Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Life of an Artist

GeniusThe "Genius" 
by Theodore Dreiser

"The city appealed to him, wet or white, particularly the public squares.  He saw Fifth Avenue once in a driving snowstorm and under the sputtering arc lights, and he hurried to his easel next morning to see if he could not put it down in black and white.  It was unsuccessful, or at least he felt so, for after an hour of trying he threw it aside in disgust.  But these spectacles were drawing him.  He was wanting to do them---wanting to see them shown somewhere in color.  Possible success was a solace at a time when all he could pay for a meal was fifteen cents and he had no place to go and not a soul with whom to talk." (108-9)

In November of 1911 Theodore Dreiser sailed for Europe with his English publisher Grant Richards. Dreiser would spend almost six months touring England, with side trips to Florence and Berlin. He returned on 11 April 1912 on the liner Kroonland, having passed up the opportunity to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic two days earlier for lack of funds. Having come that close to disaster he would have to continue writing in America to produce the books whose advances had funded his trip abroad. One of those books was his fifth novel, The "Genius", published in 1915.

The "Genius" is a novel dealing with the American Artist and his search for a place in American life. The three sections of the novel narrate the story of an artist who begins his life in a small Midwestern town and eventually reaches the heights of magazine publishing in New York City. The first part, "Youth", contains some of Dreiser's best writing and chronicles the youth of Eugene Witla growing up in a middle-class family in Illinois. He moves to Chicago where he becomes a newspaper illustrator and studies evenings at the Art Institute. His life there includes a variety of jobs and the beginnings of his relationships with women that will become an important theme in the book. He returns home and meets a young girl from Wisconsin, Angela Blue, who will he will eventually marry; but only after having spent time as an illustrator in New York.  Developing his career there he becomes an artist with potential for major success. The first part of the novel concludes with his return to Wisconsin as he is about to marry Angela, a farm girl who is older and much more conservative than Eugene, the eager independent artist. Their differences are never reconciled over the course of a marriage that covers most of the succeeding two sections of the novel. "Youth" is by far the most successful part of the novel as the remaining five hundred-plus pages of parts two and three become somewhat repetitive with Eugene's multiple affairs with women as background to his rise as a painter and ensuing nervous breakdown. His own destructive impulses impair his career and wound his marriage. Some have suggested that Dreiser's attempts to adapt the story too closely to his own biography may account for some of the problems of these sections. Eugene's life seems to drift.  At his peak his genius for painting seemed sui generis and he was becoming recognized in artistic circles, but he made questionable decisions about the direction of his life that took him away from pure art and into the publishing business and investments where, after some apparent success, he ultimately failed.

The epic scope and strength of the novel are marred by unrealistic passages and melodramatic moments and ultimately a failure of the novelist to present a coherent direction for Eugene's life. Dreiser's power as a story-teller holds the novel together in spite of these issues, but he is not able to succeed in bringing it to the level of his earlier successes in Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, and The Financier.  Dreiser's main critical champion, H. L. Mencken, praised its epic panorama while recognizing the "rambling, formless, and chaotic" nature of much of the novel. Other literary critics were less kind. As a fan of Dreiser's work for many years I recognize the flaws but would nonetheless recommend this novel to any who have first enjoyed the best of his novelistic efforts. The greatness within The "Genius" is easier to perceive with that reading as your background.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I have read both Sister Carrie as well as An American Tragedy but not this.

As for the main character's story and life being unfocused, I suppose that one can argue that is a reflection of reality. I can see however how that can become a problem within a narrative.