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A Traveler at Forty

Theodore Dreiser

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
I have just turned forty. I have seen a little something of life. I have been a newspaper man, editor, magazine contributor, author and, before these things, several odd kinds of clerk before I found out what I could do. Eleven years ago I wrote my first novel, which was issued by a New York publisher and suppressed by him, Heaven knows why. For, the same year they suppressed my book because of its alleged immoral tendencies, they published Zola’s “Fecundity” and “An Englishwoman’s Love Letters.” I fancy now, after eleven years of wonder, that it was not so much the supposed immorality, as the book’s straightforward, plain-spoken discussion of American life in general. We were not used then in America to calling a spade a spade, particularly in books. We had great admiration for Tolstoi and Flaubert and Balzac and de Maupassant at a distance—some of us—and it was quite an honor to have handsome sets of these men on our shelves, but mostly we had been schooled in the literature of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Lamb and that refined company of English sentimental realists who told us something about life, but not everything. No doubt all of these great men knew how shabby a thing this world is—how full of lies, make-believe, seeming and false pretense it all is, but they had agreed among themselves, or with the public, or with sentiment generally, not to talk about that too much. Books were always to be built out of facts concerning “our better natures.” We were always to be seen as we wish to be seen. There were villains to be sure—liars, dogs, thieves, scoundrels—but they were strange creatures, hiding away in dark, unconventional places and scarcely seen save at night and peradventure; whereas we, all clean, bright, honest, well-meaning people, were living in nice homes, going our way honestly and truthfully, going to church, raising our children believing in a Father, a Son and a Holy Ghost, and never doing anything wrong at any time save as these miserable liars, dogs, thieves, et cetera, might suddenly appear and make us. Our books largely showed us as heroes. If anything happened to our daughters it was not their fault but the fault of these miserable villains. Most of us were without original sin. The business of our books, our church, our laws, our jails, was to keep us so. I am quite sure that it never occurred to many of us that there was something really improving in a plain, straightforward understanding of life. For myself, I accept now no creeds. I do not know what truth is, what beauty is, what love is, what hope is. I do not believe any one absolutely and I do not doubt any one absolutely. I think people are both evil and well-intentioned. While I was opening my mail one morning I encountered a now memorable note which was addressed to me at my apartment. It was from an old literary friend of mine in England who expressed himself as anxious to see me immediately. I have always liked him. I like him because he strikes me as amusingly English, decidedly literary and artistic in his point of view, a man with a wide wisdom, discriminating taste, rare selection. He wears a monocle in his right eye, à la Chamberlain, and I like him for that. I like people who take themselves with a grand air, whether they like me or not—particularly if the grand air is backed up by a real personality. In this case it is. Next morning Barfleur took breakfast with me; it was a most interesting affair. He was late—very. He stalked in, his spats shining, his monocle glowing with a shrewd, inquisitive eye behind it, his whole manner genial, self-sufficient, almost dictatorial and always final. He takes charge so easily, rules so sufficiently, does so essentially well in all circumstances where he is interested so to do.