Category Archives: Theodore Dreiser

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

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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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/?s=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

Roger W. Smith, “Theodore Dreiser”

 

Theodore Dreiser (b. 27 August 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana; d. 28 Dec 1945 in Los Angeles) was the eighth in a family of nine children. His father, Johann Paul Dreiser, was an immigrant from Prussia who operated a woolen mill in Sullivan, Indiana before the business went bad. His mother, Sarah Marie Schänäb, from whom Dreiser was said to have inherited a dreamy and romantic nature, was of Moravian descent.

The Dreiser family was one that might be called dysfunctional (or at least, nearly dysfunctional) today. The parents sometimes lived apart, with some children living with one parent and the rest with the other, for economic reasons. The family often relocated. Several siblings left home early and were involved in activities that were not quite proper: affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and (in the case of a brother or two) petty crime.
The oldest child in the family, Paul Dresser (he changed his last name) became a performer in a minstrel troupe and eventually a successful songwriter.

Theodore Dreiser was educated in Catholic schools at an early age. He rebelled against his Catholic upbringing — his father was (in Dreiser’s view) fanatically religious — and against his father’s authoritarian ways. At a later age, he was placed in the public schools, where he thrived and had a couple of teachers who greatly encouraged him. One of these teachers made it possible through a bequest for Dreiser to attend college for a year.
With the exception of a year spent at Indiana University, which does not seem to have made a significant impact on him, Dreiser spent most of his late teenage years in Chicago. A couple of sisters had moved there, either to work or because of romantic involvements. Dreiser followed, and eventually most of the Dreiser family relocated there, briefly.

While in Chicago, Dreiser worked at menial and low-paying jobs, as is detailed in his autobiography. He had strong romantic and sexual urges, but at this point was very insecure with women. He was overwhelmed with the raw power and up and coming-ness of Chicago, and yearned to make something of himself.

Through his reading of newspaper columnist Eugene Field, Dreiser began to dream of becoming a writer himself. He had a temporary job in the business department of a Chicago newspaper, and he later began to hang out at the offices of the Chicago Globe, one of the city’s less prestigious papers (and therefore thought to perhaps be an easier place to land a position). He got an assignment, finally, by dint of dogged persistence (just being there) and by serendipity got a big scoop. He was hired by the paper and quickly blossomed as a writer of colorful news stories, crime stories, exposés, and the like. He was both intrepid reporter and colorful writer of news stories that read like novelettes.

Dreiser’s stature in the newsroom rose quickly. He was given a letter of recommendation to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a much better newspaper, one with a national reputation. He spent about a year and a half as a reporter for the Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Republic, writing stories that still read well today. Also important for Dreiser in St. Louis was the development of his aesthetic sensibilities, through friendships he made with colleagues who had artistic pretensions.

Dreiser’s restlessness impelled him inevitably to move eastward. (The initial impetus was a short-lived, failed venture with a friend to start a country newspaper in Ohio.) He worked for newspapers in Ohio and Pittsburgh, gradually working his way to New York, where he dreamed of becoming a reporter for a big time paper. In Ohio, he made a very important friendship with Toledo Blade city editor Arthur Henry, himself an aspiring novelist, who encouraged Dreiser to write. In Pittsburgh, besides working as a freelance reporter, he read avidly in the public library and became immersed in the novels of Balzac and the writings of the English social philosopher Herbert Spencer (in Spencer’s First Principles).

Spencer’s works greatly influenced Dreiser, impelling him towards a mechanistic or deterministic worldview which he adopted and which is evidenced in his works.
Dreiser eventually made his way to New York City, where his brother Paul, who had become a successful songwriter and music publisher, and his sister Emma, who had basically eloped to New York several years before in a case which would provide the factual underpinnings for Sister Carrie, were both living. Dreiser got a few freelance assignments as a reporter for the New York World, but his newspaper career was basically over. Shortly thereafter, Dreiser embarked on an editorial career which began with the editorship of Ev’ry Month, a magazine published by Howley, Haviland, his brother Paul’s music firm. Ev’ry Month was basically an outlet for publishing sheet music, but it contained an editor’s column wherein Dreiser as editor had free rein to express his views and write pretty much what he wanted, including the occasional poem.

Dreiser left Ev’ry Month in around September 1897. He spent the next five years or so as a freelance magazine writer. He was very good at it. His output was considerable (he occasionally borrowed from his own previous work or that of others) and he could write on a wide variety of topics, from the most pedestrian account of some industry or practice (apple growing, say) to a celebrity profile. He sometimes collaborated on story ideas and articles with Arthur Henry, who had moved to Manhattan. Henry had already encouraged Dreiser to write fiction. In large part because of Henry’s prodding (to get him started at least), Dreiser wrote five short stories in the summer of 1899. He began publishing poems in periodicals. And, in the fall of 1899, again at Henry’s prodding, he began a novel, Sister Carrie.

On an assignment for the St. Louis Republic in 1893, Dreiser met his future wife, Sara White. A long courtship ensued. They were married in December 1898. Dreiser seems to have married Jug, as she was called, largely out of a sense of obligation or at least with some reservations. The marriage did not prosper. In fact, in its early years, the couple was often separated.

Sister Carrie was published by Doubleday, Page, and Company in November 1900. The company, which had accepted the novel in part because of an enthusiastic report from Frank Norris, a reader for Doubleday, almost reneged on its agreement to publish the book. It was not marketed aggressively, and sales were paltry. Dreiser himself later helped (in an article published in 1931) to foster the belief that Doubleday had tried to suppress the novel because of its immoral content. There is still controversy about what actually happened.

Right after Sister Carrie’s publication, Dreiser started another novel, Jennie Gerhardt, which he would abandon and not complete until approximately a decade later. Meanwhile, the scant notice that Sister Carrie received and its low sales seem to have depressed him. Dreiser’s freelance magazine output dropped and he went into a period of decline during which he was mostly unemployed, rootless, living a nomadic life, and thought to be suffering from neurasthenia. His brother Paul helped him to get on his feet again, and he worked for a while at a menial job on the New York Central Railroad, which restored his health and spirits.

From around 1905 to 1910, Dreiser pursued an editorial career, rising to a highly paid position as an editor with the Butterick Company, a major magazine publisher. He lived comfortably on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Then he got involved in the ardent pursuit of the teenage daughter of a coworker. In October 1910, he was fired from Butterick. He separated from his wife, Jug, and moved to Greenwich Village. He resumed work on Jennie Gerhardt, which was published in 1911, and began a period of remarkable literary productivity. He pursued a “varietist” (promiscuous) lifestyle and became associated with the Village’s bohemian element. By around 1915 and no later than 1920, it was customary to refer to Dreiser as America’s foremost novelist — it was indeed a rapid ascent.

The publication of Dreiser’s The “Genius” in 1915 led to controversy over the suppression of the book by anti-vice groups and to support from Dreiser by literary figures such as Ezra Pound, who otherwise would probably not have been inclined to notice Dreiser. Dreiser began to write experimental plays that were produced by “little theaters” in New York and elsewhere. He also began to publish books of essays with a philosophic cast (such as Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub) and travel books and memoirs (such as A Hoosier Holiday).

In 1925, Dreiser published An American Tragedy, his only best seller. The sale of film rights to the novel made Dreiser rich. He moved into a luxurious apartment in midtown Manhattan and bought a country estate in Westchester County. He became a celebrity and began to put on airs while claiming to disdain wealth and celebrity.

Dreiser had for a long time (since shortly after the breakup of his marriage) been living with Helen (Patges) Richardson, a glamorous woman whom he had met when she was embarking on a brief career as a movie actress and with whom he had common ancestry on his mother’s side. Dreiser continued to engage in innumerable liaisons, trysts, and affairs that led to bitterness between the two and short-lived breakups. Shortly before his own death, and shortly after that of his first wife, Jug, Dreiser married Helen Richardson.

 

The approximately twenty-year period between the publication of An American Tragedy and his death was one which saw a paltry literary output from Dreiser. He became known primarily as an outspoken critic of the capitalist system, a gadfly, and an advocate for the oppressed. He was known for making inflammatory statements that caused outrage, such as inveighing against support of England, then at war with Germany, saying, “I would rather see Germans in England than the damn snobs we have there now.” Leftist groups embraced Dreiser and his views (though not all of them — his anti-British remarks brought almost universal condemnation), and his leanings became more and more communistic. He in fact did join the Communist Party a few months before his death, but it seems to have been more an attention-getting move than a sincere gesture. It should be noted that despite his standing in leftist circles, Dreiser was very much a man of his time in holding what we might now be termed “politically incorrect” views, not being averse to making anti-Semitic remarks, for example.

Theodore Dreiser died of heart failure on December 28, 1945 at his home in Los Angeles and was buried a week later in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

 

HIS IMPORTANCE

Why is Theodore Dreiser important? Is it because he was a great writer? Some would say he was, but he was an atrocious stylist.

Dreiser’s plots are often soap opera-ish. He never mastered let alone learned even the fundamentals of English prose. Characters like Sondra Finchley seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real. Dreiser was accused (rightly) of plagiarism and he lifted whole chunks of one his best novels, An American Tragedy, out of newspaper accounts and trial transcripts. Some of his nonfiction works (his essays or Dreiser Looks at Russia) border on the inane or are inaccurate. His philosophy was muddle-headed and his opinions often misguided, hateful, and injurious. He wasted years on pseudo-scientific and philosophical speculations which, when finally published posthumously, proved to be unreadable. His prose poetry does not deserve serious critical consideration. Even his so-called classics (e.g., Sister Carrie) have, in my opinion, patches of tepid characterization and weak writing.

Besides being an atrocious stylist, Dreiser can be criticized as a writer on architectonic grounds. He seems a blunderer or groper in practically all respects as a writer. He got there almost by accident, it seems (though one has to admire greatly his persistence). It’s like watching an inept driver drive and wanting to take over the wheel. A Tolstoy or a Joyce seems so superior as a novelist, leaving Dreiser so far behind on all counts.
Does Dreiser stand up to scrutiny? I think there are valid reasons, despite his shortcomings, for considering Dreiser a major American writer, namely:

his place in the literary evolutionary timeline as one of the first and most successful practitioners of naturalism;

the readability and durability of his works; people still read them, because they want to;

the embodying in his works and life of a bygone generation that came of age at the turn of the nineteenth century when telephones were a novelty, trolley cars connected vast stretches of the country, men wore straw hats, and bars with sawdust on the floor served free lunches, and when social class distinctions were more rigidly observed;

his international appeal as a quintessentially American novelist, someone who gives a coherent picture of life in a capitalist country to foreigners who can relate to his works and characters (even if the picture he gives of American life is not always accurate) and who actually read his works, which seem to translate very well

the Horatio Alger-like quality of Dreiser’s own life story, and his doggedness in pushing aside obstacles placed in his way; his rise to fame is a truly rags to rich story which, perhaps, could have only happened in America

* his disdain for academic and critical opinion, which seems to be a correlative to his originality as an American authentic, a home grown, self-taught writer and thinker

his incredible frankness and honesty — about himself especially — which is perhaps best seen in Dreiser’s autobiographies. (They merit much higher ratings than they seem to have hitherto received as specimens of American autobiography). No writer (of Dreiser’s time) wrote with such candor, or anything close to it, of taboo subjects such as prostitution, premarital sex, marital infidelity, masturbation, oral sex, youthful fear of sexual impotence, abortion, and the like — at a time when to write for publication about such topics was practically unthinkable. If publishers took them out, Dreiser could do nothing about it; but it didn’t stop him from continuing to write with the same astonishing candor, and, incredibly, without, it would seem, a sense of compunction or embarrassment. His sincerity about not only these taboo subjects, but about himself in general, the lack of pretension that can be seen in his autobiographies, this and the genuine sympathy and unaffected concern he shows for the characters in his novels, make him easy to read. He is not striving to impress us with his erudition or to impress the reader in a literary sense. I think what happens, then, is something magical where readers relax and really get into his stories. There is no disjunction between reader and writer.

Dreiser’s very artlessness makes him an easy read. His sincerity makes his books compelling. The wealth of detail he often provides is impressive and has a strong cumulative effect, as critics have observed.

In the end, Dreiser got there. Somehow, he arrived, as a writer. He hewed out a place for himself in the American literary pantheon.

A lot of young would be writers should take heed from the example of Dreiser. He was, in fact, an inspiration to a whole generation of realistic writers who followed him.

Dreiser’s stature is assured, in part, because he was there, because he stands firmly in a line that extends from the naturalists to writers who followed him such as Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and James T. Farrell.

 

Roger W. Smith

 

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MAJOR WORKS

Sister Carrie (1900)
Jennie Gerhardt (1911)
The Financier (1912; revised 1927)
A Traveler at Forty (1913)
The Titan (1914)
The “Genius” (1915)
A Hoosier Holiday (1916)
Plays of the Natural and Supernatural (1916)
Free and Other Stories (1918)
The Hand of the Potter (1918)
Twelve Men (1919)
Hey Rub-a-Dub-Dub (1920)
A Book About Myself (1922; republished as Newspaper Days, 1931)
The Color of a Great City (1923)
An American Tragedy (1925)
Chains: Lesser Novels and Stories (1927)
Dreiser Looks at Russia (1928)
Moods, Cadenced and Disclaimed (1928)
A Gallery of Women (1929)
Dawn (1931)
Tragic America (1931)
Moods, Philosophical and Emotional (1935)
America Is Worth Saving (1941)

PUBLISHED POSTHUMOUSLY

The Bulwark (1946)
The Stoic (1947)
Notes on Life (1974)
American Diaries, 1902-1926 (1982)
An Amateur Laborer (1983)

 

Roger W. Smith, articles published in “A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia”

Roger W. Smith, articles, ‘A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia’