An American Zola

January 16, 2013

File:Theo Dreiser.jpg

Theodore Dreiser was a Naturalist in the tradition of Emile Zola, but with a twist.  Maybe it was American puritanism, that Calvinist strain, or perhaps some other element of his personality, but man, could he lay on the doom.  Having just finished An American Tragedy, all 900+ pages of it, I feel as if I was run over by a steamroller.  And I’ve been feeling that way since page 100!

Clyde Griffiths (George Eastman in the Stevens’ film adaptation) has had a stunted youth, the child of impoverished street preachers who include him, even as a very young boy, in their curbside music and proselytizing.  Clyde doesn’t feel comfortable with this life from an early age – he always is restless and wanting something different.  Eventually, he breaks away, becoming a bellhop, and he enjoys the taste of the highlife that the job, and the tips that come with it, brings.  During a wild night out with some friends in he is a passenger in a car that runs over and kills a little girl:  he has to skip town, severing his relations with his family yet more deeply.

Eventually, he connects with his very rich uncle, who, feeling guilty about the way his evangelist brother was shafted in the matter of the family inheritance, decides to give the kid a chance in his factory, working from the bottom up.  He tells his family that there is no need to admit him to their provincial circle of the social élite, but Clyde besides being handsome and possessed of charming ‘soft’ manners, bears a striking resemblance to his cousin, the heir apparent at the factory.  It just wouldn’t do to shun him completely:  his face would give the story away and cause talk.  He is granted limited access to the Griffiths family.

Eventually, he breaks the rules and forms a romance with a factory girl:  she is pretty, and Clyde is subject to powerful sexual urges.  He also becomes a regular in the young-smart set of the Griffiths circle, and a powerful flirtation, then a romantic infatuation develops between him and a beautiful girl in that set.  He keeps his multiple romantic relations a secret, dooming him when the factory girl becomes pregnant.  At his wit’s end, his dream of marriage into society, wealth, ease, material opulence threatened, he plots her murder.  She is drowned, mostly through his actions, but there is, to the end, a little shred of ambiguity regarding his intent at the very last fatal moment of he life.

He is immediately caught, despite his ‘careful’ planning, tried, and convicted.  He dies in the chair.  It is all incredibly slow, detailed, crushing in its inevitability.  The characters in this tale are all presented as sympathetically as could be, while the author, from an Olympian perspective, dissects them coolly and dispassionately.  It was written and takes place in the 1920s, so some things are not discussed so freely as today, but more so than they were not long before.  Clyde’s visit to a brothel while working as a bellhop:

Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable

And later:

 His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex. And by the actions and approaches of each in turn he was surely tempted at times, especially in these warm and languorous summer days, with no place to go and no single intimate to commune with. From time to time he could not resist drawing near to these very girls who were most bent on tempting him, although in the face of their looks and nudges, not very successfully concealed at times, he maintained an aloofness and an assumed indifference which was quite remarkable for him.

Everyone is ruled by their nature, formed by genetics and the social petri dishes in which they were cultured.  The unconscious, and sex, lurks unacknowledged, but powerful.  Not just Clyde, but the lawyer who sends him to the chair, the jurors, his defense, the doctors who refuse to give his girlfriend an abortion – they are all locked into the suffocating confines of the social machine.  Here’s Mason, the district attorney, determined to see him fry for his crime, and to make a political coup for himself in the process:

Mason was a short, broad-chested, broad-backed and vigorous individual physically, but in his late youth had been so unfortunate as to have an otherwise pleasant and even arresting face marred by a broken nose, which gave to him a most unprepossessing, almost sinister, look. Yet he was far from sinister. Rather, romantic and emotional. His boyhood had been one of poverty and neglect, causing him in his later and somewhat more successful years to look on those with whom life had dealt more kindly as too favorably treated. The son of a poor farmer’s widow, he had seen his mother put to such straits to make ends meet that by the time he reached the age of twelve he had surrendered nearly all of the pleasures of youth in order to assist her. And then, at fourteen, while skating, he had fallen and broken his nose in such a way as to forever disfigure his face. Thereafter, feeling himself handicapped in the youthful sorting contests which gave to other boys the female companions he most craved, he had grown exceedingly sensitive to the fact of his facial handicap. And this had eventually resulted in what the Freudians are accustomed to describe as a psychic sex scar.

In his dreaminess, he has something in common with Clyde, but he was deformed, and now he has that “sex scar.”  And there is the town, the jurors, the face of stolid morality, the herd mentality of the Christian rubes, which Clyde’s defense attorney scorns, but treats gingerly by necessity, as he questions Clyde on the stand:

He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position (his father had been a judge as well as a national senator from here), he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding which made him fairly capable of grasping any reasonable moral or social complication which life was prepared to offer.

“Oh, I can’t say not entirely afterwards. I cared for her some — a good deal, I guess — but still not as much as I had. I felt more sorry for her than anything else, I suppose.”

“And now, let’s see — that was between December first last say, and last April or May — or wasn’t it?”  “About that time, I think — yes, sir.”

“Well, during that time — December first to April or May first you were intimate with her, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even though you weren’t caring for her so much.”

“Why — yes, sir,” replied Clyde, hesitating slightly, while the rurals jerked and craned at this introduction of the sex crime.

“And yet at nights, and in spite of the fact that she was alone over there in her little room — as faithful to you, as you yourself have testified, as any one could be — you went off to dances, parties, dinners, and automobile rides, while she sat there.”

“Oh, but I wasn’t off all the time.”

Clyde done wrong, but what were his chances in life?  Society stinks.  Capital punishment is brutal and inhuman.  Public officials are self-serving and venal.  (Mason is honest, but one of his staff plants evidence to further incriminate Clyde.  He needn’t have bothered, but he does anyway.)  The social élite are shallow, smug, and uncaring.  Society is a machine to grind you down, and it starts on page one and goes on, and on, and on…It’s a pretty damn impressive literary feat, if you can stand it!  Dreiser can create a stem winding dramatic courtroom oration as well as he can reproduce the  baby talk of a society princess teasing her beau.

When I began the book, I was struck by how unsympathetically Clyde was portrayed (or at least, without sympathy) compared to the film.  As I read on, however, I came to feel that George Stevens had done a remarkable job of adapting the book and bringing forward to the 1950s, both as a narrative, and in its approach to the audience.  One of the principal differences that I did find a little bit too much to accept in the film, is that Angela Vickers (Liz Taylor) visits Clyde just before his execution, after being kept completely out of view and out of the testimony of the trial.  She still loves him.

In the book, she sends him a brief anonymous, typewritten note that makes clear that she is emotionally distant from him now, although she recognizes how in love they were, and she will not forget him.  It is  in keeping with the ruthless presentation of class relations that is part of the book – she will get on with her social role in the world – and it is the final, crushing blow to Clyde.  As I noted in my post on the film, it is a social melodrama, and such uncompromising realism would have been out of place.


Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860′s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…


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