Category Archives: book reviews by Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith, review of “Dreiser’s ‘Other Self’: The Life of Arthur Henry”








Roger W. Smith

review of Dreiser’s ‘Other Self’: The Life of Arthur Henry

by Maggie Walker and Mark Walker

Dreiser Studies 36.2 (2005)



Attached as PDF file (above).

Roger W. Smith, review of “The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century”






Roger W. Smith

review of The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century by Eric Carl Link

Dreiser Studies 35.2 (2004): 63-65


See attached PDF file (above).

Roger W. Smith, review of “A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor”



review of A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor

by Charles F. Duffy

Catholic University of America Press

376 pages, $49.95

reviewed by Roger W. Smith

The New York Sun

January 8, 2004



RWS review of Edwini O'Connor bio by Charles F. Duffy



Roger W. Smith, review of Bill Clinton, “My Life”




Posted below — in alternative formats — is a book review by Roger W. Smith of Bill Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” published in the Indianapolis Star, June 26, 2004.



Roger Smith review of Bill Clinton autobio



Roger Smith review of Bill Clinton autobio.jpg

Roger W. Smith, review of “Trump: The Art of The Deal” by Donald J. Trump


The attached downloadable PDF file contains a book review by Roger W. Smith of Donald J. Trump’s bestseller Trump: The Art of the Deal.

The review was written in May 1988 as a journalism school assignment.

(My favorite phrase — of my own, that is — in the review was one I used to describe Trump and his book: “relentlessly prosaic.”)



Roger W. Smith, review of “Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen,” edited by R. Barton Palmer, American Literary Naturalism 2008

Roger W. Smith, review of ‘Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen,’ American Literary Naturalism 2008

Roger W. Smith, review of “Hamlin Garlin: A Life” by Keith Newlin, American Literary Naturalism 2008

Roger W. Smith, review of ‘Hamlin Garland, A Life’ by Keith Newlin Dreiser StudiesRoger W. Smith, review of ‘Hamlin Garland, A Life’ by Keith Newlin, American Literary Naturalism 2008

Roger W. Smith, review of “To Walt Whitman, America” by Kenneth M. Price, New York Sun, August 4, 2004

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WARREN KOZAK The Rabbi of 84th Street

‘The Rabbi of 84th Street” (Harper-Collins, 200 pages, $24.95) is beach reading — Brighton Beach reading. The book is a short biography of Rabbi Haskel Besser, born at the height of Chasidic life in Poland in 1922. His father, Naftali, was a banker with sufficient wealth and esteem in the ghettos of eastern Europe to enable his son to meet and study some of the most respected rebbes in the world.
After Kristallnacht in 1938, Naftali Besser fled to British Palestine and arranged to have his family follow. Only 16-year-old Haskel was left behind to wrap up the family’s rather extensive financial affairs. His harrowing flight from his small village in Poland to the Romanian port is a tale featuring high expectations, dashed hopes, a near-death moment at the hands of anti-Semitic Polish and Rumanian nationality soldiers, a kindly Catholic priest, and a chance reunion with his parents after he coincidentally boarded the same ship as two uncles. Warren Kozak tells it well.
Rabbi Besser finished his education in Israel, met his wife, and became an important member of the community, at first since his ability to speak German, French, and English allowed him to translate radio newscasts for his compatriots. But not long after the war ended, an unnamed disease leveled him. In 1946, he traveled to New York City to see a doctor who offered a cure — the first of many such voyages, during which he became began to become a part of spiritual life of the Jewish community in the city, then as now the world’s largest.
Three years later Rabbi Besser convinced his wife, Liba, to move overseas. They established a home on 84th Street, across the street from the small congregation that the rabbi leads to this day.
In the course of 50 years, Rabbi Besser became an important spiritual leader. Mr. Kozak discusses the rabbi’s return to his native Poland in 1977, his work with foreign dignitaries, and the Jewish schools he ran with the Reform Jewish millionaire, Ronald Lauder. To hear Mr. Kozak tell it, the Rabbi is intellectually brilliant, egalitarian in his view on the world, warm-hearted, self-sacrificing.
This description may well be an accurate rendition of the man, but great stories involve great conflicts, and although Rabbi Besser lived through some of the defining conflicts of the 20th century, he does not seem to have endured much hardship because of it. Or at least Mr. Kozak does not portray it. Likewise, he doesn’t give us much information on the rabbi’s political activities in Israel beyond his membership in the moderate Agudah. His involvement in the creation of an independent Israel and the war that immediately followed was either limited or is simply left undescribed.
Luckily, Mr. Kozak keeps his book brief — just 200 pages of wide-spaced lines — and he’s a skilled enough writer to get out of the way of his story and maintain a brisk pace throughout the narrative. Just remember to put something heavy on top of this featherweight to keep it from blowing away on seashore winds.

KENNETH M. PRICE To Walt Whitman, America

Kenneth M. Price’s book (University of North Carolina Press, 192 pages, $49.95 cloth) is concerned primarily with Whitman as a social and cultural outsider whose works appealed to marginalized groups in society. It also takes up Whitman’s posthumous influence on various aspects of American culture including painting and film, bringing to bear on Whitman such seemingly diverse figures as D.H. Lawrence, George Santayana, Edith Wharton, Ben Shahn, John Dos Passos, Gloria Naylor, Muhammad Ali, and William Least Heat-Moon.
Lawrence faulted Whitman for being prone to overgeneralization and for (in Mr. Price’s apt phrase) “pouring his seed not into stalwart American brides but into space.” Santayana saw “Leaves of Grass” as a welcome antidote to the “moral cramp” of New England culture. Wharton, according to Mr. Price, found Whitman emotionally liberating after years of a loveless marriage. African-American writers have responded positively to Whitman, even though he himself was ambivalent in his feelings towards blacks. And Whitman was a major influence on filmmaker D.W. Griffith, especially on his masterpiece, the film “Intolerance.”
Mr. Price provides a stimulating reexamination of how what he somewhat tendentiously calls Whitman’s “project” was responded to by subsequent generations. But his exposition is plagued with opaque jargon that is often exasperating.“As both an actuality and a trope, bondage offered Whitman a means of emphasizing commonalities that cut across gender, race, and circumstance.” “[A] less atomistic and essentialist goal remains vital for many, a goal based on fluid and cross-culturally enriched identities. Accordingly, many African American intellectuals have found Whitman’s inclusive, future-oriented project a useful point of departure.”
The book is carelessly written and not particularly coherent or well organized, and the coded verbiage and formulaic writing lead to statements that are of questionable value as scholarship. Increased attention to the peer review and editing processes might have greatly improved this monograph, which was assembled in part from previously published articles. And while the scholarly apparatus is copious, the index is inadequate.
Dedicated readers of Whitman may find much to interest them here. Others will be better served turning to one of the excellent monographs in the University of Iowa Press’s ongoing Whitman series or Garland Publishing’s “Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia” (1998).

Roger W. Smith, review of “Theodore Dreiser’s “Dawn — The Formation of a Mind: An Autobiographical Representation,” by Nadja Firner


Theodore Dreiser’s “Dawn” — The Formation of a Mind: An Autobiographical Representation, by Nadja Firner. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG, 2008. 126 pp. Paper, $92.00.


In my opinion, which I think would be shared by many Dreiserians, the two autobiographical works of Theodore Dreiser, A Book About Myself (1922) and Dawn (1931), should be ranked very high among American autobiographies. In view of this, it is surprising that Dreiser’s two autobiographical books (which he envisioned as part of a four-volume autobiography that was never finished) are not better known.

I think that A Book About Myself (later published as Newspaper Days) is actually the better written of the two books. It seems to have a tighter focus and to exhibit less of Dreiser’s tiresome philosophizing than does the later work, Dawn. But Dawn can stand on its own as a compelling work and as an invaluable narrative of Dreiser’s youth.

Hence my excitement when I saw that this book by Nadja Firner had been published and jumped to the conclusion that it was a study of Dawn (which, as is explained below, it is not, quite) and thus, by implication, of Dreiser’s autobiographical oeuvre. That I did so was not incomprehensible given that the publicity material for the book, found on and on the back cover of the book, states that the book “studies Theodore Dreiser’s autobiography of youth.” This statement would seem to indicate that it is a study of Dawn. While Dawn does receive consideration, it is more exact to say that this is a book about the “dawning” of Dreiser’s consciousness and the development of his worldview over his lifetime. (A Book About Myself, incidentally, does not receive consideration.) But the subject of the book is still not clear to me after struggling to complete Firner’s study, and this indicates that there are serious flaws in the book’s conception and construction. The content – or perhaps I should say the context in which the content is embedded – of this study is often out of focus.

Firner considers the major works of Dreiser and references much Dreiser scholarship (notably by Elias, Lehan, Lingeman, Lundén, Mathiessen, Mukherjee, Swanberg, Warren, Wirth-Nesher, and Zanine), but while at times provocative and compelling points are made, a direct, seemingly inevitable consequence of such broad coverage is that it is superficial.

I once took a copyediting course in which the instructor made a point about why attention to detail on the part of editors and copyeditors is essential: Sloppiness in editing and production tends to decrease the reader’s overall confidence in a nonfiction book’s accuracy. Firner’s study appears to have been written by a non-native speaker of English; it may be a translation (and a very awkward one at that) from a manuscript in German. It is written in prose that very often does not conform to standard English usage even by relaxed standards; it is plagued with awkward wording, errors in tense and syntax and typographical errors; and it’s a very tough read. There are also annoying inconsistencies in the treatment, say, of items like young Dreiser’s name (Theo vs. Theodore). It is incredible that this book has been published as is.

The first chapter of this book illustrates what is wrong with the whole work, structurally and focus-wise. Instead of focusing on Dreiser, the chapter provides a broad (very broad, in fact overly general) overview of American society during the Gilded Age. It contains sections entitled “America’s new industrial workers,” “The new managerial class,” “The Labor Movement,” and so on in which statements such as the following are made:

In the 1890s, Coney Island was transformed into the site of some of the largest and most elaborate amusement parks in the country. Its popularity signaled the rise of mass entertainment, making the New York amusement park the unofficial capital of a new mass culture. (pg. 23)

The reader must infer what the relevance to Dreiser (if any) is. It is anyone’s guess.

In her concluding chapter, Firner makes the point that Dreiser’s writing life can be divided into distinct phases: “the yearner and dreamer in a despairingly rough reality” (seen in Dreiser’s portrayals of himself in Dawn and of Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie); the social Darwinian; a stage in which Dreiser’s outlook became more mystical and “antithetical to the amoral objectivity of a conventionally conceived naturalist”; and a final stage where he managed to reconcile his more romantic or mystical views with a scientific and materialistic outlook. (I am not sure that I have correctly identified the phases here. Firner states that there were three phases, then seems to identify four.) These phases are treated at various points in the exposition, but if they are construed as controlling or organizing themes, then the book can be said to often wander into other territory.

The book is divided into chapters on young Dreiser’s America (already noted), his family and the immigrant experience (in which Dawn gets attention), the importance of the city in Dreiser’s development (in which both Dawn and Sister Carrie are the main focus), Dreiser’s use of symbols (in which several of the novels are scrutinized), major influences on Dreiser from Spencer to Balzac, themes in his work such as the ideal of beauty, and so on. Some of this is quite interesting, or at least potentially so, but it is all too much to cover — the book’s content does not cohere.

Many of Firner’s observations about Dreiser are derivative, which is not in itself a criticism. She clearly acknowledges indebtedness to sources and in fact uses them skillfully. She does make a lot of interesting points of her own, such as that Dreiser suffered from a “poverty complex” not unlike his father’s obsession with religion (38), that “there is hardly anyone to imagine who was more repressive, a sometimes more enthusiastic ‘believer’ and in some respects more fanatic than” Dreiser, whose beliefs about class conflict, for example, were founded, ironically, in opposition to his father’s rigidity and orthodoxy (43); that if Dreiser was in his youth impressed by Horatio Alger-like rags to riches stories, he was not in his later years blinded by them (60); that Dreiser “carried the American business novel into previously unexamined territory by suggesting that the synthesis of commercial success and conventional moral precepts were [sic] possible but by no means necessary” (60); that Dreiser gradually moved away “from the sense of social misery as individual fate to escape from by no matter what means in order to ‘rise’ in society, to the sense of social misery as a collective problem to be solved by political and fair means” (65); that illusion and reality in Dreiser’s view “existed in mutual dependence in that one was unthinkable without the other” (72); that “Dreiser was not merely a documentary social realist, but rather a profound observer of the underlying myths and emotional realities of the American experience” (117); that Dreiser’s philosophy was built more on intuition and faith than on logic and reason (117).

The problem with this study is the way such points are developed, haphazardly and sloppily, which is unfortunate, since the author evinces insightfulness and a clear enthusiasm for her subject. She needed an editor’s help. I would not recommend this book, leaving aide consideration of its exorbitant price.


— Roger W. Smith