Posted here (above) as a PDF file is Alfred Kazin’s article “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics,” which was originally published in a paperback book, The Anchor Review, Number One, in 1955. The article was subsequently published in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro (Indiana University Press, 1955).
This is a brilliant essay. It is fair to Dreiser in recognizing and evaluating his strengths as well as his weaknesses. It shows why Dreiser mattered to his generation, and still matters. Kazin says an awful lot in a few pages, not seemingly missing anything essential about Dreiser.
I have one quibble with Kazin’s article. He says that in Sister Carrie “there are scarce any philosophic reflections or deductions expressed.” Sister Carrie seems to actually be replete with such authorial musings, which are admixed with the narrative, no doubt reflecting Dreiser’s naïve but sincere interest in the works of social philosophers such as Herbert Spencer.
The following comment on Theodore Dreiser first appeared in the journal Menckeniana (Summer 1971) among selections from previously unpublished Mencken material.
Dreiser, like Goethe, was more interesting than any of his books. He was typical, in more ways than one, of a whole generation of Americans–a generation writhing in an era of advancing chaos. There must have been some good blood hidden in him, but on the surface he was simply an immigrant peasant bewildered by the lack of neat moral syllogisms in civilized existence. He renounced his ancestral religion at the end of his teens, but never managed to get rid of it. Throughout his life it welled up in him in the form of various fantastic superstitions–spiritualism, Fortism, medical quackery, and so on–and in his last days it engulfed him in the form of Communism, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the will to believe. If he had lived another’ ten years, maybe even another five years, he would have gone back to Holy Church–the path followed before him by many other such poor fish, for example, Heywood Broun. His last book was a full-length portrait of a true believer, and extremely sympathetic. Solon Barnes, like Dreiser himself, was flabbergasted by the apparent lack of common sense and common decency in the cosmos, but in the end he yielded himself gratefully to the God who had so sorely afflicted him.