Walker, Maggie, and Mark Walker. Dreiser's "Other Self": The Life of Arthur Henry.
Arthur Henry (1867-1934) is known primarily as the intimate friend who inspired Theodore Dreiser to write Sister Carrie; represented him in negotiations with Doubleday, Page and Company; and helped him revise, edit, and cut the novel before its release in December 1900. Drawing upon family papers previously unavailable to scholars, Henry's granddaughter Maggie Walker and her husband Mark Walker have written the first biography of this enigmatic figure. The Walkers offer only a cursory view of Henry in his last twenty-five years, often speculate about his motives and state of mind, and sometimes misstate facts about Dreiser and his work. Yet they offer the fullest explanation we may ever get of why Dreiser dedicated Sister Carrie "[t]o my friend Arthur Henry whose steadfast ideals and serene devotion to truth and beauty have served to lighten the method and strengthen the purpose of this volume."
In their early chapters, the Walkers draw heavily on the manuscript of Roger Allen, an "entirely believable" (14) autobiographical novel unfinished at Henry's death, and on his sister's memoir of their widowed mother, Sarepta Irish Henry. For much of Henry's childhood, Sarepta was National Evangelist for the Women's Christian Temperance Union and in 1897 published Studies in Home & Child Life (1897), which exalted the "saintly state" of motherhood and exhorted parents "to intercede and stand firm against the power of Satan to blight the child's hidden sexual life" (10). Ironically, the Walkers conclude, Sarepta herself blighted her son's sexual life and left him "befuddled" about the nature of love (12). Roger Allen also tells of Roger/Arthur's sexual molestation by a farmhand, an event that contributed to the boy's "unconscious shrinking from the carnal aspects of love" and his inability for many years of going beyond "joyous companionship" with girls (22).
Henry's authorial career had a curious beginning. After a brief stint in 1888 reporting for the Chicago Daily News, where the famous Eugene Field had befriended him, he spent several months in the South with his older brother. The result of this trip was Nicholas Blood, Candidate (1890), a viciously racist novel whose authorship he would later keep secret and that, because of its deeply ambivalent treatment of sex, the Walkers partly excuse as the "impressionable and naive" (27) young Henry's unconscious rebellion against his mother. Biographers have generally assumed Dreiser's ignorance of Henry's youthful racism. The Walker's, not content with merely assuming, invent a dramatic scene: "Perhaps, during their conversations, Dreiser addressed with some emotion the plight of the southern Negro, speaking of him as though he were a full-fledged member of the human race.... At this point, a great light may have dawned on Arthur, causing him to mentally disavow the racist writing of his youth and to banish the book from his shelves ..." (57-58). While biographers often resort to invention when facts are few, this particular invention strains credulity since Dreiser's assumed egalitarianism is not borne out by some of his later comments on race.
This tendency to speculate is probably due to the lack of documentation for much of Henry's life. For example, the Walkers can not account for most of Henry's days as a Chicago reporter and political editor from about 1889 to 1892 and must draw heavily on Roger Allen to explain how his carousing with fellow Chicago journalists in The Whitechapel Club made him feel like "one of the 'boys'" (46). He left in 1892 to take a job at the Toledo Blade, whose pioneering woman reporter Maude Wood soon became his first wife. That he knew Eugene Field, was a close friend of Brand Whitlock, and caroused with such other famous newsmen as George Ade and Finley Peter Dunne would do much to impress the young Hoosier who turned up looking for work at the Blade two years later.
Readers hoping for new information about the Dreiser-Henry relationship will find few surprises since for this part of the book the Walkers draw mostly upon sources long available to scholars. Like Dreiser's biographers, the Walkers tiptoe around the homoerotic bond that was quickly established between the two young writers though they acknowledge that the experience was "like love at first sight" (56) and quote Dreiser's famous declaration in A Book About Myself that "[i]f he had been a girl I would have married him, of course" (qtd. 57). Still, should anyone wish to explore the largely uncharted terrain of Dreiser's complex feelings about male friendship, the Walkers provide a good starting point.
They also point the way towards a greater understanding of Henry's influence on Sister Carrie. With his dreaminess and escapist tendencies, Henry did not adjust well to the practical demands of marriage; and when his wife suffered terribly in childbirth, he developed a personal philosophy, "The Philosophy of Hope," founded on "the rejection of desire" (63). Just before he left the editorship of Ev'ry Month, Dreiser accepted and edited Henry's essay, which appeared in the October 1897 issue under the title "The Doctrine of Happiness." In this essay, Henry describes desire as "a siren who sings to destroy us" but who is helpless in the face of "Hope ... [for] [t]o hope is to be happy" (qtd. 69). The account of Henry's new doctrine is the Walkers' most potentially important contribution to Dreiser scholarship, for while Dreiser's heroine responds willy-nilly to the siren call of desire, she is "saved in that she was hopeful" (Sister Carrie [New York: Norton, 2006]: 195).
The rest of the book can be quickly summarized. The Walkers show the friendship unraveling owing to Dreiser's jealousy of Anna Mallon, whose typing agency both men had used and who had displaced Dreiser in Henry's affections. The rift widened when Dreiser read Henry's unflattering portrayal of him in An Island Cabin (1902), the slightly fictionalized account of a summer together on a small island off the coast of Connecticut. The Walkers linger over those portions of Henry's life recounted in An Island Cabin and his other autobiographical narratives, Lodgings in Town and The House in the Woods. But they give only a sketchy account of Henry from 1910, when he married Claire Kummer, a friend of Dreiser's who would become a successful writer of Broadway comedies in the teens and twenties, to his death in 1934.
In their last few chapters, the Walkers depict a man whose doctrine of happiness breaks down because of the failure in 1928 of The Night Before, a moralistic play set in a brothel that he wrote with his daughter, and the publication in 1929 of Dreiser's "Rona Murtha," one of the sketches in A Gallery of Women. Following Dreiser's biographers, the Walkers believe that the sketch was payback for An Island Cabin, for it depicts Winnie Vlasto (Arthur Henry) as a sexually inadequate gigolo whose "selfishness, incompetence, and transgressions" (227) drive Rona Murtha (Henry's second wife Anna Mallon) into a mental breakdown. Always full of "angst about his private life," Henry found the sketch "hugely saddening." To highlight Henry's forgiving nature, the Walkers here and elsewhere treat Dreiser as the "churl" (224) some of his contemporaries found him to be. But they close their narrative by emphasizing Dreiser's profound sense of loss at his old friend's passing. "Hen's death struck close to me," he wrote Clare (qtd. 234).
The Walkers are not academic scholars; according to the biographical note at the end, she is an ex-journalist, he the author of a novel and two autobiographical volumes. It is not surprising then that Dreiser's "Other Self" would not read like the typical scrupulously researched and documented academic biography. But one is left with an impression of a man worthy of Dreiser's love and our attention.
STEPHEN C. BRENNAN, Louisiana State University in Shreveport
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|Author:||Brennan, Stephen C.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2007|
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