If, as a writer, you write long enough, well enough, and popularly enough, your manuscripts, drafts, notes, and letters may someday be gathered, sorted, catalogued, boxed, and stored deep in the bowels of a library archive, ready to be pored over, decades or centuries later, by scholars and biographers eager to learn how and why you wrote as you did.
One recent brisk Friday I took the train to Philadelphia, walked a dozen blocks to the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt library, rode an elevator to the sixth floor and, after showing my picture ID and stowing my shoulder bag in a locker, tiptoed into the Kislak Center for Special Collections, a hushed room where a half dozen men and women sat at on long black tables bending over neat stacks of precious-looking papers. My goal: to spend one day exploring the library's huge archive of books and documents from the life of Theodore Dreiser, my favorite American writer.
A helpful librarian, John Pollack, got me started. The library's Dreiser collection, he said, consisted of five hundred and three tan cardboard boxes, each box a foot wide, ten inches high, and six inches deep, each holding a dozen or more file folders. He gave me two spiral-bound books that listed the contents of each box and folder. I could fill out call slips for as many boxes as I wished, but only one box would be brought to my table at a time. And, oh, no pens allowed! Fine with me, especially since each table had little cups of ultra sharp pencils.
Hmm, I thought looking down the long lists, Boxes 124-5 held documents from the censorship trial of The "Genius", Dreiser's 1915 autobiographical novel; Boxes 166-8 play scripts of the same novel, none ever produced. Research notes filled many boxes: Box 137 notes for The Financier and Box 133 notes for The Titan, the first two of novels of Trilogy of Desire, and in Boxes 151-2 notes for The Bulwark, Dreiser's last novel. I filled out call slips almost at random, figuring that I'd likely discover as much gold by chance as by plan — and I did.
In The Titan notes I found fourteen pages of character names, written with a fountain pen in Dreiser's distinctively rounded hand, often with quick identifying sketches:
Walter MacGookin, fat, short, heavy glasses, managing editor Times.
Ella P. Hobby, chestnut blonde, fair and foolish.
His pictures of prosaic places are themselves prosaic:
The Blue Island station had 60,600 feet of cable operating two systems of car known as the Blue Island Avenue and Halstead Street lines. To the exterior view the powerhouse is a handsome structure of brick, trimmed with Bedford Stone, fronting 120 feet on Twelfth Street and 183 feet on Blue Island Avenue.
— yet on the back of these note pages are frequent evocations of the ephemeral:
...for after all, life is but a matter of beliefs and notions.
...no one knows to what degree we are marked by the things that attract us.
Early drafts show significant variations from the published versions. Isobel Barnes is an awkward young woman in The Bulwark, but Dreiser first conceived her as a depressive who spent time in a mental hospital. Dreiser seldom tried to write finished prose in his notes, but in the Bulwark boxes I found one penetratingportrait that appears nearly-word-for word on page 219 of the finished novel:
Money passed often from him to another or others, but never directly. Mr. Baker was much too shrewd for that. Like those powerful fish which inhabit the deeper portion of the sea, he seldom appeared on the surface. His food came down to him.
Not all the documents are by Dreiser. This frank assessment of Dreiser's marketability by a business manager of Dreiser's publisher, Boni and Liveright, I found stuck in between sheets of plot planning:
"As for the general reading public, Dreiser's unrelenting realism and pessimism keep him out of the bestseller class. People…don't like to be shown the cloudy side of things."
One thread I followed had long intrigued me: the role of Anna Tatum in Dreiser's life. In the fall of 1911 Tatum, the rebellious daughter of a Quaker banker, was a Wellesley college student eager for new experience. She loved Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser's tender novel about a rich man's mistress, and on November 7 she wrote him an effusive letter, declaring that, though critics had found Jennie "shapeless," she thought the novel "magnificently constructed," adding that she viewed Dreiser as an equal of William Blake, Leo Tolstoy, and Anatole France. On November 11 she wrote again, this time comparing Dreiser favorably with Verlaine and declaring that "Every page cries aloud of [Jennie's] goodness."
An inveterate philanderer, Dreiser never ignored passionate letters from young women, and though his early responses to Anna are lost, her letters show that he wrote back suggesting that she write him care of his publisher — perhaps to keep his other women from seeing their correspondence. She wrote again on November 23, this time saying she had read Sister Carrie — "I don't like Carrie, she is a little beast — but she is so true" — then on December 9, after getting another letter from him, she apologized for writing "so roughly. I am sorry."
The two met in early 1912 and began an affair that lasted over a year. In January 1913 she begged him to "write or wire immediately" because she was "terribly anxious at…not getting any letters," even though "no obligation exists on your part…but I should always like to hear from you." Months later things were looking up:
Oh, Dada, how I love you and how I love even more the artistic ideal. Life comes to me as fresh and sweet and vital as ever.
In the same letter she wrote, "Father has been ill again, and he is destined to die soon." These few words leapt up from the file folder because I knew from reading Dreiser biographies that Tatum had told Dreiser much about her father, a devout Friend who tried to keep his money-making within the limits of Quaker ideals. While their affair continued, Dreiser renamed her father Solon Barnes and made him the central character of a novel-in-progress that he titled The Bulwark. Anna became Etta Barnes in the novel and Dreiser became the painter Willard Kane. If fiction may be believed, their real-life romance was sensually satisfying for them both.
As the century's teens progressed, however, both The Bulwark and their romance bogged down. Anna helped edit The Financier and for several years she acted informally as Dreiser's literary agent — telegrams in the file folders report her haggling with publishers — but the archive holds no letters between them through the 1920s. When Tatum wrote again in 1932, she addressed him as "Mr. Dreiser," and her tone sounds stilted — a former lover trying to be a friend. Her mother had died, she told him, and her siblings had cut her out of the will. Now she wouldn't mind if Dreiser published The Bulwark with its intimate details of her family life. Her health was not good, and she was living close to poverty on Long Island.
Dreiser gave Tatum low-paid editing work to do, including roughing out a screenplay for Sister Carrie, but their time together had passed. "I m sorry that my efforts as well as yours [to work together] seem to have failed," he wrote her in 1933, and she wrote back, "It has been a great mistake, me trying to work for you." She wrote one more letter in 1934, its tone desperate:
Will you not be kind enough to have someone tell me when I can speak to you on the phone? There is something I wish to ask you to do for me that would be very little trouble and expense to you. I would not ask it if it were not necessary.
On the bottom of the letter someone, probably Dreiser's current secretary, has written in pencil:
TD does not want to speak to her.
Ah, there's an ending poignant enough for a Dreiser novel — one that places the acclaimed author in a most unflattering light! Yet on closing the box I reminded myself that this was but one of thousands of such threads that weave through those fascinating five hundred and three tan boxes, or, for that matter, through my life and yours.