Friday, April 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 3: Theodore Dreiser, A Certain Oil Refinery (#28)

Next up, our first non-fiction piece, a setting description by Theodore Dreiser, ex-"amateur laborer" for the New York Central Railroad from June 5, 1903-December 24, 1903.

Theodore Dreiser, "A Certain Oil Refinery" (1919) from American Earth:
Dreiser was a journalist, so it's not crazy to find a piece of his in the Library of America anthology of ecological and environmental writing. It doesn't become crazy until you read it.

You'll find out very little hard information in this sketch, just that Standard Oil has a refinery in Bayonne, NJ; and that the entire area around the refinery is polluted but picturesque--including the people. As he notes at the end, he's not really writing about the ethics of employment, just the aesthetics: "only the picture which this industry presents."

And he's not totally lying when he says that. Sure, he does stick in some judgments or hand-wringing about how these workers are so low because of their exploited position... and also maybe because of their lack of intelligence; and he does contrast the greed of the top with the poverty (and ignorance) of the bottom. But most of the manifest content here is just about the aesthetics of exploitation and pollution; look at these people, he says:

They look so grim, so bare, so hopeless. Artists ought to make pictures of them. Writers ought to write of them. Musicians should get their inspiration for what is antiphonal and contra-puntal from such things. 

Honestly, those lines are so effusive (and repetitive) that I think they might tip into irony--but I can't really tell. Similarly, as soon as he gets done describing the terrible conditions of the men, he'll add the 1910s equivalent of "what are you going to do?" That he's more interested in the aesthetics might even be behind the title that this piece was collected in, "The Color of a Great City."

I'll also note that those lines quoted above are very unlike much of Dreiser's writing style, where long sentences go on; and where he'll never give an image once if he can instead give it twice. I'll give him this, though: his writing is so varied and strange that I'm sure I can find the exact opposite (long, short, straightforward, ironic/understated, etc.) in this very piece.

Addendum: For all his overt interest in aesthetics, this piece gains a certain moral power when read soon after the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion and the collapse of a Bangladeshi factory.

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