One evening recently, a group of us set about making, for our own amusement, a list of the finest short stories in the world. Actually, they were by no means the finest--there are no real absolutes in art--but rather a reflection of personal taste and preference; yet, it was curious how much unanimity of opinion there was--or perhaps not so curious, when you consider what universal and ageless appeal a rich and well-rounded tale has.
One of the rules of this game was that a person bringing forth a story the others did not know had to tell it, and it was revealing how many stories, bright in our memories, failed utterly in the telling. While at the time of reading, these tales had evoked a certain mood and emotion, the substance did not stand up with time. Flesh and blood were absent; the type of story called a "casual" by the editors of The New Yorker magazine, is just that: a casual, a glimpse of life that lacks form and meaning. For a story to last, it must hold up in telling; it must partake of something of the richness and complexity of life, the action, reaction and interaction of the human beings who make up our society. More than by the story-teller's art, mood and emotion must be determined by the characters themselves, by what they do to each other and by what society does to them.
Concerning this last, I know of no better example in American story telling than Theodore Dreiser. Certainly, we are a land not poor in story-tellers, and, with the possible exceptions of Russia and France, the short story has nowhere else developed to the height and richness it has here. But for all of that, Dreiser has no peer in the American short story. If his short stories are not yet sufficiently known his own genius is to blame; for his monumental novels overshadow them--perhaps rightly so, perhaps not. As fine as his novels are, they do not attain the artistic wholeness of his short tales; and I say this along with the opinion that no American has ever equaled Dreiser in the field of the novel.
Among the moderns, there is almost no one capable of writing tales like these. The best of today is pallid and non-human when compared with Dreiser's compassionate searchings; the average of today is another medium, outside the pale of comparison.
Now, this is much to be said of any writer, and wherein is the key? It is not enough simply to state that Theodore Dreiser was a unique genius of American letters; that he was, indeed, but, more than that, he was a man born at a certain time and in a certain place, and moulded by time and place, so that he could become the articulate and splendid spokesman for that time and place. The turn of the century, the coming of age of American industrialism, the withering away of the independent farmer, the onrush of imperialism, the first great world conflict, the rise of the labor movement, the movement for women's rights, the disillusionment and moral wreckage that followed World War I, the brief intellectual renaissance that spread like a flame across America, the mighty yet earthbound heroes of his native Midwest--all of these in turn and together reacted upon a man who was large enough to receive them and understand them, a man who was a curious mixture of pagan and Christian, provincial and urbane, a great mind and a great heart, turned by the endless search for the truth into a splendid artist.
The key to Dreiser the artist is compassion, the compassion of a Hugo or a Tolstoy. I can think of no tale of his wherein hatred or contempt or cynicism is the theme motif, either primarily or secondarily. His understanding was wide and extraordinary, and where he could not understand he presented the bare facts, as a historian might, leaving the explanation to time. How he pitied those--and their number is legion--whom society had trod on, ground down, distorted and perverted!
In "Phantom Gold," for example, and in "Convention," he takes human wreckage and somehow extracts from it all the dignity and beauty of which life could be capable. It is not that he is charitable in his appraisal, but rather that he gives, as does Charlie Potter in "A Doer of the Word," of himself.
A friend of mine met Dreiser in the street one day, and seeing that Dreiser's eyes were filled with tears, asked whether something terrible had happened, some personal tragedy? Dreiser shook his head; he had been unaware of the tears; he had simply been walking along, watching the life he saw, reflecting on it. He was that sort of man. In all my reading, I know of no better statement of the love of one brother for another, than Dreiser gives in "My Brother Paul." It is an incredibly sweet and gentle tale, yet never does it partake of the saccharin of the cheap, of the vulgarly sentimental. A singular love of his fellow man, along with direct sincerity, gave Dreiser the prerogative to go where all others feared to tread.
Combined with this, there was a flair for fancy, an imagination that literally soared. How little those who call Dreiser "earthbound" understand of him! It was no earthbound mind that sent McEwen down among the shining slave makers, so that he might do battle with the ants, and thereby come to understand the wondrous variety and complexity of life, the goodness of it, and the eternal value of comradeship.
Through all his stories, the theme of brotherhood runs as a constant. He saw no lonely existence for man; man was a part of the whole, and if that was taken away, there was little reason for man to exist; over and over again this theme recurs, in "The Lost Phoebe," in "Marriage--For One," and in "My Brother Paul"--and to a degree in all the other tales. Yet he did not write preachments; the very idea of writing a preachment would have repelled and disgusted him; his stories are filled with men and women and children, with the ebb and flow of life, the color and taste of it. There is no revengefulness in him, no hell fire. He sees life as it is; he would want it different; but until that time when life is different, the task is to know why it is what it is.
And what of his writing?
As I have said, I believe that Dreiser practiced his craft better in his short tales than in his novels. Most of these tales are superbly written; he had none of the staccato fears of the modern school. If the need dictated, he wrote leisurely, comfortably, in well-turned and thoughtful sentences. In evoking a mood, in painting a pastoral scene, in baring the soil and contour of his own beloved Midwest, he has no master; nor has he a master in describing men and women--not their surface features, but the essential and deep-rooted conflicts in their egos. He painted not with the quick, nervous brush of today, but in large planes and solid masses.
Occasionally, too, he told a story with such delightful zest, such light mastery, that the reading of it is a rare adventure. His two stories of Arabia, "Khat" and "The Prince Who Was a Thief," are of that category.
I don't know whether or not Dreiser was ever in Arabia; in "Khat," he evokes a very real image of Arabia, however, and I was affected nostalgically in terms of my own Arabian memories. Yet the point here is that Dreiser, in these two tales, writes not of Arabia, whatever of the setting he may use, but of the wonderland that some writers create, the land wherein a casual wayfarer may come upon the Sire de Maletroit's door, or again upon the four directions of O. Henry's roads of destiny. In both tales, his protagonist is essentially the same, the professional beggar and story-teller who is too old to be of any use. In "Khat," the old entertainer finds every gate closed to him, the world walled up, barred, and shut off, a cynical, colorful world, yet somehow not so different from our own.
In "The Prince Who Was a Thief," there is a story within a story, an ageless romance told by the old mendicant with priceless skill, humor, verve--but one which brings him only half the price of bed and board, leading him to remark:
"By Allah, what avails it if one travel the world over to gather many strange tales and keep them fresh and add to them as if by myrrh and incense and the color of the rose and the dawn, if by so doing one may not come by so much as a meal or a bed? Bismillah! Were it not for my withered arm no more would I trouble to tell a tale!"
Rarely is Dreiser's tongue in his cheek, but when it is his wit is gentle and beguiling. And meaningfully enough, in all his stories, he laughs only at someone who practices his own trade: the making and the telling of tales--and of course, the selling of them, since even story tellers must eat.
I imagine that the moral there was very close to him. He was a giant in a world of Philistines, and the level upon which he practiced his art was beyond the sight, much less the comprehension, of the critics of his own day--yes, and of this day, too. Like Melville, he had little enough gain from his writing; but, again like Melville, he remains in a process of growth. His stature will increase with the years--and his wise, searching tales will be read and re-read.
|St. Columbia and the River|
|McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers|
|A Doer of the Word|
|The Old Neighborhood|
|My Brother Paul|
|The Lost Phoebe|
|Marriage: For One|
|The Prince Who Was a Thief|