Category Archives: reappraisals

“An American Revival” (Thomas P. Riggio on Dreiser)

 

 

 

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

   June 2017

 

 

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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 “With Dreiser, the amount of unpublished and improperly published material is nearly staggering, especially from a writer who at one time dominated the American literary scene.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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith, “Thoughts on An American Tragedy”

 

 

I don’t have a Ph.D. and lack the academic qualifications of many literary scholars, yet I have a broad and deep knowledge of literature from a lifetime of reading and I feel I have excellent taste.

I also happen to be Dreseirian.

When people ask me who my favorite writers are, I will mention a few, usually them same ones: Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson, Balzac, Tolstoy, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman …

and, Theodore Dreiser.

Dreiser is one of the first I mention. I always experience some embarrassment when I do so. He doesn’t seem to belong in such company.

Dreiser’s massive novel An American Tragedy — it is over 900 pages long — was the book which got me deeply into Dreiser; it bowled me over. I have read it at least twice.

I have been rereading portions of the novel recently. I am surprised how well it holds up and that much of its impact seems undiminished.

Yet Dreiser couldn’t write! Here’s what some commentators have said about this:

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. (guest contributor, Oakland Tribune, 1934)

His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. (Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, 1990)

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature. … 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. (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1994)

Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller. (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002)

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)

Theodore Dreiser couldn’t write.

Or could he?

An American Tragedy has stock characters (like Sondra Finchley, a 1920’s flapper) who are unbelievable.

The prose is turgid and leaden.

Dreiser copied whole chunks of the book from press accounts of an actual murder case.

Admitted, thricely.

And, yet.

The Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906 (upon which An American Tragedy was based) fixated public attention and still fascinates people today. It remained for Dreiser to make literature out of it — the way, say, Herman Melville (a far greater writer than Dreiser) made literature out of the sinking of the whaleship Essex. In so doing, Dreiser created a classic which far outranks his first novel, Sister Carrie (which is more widely read).

The power of  An American Tragedy is undeniable. It retains that power upon being reread.

The crude, flat prose style is just right for the narrative, the story.

I just opened, totally at random, to a page in my 1948 World Publishing Company edition of An American Tragedy. Page 505 (Book Two, Chapter XLV) contains the following paragraph about Clyde Griffiths, the central character (Clyde was based a real life model, Chester Gillette):

And Clyde, listening at first with horror and in terror, later with a detached and philosophic calm as one who, entirely apart from what he may think or do, is still entitled to consider even the wildest and most desperate proposals for his release, at last, because of his own mental and material weakness before pleasures and dreams which he could not bring himself to forgo, psychically intrigued to the point where he was beginning to think that it might be possible. Why not? Was it not even as the voice said — a possible and plausible way — all his desires and dreams to be made real by this one evil thing? Yet in his case, because of flaws and weaknesses in his own unstable and highly variable will, the problem was not to be solved by thinking thus — then — nor for the next ten days for that matter.

Is this the prose of a James Joyce?

Decidedly not.

It is heavy on exposition (granted, this is an expository passage), perhaps too much so. That can be said of the entire book.

Yet, there is something about Dreiser’s prose that, in the case of this novel, is extremely effective.

There is a sort of Joycean technique (yes!) operating here. The narrator, the author’s, voice is “representing,” standing in for, the thoughts of the character. We thereby enter Clyde’s consciousness.

This is true of the entire book. We are like bystanders of Clyde’s psyche. We are always present, observing him close up without authorial intervention. In fact, Dreiser, by not distinguishing between what is exposition and what is narration, has merged the two and made the book thereby ten times more powerful in its impact.

We almost BECOME Clyde. This makes the book powerful, very effective.

The narrative flows artlessly yet effortlessly. We are drawn right in. We can’t desist.

To read the book is to become one with Clyde and his predicament. And, we can’t stop reading. It is also very readable because the style – to the extent there is one — aids and abets the story, fits right in with it, doesn’t get in the story’s way; is not pretentious; is entirely unaffected. It’s like some old timer sitting on his front porch and telling you a story he heard about once.

Here, at least, Dreiser gains by being non-literary.

He wrote – I repeat – a classic.

An American Tragedy stands by itself. It is not allied with and wasn’t written as a response to or commentary on any literary fashion or trend.

It is sui generis, autochthonous.

As was the case with its author, the book has “muscled” its way into the corpus of great American novels. It belongs there, even if few would care to admit it.

Even though it’s hardly ever taught nowadays in English courses.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   September 2016

Michael Lydon, “Justice to Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

Michael Lydon, “Justice to Theodore Dreiser”

The Atlantic, August 1993

Posted courtesy of Michael Lydon (see downloadable PDF file below)

Michael Lydon is the author of On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark (Patrick Press, 2011) and Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, & The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece (Franklin Street Press, 2017)

 

 

Lydon, ‘Justice to Theodore Dreiser’

Jeffrey Hart on Theodore Dreiser, Washington Times, May 7, 1990

 

 

 

“Dreiser hailed as writer of the city; Novelist caught aesthetic power of urban scene”

BYLINE: Jeffrey Hart

THE LOST WORD

JEFFRY HART on the novels of THEODORE DREISER

 

 

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.

It must have been startling to have been an alert reader in that annus mirabilis of American literature, 1925. You read Ernest Hemingway’s first major work, “In Our Time.”

You read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and also that strangely pivotal conversion poem of T.S. Eliot’s, “The Hollow Men,” which ends with the infant’s “whimper” at Bethlehem. And you read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.”

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.

Let us continue for a while the case against Dreiser before hearing from the defense.

In a recollective essay titled “An Evening at Theodore Dreiser’s,” Malcolm Cowley tells us about a meeting under Communist Party auspices at Dreiser’s Manhattan studio in 1931, a year of hard-to-imagine economic collapse and social desperation. The meeting was called to recruit writers, artists and intellectuals to the revolutionary cause.

“The younger writers were proud of his later successes, and most of them felt that he and not [Sinclair] Lewis should have been the first American to win the Nobel Prize; but they also felt that he groped and fumbled more than anyone had a right to do.

“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. … Dreiser looked up shyly from his prepared text, revealing his scrubbed lobster-pink cheeks and his chins in repeating terraces. . .. ‘The time is ripe,’ he said, ‘for American intellectuals to render some service to the American worker.’ ”

Cowley’s portrait of Dreiser is affectionately and respectfully devastating. The cultural left regarded Dreiser as a peasant writer and celebrated his faults as a sign of peasant authenticity. His awkwardness and his contradictions were signs of health compared with the decadent perfection and intelligence of Henry James. If you were for The People, Theodore Dreiser was your man.

From a rather different perspective, H.L. Mencken celebrated Dreiser as a writer coming from outside the genteel tradition of the East – and Mencken had in mind not least that Dreiser was of German stock. Harvard’s F.O. Matthiessen, an acute literary critic, stumbled in trying to elevate Dreiser by selecting among his ideas and viewing him as an “echt” man of The People.

In his important essay “Reality in America,” Lionel Trilling tried to execute Dreiser. Published earlier in parts in magazines, this essay appeared between hard covers in “The Liberal Imagination” (1950).

Trilling argues that “reality” in American culture is crudely conceived and excludes the operations of “mind.”

This thought had been anticipated by the James brothers, William and Henry, but Trilling makes the case powerfully, and he puts Dreiser in the dock. “It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy, as in the old plays.”

Up to a point, Trilling is absolutely right. There is an American democratic sentimentality that views slow-thinking clumsiness as a sign of moral virtue. There is a mainstream American opinion that suspects serious activity of the mind as being aristocratic and considers it “unreal,” as distinguished from the “odors of the shop.” Trilling convicts Dreiser of intellectual thuggishness, also noting that he was an anti-semite, as indeed he was.

Trilling’s climactic charge against Dreiser is moral and religious. In his last novel, “The Bulwark” (1946), Dreiser turns religious. He does so all too easily. Trilling compares this revolving-door Dreiser shift with the struggles of St. Augustine in the “Confessions.”
Dreiser’s hero in “The Bulwark,” Solon Barnes (you gag at the tacky “Solon”) affirms a simple Christian faith and a submission to the higher “powers,” the very same “powers” that Dreiser had earlier thought to be totally indifferent.

But egad! The same year “The Bulwark” appeared, Theodore Dreiser joined the Communist Party.

All of this Trilling can’t stand. And here the prosecution of Theodore Dreiser rests.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I will now speak in defense of the accused:

I will not defend Theodore Dreiser’s ideas.

I note, however, that in Trilling’s essay, which has much on its mind besides Theodore Dreiser – much, that is, including the politics of the Democratic Party and the fight against fellow-traveling (remember that the time is the late 1940s) – Trilling remarkably quotes very little from Dreiser’s own prose. He does quote a couple of collectors’ items, where Dreiser interpolates some idiotic “philosophizing” (Dreiser himself evidently valued this stuff) and Trilling certainly convicts Dreiser of intellectual fatuity and moral foolishness.

But Trilling does not in his prosecutor’s brief offer to locate the power of Dreiser as a novelist. It is as a novelist that his power must be assessed.

The title “An American Tragedy” has the aroma of the year 1925. Such writers as Dreiser, Hemingway and Fitzgerald aspired to write “the great American novel,” by which they meant an epic novel that would encompass the vast and contradictory “American” experience. Of course, none of them could do that probably impossible task, but it was certainly a nobler ambition than the minimalism of Ann Beattie or the current “minority” whining.

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.

It is a peculiar fact that American literature hates the city and always has. Thomas Jefferson did. T.S. Eliot did. So did Henry David Thoreau and Stephen Crane. Poor Hart Crane tried to celebrate the city with the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he collapsed as a poet in doing so.

Dreiser, perhaps despite himself, is the great poet in prose of the delights – the heretofore forbidden delights – of the city:

“Carrie was an apt student of fortune’s ways . . . fine clothes to her were a vast persuasion. They spoke tenderly and Jesuitically for themselves. When she came within earshot of their pleading, desire in her bent a willing ear. Ah, ah! the voices of the so-called inanimate. Who shall yet translate the language of the stones?”

Dreiser translated in his best prose the language of the stones. This is not fancy or “philosophical” writing. Dreiser – continue thinking of him as a writer – keeps expressing the aesthetics of the city. As Gustave Flaubert remarked, “Emma Bovary c’est moi,” Dreiser could certainly say of Carrie or Clyde, “C’est moi.”

Moralists would think of the following passage in “An American Tragedy” as part of the miseducation of Clyde Griffiths. He is here a bellhop at the luxurious Green-Davidson Hotel in Kansas City:

“There, at midnight even, before each of the three principal entrances – one facing each of three streets – was a doorman in a long maroon coat with many buttons and a high-rimmed and long-visored maroon cap. And inside, behind looped and fluted French silk curtains, were the still blazing lights, the a la carte dining-room and the American grill near the corner still open. And about them there were many taxis and cars. And there was music always – from somewhere.”

Music from somewhere? Well, certainly from Dreiser’s love for that Green-Davidson urban hotel.

Wherever you touch Dreiser’s prose at its best you get this direct blast of unphilosophical love:

“Clyde first stared, felt himself tremble the least bit with excitement, then thanking his advisor for his kindness, went directly to a green-marbled doorway which opened from the rear of this drug-store into the lobby of the hotel.

“Once through it, he beheld a lobby, the like of which, for all his years but because of the timorous poverty that had restrained him from exploring such a world, was more arresting, quite, than anything he had seen before. It was all so lavish. Under his feet was a checkered black-and-white marble floor. Above him a coppered and stained and gilded ceiling. And supporting this, a veritable forest of black marble columns as highly polished as the floor.”

There is no “philosophizing” in such passages, no paste gems such as Trilling correctly quotes against Dreiser. 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 is too bad that Clyde Griffiths could not exercise prudence and had to die in the electric chair. It is too bad that Dreiser held revolving-door “opinions.”

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.

The defense rests.

 

 

Jeffrey Hart is professor of English at Dartmouth College.

 

 

— Jeffrey Hart

     The Washington Times

      May 7, 1990