Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trilogy of Desire

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser died on this day in 1945, his posthumously-published novel, The Stoic not quite finished. This was the last book in his “Trilogy of Desire” — earlier novels were The Financier and The Titan — featuring the tycoon Frank Cowperwood, whom Dreiser based upon the American financier Charles Yerkes. Dreiser often took his stories from the newspapers and biographies of the day, and often used his investigations into marine biology to frame his naturalist views. Cowperwood’s first wife cannot fathom or interest her husband, for she is equipped with only “a conventional mind,” like an oyster or clam: “It has its little siphon of thought-processes forced up or down into the mighty ocean of fact and circumstance; but it uses so little, pumps so faintly, that the immediate contiguity of the vast mass is not disturbed.” Cowperwood himself is more complex, and a capitalist without principles or conscience, akin to the bottom-feeding Mycteroperca Bonaci, or Black Grouper:

Mycteroperca moving in its dark world of green waters is as fine an illustration of the constructive genius of nature, which is not beatific, as any which the mind of man may discover. Its great superiority lies in an almost unbelievable power of simulation, which relates solely to the pigmentation of its skin. …You cannot look at it long without feeling that you are witnessing something spectral and unnatural, so brilliant is its power to deceive. From being black it can become instantly white; from being an earth-colored brown it can fade into a delightful water-colored green. Its markings change as the clouds of the sky. One marvels at the variety and subtlety of its power.
Lying at the bottom of a bay, it can simulate the mud by which it is surrounded. Hidden in the folds of glorious leaves, it is of the same markings. Lurking in a flaw of light, it is like the light itself shining dimly in water. Its power to elude or strike unseen is of the greatest.
What would you say was the intention of the overruling, intelligent, constructive force which gives to Mycteroperca this ability? To fit it to be truthful? To permit it to present an unvarying appearance which all honest life-seeking fish may know? Or would you say that subtlety, chicanery, trickery, were here at work?

The Titan, the second book in the "Trilogy of Desire" - in which Cowperwood, now out of prison, fashions a new fortune for himself, was the first of this trilogy that I read when I was devouring Dreiser in high school.  My first taste of his writing was Sister Carrie, about the young girl who comes to Chicago;  Dreiser intertwined her narrative of being seduced by the lure of the city with the counter-narrative of a middle-aged man seduced by desire for Carrie.   I followed this with his greatest novel, An American Tragedy, the story of the ill-fated Clyde Griffiths.  And soon after read The Titan in this 1960 Laurel paperback edition.

I continue to enjoy the journalistic prose of Theodore Dreiser and commend his novels to all interested in discovering the flowering of naturalism in American literature.

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