Saturday, August 24, 2019

A Traveler at Forty: Paris!

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

“One of the thousands upon thousands of cafés on the boulevards of Paris.” Pen and ink illustration by American artist William James Glackens (1870–1938) for Dreiser’s essay on Paris in the October 1913 issue of Century Magazine; reproduced in Dreiser’s book A Traveler at Forty, published later that same year.
“I have been very fortunate in having about me . . . a group of friends who believe in me and who have been interested in my writing,” Theodore Dreiser told an interviewer in 1913. “Without my friends probably I should never have written at all.” One such friend was English publisher Grant Richards, to whom Dreiser sent, in 1908, chapters from his novel-in-progress, Jennie Gerhardt. Richards replied favorably and suggested that the author visit England. Although Richards would be disappointed when Harper & Brothers opted to distribute the novel on both sides of the Atlantic, he repeated his invitation to Dreiser over breakfast in New York in November 1911 (shortly after the book was published):
You will come to my house in England; you will stay there a few days; then I shall take you to London and put you up at a very good hotel. You will stay there until January first and then we shall go to the south of France: Nice, the Riviera, Monte Carlo; from there you will go to Rome, to Paris, where I shall join you, and then sometime in the spring or summer, when you have all your notes, you will return to London or New York and write your impressions and I will see that they are published!
In fact, Dreiser had been hoping to go to Europe—for research as well as pleasure. He needed to continue his investigations into the life of streetcar tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes, the basis for the protagonist Frank Cowperwood in a trilogy of novels: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (published posthumously in 1947). He had also been mulling over the idea of moving to London, since he felt that American critics and readers had not given him the attention he deserved. “It seems almost impossible to make my fellow Americans understand that I am alive,” he wrote Richards. “Once there I will get at least an equal run with [British novelists] Robert Hichens and Arnold Bennett over here.”

Dreiser seemed doubtful, however, about Richards’s promise to help him pay for the trip—yet the Englishman came through. First, he convinced Frank Scott, the president of the Century publishing company, to pay Dreiser a $1,000 advance for three travel articles for its eponymous magazine and hinted that the author was not entirely satisfied with Harper & Brothers. A few days later Dreiser found himself having dinner with Scott to discuss future books. Richards then convinced Dreiser to send to his editors at Harper a brazen letter intimating that other publishers had expressed interest in his books and demanding an advance of $4,000—$2,500 of it to be paid immediately—for both the just-published Jennie Gerhardt and for The Financier, which Dreiser had yet to finish and which Harper already had under contract. Not willing to lose an author whose books were getting attention in the press and whose sales were on the rise, his publisher agreed to the $2,500 portion—bringing the total to $3,500, more than enough to travel in style through Europe. He and Richards set sail on November 22, not even three weeks after their breakfast, and Dreiser didn’t return until April.

Disguised as “Barfleur” in Dreiser’s published accounts of his tour, Richards proved to be as adept a European tour guide as he was an impromptu literary agent. “I am quite sure that Barfleur, when he originally made his authoritative command that I come to England with him, was in no way satisfied that I would,” Dreiser wrote. “It was a somewhat light venture on his part, but here I was. And now, having ‘let himself in’ for this, as he would have phrased it, I could see that he was intensely interested in what Europe would do to me and possibly in what I would do to Europe.” More than even the narrator, Barfleur is the central figure of the travel articles Dreiser submitted to The Century Magazine. (When the manuscript arrived, the editors—and Richards—were appalled by the “women stuff,” and passages detailing the two men’s dalliances with various women, including prostitutes, had to be excised or drastically toned down.) The magazine pieces were incorporated into the book A Traveler at Forty, published in 1913 by Century in the U.S. and by Richards himself in England.

“Toward gambling, show, romance, a delicious scene, Barfleur carries a special mood.” And it is Barfleur who leads Dreiser through Paris, which (almost) lives up to the expectations the Englishman has conjured in the author’s mind. In the chapter of A Traveler at Forty titled “Paris!” Dreiser describes their arrival in the City of Light and their vivacious first night on the town—starting with the chic Café de Paris popular with American tourists, moving to the cabaret musical hall Folies-Bergère, and ending up for a midnight meal at the upscale restaurant Abbaye Thélème.

Notes: At the time of Dreiser’s visit, a restaurateur named M. Mouriez owned both the Café de Paris and the Abbaye Thélème. Over the previous half decade he had increased prices and improved service and décor with an eye to attracting American tourists, many of whom expected that fine dining should be expensive and anything that wasn’t must be déclassé. As The New York Times reported in August 1908, this business strategy upset both Mouriez’s competitors and local diners, who proposed a boycott of his establishments: “Parisians themselves are loudly complaining of the effect which the lavish expenditure of American dollars is having in raising the general standard of prices in the hotels and restaurants.”

George Moore was an Irish author who studied in Paris to be a painter and instead became a writer influenced by the naturalism of the French realists. Among his many books is the 1886 memoir Confessions of a Young Man, about life in bohemian Paris and London. The English-French phrase “on the qui vive” means “on the lookout.” Jean-Baptiste Greuze was an eighteenth-century French portrait painter.

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As we neared Paris he had built this city up so thoroughly in my mood that I am satisfied that I could not have seen it with a realistic eye if I had tried. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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