Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, and The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece Excerpt

Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, and The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece

The Bulwark is a masterpiece because, after thirty-three years getting there, Dreiser reaches the goal he set for himself in 1912: to paint a believable, vivid portrait of an honest man. But a church-going, happy husband at the heart of a novel? A grey-suited banker who takes the 8:55 train to work every day and goes home again every day on the 5:15? How could Dreiser describe Solon’s bland blend of wisdom and dullness without boring himself and his readers to death? How could he make an ordinary life extraordinary?

Over all such doubts and questions, Dreiser triumphs. Solon Barnes lives, and will ever live, in The Bulwark as a flesh-and-blood human being whose quiet life becomes a soul-stirring drama. Dreiser’s secret of success? Letting Anna Tatum’s stories mulch in his subconscious through long decades. He doesn’t let Solon become a hero or a plaster saint, indeed, almost paints him as a failure: a dull boy who becomes a dull man too stern with his children, one of whom commits suicide; who rises in society but defers to men more aggressive than he; who blows the whistle on crooked colleagues then leaves and lets the rascals get back to their old tricks.

Yet for all his frailties, Solon Barnes endures. His simple goodness proves indomitable. As Solon endures, so will The Bulwark endure. I’ll now confess the obvious: I love The Bulwark as I love no other book. I love turning its soft yellowed pages and slipping into its world, as if I were stepping into a gallery full of wall-size oil paintings. I love walking with Solon from the train to the bank every morning, peeking in on Isobel studying alone in her room, and speeding with Stewart and his pals through the pine barrens of New Jersey. Much as I weep in The Bulwark’s final pages, I am still glad to sit at my old friend’s bedside through his final hours. Solon dies and is buried; I sit for a silent moment then close the covers.

$10.00 70 pages