“A thought will color a world for us." –Theodore Dreiser

For nearly all of my adult life, I’ve read little fiction because I wanted to further my learning, and I equated learning with non-fiction. It has since become clear to me that there are different kinds of learning, and that both the objective and the subjective have their place. I started my foray into fiction with Westerns but, finding them to be canned and superficial, I returned to nonfiction. After breaking my back in November, I could do little but read, so I finished maybe ten books on houseplants, most of which I enjoyed very much. I then read a biography of John Paul Jones (a naval hero from the American Revolution) and several books on existentialism, but the latter left me so depressed (the moreso when I quit taking the narcotic Fentanyl) that I decided to try fiction again as an escape. I first read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which I so enjoyed that I read it again despite its length. My next book was Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, which I followed with another Lewis book, Babbitt. Then came Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.

The Lewis and Dreiser books were of a genre called naturalism (to distinguish them from the romantic works of the preceding era) and were set in America between the 1880s and the 1920s. Upon deciding that I preferred this genre, era, and locale, over any other that I could think of, I decided to confine my future reading to it. With that in mind, I read Dreiser’s The Bulwark, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, W.E.B. Dubois’ The Silver Fleece, and Frank Norris’ The Octopus.

The Octopus was my favorite partly because I could scarcely believe that Norris possessed such depth of understanding while still in his twenties. Then I learned that Dreiser was in his twenties when he wrote Sister Carrie; Fitzgerald was in his when he wrote The Great Gatsby; and Sinclair Lewis was in his thirties when he wrote Main Street and Babbitt, but none of these books present such intimately detailed portrayals of so many people. That said, George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie was the most memorable character in any book I’ve ever read, and it was he who led me to conclude that fictional characters are superior to biographical characters in terms of psychological depth. For instance, the biographer of John Paul Jones attempted to psychoanalyze his subject, but because I didn’t know if he was right, I found his portrayal distracting, a problem that I couldn’t have with a fictional character.

My main problem with The Octopus was that I found it so depressing that, just as I had turned to fiction as an escape from the bleakness of existentialism, I now needed an escape from my latest fictional work, so I’m reading another novel, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, which is about a self-aggrandizing Baptist clergyman. Because I’ve read other works that started out light and ended up heavy, I fear what is to come, but so far it’s hilarious, although few people found it that way in 1927. Here’s a portion of what one website says*:

“During his research for his next novel, Elmer Gantry…Lewis would visit various churches in Kansas City each Sunday. At one service, the atheist Lewis challenged God from a fundamentalist pulpit to strike him down within ten minutes if He existed. The quote made the newspapers and Lewis remained safe from lightning but not the fury of the religious community. Elmer Gantry was published in 1927 and immediately banned in Boston. ‘There was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail.’ The novel was the bestseller of 1927….”

Du Bois
(Because every book I've listed was critical in one way or another of the American status quo, they all made one or more groups unhappy. For example, Dreiser's own publishing house tried to suppress Sister Carrie because it offended both capitalists and moralists by portraying a woman whose only escape from dire poverty was to use men for their money. This suppression caused Dreiser to become suicidal and to have a nervous breakdown.)

...I'm also enjoying Elmer Gantry because it describes my childhood:

“The church provided his only oratory, except for campaign speeches by politicians…it provided all his painting and sculpture… From the church came all his profounder philosophy. In Bible stories, in the words of the great hymns, in the anecdotes which the various preachers quoted, he had his only knowledge of literature… He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.”


I greatly prefer old books because I don’t want to waste my time sifting through the latest bestsellers, none of which have shown themselves to have lasting merit. I also want to read books by authors who lived in the place and era about which I’m interested rather than those who wrote about them secondhand. The downside of reading dead people’s works is that I come to regard them as friends so I find myself grieving that they are dead. You probably won’t meet many people who cried over the death of Thoreau 125 years after his passing, but I was one of them. I still sorrow that he died so young, so you can imagine my grief for Frank Norris who died at age 32 of a gangrenous bowel brought on by a burst appendix. 


Helen said...

I also enjoy reading older novels ~ just finishing "Trinity" for the third time .. first time way back in the 70s, again in early 90s. Leon Uris a great writer! I am also reading Alice Munroe's book of short stories "Dear Life" ... Really enjoying her. Happy Sunday, Snow!

Elephant's Child said...

I read fiction and non fiction, literature, trash and escapism. And get different things from them all.
And drat you Snow, you have already tempted me with Elmer Gantry and I will probably succumb.

Snowbrush said...

"Leon Uris a great writer! I am also reading Alice Munroe..."

Helen, Uris is but a name to me, and Munro is barely that, but perhaps you've read some of the books I mentioned.

"you have already tempted me with Elmer Gantry and I will probably succumb."

It was made into a movie in 1960, but no movie is ever more than a Cliff Notes summary of a book. I don't recall the movie having the least bit of humor, and Burt Lancaster was nothing like the Elmer Gantry in the book. Since part of what I'm enjoying it about it is the familiarity of the lingo, hymns, way of thinking, and so forth, I'm wondering how the book will strike you. Let me know. BTW, John Paul Jones was a naval hero from the American Revolution. I meant to put that in the text but forgot, so I'll go back and do so.

Chartreuse said...

I'm so pleased to see that you're reading fiction. I've been a keen reader for 50+ years and have concluded that it's only in fiction you can hope to find real truth!

PhilipH said...

Dang blast it Snowy! You're at it again - inveigling me to buy yet more books.

Whatever have I done to you to deserve such treatment? But I'm a sucker for buying books that others have praised - and usually it's been a good buy. Just been reading a review of Alan Bennett's book 'SMUT'by another excellent blogger, Jim Murdoch (his The Truth about Lies blog) and he writes such great reviews one is almost forced to buy the book.
My sister-in-law Marjorie Waller is today sending me a book by C.S. Lewis (Narnia etc) in the hope that it will convince me that returning to Christianity will be on the cards for me. Some hope! but the book WILL be of interest. Jack Lewis was once an atheist but returned to Christianity and his thoughts on this are supposedly in the book she's sending me. Dunno what it's called.
However, I'll be searching Amazon for Elmer Gantry and the 'Carrie' one you mentioned (mainly because you have discovered such a memorable character in this latter book.
Cheers, Phil

stephen Hayes said...

I've read some Dreiser but not much else from the era you're exploring. I'm glad you have this outlet and hope it provides a distraction from your pain.

Myrna R. said...

I try to read a smattering of all kinds of books, though I used to love reading the classics. Contemporary fiction was my least favorite, but lately I find that pretty entertaining too. I read more poetry now than anything else, it entertains me, but also I find something so special about poetry and I want to learn. Happy reading Snow.

Helen said...

Checking in again! Main Street and The Great Gatsby ~ enjoyed both. You have inspired me to read Elmer Gantry (loved the film adaptation.)

Snowbrush said...

"I've been a keen reader for 50+ years and have concluded that it's only in fiction you can hope to find real truth!"

Well, fiction probably never repaired anyone's hernia, but I'm sure you had reference to other things. I would just say that both have a valid place, and that there is a different between truth that's inner and truth that's outer. For example, myth would be inner and science outer, which is why I'm so outraged by people who hold their particular myths as superior to science in understanding the workings of the outer world.

"My sister-in-law Marjorie Waller is today sending me a book by C.S. Lewis"

Funny, but I was just thinking about lame he is as I tried to come up with other writers from the period (of course, he's a bit more recent and British at that). Anyway, I doubt that he will win you over, my wonderment being that someone so intelligent could go on to try to sway others with the same arguments that he himself once rejected, there being no new arguments for the existence of God. It's also odd that, once he came to believe in the existence of a deity, Jehovah, Jesus and the Church of England just kind of naturally followed. How convenient that he could graze the home pasture, as it were, instead of becoming a Moslem or a Hindu.

"I'm a sucker for buying books that others have praised - and usually it's been a good buy."

Now the pressure is on to make good recommendations! Apparently, the books I mentioned haven't achieved as much fame in England as they have here where most educated people would at least have heard of Du Bois (the black militant of his day), Dreiser, Lewis, and especially Fitzgerald, although hearing of them would be as close as most would have gotten to reading them with the possible exception of Fitzgerald. On you own side of the pond, there's Butler whose autobiographical novel focuses heavily on Anglican Christianity.

"I've read some Dreiser but not much else from the era you're exploring."

It's sad how little most of us have read. Since I mostly went to Christian colleges, my exposure has been even less than a loss of people's.

"I read more poetry now than anything else, it entertains me"

Most of my poetry reading is done when looking for new poems to memorize, so this leaves out modern poetry because if a poem doesn't rhyme, it's not fun to learn.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thoreau has certainly been an influence on me. The others not so much.

All Consuming said...

Fiction. Welcome to my world dear. It is only through fiction that I have truly escaped at times into worlds so well crafted they are as real as this one I see before me. Your tastes would like as not differ to mine, but I shall recommend a book not to read, 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. Well written but incredibly annoying/frustrating. So far to the right in a political sense that I quite despised the selfish mare by the end of it.

Snowbrush said...

"Thoreau has certainly been an influence on me. The others not so much."

Their purpose was different, but I doubt that Thoreau would have issues with them much with the possible exception of "The Great Gatsby," which has no statement to make about society so far as I can tell but is rather the story of the destructive longing on the part of an amoral man who grew up poor for an amoral woman who grew up rich and careed not a fig for anyone but herself.

"I shall recommend a book not to read, 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand."

Too late. I've also read "Atlas Shrugged," "We the Living," and various Randian essays, but this was 30 years ago. Did you know that to American liberatarian-leaning right-wingers, Ayn Rand has become a god, which is exceeding odd given that most of them are devout Christians?

I probably over implied my former lack of interest in fiction, because while I have read some, it's simply that I've probably read 20 or more books of nonfiction for every one of fiction. Before recently, most of the fiction I ever read was either in literature classes, Westerns, or from the Hardy Boys series with a bit of Poe, Twain, and Ambrose Bierce thrown-in for good measure.

Furry Bottoms said...

I love reading. I can never get enough of it. I "could" finish five big books in a week if I really wanted to, but then the stories end too quickly. So I find stretching it out to make it last a good idea... except... once you get into a good story you just want to keep going to the end.

Because things are very slow for me at work, I downloaded the Kindle app for PCs, and I have been reading nonstop all day.

In a way, it makes me thank God. Because years ago, I was praying for a job I enjoyed, and I prayed for a job where I could be paid to read books. That would be so perfect for me.

Alas, look what I am doing now. Not exactly the way I had in mind... but, I AM being paid to read books. Only the boss doesn't exactly know that. She knows I probably AM doing that but she doesn't know for sure and I think she is making sure she doesn't know it for a fact. That's awfully nice of her.

My favorites right now are definitely fiction. The kind you can get engrossed in.

I used to define good movies as any movies that could envoke emotion from me. I was crippled in an emotional way, where I couldn't feel normal things. So when a movie made me sit for two hours and really pay attention and then pissed me off, brought me joy, or just shocked the pants off of me, THAT was a good movie. I am beginning to apply that to good books too.

Furry Bottoms said...

What All Consuming said! It is a good form of escape. Thats what I should have said instead of my big comment!

lotta joy said...

Please do not read my book. It is pure fiction and rather mediocre where your tastes are concerned. I was in the process of correcting spelling errors when my agent called and said "GO TO AMAZON! YOUR BOOK IS THERE!" What should have been me doing a happy dance ended up with me hopping mad like Donald Duck with a chicken bone in his throat.

Helen said...

Oh, and I read Atlas Shrugged during that 14-day Transatlantic crossing in April. Whew! (Once I start talking about books I've read I can' t seem to shut up ~ your fault)

Snowbrush said...

"when a movie made me sit for two hours and really pay attention and then pissed me off, brought me joy, or just shocked the pants off of me, THAT was a good movie. I am beginning to apply that to good books too."

I watch a lot of movies. Peggy and I either start a movie or an old TV show (Mr Lucky, of late) while we have supper, but I can't JUST sit and watch, so I do dishes or bake something (I can see the TV from the kitchen). Unfortunately, I find movies inferior to books. For one thing, it takes many hours to finish a book, whereas most movies are over in less than two hours. Movies also lack the depth and the detail of books, and they don't require that one pay the same close attention. I feel sorry for moviemakers because of the limitations of their medium. I know they try awfully hard, but a good movie rarely rises to the level of a good book. "Shane," "High Noon" and "Easy Rider" succeeded for me. I base this upon the fact that they remain memorable years and years later.

"What All Consuming said! It is a good form of escape. Thats what I should have said instead of my big comment!"

You said a lot more than that, and I appreciated your comment. You need never apologize for long comments. I don't know where people get the idea that they're something to feel guilty about. Far better to feel guilty for comments that don't say anything. When I do disallow a comment (which happens very rarely), it is nearly always because it's not even relevant to the post.

"I was in the process of correcting spelling errors when my agent called and said "GO TO AMAZON! YOUR BOOK IS THERE!'"

Agent? Spelling errors? I guess you didn't have a proof reader, but be that as it may, why your agent put something online before you gave her the go ahead is a puzzler. I'm sorry it happened. Can it not be undone"

"Oh, and I read Atlas Shrugged during that 14-day Transatlantic crossing..."

I lied when I said I had read it because I actually only read, at most, 3/4 of it before I gave up. In "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand took all the preachiness of "The Fountainhead" and multiplied it by ten. I'm embarrassed now to admit how much I got into her philosophy back then, but I was a whole lot younger and whole lot more naive. She portrays her heros as persecuted geniuses and she makes those who doesn't agree with her worldview into scheming and hypocritical strawmen, so if you accept her portrayals at face value as representing the truth of the world, you naturally go along with her philosophy. For a short time, I accepted it a lot less critically than I ever accepted Christianity (at least after age 11). One only need look at the Tea Party to see the utter selfishness and callousness of "objectivism" carried out in real life. Ironically, Rand was an atheist, whereas most of her modern disciples are evangelical Christians. Only, unlike her, they don't openly tout selfishness as a virtue and altruism as a vice. Her boyfriend, Nathaniel Branden, had a lot of interesting about Rand after he dumped her, a whole book of interesting things, in fact.

rhymeswithplague said...

Fiction has always been what I like to read best. When done well, it satisfies me in a way little else does. Welcome to my world! May I suggest Flannery O'Connor?

If my head weren't currently swimming with this hydrocodone and my side weren't hurting from this kidneystone, we might have a nice conversation about fiction. Except that I probably can't conduct a decent conversation about fiction any more with my rapidly deteriorating mind.

Linda said...

I just love to read, but have things I won't touch--Romance novels are at the top. I learned to take the book and see how life is. There is nothing new, just an interesting way to present it in fiction. Dreiser was a genius at this. He could see into the gritty hearts of men and present the intolerable in a coherent, compelling story, most of which are quite unforgettable.

Snowbrush said...

"May I suggest Flannery O'Connor?"

I know I read and enjoyed one of her books 15-20 years ago, but I don't remember what it was, and nothing in the Wikipedia listing of her works looks familiar. I also don't know why I didn't read more since I did enjoy the one I read, and since it was about life in a small Southern town in the early 20th century. I would suggest a book for you. It's Du Bois's "The Silver Fleece," which is also set in Georgia (mostly) as well as Alabama and D.C. (in part). I've read of his as being to Booker T. Washington what Malcom X was to MLK Jr, and I thought it an interesting and useful comparison since I always thought more highly of Malcolm than of Martin.

"Dreiser was a genius..."

"The Bulwark" was written as he approached death, although he had started it many years earlier. My understanding is that the wisdom displayed in his books was not an example of how he lived his life. I don't take it that he was a hypocrite (his work was presented as fiction, after all), but rather that he was at war within himself, and although wisdom won in his writing, lust and anger usually prevailed in his real life. With "The Bulwark" it is my hope that he was able to live more from wisdom than from his baser motives, something that I know has become easier for me with the passing years, not so much due to virtue but to changing hormones.

possum said...

I will not bore you with all the books I have read, not that I could remember even a fraction of them myself, but I will say, welcome to a world of entertainment, for good or ill, whatever. The joy is you don't HAVE to finish Atlas Shrugged and take the quiz on Tuesday, you can put it down or throw it in the trash if you wish. I did.
My point is, I am glad you are finding something to exercise your mind in a different direction. Growth is usually interesting.
You sound like you are feeling a bit better? I can only hope!

Snowbrush said...

"The joy is you don't HAVE to finish Atlas Shrugged and take the quiz on Tuesday..."

This is where Peggy and I differ . She almost never fails to finish a book. I recently stopped reading James Agee's "A Death in the Family," because I didn't like it. I wanted to, and I could certainly see some good in it, but I had to decide to continue ploughing a book I was enjoying less and less or to move on to something else, and it wasn't a hard choice.

"You sound like you are feeling a bit better?"

The pain is some better, and my mood is much better, both due to the Cymbalta, no doubt. My only problem with it is that it is making my hands and feet twitch like they're getting hit with electricity.

rhymeswithplague said...

Two words that will save you a ton of money: Public Library

Snowbrush said...

"Two words that will save you a ton of money: Public Library"

Amen, brother! I never buy books anymore. I have no desire to own even one more book. My days of wanting to look like an intellectual by having a house filled with books are long gone, although I do have quite a lot of books still that I either use for reference or keep for sentimental reasons. Many years ago, I was telling my friend, Walt, how glad I was to live in a place with a good library. Having just moved from San Francisco, he thought it an odd statement, but of course, I had just moved from rural Mississippi, and had NEVER had even a modestly good library. Now, I have access to both the public library and the University of Oregon library, but I've only used the latter to find books about shoulder surgery.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

i enjoy reading almost anything. I once took a book with me to the hairdressers. I was a few minutes early and she was finishing up. The lobby area was busy and loud but they had a second waiting area behind a wall. I told the receptionist where I would be, sat down and started to read. After two hours, I realized I had been waiting a long time! I had missed my appointment and had to reschedule!

Joe Todd said...

For the most part I stopped reading books years ago and have only recently started again.. My loss I guess