- American TragediesDreiser and Faulkner
When commenting on his prospects of receiving the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner would habitually remark that he would rather be associated with Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, who never received the prize, than with Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck, who did (for example, see Selected Letters 299). He maintained this opinion— with reference to the same writers— even after hearing that he had won the award (Blotner 525). And when an interviewer asked Faulkner whom he considered to be the “greatest American novelists up to the end of the 19th century,” he named three: Twain, Melville, and Dreiser (Lion 167). Putting aside any chronological quibbles, Faulkner thereby places Dreiser in estimable literary company. These comments and other evidence indicate that Faulkner was quite well-acquainted with Dreiser’s work and held him in high regard.
In another interview, Faulkner went on record as considering Dreiser to be the literary “older brother” of Sherwood Anderson, whom Faulkner referred to in that same response as “the father of my generation of American writers.” He went on to speak of Mark Twain as “the father of them both” (Lion 249–50). Faulkner makes patent use of all three of these writers— Twain, Anderson, and Dreiser— in his 1939 novel The Wild Palms. In this novel, Faulkner arguably displays his influences more openly than in his other major works, perhaps relating to the fact that The Wild Palms is one of his few mature novels set outside his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, where his allusions tend to be more muted.
Many have noted the rather evident affinities of the boat trip down the Mississippi taken by the anonymous convict and his female passenger in The Wild Palms and that of Huck and Jim in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Others have detected the rather more obscure influences [End Page 201] of Anderson in the novel (see McHaney 3–24), including those pertaining to the never-completed Al Jackson stories upon which Anderson and Faulkner half-seriously collaborated and never published (Harrington 76–77). Thus far, however, no one has pinpointed substantial specific allusions in The Wild Palms to that third author, Dreiser. Nevertheless, Faulkner seems to have drawn upon Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for many of the features in both the “Wild Palms” and the “Old Man” sections of his bipartite novel.1 As often in Faulkner’s allusions to other authors, those involving Dreiser in The Wild Palms consist of a mixture of homage, parody, and competition— the last of these constituting part of a process roughly analogous to that which Hemingway, whose thumbprint (as others have mentioned) is also all over The Wild Palms, compared to entering the boxing ring with another writer (Hemingway 673).
One example of Faulkner’s nodding towards Dreiser in The Wild Palms appears in the presentation of the more or less goofy tall convict. In An American Tragedy, the District Attorney Orville Mason feels that Clyde Griffiths is not merely a “poor plotter” but an actual “dunce” as a lawbreaker (588). Mr. Catchuman, the attorney whose name seems appropriate in a Dickensian way, concurs in that opinion. After talking with Clyde following his arrest, Catchuman concludes that “as a plotter of crime Clyde was probably the most arresting example of feeble and blundering incapacity he had ever met” (619). But of course Catchuman never encountered Faulkner’s tall convict in the “Old Man” segment of The Wild Palms. Had Catchuman done so, he might have categorized the convict as a serious rival to Clyde’s dubious distinction of being the premier all-time oaf of criminal conduct. The convict’s complete ineptitude in his train robbery attempt, following as he does the minutiae prescribed by the pulp fiction he has so diligently ingested, has a ludicrous outcome:
he had been captured as soon as he entered the express car. . . . He had shot no one because the pistol . . . was not that kind of a pistol . . . later he admitted to the District Attorney that he had got it . . . [and] the dark lantern in which a candle burned and the black handkerchief to wear over the face, by peddling among...