Having read Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie from the Modern Library List, I wanted more, yet feared I might be disappointed this time around. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded and once again, Dreiser delivered masterfully. He may be one whose complete works I’d like to read.
A poor young woman meets a rich senator while working at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. A relationship develops and the senator is very generous to the woman and her near destitute family. Things don’t turn out so well, but she meets another wealthy man and things go a little better, but the difference in their backgrounds proves to be their undoing.
The book’s namesake, Jennie Gerhardt, is sweet, kind and beautiful and apparently quite alluring to wealthy men. She cares deeply for her family and wants to help them live more comfortably. While she never asks for help, it seems to come when it is most needed and she is always most grateful and never envious. This is no gold digger.
Senator Brander is Jennie’s first love and much older than she. He is very generous to the Gerhardt family and is shocked by their life of poverty. When Jennie becomes pregnant, he agrees to marriage, but becomes ill while away and succumbs to typhus.
The second love to Jennie is Lester Kane who is 36 when he meets the twentyish Jennie. He comes from a wealthy family of carriage manufacturers and is well-known for his bachelorhood. He becomes enamored of Jennie and pursues her relentlessly. When he too sees how the family lives, he is shocked and begins to help them right away. Since he travels a lot, he installs Jennie in a hotel he frequents and they begin a long affair, but he shies from marriage. He keeps Jennie secreted as long as possible knowing his family will never accept her, and when she is discovered, they do not. Possibly a well-intentioned man caught up in the distinctions of social class and family influences.
A former love of Lester’s, Letty Pace, reenters his life after running into him abroad. Now a wealthy widow, she has held a torch for Lester since their younger days. She sums up Jennie as a nice, but incompatible match for him and lets him know just how she feels. She gets to rekindle the flame, but never really captures the heart.
There is so much I’d want to discuss with Mr. Dreiser and wonder how he would feel about today’s ever-expanding division between the haves and the have-nots. Most importantly, I’d want to ask where he drew from for his fine and fluid writing. Indiana, Ohio or Illinois? I’d be there in a heartbeat.
My rating for Jennie Gerhardt is a 9 out of 10.
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