I have always felt that Theodore Dreiser’s A Book About Myself (1922) is not only clearly superior to his other autobiographical work, Dawn (1931), but that the former work is underrated and has been neglected (which it should not be) when it comes to the question of ascertaining what American autobiographies are most deserving of being regarded as classics.
A Book About Myself was republished by Horace Liveright in 1931 under Dreiser’s original title, Newspaper Days. In 1991, the University of Pennsylvania Press published an unexpurgated edition edited by T. D. Nostwich which restored passages considered too explicit for publication when the book was first published. This unbowdlerizing increased the size of length of the work considerably.
The following is an excerpt from a review of the original work in the New York Tribune by Burton Rascoe. The entire review is posted here as a downloadable PDF document. It is a stimulating, lively review which shows a fundamental understanding and appreciation of Dreiser. Arthur Burton Rascoe (1892-1957) was a literary critic for the Tribune. He knew Dreiser personally and was the author of a book about him.
It must be a cause for pain and chagrin to Mr. Dreiser’s detractors as a novelist, who urge against him the single score of immortality, to read this book. On the face of it this self-revelation is frank and sincere. Mr. Dreiser has the conspicuous virtue of all great confessors: he does not hide the truth even when it makes him look ridiculous. For certainly he is in turn pathetic and lovable, sublime and ludicrous. He is, like the George Moore of “Hail and Farewell,” much and often a booby; he is, like the St. Augustine of “The Confessions,” much and often a noddle; he is, like Rousseau, much and often an ass; he is, like Casanova, much and often a vain and comical boaster; he is, like Bunyan and Dickens, in frequent bad taste; but he is forever and always frank, honest, and sincere.
I agree with Rascoe’s assessment. One of the chief things to admire about the book and Dreiser as revealed therein, by Dreiser himself, is Dreiser’s candor. He was never afraid to portray himself both as a budding journalist and idealistic young man to be esteemed, when appropriate; and also as someone often inept and jejune who could be found to have acted rashly and behaved foolishly and to have failed to acquit himself well on many occasions, besides giving heed to both “good” and “bad” impulses.
The book is, above all (as Rascoe notes), an honest and therefore authentic coming of age story. And, a compelling one. It should have more readers, but rarely — in fact, hardly ever — does it get noticed or mentioned as a prime example of American autobiography. It seems to have few readers nowadays.
— Roger W. Smith