Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 29: Theodore Dreiser, W. L. S. (#102)

Theodore Dreiser, "W. L. S." (1901) from Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men:

When I read Library of America's Story of the Week, I read the story first and then the headnote or other information on the page. From that you can tell that I apprenticed early under teachers influenced by New Criticism, which makes sense: just read the story and you don't have to worry about things like history, which is hard to follow.

So when I read "W.L.S.," I did not know that the piece was actually based on a real person Dreiser knew; and if you don't know that, it reads either as wish-fulfillment/Mary Sue or as parody: W.L.S. can do anything! He's an illustrator, a mechanic, a philosopher and logician, a titled baron in Germany, etc. We could put this next to Cather's portrait of Stephen Crane: both feel somewhat romantic in their view of the alchemical artist who is able to transmute experience into art.

(Honestly, part of the reason it reads almost as parodic to me is that when I read sentences like "Thus he worked out by means of a polygon, whose sides were of unequal lengths, a theory of friendship which is too intricate to explain here," I hear an echo of my college senior project where I wrote a Borgesian pastiche full of lines about how great this guy was, who drew charts about laughter and combined disparate fields.)

So imagine my surprise when I read the headnote and find out that W.L.S. was a real dude: William Louis Sonntag, Jr., a painter associated with the Ashcan movement (urban realist) whose father was associated with the Hudson River (pastoral landscape). Was he really this mechanically apt? This promising an artist?

The frame of this piece is pretty banal, with Dreiser noting that tragedy in life is rarely so clear, but sometimes--which pretty much tells us what's going to happen to Sonntag. But comparing this piece to some of Dreiser's other work, it's interesting to see how straightforward the sentences move even though the story itself doesn't move very much: I knew a guy, he built mechanical boats, also he had friends, also he showed me how interesting the city was, he died. That's a story that doesn't go far, but the sentences keep us on track in a way that you might not find in Dreiser's long novels.

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