Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Theodore Dreiser: Liked Toledo, but not Grand Rapids, Bowling Green

This article appeared in Bend of the River, November 2009. This is the unedited draft.

"Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was a well-known author and journalist. Although he is more often discussed than actually read now, his works, especially the novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) were and are famous works. Dreiser, unlike almost all American authors before him, wrote with a distinctly American viewpoint, not needing or even wanting to be part of an upper class, European tradition.

Dreiser chronicled an America newly industrialized, newly urban, and newly prosperous. One of the huge changes that Theodore Dreiser witnessed was the transformation of America from rural to urban. His account of a sojourn in our Maumee Valley was an example of the mixed feelings many Americans had about this change.

Dreiser did much of the initial work on his masterpiece Sister Carrie while living in Maumee. In 1899, he lived in the still-beautiful House of Four Pillars on River Road in Maumee, a guest of a journalist friend Arthur Henry. That fact is pretty well known locally, but this time I want to concentrate on an earlier visit to the Maumee Valley, when Dreiser visited Grand Rapids, Bowling Green, and Toledo. In quoting Dreiser’s views on these three towns, we can see him being torn between a sentimental picture of Ohio rural life, and the harsher realities that Dreiser was too honest to hide.

Dreiser arrived in Grand Rapids, Ohio, in March of 1894. He arrived in Grand Rapids from St. Louis to work for a friend running a newspaper. Listen to his comments: “The town of Grand Rapids lay in the extreme northwestern portion of Ohio on the Maumee . . . As I stepped down at the little depot I noted the small houses with snow-covered yards, the bare trees and the glimpse of rolling country . . . I walked on to the main corner and inquired where my friend lived, then out a country road. . . I found an old rambling frame house, facing the Maumee River, with a lean-to and kitchen and springhouse, corncribs, a barn twice the size of the house, and smaller buildings… A curl of smoke rose from the lean-to and told me where the cookstove was. As I entered the front gate I felt the joy of a country home. It told of simple and plain things, food, warmth, comfort, minds content with routine. (A Book About Myself (1922), pp. 362-63).

But in spite of the warmth of these memories, Dreiser went on to say, “My mind revolted at the thought of such a humdrum life as this for myself, though I was constantly touched by its charm, for others.” He chose not to stay in Grand Rapids, but moved on down river to Toledo. He entered Toledo by train: “I shall never forget the first morning I went into Toledo. The train followed the bank of a canal and ran between that canal and the Maumee River. The snow which had troubled us so much a day or two before had gone off, and it was as a bright and encouraging as one might wish. I was particularly elated by the natural aspects of this region, for the Maumee River . ,. . makes a particularly attractive scenic diversion . . . farther along it broadened out into something essentially romantic to look upon, and Toledo itself, when I reached it, was so clean and new and industrious…. (Hoosier Holiday (1916), p. 252).

When Dreiser saw it, Toledo was “a city of not quite 100,000, as clean and fresh as any city could be.” He stayed a while in Toledo. His friend Arthur Henry was at that time city editor of the Blade, and he wrote for Henry before moving on to Cleveland.

On his way back west, Dreiser had occasion to look up another newspaper friend, this time in Bowling Green. Perhaps it was because Bowling Green was away from the actual Maumee River, or that Dreiser’s friend no longer lived in Bowling Green, his comments about BG were less kind:

“When we entered Bowling Green . . . it was really not interesting at all; indeed it was most disappointing. The houses were small and low and everything was still . . . ‘What’s the use,’ I asked myself. ‘This is a stale, impossible atmosphere. There isn’t an idea above hay and feed in the whole place.’. . . . The countryside for at least twenty miles was dreadfully flat and uninteresting – houses with low fences and prominent chicken coops, orchards laden with apples of a still greenish yellow color, fields of yellowing wheat or green corn – oh, so very flat.” (Hoosier Holiday, pp. 256-57).

Like America itself, Theodore Dreiser went through a change from a rural to an urban perspective. Even in these brief glimpses, we can see that while Dreiser appreciated the beauty and serenity of the rural Midwest, he found the cities and their many distractions entrancing. America itself was on this road; the census of 1920 was the first to show a majority of its citizens living in cities, rather than villages. Dreiser illuminated this rapid change in his fiction. I wonder what he would think of Bowling Green and Grand Rapids now, both on the verge of being suburbs of Toledo, wherein he saw the future.

[In addition to the two Dreiser memoirs quoted above, I also found useful The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser (Cambridge, 2004).]"

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