Posted here is the text of a New York Times article: “An American Revival” by Alan Bisbort, The New York Times, January 4, 2004.
The article seems to have attracted little notice and probably not much readership, since it appeared in a regional Sunday supplement. It is highly interesting and informative. It is based upon an interview with Professor Thomas P. Riggio, an eminent Dreiserian, and delves into attempts to reappraise Dreiser and his works, to reinvigorate Dreiser scholarship, and to publish authoritative editions of his works.
— Roger W. Smith
An American Revival
by Alan Bisbort
The New York Times
January 4, 2004
YOU can’t keep a good writer down. Just look at Samuel Johnson or Herman Melville, both of whom fell into obscurity and neglect after their deaths before being resuscitated by latter-day scholars and readers.
Or just ask Thomas P. Riggio, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut in Storrs since 1972. He will gladly talk a blue streak about Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), the novelist whose “An American Tragedy” (1925) placed him on the Mount Rushmore of American letters only to be evicted soon after he died.
Since 1986, when Dr. Riggio took over a project called the Dreiser Edition, he has been administering the academic equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver to Dreiser’s reputation. The Dreiser Edition, published by the University of Illinois Press and co-sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania, has produced 16 scholarly editions of the writer’s work, and Dr. Riggio has plans to bring the total to 40. Two new editions will be published in 2004, with two more in 2005.
“This project is opening up an entire new canon,” Dr. Riggio said. “With Dreiser, the amount of unpublished and improperly published material is nearly staggering, especially from a writer who at one time dominated the American literary scene. Because he was so censored, his books very often didn’t appear in their original form during his lifetime. There is so much that nobody has ever seen.”
Dr. Riggio cites the case of “A Traveler at Forty,” one of the Dreiser Editions he is spiriting into print next fall. “That book was, literally, cut in half by the publisher when it appeared in 1913,” he said. “Can you imagine this happening to any other major writer?”
Dr. Riggio’s efforts are riding a Dreiserian wave. Earlier this year, the Library of America published a 972-page “An American Tragedy” with notes by Dr. Riggio, and the Greenwood Press in Westport published “The Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia,” an authoritative — and expensive ($99) — reference guide. Future attention will also keep the author — called the “greatest living writer in America” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1918 — on the front burner. The Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an opera based on “An American Tragedy” that is scheduled for the 2005-06 season. A documentary film, “At the Gates of the Walled City: The Life and Work of Theodore Dreiser,” is in the works.
None of this comes as a surprise to Richard Lingeman, whose two-volume biography of Dreiser coincided with Dr. Riggio’s singular mission.
“Great literature endures,” said Mr. Lingeman, who has been on the Dreiser Edition advisory board since 1980. “Reputations go up and down, and I don’t pretend to understand how that happens. Dreiser endures because he wasn’t sheltered from life. He fought obstacles and that gave him a thick skin and an ability to continue on despite the barrage of criticism. He was one of those unusual writers of great talents who had a sense of mission to tell the truth.”
Born in Terre Haute, Ind., a poor German immigrant family, Dreiser began writing for newspapers in 1892 in Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in 1894 and worked as an editor and writer for magazines.
His first novel, “Sister Carrie,” was published in 1900 and hit like a Hoosier tornado. Nothing quite like it for warts-and-all depiction of life had been published in America. Even as it made a name for the author, the book ran afoul of arbiters of morals. Copies were taken off shelves; some were burned.
Similar reactions greeted his subsequent novels, sprawling sagas of broken dreams and raw deals, such as “Jenny Gerhardt” (1911), “The Financier” (1912), “The Titan” (1914) and “The ‘Genius”’ (1915). His greatest champion through these tough years was H.L. Mencken. Though they were worlds apart in upbringing — and often battled over Dreiser’s leftist leanings — the pair forged a bond. Of Dreiser, Mr. Mencken said, “American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin.”
Dr. Riggio, who has also edited two volumes of Dreiser-Mencken letters, said: “He was the first major American writer to grow up in a non-English-speaking home. He grew up with three strikes against him: poor, German and Catholic. He didn’t have the American impulse to give a happy ending, or a way out.”
Dr. Riggio, who is halfway through a 10-year effort to write his own Dreiser biography, is constantly amazed by his subject’s breadth.
“What is often forgotten is that he was fully engaged in his time,” he said. “He took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, the Harlan County coal miners, the Hollywood 10, Tom Mooney. He went to Spain to seek relief for the victims of the fascists. Dreiser wanted a sense of equity for all Americans and he understood what brought on the Great Depression.
“And he wasn’t wrong. But he paid the price for all that in the precipitous decline of his reputation after his death.”
Dr. Riggio is particularly proud of the Dreiser Edition he culled from the author’s correspondence with women, part of a huge cache of unpublished material at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Library. The depiction of Dreiser’s relations with women has, like his politics, been superseded by myth.
“I hate the word ‘womanizer,’ but it’s used to describe Dreiser,” Dr. Riggio said. “He was married twice. His first wife died and he was married to his second wife 25 years. And Dreiser’s most vivid characters are those of strong, empathetic women.”
Mr. Lingeman shares Dr. Riggio’s sense of Dreiser’s vastness. “Something about Dreiser keeps yielding more,” said Mr. Lingeman, executive editor of The Nation. “He was such a great documenter of facts and his books have a cumulative power. There’s so much to study and learn. I can understand how a scholar would spend 30 years on him.”
Mr. Riggio, 60, said his attachment to Dreiser was “partly accidental.” Before embarking on an academic career and after graduating from Fordham University, the Manhattan native pursued two careers, one as a member of Mayor John Lindsay’s staff, the other as a wholesaler.
“After working 18-hour days seven days a week for two years, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.”’
Dr. Riggio went to Harvard on a scholarship and earned a master’s and a doctorate there, moving on to teach literature in Storrs.
He said: “I always liked Dreiser but when I began looking at the material in the archive in Pennsylvania, just to be able to handle it, with its coffee stains, scribbled marginalia, to see the decisions of the writer. This was exciting stuff.”
Nonetheless, Dreiser’s “image problem” seems to have a life of its own.
“It’s hard to overcome this, but I hope with the Dreiser Edition and other upsurge in interest there’s a chance that we can at least get the facts straight,” Dr. Riggio said. “This is what brings a great writer back.”
Photo captions: Theodore Dreiser in a photograph taken in 1931. There is a new wave of interest in the writer’s works.; Thomas P. Riggio, who is working on a project called the Dreiser Edition, at his home office in Manchester.; A bamboo rocking chair that was once owned by Theodore Dreiser is now the property of Dr. Riggio, an English professor at UConn.