Dreiser’s “Jennie Gerhardt” to be Discussed at Cliff Dwellers

Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, was published in 1901 and was quite successful, but it took a decade for his second novel, Jennie Gerhardt, to finally be published in 1911. Doubleday, the publisher of Sister Carrie did not want to handle a second book of Dreiser about what they called an “immoral woman.” Initially this second novel of Dreiser’s  was called “The Transgressor” and it centered around Jennie Gerhardt, a “kept woman” of first, George Brander, a United States Senator, and then after his death, a wealthy manufacturer, Lester Kane
Unlike Carrie, Jennie was a woman of substance and character. She truly cared for these two men and knew that their commitment to her would help keep her family out of poverty. She was able to probably marry Kane, but if so, his family would have disinherited him.
Jennie’s poor working class roots could never gain the acceptance of Kane’s family, and she knew that a marriage to Kane, who she truly loved, would ruin him. Dreiser’s Jennie is a woman in charge, so very different than the docile Carrie in the earlier novel.
In 1911 Dreiser and Harper Brothers reached an agreement to publish a toned-down version of Jennie Gerhardt. Dreiser, in financial straits, had no option but to accept these terms. The University of Pennsylvania Press, eighty-one years later, in 1992, finally released an unexpurgated edition which as University of Pennsylvania Professor James West writes in his introduction to this edition “Slang and profanity have been restored. Dreiser’s blunt, unadorned style has been reinstated…………..Most important, Jennie’s original role has been restored, and she now functions effectively as a counterweight to Lester.”
The Cliff Dwellers book club will be discussing “Jennie Gerhardt” on Saturday morning, September 28, at 11:00 am. The discussion goes to around noon. This presentation is free and open to the public. We welcome newcomers to join us and remain afterwards for lunch to experience the good company, excellent food, and spectacular views of the Cliff Dwellers. The Cliff Dwellers is located on the 22nd Floor of 200 South Michigan.


The Essential OED

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is an indispensable tool for any writer of historical fiction. English is an evolving language, and it is essential that the author research contemporary words and terms to see if they were in usage in the time period described. For example, I am currently writing a novella and wanted to use the word “newly-wed” (the OED uses the hyphenated version) for a couple that were married in 1866. By checking the OED, I learned that the first mention of “newly-wed” in print was in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1918 in the sentence “It seemed that a Newly-wed can live on Marmalade three months.” The OED then tells us that the first use of the word in a literary work was in 1932 in “Orators,” a poem in prose by W. H. Auden who wrote “To-day may mean division for the newly-weds.” Therefore, due to my consultation of the OED, I did not use “newly-wed,” choosing the term “recently married couple” instead.

Beth Finke Speaks at Max and Benny’s on September 16

Over the years, I had heard many wonderful things about Beth Finke. These words of praise were mostly from seniors who had taken one of memoir writing classes. And finally, at the celebration of International Women’s Day this past March at the Cliff Dwellers, I met Beth and heard her speak to a full house, that included sixty young women who were high school students in Chicago.
Beth, who is blind, is a truly outstanding inspirational speaker. She captivated the audience, students and adults alike, through a telling of powerful anecdotes relating her significant obstacles in life and how she devised strategies to overcome them. Beth is a master of interjecting humor into her stories, just at the right time, to lighten the mood for her listeners.
Two years ago, Beth wrote a book entitled Writing Out Loud. The subtitle of the book is “what a blind teacher learned from leading a memoir class for seniors.” I read the book and was blown away by the wonderful stories of these senior memoir writers.
I invited Beth to speak at an author night at Max and Benny’s. She graciously accepted and will speak there on Monday evening September 16, starting at 7:00 pm. Registration for Beth’s event is now open and can be found at “Upcoming Events” on the Max and Benny’s website http://www.maxandbennys.com.

Literary Crime and Punishment in Chicago

I will be teaching a seminar at the Newberry Library entitled “Crime and Punishment in Chicago: Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” and Meyer Levin’s “Compulsion.” Both novels have been listed among the 101 publications that most shaped Chicago’s image. Five Wednesday evening sessions from 5:45 until 7:45 will be held beginning September 25 and ending October 30. Registration is now open at seminars@newberry.org or call 312-255-3700.

All Along the Watchtowers

I thought a nice cup of Intelligentsia coffee would be pleasant as I had an hour to kill downtown waiting for my next meeting to begin. But as I approached the Intelligentsia coffee shop on Randolph, just east of Wabash, the waiting line was literally out the door. Should I patiently wait the 15 minutes in line before forking over the $3.85 to the nice barista to get my small cup of the hot precious liquid that so many people were craving? Well I must admit that Intelligentsia coffee is good, but not that good, so I moved on.
In front of the Cultural Center, which I still fondly remember as the Main Library, there was a trio of Jehovah’s Witnesses, two ladies and a man. All were African American, middle-aged and nicely attired. Each had welcoming smiles as I approached them, with the neat rack of Watchtowers behind them.
Admittedly I’m usually not very friendly to the Witnesses. Occasionally they will visit our street and ring our door. When I answer, I usually have a terse remark for them like “not interested’ or “sorry, have a nice day.” But on this sunny, cloudless morning, downtown amidst the hustle and bustle of pedestrians walking quickly and drivers honking their horns noisily, I decided to get out of my bubble and interact with this dignified trio in front of me.
I approached the group and asked if sharing the Watchtower with others was part of their religious obligations? “It is indeed.” replied one of the women. “And can’t you tell by the beauty of the day that God is with us always. Would you care to take one of these?” as she started to hand me a Watchtower. I declined the offer graciously and bid farewell.
I crossed Michigan Avenue, entering Millennium Park, but I couldn’t get the lady’s “beauty of the day” remark out of my mind as I walked the path leading to the garden, basking in the sun of the divine light suffusing my soul for at least a little while.

A Memoir Worth Reading

I have always been fascinated by Jack Kerouac, the enigmatic Beat writer that captivated America in the late 50s and early 60s.  So when I recently read a superlative review in the New York Times by Dwight Garner (written in April 2017) of a memoir entitled “Minor Characters” by a former Kerouac girlfriend, Joyce Johnson, I was inspired to get a copy of it at the library. After all, Mr. Garner  wrote “I continue to think it is hideously undervalued and under-read. ‘Main Characters’ is, in its quiet and deliberate way, among the great literary memoirs of the past century.”

Yet amazingly, my local library as well as the entire the North Suburban Library System did not even have one copy of a book praised as “among the great literary memoirs of the past century.” Alas I obtained it from the Wheaton Library of all places!
And the reviewer was absolutely correct.  Ms. Johnson’s memoir, written in 1983, was brilliant, one of the best memoirs that I had read in years.

The author chronicles her on and off again romantic relationship with Kerouac when she was a young woman barely in her twenties. There she was, in the frenetic beatnik social circle of Greenwich Village with Kerouac and his cohorts Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlov and Gregory Corso with her “hair hanging down below her shoulders, all in black…….at the seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, where so much is converging.”

However, “as a female, she’s not quite part of the convergence.” In the end, she had no regrets about this role that she played as a “minor character” in the male-dominated world of Jack Kerouac and his friends. Just being there, and experiencing the flowering of that alternative culture, was enough for her.

As unlovable as Kerouac proved to be, she threw her love at him. But Kerouac always kept an emotional distance from her, never fully extricating himself from his mother, who kept her quiet dominance of him for his entire life.

Ms. Johnson’s memoir is much more than her ups and downs trying to connect emotionally with Kerouac. It is also an insightful look into the Beat Movement itself, from its noisy origins through its quiet demise. It is a book highly worth reading.



The Pit by Frank Norris to be Discussed at the Cliff Dwellers on July 20.

Although the author Frank Norris was Chicago born, he is not known as a Chicago writer, leaving the city at age fourteen with his family as they moved to California. Graduating from Berkeley, Norris went on to an adventurous career in journalism which included stints as a news correspondent in South Africa in 1895-96 for the San Francisco Chronicle between the time of the two Boer Wars, and as a war correspondent for McClure’s Magazine during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Norris had five novels published between 1898 and 1902. Two of them, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) were part of a trilogy that was published before his death in 1902 at the age of thirty-two. The final novel of the trilogy, The Pit: A Story of Chicago was published posthumously in 1903.
The Pit was included in the recently published Chicago By the Book: 101 Publications that Shaped the City and Its Image. Timothy Spears, whose essay on The Pit is in the book, writes ”although literary critics have complained about the florid writing and the ill-defined relation between the novel’s love story and business plot, they have admired Norris’s fine-grained descriptions of the trading pits of the Board of Trade…………..and how his canny representations of ‘fictional’ values resembles the volatile manipulations of our own time.”
Please join us this coming Saturday morning, July 20, at 11:00 for a discussion of The Pit at the Cliff Dwellers Book Club, at 200 S. Michigan. The discussion is free and open to the public. Our guests are welcome to join us at the club for lunch afterwards.