Posted here (above) as a PDF file is a spoof by the humorist Robert Benchley.
“Mr. Benchley Interviews Theodore Dreiser”
Life, April 15, 1926
Posted here (above) as a PDF file is a spoof by the humorist Robert Benchley.
“Mr. Benchley Interviews Theodore Dreiser”
Life, April 15, 1926
I am posting this letter of mine to the Editor of “News at 10,” the alumni newsletter of the New York University Department of Journalism because it speaks, from the perspective of journalism, about Dreiser as I perceived him and his works at an early stage of my acquaintance with him.
— Roger W. Smith
See also my post:
“mistaken attribution (Dreiser credited with early news story he didn’t write)”
Note that I now doubt that Dreiser wrote the January 12-13, 1894 St. Louis Republic stories about the hanging of Sam Welsor.
Thomas P. Riggio has published an article:
“Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square” in
Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2016)
in which, for the first time, the identity of “the captain,” a figure in Chapter XLV of Sister Carrie (“Curious Shifts of the Poor”), was identified, proving that the figure of “the captain,” a chaplain who aids homeless men by soliciting donations from the public for their shelter, did indeed have a real-life model.
Almost all of the primary source material in Professor Riggio’s article came from me and not from his research, as I have explained in my post:
“a scholarly rip-off; the real identity of Theodore Dreiser’s chaplain”
I have posted here much of the primary material I have collected in the form of downloadable PDF files. The material has already been used (without attribution) by Professor Riggio. Some Dreiser scholars may find it useful to have access to the full text of the articles at a future date.
The articles posted below concern the real life “captain” in Dreiser’s novel: Frederick Rotzler (b. circa 1859).
Some of the articles feature Rotzler. In others, he is mentioned in passing. They describe charitable (or what might be described as missionary) activities the same as those described by Dreiser.
The earliest articles describe Rotzler as having served as a chaplain to National Guard units.
A few facts about Rotzler (other than the charitable activities described by Dreiser) emerge:
Rotzler tried to remain independent and nonsectarian. He was not an ordained minister. His denomination, such as it was, was Pentecostal.
He had been doing his charitable work in Worth Square, soliciting donations for homeless men, beginning in 1892. Sister Carrie was published in 1900. (Dreiser came to Manhattan for the first time in the summer of 1894 and settled there permanently in late 1894. So, he came not long after Rotzler had begun his charitable work.)
Rotzler does not appear to have been the proselytizing type. Rather, he was someone who conceived of his mission as helping the poor and downtrodden without seeking personal glory or credit.
Besides seeking to find beds for the homeless, he would visit prisons and hospitals during daytime hours.
“The Fourth in Camp”
New York Times
July 5, 1889
“In the Eleventh District”
New York Times
April 2, 1890
New York Times
July 31, 1890
“National Guard Notes
New York Times
November 19, 1893
“A Preacher Unordained”
New York Times
November 26, 1893
“National Guard Notes”
New York Times
December 31, 1893
“Met at the Altar to Pray”
New York Times
March 15, 1894
“Father Lambert Welcomed”
New York Times
March 23, 1894
“The Gospel Through the Megaphone”
The World (NY)
September 6, 1896
“Lodging for the Homeless”
New York Times
December 20, 1897
“Dewey Arch Column Ablaze”
New York Times article
May 14, 1900
“Shelters a Little Army”
New York Times
November 18, 1901
“Church Services To-morrow”
New York Times
March 20, 1909
New York Times
June 4, 1910
“Tending His Flock by Night”
December 11, 1913
“Church Services To-morrow”
New York Times
January 3, 1914
“Putting His Congregation to Sleep”
January 16, 1914
I have also posted here (above) as a PDF file an article by Theodore Dreiser:
“This Man’s Life Is Dedicated to Preaching to the World the Gospel of Human Brotherhood”
The Washington Post
July 1, 1906
which was originally published in Success magazine.
The article faithfully describes the charitable activities of “the captain” in Worth Square.
— Roger W. Smith
Chapter XLV of Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, is entitled “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” In this famous chapter, which has echoes of Stephen Crane, George Hurstwood — out of work, physically ill and desperate — is reduced to living in Broadway flophouses and to begging.
One afternoon, he goes to a theater where Carrie is appearing as a lead actress and hovers about the entrance, hoping to see her. He thinks he sees her alight from a carriage and enter the theater, but he is not sure it was her. He ambles downtown from 39th Street, where the theater is located, to the corner of 26th Street and Broadway:
At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took his stand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway—a spot which is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hour when the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons. Fire signs announcing the night’s amusements blazed on every hand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes, pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freely mingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream, laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers—a few wealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady on his arm, some clubmen passing from one smoking-room to another. Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleaming windows, their cafés and billiard-rooms filled with a comfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration—the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.
This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself.
Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, he would stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicants who had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For a while he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policeman passing saluted him as “captain,” in a friendly way. An urchin who had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All others took him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter of dress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idling for his own amusement.
As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Here and there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, a loiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed the opposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Another came down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, took a general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeable Bowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square, but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat, walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro, indifferently whistling.
As nine o’clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlier hour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful. The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures were moving—watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, which they seemed afraid to enter—a dozen in all. Presently, with the arrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. It crossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and, in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waiting figure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about the movement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea of stopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to the soldier, came the halt.
The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especial greeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured something like one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned toward the edge of the walk.
“Stand over there,” he said.
By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed his short, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did not so much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling and hitching and scraping their feet.
“Cold, ain’t it?”
“I’m glad winter’s over.”
“Looks as though it might rain.”
The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew each other and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing to be in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish, crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving their feet.
There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them no chance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.
“Beds, eh, all of you?”
There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.
“Well, line up here. I’ll see what I can do. I haven’t a cent myself.”
They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see, now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was a wooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group that would ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection. Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats worn and faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faces looked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffed in the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned and reminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near, drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the line began to talk.
“Silence!” exclaimed the captain. “Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can’t lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?”
“Well, we’ll have to wait here, boys, until some one does. Twelve cents isn’t so very much for one man.”
“Here’s fifteen,” exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. “It’s all I can afford.”
“All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line,” and seizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a little way and stood him up alone.
Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.
“I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow. There are”—counting—”one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will put the next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for the night. I go right along and look after that myself. Who will give me nine cents?”
One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him a five-cent piece.
“Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed. Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You all have good beds. How about these?”
“Here you are,” remarked a bystander, putting a coin into his hand.
“That,” said the captain, looking at the coin, “pays for two beds for two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give me seven cents more?”
“I will,” said a voice.
Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to cross east through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He was wholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almost mortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrie now? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came in a coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interrupt under most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry and weary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had not heart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.
When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain’s gathering of wanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacher or some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, in crossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed the line of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out from the main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouring electric light he recognised a type of his own kind—the figures whom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, drifting in mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be and turned back.
There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard with astonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: “These men must have a bed.” Before him was the line of unfortunates whose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edge up and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to do likewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was a simple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, he would do better.
Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, a relaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty being removed, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and some leaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of the government, some newspaper sensations, and the more notorious facts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there. Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters. Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.
There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares from those who were too dull or too weary to converse.
Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thought he should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid for and gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, and already the captain was talking for him.
“Twelve cents, gentlemen—twelve cents puts this man to bed. He wouldn’t stand here in the cold if he had any place to go.”
Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hunger and weakness had made a coward of him.
“Here you are,” said a stranger, handing money to the captain.
Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager’s shoulder.
“Line up over there,” he said.
Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the world were not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemed to feel like himself about this.
“Captain’s a great feller, ain’t he?” said the man ahead—a little, woe-begone, helpless-looking sort of individual, who looked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.
“Yes,” said Hurstwood, indifferently.
“Huh! there’s a lot back there yet,” said a man farther up, leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom the captain was pleading.
“Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night,” said another.
“Look at the guy in the cab,” observed a third.
A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out a bill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turned away to his line. There was a general craning of necks as the jewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off. Even the crowd gaped in awe.
“That fixes up nine men for the night,” said the captain, counting out as many of the line near him. “Line up over there. Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents.”
Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned out to a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab or foot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled with pedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed the small group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.
The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, very slowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance, as though he could not fail.
“Come; I can’t stay out here all night. These men are getting tired and cold. Some one give me four cents.”
There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handed him, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put him in the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, looking at the ground.
The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struck eleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.
“Come, now,” he exclaimed to several curious observers; “eighteen cents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I have six. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over to Brooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men down and put them to bed. Eighteen cents.”
No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for several minutes, occasionally saying softly: “Eighteen cents.” It seemed as if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longer than all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the long line of which he was a part, refrained with an effort from groaning, he was so weak.
At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down Fifth Avenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily, reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the time when he had escorted his own wife in like manner.
While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkable company, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in his fingers, all elegant and graceful.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Thanks,” said the captain, turning to the two remaining applicants. “Now we have some for to-morrow night,” he added.
Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head, counting as he went.
“One hundred and thirty-seven,” he announced. “Now, boys, line up. Right dress there. We won’t be much longer about this. Steady, now.”
He placed himself at the head and called out “Forward.” Hurstwood moved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Square by the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down Third Avenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestrians and loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chatting policemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded to the leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue they marched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there was a lodging-house, closed, apparently, for the night. They were expected, however.
Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyed within. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a “Steady, now.”
Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was no delay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood looked back and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the line being included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night.
“I can’t stand much of this,” said Hurstwood, whose legs ached him painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in the small, lightless chamber allotted to him. “I’ve got to eat, or I’ll die.”
On November 5, 2016, I received an email from Dreiser scholar Thomas P. Riggio:
I just came across that section in Sister Carrie where the “Captain” gathers the homeless men and begs for small change to get them beds for the night. I’ve always felt that the description was so detailed and that the tone suggests that anyone familiar with New York life would recognize the character — sort of like Fleischmann’s bread line. I wonder if you ever came across anything in your research of the period or its newspapers that identified the original for the Captain? I’m almost willing to bet that he was a local well-known figure in the city.
Professor Riggio was convinced that the figure of the “the captain” in Dreiser’s novel must have been based on a real person. He actually had a name (which turned about the right one, something he did not know at the time), but he did not tell me so. Later, after publishing an article based upon my research (without having told me he planned to do so), Professor Riggio told me that he had had a name.
I went to the New York Public Library that day, on a weekend, to see if I could find anything about the real-life model for “the captain.”
To try and find the identity of a figure (perhaps hypothetical for all I knew) in New York City who might have matched Dreiser’s description of his activities. Over a period of a decade or more (sometime presumably in the 1890’s), using generic search terms such as “homeless,” “charity,” “beggar,” etc.?
I was practically in tears due to frustration and was about to give up, exhausted after searching for five or six hours, when I stumbled upon a newspaper article about some sort of chaplain who would solicit donations every evening near Madison Square Park to pay for beds for destitute men:
“Lodging for the Homeless; Evangelist Rotzler Collects Money for 126 Men and Marches the Shivering Crowd Away,” The New York Times, December 20, 1897
This has got to be the right person, I thought.
Now I had a name. Searching on Frederick Rotzler (the chaplain’s name), I found a lot of documentary material — newspaper and magazine articles — that described Frederick Rotzler’s activities as a chaplain before, during, and after the period when he was observed by Dreiser. Some of this material was unearthed by me on subsequent library visits. I promptly sent it all to Professor Riggio.
That same month, I got another email from Professor Riggio: “As to the blog on Rotzler, … I wonder if you could hold off on this for a while?”
I wasn’t quite sure what this vague communique meant. I had been thinking not so much of a blog — not precisely — I was thinking that since, as far as I knew, I had discovered the identity of “the captain” (pursuant to Professor Riggio’s request to research him), perhaps I should or could write an article in which I would explain the source of the figure in “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” It seemed — and was reasonable for me to assume, for all I knew — that I had made the discovery.
I received another email from Professor Riggio a couple of months later:
… if you could hold off for another five or six weeks, that would be helpful; this will give me time to complete my work on the subject which I began before we exchanged material on the subject. I know you have five or six items you have been trying to complete on your site, so there can be no rush on Rotzler for you.
Again, Professor Riggio was making assumptions about what I planned to do about the Rotzler materials. He was constructing a scenario that fit his plans and would give him “cover.” I did not know what he meant by “complete my work on the subject.” (He was being obscure on purpose.) What he was planning was to write an article, but he did not wish to tell me that, any more than he was willing to tell me at the outset that he already had a name for the person whom he suspected was “the captain.”
What he wanted to be able to do was sort of have his cake (for himself) and be able to eat it too (whenever he decided to) — in effect, to use the materials I had unearthed, whenever and however he saw fit, to write an article supposedly his, while ensuring that no one else would see or be able to use my findings, and that I would, not suspecting anything, honor his implicit request to not (for reasons he did not explain) publish an article myself.
His intention in asking me to do library research (pro bono) was to see what I could come up with — it would provide corroboration for his “theories” (surmises about “the captain’s” true identity) — but to make sure I did not think I was entitled to write an article about my findings. He certainly did not want me to write an article, nor to realize he was writing one, which would have perhaps induced me to think I was entitled to do it first.
The words “which I began before we exchanged material on the subject [“the captain”]” were meant to give him “cover,” to justify his writing an article using my materials, so that he could claim the article he was writing was based on his research, not mine.
Around a year later, to my surprise and consternation, the following article was published:
“Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square”
By Thomas P. Riggio
Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2016)
The article was based largely (though not entirely) on my original research. I was given a perfunctory acknowledgment in a footnote. When I complained to Professor Riggio, he defended appropriating my research on the grounds that he did the writing. Of course he had, using my material without informing me of what use he planned to make of it; without it, he would have had no article.
When I read the article, I saw to my dismay that it was chock full of documentary material, including verbatim transcripts, photographs and illustrations, plus findings of mine such as the location of the square where Dreiser’s chaplain appeared each night (which Dreiser remembered not quite correctly) and data on Rotlzer in the 1910 census. The latter is the kind of documentary material that makes or breaks a scholarly article. They give the reader assurance that the scholar/author has done his homework. But in this instance, the homework wasn’t done by the author; it was done by me, with no credit. Professor Riggio used this information (Dreiser’s mistake about the exact location; census data, which it would never have occurred to him to check) without any footnotes acknowledging that the information came from me. And, almost all of the illustrative and documentary material in the article, he simply cut and pasted using the text and photos I had emailed to him. This I could readily see by merely glancing at the published article.
— Roger W. Smith
Suppose Mr. Dreiser could forget the griefs he must have suffered by the banks of the Wabash far away, and that he lost this beautiful pity which, according to Mr. Mencken, redeems the worst style that has flourished since Laura Jean Libbey and a general literary incompetence – only the beautiful pity is to be attributed to Mr. Mencken. Mr. Dreiser would then stand forth in all his nakedness of culture and of the simplest amenities of life and of literature. If a painter were so ignorant of his craft, it is not very likely that even the most Crocean critic would think that the most divine pity would excuse absurd draughtsmanship, no perspective and miserable brushwork. But novels, being unfortunately written in something like the prose that we all speak, however unwittingly, are an easy prey to the uneducated and the charlatan.
— Frances Newman, The Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1921
He moved, a pathmaker, with heavy crunching powerful steps through the brambles and thickets of American literary prejudice, making way for a host of more graceful but less powerful writers.
— Burton Rascoe, A Bookman’s Daybook, 1922
Not the incurable awkwardness of his style nor his occasional merciless verbosity nor his too frequent interposition of crude argument can destroy the effect which he produces at his best – that of an eminent spirit brooding over the world which in spite of many condemnations he deeply, somberly loves.
— Carl Van Doren, 1923
To me he is a very large and commanding figure in American letters. While some of us have been building chicken coops, or, possibly, bungalows, Mr. Dreiser has been erecting skyscrapers. He makes the three-decker novel look like a pamphlet.
— George Ade, New York Herald-Tribune, September 9, 1926
In his drawing of characters from the lower strata of life and from the gilded haunts of Broadway, Mr. Dreiser shows an easy competence. … But when the author passes to the doings of conventional society, … he displays a ludicrous ignorance and awkwardness.
— Paul Elmer More, 1928
Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know.
— Arnold Bennett, 1930
What writes worse than a “Theodore Dreiser?” … Two “Theodore Dreisers.”
— Dorothy Parker, 1931
Dreiser’s style is of a piece with his general want of concern for imaginative writing as such. As wholes his books are of extreme interest because of the large spirit, the passionate intelligence, which informs them.
— Joseph Warren Beach, 1932
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.
— Bobbie B. (guest contributor), Oakland Tribune, February 21, 1934
Dreiser was in turn pathetic and lovable, sublime and ludicrous. He had within him that chaos which gives birth to dancing stars. He was one of the authentic geniuses American literature has produced.
— Burton Rascoe, In Memoriam
Dreiser, like Goethe, was more interesting than any of his books. He was typical, in more ways than one, of a whole generation of Americans — a generation writhing in an era of advancing chaos. There must have been some good blood hidden in him, but on the surface he was simply an immigrant peasant bewildered by the lack of neat moral syllogisms in civilized existence. He renounced his ancestral religion at the end of his teens, but never managed to get rid of it. Throughout his life it welled up in him in the form of various superstitions – spiritualism, Fortism, medical quackery, and so on – and in his last days it engulfed him in the form of Communism, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the will to believe. If he had lived another ten years, maybe five years, he would have gone back to the Holy Church. …
— H. L. Mencken (undated)
Dreiser was a thinker and a thinker moreover with a living growing philosophy of life, that had he lived to be a hundred would have remained incomplete and unfinished. And this is the case because his philosophy was the expression of his personality and his personality never ceased developing.
— John Cowper Powys (undated)
Dreiser’s head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character, a head of the afflicted Prometheus bound to the Caucasus, and which, across the inexorable centuries, has become ingrained with the Caucasus and now has a fundamental component of rock that is pained by life. Dreiser’s work is no different from his tragic face: it is as torpid as the mountains or the deserts, but like them it is important an elemental and inarticulate way.
— Jorge Luis Borges, 1938
He cannot be dismissed as a confused genius; he cannot be dismissed as a foggy giant; he cannot be dismissed as a man who, despite a sophomoric philosophy wrote great novels.
— Robert H. Elias, Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature, 1949
Dreiser’s contempt for the numskull mass is in most of his philosophy. His pretension to moral superiority shows in his cries of “Hell!”, in his cool, erudite, false humility, in his terse omniscience, in his garbled, gaudy symbolism. Dreiser was always “serious: the critics made him a “philosopher.” What they recognized as breadth in his novels was made “passionate intelligence.” … I think the key to Dreiser’s philosophical writing is pretentiousness, a pose of intellectual superiority.
… Dreiser’s yearning for the high class led him to his incredible intellectual pretensions. Assuming as self-evident his stupidity and ignorance, we are appalled by the picture of a foggy giant, struggling to be “smart,” writing volume after volume of trash, corrupting his great gifts.
… Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” But he was not familiar with it. And when he wrote about it, he wrote about the surface qualities of it, never once touching the refinement, the sense of superior knowledge and awareness through ease. Dreiser was a snob on one level, a man with exorbitant class yearnings, a man who resented his origins and was scornful of the lower classes. … Dreiser’s vision was clouded many times by this snobbery. It led to certain cruelties and flippancies and certain absurd superficialities. It drove him to portray the rich with absurd, unreal strokes. It drove him in his non-fiction to tolerance of poverty and ugliness as the secret complement to thought and beauty. It drove his to attempt a portrait of himself to the reader as a knowing, superior being. … Through his work rages his own private battle between hate and resentment of the upper class and abject admiration and envy, and an attempt to identify with them. Whenever class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Whenever he attempts to identity with knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic. Whenever he sees his character as apart from his social yearnings, as united to him, not in education and money, but in love, hate, hunger, fear, he is realistic.
— Thomas Kranidas, Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953
Dreiser is a forgotten man, almost, but if you go back you can see what he was trying to do with the novel. He didn’t succeed because I think he imposed his own limitations.
— Harper Lee, quoted in Roy Newquist, Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964)
How many exsanguinous grammarians are prepared to announce that Dreiser was a clumsy poser? How easy it is to diminish him, but where is the man who could write “Sister Carrie” and “Jennie Gerhardt”?
— Edward Dahlberg, New York Times Book Review, 1971
His mind, it often seemed to us, was like an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Darwinist, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes almost as a fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer.
— Malcolm Cowley (recalling a gathering from 1931), Michigan Quarterly Review, 1979
Time was when there was magic in the name Theodore Dreiser. Some sense of that old magic remains with me today.
— James T. Farrell, Chicago Tribune Book World, January 4, 1981
Everything that can be said against Theodore Dreiser has been said. It is therefore time to make the case for him in terms that finally matter – that is to say, as a writer, a writer who did much that was new in writing.
The case against Dreiser much resembles Samuel Johnson’s case against John Milton.
Dreiser was a disagreeable man. His sexual conduct was outrageous, and his political opinions equally so. As Johnson would think of Milton, Dreiser’s philosophical opinions, if philosophical is the right word, were incoherent. His style occasionally is embarrassing to the revolutionary cause.
Trilling in his otherwise great essay does not address Dreiser specifically as a novelist, does not locate his actual power, the power that makes us emotionally exhausted by the fate of Carrie or Clyde. It is the best of Dreiser that matters, not his foolishness, and it is the best that will endure.
Throw old Dreiser’s ideas into the wastebasket. He did something new as a writer. He wrote a prose that almost alone in our literature celebrates the magic of the city, and he did this in the teeth of his moralistic superego, which kept telling him that the city and riches were evil. …
When Dreiser is telling the truth about the beauty and the possibility of the city, he writes in a direct and muscular prose, a prose that expresses the city and what it offers.
It remains a fact that the defendant, Theodore Dreiser, accomplished something new in our literature, perhaps accomplished it despite his moralistic predispositions. He wrote about the aesthetic possibilities of the American city with a power that no one had done before.
— Jeffrey Hart, The Washington Times, May 7, 1990
H. L. Mencken wrote in 1917, “Dreiser stands up-a phenomenon unescapably visible, but disconcertingly hard to explain.” He still does, and he still is. Since his time we have had Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner, Cather and Steinbeck and Mailer, Styron and Bellow and Updike; but Dreiser stands up across the years as the man who almost single-handedly brought American fiction out of the l9th Century’s “genteel tradition” into 20th Century literature.
What makes Dreiser so disconcertingly hard to explain is the fact that he did this with a body of work hardly calculated to bring about such a result. His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. The so-called “philosophical” works, on which he set such store, are a hodgepodge of bad thinking and worse writing. He gave years of his life to campaigning for a variety of political and social causes, some of which were in direct contradiction to others, and all of which kept him away from his true vocation.
These things, and much else besides, lay within the man himself. There were other forces at work, extraneous to Dreiser, that made it extraordinarily difficult for him to achieve his ends. It seems safe to say that no other American writer has suffered to quite the same degree from critical misunderstanding or assaults by guardians of the national morality.
— Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1990
Theodore Dreiser’s acknowledged “greatness” isn’t easy to pin down or to separate from his notorious lapses as a writer and thinker. Like Walt Whitman, another shaggy outsider, Dreiser elbowed himself into the company of Leading American Authors without the proper credentials. There are still those who think that he does not belong in the club.
Dreiser wasn’t an original thinker or a profound social analyst, and he certainly wasn’t the first writer to dramatize the “tragedy of desire,” the bleak indifference of nature, or the nightmare of the American dream. He was a deep feeler, however, and he was embedded as no other writer before him in the amorphous and heterogeneous American commonality. He was of it as his alter egos Carrie Meeber, George Hurstwood, Eugene Witla, and Clyde Griffiths were of it.
— Daniel Aaron, The New Republic, November 1990
Dreiser was a hypochondriac, drank too much, and had a nervous habit of folding and refolding his handkerchief. He philandered, and philandered on his philanderings. … He quarreled with publishers over royalty statements and movie studios over script control, and even quarreled with H. L. Mencken. … He plagiarized poetry from Sherwood Anderson and journalism from Dorothy Thompson … Dreiser’s writing career was as lopsided as his character. … Dreiser remains the great gawk of American literature (a “peasant,” Mencken called him), the pool-born, ill-educated German-American Hoosier from Terre Haute, an oaf with mud on his shoes who invaded the drawing rooms of the genteel to talk about sex and, even worse, money. …
As the centenary of Dreiser’s emergence approaches, it is time to drop the barbs and acknowledge, without reservation, that Theodore Dreiser is an immortal, a giant who stands with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James among Americans, and with Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, and Solzhenitsyn among moderns. Except for O’Neill and Faulkner, Dreiser’s contemporaries stand in his shade. Howells, Wharton, Lewis, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway are fine writers; so are Farrell, O’Hara, Chandler, and Cain. No one tells all that Dreiser tells. Dreiser sees more; he understands more. The most patient and observant of American writers, Dreiser lets his pen follow life, finding words to fit its appearing and dissolving forms, weighting every sentence with data absorbed from research and experience. Thick with time and place, peopled by fully fleshed characters, Dreiser’s novels convey the very dust hanging in the air of his restless, crowded cities. …
Many other realists have also built on stable structures, but Dreiser was uniquely able to convey instability as well. Formlessness fascinated this master of form and runs like a lyric countermelody through his writing. … By blending form and fluidity with nearly invisible skill, Dreiser rounded off the rough edges of his structures, made them flexible. … By allowing both will and accident, both eros and convention, to shape his work, Dreiser achieved the fumbling give-and-take that is the hallmark of his realism and, like an architect who plans for earthquake, did much to ensure long life for his creations.
How did Dreiser paint his pictures and build his structures? By writing superb English prose. … Dreiser wrote badly? An awkward sentence here and there, perhaps; Dreiser might have nodded, along with Homer. Much more striking is page after page of durable English in the plainspoken tradition of the King James Bible and Daniel Defoe, simple words in supple sentences.
— Michael Lydon, The Atlantic, August 1993
Dreiser and Norris are in crucial ways simply embarrassing. Dreiser’s sloppiness as a writer and sentimentality as a thinker and Norris’s crude biases and philosophizing disqualify them for inclusion in the great white male writers’ tradition, even if only because they expose too nakedly certain attitudes and values more subtly veiled in the work of their artistic superiors.
— Elizabeth Ammons, in American Realism and the Canon, ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, 1994
Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature – wild and coarse and powerful, definitely commanding respect, if grudgingly. Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. To summarize his plots is to enumerate banalities.
— Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 31, 1994
More than 100 years ago Dreiser understood exactly what the rootlessness and superficiality of the modern world would do to our souls, and in ‘Sister Carrie’ he presents it all unflinchingly. Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller.
— Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002
Dreiser was the biggest literary cudgel that Mencken could wield in his prime against American Puritanism. … In the cold light of day nearly a century after the Dreiser Wars, you could even argue that ‘Theodore Dreiser, novelist,’ has become a literary subcategory of ‘H.L. Mencken, critic’ in the great procession of American letters.
— “Editor’s Choice,” Buffalo News, December 15, 2002
There’s something moving about the sheer strength of Dreiser. He’s overwhelming.
— Joan Didion, interview, Publishers Weekly, 2003
Dreiser exults in the energy of cities like Cleveland and Chicago, but depicts them as grinding down the wills of weak characters and strengthening the ruthless; Dreiser may create hidden refuges of pastoral delight within the heart of this urban wasteland, but the pastoral is squeezed into insignificance by the city’s irrepressible growth.
— Bev Hogue, in A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America, ed. Charles L. Crow, 2003
To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic.
— Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003
[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry.
— Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004
Dreiser was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did (cf. Harry Stack Sullivan’s oft quoted definition of absolute love). A corollary was that he could never freely accept love or kindness nor trust anyone’s good intentions towards him.
— Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 4, 2016
It has occurred to me that Dreiser was incapable of self-censorship. He was completely sincere and not at all concerned, it would seem, with what others might or would think about the things he revealed about himself. It was as if he were incapable of being embarrassed. Perhaps this had something to do with circumstances of his upbringing.
His sincerity is one of his most appealing traits as a writer, I believe. His frankness is notable, in an era where topics were handled so much more gingerly than now.
— Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 20, 2016
“It’s remarkable that somebody who is as terrible a writer as he is sentence by sentence can be arguably the great powerful American novelist of just portraying the reality of American life in its aspirations and its humiliations and its pathos.”
— James Fallows (2018)
Posted here as a PDF file attachment is a news story based on an interview with Theodore Dreiser, George Jean Nathan, and Ernest Boyd regarding formation of a new magazine, The American Spectator:
“Dreiser, Nathan, Boyd, Describe New Magazine, Also ‘Own Saloon’ ”
United Press dispatch published in The Atlanta Constitution, October 30, 1932
As noted in a Wikipedia entry:
The American Spectator was a monthly literary magazine which made its first monthly appearance in November 1932. It was edited by George Jean Nathan, though Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Boyd, Theodore Dreiser, and James Branch Cabell were also listed as joint editors.
The original editors left the publication in 1935, after which the paper continued monthly publication under new editors until October 1936. The American Spectator lasted another six months on a bimonthly before folding altogether.
— Roger W. Smith
The review of Theodore Dreiser’s Dawn posted here (as a Word document) is from the May 18, 1931 edition of Time.
It is written in the typically snippy (and often parodied) Time style. Nevertheless, it provides a look at the way Dreiser was regarded in his day.
–Roger W. Smith