book of books – Short Stories

This collection of short stories by Theodore Dreiser was mainly written at the turn of the last century in a collection of magazines and newspapers. It makes you think that there must have been more outlets for writers in those days to get long pieces of work published. But it also gives an indication of the sort of writer that Dreiser was. His stories are based around the observations of people both on the surface and in the mind and the emotions. As someone with a journalistic background he seems to have taken a leaf out of fellow hack Dickens’s book and concentrated on people to an extent that they become believable and carry the reader through.

This collection is dominated by stories that focus on relationships between men and women both living and dead. In the first tale, Free, the focus is on a man who almost wishes his wife dead so he can be alone but then realises his life is spent. Then in The Lost Phoebe a man is driven out of his mind by the loneliness of grief after a lifetime’s relationship is ended. Here are a couple of the other standout stories:

Nigger Jeff
Dreiser widens out the bigotry from racism to also make it a statement about City versus country ways and a question of who really is guilty. With his background in reporting this feels like it might almost be semi-autobiographical.

A man is accused of raping a 19 year old and a lynching party sets off to try and find the man to bring him to justice at their own hands so a reporter from the city newspaper is sent out to cover the story but he is disturbed by the lynching and hopes it will not happen only to be a witness when it does and Jeff is hanged.

After Jeff is left to hang the reporter struggles to get the thoughts clear in his head but before heading back to the city he walks to Jeff’s house and there sees his corpse and discovers his mother crying over the body. It is as he walks out full of all of the contrasting emotions of disgust, shame and grief that he realises that his task as a writer is to get all of those feelings into the story and tell the truth about the lynching as a lasting testament to Jeff

The Second Choice
Told from a woman’s angle this is a clever story that both female and male readerships would relate to because the conclusion is something both can understand.

A woman who has been taken in by a smooth talking confident man, Arthur, breaks off her engagement with a steady character and dreams of living with Mr Exciting rather than Mr Steady but is then inevitable left by Arthur after he moves onto pastures new with the woman with no prospects of marriage

She consoles herself thinking that she aimed too high and that she will after all have to replicate the life of her parents and churn out some kids and eek out an existence accepting that while she is choosing her second choice she was Arthur’s. Lacking that little bit of confidence makes a huge difference to her perception of her self, her worth and her life.

Is it well written?
Focusing on people and the tension and reactions in relationships, which is shown well in The Marriage, is a real skill for a writer to deliver. Dreiser has a feel of authenticity to his locations whether they are rural or city based that also demonstrates an incredibly keen eye for observation. Sometimes the ending can be seen a little too far off but that is the only real criticism.

Should it be read?
Trying to appreciate a writer, just because of their performance in one field (novels)means that it is possible to miss out on other aspects of their writing. This collection, which is by no means difficult to get through, shows that Dreiser was able to focus in on people and their emotions in a medium that requires a tighter and more focused writing and it is worth reading these to see that in action. It also adds to a canon of American literature that is often not as well read as the decade or two that followed after the First World War and does stand up to the test of time.

Version read – Dover Thrift Editions paperback

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