January 30, 1906--Paul Dresser, once the toast of Broadway with hugely successful songs such as “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away,” “The Letter That Never Came” and “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” died penniless at age 47 in the New York apartment of his sister Emma.
Dresser’s scores of tunes eventually led to his posthumous election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he also played a role in the rise of Tin Pan Alley as part owner of the music publishing company Howley, Havilland & Dresser.
But he also heavily influenced the life and work of the brother 13 years his junior, author Theodore Dreiser.
That concept might seem preposterous to anyone comparing backslapping, wisecracking Paul (who changed the spelling of his surname after leaving home to join a male quartet that traveled with a medicine wagon), whose sentimental songs were composed for a middle-class audience, with Theodore, an increasingly radical, plodding, humorless writer who nevertheless transformed American literature with his grimly naturalist novels.
But none other than the author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy claimed, in his affectionate essay “My Brother Paul” (reprinted in his 1919 collection, Twelve Men) that following their revered mother’s death, the only member of his large family “who truly understood me, or, better yet, sympathized with my intellectual and artistic point of view, was, strange as it may seem, this same Paul, my dearest brother.” There is every reason to take the novelist at his word on this point.
Dreiser’s raw depiction of the lower depths has obscured an aspect of his fiction noted by early champion H. L. Mencken, who pointed out in a 1911 review that the title characters of Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt “escape from the physical mysteries of the struggle for existence only to taste the worse mysteries of the struggle for happiness.” The case of Paul Dresser illustrated this as much as anything else in his brother’s life.
Like Carrie and Jennie, Paul rose from Midwest poverty to ever-greater heights. Leaving his native Indiana behind, he lived large in Gotham. (Literally so: as seen in the image accompanying this post, he weighed more than 300 pounds.)
It’s tempting, in fact, despite differences in racial backgrounds, to liken Paul to some contemporary hip-hop moguls who have parlayed careers in one area into wider-ranging endeavors. As Theodore observed, Paul at one time or another had been “a singer and entertainer with a perambulating cure-all or wagon (‘Hamlin’s Wizard Oil’)…both end- and middle-man with one, two or three different minstrel companies of repute; the editor or originator or author of a ‘funny column’ in a Western small city paper; the author of the songs mentioned above and a hundred others; a black-face monologue artist; a white-face ditto, at Tom Pastor’s, Miner’s and Niblo’s of the old days; a comic lead; co-star and star in such melodramas and farces as ‘The Danger Signal,’ ‘the Two Johns,’ ‘A Tin Soldier,’ ‘The Midnight Bell,’ ‘A Green Goods Man’ (which he wrote, by the way) and others.”
And then the bottom fell out. Paul’s easy way with money--spending perhaps even more freely, on down-and-out entertainers who needed a helping hand, as on himself--along with poor business sense and inability to adjust to the changing tastes of an increasingly polyglot New York, led to bankruptcy. But worse was that the friends who had crowded around him once were nowhere to be found now: “Depression and even despair seemed to hang about him like a cloak,” Dreiser wrote. “He could not shake it off. And yet, literally, in his case there was nothing to fear, if he had only known.”
From first to last, Dreiser’s characters are gripped by yearnings for success and sex so insistent as to overwhelm all moral codes and laws. His brother opened up to him the breathtaking urban kingdom that offered these temptations.
Dreiser’s style can be heavy, awkward and sometimes fatuous (e.g., Sister Carrie claims that for a young girl leaving home for the big city, there are only two alternatives: “Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse”). But at times, caught up in the wonder of what he describes, it inextricably takes flight, as in this description of his brother’s routine that captures the fast pulse of a city awakening to its destiny at the center of the 20th century:
“He rose in the morning to the clang of the cars and the honk of the automobiles outside; he retired at night as a gang of rapid men under flaring torches might be repairing a track, or the milk trucks were rumbling to and from the ferries. He was in his way a public restaurant and hotel favorite, a shining light in the theater managers’ offices, hotel bars and lobbies and wherever those flies of the Tenderloin, those passing lords and celebrities of the sporting, theatrical, newspaper and other worlds, are wont to gather.”
Paul did not begin his brother’s sexual education, but the entertainment demimonde to which he exposed Theodore inevitably shaped the novelist’s views on women. The novelist was astonished not merely by Paul’s “catholicity of taste” but also by the brazen dress and manners of those who sought the songwriter’s favors: “They were distant and freezing enough to all who did not interest them, but let a personality such as his come into view and they were all wiles, bending and alluring graces.”
Judging from his own compulsive philandering, Dreiser could not have come away from such encounters with much respect for women. In 1909, the same year of his essay about Paul, the novelist became involved with a ruinous relationship with the 17-year-old daughter of an assistant editor at the publishing house where he worked. Over the years, he came to conduct several affairs at once.
Paul Dresser's work has not enjoyed the continuing popularity of a New York music forebear, Stephen Foster, but at least during his lifetime, Dreiser did live to see renewed appreciation for his brother's work. "On the Banks of the Wabash" became the state song of Indiana, and several years before the novelist's death he worked assiduously in Hollywood to bring to the big screen a biopic about his songwriting brother, My Gal Sal.
Audiences of the time would have been horrified by the notion that the song that inspired the 1942 musical starring Victor Mature and Rita Hayworth was based on a madam with whom Paul Dresser lived for a time in Evansville, Ind.--but the tunesmith's brother, having seen so much of the dark side of life, could hardly have been bothered by this at all.
“Serious poetry, profound religion (Calvinism, for instance) are the joys of an unhappiness that confesses itself; but when a genteel tradition forbids people to confess that they are unhappy, serious poetry and profound religion are closed to them by that; and since human life, in its depths, cannot then express itself openly, imagination is driven for comfort into abstract arts, where human circumstances are lost sight of, and human problems dissolve in a purer medium.”—George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (1911), reprinted in The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays, edited by Douglas L. Wilson (1998)
“It is a supreme irony that the worldly Becket, a profligate and libertine, could find himself standing here at this moment. But here he is, in spite of himself. The king, for good or ill, chose to pass the burden of the church on to me, and now I must carry it. I’ve rolled up my sleeves and taken the church on my back. Nothing will ever make me set it down again.”—Archbishop Thomas a Becket (played by Richard Burton), on his unexpected appointment to his post by friend (later enemy) King Henry II, in Becket (1964), directed by Peter Glanville, screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Jean Anouilh
"I have to talk to Rachel Maddow. Only one of us can have this haircut.”--Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), offering to drop Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey) off at Newark Airport on his way to MSNBC, in 30 Rock, “Reaganing” episode, air date October 22, 2010, written by Matt Hubbard and directed by Todd Holland
“It eats music and pictures and books and mountains and lakes and beautiful things to wear and nice people to be with. In this country you can't have them without lots of money; that is why our souls are so horribly starved.”—George Bernard Shaw,Heartbreak House(1919)
I'm a librarian (no, NOT a "cybrarian" or "information scientist" or any of the other trendy terms the profession has come up with), as well as a freelance writer/researcher; my political leanings are contrarian, much to the dismay of friends on the left and right, and so I will give anyone looking for my vote exactly what they deserve -- the back of my hand