Editorial Comment Regarding Dreiser, upon His Death (The Times of London, The Spectator)

 

As noted elsewhere in this blog, the obituaries of Theodore Dreiser, who died on December 28, 1945, were “paltry, formulaic, and tepid, and there [were] few original ones.”

An exception is an obituary in The Times of London which is transcribed below, followed by commentary in The Spectator four days later by an editorial writer who took exception to remarks made in The Times about Dreiser.

 

The Times (London)
Monday, December 31, 1945
MR. THEODORE DREISER
AMERICAN NOVELIST

 

Mr. Theodore Dreiser, the American novelist, died at Hollywood on Friday night, shortly before completing the last chapter of a new trilogy called “The Stoic,” telegraphs our Los Angeles Codependent.

There was a time when Theodore Dreiser was widely regarded as the most impressive figure in American literature since Whitman, excepting only Mark Twain. He seemed to possess something of Whitman’s symbolic quality, a similar power of articulating popular criticism while appearing to maintain an Olympian detachment, a comparable largeness and intensity of purpose. In volume after volume of prodigious size he depicted in unwearying detail the rhythm and colour of life in the great new cities of the United States. Of his sprawling strength and vitality as a novelist there can to-day be little question. But Dreiser has not quite the towering stature in American literature that he possessed in the eyes of his warmest admirers during, say, the 1920s. In retrospect his novels come a little too near to being vast and unwieldy exercises in descriptive journalism to attain the high rank that was once claimed for them.

It is not merely that Dreiser was an incorrigibly unselective writer or that he wrote in an almost painfully plodding, graceless, and prolix style. Nor is it the arid and melancholy of his cast of thought that limits his power in the first place. It is rather the unilluminated quality of his imaginative creation, the absence in him of any strong feeling for what was not obvious and on the surface of American life, that accounts for peculiarly bleak impression his novels make. After his tremendous success with “An American Tragedy” in 1925, he wrote volumes of autobiographical complexion or of social criticism – volumes which in all essential respects were not very different in descriptive quality from his fiction.

Born in 1871 in Terre Haute, in Indiana, the son of humble German parents who had emigrated to the Middle West, Dreier was one of a family of 13 children. His father’s narrow and authoritarian Roman Catholicism, joined as it was to a complete ineffectualness in practical, matters, drove him at an early age into hatred of all Churches and dogmatic creeds. His mother’s struggles to support the family always shadowed the love he felt for her. It was, without question, the experience of his childhood which made Dreiser a materialist by temperament. He found his education where he could, went early to work, and in turn sold newspapers in the streets of Chicago, washed dishes in a restaurant, was a photographer’s assistant, a clerk in a railway goods station, a packer in a hardware firm. Then, through the generosity of a woman teacher who had discerned his abilities, he went to the State University of Indiana.

At various times between 1891 and 1895 he was a newspaper reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York. In observing from time to time the movement of events and personalities behind the scenes in that predatory gilded age of American expansion he came to see life in the big cities as a naked and ruthless struggle for existence which devoured all the conventional pieties of the current moral code. His reading of Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley seems to have confirmed him in his view of man as a creature little better than the beasts, dominated by fear and hunger. When he conceived the ambition of becoming, in some sort, “the American Balzac,” it was with the firm intention of conceding nothing to other dissenting views.

“Sister Carrie,” his first novel, ponderous in style but of a brutally harsh realism for the times, appeared in 1900, and made little stir. Legend has surrounded the event with the suggestion that the book was deliberately suppressed by the publishers, but in fact it seems to have been issued in quite a normal way, and the most that can be urged in the circumstances in that there was possibly a lack of anxiety on the publisher’s part to “push” its sale. Dreiser, however, who was by then a successful journalist, felt deeply injured by the inadequate notice the book received (and by various items of hostile criticism), and did not publish another novel for 11 years. In the interval, he held several editorial posts, being editor-in-chief of the Butterick publications from 1907 until 1910. In 1911 he produced the relatively short “Jennie Gerhardt,” which won considered praise. Then came “The Financier” (1912, rewritten 1927) and “The Titan” (1914), which embodied at enormous length, and with a fair degree of novelist’s license, something of the career of a well-known traction magnate of the period, C. T. Yerkes. These are probably Dreiser’s best books, Illustrating with obdurate strength the corrupting psychology of wealth and power in American society.

Neither his novels nor later works of non-fiction – “A Traveller at Forty,” “A Hoosier Holiday,” “Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” and others – received anything like their just due when they first appeared. It was necessary for him to await the full development of an after-war mood of disillusionment before receiving adequate recognition. That, and rather more than that, came with the appearance of the earnest, massive but fatiguing “An American Tragedy,” an over-praised book.

There remain his volumes of autobiography, which in chronological order begin with “Dawn”; “Moods Cadenced and Declaimed”; “Chains”; a volume of short stories – his short stories were merely large-sized chunks of function, indistinguishable in artistic method from his novels; “Dreiser Looks at Russia,” written after a tourist’s visit with Mr. Sinclair Lewis in 1927, very sympathetic in tone but expressing doubt of the outcome; and “Tragic America,” published in this country in 1932 and leaving an impression of somewhat rhetorical bitterness and heat. In the 1939-45 war he several times created a minor stir by the virulence of his anti-British outbursts. In 1942, for instance, he described the British as ‘lousy and aristocratic horse-riding snobs,” predicted that Russia would go down in defeat, and hoped the Germans would invade England, which in any case had done nothing in the war, he said, except borrow money and men from the United States. Having thus spoken his mind on the eve of a public address which he was due to deliver in Toronto, he was obliged to depart in a hurry from the city and from Canada. Dreiser was not a sympathetic personality and grew crabbed and assertive in his last years. As a writer, he was, in one sense, as native to the American soil as Hawthorne or Whitman, a grim, hard, uncompromising, and powerful witness to the truth as he saw it.

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The Spectator, Friday, January 4, 1946

 

Ordinary readers – I will not say admirers – of Theodore Dreiser’s works will, I should imagine, have read with some surprise the depreciatory obituary notice of him in Monday’s Times. Take one judgement alone: “The earnest, massive, but fatiguing An American Tragedy, an over-praised book.” Well, anyone, of course, is free to think that, and to say that. Equally anyone is free to express astonishment, as I take leave to do, at such a verdict. To me this deeply moving novel has always seemed charged with all the relentless inevitability of a Greek tragedy. That I am not alone in this I know. I may be in a minority, but I doubt it.