Category Archives: criticism

Marianne Debouzy, “L’irruption du matérialisme: Theodore Dreiser”

 

Marianne Debouzy, ‘L’irruption du materialisme – Theodore Dreiser’

 

The downloadable PDF file posted here is comprised of a chapter from Marianne Debouzy, La Genèse de l’Espirit de Révolte dans le Roman Américain 1875-1915 (Bibliothèque de Littérature et d’Histoire; Paris: Lettres Modernes Minard, 1968):

“L’irruption du matérialisme: Theodore Dreiser”

My thanks to Marianne Debouzy not only for giving me a copy of her book, but also for granting permission to post the chapter on Dreiser.

— Roger W. Smith
 
      August 2016

Oakland Tribune column on Dreiser, February 21, 1934

 

The following brief commentary by a guest contributor says a great deal about Dreiser in a few words.

”Cry on Geraldine’s Shoulder” column, Oakland Tribune, February 21, 1934

… I owe more, perhaps, to Theodore Dreiser than any other man; for he had made me see clearly and vividly the chaotic industrial forces In American life and their devastating effects upon human character.

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. But who can forget the charming Jennie Gerhardt? Or the brutal and ruthless Cowperwood? Or the poor, pathetic Hurstwood? Or even the will-less and flabby Clyde Griffiths? No one, who has thoroughly read Dreiser.

He has an almost miraculous grip on his characters. No other American writer, except the late Ring Lardner, has had such an extensive gallery of convincing characters. And while Lardner was a merciless satirist, without the slightest trace of pity, Dreiser has almost divine pity for the helpless creatures that he has so skillfully drawn.

Although Lardner masked his savage contempt for men with a lusty humor, Dreiser totally lacks humor. And Dreiser broods incessantly on the traffic fate of his characters and the profound mystery of life: a kind of intellectual day-dreaming that probably accounts for the sluggish incoherence of his novels. The stark realism of Dreiser is shocking, convincing but disillusioning. And most novel readers seek, not disillusion, but illusion, and thus, they find Dreiser irritating and painful. But compared to the trashy concoctions of Kathleen Norris and Faith Baldwin, although both of them write about the same type of people, he is, indeed, a sincere and conscientious genius.

The essential tragedy of Dreiser’s characters is not that they rebelled against the established order, but that they accepted too naively its prejudices, its superstitions, its ideals. This is almost an obsession with Dreiser, who hates the sheer hypocrisy and tawdry pretenses of our social life. He clearly sees the cruel, ruthless forces that ripple and roar beneath our papier-mache formality; and he is fascinated with the vitality men display in trying to combat these tricky forces, although they may be defeated in the end.

I sincerely look forward to another book by Dreiser covering the depression era, but I hope that he keeps on firm ground as in “An American Tragedy,” rather than wallowing in the absurdities of “Tragic America.”
– ROBERT B.

(Bobbie B.)