Harold J. Dies (1914-2012) was Trustee of the Dreiser Trust.
Harold J. Dies (1914-2012) was Trustee of the Dreiser Trust.
The following is Theodore Dreiser’s foreword to The Symbolic Drawings of Hubert Davis for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (Horace Liveright, 1930), which was published as a limited edition.
THREE THINGS arrest me in these twenty commentaries on Clyde Griffiths and his family life cycle. They are: (one) the very distinguished power of symbolization, accompanied and strengthened as it is by (two) the gift of epitomizing symbolically, and (three) the sketchy and yet really deft craftmanship (sympathetic, moody and even emotional as it becomes at times) with which things not ordinarily joined in strong ideographic or symbolic wholes are nevertheless here brought together in an illuminating and at times flashing way.
Consider only the emotional imaginings of Clyde as they related to Sondra (Plate 7), or the drabness and lack of understanding and futility of the Griffiths group as pictured by him in Scene I–old Asa Griffiths, and Elvira, little Clyde and the others. Or that other particular scene after the party at Sondra’s, where he approaches the house of the Gilpins and notes the glow of Roberta’s waiting lamp. The somberness of the problem suggested– its ominous implications. Again, where Clyde—(or put in his place all distrait youth and inexperience, all troubled sense of error and failure, as it finds itself on occasion in this world)–stands before the druggist waiting. That suggestion, not so much of Clyde as of all human misery– of embryo life itself–caught in the toils of circumstance. And the suggestion of the toils of circumstance, the iron and yet shadowy fingers of weaving, irresistible life behind it all–its out-reaching arm! Or again, that quite marvelous condensation of all that is macerating in doubt and in fear–the scene before the house of Doctor Glenn, where Clyde and Roberta wait and argue–the gripping misery, the haunting sense of failure. Or yet again, the scene where Roberta drowns–that eye in the water; or where Clyde wanders south, through the woods–a morass of misery rather than of trees. Yet actually, if it were of any value so to do, I would name not just these, but each and every one of them and commend all for the qualities first listed by me — the power of symbolization as well as epitomization. In short, if An American Tragedy itself were lost from life, its essential tragedy, if not text, might well be reconstructed from these various intense reactions–their inherent understanding and epitomization of all that is so true and so sad about that very complicated mesh of misery that was Clyde and his desires and his weaknesses and failures.
And yet, no one of them in particular any more than all of them collectively evoked by the essential grimness or pathos of this particular tragedy, as opposed to any other true tragedy. Rather inherent, I think, in Davis’ personal viewpoint, his temperamental as well as craft reactions to what he sees in life and how the human comedy or tragedy appeals to him personally. A large viewpoint and large gift. And proved by the ease with which he turns from this particular theme (An American Tragedy) to the tales of Poe, as well as the novels of Dostoievsky–an ease and surety which I am sure could and would encompass and symbolize the essentials of almost any other important, brooding or sombre analysis and presentation of life on the part of any one. As a matter of fact, I see as properly lying within this his field and range such volumes or studies as Wuthering Heights, The Inferno of Strindberg, The Ancient Mariner, The Master Builder of Ibsen, The Diary of A. Gordon Pym, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Paradise Lost, The Great Plague of London, possibly even Dante’s Inferno had not Doré done that.
Returning to An American Tragedy and his interpretation of that, let me say here I count the work as well as myself fortunate in that it has found in him one so truly gifted and at the same time so interested as to symbolize that much of it as truly moved him. In short, since first this collection, as well as that other relating to the stories of Poe, was shown to me, I have never wearied of them. To me they sound a new and sure note in American Symbolic Art–so much so that I am loath to think of him deserting this particular phase of his gift before he has undertaken some of the other works above mentioned which so obviously and properly fall within his range. I would give not a little to have him illustrate Crime and Punishment.
Finally, in connection with this type of thing–Doré’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno and Blake’s illumination of his mysterious spirit world–I have the feeling that they not only illuminate the woks they accompany, but better, restate its substance or essence in another and scarcely less valuable medium; in some instances more effectively than do the words or the books themselves. For here much that at times in books at least, must be almost tediously and certainly meticulously recounted, comes smack and instanter to the mind, as light to the eye or a cry to the ear. And often–as in the skeleton figure of the keeper above the prison in this group–they gather up in a few tragic and to me almost spectral lines all that is meant by fate or ignorance, illusion, delusion, defeat, torture, death–the shambling and ragged procession, mental and physical, of those who come botched and defective–unfavored by Chance and hence despised and ever accursed by society. But by whose fault? And why?
Ask me now whose.
Ask me not why.
(signed) Theodore Dreiser
Note that Dreiser states: “Consider … that other particular scene after the party at Sondra’s, where [Clyde] approaches the house of the Gilpins and notes the glow of Roberta’s waiting lamp.” This is characteristic carelessness by Dreiser, in this case regarding the details of his own novel. The scene where Clyde approaches the house where Roberta is boarding occurs in Book Two, Chapter XXXI of An American Tragedy. The scene occurs not after a party given by Sondra, but on Christmas day after Clyde has attended Christmas dinner at the home of his uncle.
— Roger W. Smith
Posted here is the text of a New York Times article: “An American Revival” by Alan Bisbort, The New York Times, January 4, 2004.
The article seems to have attracted little notice and probably not much readership, since it appeared in a regional Sunday supplement. It is highly interesting and informative. It is based upon an interview with Professor Thomas P. Riggio, an eminent Dreiserian, and delves into attempts to reappraise Dreiser and his works, to reinvigorate Dreiser scholarship, and to publish authoritative editions of his works.
— Roger W. Smith
An American Revival
by Alan Bisbort
The New York Times
January 4, 2004
YOU can’t keep a good writer down. Just look at Samuel Johnson or Herman Melville, both of whom fell into obscurity and neglect after their deaths before being resuscitated by latter-day scholars and readers.
Or just ask Thomas P. Riggio, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut in Storrs since 1972. He will gladly talk a blue streak about Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), the novelist whose “An American Tragedy” (1925) placed him on the Mount Rushmore of American letters only to be evicted soon after he died.
Since 1986, when Dr. Riggio took over a project called the Dreiser Edition, he has been administering the academic equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver to Dreiser’s reputation. The Dreiser Edition, published by the University of Illinois Press and co-sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania, has produced 16 scholarly editions of the writer’s work, and Dr. Riggio has plans to bring the total to 40. Two new editions will be published in 2004, with two more in 2005.
“This project is opening up an entire new canon,” Dr. Riggio said. “With Dreiser, the amount of unpublished and improperly published material is nearly staggering, especially from a writer who at one time dominated the American literary scene. Because he was so censored, his books very often didn’t appear in their original form during his lifetime. There is so much that nobody has ever seen.”
Dr. Riggio cites the case of “A Traveler at Forty,” one of the Dreiser Editions he is spiriting into print next fall. “That book was, literally, cut in half by the publisher when it appeared in 1913,” he said. “Can you imagine this happening to any other major writer?”
Dr. Riggio’s efforts are riding a Dreiserian wave. Earlier this year, the Library of America published a 972-page “An American Tragedy” with notes by Dr. Riggio, and the Greenwood Press in Westport published “The Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia,” an authoritative — and expensive ($99) — reference guide. Future attention will also keep the author — called the “greatest living writer in America” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1918 — on the front burner. The Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an opera based on “An American Tragedy” that is scheduled for the 2005-06 season. A documentary film, “At the Gates of the Walled City: The Life and Work of Theodore Dreiser,” is in the works.
None of this comes as a surprise to Richard Lingeman, whose two-volume biography of Dreiser coincided with Dr. Riggio’s singular mission.
“Great literature endures,” said Mr. Lingeman, who has been on the Dreiser Edition advisory board since 1980. “Reputations go up and down, and I don’t pretend to understand how that happens. Dreiser endures because he wasn’t sheltered from life. He fought obstacles and that gave him a thick skin and an ability to continue on despite the barrage of criticism. He was one of those unusual writers of great talents who had a sense of mission to tell the truth.”
Born in Terre Haute, Ind., a poor German immigrant family, Dreiser began writing for newspapers in 1892 in Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in 1894 and worked as an editor and writer for magazines.
His first novel, “Sister Carrie,” was published in 1900 and hit like a Hoosier tornado. Nothing quite like it for warts-and-all depiction of life had been published in America. Even as it made a name for the author, the book ran afoul of arbiters of morals. Copies were taken off shelves; some were burned.
Similar reactions greeted his subsequent novels, sprawling sagas of broken dreams and raw deals, such as “Jenny Gerhardt” (1911), “The Financier” (1912), “The Titan” (1914) and “The ‘Genius”’ (1915). His greatest champion through these tough years was H.L. Mencken. Though they were worlds apart in upbringing — and often battled over Dreiser’s leftist leanings — the pair forged a bond. Of Dreiser, Mr. Mencken said, “American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin.”
Dr. Riggio, who has also edited two volumes of Dreiser-Mencken letters, said: “He was the first major American writer to grow up in a non-English-speaking home. He grew up with three strikes against him: poor, German and Catholic. He didn’t have the American impulse to give a happy ending, or a way out.”
Dr. Riggio, who is halfway through a 10-year effort to write his own Dreiser biography, is constantly amazed by his subject’s breadth.
“What is often forgotten is that he was fully engaged in his time,” he said. “He took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, the Harlan County coal miners, the Hollywood 10, Tom Mooney. He went to Spain to seek relief for the victims of the fascists. Dreiser wanted a sense of equity for all Americans and he understood what brought on the Great Depression.
“And he wasn’t wrong. But he paid the price for all that in the precipitous decline of his reputation after his death.”
Dr. Riggio is particularly proud of the Dreiser Edition he culled from the author’s correspondence with women, part of a huge cache of unpublished material at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Library. The depiction of Dreiser’s relations with women has, like his politics, been superseded by myth.
“I hate the word ‘womanizer,’ but it’s used to describe Dreiser,” Dr. Riggio said. “He was married twice. His first wife died and he was married to his second wife 25 years. And Dreiser’s most vivid characters are those of strong, empathetic women.”
Mr. Lingeman shares Dr. Riggio’s sense of Dreiser’s vastness. “Something about Dreiser keeps yielding more,” said Mr. Lingeman, executive editor of The Nation. “He was such a great documenter of facts and his books have a cumulative power. There’s so much to study and learn. I can understand how a scholar would spend 30 years on him.”
Mr. Riggio, 60, said his attachment to Dreiser was “partly accidental.” Before embarking on an academic career and after graduating from Fordham University, the Manhattan native pursued two careers, one as a member of Mayor John Lindsay’s staff, the other as a wholesaler.
“After working 18-hour days seven days a week for two years, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.”’
Dr. Riggio went to Harvard on a scholarship and earned a master’s and a doctorate there, moving on to teach literature in Storrs.
He said: “I always liked Dreiser but when I began looking at the material in the archive in Pennsylvania, just to be able to handle it, with its coffee stains, scribbled marginalia, to see the decisions of the writer. This was exciting stuff.”
Nonetheless, Dreiser’s “image problem” seems to have a life of its own.
“It’s hard to overcome this, but I hope with the Dreiser Edition and other upsurge in interest there’s a chance that we can at least get the facts straight,” Dr. Riggio said. “This is what brings a great writer back.”
Photo captions: Theodore Dreiser in a photograph taken in 1931. There is a new wave of interest in the writer’s works.; Thomas P. Riggio, who is working on a project called the Dreiser Edition, at his home office in Manchester.; A bamboo rocking chair that was once owned by Theodore Dreiser is now the property of Dr. Riggio, an English professor at UConn.
Posted here is a copy of a letter dated June 8, 1933 to Theodore Dreiser from his nephew George K. Nelson.
George Kates Nelson (1892-1955) was the son of Dreiser’s sister Emma Wilhelmina Dreiser by Lorenzo A. Hopkins. Mr. Nelson was the manager of a hotel in Manhattan.
Dreiser was close to George K. Nelson’s sister Gertrude A. Hopkins, his niece. But, the cold, businesslike letter posted here shows that there was no personal relationship between Dreiser and his nephew George. Nelson had had a relationship in his adolescence with his uncle Paul Dresser, the songwriter (Theodore Dreiser’s brother), this according to an interview with Gloria N. Vevante, George K. Nelson’s daughter, conducted by Roger W. Smith in 2007.
Nelson writes here: “It is understood that any such moneys received by me will be received as agent for Mary F. Brennan, Sylvia Kishima, Emma A. Nelson [George K. Nelson’s mother], Albert J. Dreiser and Rome M. Dresser. …” They were Dreiser’s siblings.
— Roger W. Smith
Posted here is a copy of a letter dated April 30, 1938 from Theodore Dreiser’s younger brother Eduard Minerod Dreiser (1873-1958) to Dreiser
Mentioned in the letter:
“the Astoria family” — Dreiser’s sisters Emma Wilhelmina Dreiser (1863-1936); Maria Franziska Dreiser (Mame; 1861-1944); and Cacilia Dreiser (ca. 1865-1945), all of whom lived in their later years in Astoria, Queens, New York City
“Mame” — Dreiser’s sister Maria Franziska Dreiser
“Mai” — Edward Dreiser’s wife Mai V. (Skelly) Dreiser (1878-1955)
“Vera” — Edward Dreiser’s daughter Vera Dreiser (1908-1998), Theodore Dreiser’s niece
“Paul” – Driers brother, the songwriter Paul Dresser (1856-1906)
news item from unidentified newspaper, May 14, 1919
It was great to see a rare screening of the original 1931 film version of An American Tragedy on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this evening. I am convinced that this version is superior to the acclaimed film A Place in the Sun, which I, personally, do not feel deserves the praise it has been accorded. See my post to this effect at
Particularly appealing — indeed, gratifying — to me was the quality of the print. I have seen the 1931 film several times, and the image was always grainy.
The host for the program, Ben Mankiewicz, got most of the details about the circumstances associated with the making of the film — and Theodore Dreiser’s objections to it — right. But, at the end of the program, he made a serious factual error. He stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount. This is not true.
It was Grace Brown’s mother who sued the producers, as is indicated in the following news item:
“Ithaca Picked for Trial of Movie Suit; ‘American Tragedy’ Producers Denied Pre-Trial Questioning Petition,” Syracuse Herald, September 7, 1934, pg. 16
$150,000 libel action of Mrs. Grace Brown, 78, of Smyrna [NY], against Paramount-Publix moving picture corporation for alleged destructive character delineation in the film version of “An American Tragedy.” … Clifford Searl of Syracuse, counsel for Mrs. [Minerva] Brown. “Mrs. Brown claims in her suit she was depicted as ‘illiterate’ in the film version.”
Also see below a PDF file of a New York Times article dated November 9, 1934 about the settlement of the suit.
Roger W. Smith
May 17, 2017