From the Stacks: "Theodore Dreiser"

December 23, 1930

by John Chamberlain | August 27, 2013

Theodore Dreiser, American naturalist and the author of An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie, was born on this day 142 years ago. Below, John Chamberlain writes on Dreiser’s childhood and development as an American author of the industrial age. 

Last spring, driving east from Chicago, I passed through Warsaw, Indiana, a sleepy town situated close to three small, lovely lakes. There was something familiar about the place something that made me feel certain I had been there before. And then, suddenly, I remembered: I had read about Warsaw in Theodore Dreiser’s autobiography of childhood, “Dawn,” Dreiser had lived there in his early teens; there he had read Shakespeare, Ouida, “Tom Jones,” Laura Jean Libby, General Lew Wallace's “Ben Hur,” Dickens, Carlyle and “Moll Flanders” in higgledy-piggledy confusion in the local library. There one of his sisters had conceived an illegitimate child; there his mother, a vague, sweet, struggling, ineffectual creature, had tried to keep the remnants of her family together on practically nothing. And there the young Theo had skated and swum, had mooned about the beauty of the lakes and the Tippecanoe River, and had dreamed about high-born girls while having an experience with the baker's willing daughter.

It was easy to imagine the culture of the Warsaw of two or three generations ago; you could read it in the town's architecture, which was a little more solid than Rochester's to the south, or that of Coldwater, Michigan, to the north. Quite obviously the culture had been Puritan-commercial; that could be taken for granted. But—or so one fancied—the spirit of the place wasn’t too pushing, or too intolerant. The local church sociables were really sociable; it was, in short, the sort of town that would neither accept the Dreisers nor persecute them. Nor would it try to bring these impoverished newcomers from southern Indiana into the Puritan-commercial orbit.

I had not read Dreiser in a long time and I had not been thinking of him. But the five minutes spent driving through Warsaw suddenly explained to me Dreiser’s whole relation to the literature of his times and to the movement of ideas that killed the rule of the genteel tradition in America. This was not the result of an attempt at mystical penetration on my part; I was no Keyserling catching an idea from a cross-wind merely because the car had slowed down to fifteen miles an hour. What had happened was that the half-remembered facts of “Dawn” suddenly shuffled themselves into a significant pattern. Dreiser, it became wholly obvious to me for the first time, had not consciously attacked the sway of the genteel tradition when he wrote “Sister Carrie.” That book had been a natural; it was a yea-saying to what he had learned in Warsaw, not a nay-saying to the conventional New England schoolmarm. Indeed, his own school teachers had been both sympathetic and helpful.

Consider the facts in the case. The young Theodore had not been accepted by Puritan-commercial folk; therefore he was not loaded down in childhood with hampering theories of the correct way in which to live and act and write. The great moral paradox of the age—how to square the competitive parable of the talents with the teachings of the New Testament—did not trouble him, since he was not preached at by elders who were quick to urge young people to succeed—and to be good Christian men and women at the same time. Nor did he suffer because of exclusion: Warsaw did not hound him. He got through the impressionable years without undue infection from the missionary spirit of the American Tract Society and the novels of the period. Instead, he followed his instincts: for sentimentalism (Ouida, Laura Jean Libby), and for good, raw, healthily vulgar stuff (“Tom Jones,” “Moll Flanders”), The Ouida strain and the “Tom Jones” strain persist as dominants in all the Dreiser books. If the young Theodore had anything to rebel against, anything to give him the mark of negativism, it was the Catholic Church, whose creed was interpreted with a dogmatic literalness by his narrow and repellent father. But the father, who did not come with his family to Warsaw, lacked the intelligence to apply the Catholic creed to books or to daily life; his dogmatism remained largely in vacuo. Hence Dreiser’s opposition to his father never centered on anything concrete. It developed merely into an animus against philosophy in general and so served to confirm him in an empirical habit of mind.

The women of Dreiser’s novels are generally of two types—the uncritical, naturally sweet sort who give in for reasons of sympathy rather than of passion, and the prim, fussy daughters of the genteel. The first type—Carrie Meeber, Jennie Gerhardt, Koberta Alden, even Aileen Butler, the contractor’s daughter, of “The Financier” and “The Titan”—are compounded of Dreiser’s memories of his mother and his sisters; the second type is obviously drawn from the model of his first wife, a Missouri girl who was his first contact with the genteel. But the girl from Missouri had nothing to do with the shape of “Sister Carrie” or “Jennie Gerhardt”; these books are positive acts, affirmations of life hungering for experience. Not until he wrote "The Genius and, later on, "An American Tragedy,” did Dreiser mix animus with his ink. The animus is probably the reason for the heavy insistence on the role of environment in accounting for the character of Clyde Griffiths, Simply because the conscious naysayer protests too much, it has been easy to attack the conception of the young Clyde as “inevitably” the product of his early environment. Other young men with evangelical backgrounds failed to kill their sweethearts in similar dilemmas. Theory, in Dreiser s later years, commenced to ride his feeling for personality; he did better work when he was concerned with projecting personality, leaving the moralizing for isolated passages that stand as blemishes without destroying the force of his creation. 

It is the early Dreiser that interests me—the Dreiser of “Carrie” and “Jennie,” of the Cowperwood stories, and of the autobiographical narrative, “A Book About Myself,” which has been republished as “Newspaper Days,” I read “A Book About Myself” when I was just out of college, a young innocent who had little idea of what made the wheels go round in America. With its detailed account of wandering through Chicago, St. Louis, Toledo, Pittsburgh and New York in the nineties, “A Book About Myself” made the complexity of the modern industrial scene understandable—one could see from Dreiser's weltering, wondering, patient pages how it came into being. Dreiser's memories of the Pittsburgh of the Homestead Strike were especially galvanic; I had scarcely known, before reading "A Book About Myself,'' that such a thing as labor strife existed. (We were then living in the New Era, and I had been too young to take any particular notice of the troubles of 1918-21.) “A Book About Myself” was just the thing to give a fledgling newspaper reporter a sense of orientation. As for the novels—“Carrie,” “Jennie,” “The Titan,” “The Financier”—they helped to confirm the impressions gained from “A Book About Myself.” But they don't stand intensive rereading; one recalls them too easily. They have no stubborn subtleties of the sort that only yield themselves up on the third trip; hence my main affection for Dreiser is that he once helped me and did such a good job of it that I need his help no longer. Along with Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner and others, he taught me to see through the genteel tradition, to shake myself free of the belated colonialism of the late nineteenth century in New England. He taught me to discount as wish fulfillment the ideas of Stuart P. Sherman, who seemed to think Carrie Meebers and Jennie Gerhardts and Frank Cowperwoods were impossible.

Not that Dreiser’s anatomy of American life is final; no live person's should be. Finality means the end of curiosity, and Dreiser has always been curious. Even his late attempt to square Marxism with his own notions of “equity” leaves plenty of room for discovery, for rearranging his patterns to account for new intrusions of fact. He is still the empiricist. This habit of mind was what distinguished him, along with Stephen Crane, from all his important novelist contemporaries. And because of this habit of mind and a set of reflexes that had not been conditioned by the dominant ethos, the young Dreiser went forth equipped as no other novelist of the late nineteenth century to understand emerging industrial America, When he looked at a “captain of industry,” or a “promoter,” he was under no inner compulsion to square what he saw with an ethic picked up in Sunday-school years. Herein he broke with more tender-minded contemporary novelists who were also fascinated by the problem of industrial power—with Frank Norris, William Allen White, Robert Herrick and a host of lesser figures. The lesser figures were content to shut their eyes and glorify; they did the groundwork that resulted in the Coolidge cult of Service. To Norris, White and Herrick, more sensitive men, the industrialist was too patent a force to be ignored, yet they couldn't digest him without serious qualms of conscience. 

The business man was justified by the parable of the talents, yes; but there was this matter of the plain words of the New Testament, What to do about the paradox? William Allen White solved it, in “A Certain Rich Man,” by having his hero, John Barclay, give away the “dirty dollars” that he had amassed during his lifetime. Frank Norris, after dwelling on the power and the nerve and the skill of his market operator in “The Pit,” engineered a similar last-minute conversion. And Robert Herrick caused his “American citizen,” the sausage-maker Van Harrington, to think his way through to a new Darwinian competitive ethic—something which an actual Van Harrington would probably have never bothered his head about. All three of them—White, Norris and Herrick—felt constrained by their upbringings to take their eyes off the object: the industrialist, who usually felt justice and destiny to be on his side. They misinterpreted the man of destiny when they gave him the moral qualms of the brooding novelist. And the Puritan-commercial culture was paradoxically to blame for both the man of destiny and his misinterpreted. The man of destiny went forth armed with the parable of the talents and a Calvinistic conviction of divine election; as John D, Rockefeller put it, “God gave me my money,” And the novelist, who chose to accent the New Testament, couldn't believe that John D. said that with a good conscience. But John D. did say it with a good conscience. Dreiser was the first novelist to realize that. Lacking the conviction of commercial election himself, lacking also an uneasy belief that America must be squared with the New Testament, he could simply look and report and imagine.

It is true that as a young man Dreiser had his moments when he lacked the objective vision. He confesses, willingly enough, that he often yearned for the things that wealth could buy; he had an adolescent itch for gaudy clothes, for fine estates, for dinners in lobster palaces. But he soon satisfied himself that he lacked personal capacity for the sort of life that would bring him these things, and when he eventually did make money—as editor of The Delineator and as the author of a couple of popular successes—he used it to finance his writing, not to imitate the Pittsburgh millionaires whose antics he had studied in the nineties. His own early desires enabled him to understand the longings of Carrie and Jennie, of Cowperwood and of Clyde Griffiths; as Louis Kronenberger puts it, he has frequently used the novel to kill the thing he originally loved. Clyde Griffiths may be taken as a portrait of the young man Dreiser might have been if events had not decreed otherwise. Simply because Dreiser created Griffiths in a confessional mood, the portrait has authenticity and symbolic truth. Clyde Griffiths may not represent America in its better moments, but he represents one American aspiration, at any rate. The fact that Dreiser did not himself go the way of Clyde Griffiths, however, riddles the deterministic philosophy which the book is intended to underscore.

I have said nothing about the barbarities of Dreiser’s style; there is nothing left to say about them that hasn't been said a hundred times and more. I have said nothing about the effect that Thomas Henry Huxley and Balzac had on him, for a rereading of “Dawn” convinces me that Dreiser would have come to “Sister Carrie” and “The Titan” without their aid. Nor is there anything very specific to say about Dreiser's effect on later generations of American writers. In so far as his novel served as rallying points for the critics of the genteel—Mencken, Huneker, Vance Thompson—they have helped nearly everyone from Sherwood Anderson on down to Faulkner in a very general way. Dreiser, along with David Graham Phillips, the Shaw of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Brieux, Emma Goldman, Freud and Mabel Dodge Luhan as salonnière, helped make it possible for our novelists to admit sex as an explosive element to their fictional worlds. But American writing, in the twenties, turned vigorously away from the Dreiserian conception of fiction. Fitzgerald, Lardner, Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Elizabeth Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, Kenneth Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Robert Cantwell—none of these believes in the power of massed detail. Nor does Dos Passos, who has sometimes been called Dreiserian in his scope. For Dos Passos’ latest method is to pare his narratives to the bone; he gets his sense of profusion simply by printing four or five narratives between the same covers. Printed as an independent novel, the story of Charlie Anderson, for instance, would seem a clipped, un-Dreiserian thing. As a craftsman, Dreiser has made little mark. He remains, for me, a part of an education in ideas.

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