonishment, doing fairly well. This fall I have been at work on another novel entitled "The Financier," which I hope to complete by the spring of 1912. About one-third of it is done. I am not very well fixed financially at this moment, but because of the unexpected success of my second book, critically at least, I am beginning to see my way clear. A distinct, unequivocal literary reputation is worth something financially in the United States.
Eleven years ago I wrote my first novel called Sister Carrie, which was issued by Doubleday, Page & Company of New York and suppressed by them-heaven knows why, for the same fall they suppressed my book because of its alleged immoral tendencies, they published Zola's Fecundity and An Englishwoman's Love-Letters. I fancy now, after eleven years of wonder, that it was not so much the supposed immorality as the book's straightforward, plainspoken discussion of American life in general. We were not used then in America to calling a spade a spade, particularly in books. We had great admiration for Tolstoy and Flaubert and Balzac and de Maupassant at a distance-some of us-and it was quite an honor to have handsome sets of these men on our shelves, but mostly we had been schooled in the literature of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Lamb and that refined company of English sentimental realists who told us something about life, but not everything. No doubt all of these great gentlemen knew how shabby a thing this world is-how full of lies, make-believe, seeming and false pretense it all is-but they had agreed among themselves or with the public or with sentiment generally not to talk about that too much.
Books were always to be built out of facts concerning "our better natures." We were always to be seen as we wish to be seen. There were villains, to be sure-liars, dogs, thieves, scoundrels-but they were strange creatures, hiding away in dark, unconventional places and scarcely seen save at night and peradventure; whereas we, all nice, clean, bright, honest, well-meaning people, were living in nice homes, going our way honestly and truthfully, going to church, raising our children, believing in a Father, a Son and a Holy Ghost, and never doing anything wrong at any time, save as these miserable liars, dogs, thieves, et cetera, might suddenly appear and make us. Our books largely showed us as heroes. If anything happened to our daughters, it was not their fault, but the fault of these miserable villains. Most of us were without original sin. The business of our books, our church, our laws, our jails, was to keep us so. I am quite sure that it never occurred to many of us that there was something really improving in a plain, straightforward understanding of life. Most of us believed that to understand life was not only to become evil, passively so, by reading but to be by the very act of so reading actively dangerous.
Sister Carrie came out, and to my astonishment I found myself the center of a storm of criticism and abuse as well as the head and front of a peculiar company of individuals who were determined to see to it that in the long run both I and my book-or perhaps I had better say my book only-had justice. They wrote me. They wrote Messrs. Doubleday & Page. I recall one perfectly delightful letter in which Christ and the ass that carried him into Jerusalem were referred to. I was praised to the skies by some critics. I was damned to the lowest depths of insanity by others. "A hack newspaper reporter," I recall one critic writing, "who would be highly flattered to be called the Zola of America." I have never read a line of Zola, I am sorry to report. "A cheap sensationalist who seeks to make capital out of all the silly newspaper horrors of the time-the bread line, the East Side lodging house, etc." Then there were those who stated publicly that it was "the best novel ever written in America," "the first piece of American realism worthy of the name," "a great human document," etc.
Do I believe all this? I don't know. Did I, at the time? I'm quite sure I didn't. I was the most surprised man or boy-for I was a boy in mind, just the same-that you ever saw. Something prompted me while I was writing to write sincerely. I would come to strange, hard, bitter, sad facts in my story, for after all, it was a story, and I would say, "Shall I put that down?" and something within the very center of my being would say, "You must! You must! You dare not do otherwise." At times, sitting at my little dining table in the flat I then occupied in 102nd Street near Central Park West, New York, I felt very much like Martin Luther must have felt when he stood before the Diet of Worms. "Here I stand. Otherwise I cannot do. God help me."
But perhaps instead of telling you about my book, I had better tell you something about myself, particularly if you intend to follow this record. My father was a woolen manufacturer at Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was a boy. He came to America from Germany as an immigrant in 1844 and ran a woolen mill for a while as a manager, finally owning it himself. He was an ardent Catholic, while my mother was first a Mennonite and later a convert. She was never the religious enthusiast that he was. I was born in Terre Haute, and when I was about eleven years old, the family removed from Terre Haute to Warsaw, Indiana, in the northern portion of the state, and there I went to school until I was sixteen. After that I spent one year at the State University of Indiana. Later, I went to Chicago and was a real estate clerk, collector, laundry clerk-anything you will-until I finally found that which I could do best-newspaper reporting. After that, as I have said, I was successively dramatic editor, traveling correspondent, magazine contributor, editor and finally author.
I never fancied I was exceptional in any of these things, and in one or two instances I have been discharged. More frequently, I have resigned of my own accord, moving on to what I hoped would be better things. I have been prosperous and hungry, applauded and looked upon as anything but worthwhile. Men have told me to my face that I am erratic, deficient, peculiar. Men have told me to my face that I am the most distinguished personality with whom they have ever come in contact. Do I believe all this? No. I am not sure that I do. I do not know anything. I know nothing about life-I know nothing about myself. I have suffered much, I have enjoyed many things intensely-oh, very intensely.
All my life I have been emotional, high strung, a victim of the lure of beauty in everything, and yet I have given many people the impression that I was cold, hard, indifferent, selfish and cruel. Perhaps I am both. I am ready to believe that I am. But beauty holds me first. I am subject to that and yet a novice in its subtleties. I do not know the history of Greece, save in a very general way. I do not know the history of various arts-poetry, prose, architecture, sculpture, painting-except in the same general way, not intimately. I do not know even the history of beauty in women, its significant emissaries in life, but I suspect many things. A single fact goes a long way with me. It suggests much.
I cannot say that I love humanity as much as I did when I was a boy, and now I suspect that I did not love it so much as a boy. From my youth, my eye was held and my feelings gripped by what might be called impersonal beauty-the beauty of rosy clouds in the early dawn, of birds flying, flowers blooming, of landscapes melting into hazy distances. I can recall rising at four and five o'clock of early spring mornings when I was seven, eight, nine and ten years of age, when the rest of the family-excepting my mother, who was also a lover of beauty-was asleep, and going forth to see what the day and the world were like. I can never hope to indicate to anyone what those hours were to me. I could not suggest what affinity lay between my blood and the faint delicate hues of the morning glory. In poetry books here and there I have found lines which bring back with cognizable sweetness something of what I felt. In Shelley's "Adonais," in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in Wordsworth's "Excursion" and sonnets and odes I have found much. In Wordsworth's "Boy and the Owls" particularly, I recognize something of myself. And when he sang, "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky," he was saying what I have felt over and over without knowing why.
Life has been so beautiful to me. I have cried time and again thinking of its sweetness, its pathos, its grim, dramatic power. I have cried over the characters I have created, and I have cried over a half-witted boy in the street. I have felt sorry for endless people, and I have felt happy that life has provided warm, cozy shelter for so many. I know nothing of its mysteries. I accept now no creeds. I do not know what truth is, what beauty is, what love is, what hope is. I do not believe anyone absolutely, and I do not doubt anyone absolutely. I think people are both evil and well-intentioned.
I was raised in Western towns. I know nothing of Europe. I have never been farther west than the Mississippi nor farther south than North Carolina. But I have lived, met and talked with a vast number of people of degrees of ability, intelligence, station, and so forth. I am not a simple-minded man-quite the contrary.
In some respects, America is so gauche-so raw, as we phrase it. It reminds me sometimes of the traditional yokel who guffaws before a statue of the Venus of Milo. "Gee whiz, look at that." But it's a great, big, wonderful, forceful nation just the same, and it's going to come out of its hearty yokel point of view and write and read books and paint and hang pictures which will take the world by storm. I believe in America. I believe in its rawness-its brute force. I feel-I know-it has a tremendous work to do. I wish sincerely I could help do it. But it suppressed my feeble little bit of realism in 1900, and it may suppress me some more in time to come-but it won't suppress all realism. It can't. And it will love its realists after a while, as it now loves its patriots-Nathan Hale and Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln, and it will have the same noble basis for doing so.
Well, that's pretty much of a flight, isn't it, to be dated Nov. 4th, 1911, but I'm not through yet. For on this date a strange thing happened. Here I was writing, owing $300 on an insurance policy which was just about to fall due, owing $175.00 on a piece of land which I wanted very much to own free and clear at Grand View-on-the-Hudson-isn't that a typical American name-Grand View-on-the-Hudson? It sounds something like Squedunk-by-the-Sea. I owed $1,000 against an apple orchard-a yearly payment-and $1,500 in the shape of an old debt, and all I had against the things was something like $450.00 in the bank, and the obvious prosperity of my new book. At least it looked at this writing, from the critical fuss being made over it, as though it would sell, and so I was not utterly depressed, but I had been.
Fate plays queer tricks with us. Honestly, as I live, I never expected to have the money to go to Europe. I have always wanted to go and I have always said to myself that if I did go, it would be comfortably or not at all. I have a horror of little pinching calculations. I can't go about much and not put my hand in my pocket and pay freely and gladly. Most of us have a sense of dignity which we must maintain. If I could not do that, I would take off my nice clothes, get a job as a motorman and run a streetcar until I could. I have no horror of common work. I like it. I like common men. And I wasn't thinking of how I would ever go to Europe. But now since my second book was stirring things up, I was thinking how I would press on to the completion of my thirty-ninth chapter, take my story thus far done down to my publishers, say, "Here, I must have at least $3,000 to complete it"-and get it. I knew I should. I felt sure of it. Publishers are not letting go of artistic strikes if they can help it. They like to foster those whom they consider capable. They will take a chance-if it is a reasonable one. I thought they would in this case. Then, since the last one-third of my story was laid in London, I thought that possibly in February or March I would run over to that city, look up my data, run right back and complete my book.
While I was opening my mail on this morning, I encountered a now memorable note which was addressed to me at my apartment. It was, as I found on glancing at it, from an old publisher friend of mine in England who expressed himself as anxious to see me immediately, a gentleman whom I admire very much, but with whom, heretofore, I have never been able to do any business. He was one of those who helped suppress Sister Carrie in 1900, for he refused it for the English market. He did not think it would sell, and anyhow, he told me afterward that he did not think it amounted to so much. Still, I liked him. I have always liked him. I liked him because he struck me as amusingly English, decidedly literary and artistic in his point of view, a man with a wide vision, discriminating taste, rare selection. He wears a monocle in his right eye, à la Joseph Chamberlain, and I like him for that. I like people anyhow who take themselves with a grand air, whether they like me or not-particularly if the grand air is backed up by a real personality. In this case it is.
Excerpted from A Traveler at Forty by THEODORE DREISER Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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