Category Archives: assessments of Dreiser by his contemporaries

Henry Miller and Dreiser

 

 

Henry Miller was a great admirer of Theodore Dreiser. He admired Dreiser’s realism; admired the size, scope, and power of Dreiser’s novels; admired the cumulative effect of Dreiser’s massive plots.  Dreiser was one of Miller’s major literary influences.

In March 1922, Miller took a three week vacation from his employer, The Western Union Company (the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America in his novel Tropic of Capricorn). During the vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings, which was never published.

Clipped Wings, a novel about twelve telegraph messenger boys, was inspired by Dreiser’s Twelve Men,  which had been published three years earlier, in 1919.

Early in his writing career, Miller made efforts to get published in The New Republic which did not meet with success. He wrote a long essay about Dreiser for the magazine that was rejected. However, a brief excerpt from the essay was published in April 1926 in the magazine’s letters to the editor section under the heading “Dreiser’s Style.”

The letter has not hitherto been reprinted. Texts of Miller’s early writings are in many cases unavailable.

The following is the text of Miler’s letter. It was written in response to a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy by T. K. Whipple in The New Republic of March 17, 1926. The text of the Whipple review is appended here as a PDF file

— Roger W. Smith

     July 2016

 

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Dreiser’s Style

Sir: In his review of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, Mr. T. K. Whipple raises an interesting problem in the art of the novel in in his discussion of Mr. Dreiser’s style. “Dreiser could not write as he does,” says Mr. Whipple, “mixing slang with poetic archaisms, reveling in the cheap, trite and florid, if there were not in himself something correspondingly muddled, banal and tawdry … a failure in writing is necessarily a failure in communication.” This is all very true when the thing to be communicated is an abstract idea or philosophy. The novel, however, is effective because of images and emotions and not because of its abstract ideas. Mr. Whipple’s error lies in applying intellectual criteria such as logic and profundity to art, which affects us by its vividness or beauty.

From this point of view it becomes evident that Mr. Dreiser’s effects are not achieved in spite of but because of his style. The “cheap trite, and tawdry” enable him to present a world which a more elegant and precise style could only hint at. He uses language, consciously or not, in the manner which modern writers, notably Joyce, use deliberately, that is, he identifies his language with the consciousness of his characters. Mr. Whipple evidently expects all writing to conform to the “mot just’ technique of the Flaubert school. But fortunately style cannot be prescribed by rule.

Henry Miller.

New York, N. Y.

 

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T. R. Whipple, review of An American Tragedy, The New Republic, April 1926

T. R. Whipple, review of American Tragedy New Republic, April 1926

 

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See also: Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New Directions, 1969), pp. 219-220. There, Miller misspells the title of Dreiser’s second novel as Jenny Gerhardt.

James T. Farrell on “An American Tragedy” (from “Bernard Clare”)

 

James T. Farrell (1904-1979) was a great admirer of Dreiser. In his underrated novel Bernard Clare (The Vanguard Press, 1946), Farrell pays indirect tribute to Dreiser by having his two main characters engage in a discussion of An American Tragedy, about which the character Eva makes perceptive comments.

Many readers of An American Tragedy (and the admirers and makers of the film A Place in the Sun) have missed the point about the distinction between Roberta Alden and Sondra Finchley made here, although Dreiser certainly didn’t.

An excerpt from Bernard Clare is attached.

 

from ‘Bernard Clare’