Category Archives: Theodore Dreiser

a telegram

 

 

telegramfromhelen10-18-1920

 

 

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

   January 2019

 

 

 

helenrichardson

Helen (Patges) Richardson

Dreiser site updated.

 

 

My Theodore Dreiser site, which has been online for several years, has been updated.

The new web address (URL) is

 

https://roger-w-smiths-dreiser.site

 

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

   January 2019

Theodore Dreiser under the microscope (of a nutty professor or two)

 

 

For the American Literature Association (ALA) conference in San Francisco this coming May:

“Papers are invited on theoretical approaches to [Theodore] Dreiser’s canon and life. Some suggested approaches include Poststructuralism, Feminist Gender Theory, Material Culture, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy (such as Foucault’s Technology of Self). Topics may include Dreiser’s philosophical writings, fiction, plays, essays, autobiographies, and journalism.”

Yes, but only if they are viewed through the prism of one of the opaque, recondite, and virtually incomprehensible lines of inquiry dear to academia specified in the second sentence above, almost all of them having nothing to do with Dreiser.

The living, breathing Dreiser and most of his works (unless they can be used to support an academically fashionable theory) are of scant interest to them.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    December 2017

unable to love

 

 

 

“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 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 term.’ (Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, 1940)

“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

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/theodore-dreiser-ervin-nyiregyhazi-helen-richardson-and-marie-pergain/

 

for just one example — a very telling one –of how this played out in real life.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

Roger W. Smith, “On Rereading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ “

 

 

This post is also available as a downloadable Word document (below).

 

 

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.

And, yet.

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

   April 2017

 

 
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

 

 

 

Continue reading

inventory of Dreiserana (books, etc. by and about Theodore Dreiser) in Roger W. Smith’s personal library

 

 

 

inventory of Dreiserana in my private library

 

 

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

   September 2018

On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”

 

 

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 and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian (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 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)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … Smooth prose composition eluded him 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)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

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 (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (on 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 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.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (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 (yes!) 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 become one 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 – I repeat – 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

September 2016

 

 

 

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1925).jpg

An American Tragedy cover - vol. 1 (1926).jpg