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کتاب Twelve Men

کتاب Twelve Men

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درباره کتاب Twelve Men

Character sketches, combining the best of biography with the finest of narrative - short and illustrative.

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Twelve Men

Theodore Dreiser


Published: 1919
Categorie(s): Non-Fiction, Biography & autobiography

About Dreiser

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser (August 27, 1871 – December 28, 1945) was an American novelist and journalist. He pioneered the naturalist school and is known for portraying characters whose value lies not in their moral code, but in their persistence against all obstacles, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency.

Peter

In any group of men I have ever known, speaking from the point of view of character and not that of physical appearance, Peter would stand out as deliciously and irrefutably different. In the great waste of American intellectual dreariness he was an oasis, a veritable spring in the desert. He understood life. He knew men. He was free—spiritually, morally, in a thousand ways, it seemed to me.

As one drags along through this inexplicable existence one realizes how such qualities stand out; not the pseudo freedom of strong men, financially or physically, but the real, internal, spiritual freedom, where the mind, as it were, stands up and looks at itself, faces Nature unafraid, is aware of its own weaknesses, its strengths; examines its own and the creative impulses of the universe and of men with a kindly and non-dogmatic eye, in fact kicks dogma out of doors, and yet deliberately and of choice holds fast to many, many simple and human things, and rounds out life, or would, in a natural, normal, courageous, healthy way.

The first time I ever saw Peter was in St. Louis in 1892; I had come down from Chicago to work on the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and he was a part of the art department force of that paper. At that time—and he never seemed to change later even so much as a hair's worth until he died in 1908—he was short, stocky and yet quick and even jerky in his manner, with a bushy, tramp-like "get-up" of hair and beard, most swiftly and astonishingly disposed of at times only to be regrown at others, and always, and intentionally, I am sure, most amusing to contemplate. In addition to all this he had an air of well-being, force and alertness which belied the other surface characteristics as anything more than a genial pose or bit of idle gayety.

Plainly he took himself seriously and yet lightly, usually with an air of suppressed gayety, as though saying, "This whole business of living is a great joke." He always wore good and yet exceedingly mussy clothes, at times bespattered with ink or, worse yet, even soup—an amazing grotesquery that was the dismay of all who knew him, friends and relatives especially. In addition he was nearly always liberally besprinkled with tobacco dust, the source of which he used in all forms: in pipe, cigar and plug, even cigarettes when he could obtain nothing more substantial. One of the things about him which most impressed me at that time and later was this love of the ridiculous or the grotesque, in himself or others, which would not let him take anything in a dull or conventional mood, would not even permit him to appear normal at times but urged him on to all sorts of nonsense, in an effort, I suppose, to entertain himself and make life seem less commonplace.

And yet he loved life, in all its multiform and multiplex aspects and with no desire or tendency to sniff, reform or improve anything. It was good just as he found it, excellent. Life to Peter was indeed so splendid that he was always very much wrought up about it, eager to live, to study, to do a thousand things. For him it was a workshop for the artist, the thinker, as well as the mere grubber, and without really criticizing any one he was "for" the individual who is able to understand, to portray or to create life, either feelingly and artistically or with accuracy and discrimination. To him, as I saw then and see even more clearly now, there was no high and no low. All things were only relatively so. A thief was a thief, but he had his place. Ditto the murderer. Ditto the saint. Not man but Nature was planning, or at least doing, something which man could not understand, of which very likely he was a mere tool. Peter was as much thrilled and entendered by the brawling strumpet in the street or the bagnio as by the virgin with her starry crown. The rich were rich and the poor poor, but all were in the grip of imperial forces whose ruthless purposes or lack of them made all men ridiculous, pathetic or magnificent, as you choose. He pitied ignorance and necessity, and despised vanity and cruelty for cruelty's sake, and the miserly hoarding of anything. He was liberal, material, sensual and yet spiritual; and although he never had more than a little money, out of the richness and fullness of his own temperament he seemed able to generate a kind of atmosphere and texture in his daily life which was rich and warm, splendid really in thought (the true reality) if not in fact, and most grateful to all. Yet also, as I have said, always he wished to seem the clown, the scapegrace, the wanton and the loon even, mouthing idle impossibilities at times and declaring his profoundest faith in the most fantastic things.

Do I seem to rave? I am dealing with a most significant person.

In so far as I knew he was born into a mid-Western family of Irish extraction whose habitat was southwest Missouri. In the town in which he was reared there was not even a railroad until he was fairly well grown—a fact which amused but never impressed him very much. Apropos of this he once told me of a yokel who, never having seen a railroad, entered the station with his wife and children long before train time, bought his ticket and waited a while, looking out of the various windows, then finally returned to the ticket-seller and asked, "When does this thing start?" He meant the station building itself. At the time Peter had entered upon art work he had scarcely prosecuted his studies beyond, if so far as, the conventional high or grammar school, and yet he was most amazingly informed and but little interested in what any school or college had to offer. His father, curiously enough, was an educated Irish-American, a lawyer by profession, and a Catholic. His mother was an American Catholic, rather strict and narrow. His brothers and sisters, of whom there were four, were, as I learned later, astonishingly virile and interesting Americans of a rather wild, unsettled type. They were all, in so far as I could judge from chance meetings, agnostic, tense, quick-moving—so vital that they weighed on one a little, as very intense temperaments are apt to do. One of the brothers, K——, who seemed to seek me out ever so often for Peter's sake, was so intense, nervous, rapid-talking, rapid-living, that he frightened me a little. He loved noisy, garish places. He liked to play the piano, stay up very late; he was a high liver, a "good dresser," as the denizens of the Tenderloin would say, an excellent example of the flashy, clever promoter. He was always representing a new company, introducing something—a table or laxative water, a shaving soap, a chewing gum, a safety razor, a bicycle, an automobile tire or the machine itself. He was here, there, everywhere—in Waukesha, Wisconsin; San Francisco; New York; New Orleans. "My, my! This is certainly interesting!" he would exclaim, with an air which would have done credit to a comedian and extending both hands. "Peter's pet friend, Dreiser! Well, well, well! Let's have a drink. Let's have something to eat. I'm only in town for a day. Maybe you'd like to go to a show—or hit the high places? Would you? Well, well, well! Let's make a night of it! What do you say?" and he would fix me with a glistening, nervous and what was intended no doubt to be a reassuring eye, but which unsettled me as thoroughly as the imminence of an earthquake. But I was talking of Peter.

The day I first saw him he was bent over a drawing-board illustrating a snake story for one of the Sunday issues of the Globe-Democrat, which apparently delighted in regaling its readers with most astounding concoctions of this kind, and the snake he was drawing was most disturbingly vital and reptilian, beady-eyed, with distended jaws, extended tongue, most fatefully coiled.

"My," I commented in passing, for I was in to see him about another matter, "what a glorious snake!"

"Yes, you can't make 'em too snaky for the snake-editor up front," he returned, rising and dusting tobacco from his lap and shirtfront, for he was in his shirt-sleeves. Then he expectorated not in but to one side of a handsome polished brass cuspidor which contained not the least evidence of use, the rubber mat upon which it stood being instead most disturbingly "decorated." I was most impressed by this latter fact although at the time I said nothing, being too new. Later, I may as well say here, I discovered why. This was a bit of his clowning humor, a purely manufactured and as it were mechanical joke or ebullience of soul. If any one inadvertently or through unfamiliarity attempted to expectorate in his "golden cuspidor," as he described it, he was always quick to rise and interpose in the most solemn, almost sepulchral manner, at the same time raising a hand. "Hold! Out—not in—to one side, on the mat! That cost me seven dollars!" Then he would solemnly seat himself and begin to draw again. I saw him do this to all but the chiefest of the authorities of the paper. And all, even the dullest, seemed to be amused, quite fascinated by the utter trumpery folly of it.

But I am getting ahead of my tale. In so far as the snake was concerned, he was referring to the assistant who had these snake stories in charge. "The fatter and more venomous and more scaly they are," he went on, "the better. I'd like it if we could use a little color in this paper—red for eyes and tongue, and blue and green for scales. The farmers upstate would love that. They like good but poisonous snakes." Then he grinned, stood back and, cocking his head to one side in a most examining and yet approving manner, ran his hand through his hair and beard and added, "A snake can't be too vital, you know, for this paper. We have to draw 'em strong, plenty of vitality, plenty of go." He grinned most engagingly.

I could not help laughing, of course. The impertinent air! The grand, almost condescending manner!

We soon became fast friends.

In the same office in close contact with him was another person, one D—— W——, also a newspaper artist, who, while being exceedingly interesting and special in himself, still as a character never seems to have served any greater purpose in my own mind than to have illustrated how emphatic and important Peter was. He had a thin, pale, Dantesque face, coal black, almost Indian-like hair most carefully parted in the middle and oiled and slicked down at the sides and back until it looked as though it had been glued. His eyes were small and black and querulous but not mean—petted eyes they were—and the mouth had little lines at each corner which seemed to say he had endured much, much pain, which of course he had not, but which nevertheless seemed to ask for, and I suppose earned him some, sympathy. Dick in his way was an actor, a tragedian of sorts, but with an element of humor, cynicism and insight which saved him from being utterly ridiculous. Like most actors, he was a great poseur. He invariably affected the long, loose flowing tie with a soft white or blue or green or brown linen shirt (would any American imitation of the "Quartier Latin" denizen have been without one at that date?), yellow or black gloves, a round, soft crush hat, very soft and limp and very different, patent leather pumps, betimes a capecoat, a slender cane, a boutonnière—all this in hard, smoky, noisy, commercial St. Louis, full of middle-West business men and farmers!

I would not mention this particular person save that for a time he, Peter and myself were most intimately associated. We temporarily constituted in our way a "soldiers three" of the newspaper world. For some years after we were more or less definitely in touch as a group, although later Peter and myself having drifted Eastward and hob-nobbing as a pair had been finding more and more in common and had more and more come to view Dick for what he was: a character of Dickensian, or perhaps still better, Cruikshankian, proportions and qualities. But in those days the three of us were all but inseparable; eating, working, playing, all but sleeping together. I had a studio of sorts in a more or less dilapidated factory section of St. Louis (Tenth near Market; now I suppose briskly commercial), Dick had one at Broadway and Locust, directly opposite the then famous Southern Hotel. Peter lived with his family on the South Side, a most respectable and homey-home neighborhood.

It has been one of my commonest experiences, and one of the most interesting to me, to note that nearly all of my keenest experiences intellectually, my most gorgeous rapprochements and swiftest developments mentally, have been by, to, and through men, not women, although there have been several exceptions to this. Nearly every turning point in my career has been signalized by my meeting some man of great force, to whom I owe some of the most ecstatic intellectual hours of my life, hours in which life seemed to bloom forth into new aspects, glowed as with the radiance of a gorgeous tropic day.

Peter was one such. About my own age at this time, he was blessed with a natural understanding which was simply Godlike. Although, like myself, he was raised a Catholic and still pretending in a boisterous, Rabelaisian way to have some reverence for that faith, he was amusingly sympathetic to everything good, bad, indifferent—"in case there might be something in it; you never can tell." Still he hadn't the least interest in conforming to the tenets of the church and laughed at its pretensions, preferring his own theories to any other. Apparently nothing amused him so much as the thought of confession and communion, of being shrived by some stout, healthy priest as worldly as himself, and preferably Irish, like himself. At the same time he had a hearty admiration for the Germans, all their ways, conservatisms, their breweries, food and such things, and finally wound up by marrying a German girl.

As far as I could make out, Peter had no faith in anything except Nature itself, and very little in that except in those aspects of beauty and accident and reward and terrors with which it is filled and for which he had an awe if not a reverence and in every manifestation of which he took the greatest delight. Life was a delicious, brilliant mystery to him, horrible in some respects, beautiful in others; a great adventure. Unlike myself at the time, he had not the slightest trace of any lingering Puritanism, and wished to live in a lush, vigorous, healthy, free, at times almost barbaric, way. The negroes, the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, tales of the Orient and the grotesque Dark Ages, our own vile slums and evil quarters—how he reveled in these! He was for nights of wandering, endless investigation, reading, singing, dancing, playing!

Apropos of this I should like to relate here that one of his seemingly gross but really innocent diversions was occasionally visiting a certain black house of prostitution, of which there were many in St. Louis. Here while he played a flute and some one else a tambourine or small drum, he would have two or three of the inmates dance in some weird savage way that took one instanter to the wilds of Central Africa. There was, so far as I know, no payment of any kind made in connection with this. He was a friend, in some crude, artistic or barbaric way. He satisfied, I am positive, some love of color, sound and the dance in these queer revels.

Nor do I know how he achieved these friendships, such as they were. I was never with him when he did. But aside from the satiation they afforded his taste for the strange and picturesque, I am sure they reflected no gross or sensual appetite. But I wish to attest in passing that the mere witnessing of these free scenes had a tonic as well as toxic effect on me. As I view myself now, I was a poor, spindling, prying fish, anxious to know life, and yet because of my very narrow training very fearsome of it, of what it might do to me, what dreadful contagion of thought or deed it might open me to! Peter was not so. To him all, positively all, life was good. It was a fascinating spectacle, to be studied or observed and rejoiced in as a spectacle. When I look back now on the shabby, poorly-lighted, low-ceiled room to which he led me "for fun," the absolutely black or brown girls with their white teeth and shiny eyes, the unexplainable, unintelligible love of rhythm and the dance displayed, the beating of a drum, the sinuous, winding motions of the body, I am grateful to him. He released my mind, broadened my view, lengthened my perspective. For as I sat with him, watching him beat his drum or play his flute, noted the gayety, his love of color and effect, and feeling myself low, a criminal, disgraced, the while I was staring with all my sight and enjoying it intensely, I realized that I was dealing with a man who was "bigger" than I was in many respects, saner, really more wholesome. I was a moral coward, and he was not losing his life and desires through fear—which the majority of us do. He was strong, vital, unafraid, and he made me so.

But, lest I seem to make him low or impossible to those who instinctively cannot accept life beyond the range of their own little routine world, let me hasten to his other aspects. He was not low but simple, brilliant and varied in his tastes. America and its point of view, religious and otherwise, was simply amusing to him, not to be taken seriously. He loved to contemplate man at his mysteries, rituals, secret schools. He loved better yet ancient history, medieval inanities and atrocities—a most singular, curious and wonderful mind. Already at this age he knew many historians and scientists (their work), a most astonishing and illuminating list to me—Maspero, Froude, Huxley, Darwin, Wallace, Rawlinson, Froissart, Hallam, Taine, Avebury! The list of painters, sculptors and architects with whose work he was familiar and books about whom or illustrated by whom he knew, is too long to be given here. His chief interest, in so far as I could make out, in these opening days, was Egyptology and the study of things natural and primeval—all the wonders of a natural, groping, savage world.

"Dreiser," he exclaimed once with gusto, his bright beady eyes gleaming with an immense human warmth, "you haven't the slightest idea of the fascination of some of the old beliefs. Do you know the significance of a scarab in Egyptian religious worship, for instance?"

"A scarab? What's a scarab? I never heard of one," I answered.

"A beetle, of course. An Egyptian beetle. You know what a beetle is, don't you? Well, those things burrowed in the earth, the mud of the Nile, at a certain period of their season to lay their eggs, and the next spring, or whenever it was, the eggs would hatch and the beetles would come up. Then the Egyptians imagined that the beetle hadn't died at all, or if it had that it also had the power of restoring itself to life, possessed immortality. So they thought it must be a god and began to worship it," and he would pause and survey me with those amazing eyes, bright as glass beads, to see if I were properly impressed.

"You don't say!"

"Sure. That's where the worship came from," and then he might go on and add a bit about monkey-worship, the Zoroastrians and the Parsees, the sacred bull of Egypt, its sex power as a reason for its religious elevation, and of sex worship in general; the fantastic orgies at Sidon and Tyre, where enormous images of the male and female sex organs were carried aloft before the multitude.

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