Friday, October 21, 2011

Re-reading Dreiser

By Tracy

I'm most of the way through a re-read of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (see earlier post) and have to say that it benefits from the better format of the Library of America edition -- good font, good layout and spacing, restful shade of paper... a much less arduous read than the copy I read earlier, underlining for me how much those physical factors can affect my response to a book.

Dreiser's style hasn't changed, objectively, yet I like it better. This is partly a case of getting used to it, too -- the typos or possibly misspelled words (even in this better edition), the odd word-choice on occasion -- and the incessant use of "And... And" with present participles -- are sometimes beyond belief.

The critic Lee Clark Mitchell, back in 1985, actually saw that last stylistic feature as a positive, or at least as belonging in a pattern of repetition counted as part of Dreiser's art:

"Just as characters, events and descriptions overlap, so the prose itself divides and doubles, saved from utter fragmentation by participial clauses and frequent conjunctions that link phrases into parallel structure..."

[Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 19, no.1]

In any case, whether intrinsically flawed or following a pattern many of us have failed to recognise and appreciate, Dreiser's style bothers me much less than it did on first reading, and though undeniably a "big book" (934 pages in this edition), it doesn't seem to drag this time around.

Besides, even if you don't like his style, the vision and expansive grasp of the novel have plenty to offer. Alfred Kazin once wrote:

"With his proverbial slovenliness, the barbarisms and incongruities whose notoriety has preceded him into history, the bad grammar, the breathless and painful clutching at words... he has seemed the unique example of a writer who remains great malgré lui. It is by now an established part of our folklore that Theodore Dreiser lacks everything except genius."

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