(August 27, 1871)
Oh, the moon shines fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay.
Thro’ the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
—The Refrain of “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”
Words by Theodore Dreiser and Paul Dresser
Music by Paul Dresser
I. Psychological Profile
Who is the ugly one slump-slopping down the street?
Who is the chinless wonder with the potato-nose?
Can’t you hear the soft plop of the pancake-shaped feet?
He floats, like Anchises’ son, in the cloud of his fine new clothes,
Safe, safe at last, from the street’s sneer, toward a queen who will
fulfillThe fate devised him by Venus—but where, oh when! That is what he
Born with one hand in his pants and one in the till,
He knows that the filth of self, to be loved, must be clad in glory,
So once stole twenty-five dollars to buy a new coat, and that is why
The left eye keeps squinting backward—yes, history
Is gum-shoeing closer behind, with the constable-hand that clutches.
Watch his mouth, how it moves without sound, he is telling himself his
own old story.
From lies, masturbation, vainglory, and shame,
He moves in his dream of ladies swan-necked, with asses ample and sweet,
But knows that no kiss heals his soul, it is always the same.
Full of screaming his soul is, and a stench like live flesh that
scorches.It’s the screaming, and stench, of a horse-barn afire,
And the great beasts rear and utter, their manes flare up like torches.
But he hears a brass band in the distance, and the midnight cricket,
Though thinly, asseverates his name. He seeks amid the day’s traffic a
sign—Some horseshoe or hunchback or pin—that now, at last, at the end of
He will enter upon his reality: but enters only in-
To your gut, or your head, or your heart, to enhouse there and stay,
And in that hot darkness lie lolling and swell—like a tumor, perhaps
May I present Mr. Dreiser? He will write a great novel, someday.
II. Vital Statistics
Past Terre Haute, the diesels pound,
Eastward, westward, and under the highway slab the ground,
Like jello, shakes. Deep
In the infatuate and foetal dark, beneath
The unspecifiable weight of the great
Mid-America loam-sheet, the impacted
Particular particles of loam, blind,
At that depth and with that weight,
The particles, however minutely, vibrate
At the incessant passage
Of the transcontinental truck freight,
And concerning that emperor whose gut was god, Tacitus
Wrote, “ex urbe atque Italia inritamenta gulae gestabantur….”
And from both
Adriatic and Tyrrhanean seas, sea-crayfish and bivalve and,
Glare-eyed, the mullet, redder than flame,
Surrendered themselves in delight
To soothe the soft gullet wheredown all honor and empire
Slid slick, and wheels all night
Hummed on the highways to guarantee prompt delivery.
Saliva gathers in the hot darkness of mouth-tissue. The mouth,
Slack, drools at the corners, but ever so little.
Terre Haute lies
On the banks of the Wabash, far away, and tires,
On the concrete, scream. In Terre Haute,
Long before the age of the internal combustion engine, but not
Before that of gewgaw, gilt, and grab, when the war
For freedom had just given place to the war for the dollar,
Theodore Dreiser was born. That was on South Ninth Street, but
The exact address is, of course, lost. He was born
Into the vast anonymity of the poor.
Have you ever
Seen moonlight on the Wabash, far away?
Dreiser was born on the wrong side of the tracks, and his sisters
Had hot crotches and round heels.
He knew the gnaw of hunger, and how the first wind of winter feels.
He was into the age of conspicuous consumption, and knew
How the heart, in longing, numbly congeals.
Nothing could help nothing, not reading Veblen or even Freud, for
The world is a great ass propped high on pillows, the cunt
However, could not feel himself worthy. Not,
At least, of love. His nails,
Most horribly, were bitten. At night,
Sometimes, he wept. The bed springs
Creaked with the shift of his body, which
In the Age of Faith and of Contempt of the World,
Would have been called a sack
Of stercorry: i.e., that matter the body ejects.
Sometimes he wept for the general human condition,
But he was hell on women.
He had never loved any woman, he confessed,
Except his mother, whose broken shoes, he,
In childhood, had once caressed,
In the discovery of pity.
Have you ever
Seen midnight moonlight on the Wabash,
While the diesel rigs boom by?
Have you ever thought how the moonlit continent
Would look from the tearless and unblinking distance of God’s wide eye?
III. Moral Assessment
You need call no psychiatrist
To anatomize his pain.
He suffers but the kind all men
Suffer in their human kind.
His nobility of mind.
He denies it, he sneers at it,
In his icy nightmare of
The superlative of self;
And tries, but cannot theorize past
The knowledge that
Others suffer, too, at last.
He is no philosopher.
His only gift is to enact
All that his deepest self abhors,
And learn, in his self-contempting distress,
The secret worth
Of all our human worthlessness.
August 12, 1971