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Alfred Kazin on Dreiser

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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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

  August 2019

 

 

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See also:
“Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics”

posted on this site at
https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2018/07/15/alfred-kazin-theodore-dreiser-and-the-critics/

 

 

“Kazin on Dreiser: What it Means to be a Literary Critic”

by William E. Cain

Society 55 (6), November 2018, pp. 517–525

 

 

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Addendum:

 

 

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

a telegram from Helen

 

 

 

telegramfromhelen10-18-1920

 

 

 

Theodore Dreiser met Helen (Patges) Richardson in Greenwich Village in September 1919. They became lovers and moved to Los Angeles shortly after beginning their romance.

The following telegram from Helen to Dreiser was dated October 18, 1920.

Can you imagine getting such a telegram? I cannot recall reading any form of correspondence with such a desperate, anguished plea. In fifteen words.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

photograph of Helen

 

 

 

Helen Richardson.jpg

 

 

This undated photo of Helen (Patges) Richardson is in the Theodore Dreiser Papers collection in the Rare Books & Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania. It is by far the best photo of Helen I have ever seen.

Helen Esther (Patges) (Richardson) Dreiser (1894-1955) was Theodore Dreiser’s second wife.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2019

72 years later; The Bulwark is republished!

 

 

 

Lydon Bulwark - cover.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

First published posthumously by Doubleday in 1946, Theodore Dreiser’s last novel, The Bulwark, has been republished in a handsome paperback edition:

 

Theodore Dreiser, The Bulwark

Introduction by Michael Lydon

RosettaBooks LLC, 2018

 

 

 

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The following is a review of the new edition by Roger W. Smith.

 

 

It is fitting that this new edition of The Bulwark, a book long out of print, has been shepherded into print by Michael Lydon, with an introduction written by Lydon, who has long been a “Dreiser exponent,” as well as expounder. He has unfailingly promoted Dreiser and, in particular The Bulwark, one of his favorite books, in his writings. He views The Bulwark as having never gotten the readership or critical acclaim it deserves.

In his introduction, Lydon observes perceptively — and, in my opinion, accurately — that “Dreiser succeeded in making The Bulwark a masterpiece, first, by writing simply. Critics have long enjoyed the sport of skewering Dreiser’s prose — ‘elephantine’ being the most common and absurd adjective–but from their early days together Anna [Tatum] had told him to ignore such tin-eared nonsense: ‘Don’t, don’t listen to the fools, the asses, the insane people who say you write crudely. I never heard anything more stupid …’ Anna was right: sentence by *sentence, Dreiser’s plain English paints plain portraits of Solon [Barnes] and the novel’s thirty-odd characters living plain American lives.” The Bulwark, as Lydon notes, was based on the family of Anna Tatum, one of Dreiser’s lovers. One of the main characters is based on Anna, and her anecdotes gave Dreiser the idea for the novel and the lineaments of the story.

Dreiser, Lydon notes, “wrote The Bulwark with a tender touch. Like Balzac, Dreiser often took a chilly stance toward his characters, letting them drift to their fates unwept. His Bulwark characters, in contrast, he cups gently in the hollow of his hand [a very apt and beautiful phrase by Lydon], studying them with calm, intelligent empathy, never judging them, never fixing their motives in iron chains of cause and effect. Indeed, he unfolds his characters so organically that they blossom through the book like flowers.” This is beautifully put, and jibes with my own recollection of reading the novel.

A few critical comments from a carping critic.

Lydon begins his introduction by asserting that ‘A masterpiece is a work of art so profoundly conceived and so superbly executed that, rather than dying in decades, it survives for centuries,” giving as examples Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He continues with essentially purple prose to explain what makes such works great and concludes by asserting that “The Bulwark … is one such masterpiece.” This is consistent with the position Lydon has taken in his previous writings about Dreiser. While I admire Lydon’s critical acumen, I do not, in this instance, concur. None of Dreiser’s works belong in this company. None are comparable to those of the masters. None would be classed as great world literature.

Lydon’s observations about the simplicity and grace of Dreiser’s prose in his final novel (which was begun long before its completion) are telling and well worth noting. The comparison to Balzac is apt. Dreiser, like Balzac, cared about his characters (even if, in Lydon’s words, he cared about them negatively, so to speak, often taking, in Lydon’s words, “ a chilly stance” toward them).

A paragraph on an unnumbered page preceding Lydon’s introduction, comprising a biographical sketch of Dreiser, states: “His first novel, Sister Carrie, was banned by its own publisher.” Such an error is unforgivable. Why wasn’t it caught? The banning of a book (or, in general, any work of art) is something that happens after it has been published or released. Sister Carrie was published by Doubleday, Page, & Co. in 1900. In an article by Dreiser in the March 1931 issue of The Colophon, Dreiser intimated that Sister Carrie was suppressed upon publication because of objections to the book’s content on the part of the publisher. It is true that the firm did not actively promote the book. This is not the same as banning!

On an unnumbered recto page at the beginning of this new edition, there are three quotes praising The Bulwark: one from Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker; one from the Saturday Review; and one from Horace Gregory. Since Lydon went to the effort of verifying where the Wilson quote came from, why could he not have done the same with the quote from Gregory, which came from a review in the New York Herald Tribune? And,  why isn’t the author of the review in the Saturday Review of Literature (as it was then named), Dreiser scholar Robert E. Spiller, named? Quibbles? Yes. But, if one goes to great lengths to reissue a beloved, long out of print work. shouldn’t care be taken to ensure accuracy and completeness of even the little details? This is something Dreiserians would probably (hopefully) care about.

In the introduction, Lydon notes that, in the early 1940’s, “ A small circle of former lovers gathered at [Dreiser’s] home in Los Angeles to help him give The Bulwark a final edit and to read to him from John Woolman’s Journal [The Journal of John Woolman, published posthumously in 1774], a Quaker tome he’d come to love while writing his own.” This passing reference to Woolman’s Journal on the part of Lydon could be considered insufficient, my point being that the influence on Dreiser of Woolman, a Quaker preacher and the author of a classic of spirituality — and on The Bulwark in particular — was direct and considerable. So that, one might say, it wasn’t in the background of Desire’s consciousness when he wrote the novel (as Lydon’s passing mention of Woolman might suggest), it underlay the plot and denouement (as well as the views of Dreiser’s reflected in the novel) and is introduced outright into the novel. Chapter 66 of the Bulwark is almost entirely devoted to Woolman. The chapter consists of Solon Barnes’s prodigal daughter Etta reading passages from Woolman’s Journal to him. (See Gerhard Friedrich, “Theodore Dreiser’s Debt to Woolman’s Journal,” American Quarterly, Winter, 1955.)

Alexia Garaventa‘s cover design for this new Bulwark edition is splendid.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

 

SEE ALSO my post:

 

Michael Lydon publishes “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark” and “Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, & The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece”

 

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/michael-lydon-publishes-on-reading-theodore-dreisers-the-bulwark-and-theodore-dreiser-anna-tatum-the-bulwark-the-making-of-a-masterpiece/

 

 

This post references two previously published books by Lydon:

 

 

On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark

Patrick Press, 2011

 

 

Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, & The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece

Franklin Street Press, 2017

 

 

Both books deserve readership by Dreiserians.

 

 

Theodore Dreiser, Anna Tatum, and The Bulwark: The Making of a Masterpiece explores new aspects behind the composition of Dreiser’s final novel, which Dreiser worked on for years before it was finally published posthumously. Key findings of Lydon include material on Anna Tatum and her family, providing for a deeper understanding of the Quaker sources underlying the novel.

Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics”

 

 

Alfred Kazin, ‘Theodore Dreiser and the Critics’ – The Anchor Review 1955

Posted here (above) as a PDF file is Alfred Kazin’s article “Theodore Dreiser and the Critics,” which was originally published in a paperback book, The Anchor Review, Number One, in 1955. The article was subsequently published in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Survey of the Man and His Work, edited by Alfred Kazin and Charles Shapiro (Indiana University Press, 1955).

This is a brilliant essay. It is fair to Dreiser in recognizing and evaluating his strengths as well as his weaknesses. It shows why Dreiser mattered to his generation, and still matters. Kazin says an awful lot in a few pages, not seemingly missing anything essential about Dreiser.

I have one quibble with Kazin’s article. He says that in Sister Carrie “there are scarce any philosophic reflections or deductions expressed.” Sister Carrie seems to actually be replete with such authorial musings, which are admixed with the narrative, no doubt reflecting Dreiser’s naïve but sincere interest in the works of social philosophers such as Herbert Spencer.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2018

“Mr. Benchley Interviews Theodore Dreiser”

 

 

‘Mr. Benchley Interviews Theodore Dreiser’ – Life 8-15-1926

 

 

 

Posted here (above) as a PDF file is a spoof by the humorist Robert Benchley.

 

“Mr. Benchley Interviews Theodore Dreiser”

Life, April 15, 1926

H. L. Mencken on Dreiser

 

 

The following comment on Theodore Dreiser first appeared in the journal Menckeniana (Summer 1971) among selections from previously unpublished Mencken material.

Dreiser, like Goethe, was more interesting than any of his books. He was typical, in more ways than one, of a whole generation of Americans–a generation writhing in an era of advancing chaos. There must have been some good blood hidden in him, but on the surface he was simply an immigrant peasant bewildered by the lack of neat moral syllogisms in civilized existence. He renounced his ancestral religion at the end of his teens, but never managed to get rid of it. Throughout his life it welled up in him in the form of various fantastic superstitions–spiritualism, Fortism, medical quackery, and so on–and in his last days it engulfed him in the form of Communism, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the will to believe. If he had lived another’ ten years, maybe even another five years, he would have gone back to Holy Church–the path followed before him by many other such poor fish, for example, Heywood Broun. His last book was a full-length portrait of a true believer, and extremely sympathetic. Solon Barnes, like Dreiser himself, was flabbergasted by the apparent lack of common sense and common decency in the cosmos, but in the end he yielded himself gratefully to the God who had so sorely afflicted him.

 

— H. L. Mencken