Category Archives: reviews of Dreiser works

Burton Rascoe on Dreiser (Dreiser as autobiographer)

 

 

I have always felt that Theodore Dreiser’s A Book About Myself (1922) is not only clearly superior to his other autobiographical work, Dawn (1931), but that the former work is underrated and has been neglected (which it should not be) when it comes to the question of ascertaining what American autobiographies are most deserving of being regarded as classics.

A Book About Myself was republished by Horace Liveright in 1931 under Dreiser’s original title, Newspaper Days. In 1991, the University of Pennsylvania Press published an unexpurgated edition edited by T. D. Nostwich which restored passages considered too explicit for publication when the book was first published. This unbowdlerizing increased the size of length of the work considerably.

The following is an excerpt from a review of the original work in the New York Tribune by Burton Rascoe. The entire review is posted here as a downloadable PDF document. It is a stimulating, lively review which shows a fundamental understanding and appreciation of Dreiser. Arthur Burton Rascoe (1892-1957) was a literary critic for the Tribune. He knew Dreiser personally and was the author of a book about him.

It must be a cause for pain and chagrin to Mr. Dreiser’s detractors as a novelist, who urge against him the single score of immortality, to read this book. On the face of it this self-revelation is frank and sincere. Mr. Dreiser has the conspicuous virtue of all great confessors: he does not hide the truth even when it makes him look ridiculous. For certainly he is in turn pathetic and lovable, sublime and ludicrous. He is, like the George Moore of “Hail and Farewell,” much and often a booby; he is, like the St. Augustine of “The Confessions,” much and often a noddle; he is, like Rousseau, much and often an ass; he is, like Casanova, much and often a vain and comical boaster; he is, like Bunyan and Dickens, in frequent bad taste; but he is forever and always frank, honest, and sincere.

 

 

Burton Rascoe review of ‘A Book About Myself’ – NY Herald Trib 12-31-1922

 

 

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I agree with Rascoe’s assessment. One of the chief things to admire about the book and Dreiser as revealed therein, by Dreiser himself, is Dreiser’s candor. He was never afraid to portray himself both as a budding journalist and idealistic young man to be esteemed, when appropriate; and also as someone often inept and jejune who could be found to have acted rashly and behaved foolishly and to have failed to acquit himself well on many occasions, besides giving heed to both “good” and “bad” impulses.

The book is, above all (as Rascoe notes), an honest and therefore authentic coming of age story. And, a compelling one. It should have more readers, but rarely — in fact, hardly ever — does it get noticed or mentioned as a prime example of American autobiography. It seems to have few readers nowadays.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

rhymed review, “The Financier”

 

 

‘Rhymed Review, The Financier’ – Life 2-13-1913

 

 

Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier was published in 1912. (A later, revised and shortened edition was published in 1925.)

This rhymed review of The Financier, by Arthur Guiterman, appeared in the February 13, 1913 issue of Life.

review of “An American Tragedy,” Sewanee Review

 

review of ‘An American Tragedy’ – Sewanee Review 1926

 

Posted here (above) as a downloadable PDF file is a review of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy that was published in The Sewanee Review.

The review is notable for how the writer so clearly apprehends Dreiser’s intentions and the strengths of the book, while not neglecting the fact that many found Dreiser’s prose and his narrative style to be ungainly, or, as the writer puts it, “unbeautiful.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2017

 

review of An American Tragedy, The Sewanee Review 34.4 (October-December 1926), p. 495-497

 

Roger W. Smith, review of “Theodore Dreiser’s “Dawn — The Formation of a Mind: An Autobiographical Representation,” by Nadja Firner

 

 

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

Granville Hicks, “Theodore Dreiser”

 

granville-hicks-theodore-dreiser-the-american-mercury-6-1-1946

 

Posted above in downloadable PDF format is a review essay on Theodore Dreiser’s last novel, the posthumously published The Bulwark, by critic Granville Hicks (1901-1982):

Granville Hicks, “Theodore Dreiser,” The American Mercury, vol. 62 (June 1, 1946), pp. 751-756

Hicks’s review-essay goes deeper than the typical review.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     November 2016

 

 

 

Edmund Wilson, “Theodore Dreiser’s Quaker and Graham Greene’s Priest”

edmund-wilson-theodore-dreisers-quaker-and-graham-greenes-preist

 

Posted above as a downloadable PDF file is a review by Edmund Wilson of Theodore Dreiser’s final novel, The Bulwark, and Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory:

 

Edmund Wilson, “Theodore Dreiser’s Quaker and Graham Greene’s Priest,” The New Yorker, XXII, no. 6 (March 23, 1946), pp. 88, 91, 92, 94.

Virginia Woolf, “A Real American”

 

 

Virginia Woolf, “A Real American”; from The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume III, 1919-1924, pp. 86-88.  Originally published  in TLS, August 21, 1919.

A review of Free and Other Stones and Twelve Men which appraises Dreiser in general terms.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, ‘A Real American’