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
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
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”
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.