Money was Theodore Dreiser’s muse—the dazzling, deforming pivot on which his novels about fallen women and venal businessmen turned. It seems almost karmic, then, that a lack of money saved him from boarding the Titanic.
The great novelist was among a handful of prominent persons—including Guglielmo Marconi, Milton Hershey, J. P. Morgan, and Alfred Vanderbilt—who almost sailed on the allegedly sink-proof ship. As with the 9/11 attacks nearly nine decades later, there has been a persistent public fascination with those who just missed becoming a casualty of that massive catastrophe. What distinguishes Dreiser, who was crossing the ocean on another boat when news about the Titanic spread, is that he wrote about it, capturing the mood in the days immediately following among travelers who avoided the fate of those aboard that famous ship.
Homesick and nearly broke, Dreiser had just spent four months rambling through Europe to write travel pieces. research his novel The Financier, and collect material for his memoir, 1913’s A Traveler at Forty. One of the most gripping chapters in the memoir as it was originally published—the bits about his trysts with Rubenesque prostitutes were not then included—is “The Voyage Home,” an account of being out at sea and receiving the news that the “smart boat” had gone down.
Dreiser was born poor, and chafed all his life against the “Indiana peasant” label H. L. Mencken cruelly but astutely pinned on him. Ever the outsider looking in, he was anxious to book a berth on the big, new boat filled with all kinds of perfumed pond-crossers. But his English publisher pressed him to take the cheaper Kroonland, and Dreiser sailed from Dover 100 years ago today, on April 13, two days before the Titanic sank.
One night when the Kroonland’s fog horn was “mooing like a vast Brobdingnagian sea-cow,” as Dreiser put it, word came over the wireless that the Titanic had hit an iceberg off Newfoundland, and gone down “with nearly all on board.” Terrified of how those on board would react to the news, the captain ordered that the disaster be kept secret until the ship reached New York. But one Herr Salz, “busy about everything and everybody,” wormed it out of the wireless man by bribing him with cigars. Dreiser and a debonair party were happily engaged in the card room when the German burst in, full of self-importance, and asked the men to step out. One of them joked that perhaps “Taft had been killed or the Standard Oil Company has failed.” Pale and trembling, Salz shared his horrible secret. Don’t tell the ladies, he made them solemnly promise, with the arch concern of a good sensationalist.
“And with one accord we went to the rail and looked out into the blackness ahead,” Dreiser writes grimly.
The terror of the sea had come swiftly and directly home to all. I am satisfied that there was not a man of all the company who heard but felt a strange sinking sensation as he thought of the endless wastes of the sea outside—its depths, the terror of drowning in the dark and cold. To think of a ship as immense as the Titanic, new and bright, sinking in endless fathoms of water. And the two thousand passengers routed like rats from their berths only to float helplessly in miles of water, praying and crying!
For a romantic determinist like Dreiser, the Titanic’s mortality offered a spectacular philosophical vindication—while nonetheless filling him with despair and loathing. That night, as the Kroonland was lashed by waves and “trembled like a spent animal,” Dreiser lay on his berth and felt “a great rage in my heart against the fortuity of life—the dullness or greed of man that prevents him from coping with it.”
The Kroonland still had a week to go before reaching New York, and in that week, the oppressive ghost of the Titanic gradually loosened its hold. The passengers “fell to gambling again, to flirting, to playing shuffle board.” As the ship sailed into the harbor, the warm fellowship kindled by the iceberg melted away. An amused Dreiser noted how a judge who had unbent to play cards with a mere commercial merchant began “to congeal again into his native judicial dignity,” and several young women who had been quite friendly “suddenly became remote.”
The perils of the sea behind them, the passengers were now preoccupied with skirting a new set of icebergs—sharp-eyed customs officers—leading Dreiser to lament, “They were all as honest as they had to be—as dishonest as they dared to be. No more. Poor pretending humanity! We all lie so.”
Dreiser’s standing is not what it once was. Seventy years ago he was ranked alongside Edith Wharton and Willa Cather by critics as one of America’s greatest novelists; while they have become firmly lodged in the literary canon, Dreiser’s reputation and popularity seems to be slipping. Which is unfortunate: Few writers analyzed the power of money in America as keenly as he did. (The last time Ian McEwan spoke with his friend Christopher Hitchens, Hitchens talked about whether Dreiser’s novels were “a guide to the current crisis.”) Spared by fate a berth on the Titanic, Dreiser published his greatest novel, An American Tragedy, 13 years later, in 1925. We are lucky he was around to write it—and foolish if we ignore that good fortune.