Please see this new post of mine on my Dreiser site at
— Roger W. Smith
Please see this new post of mine on my Dreiser site at
— Roger W. Smith
My older brother was the starting third baseman for our high school baseball team.
According to a story he told me, our English teacher, Robert W. Tighe, was in the stands watching a game one day in which my brother was playing, with an acquaintance of his (the teacher’s, that is), a New York Yankees scout. Mr. Tighe was, despite growing up in Massachusetts and attending college there, a diehard Yankees fan.
Mr. Tighe, according to my brother’s story — as Mr. Tighe told him afterwards — asked the scout, so what do you think of the third baseman? He is one of my best students. (I am paraphrasing.)
“Tell him to stick to his books,” the scout replied.
The following is a passage from one of many politically oriented articles by Theodore Dreiser in the 1930s and 40s:
“Life is and ever must be an equation between all sorts of contending forces—in a fair and maintainable balance. Neither chemically nor physically nor socially nor financially can it be workably run off into unbalance. In chemistry and physics explosions follow—disastrous and frightful to behold. And of humanity, collectively and socially assembled under forms of government the same thing is true. Where financial or social unbalance sets in and a few, because of their extorted wealth, set themselves apart and above the many and fail to see how necessarily interrelated they are either for good or for ill, you have either (1) revolution and so a restoration of balance or (2) where equity is defeated and inequity prevails you have death of that land or nation. If you do not believe this, consider Rome that declined and fell with the arrival of the Caesars; Italy that plundered up to the days of Mussolini; France, the monarchical France that ended with the French Revolution; Autocratic Russia that ended with the Russian Revolution; completely Autocratic England that ended (for a time) with King John and Magna Charta [sic]; the Roman religious autocracy that ended with Martin Luther; Autocratic China that ended with the Boxer Rebellion. No equity or social balance—no peace and finally no government.’
from “Theodore Dreiser Condemns War,” by Theodore Dreiser, People’s World, April 6, 1940
Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle: “You are no Jack Kennedy.”
Roger W. Smith (posthumously) to Theodore Dreiser: “You were no Aristotle, no Cicero, no Edward Gibbon. You should have stuck to fiction.”
— posted by Roger W. Smith
The approach of actual want was such an insidious thing that I really did not perceive how far I was getting into the depths before I was fairly caught and unable to extricate myself. I had always been accustomed in the past to make some arrangement with a magazine or publishing house to do some work which would pay me fairly well and this hope was now all the time acting like a will-a’ -the-wisp leading me thoughtlessly over the meadows of idleness and meditation to the slough of despond. Day after day I would get up and sit at my desk a little while feeling that this morning surely some ray of inspiration would arrive, but finding that it did not I would get up and go out, wandering around and saying to myself that if I could but rest a bit it would all come back to me. I was not really sick in the sense that anyone is prostrate in bed. I could walk and run and laugh and read, but I could not write, and worst of all I could not sleep. This latter difficulty was gradually undermining me though it did not seem as bad at first as it did later. I used to go down to the water’s edge of the East River, which was only a few blocks below me, and there in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Wallabout Bay sit and enjoy the wonderful panorama which the river invariably presented. It seemed to me that when I came within the vicinity of these great warehouses and factories, with their tall black stacks that gave the water’s edge so varied and picturesque an aspect, I could lounge and dream forever. Not to worry, not to haste, not to be caught in the great turmoil of the city beyond from whose distant shore came subdued echoes of the clangor and strife that was always there–that seemed heaven to me. I sat and looked into the soft green waters gurgling and sipping about the docks and the stanchions below me and listened to the crying of the boats, until my heart was full to overflowing with it, but alas my purse was empty. And that was where the love of beauty undid me.
The approach of actual want was such a terrible thing however that whenever I thought of it distinctly I would get up and return to my room, or would hurry out into the streets almost in a cold sweat, saying, “I must do something.” Frequently I would start out and after walking the streets trying to think of some business that would likely offer me a means of making a living I would fix my eye on some distant shop and say to myself that when l came to it l would go in there. I would walk toward it, my feeling about life and labor wonderfully heightened for the moment, but as I drew near a cold fear of inability would lay hold of me. What would they think, I would begin to ask myself. What could I do in there? Sometimes I would see someone looking at me from one of the windows, a man or girl, or from the houses about and I would say to myself, “Pshaw, they see me coming. They think I am someone who is above that kind of work. They will not believe that I need it and tum me away. And how will I look to them anyhow?” And I would turn away carrying myself as if the thought of that sort of labor was the farthest thing from me imaginable. Or I would stand about and parley with myself, weighing the pros and cons until I had harrowed myself into the belief that I would not be acceptable. Always I would think of my own work, and hard as it was, would contrast my appropriateness to that with my inappropriateness to this and then I would weaken and hurry away. Dozens upon dozens of times have I stood outside of all sorts of institutions wondering, debating, saying that I was unsuited to it or the business was unsuited to me and in the end turning back disconsolately to my room, there to brood and worry over my fate.
The remembrance of this weakness has proved a great wonder to me since. I am not naturally afraid to face people and these sentiments do not as a rule rule me, but I was so rundown nervously that I did not have my usual feeling about things. Sickness had apparently made a coward of me.
As these reflections did not relieve my situation any I would after a night of sleepless tossing usually pull myself together again and make another effort. Once in these early days I went to a great sugar refinery far down on the water’s edge where many a day I had stood looking at the wagons and the men and the evidence of industry inside and wondering at the complicatedness of it all. (What a mystery the life we lead is. How strangely we divide this problem of sustenance, how narrowly some of us work in small dark comers all our days and never think or at least never attain to the heights of our thinking.) On this day however my mind did not busy itself with this larger spectacle. I was anxious to get something to do there and I was wondering how I could persuade the foreman or the management to accept me. Once I had read a long account of the labor struggles of another writer who had dressed himself to look the part of a laborer and I had always wondered how he would have fared if he had gone in his own natural garb. Now I was determined or rather compelled to find out for myself and I had no heart for it. I realized instinctively that there was a far cry between doing anything in disguise and as an experiment and doing it as a grim necessity.
However I went in after hanging about for some time and asked for the manager. As I expected he was busy but a clerk who came over to me wished to know what my business was. I cold him I wanted work. He looked at me in a quizzical way as much as to say, “You?”
“What kind of work is it you wish to do?” he asked.
I tried to explain as quickly as I could that I wished to do any kind of work, manual or mental, but he did not seem to understand me. “You couldn’t do the physical work here,” he said. “All our clerical positions are filled. We don’t change very often.”
“Is there something you could give me to do out there?” I said, motioning with my hand toward the great dark mass behind.
“Nothing at present,” he said. “We are not taking on men at this time of year. I’m quite positive you couldn’t do the work if you had it. It’s very hard.”’
He turned with a brusque manner to his work again and I fell back abashed. His loud voice had attracted the attention of others, who looked at me curiously. I felt as if he might have been a little more quiet and a little more considerate, but I found here as everywhere what seemed to me the old indifference to the underdog. People do not see–I said–they have not the faculty to grasp what it means to be the other man. Otherwise they would never do such things.
My next effort was in search of a motorman’s or conductor’s position, a place I had long had in mind as I was sure it was something that I could do. It was not a thing that I could get quickly, for I knew that unless I had a “pull” or could bring some extraordinary pressure to bear I would have to go through the usual formality of enrolling my name somewhere and then waiting patiently for my turn to be called. I had vivid dreams of forcing my way into the office of the president, who I conceived to be a man who could tell by my appearance that I was not exactly of the ordinary run of men, and who on my putting the matter before him would understand and give me something to do. I went down to the section where this great railroad building was located but as usual when I reached there my heart failed me. It was an hour before I raked up courage enough to go in.
This building was a mass of little offices devoted to different phases of the street railway and when I looked over the immense directory painted on the wall I could scarcely tell which office it was at which I wished to inquire. I saw the name of the president posted as being in room one hundred and something, on the fourth floor, but now my idea of going in and talking to him looked awfully foolish and hopeless to me. The idea of intruding on a man with endless affairs weighing on him and the financial end only of the great company before his gaze struck me as exceedingly useless. He would have nothing to do with me. All he would do would be to refer me to the department which handled such cases as mine and they would not dare to make an exception. It seemed impossible and yet I went up.
In an ante-chamber I was met by a clerk. As I expected he told me the president was busy and asked me my business. When I explained to him, he looked at me curiously also and said the president never attended to such details–that I would have to go to the regular department, mentioning the number. I saw how hopeless it was of making a boy see–an inexperienced youth who knew nothing of the world, and went away. I could have written an essay that morning on how nature meets want with inexperience and pain with those who cannot see. Blind! Blind! Blind!
The office of the Superintendent of Something, who hired men, was on the floor below and there I went. It was a small room filled with motormen and conductors who were there being measured for new suits or answering to complaints of various kinds. All of them looked at me with curious eyes as I came in, for I was still comparatively well-dressed, and some of them stood aside in so deferential a way that I felt that I was sailing under false colors. I went up to the counter where the official was standing and stated my business. When I had come in he had looked at me with so much consideration that I felt he mistook me for someone who had important business with him. When I finally explained that I wished to know where applications for positions were made his face changed immediately and he told me in brusque tones where to go. I felt like an imposter slinking out for it seemed to me I had in some indefinable way misrepresented myself to him. I had not turned out to be what he took me for.
This phase of my reception discouraged me greatly but I went down to the little office on a side street near the East River, in a one-story red brick building, where I found a room containing a few old benches and an inner door marked “Applicants” but no persons. A sign hung up over a window informed me that those who wished to register should come between the hours of seven and nine A. M. on Tuesdays and Fridays, which I confess was a great relief to me. I had anticipated another such ordeal as I had just gone through and the mere fact that it was postponed was something. I turned on my heel, temporarily relieved from the ache that inquiring under such conditions gave me, and promised myself that I would come back on Tuesday. I then wandered about saying that I must look for something elsewhere but, being out and moving, I did nothing. It was the old story of the previous days. I could not find the heart to go in.
That such a quest would soon prove disastrous I was constantly seeing and yet I could not get anything. I went back to the newspapers–they had nothing. I came over to New York and thought to put an application in over there, but I did nothing but walk the streets. On Tuesday I returned to this little office again, desperately clinging to the fatuous belief that having managed to go so far, something would come of it. I had dressed myself carefully to make as good an impression as possible but when I got there, or rather in the vicinity of it, I was sorry that I had done so. At a distance of three blocks I saw quite a crowd standing around so early as seven o’clock and in the vicinity, at distances of from one to two blocks, other individual stragglers, who impressed me at once as people who like myself were anxious to register but were ashamed to go up. They were a little better dressed than those who were gathered about the door–not so strong-looking and not so coarse. They pretended to be doing anything but heading for this particular institution though one could see by their averted glances that that was just the thing they were trying to do. I encountered two or three of them three or four times in a radius of as many blocks and each time they exchanged that shamed look of understanding with me, which convicts one of ulterior designs. It was all very painful.
What interested me on this occasion was my own wretched attitude. For the life of me I could not summon up sufficient courage to join that crowd. Three or four times I went toward it, getting as close as the corner, but each time I would see some of those at the door looking up toward me and I would say to myself, “They see what I am coming for,” and would turn off. Once I did go down absolutely determined to stop and take my place among them, but the keen conception of the difference between them and me which flared up in my mind as I approached drove me on by. They were so young, most of them, so raw and so inexperienced. They looked at me as though they thought I was some critical business man or other citizen merely passing on my way to my office. They had such sharp eyes which seemed to say, “Now let us see what he does,” that I could not bring myself to stop.
For this feeling–vanity or weakness as it may seem to some, I have now no excuse to offer. I will say that the difference I felt was not based on a sense of superiority–far from it. I was only conscious that I was out of place and they knew it. It was more like the case of an old man who would like to play with children on their own basis, but who has lost the how of it.
My first visit to this registering room was a failure as was my second, but on the third time I managed to go in and put down my name, which brought me nothing. I left my address, the chain of which has never been broken, but I have never heard a word.
— Theodore Dreiser, An Amateur Laborer (1904, published in 1983)
It is customary to blame everything on the war. I say the war had nothing to do with me, with my life. At a time when others were getting themselves comfortable berths I was taking one miserable job after another, and never enough in it to keep body and soul together. Almost as quickly as I was hired I was fired. I had plenty of intelligence but I inspired distrust. Where ever I went I fomented discord–not because I was idealistic but because I was like a searchlight exposing the stupidity and futility of everything. Besides, I wasn’t a good ass-licker. That marked me, no doubt. People could tell at once when I asked for a job that I really didn’t give a damn whether I got it or not. And of course I generally didn’t get it. But after a time the mere looking for a job became an activity, a pastime, so to speak. I would go in and ask for most anything. It was a way of killing time – now worse, as far as I could see than work itself. I was my own boss and I had my own hours, but unlike other bosses I entrained only my own ruin, my own bankruptcy. I was not a corporation or a trust or a state or a federation or a polity of nations–I was more like God, if anything.
This went on from about the middle of the war until … well, until one day I was trapped. Finally the day came when I did desperately want a job. I needed it. Not having another minute to lose, I decided that I would take the last job on earth, that of messenger boy. I walked into the employment bureau of the telegraph company–the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America–towards the close of the day, prepared to go through with it. I had just come from the public library and I had under my arm some fat books on economics and metaphysics. To my great amazement I was refused the job.
The guy who turned me down was a little runt who ran the switchboard. He seemed to take me for a college student, though it was clear enough from my application that I had long left school. I had even honoured myself on the application with a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University. Apparently that passed unnoticed, or else was suspiciously regarded by this runt who had turned me down. I was furious, the more so because for once in my life I was in earnest. Not only that, but I had swallowed my pride, which in certain peculiar ways is rather large. My wife of course gave me the usual leer and sneer. I had done it as a gesture, she said. I went to bed thinking about it, still smarting, getting angrier and angrier as the night wore on. The fact that I had a wife and child to support didn’t bother me so much; people didn’t offer you jobs because you had a family to support, that much I understood only too well. No, what rankled was that they had rejected me, Henry V. Miller, a competent, superior individual who had asked for the lowest job in the world. That burned me up. I couldn’t get over it. In the morning I was up bright and early, shaved, put on my best clothes and hot-footed it to the subway. I went immediately to the main offices of the telegraph company … up to the 25th floor or wherever it was that the president and the vice-presidents had their cubicles. I asked to see the president. Of course the president was either out of town or too busy to see me, but wouldn’t I care to see the vice-president, or his secretary rather. I saw the vice-president’s secretary, an intelligent, considerate sort of chap, and I gave him an earful. I did it adroitly, without too much heat, but letting him understand all the while that I wasn’t to be put out of the way so easily.
When he picked up the telephone and demanded the general manager I thought it was just a gag, that they were going to pass me around like that from one to the other until I’d get fed up. But the moment I heard him talk I changed my opinion. When I got to the general manager’s office, which was in another building uptown, they were waiting for me. I sat down in a comfortable leather chair and accepted one of the big cigars that were thrust forward. This individual seemed at once to be vitally concerned about the matter. He wanted me to tell him all about it, down to the last detail, his big hairy ears cocked to catch the least crumb of information which would justify something or other which was formulating itself inside bis dome. I realized that by some accident I had really been instrumental in doing him a service. I let him wheedle it out of me to suit his fancy, observing all the time which way the wind was blowing. And as the talk progressed I noticed that he was warming up to me more and more. At last some one was showing a little confidence in me! That was all I required to get started on one of my favourite lines. For, after years of job hunting I had naturally become quite adept; I knew not only what not to say, but I knew also what to imply, what to insinuate. Soon the assistant general manager was called in and asked to listen to my story. By this time I knew what the story was. I understood that Hymie–”that little kike”, as the general manager called him–had no business pretending that he was the employment manager. Hymie had usurped his prerogative, that much was clear. It was also clear that Hymie was a Jew and that Jews were not in good odour with the general manager, nor with Mr. Twilliger, the vice-president, who was a thorn in the general manager’s side.
Perhaps it was Hymie, … who was responsible for the high percentage of Jews on the Messenger force. Perhaps Hymie was really the one who was doing the hiring at the employment office–at Sunset Place, they called it. It was an excellent opportunity, I gathered, for Mr. Clancy, the general manager, to take down a certain Mr. Burns who, he informed me, had been the employment manager for some thirty years now and who was evidently getting lazy on the job.
The conference lasted several hours. Before it was terminated Mr. Clancy took me aside and informed me that he was going to make me the boss of the Works. Before putting me into office, however, he was going to ask me as a special favour, and also as a sort of apprenticeship which would stand me in good stead, to work as a special messenger. I would receive the salary of employment manager, but it would be paid me out of a separate account. In short I was to float from office to office and observe the way affairs were conducted by all and sundry. I was to make a little report from time to time as to how things were going. And once in a while, so he suggested, I was to visit him at his home on the q.t. and have a little chat about the conditions in the hundred and one branches of the modernistic Telegraph Company in New York City. In other words I was to be a spy for a few months and after that I was to have the run of the joint. Maybe they’d make me a general manager too one day, or a vice-president. It was a tempting offer, even if it was wrapped up in a lot of horse shit. I said Yes.
In a few months I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughter-house, so help me God. The thing was senseless from the bottom up. A waste of men, material and effort. A hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat and misery. But just as I had accepted the spying so I accepted the hiring and firing and all that went with it. I said Yes to everything. If the vice-president decreed that no cripples were to be hired I hired no cripples. If the vice-president said that all messengers over forty-five were to be fired without notice I fired them without notice. I did everything they instructed me to do, but in such a way that they had to pay for it. When there was a strike I folded my arms and waited for it to blow over. But I first saw to it that it cost them a good penny. The whole system was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration. I was up against the whole rotten system of American labour, which is rotten at both ends. I was the fifth wheel on the wagon and neither side bad any use for me, except to exploit me. In met, everybody was being exploited– the president and his gang by the unseen powers, the employees by the officials, and so on and around, in and out and through the whole works. From my little perch at “Sunset Place” I had a bird’s eye view of the whole American society. It was like a page out of the telephone book. Alphabetically, numerically, statistically, it made sense. But when you looked at it up close, when you examined the pages separately, or the parts separately, when you examined one lone individual and what constituted him, examined the air he breathed, the life he led, the chances he risked, you saw something so foul and degrading, so low, so miserable, so utterly hopeless and senseless, that it was worse than looking into a volcano. You could see the whole American life–economically, politically, morally, spiritually, artistically, statistically, pathologically. It looked like a grand chancre on a worn-out cock. It looked worse than that, really, because you couldn’t even see anything resembling a cock any more. Maybe in the past this thing had life, did produce something, did at least give a moment’s pleasure, a moment’s thrill. But looking at it from where I sat it looked rottener than the wormiest cheese. The wonder was that the stench of it didn’t carry’em off … I’m using the past tense all the time, but of course it’s the same now, maybe even a bit worse. At least now we’re getting it full stink.
— Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
See also my post:
“Henry Miller and Dreiser”
— posted by Roger W. Smith
It’s on my Dreiser site at
It beautifully expresses my own feelings about my adopted city.
— Roger W. Smith
February 6, 2020
Chapter XLV of Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, is entitled “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” In this famous chapter, which has echoes of Stephen Crane, George Hurstwood — out of work, physically ill and desperate — is reduced to living in Broadway flophouses and to begging.
One afternoon, he goes to a theater where Carrie is appearing as a lead actress and hovers about the entrance, hoping to see her. He thinks he sees her alight from a carriage and enter the theater, but he is not sure it was her. He ambles downtown from 39th Street, where the theater is located, to the corner of 26th Street and Broadway.
He notices an “a peculiar individual [who invariably took his stand” at this particular spot: a chaplain, preacher, and charity worker (known as “the Captain”) collecting donations for homeless men on a freezing cold evening.
(See text below.)
On November 5, 2016, I received an email from Dreiser scholar Thomas P. Riggio:
I just came across that section in Sister Carrie where the “Captain” gathers the homeless men and begs for small change to get them beds for the night. I’ve always felt that the description was so detailed and that the tone suggests that anyone familiar with New York life would recognize the character — sort of like Fleischmann’s bread line. I wonder if you ever came across anything in your research of the period or its newspapers that identified the original for the Captain? I’m almost willing to bet that he was a local well-known figure in the city.
Professor Riggio was convinced that the figure of the “the captain” in Dreiser’s novel must have been based on a real person. He actually had a name (which turned about the right one, something he did not know at the time), but he did not tell me so. Later, after publishing an article based upon my research (without having told me he planned to do so), Professor Riggio told me that he had had a name.
I went to the New York Public Library that day, on a weekend, to see if I could find anything about the real-life model for “the captain.”
To try and find the identity of a figure (perhaps hypothetical for all I knew) in New York City who might have matched Dreiser’s description of his activities. Over a period of a decade or more (sometime presumably in the 1890’s), using generic search terms such as “homeless,” “charity,” “beggar,” etc.?
I was practically in tears due to frustration and was about to give up, exhausted after searching for five or six hours, when I stumbled upon a newspaper article about some sort of chaplain who would solicit donations every evening near Madison Square Park to pay for beds for destitute men:
“Lodging for the Homeless; Evangelist Rotzler Collects Money for 126 Men and Marches the Shivering Crowd Away,” The New York Times, December 20, 1897
This has got to be the right person, I thought.
Now I had a name. Searching on Frederick Rotzler (the chaplain’s name), I found a lot of documentary material — newspaper and magazine articles — that described Frederick Rotzler’s activities as a chaplain before, during, and after the period when he was observed by Dreiser. Some of this material was unearthed by me on subsequent library visits. I promptly sent it all to Professor Riggio.
That same month, I got another email from Professor Riggio: “As to the blog on Rotzler, … I wonder if you could hold off on this for a while?”
I wasn’t quite sure what this vague communique meant. I had been thinking not so much of a blog — not precisely — I was thinking that since, as far as I knew, I had discovered the identity of “the captain” (pursuant to Professor Riggio’s request to research him), perhaps I should or could write an article in which I would explain the source of the figure in “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” It seemed — and was reasonable for me to assume, for all I knew — that I had made the discovery.
I received another email from Professor Riggio a couple of months later:
… if you could hold off for another five or six weeks, that would be helpful; this will give me time to complete my work on the subject which I began before we exchanged material on the subject. I know you have five or six items you have been trying to complete on your site, so there can be no rush on Rotzler for you.
Again, Professor Riggio was making assumptions about what I planned to do about the Rotzler materials. He was constructing a scenario that fit his plans and would give him “cover.” I did not know what he meant by “complete my work on the subject.” (He was being obscure on purpose.) What he was planning was to write an article, but he did not wish to tell me that, any more than he was willing to tell me at the outset that he already had a name for the person whom he suspected was “the captain.”
What he wanted to be able to do was sort of have his cake (for himself) and be able to eat it too (whenever he decided to) — in effect, to use the materials I had unearthed, whenever and however he saw fit, to write an article supposedly his, while ensuring that no one else would see or be able to use my findings, and that I would, not suspecting anything, honor his implicit request to not (for reasons he did not explain) publish an article myself.
His intention in asking me to do library research (pro bono) was to see what I could come up with — it would provide corroboration for his “theories” (surmises about “the captain’s” true identity) — but to make sure I did not think I was entitled to write an article about my findings. He certainly did not want me to write an article, nor to realize he was writing one, which would have perhaps induced me to think I was entitled to do it first.
The words “which I began before we exchanged material on the subject [“the captain”]” were meant to give him “cover,” to justify his writing an article using my materials, so that he could claim the article he was writing was based on his research, not mine.
Around a year later, to my surprise and consternation, the following article was published:
“Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square”
By Thomas P. Riggio
Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2016)
The article was based largely (though not entirely) on my original research. I was given a perfunctory acknowledgment in a footnote. When I complained to Professor Riggio, he defended appropriating my research on the grounds that he did the writing. Of course he had, using my material without informing me of what use he planned to make of it; without it, he would have had no article.
When I read the article, I saw to my dismay that it was chock full of documentary material, including verbatim transcripts, photographs and illustrations, plus findings of mine such as the location of the square where Dreiser’s chaplain appeared each night (which Dreiser remembered not quite correctly) and data on Rotlzer in the 1910 census. The latter is the kind of documentary material that makes or breaks a scholarly article. They give the reader assurance that the scholar/author has done his homework. But in this instance, the homework wasn’t done by the author; it was done by me, with no credit. Professor Riggio used this information (Dreiser’s mistake about the exact location; census data, which it would never have occurred to him to check) without any footnotes acknowledging that the information came from me. And, almost all of the illustrative and documentary material in the article, he simply cut and pasted using the text and photos I had emailed to him. This I could readily see by merely glancing at the published article.
— Roger W. Smith
I have not gotten over this rip off and scam by Thomas Riggio, an emeritus professor who had no reason to take advantage of a more “junior,” less “credentialed” scholar. A similar instance of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s using someone else’s research comes to mind.
When I first saw Riggio’s article on line, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach.
I telephoned him that same evening. I tried to be polite (or at least not rude) and non-confrontational.
His response befitted a Donald Trump. He didn’t seem concerned or interested in what I was saying. He kept trying to change the subject. He would not discuss or respond to specific instances of where in the article, it was plain to see, he had ripped off my research in primary sources.
Arrogance, on his part, was the operative word. And a feeling of entitlement.
His manner was totally condescending.
All else failing, he resorted to Trump-style counterattack. Saying that I am essentially a whiner (and loser) whose feelings were hurt because he didn’t get sufficient credit. If one reads his “acknowledgment,” it would appear that I copied a couple of library articles for him, that he knew what he was looking for. This was a deliberate distortion.
Then he counterattacked by trying to portray me as a chronic complainer and misfit who always does this to the Dreiser community and can’t get along with people in general. How he knew this is a mystery, since we hardly knew one another personally.
An example of this: He claimed I was feuding with the independent Dreiser scholar Michael Lydon. My friend Michael would be surprised to learn this.
The Trump/Riggio playbook? When caught red handed, deny, deny, deny. Concede nothing. Counterattack. With anything you can think of.
June 27, 2019
elisabethm May 23, 2018
It seems there’s a huge misconception on the side of Professor Riggio. Unfortunately I don’t expect he will ever admit that.
Roger W. Smith May 23, 2018
No he won’t, Elisabeth. From the outset, when I first saw his article, he was totally unapologetic. He ignores many of the specific examples I have given of mis-appropriation of primary source materials and other research findings I shared with him, which provide conclusive proof of it.
As another follower of this blog who has been following this wrote in an email to me:
“Regarding Professor Riggio. How ironic. He attacks you when it is he who should apologize for not giving you credit.
“He completely turns the situation around and obfuscates the matter by trying to make it seem that you did something wrong.
elisabethm May 23, 2018
Claire Bruyère May 20, 2018
Dear Roger, although not a Dreiser scholar, I have been following your work in recent years and have great respect for the tenacity and precision of your research. So I was surprised and shocked by the appropriation of many of your findings on who was the model for that character in “Sister Carrie” which was puzzling Prof. Riggio. All the more as I had a pleasant exchange with him several years ago when working on an article on contemporary adaptations of major American novels of the early 20th century. I wish he would give you more credit than a footnote.
Claire Bruyère, Prof. emerita, American literature/book history, Univ. Paris7/Denis Diderot
Roger W. Smith May 20, 2018
Thanks for your perspicacious comments, Professor Bruyère. Having support from other members of the scholarly community in this case of what I consider to have been mis-appropriation of my research findings without my being informed beforehand of the use that would be made of them and with insufficient (to put it mildly) credit given is much appreciated by me.
tamszion May 20, 2018
After having partnered with you last winter on another, yet unrevealed, Dreiser research project, I know firsthand the quality, depth, and caliber of your work. Your unfortunate mistake was sharing your original findings with someone whom you thought was professional and trustworthy. My immediate reaction to the situation is that you should have been reimbursed for your time, and then each individual discovery of fact, when cited in the article, should have been attributed to you in a footnote.
This is an academic ethical issue. Taking someone’s research without explaining how you intend to use it, then making a profit off its use without sufficient recognition to the individual who did the original research, only diminishes the person who commits such an act.
— Tamie Dehler
Roger W. Smith May 24, 2018
Regarding the source materials I shared with Professor Riggio, and what he already knew at the time — what he told me then and told me later, after his article had been published — is significant when it comes to assessing the use (one should say misuse) he made of my materials in writing his published article: “Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” (Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 2016).
On the evening of November 5, 2016, Professor Riggio wrote, in an email to me: “Roger, I figured there had to be an original for the Captain. Nice work! I had always wondered but never got around to checking it out.” From this I should have deduced that he really did have some information, let alone a name (which he later told me he did have)? And, if he did have a name for “the captain” (chaplain Rotzler) — as he told me months afterward — would it not have behooved him to give me the name when asking me to see if could find anything about Dreiser’s “captain,” so that I did not have to go on a wild goose chase in the library?
The next day (after I had gone to the library and struck gold), he emailed me: “Enjoyed learning about the Captain. Fascinating stuff. … if you have anything else on this matter, send it along. …” This does not seem fully forthcoming. He later claimed he had a name (the right one) but was looking for corroboration and additional source materials.
On September 10, 2017, Professor Riggio said in an email to me: “I had the essay outlined before you sent me anything. I only had two instances of the name Rotzler and wasn’t sure that was enough to claim him definitely—one the city death record of a ‘missionary’ and one a brief article about a chaplain by that name. The stuff you sent confirmed it without doubt.” What he does not explain is why he would not, at the outset, tell me what he DID know, such as the name of a chaplain he had found a couple of references to, before asking me to do research. It is also significant that, when it comes to Dreiser’s “captain,” he concedes that he had almost no information, which establishes the fact that almost of all the primary source materials in his article came from me.
On September 11 2017, Professor Riggio emailed me: “I thought I made clear when you began sending me the articles, that he was the fellow I had just a tiny bit of info on and that this stuff really filled out the portrait in ways I couldn’t have with the little I knew about him.” He did NOT do this, AT THE TIME. He said nothing at the time of my sending him stuff (or prior) about having had any information about “the fellow.” So, I thought (and there was no reason for me not to assume this) that it was I who had discovered the identity of Dreiser’s “captain.”
Professor Riggio deliberately kept me in the dark.
Re this post of mine and the comments appended to it:
Professor Riggio continues to insist that my contributions to his article “Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” (Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 2016), while appreciated and acknowledged (barely), were in the nature of helpful research but that they did not form the main body of the article, or that I shouldn’t claim to have done more research than him. And, that the main problem, as he sees it, is that I threw a “hissy fit” over not being given sufficient acknowledgment.
The facts prove otherwise.
The article in question (the above referenced article by Professor Riggio) concludes with a “WORKS CITED” section. Other than “my” source materials (i.e., those I discovered and sent by email to Professor Riggio), the works cited are mostly secondary sources.
There are citations of writings of Dreiser such as “A Touch of Human Brotherhood,” which appeared in Success magazine and which Professor Riggio had available in a published book of Theodore Dreiser’s uncollected magazine articles. And a chapter from Dreiser’s book “Twelve Men.” And so on.
An article by O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night,” is also cited by Professor Riggio.
What else is there? THIS IS SIGNIFICANT. Because what I am complaining about is mis-appropriation of source martials. Discovered and downloaded by me. Not known (as far as I knew) beforehand to Professor Riggio. Transmitted from me to him.
Here are the primary sources (other than writings of Dreiser and O. Henry) in the Works Cited section of Professor Riggio’s article:
Barton, Bruce. “Tending His Flock by Night.” The Continent 11 Dec. 1913
“Church Services Tomorrow.” New York Times 20 March 1910
“Father Lambert Welcomed.” New York Times 23 May 1894
“The Gospel through the Megaphone.” New York World 6 Sept. 1896
“Met at the Alter to Pray.” New York Times 15 March 1894: 11
“A Preacher Unordained.” New York Times 26 Nov. 1893
“Putting His Congregation to Sleep.” Literary Digest 17 Jan. 1914
“Shelters a Little Army.” New York Times 18 Nov. 1901
These articles were all discovered by me and shared by me with Professor Riggio. As far as I know, he had never seen any of them. Perhaps he will claim now that he already had them (!).
Professor Riggio’s article contains four illustrations. The following are the illustrations, with the captions and citations:
Fig. 1. A Preacher Unordained. (New York Times, 26 Nov. 1893: 6– 7)
Fig. 2. The Gospel through the Megaphone. (New York World, 6 Sept. 1896: 8– 9)
Fig. 3. The “Chaplain” of Madison Square. (“Putting His Congregation to Sleep,” Literary Digest, 17 Jan. 1914: 110)
Fig. 4. “The Chaplain” and a Section of His Transient Night Audience in Madison Square. (“Tending His Flock by Night,” The Continent, 11 Dec. 1913: 1740)
All of these illustrations were taken from the articles I sent Professor Riggio.
CONCLUSION: There is virtually no primary source material, and not that much research, in Professor Riggio’s article other than that which I supplied to him. In an email to Professor Riggio at the time the article was published, I wrote: “… the whole article focuses (with some consideration of related works of Dreiser’s) on the Captain directly or indirectly (he provides the hook), starts out with him; without my material, you would have not have been able to offer new material about this figure or explain who he was in real life. The title indicates the focus of your article, and there is a promise that the reader will find out something new about the background of the ‘Curious Shifts of the Poor’ chapter. The article is illustrated with scanned pages from newspaper and magazine articles that came from me.”
Professor Riggio has not addressed a single substantive complaint of mine. He can’t. The facts are incontrovertible.
Professor Riggio obviously did the writing, and the concept of the article was his. But research is important in almost any work of scholarship, and readers are looking for new findings, new information, such as that there really was “a captain” who would have been known to Dreiser. To find this out and prove it, and then to flesh the article out and make it interesting with details about Rotzler and his charitable work, and illustrative material, “added” a great deal to the article — not just added, formed a major portion of the article. The reader looks for new discoveries by the author, and when they have been made, they should be properly credited.
from Chapter XLV Sister Carrie
At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took his stand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway—a spot which is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hour when the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons. Fire signs announcing the night’s amusements blazed on every hand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes, pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freely mingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream, laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers—a few wealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady on his arm, some clubmen passing from one smoking-room to another. Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleaming windows, their cafés and billiard-rooms filled with a comfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration—the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.
This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself.
Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, he would stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicants who had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For a while he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policeman passing saluted him as “captain,” in a friendly way. An urchin who had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All others took him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter of dress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idling for his own amusement.
As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Here and there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, a loiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed the opposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Another came down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, took a general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeable Bowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square, but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat, walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro, indifferently whistling.
As nine o’clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlier hour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful. The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures were moving—watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, which they seemed afraid to enter—a dozen in all. Presently, with the arrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. It crossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and, in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waiting figure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about the movement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea of stopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to the soldier, came the halt.
The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especial greeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured something like one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned toward the edge of the walk.
“Stand over there,” he said.
By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed his short, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did not so much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling and hitching and scraping their feet.
“Cold, ain’t it?”
“I’m glad winter’s over.”
“Looks as though it might rain.”
The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew each other and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing to be in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish, crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving their feet.
There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them no chance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.
“Beds, eh, all of you?”
There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.
“Well, line up here. I’ll see what I can do. I haven’t a cent myself.”
They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see, now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was a wooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group that would ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection. Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats worn and faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faces looked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffed in the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned and reminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near, drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the line began to talk.
“Silence!” exclaimed the captain. “Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can’t lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?”
“Well, we’ll have to wait here, boys, until some one does. Twelve cents isn’t so very much for one man.”
“Here’s fifteen,” exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. “It’s all I can afford.”
“All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line,” and seizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a little way and stood him up alone.
Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.
“I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow. There are”—counting—”one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will put the next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for the night. I go right along and look after that myself. Who will give me nine cents?”
One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him a five-cent piece.
“Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed. Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You all have good beds. How about these?”
“Here you are,” remarked a bystander, putting a coin into his hand.
“That,” said the captain, looking at the coin, “pays for two beds for two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give me seven cents more?”
“I will,” said a voice.
Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to cross east through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He was wholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almost mortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrie now? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came in a coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interrupt under most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry and weary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had not heart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.
When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain’s gathering of wanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacher or some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, in crossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed the line of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out from the main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouring electric light he recognised a type of his own kind—the figures whom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, drifting in mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be and turned back.
There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard with astonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: “These men must have a bed.” Before him was the line of unfortunates whose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edge up and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to do likewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was a simple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, he would do better.
Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, a relaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty being removed, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and some leaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of the government, some newspaper sensations, and the more notorious facts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there. Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters. Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.
There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares from those who were too dull or too weary to converse.
Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thought he should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid for and gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, and already the captain was talking for him.
“Twelve cents, gentlemen—twelve cents puts this man to bed. He wouldn’t stand here in the cold if he had any place to go.”
Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hunger and weakness had made a coward of him.
“Here you are,” said a stranger, handing money to the captain.
Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager’s shoulder.
“Line up over there,” he said.
Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the world were not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemed to feel like himself about this.
“Captain’s a great feller, ain’t he?” said the man ahead—a little, woe-begone, helpless-looking sort of individual, who looked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.
“Yes,” said Hurstwood, indifferently.
“Huh! there’s a lot back there yet,” said a man farther up, leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom the captain was pleading.
“Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night,” said another.
“Look at the guy in the cab,” observed a third.
A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out a bill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turned away to his line. There was a general craning of necks as the jewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off. Even the crowd gaped in awe.
“That fixes up nine men for the night,” said the captain, counting out as many of the line near him. “Line up over there. Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents.”
Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned out to a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab or foot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled with pedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed the small group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.
The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, very slowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance, as though he could not fail.
“Come; I can’t stay out here all night. These men are getting tired and cold. Some one give me four cents.”
There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handed him, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put him in the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, looking at the ground.
The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struck eleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.
“Come, now,” he exclaimed to several curious observers; “eighteen cents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I have six. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over to Brooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men down and put them to bed. Eighteen cents.”
No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for several minutes, occasionally saying softly: “Eighteen cents.” It seemed as if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longer than all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the long line of which he was a part, refrained with an effort from groaning, he was so weak.
At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down Fifth Avenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily, reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the time when he had escorted his own wife in like manner.
While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkable company, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in his fingers, all elegant and graceful.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Thanks,” said the captain, turning to the two remaining applicants. “Now we have some for to-morrow night,” he added.
Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head, counting as he went.
“One hundred and thirty-seven,” he announced. “Now, boys, line up. Right dress there. We won’t be much longer about this. Steady, now.”
He placed himself at the head and called out “Forward.” Hurstwood moved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Square by the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down Third Avenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestrians and loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chatting policemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded to the leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue they marched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there was a lodging-house, closed, apparently, for the night. They were expected, however.
Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyed within. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a “Steady, now.”
Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was no delay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood looked back and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the line being included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night.
“I can’t stand much of this,” said Hurstwood, whose legs ached him painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in the small, lightless chamber allotted to him. “I’ve got to eat, or I’ll die.”
The novelist Theodore Dreiser met Helen (Patges) Richardson in Greenwich Village, where he was then living, in September 1919. They became lovers and moved to Los Angeles shortly after beginning their romance. Helen Richardson was an aspiring actress. She became Dreiser’s second wife.
The following telegram from Helen to Dreiser was dated October 18, 1920.
Can you imagine getting such a telegram? I cannot recall reading any form of correspondence with such a desperate, anguished plea. In fifteen words.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
My Theodore Dreiser site, which has been online for several years, has been updated.
The new web address (URL) is
Please note that, although I haven’t been adding much content lately, the site is not inactive. I have been continually collecting materials and I intend to add some new posts within the next few months. Several posts are in preparation, one of which I am collaborating on with another Deriser researcher. A fair amount of the material is original, meaning that it was obtained from primary sources or sources which seem to have been hitherto overlooked.
I beg forgiveness on account of other writing assignments that have taken priority. I intend to get back to Dreiser soon.
— Roger W. Smith
“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Could Theodore Dreiser ever truly love anyone?
The answer is NO.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is an American novelist in whom I have had a longstanding interest.
Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 4, 2016:
“Dreiser (who was not a good husband and never became a parent) was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did. (See Harry Stack Sullivan’s oft quoted definition of absolute love.) A corollary was that he could never freely accept love or kindness nor trust anyone’s good intentions towards him.
“As Sullivan wrote: “When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as is one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. … under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the word.
(Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry: The First William Alanson White Memorial Lectures. New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. pp. 42-43)
“Dreiser NEVER attained this.”
Thomas P. Riggio, email to Roger W. Smith, November 4, 2016:
“The issue I thought we were discussing was Dreiser’s relationship with women. As to his ability to love another person, that’s another matter — one too complicated, for me at least, to make any judgments about.
“It’s tough enough dealing with that topic in regard to people we know well in our own lives, never mind someone long dead whom we’ve never met. And then there are so many different criteria that people use to determine what it means to love. For instance, you mention only two, not being a husband and not having children, but that could be applied to Christ as well! Philandering husbands might still love their wives: Bill Clinton seems to ‘love’ Hillary, for instance. As I said, it’s too complex for my simple mind to understand, so you may well be correct.”
The following are my conclusions pursuant to the exchange with Professor Riggio.
The issue is not too complex! Biographers and psychobiographers make such judgments all the time.
Dreiser scholars don’t want to go to deeply into his psyche because of what they might find.
The Dreiser archives are massive. He saved practically every letter, telegram, and scrap of paper that ever came into his hands. His love affairs and romantic entanglements have been well documented.
There is much, also, in Dreiser’s own autobiographical writings that reveals how he habitually dealt with other people, his family, relatives, and his spouses. What is notable is that he was constantly worried that someone would be unfaithful to him — or, in the case of non-intimate acquaintances, such as people he had business dealings with — that someone would cheat him. He had many acquaintances, but hardly any in the category of what you would call a best friend. He just plain could not trust or give himself to anyone. In the case of intimate relationships with women, he demanded that they pledge and observe absolute fidelity to him, but would not pledge it to them. See my essay
“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain” at
for just one example — a very telling one –of how this played out in real life.
— Roger W. Smith
I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading. I also happen to be Dreiserian (a devotee of Theodore Dreiser and his works).
When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman … and, Theodore Dreiser.
Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.
Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.
I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.
Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said in the past about this:
Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)
His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)
Smooth prose composition eluded [Dreiser] forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)
To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic. (Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003)
[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry. (Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004)
Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.
Or could he?
An American Tragedy has stock characters — notably Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper, the love interest of Clyde Griffiths — who are unbelievable. Clyde is infatuated with the vain and emotionally vapid Sondra because of her wealth and social status.
Dreiser’s prose is turgid and leaden.
Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case. (An American Tragedy, Dreiser’s first and only bestseller, was published in 1925.)
Admitted, thricely. The charges against Dreiser qua writer, that is.
The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex in Moby-Dick. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).
The power of An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.
Dreiser’s crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative. I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Book Two, Chapter XLV contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):
And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.
Is this the prose of a James Joyce? Decidedly not. It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book. Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.
There is a sort of Joycean technique (believe it or not) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.
This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by “getting out of the way” — by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration — has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact. We almost become Clyde. This makes the book very powerful, very effective.
The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.
To read the book is to identify with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style — to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.
Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary. He wrote a classic.
An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend. It is sui generis, autochthonous.
As was the case with its author, the book has muscled its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.
Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.
— Roger W. Smith
A comment by Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas:
Roger — a fine defense. The novel has outlasted many more elegant and “accomplished” books by better writers who can not match the power of the novels that Dreiser has left us. And, “Tragedy” is the best of the bunch. — Tom K
The attached Word document (above) contains an inventory of Dreiserana — books and materials by, about, and related to the author Theodore Dreiser — in my personal library.
Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) was an American novelist whose best known works are Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.
— Roger W. Smith