“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.