Friday, October 9, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 39 (Theodore Dreiser)

Sister Carrie
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Dreiser, Theodore
Sister Carrie

I think I bought this for a course in college called, "American Literary Realism." It was one of the first courses I took as an English major. I don't think I even knew what "realism" was when I took it. I remember it being defined as a reaction against the "romanticism" of writers like Poe, towards whom the professor, as were almost all of my professors until I met Susan Howe, was contemptuous. I didn't know what romanticism was either, but her contempt made me want to read Edgar Allan Poe right away.

While I liked the professor -- she was one of those classic first wave feminist scholars who spent most of her career unearthing female authors of the nineteenth century and bringing them to publication -- I found ninety percent of the reading, including Theodore Dreiser, how shall we say, not to my liking, or better yet, a total bore. I think the only novel I enjoyed reading in the class was Huckleberry Finn. I guess American Literary Realism just wasn't my thing.

Now that I think about it, "American Literary Realism" was the course in which I met, B., a woman with whom I immediately formed a friendship, which blossomed into an unconsummated passion/obsession lasting many, many years, and which eventually became a brief, explosive and psychologically devastating (for me, anyhow) relationship. I spent most of that semester thinking romantically about her instead of thinking analytically about American Literary Realism.

Ah, youth. Or as Dreiser put it...

The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! Unrecognised for what they are, their beauty, like music, too often relaxes, then weakens, then perverts the simpler human perceptions.

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