Theodore Dreiser’s “Dawn” — The Formation of a Mind: An Autobiographical Representation, by Nadja Firner. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG, 2008. 126 pp. Paper, $92.00.
In my opinion, which I think would be shared by many Dreiserians, the two autobiographical works of Theodore Dreiser, A Book About Myself (1922) and Dawn (1931), should be ranked very high among American autobiographies. In view of this, it is surprising that Dreiser’s two autobiographical books (which he envisioned as part of a four-volume autobiography that was never finished) are not better known.
I think that A Book About Myself (later published as Newspaper Days) is actually the better written of the two books. It seems to have a tighter focus and to exhibit less of Dreiser’s tiresome philosophizing than does the later work, Dawn. But Dawn can stand on its own as a compelling work and as an invaluable narrative of Dreiser’s youth.
Hence my excitement when I saw that this book by Nadja Firner had been published and jumped to the conclusion that it was a study of Dawn (which, as is explained below, it is not, quite) and thus, by implication, of Dreiser’s autobiographical oeuvre. That I did so was not incomprehensible given that the publicity material for the book, found on Amazon.com and on the back cover of the book, states that the book “studies Theodore Dreiser’s autobiography of youth.” This statement would seem to indicate that it is a study of Dawn. While Dawn does receive consideration, it is more exact to say that this is a book about the “dawning” of Dreiser’s consciousness and the development of his worldview over his lifetime. (A Book About Myself, incidentally, does not receive consideration.) But the subject of the book is still not clear to me after struggling to complete Firner’s study, and this indicates that there are serious flaws in the book’s conception and construction. The content – or perhaps I should say the context in which the content is embedded – of this study is often out of focus.
Firner considers the major works of Dreiser and references much Dreiser scholarship (notably by Elias, Lehan, Lingeman, Lundén, Mathiessen, Mukherjee, Swanberg, Warren, Wirth-Nesher, and Zanine), but while at times provocative and compelling points are made, a direct, seemingly inevitable consequence of such broad coverage is that it is superficial.
I once took a copyediting course in which the instructor made a point about why attention to detail on the part of editors and copyeditors is essential: Sloppiness in editing and production tends to decrease the reader’s overall confidence in a nonfiction book’s accuracy. Firner’s study appears to have been written by a non-native speaker of English; it may be a translation (and a very awkward one at that) from a manuscript in German. It is written in prose that very often does not conform to standard English usage even by relaxed standards; it is plagued with awkward wording, errors in tense and syntax and typographical errors; and it’s a very tough read. There are also annoying inconsistencies in the treatment, say, of items like young Dreiser’s name (Theo vs. Theodore). It is incredible that this book has been published as is.
The first chapter of this book illustrates what is wrong with the whole work, structurally and focus-wise. Instead of focusing on Dreiser, the chapter provides a broad (very broad, in fact overly general) overview of American society during the Gilded Age. It contains sections entitled “America’s new industrial workers,” “The new managerial class,” “The Labor Movement,” and so on in which statements such as the following are made:
In the 1890s, Coney Island was transformed into the site of some of the largest and most elaborate amusement parks in the country. Its popularity signaled the rise of mass entertainment, making the New York amusement park the unofficial capital of a new mass culture. (pg. 23)
The reader must infer what the relevance to Dreiser (if any) is. It is anyone’s guess.
In her concluding chapter, Firner makes the point that Dreiser’s writing life can be divided into distinct phases: “the yearner and dreamer in a despairingly rough reality” (seen in Dreiser’s portrayals of himself in Dawn and of Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie); the social Darwinian; a stage in which Dreiser’s outlook became more mystical and “antithetical to the amoral objectivity of a conventionally conceived naturalist”; and a final stage where he managed to reconcile his more romantic or mystical views with a scientific and materialistic outlook. (I am not sure that I have correctly identified the phases here. Firner states that there were three phases, then seems to identify four.) These phases are treated at various points in the exposition, but if they are construed as controlling or organizing themes, then the book can be said to often wander into other territory.
The book is divided into chapters on young Dreiser’s America (already noted), his family and the immigrant experience (in which Dawn gets attention), the importance of the city in Dreiser’s development (in which both Dawn and Sister Carrie are the main focus), Dreiser’s use of symbols (in which several of the novels are scrutinized), major influences on Dreiser from Spencer to Balzac, themes in his work such as the ideal of beauty, and so on. Some of this is quite interesting, or at least potentially so, but it is all too much to cover — the book’s content does not cohere.
Many of Firner’s observations about Dreiser are derivative, which is not in itself a criticism. She clearly acknowledges indebtedness to sources and in fact uses them skillfully. She does make a lot of interesting points of her own, such as that Dreiser suffered from a “poverty complex” not unlike his father’s obsession with religion (38), that “there is hardly anyone to imagine who was more repressive, a sometimes more enthusiastic ‘believer’ and in some respects more fanatic than” Dreiser, whose beliefs about class conflict, for example, were founded, ironically, in opposition to his father’s rigidity and orthodoxy (43); that if Dreiser was in his youth impressed by Horatio Alger-like rags to riches stories, he was not in his later years blinded by them (60); that Dreiser “carried the American business novel into previously unexamined territory by suggesting that the synthesis of commercial success and conventional moral precepts were [sic] possible but by no means necessary” (60); that Dreiser gradually moved away “from the sense of social misery as individual fate to escape from by no matter what means in order to ‘rise’ in society, to the sense of social misery as a collective problem to be solved by political and fair means” (65); that illusion and reality in Dreiser’s view “existed in mutual dependence in that one was unthinkable without the other” (72); that “Dreiser was not merely a documentary social realist, but rather a profound observer of the underlying myths and emotional realities of the American experience” (117); that Dreiser’s philosophy was built more on intuition and faith than on logic and reason (117).
The problem with this study is the way such points are developed, haphazardly and sloppily, which is unfortunate, since the author evinces insightfulness and a clear enthusiasm for her subject. She needed an editor’s help. I would not recommend this book, leaving aide consideration of its exorbitant price.
— Roger W. Smith