The nearest analogy to Dreiser’s “personal” realism is to be found in the painter Edward Hopper, who shares Dreiser’s passion for transcendentalist writers, for images of trains and roads. Despite his similar choice of “ordinary” subjects, Hopper has written that his aim “has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.” One critic has said that Hopper’s pictures–a silent city street early on a Sunday morning, a Victorian house by a railroad track, an usherette musing in the corridor of a movie theater–are astonishingly poignant “as if they were familiar scenes solemnly witnessed for the very last time.” One feels in the awkwardness, the dreaming stillness of Hopper’s figures the same struggle to express the ultimate confrontation of men and things that one does in Dreiser’s reverent description of saloons, street-cars, trains, hotels, offices. The beauty of such realism, which contrasts with the photographic exactness of a Charles Sheeler, is inevitably allied to a certain pathos. Just as in An American Tragedy one feels about Clyde Griffiths’s exultant discovery of hotel luxury the pitiful distance between the boy and the social world of tawdry prizes that he is trying to win, so in Hopper’s street scenes and lonely offices one can visualize the actual unrelatedness between men and the objects they use every day. It is one of the paradoxes of modem art that the more “external” and ordinary the object portrayed–a city street in Hopper, the complex record of a stock deal in Dreiser–the more personal is the emotion conveyed. The emotion consists in exactly this surprise of attachment to the world that so often dwarfs us. An American Tragedy begins unforgettably with a picture of a small missionary family in a big city, engulfed by the tall walls in its commercial heart; Sister Carrie is stupefied by the immensity of Chicago, and when she asks for work at Speigelheim and Company, is looked over by the foreman “as one would a package”; even Cowperwood, magnetic and powerful as he is, is surrounded by “the endless shift of things,” first in Philadelphia, then in Chicago. But it is the haunting feeling for things that the hero of The ‘Genius,’ a painter, conveys in his pictures of the Chicago River, the muddy industrial stream that significantly moves Witla to a “panegyric on its beauty and littleness, finding the former where few would have believed it to exist.” Later in New York, Eugene does a picture of Greeley Square in a drizzling rain, catching “the exact texture of seeping water on gray stones in the glare of various electric lights. He had caught the values of various kinds of lights, those in cabs, those in cable cars, those in shop windows, those in the street lamp–relieving by them the black shadows of the crowds and of the sky.” This might be a picture by Alfred Stieglitz. Despite the personal vulgarity and tinsel showiness in Dreiser’s style, his fundamental vision of things is always the artist’s.
— Alfred Kazin, General Introduction, The Titan, by Theodore Dreiser (The Laurel Dreiser; New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1959)
Note — The hero of Dreiser’s The “Genius,” Eugene Witla, was modeled on the Ashcan School painter, Everett Shinn. See Joseph J. Kwiat’s article, attached.
Joseph J. Kwiat, ‘Dreiser’s The Genius and Everett Shinn’
— posted by Roger W. Smith