Dreiser hailed as writer of the city; Novelist caught aesthetic power of urban scene
BYLINE: Jeffrey Hart
THE LOST WORD
JEFFRY HART on the novels of THEODORE DREISER
Everything that can be said against Theodore Dreiser has been said. It is therefore time to make the case for him in terms that finally matter – that is to say, as a writer, a writer who did much that was new in writing.
It must have been startling to have been an alert reader in that annus mirabilis of American literature, 1925. You read Ernest Hemingway’s first major work, “In Our Time.”
You read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and also that strangely pivotal conversion poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “The Hollow Men,” which ends with the infant’s “whimper” at Bethlehem. And you read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.”
The case against Dreiser much resembles Samuel Johnson’s case against John Milton. Dreiser was a disagreeable man. His sexual conduct was outrageous, and his political opinions equally so. As Johnson would think of Milton, Dreiser’s philosophical opinions, if philosophical is the right word, were incoherent. His style occasionally is embarrassing.
Let us continue for a while the case against Dreiser before hearing from the defense.
In a recollective essay titled “An Evening at Theodore Dreiser’s,” Malcolm Cowley tells us about a meeting under Communist Party auspices at Dreiser’s Manhattan studio in 1931, a year of hard-to-imagine economic collapse and social desperation. The meeting was called to recruit writers, artists and intellectuals to the revolutionary cause.
“The younger writers were proud of his later successes, and most of them felt that he and not [Sinclair] Lewis should have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize; but they also felt that he groped and fumbled more than anyone had a right to do.
“His mind, it often seemed to us, was like an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Darwinist, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes almost as a fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer. … Dreiser looked up shyly from his prepared text, revealing his scrubbed lobster-pink cheeks and his chins in repeating terraces. . .. ‘The time is ripe,’ he said, ‘for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker.’ ”
Cowley’s portrait of Dreiser is affectionately and respectfully devastating. The cultural left regarded Dreiser as a peasant writer and celebrated his faults as a sign of peasant authenticity. His awkwardness and his contradictions were signs of health compared with the decadent perfection and intelligence of Henry James. If you were for The People, Theodore Dreiser was your man.
From a rather different perspective, H.L. Mencken celebrated Dreiser as a writer coming from outside the genteel tradition of the East – and Mencken had in mind not least that Dreiser was of German stock. Harvard’s F.O. Matthiessen, an acute literary critic, stumbled in trying to elevate Dreiser by selecting among his ideas and viewing him as an “echt” man of The People.
In his important essay “Reality in America,” Lionel Trilling tried to execute Dreiser. Published earlier in parts in magazines, this essay appeared between hard covers in “The Liberal Imagination” (1950).
Trilling argues that “reality” in American culture is crudely conceived and excludes the operations of “mind.”
This thought had been anticipated by the James brothers, William and Henry, but Trilling makes the case powerfully, and he puts Dreiser in the dock. “It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy, as in the old plays.”
Up to a point, Trilling is absolutely right. There is an American democratic sentimentality that views slow-thinking clumsiness as a sign of moral virtue. There is a mainstream American opinion that suspects serious activity of the mind as being aristocratic and considers it “unreal,” as distinguished from the “odors of the shop.” Trilling convicts Dreiser of intellectual thuggishness, also noting that he was an anti-semite, as indeed he was.
Trilling’s climactic charge against Dreiser is moral and religious. In his last novel, “The Bulwark” (1946), Dreiser turns religious. He does so all too easily. Trilling compares this revolving-door Dreiser shift with the struggles of St. Augustine in the “Confessions.”
Dreiser’s hero in “The Bulwark,” Solon Barnes (you gag at the tacky “Solon”) affirms a simple Christian faith and a submission to the higher “powers,” the very same “powers” that Dreiser had earlier thought to be totally indifferent.
But egad! The same year “The Bulwark” appeared, Theodore Dreiser joined the Communist Party.
All of this Trilling can’t stand. And here the prosecution of Theodore Dreiser rests.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I will now speak in defense of the accused:
I will not defend Theodore Dreiser’s ideas.
I note, however, that in Trilling’s essay, which has much on its mind besides Theodore Dreiser – much, that is, including the politics of the Democratic Party and the fight against fellow-traveling (remember that the time is the late 1940s) – Trilling remarkably quotes very little from Dreiser’s own prose. He does quote a couple of collectors’ items, where Dreiser interpolates some idiotic “philosophizing” (Dreiser himself evidently valued this stuff) and Trilling certainly convicts Dreiser of intellectual fatuity and moral foolishness.
But Trilling does not in his prosecutor’s brief offer to locate the power of Dreiser as a novelist. It is as a novelist that his power must be assessed.
The title “An American Tragedy” has the aroma of the year 1925. Such writers as Dreiser, Hemingway and Fitzgerald aspired to write “the great American novel,” by which they meant an epic novel that would encompass the vast and contradictory “American” experience. Of course, none of them could do that probably impossible task, but it was certainly a nobler ambition than the minimalism of Ann Beattie or the current “minority” whining.
Trilling in his otherwise great essay does not address Dreiser specifically as a novelist, does not locate his actual power, the power that makes us emotionally exhausted by the fate of Carrie or Clyde. It is the best of Dreiser that matters, not his foolishness, and it is the best that will endure.
Throw old Dreiser’s ideas into the wastebasket. He did something new as a writer. He wrote a prose that almost alone in our literature celebrates the magic of the city, and he did this in the teeth of his moralistic superego, which kept telling him that the city and riches were evil.
It is a peculiar fact that American literature hates the city and always has. Thomas Jefferson did. T.S. Eliot did. So did Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane. Poor Hart Crane tried to celebrate the city with the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he collapsed as a poet in doing so.
Dreiser, perhaps despite himself, is the great poet in prose of the delights – the heretofore forbidden delights – of the city:
“Carrie was an apt student of fortune’s ways . . . fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion. They spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear. Ah, ah! the voices of the so-called inanimate. Who shall yet translate the language of the stones?”
Dreiser translated in his best prose the language of the stones. This is not fancy or “philosophical” writing. Dreiser – continue thinking of him as a writer – keeps expressing the aesthetics of the city. As Gustave Flaubert remarked, “Emma Bovary c’est moi,” Dreiser could certainly say of Carrie or Clyde, “C’est moi.”
Moralists would think of the following passage in “An American Tragedy” as part of the miseducation of Clyde Griffiths. He is here a bellhop at the luxurious Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City:
“There, at midnight even, before each of the three principal entrances – one facing each of three streets – was a doorman in a long maroon coat with many buttons and a high-rimmed and long-visored maroon cap. And inside, behind looped and fluted French silk curtains, were the still blazing lights, the a la carte dining-room and the American grill near the corner still open. And about them there were many taxis and cars. And there was music always – from somewhere.”
Music from somewhere? Well, certainly from Dreiser’s love for that Green-Davidson urban hotel.
Wherever you touch Dreiser’s prose at its best you get this direct blast of unphilosophical love:
“Clyde first stared, felt himself tremble the least bit with excitement, then thanking his advisor for his kindness, went directly to a green-marbled doorway which opened from the rear of this drug-store into the lobby of the hotel.
“Once through it, he beheld a lobby, the like of which, for all his years but because of the timorous poverty that had restrained him from exploring such a world, was more arresting, quite, than anything he had seen before. It was all so lavish. Under his feet was a checkered black-and-white marble floor. Above him a coppered and stained and gilded ceiling. And supporting this, a veritable forest of black marble columns as highly polished as the floor.”
There is no “philosophizing” in such passages, no paste gems such as Trilling correctly quotes against Dreiser. When Dreiser is telling the truth about the beauty and the possibility of the city, he writes in a direct and muscular prose, a prose that expresses the city and what it offers.
It is too bad that Clyde Griffiths could not exercise prudence and had to die in the electric chair. It is too bad that Dreiser held revolving-door “opinions.”
It remains a fact that the defendant, Theodore Dreiser, accomplished something new in our literature, perhaps accomplished it despite his moralistic predispositions. He wrote about the aesthetic possibilities of the American city with a power that no one had done before.
The defense rests.
Jeffrey Hart is professor of English at Dartmouth College.
— Jeffrey Hart
The Washington Times
May 7, 1990