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“150 years since the birth of Theodore Dreiser, the great American novelist”
By David Walsh
World Socialist Web Site
August 26, 2021
This is a useful and informative synopsis. I learned some things about Dreiser, such as his views on the Moscow show trials and Stalinism.
I do have some comments to make about inaccuracies. (The author, David Walsh’s, comments are in italics.)
* * *
Dreiser, a figure of intense integrity, candor and sensitivity, could burst into tears, it is said, at the sight of some of the pain-stricken or careworn faces he observed on the street.”
Immense sensitivity? Maybe in the abstract, by Dreiser for his characters. In Clintonesque fashion, he teared up at the sufferings of his fellow man. But not in his (Dreiser’s) actual daily experiences — with lovers, friends (of whom there were very few, and rarely did his friendships last), and relatives.
* * *
Numerous events and publications have been devoted to the anniversary of Dreiser’s birth. However, by and large, the writer’s dedication to representing social life in unsparing, objective-realistic terms, as an exponent of the “naturalist” school, does not meet with contemporary academic or literary critical approval. Moreover, despite Dreiser’s obviously strong and angry determination to expose the plight of his female characters, to the extent of titling two of his major and most moving works, Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, after such protagonists, feminist critics have expressed “concern” about “his investment in gender stereotypes,” as one commentary notes, and these same critics’ examinations “of Dreiser’s treatment of female sexuality often reach negative and even censorious conclusions.”
I earnestly wish we could be spared such tedious, tendentious, and irrelevant (to Dreiser’s times and his actual works) criticism.
* * *
At a certain point Dreiser decided to make his way to New York City where his brother Paul was the toast of Broadway. He worked his way east, writing for newspapers in Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, before settling in New York in 1894.
Dreiser briefly stopped in Buffalo in his peripatetic career as a journeyman newspaper reporter and inquired about the availability of work as a reporter there. He was not hired and moved on without writing for any Buffalo paper.
* * *
Dreiser began writing his masterpiece, An American Tragedy, in the summer of 1920 in Los Angeles. The factual inspiration for the book was the Gillette-Brown murder case of 1906, newspaper clippings of which he had saved at the time. Chester Gillette, the son of a Salvation Army officer, met a factory girl, Grace (Billy) Brown, in the shirt factory owned by his uncle, where he worked in Cortland, New York. When Billy became pregnant, Gillette apparently took her out on a boat on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, struck her with a tennis racket and pushed her overboard.
Apparently? Gillette did take Grace Brown out in a boat on the lake. I personally have visited the scene of the drowning. A group of us was taken to the spot in the lake where the drowning occurred. It did occur — it is not a matter of conjecture. Anyone with even a remote knowledge of the actual American Tragedy case should know this.
— posted by Roger W. Smith