Americans love to look on the bright side. We process our traumas and congratulate ourselves on our resilience. We like to crown ourselves winners, avoiding the stigma of the L-word deployed by a certain ex-president. The triumph of the therapeutic, as Philip Rieff called it, even applies to our anti-free-speech college students, who gain vituperative strength from the harm supposedly inflicted on them by other people’s disagreeable opinions.
But there’s a dark flipside to the story. Americans can’t turn their eyes away from failure. No one is so interesting to us as the person, preferably a celebrity, who has sunk to the most degraded, soul-crushing Marianas Trench of existence, capsized, busted, shellacked, KO’d, and wiped out. Some truer sense of things seems to come with loss. The person wholly crushed by life is the one who knows the score. In failure, reality does not evade us.
American authors of the early 20th century speculated in failure the way the tycoons of their day bet on stocks. Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost—these writers find illumination within pessimism, and so they are permanent members of the American canon.
Twentieth-century American literature got off the starting block with the naturalist trio of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, who aimed a primitive sledgehammer at the notions of the progressive era. Progressives insisted that all human problems could be alleviated via social tinkering. Solidarity and peace would blossom, if reformers could only come up with the right formula for a just society.
But Dreiser and his contemporaries had a disillusioned sobriety that looked straight at the hard contours of reality: poverty, death, disease, sexual frustration, loss of love.
When Dreiser first came to New York in 1894, in the midst of an economic crash, he was struck by the “hugeness and force and heartlessness of the great city.” New York was “gross and cruel,” he noted. Dreiser slept in flophouses, a wretched loser like Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, the scandalous first novel he published a few years later. Like Crane and Norris, Dreiser never lost the sense that life is ruthless.
Dreiser was a Midwestern oaf, big and awkward, a man of blunt sexual cravings. His crowning work was the mammoth An American Tragedy, published in 1925, which remains the most riveting 900-page book I’ve ever read. An American Tragedy is about Clyde Griffiths, a colorless young man who kills his girlfriend and eventually goes to the electric chair. Clyde wants to be part of the glittering society of Lycurgus, a town in upstate New York—would-be flappers and their beaus having what they describe as fun. Clyde’s pregnant, working-class girlfriend, Roberta, gets in the way—Clyde has his eye on a glamorous young socialite named Sondra—and so, with perfect plausibility, the thought of murdering her steals on him. This section of Dreiser’s narrative crawls forward as suspensefully as Crime and Punishment, as Clyde becomes more and more used to the prospect of Roberta’s death. While they are boating in a desolate upstate lake, Clyde strikes her, half by accident; she falls out of the boat, and he lets her drown. The scene is an agonizing tour de force. David Denby writes that “Clyde’s consciousness, never very full to begin with, and now divided between murder and guilt, is deranged further by the dark beauty of the lake, the cry of unfamiliar birds, the empty woods.”
Like Cather, Wallace Stevens was a high priest of clarity, despite the cryptic involution of his poetry. Those who met the poet for the first time expected to see a dandy, an ornate connoisseur. The physical Stevens stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 240 pounds. The disparity between his hulking body and his slender acrobatic imagination was noticed by all.
Stevens could easily eat a pound of sausage at a sitting. When he asked for a martini, the waitress knew he meant a pitcher of martinis. Yet this gourmand was the subtlest poet America ever knew.