Category Archives: criticism

Robert Penn Warren, “An American Tragedy”

 

Robert Penn Warren, ‘An American Tragedy’ – Yale Review

 

Posted here:

Robert Penn Warren

“An American Tragedy”

Yale Review 52 (October 1962), pp. 1–15

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

Randolph Bourne, “The Art of Theodore Dreiser”

 

Randolph Bourne, ‘The Art of Theodore Dreiser’ – The Dial 1917

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF file above):

Randolph Bourne

“The Art of Theodore Dreiser”

The Dial

June 14, 1917

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

Gilbert Seldes on An American Tragedy and Dreiser

 

Gilbert Seldes, ‘Mainland’

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF above) are excerpts from Gilbert Seldes, Mainland (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936).

Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was an American writer and cultural critic. Seldes served as the editor and drama critic of the magazine The Dial.

Seldes’s review in The Nation of Ulysses by James Joyce helped the book become known in the United States. His tenure as editor of The Dial included the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the November 1922 issue.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2022

H. L. Mencken, “The American Novel”

 

Mencken, ‘The American Novel’ (Prejudices, Fourth Series) (2)

Mencken, ‘The American Novel’ (Prejudices, Fourth Series) RUSSIAN (2)

 

posted here:

H. L. Mencken

“The American Novel,” in Prejudices: Fourth Series. New York: Knopf, 1924

pp. 278–93

Dreiser — see pp. 285, 287-289

This article is a reprint of Mencken’s article “The American Novel.” Voices (London) 5 (November 1921): 115–121.

I have also posted here a Russian translation of Mencken’s article that was published in Dreiser’s Collected Works (Moscow, 1938).

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

Carl Van Doren, “Contemporary American Novelists: Theodore Dreiser”

 

Carl Van Doren, ‘Theodore Dreiser’ – Nation 3-16-1921

Carl Van Doren, ‘Theodore Dreiser – Nation 3-16-1921 RUSSIAN.

 

Posted here:

Carl Van Doren

“Contemporary American Novelists: Theodore Dreiser”

Nation

March 16. 1921

pp. 400-401

I have also posted a Russian translation which was published in Teodor Drayzer, Sobraniye sochineniy (Theodore Dreiser, Collected Works), Volume X (Moscow, 1929).

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

Edward Perry Burgum, “Dreiser and His America” (New Masses 1946)

 

Edwin Perry Burgum, ‘Dreiser and His America’ – New Masses 1-29-1946

 

The following posthumous essay on Dreiser (downloadable Word document above) is self-explanatory. It is a valuable contribution to Dreiser studies and is a positive assessment that in effect answers complaints of Dreiser’s critics:

Dreiser and His America

By Edwin Berry Burgum

New Masses

January 29, 1946

pp. 7-9, 22

Alfred Kazin on Dreiser

 

Alfred Kazin introduction to The Titan (The Laurel Dreiser)

Alfred Kazin introduction to Jennie Gerhardt (The Laurel Dreiser)

 

I have transcribed and posted here (downloadable Word documents above) the following:

Alfred Kazin, General Introduction, The Titan, by Theodore Dreiser (The Laurel Dresier; New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1959), pp. 7-19

Alfred Kazin, Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser (The Laurel Dreiser; New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), pp. 5-12

They are well worth reading

 

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Some of My Thoughts About Kazin’s Observations

 

General Introduction, The Titan:

Kazin, pg. 9: The facts dredged up by impersonal “research” are often dubious and quickly dated, whereas the sheer web of fact that Dreiser put together about clothes, house furnishings and finance fifty years ago retains its interest for us today.

“[T]he sheer web of fact”: GOOD. Read, for example, Chapter 1 of The Financier.

 

Kazin, pg. 15: When Dreiser is bad, it is never because of the slowness or literalness of his technique; it is because of the imposition of a purely subjective emotion, as in parts of The ‘Genius.’ In Dreiser the writer was always wiser than the man. When his instinctive transformative powers fail him, when he imposes on the reader great blobs of incoherent personal emotion, one recognizes how silly the man Theodore Dreiser could be. An example is the tasteless endearments that Eugene Witla addresses to young Suzanne Dale.

Yes, but Dreiser often wrote to Thelma Cudlipp endearments of precisely that sort. Dreiser was drawing upon his memory and own experience. Eugene is silly, Dreiser was silly, but such an infatuation actually occurred; therefore, Dreiser, in describing Eugene’s pursuit of Suzanne Dale and the endearments was being true to life and experience.

Kazin, pg. 16: Frank Cowperwood, … despite his immense personal authority, his fortune, his undeviating attraction to so many women, must himself go from woman to woman in a yearning for that “refinement,” that ultimate “spell of beauty,” which would represent a social victory higher than anything in Philadelphia or Chicago.

And so did Dreiser. This was true of him from the time he became unfaithful to and then separated from his wife Sara (Jug), up to the time when, shortly before his death, he married his mistress, Helen (Patges) Richardson. His relentless pursuit of women and endless serial affairs His demand for youth and beauty as seen in the poorly written, fatuous series of magazine sketches by Dreiser entitled “This Madness.” Cowperwood as Dreiser, and vice versa.

 

Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt:

Kazin, pg. 7: When he describes Jennie as exceptional by reason of her “poetic” feeling (he speaks of “the wondrous sea of feeling in her”), he makes clear why it is that young women like Jennie, and for that matter Sister Carrie herself and even Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy, have such power to move us. American literature is notoriously poor in portraits of good women, believable women, mature women.

Why does Kazin use the modifier “even” when referring to Roberta Alden? Is she not winsome with a “purity” of person and feeling not unlike that of Jennie’s?

 

Kazin, pg. 12: Yet though Jennie Gerhardt is not one of Dreiser’s strong books, it is as moving as if it were saturated in Jennie’s own quality of feeling. It is a book that will live.

I wonder if Kazin’s prediction was accurate. Jennie Gerhardt is still read. But there are few copies in print.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 2019

 

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See also:

“Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics”

posted on this site at

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/alfred-kazin-theodore-dreiser-and-the-critics/“Kazin on Dreiser: What it Means to be a Literary Critic”

by William E. Cain

Society 55 (6), November 2018, pp. 517–525

 

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Addendum:

Note that Kazin states in his introduction to Jennie Gerhardt:

Dreiser had been deeply affected by the poverty and rootlessness of his early life and by the misadventures of his sisters. Carrie Meeber’s going off with Hurstwood (in Sister Carrie) was based on episodes in the life of one Dreiser sister [Emma], and Jennie Gerhardt’s having an illegitimate baby was based on the story of another sister [Mame]. Robert Elias says in his biography that when the “Jennie” sister [Cacilia, known as Sylvia] found herself pregnant, she went to the “Carrie” sister [Emma], who with her “Hurstwood” [L. A. Hopkins] was in New York; they were supporting themselves in part by “renting rooms to girls of questionable virtue.” The mother of “Jennie’s” wealthy lover “haughtily explained that he could do nothing about it since he had more important ties. Afterward the child was sent home to be cared for by the tireless Sarah Dreiser,” the all-forgiving and tender mother on whom Dreiser modeled Mrs. Gerhardt.

— Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt, The Laurel Dreiser, pg. 6

The “Jennie” sister” (who found herself pregnant and went to New York City to her sister Emma’s apartment, where, in real life, her child was born) to whom Kazin refers was Theodore Dreiser’s sister Cacilia (Dreiser) Kishima (ca. 1865-1945), who was known as Sylvia — not Dreiser’s sister Mame (Maria Franziska [Dreiser] Brennan [1861-1944]), who was known as Mame. This should be noted to avoid confusion, since Mame was the real life model for Jennie in the novel. Both of Dreiser’s sisters, Mame and Sylvia, had illegitimate children in real life, and this can create confusion.

Donald Pizer is fully accurate when he says:

For the basic plot of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser relied principally on the experiences of his sister Mary, who was generally called Mame within the Dreiser family.  Ten years older than Dreiser, Mame had been seduced at sixteen by a prominent and middle-aged Terre Haute lawyer whom Dreiser called Colonel Silsby in Dawn. The Dreiser family fortunes were at a low ebb during their Terre Haute years of 1870-79. John Dreiser was usually unemployed, Paul and Rome were in trouble with the law on several occasions, and the older girls were interested in men who could buy them things. The Dreisers of Terre Haute, as recalled in Dawn, and the Gerhardts of Columbus, as portrayed in Jennie Gerhardt, lead parallel lives both broadly and in such details as the mothers taking in laundry from a local hotel and the boys throwing down coal from railway cars. And, most pertinent of all, Paul had been arrested for theft, Colonel Silsby had intervened on his behalf, and Mame had subsequently been seduced by the colonel.

In the summer of 1879, Sarah Dreiser moved with part of the family to Sullivan, Indiana, leaving John, Mame, and several of the other girls temporarily behind in Terre Haute. That winter Mame joined her mother in Sullivan, pregnant. Silsby had unsuccessfully attempted to arrange for an abortion and had refused to marry her. Mame remained with her mother until a stillborn child was delivered in April 1880 and then moved to Chicago. There she found work in a boardinghouse which was also apparently a gambling club. Within a short time, she began to live with Austin Brennan, a bluff, hard-living man, fourteen years her senior, who traveled for his family’s Rochester dry-goods firm. After years of living together, primarily in Chicago, they were married sometime in the mid-1880s. [They were married in Chicago in 1897.] Brennan’s family were well-to-do and conservative, with social pretensions, and though Mame visited them in Rochester both before and after her marriage, she was apparently not welcomed. She therefore frequently lived with the Dreiser family–first in Warsaw and after 1887 in Chicago–where Brennan would join her for lengthy periods. In the late 1890s, however, she and Brennan finally settled in Rochester, and when John Dreiser died late in 1900, it was at their Rochester home. Soon afterward they moved to New York City, and though Brennan was in poor circumstances during his later years, they remained a faithful couple until his death in 1928.

— Donald Pizer, The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), pp. 98-99

Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics”

 

Alfred Kazin, ‘Theodore Dreiser and the Critics’ – The Anchor Review 1955

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.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2018

Clifton Fadiman on “Native Son” (and Dreiser)

 

Richard Wright’s Native Son is the most powerful American novel to appear since The Grapes of Wrath. It has numerous defects as a work of art, but it is only in retrospect that they emerge, so overwhelming is its central drive, so gripping its mounting intensity. No one, I think, except the most unconvertible Bourbons, the completely callous, or the mentally deficient, can read it without an enlarged and painful sense of what it means to be a Negro in the United States of America seventy-seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Native Son does for the Negro what Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy did a decade and a half ago for the bewildered, inarticulate American white. The two books are similar in theme, in technique, in their almost paralyzing effect on the reader, and in the large, brooding humanity, quite remote from special pleading, that informs them both.

— Clifton Fadiman, review of Native Son by Richard Wright, The New Yorker, March 2, 1940

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

October 2017

“Dreiser Today” (1941)

 

David Lord, ‘Dreiser Today’ – Prairie Schooner 1941

 

Posted above as a downloadable PDF file is an important article on Dreiser that provides a comprehensive assessment of his critical reception in which his strengths and weaknesses as a writer are assessed from various standpoints and with reference to prominent critics with varying views:

David Lord, “Dreiser Today,” Prairie Schooner 15.4 (winter 1941): 230-239.

It is a well written and thoughtful assessment, in my opinion.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017