Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

A Writer's Vision: Eliot and Dreiser

Give anyone pen and paper, ask them to write two hundred words on any subject under the sun, and if they do, you'll get back a piece of writing brand-new in the history of literature and a glimpse into that writer's unique and personal vision.

Why? Because a writer's every subject choice, word choice, comma choice, colon and semi-colon choice is as quirky as the shirt choice, pants choice, shoe and sock choice we make getting up in the morning, and every choice reveals something about the jumble of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, memories and beliefs that we all carry around inside.

If we can see the differences in vision between Betty's and Bob's quickly sketched two hundred words, we can certainly see such differences in the work of writers who spend their lives defining, refining, and expanding how they see and depict the world. Let's look for a moment at one revealing comparison: the openings of Adam Bede by George Eliot and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

In both passages Eliot and Dreiser describe outdoor preaching on a summer evening. Eliot takes us to the English village of Hayslope and revels in a rich description of the countryside's natural beauty:

... a more advanced line of hanging woods, divided by bright patches of pasture or furrowed crops, and not yet deepened into the uniform leafy curtain of high summer, but still showing the warm tints of the young oak and the tender green of the ash and lime. Then came the valley, where the woods grew thicker, as if they had rolled down and hurried together from the patches left smooth on the slope...

Dreiser takes us to the stony canyons of downtown Kansas City. The Griffiths family — father, mother, and four children — walk to a busy corner to sing hymns and pray. As they set up by an alley "bare of life of any kind," a "vagrom and unstable street throng" gathers to watch. Dreiser sketches only three in the crowd: "a young clerk who had just met his girl," "an idler and loafer of about forty," and "a pausing and seemingly amiable stranger."

Eliot, in contrast, knows all her villagers by name and introduces us with warm familiarity to a dozen or more, here blacksmith Chad Crannage:

Chad Crannage, the blacksmith himself, who stood with his black brawny arms folded, leaning against the doorpost, and occasionally sending forth a bellowing laugh at his own jokes, giving them a marked preference over the sarcasms of Wiry Ben...

Dinah Morris, Eliot's preacher, is beautiful and, though slight of build, has a commanding presence. The Griffiths make a poor impression. The father has "weak blue eyes" and a "flabby" figure. The eldest girl looks "pale, emasculate." Clyde, the twelve-year-old boy, moves "restlessly from one foot to the other," and the two little children are "too small to really understand much of what it was all about."

Dinah succeeds: she "thoroughly arrested her hearers," and when she reaches her climax, "tears came into some of the hardest eyes." The Griffiths make no impact on the "nondescript and indifferent street audience" and soon go home:

"They seemed a little more attentive than usual tonight, I thought," commented Griffiths to his wife as they walked along, the seductive quality of the summer evening air softening him into a more generous interpretation of the customary indifferent spirit of the passers-by.
"Yes; twenty-seven took tracts tonight as against eighteen on Thursday."
"The love of Christ must eventually prevail," comforted the father, as much to hearten himself as his wife.

Given the writers' reputations, the contrasts so far are unsurprising: Dreiser, an American man, is a cool, reportorial photographer; Eliot, an English woman, a warm, familiar oil painter. Dreiser's vision borders on the cynical, Eliot's on the rapturous. Eliot sees her rural villagers as a community; Dreiser sees his city passersby as an "unstable street throng." Look closer, however, and see how the stereo visions merge.

Eliot's preacher, Dinah Morris, glows with an ethereal spirituality. Her face makes "one think of white flowers," her voice is like "a fine instrument," and her grey eyes, "shedding love":

...looked so simple, so candid, so gravely loving, that no accusing scowl, no light sneer, could help melting away before their glance.

Elvira Griffiths, Clyde's mother, has a similar spiritual strength. A woman "solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress," she stands "with an ignorant, yet somehow respectable air of conviction." Describing her, Dreiser comes in close on her face as Eliot does with Dinah:

If you had watched her, her hymn book dropped to her side, her glance directed straight before her into space, you would have said: "Well, here is one who, whatever her defects, probably does what she believes as nearly as possible." A kind of hard, fighting faith in the wisdom and mercy of that definite over-ruling and watchful power which she proclaimed, was written in her every feature and gesture.

Elvira is old and plain, Dinah young and beautiful, but they are two women who share a profound belief in the love of God and neighbor. Across oceans, continents, and half a century, they are sisters under the skin. Eliot and Dreiser come together to admire them both.

Eliot and Dreiser do look at life from contrasting perspectives, and the differences in vision we've seen above can be seen in all their work. Eliot's typical character is a farmer rooted in the soil, Dreiser's is a loner lost in the city. Eliot gives nature a human face; Dreiser shows nature as a faceless power and man but a "wisp in the wind." His bleak cosmology blows a cold wind on her cozy hearth.

Yet Eliot and Dreiser are both writers who take novel writing as a serious enterprise. Neither has Trollope's sense of humor or Dickens' manic zest. They both base their fictions on searching philosophic inquiry into art, science, religion, and all experience; both are as interested in conveying earnest ideas as in telling dramatic stories. Much as their visions differ, Eliot and Dreiser are as like each other as both are like Rembrandt and Beethoven. They toll like two bells, deep-voiced, reverberant, and wise.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 6th 2011, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Astonishingly good! Michael Lydon is our teacher too.
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 12:01 PM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Denver, CO)
Enjoyed the subject choice, every word choice, every comma choice, every colon and semi-colon. I have seen Michael Lydon's opening lines before . . . just can't recall where. Regardless, I learn volumes every time I read one of his essays.
Saturday June 18th 2011, 7:58 PM
Comment by: Val (Hamburg, PA)
Wonderful piece - so glad to have read it and that you wrote it.

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