Write a critical appreciation of this passage relating to your study of American Literature 1880-1940
Theodore Dreiser – The Titan
Chicago, when it finally dawned on him, came with a rush on the second morning. He had spent two nights in the gaudy Pullman then provided—a car intended to make up for some of the inconveniences of its arrangements by an over-elaboration of plush and tortured glass—when the first lone outposts of the prairie metropolis began to appear. The side-tracks along the road-bed over which he was speeding became more and more numerous, the telegraph-poles more and more hung with arms and strung smoky-thick with wires. In the far distance, cityward, was, here and there, a lone working-man’s cottage, the home of some adventurous soul who had planted his bare hut thus far out in order to reap the small but certain advantage which the growth of the city would bring.
The land was flat—as flat as a table—with a waning growth of brown grass left over from the previous year, and stirring faintly in the morning breeze. Underneath were signs of the new green—the New Year’s flag of its disposition. For some reason a crystalline atmosphere enfolded the distant hazy outlines of the city, holding the latter like a fly in amber and giving it an artistic subtlety which touched him. Already a devotee of art, ambitious for connoisseurship, who had had his joy, training, and sorrow out of the collection he had made and lost in Philadelphia, he appreciated almost every suggestion of a delightful picture in nature.
The tracks, side by side, were becoming more and more numerous. Freight-cars were assembled here by thousands from all parts of the country—yellow, red, blue, green, white. (Chicago, he recalled, already had thirty railroads terminating here, as though it were the end of the world.) The little low one and two story houses, quite new as to wood, were frequently unpainted and already smoky—in places grimy. At grade-crossings, where ambling street-cars and wagons and muddy-wheeled buggies waited, he noted how flat the streets were, how unpaved, how sidewalks went up and down rhythmically—here a flight of steps, a veritable platform before a house, there a long stretch of boards laid flat on the mud of the prairie itself. What a city! Presently a branch of the filthy, arrogant, self-sufficient little Chicago River came into view, with its mass of sputtering tugs, its black, oily water, its tall, red, brown, and green grain-elevators, its immense black coal-pockets and yellowish-brown lumber-yards.
Here was life; he saw it at a flash. Here was a seething city in the making. There was something dynamic in the very air which appealed to his fancy. How different, for some reason, from Philadelphia! That was a stirring city, too. He had thought it wonderful at one time, quite a world; but this thing, while obviously infinitely worse, was better. It was more youthful, more hopeful. In a flare of morning sunlight pouring between two coal-pockets, and because the train had stopped to let a bridge swing and half a dozen great grain and lumber boats go by—a half-dozen in either direction—he saw a group of Irish stevedores idling on the bank of a lumber-yard whose wall skirted the water. Healthy men they were, in blue or red shirt-sleeves, stout straps about their waists, short pipes in their mouths, fine, hardy, nutty-brown specimens of humanity. Why were they so appealing, he asked himself. This raw, dirty town seemed naturally to compose itself into stirring artistic pictures. Why, it fairly sang! The world was young here. Life was doing something new. Perhaps he had better not go on to the Northwest at all; he would decide that question later.
In this passage the unnamed protagonist, suggesting an Everyman figure, is found to be arriving in Chicago by train after 2 days of travel. The date of publication suggests that the setting is contemporary since the first decade of the 20th Century saw the explosion of industrialisation and resulting building and infrastructure which had become possible after the victory of the North in the Civil War some 40 years earlier. By this time, the Pioneers had reached the West coast and the development of the new cities and transport hubs of the Mid West offered a new sort of frontier – one of exciting possibilities in the Land of the Free. Indeed Dreiser presents the sense of awe and wonder in his protagonists as he exclaims ‘what a city!’ and offers the idea that ‘the world was young here.’ It is clear that in this passage the world is represented by Chicago – the idea of America now being central to the world is recognised -the country has grown up. Chicago may seem like the ‘end of the world’ but the phrase has lost its negative connotations and suggests now a location waiting to explore out into the world beyond.
The temporal setting is interesting: dawn. There is a neat double entendre in the opening sentence implying not only the time of day – a time suggesting hope and opportunity – but also the sense of recognition emerging in the protagonist’s mind. He is travelling to the heart of the Mid West in a ‘Pullman’ – a typically European model of train redolent of the Gilded Age of the late 90s. At that point many on the East coast still looked to Europe for inspiration in terms of art, music, city planning and even naming, yet in Chicago, there is an Americanism which separates it from Philadelphia – the city of origin of the United States, proudly bearing its Greek name. Chicago is named for Native Americans and despite the dirt and squalor, this oxymoronic ‘prairie metropolis’ seems exciting in a way that the over complacent ‘plush’ pullman with its ‘tortured’ glass, forced into unnatural configurations cannot. Dreiser’s sentences are long and filled with asyndetic listing as he describes the railways lines rushing into the city with only the anomolous ‘working man’s cottage’ or ‘hut’ suggesting a way of life which existed in the outpost of the frontier from an earlier time.
Colour is a feature of Dreiser’s description. His ‘thousands’ of ‘freight cars’ (clearly indicating the shift to industry – the freight of Huckleberry Finn’s day is carried by the great rivers such as the Mississippi) are listed by colour as though the colour represented the various regions of the USA, just as the grain elevators -‘tall, red, brown and green’ and the clothing of the Irishmen suggest the range of forms of industrial building somewhat redolent of the ‘melting pot’ of races which we see in other writing of the time such as Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Sinclair’s The Jungle. Indeed the Irish workers are ‘nutty brown’ suggesting closer kinship to the Native Americans than to Ireland. Chicago has always been an ‘Irish’ city. Here Dreiser seems to be suggesting by use of the compound adjective that these folk are now the indigenous population of the city.
So into the ‘New World’ for the new century, a world seen as ‘youthful’, travels an artist – not a typical frontiersman of the true migration to the New World, filled with the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Puritanical zeal to found a new state in God’s image, travels a sensitive man excited by the new possibilities offered by the Mid West. In 10 years time a similar man will travel Eastward as Nick Carraway leaves the mid West to seek wealth in New York, but at this stage, the migration is still focused in a Westward direction suggesting that the motive is not yet just the pursuit of wealth but still carries a more cerebral nature. The protagonist is able to note both the denaturing of the prairie from which houses rise and through which the ‘unpaved’ streets rise and fall ‘rhythmically much in the manner of frontier towns described by Twain in Huckleberry Finn. But for Twain towns like Bricksville are on the way down -victims of an indolent Southern nature; here in the Midwest, the energy, summed up by the ‘filthy, arrogant, self sufficient’ Chicago river is winning the battle to create an unnatural but positive frontier. This tricolon is interesting – the word order turns the double negative into one of the positive virtues of the American frontier -self sufficiency. The suggestion is that under the filth lies the nature to push forward and to succeed.
Indeed the city is figuratively likened to a ‘fly in amber’ – an image which suggests rarity whilst acknowledging the colour and pollution inherent in industry – amber suggests the filth in the smoke from factories and trains and is to the protagonist a symbol of hope picked up in the ‘flare’ of sunlight described in the last paragraph. This is no longer the tranquil and immense frontier seen on the Mississippi in the 1830s or even the open spaces of prairie life seen in My Antonia. This is the exciting new world which lures Sister Carrie to Chicago to change her life, which enables huge wealth to be passed into the hands of men like Tom Buchananan, and which establishes at this time the railway as the dominant element of the race to attain the American Dream. The continent is shrinking, and whilst Nick Carraway will reminisce about romantic train journeys in the Mid West as a young man (presumably at a time contemporary to the setting of this novel), Dreiser is seeing something different: the arrival of industry which will turn cities like Chicago into the prime foci for money and opportunity and turn the old Euro-centric cities of the East coast into somehow quieter and tamer places. Indeed, so exciting and wild is it, that ‘it fairly sang!’