Monthly Archives: August 2021

John Berryman review of “Theodore Dreiser” by Mathiessen


John Berryman, review of ‘Theodre Dresier’ by Mathiessen – NYBR 3-4-1951


The following review (PDF above) is well worth reading:

“Through Dreiser’s Imagination the Tides of Real Life Billowed”

By John Berryman

The New York Times Book Review

March 4, 1951

review of Theodore Dreiser, by F. O. Matthiessen (1951)

The book was published posthumously. Matthiessen,  a Harvard University professor, committed suicide in 1950.


posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2021













; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Tmes (1851 -2004) pg. 191

Dreiser under the microscope


A bulletin announcing Dreiser sessions at the American Literature Association (ALA) conference held in San Francisco, May 2017:

Papers are invited on theoretical approaches to Dreiser’s canon and life. Some suggested approaches include Poststructuralism, Feminist Gender Theory, Material Culture, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy (such as Foucault’s Technology of Self). Topics may include Dreiser’s philosophical writings, fiction, plays, essays, autobiographies, and journalism.

Yes, but only if they were viewed through the prism of one of the opaque, recondite, and virtually incomprehensible lines of inquiry dear to academia specified in the second sentence above, almost all of them having nothing to do with Dreiser.

The living, breathing Dreiser and most of his works (unless they can be used to support an academically fashionable theory) are of scant interest to them.


— Roger W. Smith

    August 2021




an email to me from Professor Emeritus Arun P. Mukherjee

August 18, 2019

I admire you for sustaining your research and a passion for reading and writing outside the university. This morning, before I read your attached letter, I looked at your Dreiser blog and your responses to Alfred Kazin’s “Introductions.” I loved reading them. I fully agree with you that Studies in American Naturalism is no replacement for Dreiser studies.

I find the way literature is taught in the university under the rubrics of romanticism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism etc. so deadly. To give you an example from my personal experience, the writers I teach are labeled postcolonial by the academic categorizers. So. I would be often asked by my students as to tell them the “postcolonial aspects of the book.” So, they are not reading the book for the portrayal of the human life in the book, but for an “ism.” It defeats the whole purpose of reading literature.

The majority of academic papers are unreadable and I am thankful that I no longer have to bother reading them.

Theodore Dreiser and the Titanic


“Theodore Dreiser, Nearly a Passenger, on the Sinking of the Titanic”

By Nina Martyris


April 13, 2012


Money was Theodore Dreiser’s muse—the dazzling, deforming pivot on which his novels about fallen women and venal businessmen turned. It seems almost karmic, then, that a lack of money saved him from boarding the Titanic.

The great novelist was among a handful of prominent persons—including Guglielmo Marconi, Milton Hershey, J. P. Morgan, and Alfred Vanderbilt—who almost sailed on the allegedly sink-proof ship. As with the 9/11 attacks nearly nine decades later, there has been a persistent public fascination with those who just missed becoming a casualty of that massive catastrophe. What distinguishes Dreiser, who was crossing the ocean on another boat when news about the Titanic spread, is that he wrote about it, capturing the mood in the days immediately following among travelers who avoided the fate of those aboard that famous ship.

Homesick and nearly broke, Dreiser had just spent four months rambling through Europe to write travel pieces. research his novel The Financier, and collect material for his memoir, 1913’s A Traveler at Forty. One of the most gripping chapters in the memoir as it was originally published—the bits about his trysts with Rubenesque prostitutes were not then included—is “The Voyage Home,” an account of being out at sea and receiving the news that the “smart boat” had gone down.

Dreiser was born poor, and chafed all his life against the “Indiana peasant” label H. L. Mencken cruelly but astutely pinned on him. Ever the outsider looking in, he was anxious to book a berth on the big, new boat filled with all kinds of perfumed pond-crossers. But his English publisher pressed him to take the cheaper Kroonland, and Dreiser sailed from Dover 100 years ago today, on April 13, two days before the Titanic sank.

One night when the Kroonland’s fog horn was “mooing like a vast Brobdingnagian sea-cow,” as Dreiser put it, word came over the wireless that the Titanic had hit an iceberg off Newfoundland, and gone down “with nearly all on board.” Terrified of how those on board would react to the news, the captain ordered that the disaster be kept secret until the ship reached New York. But one Herr Salz, “busy about everything and everybody,” wormed it out of the wireless man by bribing him with cigars. Dreiser and a debonair party were happily engaged in the card room when the German burst in, full of self-importance, and asked the men to step out. One of them joked that perhaps “Taft had been killed or the Standard Oil Company has failed.” Pale and trembling, Salz shared his horrible secret. Don’t tell the ladies, he made them solemnly promise, with the arch concern of a good sensationalist.

“And with one accord we went to the rail and looked out into the blackness ahead,” Dreiser writes grimly.

The terror of the sea had come swiftly and directly home to all. I am satisfied that there was not a man of all the company who heard but felt a strange sinking sensation as he thought of the endless wastes of the sea outside—its depths, the terror of drowning in the dark and cold. To think of a ship as immense as the Titanic, new and bright, sinking in endless fathoms of water. And the two thousand passengers routed like rats from their berths only to float helplessly in miles of water, praying and crying!

For a romantic determinist like Dreiser, the Titanic’s mortality offered a spectacular philosophical vindication—while nonetheless filling him with despair and loathing. That night, as the Kroonland was lashed by waves and “trembled like a spent animal,” Dreiser lay on his berth and felt “a great rage in my heart against the fortuity of life—the dullness or greed of man that prevents him from coping with it.”

The Kroonland still had a week to go before reaching New York, and in that week, the oppressive ghost of the Titanic gradually loosened its hold. The passengers “fell to gambling again, to flirting, to playing shuffle board.” As the ship sailed into the harbor, the warm fellowship kindled by the iceberg melted away. An amused Dreiser noted how a judge who had unbent to play cards with a mere commercial merchant began “to congeal again into his native judicial dignity,” and several young women who had been quite friendly “suddenly became remote.”

The perils of the sea behind them, the passengers were now preoccupied with skirting a new set of icebergs—sharp-eyed customs officers—leading Dreiser to lament, “They were all as honest as they had to be—as dishonest as they dared to be. No more. Poor pretending humanity! We all lie so.”

Dreiser’s standing is not what it once was. Seventy years ago he was ranked alongside Edith Wharton and Willa Cather by critics as one of America’s greatest novelists; while they have become firmly lodged in the literary canon, Dreiser’s reputation and popularity seems to be slipping. Which is unfortunate: Few writers analyzed the power of money in America as keenly as he did. (The last time Ian McEwan spoke with his friend Christopher Hitchens, Hitchens talked about whether Dreiser’s novels were “a guide to the current crisis.”) Spared by fate a berth on the Titanic, Dreiser published his greatest novel, An American Tragedy,  13 years later, in 1925. We are lucky he was around to write it—and foolish if we ignore that good fortune.



‘A Traveler at Forty’ – excerpts


I have posted here (Word document above) excerpts from Chapters CI, CII, and CIII of the unexpurgated edition of A Traveler at Forty:

Theodore Dreiser

A Traveler at Forty

edited By Renate von Bardeleben

University of Illinois Press, 2004



Note that Nina Martyris writes:

“Dreiser was born poor, and chafed all his life against the ‘Indiana peasant’ label H. L. Mencken cruelly but astutely pinned on him. Ever the outsider looking in, he was anxious to book a berth on the big, new boat filled with all kinds of perfumed pond-crossers. But his English publisher pressed him to take the cheaper Kroonland. …

I wonder if this is entirely accurate. In A Traveler at Forty, Dreiser wrote:

“[The Titanic) had sailed only three days before, and Grant Richards had assured me that he had intended booking me on that as a novelty, it being the maiden trip of that ship, only we could not make it in time. He wanted me to stay longer.”

An editorial note: The passages in which Dreiser describes the sea as perceived by passengers aboard ship are very powerful, and show his considerable skills (often maligned, but evident here) as a writer.

I wish to thank Isaac Chase for calling my attention to Nina Martyris’s fascinating article.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2021










new acquisitions


I purchased them yesterday at the Russian bookstore in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Beautiful books. Though the dress of the characters depicted in the cover art does not look realistic given the social classes and time period Dreiser was writing about — in America.

Sister Carrie, translated by Mark Volosov




When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.

It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.


When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.

Jennie Gerhardt, translated by Nora Gal and Maria Loriye

An American Tragedy, translated by Nora Gal and E. Vershinna

Dusk–of a summer night.

And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants–such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,–a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers.  And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books.  With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.

It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 7, 2021