The writing, the language usage itself, isn’t everything!
Most everyone knows of Theodore Dreiser’s early work, An American Tragedy, yet few have even heard of his last novel, The Bulwark, the least naturalistic of his books and the only one that ultimately puts its faith in God. The limited success of The Bulwark may in itself provide some useful measure of faith, or lack of faith, at least among those who read, in Benevolent Design in twentieth century America.
The disparity in the readership of Dreiser’s two books suggests something solid and convincing about An American Tragedy that is missing from the more tenuous novel, the Christian Bulwark.
A prime requisite of any good story is a sense of reality, both within the framework of the story and with sufficient correspondence to the ‘outside’ world to make the fictional story seem credible. We see this clearly enough in both the deeply rooted credibility and the ready-made inevitable disaster awaiting Clyde Griffith in An American Tragedy. The story structurally holds together and we are kept in suspense even as we anticipate what’s coming, as we watch Griffith heading for a fall. By contrast the Bulwark, despite a number of dramatic and credible aspects, lacks the sense of inevitability and credibility of the earlier novel. The very structural design of The Bulwark seems shaky, and despite the great poignancy of the story it clearly lacks that sense of reality and impact we look for in a lasting work of art.
Invariably in fiction there is an element in which the reader gives the story the benefit of the doubt, yet this requires that the story itself, with its own special brand of magic, “convince” us of even the greatest improbabilities. Ironically, for most of The Bulwark the events are not improbable, nowhere near the kind of stretch seen in well-established literary works over the years — despite even the most fantastic assertions — by such authors as Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Kafka, Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Frank Baum, the Brothers Grimm….
Either the reader buys the story, or not. Among contemporary authors there’s little or no room for argument, for example, as Phillip Roth gives us the bizarre biography of a man who suddenly finds himself transformed into a single female breast. Either it works or it doesn’t. Either it’s credible or it isn’t. Somehow, curiously, Roth’s outlandish situation takes on more credibility than the more naturalistic Bulwark.
Admittedly what is not acceptable in one world becomes credible in another and perhaps we lend credibility from one piece to another; yet either the pieces all fall together into a strangely credible whole or they don’t. We may argue about the real world of economics and social conditions, for example, but in An American Tragedy the careful reader has little doubt about the impact of the continuing unequal economic structure on Clyde Griffith, a setting inevitably propelling Griffith onward to tragedy as he seeks to improve his status by marrying Sondra Finchley. Initially, admittedly, part of the story is taken as a given; yet for the story to work the tale must build its own credibility.
If convincing, the fictional reality may lend credence, meaning and value to our academic theories in the real world; and it becomes as though the outside world and the art, the fictional order we impose upon the world, are dependent upon each other. Sometimes, allowing that suspended judgment, the fictional reality has only a kind of temporary credibility and yet this breaks down if the pieces are not effectively welded together. Thus in Kafka’s Metamorphosis a man becomes a cockroach, and – who could believe it − we believe it!
The cockroach perhaps enjoys a piece of lettuce and the man who turns into a cockroach no longer enjoys a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. The story of a man turning into a cockroach, or into a breast, strangely works, yet even within the context of ‘art for art’s sake’, within the internal story, there are limits; and here Dreiser’s The Bulwark, for all of its piecemeal credibilities, undoubtedly fails the test.
Perhaps an inevitable lack of unity is to be expected from a work thirty two years in the mulling and making, from 1914 to 1946. In his later years Dreiser had tempered his views from that of atheism and mechanistic determinism to belief in a reverent, transcendental, mystical universe that is not only ordered but intelligently and benevolently so. Yet such tempered views are difficult to sustain in The Bulwark even though, in fairness to Dreiser, the novel seems not to suffer for lack of hard fact in its observations about society. One is reminded of an expensive suit, well stitched, with fine material, but which still doesn’t hang right. Of a significantly different cut than Dreiser’s earlier novels, this one doesn’t fit.
Interestingly, although Dreiser established himself with An American Tragedy as a major writer of the early twentieth century, his ‘realistic’ and naturalistic style of writing in this work seems somewhat antiquated for the modern reader. Yet the story still holds up in significant ways, an accomplishment no doubt owing more to his perceptions and broad vision of society than to his writing technique (a technique frequently frowned upon by literary critics) or even some capable editing. And curiously, though many still regard Dreiser’s An American Tragedy as the great American novel, a number of these same critics might well concede that some of the worst sentences ever written in the English language are to be found in this same novel.
Perhaps — or very likely, as one author and member of Alcoholics Anonymous once flatly suggested to me — such tangled sentences emerged because Dreiser was possibly drunk when he wrote them. In any case there are unquestionably lugubrious, misshapen sentences in An American Tragedy; more than enough, you’d think, to convince many of us that whatever genius Dreiser has to offer in this book it is not primarily to be found in his style of writing or use of language. Even so, such instances of poor language did not by themselves prevent the success of An American Tragedy.
While it would be a mistake to overestimate the significance of craft or the author’s use of language in An American Tragedy, no doubt the tendency to ignore careful language usage has by itself proven fatal in many another book. And undoubtedly even in the sometimes poorly written An American Tragedy there are some fine passages of writing which undoubtedly play an important role in the total impact of the novel and it’s well-enjoyed status as a classic.
Curiously, given its relatively low status, The Bulwark, in a further somewhat embarrassing touch, is perhaps superior in its style and use of language to An American Tragedy and to much of Dreiser’s earlier writing. If, in addition to problems pointed to in The Bulwark, there are other failings that might be attributed to this final novel these are still less noticeable and apparently far less significant than what appears to be a crucial crack in the very structure of the novel itself. Even those who do not immediately recognize this crack may come to it by process of elimination until one feels that what remains to help account for the success of An American Tragedy and the comparative failure of The Bulwark is essentially a matter of design and inevitability and credibility.
These arguments gain further justification when we look more closely at Dreiser’s later writing. Following publication of An American Tragedy in 1925, Dreiser had some two decades with which to practice and perfect the art of writing before publication of The Bulwark. Clearly The Bulwark does not suffer, as some highbrow critics might presume, because of its “commonality” or lack of sophistication in the author’s more reportorial style. The Bulwark, once the size of An American Tragedy and cut in half by Dreiser’s editor Louise Campbell, in important ways seems even better edited than some of Dreiser’s earlier and more ponderous, yet more successful, works. To considerable extent the characters in The Bulwark develop through the story’s action rather than by description. There is less talk of such matters as chemisms and less omniscient and authorial philosophizing on such matters as Dreiser’s Spencerian metaphysics, as questionable to some as Christianity or a benevolently ordered universe might be to others. Carefully edited, the book reads well, deals with compelling matters, and most of the characters seem very much alive, eliciting perhaps even more sympathy and identification than do some of the more wooden characters in Dreiser’s earlier, more naturalistic works. So far, one would hardly suspect that the book was heading for a fall.
As for relevance, The Bulwark, tracing the lives of a Quaker family raised by religious principle in the emerging urban and materialistic setting of early 20th century America, is as timely today as when Dreiser completed it in 1946. Dreiser’s point of view, challenging excessive and money-grabbing materialism on the one hand and an inflexible code of fundamentalist religious conduct on the other and finally advocating universal love, is as acceptable now as standard fare for much of today’s public service moralizing news while ignoring the essence of many of the big stories. Even so, Dreiser’s novel is hardly pablum. The author convinces us that Solon Barnes, the protagonist and bulwark of respectability, must resign from the bank where he works in order to hold to his principles. “The only trouble with his principles,” observes a fellow banker, “is that they’re too high for these days.”
Solon Barnes, who protested fraudulent and monopolistic business practices as being inconsistent with professed Christian principles, surely would agonize over today’s practices. Barnes no doubt would agree with Tom Paine that “The earth is the common property of the human race.” And one need not be a religious zealot to question the distribution of the earth and its resources disproportionately to what Stendhal called “the lucky few,” particularly to the financiers and industrialists who not only own the oil but also plan to sell us the sun and perhaps even the air. The Bulwark saw it all coming. More relevant today than when it was published, it early noted the problem of excessive “progress,” a concern that was not to gain serious public recognition until probably the nineteen seventies. One would think that a book so far ahead of its time would have proven more lasting.
Toward the end of Dreiser’s lifetime, looking more critically at the concept of the stewards of wealth as it works out in practice — Ronald Reagan called it “trickle down” — Solon Barnes saw clearly enough the inadequacy of such stewardship. Following a series of compromises, he finally was forced to acknowledge that his position as one of the bulwark of the institution, of the nation, was incompatible with his Christian principles. His honest nature leads him to inform the Treasury Department about fraudulent practices of his fellow bankers, and to maintain his principles by resigning in protest with a tough speech. Of course, he is in a position by now to retire comfortably on his considerable savings, and perhaps this does begin to sound a little like a Hollywood movie.
Nonetheless it is apparent to the perceptive reader that a crooked society has failed Solon, the honest man. Not only does the best man not always win, we find here, it would seem, that he cannot win at all if he follows his Christian precepts. Not in society, nor necessarily with his Children (though he raised them with the best Christian intent), nor even in his life on this world. So far you might think that such a story as Solon’s — not unlike the realities of many lives who find it tough-sledding when they seek to follow their principles — might give the book some credibility. Of course, what counts are not merely the events but the way the events link up in the design of the book.
To Dreiser’s credit, the novel neither whines nor preaches nor even distorts, as, say, with an Ayn Rand book, to support the structural design or preconceived notions of the work. And throughout the novel there is considerable empirical detail to support the novel’s events as they flow from bad to worse. To the author’s credit the reader, not so much told as shown, is allowed to observe and to think and to feel for oneself, and the story often carries significant impact.
Tragedy falls upon tragedy for Solon Barnes. His children leave the religious fold, one son to marry for money, a daughter to become a shallow socialite, one daughter is born not pretty and sad, another has an affair that is short-lived, and another son, owing to natural sexual urges as well as to religious repression by his well-intentioned father and bad outside influences, becomes involved in scandal, soon dies, and soon after Solon himself is inflicted by cancer.
It is only toward the end that the story, at least for some of us, begins to fall apart. In his final days, cared for by a loving daughter rededicated to homelife, Solon turns to a kind of transcendental pantheism and finds renewed comfort in religion and faith in a benevolently ordered universe. This takes us to the overall design of the novel.
There is a certain vagueness about the cause of Solon’s belated comfort. Perhaps it is because in God’s world all things work out for the best – in a way seemingly not to different from Dreiser’s earlier Spencerian metaphysics in which, among the survival of the fittest, the “best man” always wins. Or perhaps, if the best man doesn’t win anymore in a Spencerian world, and it becomes something more like the survival of the wittiest, even so one hold’s out hope that the best man can still win in God’s world to come.
It is obvious that Dreiser intends no irony in Solon Barnes’ finding true happiness despite his tragic life. No doubt, such an attitude is not incredible in real life. There seems to be no limit to faith, and we have all heard of such cases – yet for many of us it sounds too incredible in the story itself. And for some of us, at least, the idea of the best man winning either in Spencer’s world or in God’s world to come begins to sound both dubious and trite, as though the more frequent the assertion the greater the insecurity and the more questionable the reality. At best Solon Barnes’ final religious comfort is a possible ending. Yet possible endings lack the kind of credibility that make for lasting literature, usually far less ambivalent. If not completely Poe-esque, with a story written to fit the ending, in lasting literature, the ending normally seems inherent in the story – at least sufficiently so as to not remind us of other possible endings – and the completion is not exactly an ending itself, something tacked on, but something more connected and integral until one cannot really tell where the ending actually begins or where it simply continues as the inevitable working out of the story, as inevitable as the destiny of Clyde Griffith in An American Tragedy.
The Bulwark clearly lacks the impact of that sense of inevitability; even giving the ending of The Bulwark the benefit of the doubt, it resembles something more like one of those nullifying debates on television in which, if credible at all, the opposing sides equalize each other and leave no clear point of view; supposedly all sides are more or less covered, and everyone is more or less happy but yet not fully satisfied, not the way a work of literature sometimes really satisfies, or the way something truly clicks for us, such as when a bat hits a baseball perfect and you know its going to be a home run (even if it fouls out and isn’t ). Or the way in which even an amateur can tell the sound of a smoothly running engine, without extraneous pings or knocks, its energies directed in a powerful forward motion. With a possible ending it is always as though you are picking one ending and discarding the others; coherent novels of major impact rarely allow for such wasted energies.
The Bulwark offers a devastating commentary on an unprincipled materialistic society on the one hand, then offers, for those who can believe in it, religious comfort on the other. Like the media itself, The Bulwark, offering a choice between a corrupt society or Christian principles, seems both either/orish and simplistic. For example, Thomas Paine, who shared many of Barnes’ ethical views, was neither a corrupt materialist, in the conventional sense of the definition offered in The Bulwark, nor religiously oriented. In fact, Paine, who first gave the United States of America its name, was assailed and forced out of the country because his Rights of Man preached not against “infidels” but that society should tolerate those who are not religious.
The Bulwark itself, although less hypocritical than much preaching we’ve seen, implies that only in God is there a kind of unity; for there is no brotherhood of man practiced in the cities of God’s world as they are depicted in The Bulwark. Still, for some of us, anyway, more likely the presumption of God and his benevolently ordered universe must violate the literary sense of unity of Dreiser’s last novel, structurally designed like a concluding happy editorial tacked onto an alien set of tragic arguments. The implication is that either by God, or by Dreiser, there has been a literary failure of design.
By Ron Kenner — A FAILURE OF DESIGN