Alfred Kazin introduction to The Titan (The Laurel Dreiser)
Alfred Kazin introduction to Jennie Gerhardt (The Laurel Dreiser)
I have transcribed and posted here (downloadable Word documents above) the following:
Alfred Kazin, General Introduction, The Titan, by Theodore Dreiser (The Laurel Dresier; New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1959), pp. 7-19
Alfred Kazin, Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser (The Laurel Dreiser; New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), pp. 5-12
They are well worth reading
Some of My Thoughts About Kazin’s Observations
General Introduction, The Titan:
Kazin, pg. 9: The facts dredged up by impersonal “research” are often dubious and quickly dated, whereas the sheer web of fact that Dreiser put together about clothes, house furnishings and finance fifty years ago retains its interest for us today.
“[T]he sheer web of fact”: GOOD. Read, for example, Chapter 1 of The Financier.
Kazin, pg. 15: When Dreiser is bad, it is never because of the slowness or literalness of his technique; it is because of the imposition of a purely subjective emotion, as in parts of The ‘Genius.’ In Dreiser the writer was always wiser than the man. When his instinctive transformative powers fail him, when he imposes on the reader great blobs of incoherent personal emotion, one recognizes how silly the man Theodore Dreiser could be. An example is the tasteless endearments that Eugene Witla addresses to young Suzanne Dale.
Yes, but Dreiser often wrote to Thelma Cudlipp endearments of precisely that sort. Dreiser was drawing upon his memory and own experience. Eugene is silly, Dreiser was silly, but such an infatuation actually occurred; therefore, Dreiser, in describing Eugene’s pursuit of Suzanne Dale and the endearments was being true to life and experience.
Kazin, pg. 16: Frank Cowperwood, … despite his immense personal authority, his fortune, his undeviating attraction to so many women, must himself go from woman to woman in a yearning for that “refinement,” that ultimate “spell of beauty,” which would represent a social victory higher than anything in Philadelphia or Chicago.
And so did Dreiser. This was true of him from the time he became unfaithful to and then separated from his wife Sara (Jug), up to the time when, shortly before his death, he married his mistress, Helen (Patges) Richardson. His relentless pursuit of women and endless serial affairs His demand for youth and beauty as seen in the poorly written, fatuous series of magazine sketches by Dreiser entitled “This Madness.” Cowperwood as Dreiser, and vice versa.
Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt:
Kazin, pg. 7: When he describes Jennie as exceptional by reason of her “poetic” feeling (he speaks of “the wondrous sea of feeling in her”), he makes clear why it is that young women like Jennie, and for that matter Sister Carrie herself and even Roberta Alden in An American Tragedy, have such power to move us. American literature is notoriously poor in portraits of good women, believable women, mature women.
Why does Kazin use the modifier “even” when referring to Roberta Alden? Is she not winsome with a “purity” of person and feeling not unlike that of Jennie’s?
Kazin, pg. 12: Yet though Jennie Gerhardt is not one of Dreiser’s strong books, it is as moving as if it were saturated in Jennie’s own quality of feeling. It is a book that will live.
I wonder if Kazin’s prediction was accurate. Jennie Gerhardt is still read. But there are few copies in print.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
“Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics”
posted on this site at
“Kazin on Dreiser: What it Means to be a Literary Critic”
by William E. Cain
Society 55 (6), November 2018, pp. 517–525
Note that Kazin states in his introduction to Jennie Gerhardt:
Dreiser had been deeply affected by the poverty and rootlessness of his early life and by the misadventures of his sisters. Carrie Meeber’s going off with Hurstwood (in Sister Carrie) was based on episodes in the life of one Dreiser sister, and Jennie Gerhardt’s having an illegitimate baby was based on the story of another sister. Robert Elias says in his biography that when the “Jennie” sister [assumed by Kazin, presumably based on his reading of Dreiser’s Dawn, to be Dreiser’s sister Cacelia/Sylvia] found herself pregnant, she went to the “Carrie” sister [Emma], who with her “Hurstwood” [L. A. Hopkins] was in New York; they were supporting themselves in part by “renting rooms to girls of questionable virtue.” The mother of “Jennie’s” wealthy lover “haughtily explained that he could do nothing about it since he had more important ties. Afterward the child was sent home to be cared for by the tireless Sarah Dreiser,” the all-forgiving and tender mother on whom Dreiser modeled Mrs. Gerhardt.
— Introduction, Jennie Gerhardt, The Laurel Dreiser, pg. 6
This is inaccurate. The “Jennie” sister” to whom Kazin refers was Theodore Dreiser’s sister Cacilia (Dreiser) Kishima (ca. 1865-1945), who was known as Sylvia — not Dreiser’s sister Mame (Maria Franziska [Dreiser] Brennan [1861-1944]), who was known as Mame.
Donald Pizer is fully accurate when he says:
For the basic plot of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser relied principally on the experiences of his sister Mary, who was generally called Mame within the Dreiser family. Ten years older than Dreiser, Mame had been seduced at sixteen by a prominent and middle-aged Terre Haute lawyer whom Dreiser called Colonel Silsby in Dawn. The Dreiser family fortunes were at a low ebb during their Terre Haute years of 1870-79. John Dreiser was usually unemployed, Paul and Rome were in trouble with the law on several occasions, and the older girls were interested in men who could buy them things. The Dreisers of Terre Haute, as recalled in Dawn, and the Gerhardts of Columbus, as portrayed in Jennie Gerhardt, lead parallel lives both broadly and in such details as the mothers taking in laundry from a local hotel and the boys throwing down coal from railway cars. And, most pertinent of all, Paul had been arrested for theft, Colonel Silsby had intervened on his behalf, and Mame had subsequently been seduced by the colonel.
In the summer of 1879, Sarah Dreiser moved with part of the family to Sullivan, Indiana, leaving John, Mame, and several of the other girls temporarily behind in Terre Haute. That winter Mame joined her mother in Sullivan, pregnant. Silsby had unsuccessfully attempted to arrange for an abortion and had refused to marry her. Mame remained with her mother until a stillborn child was delivered in April 1880 and then moved to Chicago. There she found work in a boardinghouse which was also apparently a gambling club. Within a short time, she began to live with Austin Brennan, a bluff, hard-living man, fourteen years her senior, who traveled for his family’s Rochester dry-goods firm. After years of living together, primarily in Chicago, they were married sometime in the mid-1880s. [They were married in Chicago in 1897.] Brennan’s family were well-to-do and conservative, with social pretensions, and though Mame visited them in Rochester both before and after her marriage, she was apparently not welcomed. She therefore frequently lived with the Dreiser family–first in Warsaw and after 1887 in Chicago–where Brennan would join her for lengthy periods. In the late 1890s, however, she and Brennan finally settled in Rochester, and when John Dreiser died late in 1900, it was at their Rochester home. Soon afterward they moved to New York City, and though Brennan was in poor circumstances during his later years, they remained a faithful couple until his death in 1928.
— Donald Pizer, The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976), pp. 98-99