USA Literature unseen: Theodore Dreiser OCR

An unseen model response  for OCR:

This passage from Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy seems to establish a possible link to the title of the novel in the juxtaposition of a ‘small band’ of religious itinerants who are seeking to navigate their way through the relatively hostile environment of the New America of the 20th century.

As soon as the passage opens, Dreiser plunges us into a setting which combines a fin de siecle feeling seen in the abrupt ‘stage direction’  ‘Dusk – of a summer night’. ‘Dusk’ itself is suggestive of a closing down and the ‘summer night’ – emphasised by the dash – suggests the ending a good time, a time of pleasant relaxation. Possibly this reflects the metaphorical summer of the Pioneer era – a simplicity and an innocence rooted in religious observance. Into this night we see a ‘small band’, emphasis on the size and therefore on the vulnerability of this group, in an urban version of the nature of America. Buildings cause roads to be described as ‘canyons’, increasing the sense of juxtaposition, and though roads cross at ‘right angles’ in an unnatural grid pattern, imposed by most urban planners of 19th Century Industrialised America, we can read their movements as echoing those of the early pioneers who crossed the vast tracts of hostile land. The power of nature and the transitory nature of human endeavour is suggested by the omniscient narrator when he refers to the idea that these ‘walls … in time may linger as a mere fable’-  suggesting not just a tale told to a child, but a tale with a moral message to impart. The walls themselves need to be seen as potentially hostile, certainly representing a barrier to the progress of the band, who eventually., like rodents or small animals, manage to find an ‘alley’ into which to duck – like a hidden pass through the mountains. Such a setting, similar to that in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle  is typical of the rendering of the man-made nature which now dominates America in the early years of the 20th century, a time when the post-bellum boom of the industrialised North has led many rural dwellers to find their way into the cities, creating overcrowding and the developing ‘melting pot’ of races packed in on top of one another.

The band seem not to be looking to stay however and seem to be passing through, presumably looking for a better life. The writer introduces them with no names at first and provides a brief description, first of the father, whose asyndetic list of attributes suggest little which stands out – he is seen as ‘most unimportant-looking’ though in an obvious state of physical strength -‘ short , stout’. We can assume that the ‘most unimportant-looking’ tag is one as seen from those who consider themselves important – the businessmen and money makers familiar in this urban setting from Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. To them, anyone not engaged in making money would be unimportant. His obvious moral quality would no longer count in this industrialised world. He is likened to a street preacher and at once he is removed from mainstream society. His wife, significantly older, is strong  – ‘solid of frame and vigorous – and later we will see her take control of the group. She resembles the pioneer-mother stereotype familiar from works like My Antonia or the, as yet unwritten, Grapes of Wrath. In these depictions of pioneer struggle and financial hardship, it is the women who hold the families together as they toil to establish their version of the American Dream, yet this character is ‘not homely’ suggesting the enormity of the task at hand – travelling in the lord’s name to find a suitable location to call home. The indolent and debauched world of the 1920s – the so called ‘roaring’ twenties – is a far cry from the life of these itinerant souls.

The pair have children – a boy of seven and interestingly three teenagers described as walking ‘independently behind’ as though following in body, if not in mind – they follow ‘obediently, but not too enthusiastically’ and Dreiser shows us the capacity for change found in the younger generation who are ready to move with the times, not with their parents.

The group negotiate the modern world of ‘throngs’ and ‘cars which clanged their bells’ – the onomatopoieia helping the reader to realise the power and vibrancy of this new world, and escape from the modern world into an alley which is ‘bare of life of any kind. Even in the city they are shown to inhabit a world as new as that found by the original settlers – no life suggests exactly this -no animal or human existence – a tabula rasa. In this location they prepare their devotions. In a well practiced ritual, the organ is set up and they begin to sing their hymns – just as the first settlers of the country, driven by a sense of manifest destiny might have done 300 years earlier. Their conversation is precise and polite -‘will you oblige, Hester’ recalls  the old testament Esther in origin and is said to mean ‘star’, placing the older daughter in the ascendancy, and it is she who aids her mother in playing the music. Her ”slim and as yet undeveloped figure’ suggests her journey to woman-hood is as yet incomplete, but is also suggestive of a sensuality still to come.

As passers-by look on ‘askance’ or with curiosity, the band overcome this latent hostility to sing a hymn: ‘How sweet the balm of Jesus’ love.’ In this world, the idea of hymning on the street, if at all, seems curiously out of place. Dreiser is telling us that time has moved forward and the ideals of this little Puritan group – ‘plain in face and dress’ – are left far behind in a world of jazz and flappers inhabiting a manmade landscape every bit as difficult to cross as the natural world of the continent of America. Possibly, therefore the group can be seen as hopeful for the future – time will overcome the city and this simplicity may emerge unscathed, but the title of the book suggests otherwise – the American Tragedy, we assume, is the swamping of the pure American Dream of the first settlers and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, replacing them with the ill-fated pursuit of wealth and the emergence of a selfish, capitalist society.



Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy


Dusk — of a summer night.

And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants — such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six — a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant- looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books. With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.

It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.

Crossing at right angles the great thoroughfare on which they walked, was a second canyon-like way, threaded by throngs and vehicles and various lines of cars which clanged their bells and made such progress as they might amid swiftly moving streams of traffic. Yet the little group seemed unconscious of anything save a set purpose to make its way between the contending lines of traffic and pedestrians which flowed by them.

Having reached an intersection this side of the second principal thoroughfare — really just an alley between two tall structures — now quite bare of life of any kind, the man put down the organ, which the woman immediately opened, setting up a music rack upon which she placed a wide flat hymn book. Then handing the Bible to the man, she fell back in line with him, while the twelve-year-old boy put down a small camp-stool in front of the organ. The man — the father, as he chanced to be — looked about him with seeming wide- eyed assurance, and announced, without appearing to care whether he had any auditors or not:

“We will first sing a hymn of praise, so that any who may wish to acknowledge the Lord may join us. Will you oblige, Hester?”

At this the eldest girl, who until now had attempted to appear as unconscious and unaffected as possible, bestowed her rather slim and as yet undeveloped figure upon the camp chair and turned the leaves of the hymn book, pumping the organ while her mother observed:

“I should think it might be nice to sing twenty-seven tonight —‘How Sweet the Balm of Jesus’ Love.’”

By this time various homeward-bound individuals of diverse grades and walks of life, noticing the small group disposing itself in this fashion, hesitated for a moment to eye them askance or paused to ascertain the character of their work.