Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ah, First Love

It wasn’t the first book I read, or the first character I loved. Although it’s stayed in print since 1911, it wasn’t discussed among my friends, nor was it this author’s most famous work.

That made first love all the sweeter for me, for it was an act of discovery. Jennie Gerhardt was all mine.

Ours was an introduction of convenience; my parents had a copy on their bookshelves. Until I re-read it this month in preparation for this post, I couldn’t have told you the particulars of plot or character. I still can’t remember what the cover looked like—neither can Google, as there’ve been many over the past century.

If my blur of memory sounds odd, forgive me. It’s been forty years since I spent time with Theodore Dreiser’s prose.

What's important about first love is the way it makes you feel, and that I recall vividly. Jennie Gerhardt was the first book I’d ever read without racing to The End. Then, as now, I saw my life limited only by the number of novels I could read. But the year I read Jennie Gerhardt, I did so in a romantic spot: our summer home in Northern New York State, on a swing beneath a towering hemlock. I’d linger over paragraphs, tasting again and again the way the words felt on my tongue. I'd look out over the lake to think about the ideas Dreiser presented. It was the first novel I luxuriated in.

Re-reading allowed me to revisit my burgeoning selfhood, since what we love tells us so much about ourselves (especially in retrospect, as anyone who has loved and lost can tell you).

Jennie is 18 when the story begins. Despite the fact that each family member contributes pay from their menial jobs, Jennie and her siblings are forced to eat little and pick coal from the rail yard. Their options in life are limited until Jennie, who is beautiful and kind, draws the attention of men in stations above hers—first an Ohio senator, and later a wealthy businessman.

The conflicts explored have to do with the hopelessness of bettering oneself in society. The lake was a great place to contemplate the topic, as I had a range of recurring summer friendships that included both people with the means to own summer homes and the townies that lived nearby, all of whom I loved equally well.

Unlike most modern writers, who build their concerns into the plot and leave interpretation to the reader, Dreiser was taken to philosophical asides that tickled my curiosity about life’s larger themes. I was already shaping up to be a deep thinker.

He wrote:
We live in an age in which the impact of materialized forces is well-nigh irresistible; the spiritual nature is overwhelmed by the shock.

The materialized forces he enumerates, that produce "a kaleidoscopic glitter, a dazzling and confusing phantasmagoria of life that wearies and stultifies the mental and moral nature," include the telegraph, the railroad, and the newspaper—ha! How much more true today is the "white light of publicity," in this age of cell phone and internet, Facebook and Twitter!

In another passage:
“Must it be?” they ask themselves, in speculating concerning the possibility of taking a maiden to wife, “that I shall be compelled to swallow the whole social code, make a covenant with society, sign a pledge of abstinence, and give to another a life interest in all my affairs, when I know too well that I am but taking to my arms a variable creature like myself, whose wishes are apt to become insistent and burdensome in proportion to the decrease of her beauty and interest?

Though writing styles have changed, I loved in Jennie Gerhardt the same thing I love in novels today. It’s what I love about my own writing: the sweet discovery. The prismatic view. The way carefully arranged words can order and deepen and expand my thinking. The way character or story encourages me to appreciate life’s precious details and mull over its unanswerable questions. To laugh at human folly while contemplating nothing less than the meaning of my existence.

Sometimes, in books like Jennie Gerhardt, a young girl can find all that in one paragraph. That’s a paragraph worth lingering over, in a book worthy of her love.

Jennie Gerhardt is available for free Kindle download. What book was your first love?

Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. Kathryn, how do you do it so often and so well, poking and prodding us into attention while wrapping us in the soft blanket of your luxuriant prose? You may have had another agenda foremost, but you set me to thinking about the role of author commentary, the philosophical asides or meta-narratives that have fallen out of fashion and are so often deprecated by today's editors and publishers. Yet, it would seem that readers, at least some, value these calls to reflect and ponder, whether voiced by the author directly or cast into the mouths and minds of the characters. You offer examples of both from Dreiser.

    I sincerely hope there is still a place for such reflection in modern fiction, since it is a small but important element of The Rosen Singularity, a “think-piece” thriller centered on the ethics and consequences of life extension. I shrank from directly addressing the reader and instead let my characters--academics and scientists by temperament given to the examined life--do the social commentary. I wonder what you would make of it.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  2. Ah, Katherine! You so captured why we love books, and fall in love with characters. Especially that you love "The way carefully arranged words can order and deepen and expand my thinking. The way character or story encourages me to appreciate life’s precious details and mull over its unanswerable questions."
    Now, THAT's the love of books in a nutshell!

  3. You know, Kathryn, that was so heartfelt, that a smart-aleck comment just seems ... well ... crass ... I got nothin'.

  4. This was such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. The first book I ever truly loved was The Great Gatsby. I read it for the first time during my freshman year of high school and was hooked instantly. I still think that book is magical.

  5. Larry, thank you for your kind comment. I must admit that earlier versions of my novel—the ones not accepted by an agent—did include more philosophic introspection from my first person narrator. One advance reader told me it was "glacially yet perfectly slow"! Well, the agents weren't looking for that. It would seem that today the conundrums must be well evoked by the story, with the rest left to the reader's book club discussion. But I do believe dialogue is a great way to sneak some in. ;)

    I have the excerpt of your book pulled up on amazon and will read it. If only my book queue weren't. so. long. (Great problem to have, though!)

  6. Thanks, Susan!

    And almost brought a tear to my eye. I fully appreciate the wit you share with us here at BRP that provided the subtext for today's comment.

  7. Brianna, The Great Gatsby is another one I re-read not too long ago. Thanks for sharing your first love! It's a worthy one.

  8. And today, this quotation is probably more apt: We live in an age in which the impact of materialized forces is well-nigh irresistible; and NATURE is overwhelmed by the shock.

    All that grand living has about done this planet in, hasn't it? I suppose only a guerrilla environmentalist like me would read between the lines this way.

  9. One of my early favorites was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Reread it recently just so I could remember why I enjoyed it in the first place.

    And I agree with Larry. You have spurred us into thinking on such a deep level, and your way with words is wonderful.

  10. Thanks Maryann, and thanks for contributing another "first love"! I have to get hold of a good copy of that book. It was my best friend's "first love," and I love her, so I'm sure I'd love it too--but the copy I have has print all smushed together. I hate that!

  11. Dani:
    I love that a quote on another topic encouraged your own take on it. That's what art allows and encourages: interpretative, creative thought. Glad it worked for you!

  12. Kathryn - I love that you say "The way carefully arranged words can order and deepen and expand my thinking." That's a profound way to think about it, and can drive insight into a writer's world view.
    Gerri George

  13. Very nicely put, Kathryn. It's true that we spend so much time plotting away that we sometimes forget that our characters need inner lives and reflections as well as conflict conflict conflict and emotion emotion emotion.

    A.L. Sirois


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