Theodore Dreiser’s Realistic Portrayal of Life in America

Approbation for Theodore Dreiser as a literary pioneer has been loathing at best. Dreiser has been castigated for his longwinded, unstylish style and crude manner. American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin writes in his introduction to The Stature of Theodore Dreiser,

At a time when the one quality which so many American writers have in common is their utter harmlessness, Dreiser makes painful reading. The others you can take up without being involved in the least. They are “literature”—beautiful, stylish literature. You are left free to think not of the book you are reading but of the author, and not even of the whole man behind the author, but just of his cleverness, his sensibility, his style. Dreiser gets under your skin and you can’t wait to get him out again; he stupefies with reality.

Dreiser treated popular sentimental and realist subjects with a refreshing lack of moralizing. Philip L. Gerber, Professor of English at the State University of New York at Brockport, observed,

Dreiser was the first American to portray with truth and power our modern world of commerce and mechanization, the first to portray the dismal depersonalization of the individual which results from urbanization and intensifying societal pressure to conform, the first to draw us frankly and grimly as a nation of status-seekers.

The Power of the Mind and Thoughts

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in The Easy Middle,

The mind is very powerful. There’s a tremendous strength there, and it makes such a big difference how this mind, this will, this intention is being steered. And everything depends on whether it allows itself to relax and be serene, or whether it allows itself to get caught up in anxiety, grasping, and fear, it makes a difference if you do something with a relaxed, easy going frame of mind, or if you do it in a harried and distracted way.

Living in Full Awareness of the World

Sarah Bakewell writes in How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

Mindful attention is the trick that underlies many of the other tricks. It is a call to attend to the inner world—and thus also to the outer world, for uncontrolled emotion blurs reality as tears blur a view. Anyone who clears their vision and lives in full awareness of the world as it is, Seneca says, can never be bored with life.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Literary, Multicultural Upbringing

English literature academic Mary McClelland Lago remarked on the literary, multicultural household in which Rabindranath Tagore was raised in her biography, Rabindranath Tagore: Perspectives in Time:

Goethe was read in German and de Maupassant in French, Sakuntala in Sanskrit, and Macbeth in English; poetry was written, upon models supplied by Keats, Shelley, and the Vaishnava lyrics then being compiled and appearing in Bengali periodicals; plays and songs were composed and performed. There were experiments in the writing of Bengali novels that drew on Bengali history as Scott had drawn on the history of England and Scotland; the French short story writers of the nineteenth century were the models for experiments in writing short fiction in Bengali. Journals were edited and secret patriotic societies organized. Friends, associates, and tutors came and went, all against a background of traditional Bengali life; the inner rooms were the women’s world; the boys were invested at the proper age with the sacred thread of the Brahmins, the spiritual life of the household was grounded in the Upanishads.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Characters

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s central characters are marked by a significance of “spiritual and mental self-division and self-contradiction,” wherein the offender turns out to be an prototype of a curiously modern psychological condition of alienation and self-destruction. American literary critic and essayist Philip Rahv wrote,

Dostoevsky is the first novelist to have fully accepted and dramatized the principle of uncertainty or indeterminacy in the presentation of character. In terms of novelistic technique this principle manifests itself as a kind of hyperbolic suspense-suspense no longer generated merely by the traditional means and devices of fiction, though these are skillfully brought into play, but as it were by the very structure of human reality. To take this hyperbolic suspense as a literary invention pure and simple is to fail in comprehending it; it originates rather in Dostoevsky’s acute awareness (self-awareness at bottom) of the problematic nature of the modern personality and of its tortuous efforts to stem the disintegration threatening it.

Source: Varieties of Literary Experience: 18 Eminent Critics Discuss World Literature

Avoid Snobbery and Misanthropy

Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian:

One must avoid snobbery and misanthropy. But one must also be unafraid to criticise those who reach for the lowest common denominator, and who sometimes succeed in finding it. This criticism would be effortless if there were no “people” waiting for just such an appeal. Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. And the fact that kings and bishops and billionaires often have more say than most in forming appetites and emotions of the crowd is not irrelevant, either.

The Craving of the Separate Self

Stephen Batchelor writes in Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening:

Moods dictate my behavior. If something makes me feel good, I want to have it; if it makes me feel bad, I want to get rid of it; if it leaves me indifferent, I ignore it. I find myself in a perpetual state of conflict: emotionally pulled one way and pushed the other. Yet underpinning both attraction and aversion is craving: the childish and utopian thirst for a situation in which I finally possess everything I desire and have repelled everything I dislike. Deep down I insist that a permanent, separate self is entitled to a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.

Learning to Listen

Soto Zen Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick of Great Mountain Zen Center in Berthoud, Colorado, writes in Zen in the Workplace:

To hear every sound as the dharma means to just pay attention. Listen to what people are saying when somebody is talking to you. We are usually so busy trying to say something that will impress them that we don’t really listen to what they are saying. It is easy to give and appropriate response if we are really listening.

American Skier Lindsey Vonn on Competition, Grit, and Failures

Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female skier of all time, converses about sportsmanship in this Esquire interview:

Competition is what I find joy in as well. I like pushing myself. I like setting those goals. I like knowing that I’ve executed the plan I have set forth. All those things feel good. I don’t mind the mistakes. Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it.

Thought as a Thought and a Word as a Word

American poet, writer, and Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer writes in the Summer 2011 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review,

In his discussion of right speech the Buddha also demonstrated the subtle and nuanced understanding that words do not have fixed meanings and ought never to be taken at face value. The meaning of a word depends on the context: who is speaking and listening, the tone of voice employed, the underlying attitude, and the situation in which the words are spoken. The very fact that the Buddha did not recommend that his words be written down and that he allowed others to explain the teachings in their own words, insisting that ordinary language, not special holy language, be used, shows that he understood language to be a process—essentially a dialogue, a dynamic experience—rather than a tool of exact description or explanation. The Buddha saw that far from being a neutral conduit for the conveying of preexisting meanings, language is an ever-shifting vehicle for the self, and that the way to clarify the self and the world is to hold language in an accurate and sensitive way.