Category Archives: miscellaneous

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Theodore Dreiser in the US Communist Press is the title of a new essay of mine posted last week on this site at

Roger W. Smith, “Theodore Dreiser in the US Communist Press”


I have a few changes and edits. The revised Word document is posted on the site for downloading.


— Roger W. Smith


Can writing (Dreiser’s) really be this bad?



Please see a new post on my site:


Can writing really be this bad?


“150 years since the birth of Theodore Dreiser, the great American novelist”



re the following post

“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

   September 2021

Dreiser under the microscope


A bulletin announcing Dreiser sessions at the American Literature Association (ALA) conference held in San Francisco, May 2017:

Papers are invited on theoretical approaches to Dreiser’s canon and life. Some suggested approaches include Poststructuralism, Feminist Gender Theory, Material Culture, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy (such as Foucault’s Technology of Self). Topics may include Dreiser’s philosophical writings, fiction, plays, essays, autobiographies, and journalism.

Yes, but only if they were viewed through the prism of one of the opaque, recondite, and virtually incomprehensible lines of inquiry dear to academia specified in the second sentence above, almost all of them having nothing to do with Dreiser.

The living, breathing Dreiser and most of his works (unless they can be used to support an academically fashionable theory) are of scant interest to them.


— Roger W. Smith




an email to me from Professor Emeritus Arun P. Mukherjee

August 18, 2019

I admire you for sustaining your research and a passion for reading and writing outside the university. This morning, before I read your attached letter, I looked at your Dreiser blog and your responses to Alfred Kazin’s “Introductions.” I loved reading them. I fully agree with you that Studies in American Naturalism is no replacement for Dreiser studies.

I find the way literature is taught in the university under the rubrics of romanticism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism etc. so deadly. To give you an example from my personal experience, the writers I teach are labeled postcolonial by the academic categorizers. So. I would be often asked by my students as to tell them the “postcolonial aspects of the book.” So, they are not reading the book for the portrayal of the human life in the book, but for an “ism.” It defeats the whole purpose of reading literature.

The majority of academic papers are unreadable and I am thankful that I no longer have to bother reading them.

Theodore Dreiser and the Titanic


“Theodore Dreiser, Nearly a Passenger, on the Sinking of the Titanic”

By Nina Martyris


April 13, 2012


Money was Theodore Dreiser’s muse—the dazzling, deforming pivot on which his novels about fallen women and venal businessmen turned. It seems almost karmic, then, that a lack of money saved him from boarding the Titanic.

The great novelist was among a handful of prominent persons—including Guglielmo Marconi, Milton Hershey, J. P. Morgan, and Alfred Vanderbilt—who almost sailed on the allegedly sink-proof ship. As with the 9/11 attacks nearly nine decades later, there has been a persistent public fascination with those who just missed becoming a casualty of that massive catastrophe. What distinguishes Dreiser, who was crossing the ocean on another boat when news about the Titanic spread, is that he wrote about it, capturing the mood in the days immediately following among travelers who avoided the fate of those aboard that famous ship.

Homesick and nearly broke, Dreiser had just spent four months rambling through Europe to write travel pieces. research his novel The Financier, and collect material for his memoir, 1913’s A Traveler at Forty. One of the most gripping chapters in the memoir as it was originally published—the bits about his trysts with Rubenesque prostitutes were not then included—is “The Voyage Home,” an account of being out at sea and receiving the news that the “smart boat” had gone down.

Dreiser was born poor, and chafed all his life against the “Indiana peasant” label H. L. Mencken cruelly but astutely pinned on him. Ever the outsider looking in, he was anxious to book a berth on the big, new boat filled with all kinds of perfumed pond-crossers. But his English publisher pressed him to take the cheaper Kroonland, and Dreiser sailed from Dover 100 years ago today, on April 13, two days before the Titanic sank.

One night when the Kroonland’s fog horn was “mooing like a vast Brobdingnagian sea-cow,” as Dreiser put it, word came over the wireless that the Titanic had hit an iceberg off Newfoundland, and gone down “with nearly all on board.” Terrified of how those on board would react to the news, the captain ordered that the disaster be kept secret until the ship reached New York. But one Herr Salz, “busy about everything and everybody,” wormed it out of the wireless man by bribing him with cigars. Dreiser and a debonair party were happily engaged in the card room when the German burst in, full of self-importance, and asked the men to step out. One of them joked that perhaps “Taft had been killed or the Standard Oil Company has failed.” Pale and trembling, Salz shared his horrible secret. Don’t tell the ladies, he made them solemnly promise, with the arch concern of a good sensationalist.

“And with one accord we went to the rail and looked out into the blackness ahead,” Dreiser writes grimly.

The terror of the sea had come swiftly and directly home to all. I am satisfied that there was not a man of all the company who heard but felt a strange sinking sensation as he thought of the endless wastes of the sea outside—its depths, the terror of drowning in the dark and cold. To think of a ship as immense as the Titanic, new and bright, sinking in endless fathoms of water. And the two thousand passengers routed like rats from their berths only to float helplessly in miles of water, praying and crying!

For a romantic determinist like Dreiser, the Titanic’s mortality offered a spectacular philosophical vindication—while nonetheless filling him with despair and loathing. That night, as the Kroonland was lashed by waves and “trembled like a spent animal,” Dreiser lay on his berth and felt “a great rage in my heart against the fortuity of life—the dullness or greed of man that prevents him from coping with it.”

The Kroonland still had a week to go before reaching New York, and in that week, the oppressive ghost of the Titanic gradually loosened its hold. The passengers “fell to gambling again, to flirting, to playing shuffle board.” As the ship sailed into the harbor, the warm fellowship kindled by the iceberg melted away. An amused Dreiser noted how a judge who had unbent to play cards with a mere commercial merchant began “to congeal again into his native judicial dignity,” and several young women who had been quite friendly “suddenly became remote.”

The perils of the sea behind them, the passengers were now preoccupied with skirting a new set of icebergs—sharp-eyed customs officers—leading Dreiser to lament, “They were all as honest as they had to be—as dishonest as they dared to be. No more. Poor pretending humanity! We all lie so.”

Dreiser’s standing is not what it once was. Seventy years ago he was ranked alongside Edith Wharton and Willa Cather by critics as one of America’s greatest novelists; while they have become firmly lodged in the literary canon, Dreiser’s reputation and popularity seems to be slipping. Which is unfortunate: Few writers analyzed the power of money in America as keenly as he did. (The last time Ian McEwan spoke with his friend Christopher Hitchens, Hitchens talked about whether Dreiser’s novels were “a guide to the current crisis.”) Spared by fate a berth on the Titanic, Dreiser published his greatest novel, An American Tragedy,  13 years later, in 1925. We are lucky he was around to write it—and foolish if we ignore that good fortune.




‘A Traveler at Forty’ – excerpts


I have posted here (Word document above) excerpts from Chapters CI, CII, and CIII of the unexpurgated edition of A Traveler at Forty:

Theodore Dreiser

A Traveler at Forty

edited By Renate von Bardeleben

University of Illinois Press, 2004




Note that Nina Martyris writes:

“Dreiser was born poor, and chafed all his life against the ‘Indiana peasant’ label H. L. Mencken cruelly but astutely pinned on him. Ever the outsider looking in, he was anxious to book a berth on the big, new boat filled with all kinds of perfumed pond-crossers. But his English publisher pressed him to take the cheaper Kroonland. …

I wonder if this is entirely accurate. In A Traveler at Forty, Dreiser wrote:

“[The Titanic) had sailed only three days before, and Grant Richards had assured me that he had intended booking me on that as a novelty, it being the maiden trip of that ship, only we could not make it in time. He wanted me to stay longer.”

An editorial note: The passages in which Dreiser describes the sea as perceived by passengers aboard ship are very powerful, and show his considerable skills (often maligned, but evident here) as a writer.

I wish to thank Isaac Chase for calling my attention to Nina Martyris’s fascinating article.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2021











new acquisitions



I purchased them yesterday at the Russian bookstore in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Beautiful books. Though the dress of the characters depicted in the cover art does not look realistic given the social classes and time period Dreiser was writing about — in America.


Sister Carrie, translated by Mark Volosov





When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.

It was in August, 1889. She was eighteen years of age, bright, timid, and full of the illusions of ignorance and youth. Whatever touch of regret at parting characterized her thoughts, it was certainly not for advantages now being given up. A gush of tears at her mother’s farewell kiss, a touch in her throat when the cars clacked by the flour mill where her father worked by the day, a pathetic sigh as the familiar green environs of the village passed in review, and the threads which bound her so lightly to girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.


When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.


Jennie Gerhardt, translated by Nora Gal and Maria Loriye


An American Tragedy, translated by Nora Gal and E. Vershinna



Dusk–of a summer night.

And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants–such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,–a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers.  And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books.  With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.

It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   August 7, 2021


Claire Bruyère on Sherwood Anderson and Dreiser



Claire Bruyere – Anderson and Dreiser TRANSLATION – final


“He does not tremble. Often I have thought of him as the bravest man who has lived in America in our times. Perhaps I exaggerate. He is a man of my own craft and always he has been a heroic figure in my own eyes.” — Sherwood Anderson, introduction to Theodore Dreiser, Free and Other Stories

Above is an excerpt from Sherwood Anderson: l’impuissance créatrice (Paris: Klincksieck 1986), by Claire Bruyère.

A personal note: I find Anderson’s embrace, at the outset, of the “revolutionary” ideals of the  American Communist left; and his subsequent reservations about “revolutionary fervor” morphing into a sort of Puritanism or intolerance very revealing. His ideas alluded to here are in accord with those of writers such as Edmund Burke and Sorokin whom I have been reading, and are in accord with my own grave misgivings about political correctness, cancel culture, and other contemporary movements wherein disagreement is seen as unpardonable among supposedly enlightened, “decent” people.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2021



Dreiser’s favorite fiction character



Theodore Dreiser, ‘My Favorite Fiction Character’ – The Bookman, April 1926


See above PDF file.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2021

stock characters in Dreiser’s novels




Sondra Finchley … An American Tragedy

Letty Pace … Jennie Gerhardt

Berenice Fleming … The Titan

are stock, papier-mâché high class woman characters.

Straight out of soap opera.

Not believable




Robert Alden is very real. Her ingenuousness. Her emotions. Her love for Clyde. Her sense of betrayal. Her letters. And so on. She is, in the words of Mary Gordon, a “genuinely loving young woman who is sexually awakened by her feelings for Clyde.”

Sondra Finchley, irresistibly beautiful and marvelously rich, bestows an occasional kiss on Clyde. She is the prototypical flapper with zero sex appeal. She is too vain to really show love for Clyde. “Her clothes, her car, her sports equipment,” notes Mary Gordon, “are the locus of her sexual allure.”* Her main reaction and main worry after Clyde is arrested are to keep her name out of the papers.

Characters like Sondra Finchley and Dreiser’s other high class women seem like crude embodiments of a social class or an ideal, not real.

Bob Ames in Sister Carrie — a stand in and mouthpiece for the author, Dreiser — has no purpose or reason for being in the novel. He does not seem real and is not brought to life.


* Mary Gordon, “Good Boys and Dead Girls,” in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1991), pp. 8-10




For purposes of comparison, let’s take an author such as Charles Dickens.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol could be considered to be a stock character: miser, skinflint, coldhearted businessman — crotchety curmudgeon.

He receives visitations from ghosts (spirits). This is realistic?

Yet …

Scrooge is realer than real. He LIVES in our imaginations.

So does Bob Cratchit, who might have been portrayed one dimensionally as the poor, overworked worker ground down by ruthless capitalism.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are so real that it sometimes seems that they actually existed and lived in Victorian London.

Or Tolstoy.

Levin in Anna Karenina is a stand in for Tolstoy the aristocratic landholder, and his views. But he is not a stock figure in the novel. His character is fully developed.

In a novel which Dreiser greatly admired, Balzac’s Père Goriot, there are characters who could be seen as types:

Goriot, old man rejected by his heedless daughters; miser out of necessity

Rastignac, prototypical social climber. Goriot’s self-centered daughters: the same

All are portrayed by Balzac in a manner that makes them fully human, idiosyncratic, and believable.


— Roger W. Smith

    March 2021

an exchange about Dreiser



The following are emails — the content of which I believe make for interesting reading — between myself and my brother Pete Smith today (plus a follow up comment from my brother several days later).




Roger Smith:

I happened to reread this post of mine today

link below

and was very pleased with myself.

I think it’s one of the best overviews and appraisals of Dreiser.




Pete Smith:

Just read this again myself. Can’t imagine it could be any better written by anyone. Perfect summary and very thoughtful; I especially like the ending where you explain why, even though he was a dirtbag plagiarist (just kidding but not totally kidding), his work lasts.




Pete Smith:

I’ve been busy with work, but still finding a few moments for [Dreiser’s] “Newspaper Days” and just today have begun reading about the Chicago World’s Fair trip he was dreading. What a riot. Incredibly revealing and often unintentionally hilarious. … I’m saving judgment on Dreiser until I finish. but based on what I’ve read so far, he’s a much better writer, and a much worse person, than I had thought. . .




Roger Smith:

You may have heard of the book “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson.

I was a very popular book. I think I own it. I believe I read a bit of it.

The main thing about the World’s Fair trip is that Dreiser met his future wife Sara (Jug), who was one of the schoolteachers on the train.

Dreiser honestly, candidly reveals things about himself in “Newspaper Days” — his stupid adolescent mistakes and sex longings and indiscretions, his successes and failures. I admire his sincerity. He did not engage in image “window dressing.”

Dreiser the cad seems to be to more apparent in his adult years.

His primarily failings (major) — as I see it — were his shameless womanizing, believing he could have multiple, serial relationships and they couldn’t, hitting on young unsuspecting woman (personal “secretaries”) and, in one shameless, well documented case (there may have been others) a teenager in high school when he was in middle age or past it; plagiarism; and — I think this is most significant — a deep insecurity and lack of love from early age so that he could never trust or love anyone; also (less important but true), becoming a would be snob once he got well known and rich, putting on airs and admiring the rich and high class (which made him look ridiculous).

I think, as if often the case with writers, some of Dreiser’s early works are better than later ones; and when he was simply attempting to narrate and tell the truth — or engage in reportage (of, say, the Brooklyn trolley strike or the Hudson River tunnel cave in), he could be surprisingly good.

When he attempts to philosophize or pose as an intellectual, he is out of his depth. He was basically uneducated. He was often on the wrong side of political and social issues.



Pete Smith:

Yes, read “Devil in the White City” years ago. Excellent book; reading Dreiser’s excitement about the World’s Fair there reminded me of the book; that part is well written.

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion [in the St Louis Republic; recounted in Newspaper Days] which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours are himself.




Roger Smith:

Re your comments (in bold):

What bothers me most is the number of women he just ducked out on treating them with zero respect or concern or care. Inexcusable; he may be one of the least empathetic men who ever lived. If you don’t count Trump.

His treatment of women is horrifying, inexcusable.

I doubt you would wish to read Dreiser’s “serialized” novella “This Madness,” posted by me at:

The woman characters were real lovers of his.

I spent days and weeks copying the whole “This Madness” — 56,000 words — at the New York Public Library and typing and proofreading it at home.

It comes though clearly how Dreiser regarded and treated women. How could he not see how it made him look? (Self-awareness was not one of his strong points.) Dreiser is posturing as, bragging about, his quest for the ideal woman, who, of course, he never finds; he finds faults in all of them. And leaves them. Will never commit to an enduring relationship. It never occurs to him to empathize (as yon note) with them.

His lack of empathy is even apparent in his account of the tragic gas fire/explosion which was probably his earliest reporting success. Most of what he talks about during these horrific twenty-four hours is himself.

I remember well this part of the book. But did not think about this (what you say about not empathizing with the victims). Undoubtedly true and on the mark.




Pete Smith:

Thanks, Roger. This is very well written and very interesting; based on my reading of “Newspaper Days” (nearing the finish line) everything the writer says rings true. (In reference to an article I shared with my brother: “Moby Theo” by Oliver Edwards, The Times of London, January 19, 1956; see PDF below.),

I would have stopped reading “Newspaper Days” hundreds of pages ago if it weren’t so damned interesting. Embarrassingly interesting and revealingly interesting often, but interesting nonetheless. And there is something odd about Dreiser’s writing style — there are almost always far too many words, but it’s almost always not bothersome.




Roger Smith:



I often, continually. am recasting, reformulating, refining thoughts and opinions in my mind.

Re “Newspaper Days” — this probably (if not certainly) also applies to Dreiser’s fiction — there is no (Joycean, Hemingway-ish, Nabokovian) wall.

You, the reader, can walk right in and he shares his unscripted, plain, inchoate, actual experience with you. His memory may be faulty and, like any good raconteur, he will present the story in a certain light.

But it feels very true. And real.

Dreiser is very easy to read. This is a GOOD thing.

And, as true as this is (his readability), there is a substratum, a bedrock, of fact and actuality.
It is not fiction for philistines and those who choose the next book to read or recommend to a friend from the bestseller lists,

Which is why people who like to read still read Dreiser

While (although) he and many of his works are otherwise largely forgotten and perhaps considered out of fashion.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

 February 6, 2021