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



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 “With Dreiser, the amount of unpublished and improperly published material is nearly staggering, especially from a writer who at one time dominated the American literary scene.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

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


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

By Jeffrey Hart

The Washington Times

May 7, 1990

pg. E7


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.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2016