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Finding the Facts in Fiction: Dreiser's "The Bulwark"

All fiction rests on a foundation of fact. Even if an author describes five-headed creatures who live on Planet Zobar and drink purple water, he or she must give readers enough feeling of life for us to imagine the world the words create. All the more does fiction rely on fact when a writer describes life on earth, where the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, where men and women grow from being babies to being children, adults, and then old folks who, alas, must some day die.

Theodore Dreiser dedicated himself to writing the truth of life as plainly as possible. Even readers who don't love his work as I do recognize his determination to "tell it like it is." He creates believable characters in real cities, dresses them in real clothes, and gives them real emotions, zeroing in on life's minute details:

Hurstwood bought the flour—which all grocers sold in 3 1/2 pound packages—for thirteen cents and paid fifteen cents for a half pound of liver and bacon. He left the package, together with the balance of thirty-two cents, upon the kitchen table, where Carrie found it.

Sister Carrie

—and its galactic enormities:

The nebulous conglomerations of the suns in Pleiades suggested a soundless depth of space, and he thought of the earth floating like a little ball in immeasurable reaches of ether. His own life appeared very trivial in view of these things…

The Financier

More than many novelists, Dreiser sought out real-life models for his fictional characters. He drew Sister Carrie and Jenny Gerhardt from his sisters, Mame and Emma, and Clyde Griffiths of An American Tragedy, from murderer Chester Gillette. Likewise, Dreiser drew Solon Barnes, the gentle hero of The Bulwark, from tales that Anna Tatum, one of his many mistresses, told him about growing up with her stern Quaker father, John Ward Tatum.

Recently, after reading The Bulwark for the dozenth time, I began to ask: how much of The Bulwark is fact, how much fiction? How alike are the person John Ward Tatum and the character Solon Barnes? As winter came and went, I began to research the question, twice visiting the Dreiser archive at the University of Pennsylvania, combing the New York Public Library's online catalogue, reading a half-dozen Dreiser biographies, emailing back and forth with historical society librarians, and clicking here and there on Ancestry.com. What have I discovered? Many small, medium, and large discrepancies between fact and fiction, but an overall adherence to Anna's story of a good man who learned love through suffering.

Minor discrepancies: Segookit, Maine, Solon's birthplace, does not exist, and the Tatums never lived in Maine. The Tatums, however, did move from Delaware to Fallsington, Pennsylvania, when John Ward was young, just as, when Solon was young, the Barneses moved south from Maine to Dukla, Pennsylvania (like Segookit, non-existent). Another minor difference: Solon and his wife Benecia have five children—Isobel, Orville, Dorothea, Etta, and Stewart—and John Ward and his wife had three—Anna, Lucy, and John Ward Junior. Why invent two children? Because, I suggest, Dreiser needed five children to give his novel a wider range: Isobel, plain and mousy, Orville, a stuffed shirt, Dorothea a social-climbing beauty, Etta, dreamy and artistic, Stewart, a mischievous rebel.

A quiet, serious boy, Solon falls in love with a fellow student, Benecia Wallin, the daughter of Justus Wallin, a wealthy Quaker. Wallin sees promise in Solon and puts him through an apprenticeship in business and banking. Benecia and Solon marry, Solon goes to work at a small Philadelphia bank and advances to treasurer. But much to my surprise, my research told me that John Ward Tatum was not a banker, but a fire insurance broker who sold policies from a one-man office.

Unless you know The Bulwark well, you may think, insurance man or banker, so what? Yet Solon's being a banker is crucial to the book's structure and story. From the first day an overawed Solon enters the Traders and Builders Bank as a boy on page 82 until he retires on page 304, Solon's upward curve at the bank gives The Bulwark the narrative arc on which Dreiser hangs dozens of business deals and frames dozens of portraits of Solon's colleagues and competitors. Dreiser could, perhaps have structured his novel on Solon's life, marriage, and children, but an insurance broker's ho-hum routine would have given him much less dramatic material to work with.

Dreiser, however, does stick to what Anna told him about the economic and social gap between the Barnes and Wallin (Tatum and Price) families. That the Wallins were wealthy and well established and the Barnes' middle-class newcomers is one of Dreiser's major themes. The Barnes' first visit to the Wallins' house flabbergasts them:

Entering the Wallin house, the Barnes family...were greatly impressed by what they saw. There were massive carved mahogany tables and chairs, parqueted floors strewn with rugs and animal skins, and large ornate vases filled with flowers and grasses.

About many incidents in the novel it's hard to decide which do or don't have a basis in fact. In Chapter 5, for example, Solon, when a little boy, cuts himself with a hatchet while chopping firewood and develops a life-threatening infection. His mother prays for him:

"God is going to make thy coming days thy best. Thee will live to serve him in love and truth." And saying this, she laid her right hand on his forehead and turned her eyes upward. And in the silence that followed, her young son suddenly felt a change for the better.

This strikes me as fiction because I've read the same tale in other books: the protagonist who almost dies as a child, then recovers and goes on to greatness. On the other hand, in Chapter 29 Dreiser tells of the day when Solon's son Stewart convinces the neighborhood children to strip off their clothes and roam the forest like Indians. When their parents find them, the kids are bedraggled, hungry, and frightened:

Etta was clinging to another little girl for comfort, and Stewart and a companion were standing gloomily on guard. At the sight of their respective fathers they burst into tears. The distracted parents gathered up their children and shouted for joy. All except Solon, who stared, faintly amused but at the same time shocked.

Reading about this escapade, I can hear Anna telling Dreiser the tale, both of them laughing at its endearing conclusion.

Near the end of The Bulwark, Solon suffers tragedy when Stewart takes part in a gang rape and commits suicide in jail; Benecia dies of grief. At first I searched for evidence of these shocking events in Philadelphia newspapers, but found nothing. Why? Because they never happened! John Ward did become estranged from his children, but the fictional tragedy was, in real life, no more than a severe case of generation gap syndrome.

The climax of The Bulwark comes in Chapter 64 when Solon, now an ill old man, tells Etta and her sister Isobel that, when walking in the garden one day he startled a puff adder which un-puffed when he assured the snake he meant no harm:

"At which point I retraced my steps and paused again to observe its departure. Then it turned and came back toward me, crawling so close as to cross the toe of my shoe."

"Why, Father, how wonderful," said Etta.

"Daughter, I know now that we know so little of all of that infinite something of which we are a part—and that there are more languages spoken than we have any knowledge of."

"What does thee mean, Father?" questioned Isobel.

"I mean that good intent is of itself a universal language, and if our intention is good, all creatures in their particular way understand, and so it was that this puff adder understood me just as I understood it…"

This passage, which brings tears to my eyes every time I read it, is fact, not fiction, but the fact happened, not to John Ward Tatum, but to Dreiser when he was old and ill himself. In nearly the same words he used in this Bulwark passage, Dreiser told a friend how he talked with a puff adder one day in his garden and learned the same lesson of life and love that he put so tenderly in Solon's voice.

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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.