Category Archives: Dreiser’s literary influences

Dreiser and Zola; The Financier

 

 

The Philadelphia into which Frank Algernon Cowperwood was born was a city of two hundred and fifty thousand and more. It was set with handsome parks, notable buildings, and crowded with historic memories. Many of the things that we and he knew later were not then in existence–the telegraph, telephone, express company, ocean steamer, city delivery of mails. There were no postage-stamps or registered letters. The street car had not arrived. In its place were hosts of omnibuses, and for longer travel the slowly developing railroad system still largely connected by canals.

— Theodore Dreiser, The Financier, Chapter 1

 

*****************************************************

 

“The Financier, the third of Dreiser’s published novels, marks a distinct turning point in his career. It is at once a departure from his characteristic subject matter and the beginning of his use of the larger canvas to which he knew that his fictional works were most ideally suited. Both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt had been essentially autobiographical works drawn from Dreiser’s family and work experiences, as was The “Genius,” which was drafted by 1911 but not yet published. Contrasting strongly with those works, The Financier was planned from its inception as an extensive work based (as Emile Zola had advised) upon research. Elements deriving from the writer’s personal and professional lives were now held to a mere shadow of their former prominence. The new story itself was huge, involving a multitude of prominent characters interacting with the central figure over a span of years; it was conceived as a cradle-to­-grave saga, the complete telling of one very significant and individual American life.

“As always in Dreiser’s realist fiction, The Financier is grounded firmly in the socioeconomic context of the author’s youth and young manhood. …”

— Philip Gerber, A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia

 

*****************************************************

I loved the way The Financier begins. In typical Dreiser fashion it draws you right into the novel. And, the beginning and opening chapters place you in nineteenth century Philadelphia, what it was like to live there. And for a boy such as Frank Algernon Cowperwood.

Cowperwood is born in Philadelphia, as was the financier Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr., the real life model for Cowperwood. Dreiser closely followed the actual life of Yerkes in The Financier and two succeeding novels. (Dreiser’s three novels — The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic — comprise the so-called Trilogy of Desire.)

By the time Dreiser began The Financier, he had amassed over 2,000 pages of handwritten notes, some of them verbatim transcriptions of newspaper articles, and he had been saving newspaper clippings from at least a decade earlier when he was living in New York City, Yerkes’ last place of residence.

The influence of Balzac on Dreiser — evident in the latter’s first work, Sister Carrie — has been commented upon frequently by Dreiser scholars (and by me in posts on this site). Zola was clearly a major influence too. This is most evident in An American Tragedy, but it can also be seen in works such as The Financier, as noted above by the late Philip Gerber, an authority on the Trilogy of Desire.

When it comes to An American Tragedy, I feel that Dreiser does not get sufficient credit for the extensive research by him in newspapers that was involved. All we hear for the most part is complaints about how Dreiser plagiarized from accounts of the Gillette murder case and trial. Actually, this was not plagiarism. He drew upon such accounts. And he (for example) quoted more or less verbatim from some of the letters of Grace Brown (the real life Roberta Alden). That is not technically plagiarism. Plagiarism is when one steals another author’s work without giving credit.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 2021

 

 

 

a message commenting on some aspects of Dreiser studies

 

 

The following is an email dated December 27, 2015 from me to a professor of American literature who is an authority on Sherwood Anderson. We had been in touch because she was writing an article that included Dreiser.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

********************************************************

 

 

Thank you very much for getting back to me.

A few follow-/up comments.

I met Richard Lingeman about 25 years ago at a Dreiser conference in Brockport, NY. At that time, the second volume of his Dreiser biography, which is excellent, was being published. He is well respected. I found him to be friendly, modest, and unassuming.

I was invited to dinner with a Dreiser descendant and her husband at their Manhattan apartment several years ago. I gave her a copy of a biography of Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser — the songwriter — that had just been published. I thought she would be very pleased, but she did not seem interested. Her interest in Dreiser seemed to be based on family ties and perhaps on money inherited from the Dreiser Trust.

The Dreiser Trust exerts control over publishing and performance rights to Dreiser’s works, at least those protected by copyright. (I don’t know which works these would be.) It is my understanding that Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer had a very difficult time getting rights to An American Tragedy for their opera (2005). Picker was thinking of composing an opera based on Sister Carrie instead. From what I can gather, the Dreiser Trust was committed to the stage adaptation of An American Tragedy in Charles Strouse’s musical version. Then they decided to give the rights to Picker for his opera.

The Trustee of the Dreiser Trust for a long time was Harold Dies. He was a cousin of Dreiser’s second wife, Helen, who inherited all of Dreiser’s papers, which were donated to the University of Pennsylvania. I met Mr. Dies about seven years ago. He was in his nineties then and was very active in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group. He held a high position with the organization and had an office in their headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. He was a very nice man, very willing to assist me with Dreiser inquiries. He recently passed away.

I actually think (or at least suspect) that Sherwood Anderson is a better writer (qua writer) than Dreiser. I wish I could say I have read more of him.

Dreiser, who was given to plagiarism and didn’t seem ashamed of it, was guilty on one known occasion of plagiarizing from Anderson in 1926. In the New York World, it was alleged that Dreiser, in his poem, The Beautiful,” published in Vanity Fair, had lifted sentences from Anderson’s story “Tandy.” (The alleged plagiarism was pointed out by columnist Franklin P. Adams.) Anderson, contacted by reporters, said he did not believe Dreiser would have plagiarized: “It is one of those accidents that occur. The thought expressed has come, I am sure, to a great many man. If Mr. Dreiser has expressed it beautifully, it is enough.”

You commented that much of Anderson’s best writing was in the form of short stories. I found this interesting and useful to hear. You mentioned, with respect to Anderson, concision (something Dreiser certainly did not achieve, or aim to achieve), open endings, and ellipses. I have noticed (in passing) Anderson’s use of ellipses.

Dreiser reminds me of Balzac (a writer whom Dreiser discovered early, admired, and emulated), and vice versa. I first read Balzac in French in college. There do not seem to be nearly enough of Balzac’s works available in English translation, let alone good translations.

Both Balzac and Dreiser are easy to get into. Neither seemed to care about style or polish. (Compare, for example, a writer like Flaubert.) I once remarked to a well read acquaintance of mine (he agreed) that when it comes to Joyce — a writer who is in a superior class to which Dreiser does not belong — I find that I do not care about his characters, whereas in the case of the inferior writer, Dreiser (and this is true of Balzac, too), I find that I do care about his characters.

You mentioned your being “forgotten” in bibliographies. I have noticed that foreign works (both by and about Dreiser) tend to get ignored – one might say shamefully ignored – in bibliographies.