Exactly 100 years ago, as summer turned to autumn in 1915, Theodore Dreiser headed home.
It was no routine jaunt from office to the household. This journey opened new doors and old wounds.
A successful novelist, Dreiser hosted a party that summer in his uptown Manhattan residence, where artist and fellow Indiana native Franklin Booth invited Dreiser to join him on a trip back to the Hoosier state in Booth’s new touring automobile. Dreiser would document their 2,000-mile excursion, and Booth would sketch the scenes for a book. The writer readily accepted the offer. Their adventure resulted in, “A Hoosier Holiday,” launching the reflections-from-the-open-road literary genre four decades before Jack Kerouac’s famed “On the Road.”
The trek also brought the then-44-year-old Dreiser back to Terre Haute for the first time since age 7, according to the book.
His vivid, blunt descriptions of the city, circa 1915, paint it in a partly cloudy picture. Dreiser, his nine siblings, his mother and his German immigrant father experienced harsh poverty here. The family’s fortunes withered after a fire at a Sullivan wool mill where Johann Dreiser worked, and he suffered a debilitating injury while helping rebuild the mill.
Those memories, many vague to him, bubble up as Dreiser, Booth and their mechanic-driver, identified only as Speed, reach Terre Haute and search for the four local houses in which Dreiser’s family lived. Booth sees “vitality” and the “seeking atmosphere” of a “hot town” in Terre Haute. Dreiser didn’t disagree, but also recalled losing his family’s last 50 cents while walking to buy cornmeal with his brother.
He noticed the smoky air from busy factories, and the contrast of the haves and have-nots. Inside the shiny new Hotel Deming were the city’s “most successful men” — “the flare of the cloth of their suits!” Outside, he found the “tribes and shoals of the incomplete, the botched, the semi-articulate, all hungry and helpless, who never get to come to a place like this at all.”
Dreiser and his brothers and sisters were once among the latter. He hadn’t forgotten, yet the writer known for his dark, realistic, unvarnished descriptions of life also welcomes flashbacks of simple boyhood joys of running in the yard, his mother’s kindness, a porch swing and exploring a lumberyard. In “A Hoosier Holiday,” he wrote, “Life was a strange, colorful, kaleidoscopic welter then. It has remained so ever since.”
Terre Haute “shaped him,” Miriam Gogol, co-founder of the International Theodore Dreiser Society, said in a telephone interview last week.
‘Real,’ not ‘dirty’
The “A Hoosier Holiday” trip allowed Dreiser to revisit a place from which he’d purposely been estranged. True to his legacy as the “father of American realism,” Dreiser noted the good, bad and indifferent of the town. Yet, he also labeled it his “rose window of the west” in the book.
“He can see Terre Haute as this wonderous place, and he can explore its vitality now and can go back there and be open to that, while he also evokes those painful memories,” said Gogol, a professor of English at Mercy College in New York. Dreiser’s open, “shameless” and vulnerable depictions of his impoverished youth in “A Hoosier Holiday” were rare in literature at the time, Gogol said. Such “airing of dirty laundry” actually illustrated Dreiser’s affinity for poor, working-class people.
“It wasn’t exactly ‘dirty’ to him,” Gogol said. “It was real.”
“A Hoosier Holiday,” she affirmed, is Dreiser’s most accessible book, in contrast to his more acclaimed works, “Sister Carrie,” “An American Tragedy” and “Jennie Gerhardt.” Those novels get knocked in literary circles for Dreiser’s “clumsy” and unrefined writing style, which Gogol finds endearing and evidence that Dreiser sprang from humble roots. “A Hoosier Holiday” finds Dreiser and his cohorts relishing speedy (a whopping 40 miles per hour) rides over hills on vacant roads from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Best way to discover Dreiser
Dreiser’s homecoming odyssey holds timely significance in October 2015, beyond its 100-year anniversary. This month, Wabash Valley Art Spaces announced that a sculpture honoring Dreiser’s work will become the third leg of Terre Haute’s Cultural Trail. The art piece will stand near the north entrance of the Vigo County Public Library. A five-month fundraising effort is beginning, and a national search for an artist to sculpt and design the piece will launch next spring. Art Spaces hopes work on the project starts in 2016, when Terre Haute and Indiana both celebrate bicentennials.
“A Hoosier Holiday” was published in 1916, when Terre Haute and Indiana marked their centennials.
This reflective, going-home book can help introduce to Terre Hauteans an internationally renowned author that this community never embraced, because of his often disagreeable demeanor; his meddling in the town’s early-20th-century attempts to honor Dreiser’s more beloved brother, Paul Dresser; his leftist political leanings; and the frequently risque plots of his writings.
“He wrote about things the way he saw them,” Kramer said last week. “He didn’t pad them to make them socially acceptable. He described life as it was.”
That unfiltered approach often didn’t play well back home in Indiana. “I don’t think he particularly cared if people loved him here or not,” Kramer said. “But I think it would matter to him to know that his work was valued by the people who live here and by his state.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.