Tag Archives: Thomas Kranidas

quotes and comments re Dreiser

 

 

quotes and comments re Theodore Dreiser (compiled by Roger W. Smith)

 

 

 

Suppose Mr. Dreiser could forget the griefs he must have suffered by the banks of the Wabash far away, and that he lost this beautiful pity which, according to Mr. Mencken, redeems the worst style that has flourished since Laura Jean Libbey and a general literary incompetence – only the beautiful pity is to be attributed to Mr. Mencken. Mr. Dreiser would then stand forth in all his nakedness of culture and of the simplest amenities of life and of literature. If a painter were so ignorant of his craft, it is not very likely that even the most Crocean critic would think that the most divine pity would excuse absurd draughtsmanship, no perspective and miserable brushwork. But novels, being unfortunately written in something like the prose that we all speak, however unwittingly, are an easy prey to the uneducated and the charlatan.

— Frances Newman, The Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1921

 

 

 

He moved, a pathmaker, with heavy crunching powerful steps through the brambles and thickets of American literary prejudice, making way for a host of more graceful but less powerful writers.

— Burton Rascoe, A Bookman’s Daybook, 1922

 

 

 

Not the incurable awkwardness of his style nor his occasional merciless verbosity nor his too frequent interposition of crude argument can destroy the effect which he produces at his best – that of an eminent spirit brooding over the world which in spite of many condemnations he deeply, somberly loves.

— Carl Van Doren, 1923

 

 

To me he is a very large and commanding figure in American letters. While some of us have been building chicken coops, or, possibly, bungalows, Mr. Dreiser has been erecting skyscrapers. He makes the three-decker novel look like a pamphlet.

— George Ade, New York Herald-Tribune, September 9, 1926

 

 

 

In his drawing of characters from the lower strata of life and from the gilded haunts of Broadway, Mr. Dreiser shows an easy competence. … But when the author passes to the doings of conventional society, … he displays a ludicrous ignorance and awkwardness.

— Paul Elmer More, 1928

 

 

 

Dreiser simply does not know how to write, never did know, never wanted to know.

— Arnold Bennett, 1930

 

 

 

What writes worse than a “Theodore Dreiser?” … Two “Theodore Dreisers.”

— Dorothy Parker, 1931

 

 

 

Dreiser’s style is of a piece with his general want of concern for imaginative writing as such. As wholes his books are of extreme interest because of the large spirit, the passionate intelligence, which informs them.

— Joseph Warren Beach, 1932

 

 

 

I owe more, perhaps, to Theodore Dreiser than any other man; for he had made me see clearly and vividly the chaotic industrial forces in American life and their devastating effects upon human character.

Dreiser writes bunglingly and poorly. His style is groping, clumsy and crude, and sometimes even outrageous. He has no sense of form, and he constantly piles up irritating and useless detail. But who can forget the charming Jennie Gerhardt? Or the brutal and ruthless Cowperwood? Or the poor, pathetic Hurstwood? Or even the will-less and flabby Clyde Griffiths? No one, who has thoroughly read Dreiser.

He has an almost miraculous grip on his characters. No other American writer, except the late Ring Lardner, has had such an extensive gallery of convincing characters. And while Lardner was a merciless satirist, without the slightest trace of pity, Dreiser has almost divine pity for the helpless creatures that he has so skillfully drawn.

Although Lardner masked his savage contempt for men with a lusty humor, Dreiser totally lacks humor. And Dreiser broods incessantly on the traffic fate of his characters and the profound mystery of life: a kind of intellectual day-dreaming that probably accounts for the sluggish incoherence of his novels. The stark realism of Dreiser is shocking, convincing but disillusioning. And most novel readers seek, not disillusion, but illusion, and thus, they find Dreiser irritating and painful. But compared to the trashy concoctions of Kathleen Norris and Faith Baldwin, although both of them write about the same type of people, he is, indeed, a sincere and conscientious genius.

The essential tragedy of Dreiser’s characters is not that they rebelled against the established order, but that they accepted too naively its prejudices, its superstitions, its ideals. This is almost an obsession with Dreiser, who hates the sheer hypocrisy and tawdry pretenses of our social life. He clearly sees the cruel, ruthless forces that ripple and roar beneath our papier-mache formality; and he is fascinated with the vitality men display in trying to combat these tricky forces, although they may be defeated in the end.

— Bobbie B. (guest contributor), Oakland Tribune, February 21, 1934

 

 

 

Dreiser was in turn pathetic and lovable, sublime and ludicrous. He had within him that chaos which gives birth to dancing stars. He was one of the authentic geniuses American literature has produced.

— Burton Rascoe, In Memoriam

 

 

 

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 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 five years, he would have gone back to the Holy Church. …

— H. L. Mencken (undated)

 

 

 

Dreiser was a thinker and a thinker moreover with a living growing philosophy of life, that had he lived to be a hundred would have remained incomplete and unfinished. And this is the case because his philosophy was the expression of his personality and his personality never ceased developing.

— John Cowper Powys (undated)

 

 

Dreiser’s head is an arduous, monumental head, geological in character, a head of the afflicted Prometheus bound to the Caucasus, and which, across the inexorable centuries, has become ingrained with the Caucasus and now has a fundamental component of rock that is pained by life. Dreiser’s work is no different from his tragic face: it is as torpid as the mountains or the deserts, but like them it is important an elemental and inarticulate way.

— Jorge Luis Borges, 1938

 

 

He cannot be dismissed as a confused genius; he cannot be dismissed as a foggy giant; he cannot be dismissed as a man who, despite a sophomoric philosophy wrote great novels.

— Robert H. Elias, Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature, 1949

 

 

 

Dreiser’s contempt for the numskull mass is in most of his philosophy. His pretension to moral superiority shows in his cries of “Hell!”, in his cool, erudite, false humility, in his terse omniscience, in his garbled, gaudy symbolism. Dreiser was always “serious: the critics made him a “philosopher.” What they recognized as breadth in his novels was made “passionate intelligence.” … I think the key to Dreiser’s philosophical writing is pretentiousness, a pose of intellectual superiority.

… Dreiser’s yearning for the high class led him to his incredible intellectual pretensions. Assuming as self-evident his stupidity and ignorance, we are appalled by the picture of a foggy giant, struggling to be “smart,” writing volume after volume of trash, corrupting his great gifts.

… Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” But he was not familiar with it. And when he wrote about it, he wrote about the surface qualities of it, never once touching the refinement, the sense of superior knowledge and awareness through ease. Dreiser was a snob on one level, a man with exorbitant class yearnings, a man who resented his origins and was scornful of the lower classes. … Dreiser’s vision was clouded many times by this snobbery. It led to certain cruelties and flippancies and certain absurd superficialities. It drove him to portray the rich with absurd, unreal strokes. It drove him in his non-fiction to tolerance of poverty and ugliness as the secret complement to thought and beauty. It drove his to attempt a portrait of himself to the reader as a knowing, superior being. … Through his work rages his own private battle between hate and resentment of the upper class and abject admiration and envy, and an attempt to identify with them. Whenever class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Whenever he attempts to identity with knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic. Whenever he sees his character as apart from his social yearnings, as united to him, not in education and money, but in love, hate, hunger, fear, he is realistic.

— Thomas Kranidas, Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953

 

 

 

Dreiser is a forgotten man, almost, but if you go back you can see what he was trying to do with the novel. He didn’t succeed because I think he imposed his own limitations.

— Harper Lee, quoted in Roy Newquist, Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964)

 

 

 

How many exsanguinous grammarians are prepared to announce that Dreiser was a clumsy poser? How easy it is to diminish him, but where is the man who could write “Sister Carrie” and “Jennie Gerhardt”?

— Edward Dahlberg, New York Times Book Review, 1971

 

 

 

His mind, it often seemed to us, was like an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Darwinist, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes almost as a fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer.

— Malcolm Cowley (recalling a gathering from 1931), Michigan Quarterly Review, 1979

 

 

 

Time was when there was magic in the name Theodore Dreiser. Some sense of that old magic remains with me today.

— James T. Farrell, Chicago Tribune Book World, January 4, 1981

 

 

 

Everything that can be said against Theodore Dreiser has been said. It is therefore time to make the case for him in terms that finally matter – that is to say, as a writer, a writer who did much that was new in writing.

The case against Dreiser much resembles Samuel Johnson’s case against John Milton.

Dreiser was a disagreeable man. His sexual conduct was outrageous, and his political opinions equally so. As Johnson would think of Milton, Dreiser’s philosophical opinions, if philosophical is the right word, were incoherent. His style occasionally is embarrassing to the revolutionary cause.

Trilling in his otherwise great essay does not address Dreiser specifically as a novelist, does not locate his actual power, the power that makes us emotionally exhausted by the fate of Carrie or Clyde. It is the best of Dreiser that matters, not his foolishness, and it is the best that will endure.

Throw old Dreiser’s ideas into the wastebasket. He did something new as a writer. He wrote a prose that almost alone in our literature celebrates the magic of the city, and he did this in the teeth of his moralistic superego, which kept telling him that the city and riches were evil. …

When Dreiser is telling the truth about the beauty and the possibility of the city, he writes in a direct and muscular prose, a prose that expresses the city and what it offers.

It remains a fact that the defendant, Theodore Dreiser, accomplished something new in our literature, perhaps accomplished it despite his moralistic predispositions. He wrote about the aesthetic possibilities of the American city with a power that no one had done before.

— Jeffrey Hart, The Washington Times, May 7, 1990

 

 

 

H. L. Mencken wrote in 1917, “Dreiser stands up-a phenomenon unescapably visible, but disconcertingly hard to explain.” He still does, and he still is. Since his time we have had Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner, Cather and Steinbeck and Mailer, Styron and Bellow and Updike; but Dreiser stands up across the years as the man who almost single-handedly brought American fiction out of the l9th Century’s “genteel tradition” into 20th Century literature.

What makes Dreiser so disconcertingly hard to explain is the fact that he did this with a body of work hardly calculated to bring about such a result. His novels are excruciatingly long, clumsily written, with endless stretches of tedium and scarcely a single redeeming touch of lightness or humor. The so-called “philosophical” works, on which he set such store, are a hodgepodge of bad thinking and worse writing. He gave years of his life to campaigning for a variety of political and social causes, some of which were in direct contradiction to others, and all of which kept him away from his true vocation.

These things, and much else besides, lay within the man himself. There were other forces at work, extraneous to Dreiser, that made it extraordinarily difficult for him to achieve his ends. It seems safe to say that no other American writer has suffered to quite the same degree from critical misunderstanding or assaults by guardians of the national morality.

— Charles A. Fecher, Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1990

 

 

 

Theodore Dreiser’s acknowledged “greatness” isn’t easy to pin down or to separate from his notorious lapses as a writer and thinker. Like Walt Whitman, another shaggy outsider, Dreiser elbowed himself into the company of Leading American Authors without the proper credentials. There are still those who think that he does not belong in the club.

Dreiser wasn’t an original thinker or a profound social analyst, and he certainly wasn’t the first writer to dramatize the “tragedy of desire,” the bleak indifference of nature, or the nightmare of the American dream. He was a deep feeler, however, and he was embedded as no other writer before him in the amorphous and heterogeneous American commonality. He was of it as his alter egos Carrie Meeber, George Hurstwood, Eugene Witla, and Clyde Griffiths were of it.

— Daniel Aaron, The New Republic, November 1990

 

 

 

Dreiser was a hypochondriac, drank too much, and had a nervous habit of folding and refolding his handkerchief. He philandered, and philandered on his philanderings. … He quarreled with publishers over royalty statements and movie studios over script control, and even quarreled with H. L. Mencken. … He plagiarized poetry from Sherwood Anderson and journalism from Dorothy Thompson … Dreiser’s writing career was as lopsided as his character. … Dreiser remains the great gawk of American literature (a “peasant,” Mencken called him), the pool-born, ill-educated German-American Hoosier from Terre Haute, an oaf with mud on his shoes who invaded the drawing rooms of the genteel to talk about sex and, even worse, money. …

As the centenary of Dreiser’s emergence approaches, it is time to drop the barbs and acknowledge, without reservation, that Theodore Dreiser is an immortal, a giant who stands with Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James among Americans, and with Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, and Solzhenitsyn among moderns. Except for O’Neill and Faulkner, Dreiser’s contemporaries stand in his shade. Howells, Wharton, Lewis, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway are fine writers; so are Farrell, O’Hara, Chandler, and Cain. No one tells all that Dreiser tells. Dreiser sees more; he understands more. The most patient and observant of American writers, Dreiser lets his pen follow life, finding words to fit its appearing and dissolving forms, weighting every sentence with data absorbed from research and experience. Thick with time and place, peopled by fully fleshed characters, Dreiser’s novels convey the very dust hanging in the air of his restless, crowded cities. …

Many other realists have also built on stable structures, but Dreiser was uniquely able to convey instability as well. Formlessness fascinated this master of form and runs like a lyric countermelody through his writing. … By blending form and fluidity with nearly invisible skill, Dreiser rounded off the rough edges of his structures, made them flexible. … By allowing both will and accident, both eros and convention, to shape his work, Dreiser achieved the fumbling give-and-take that is the hallmark of his realism and, like an architect who plans for earthquake, did much to ensure long life for his creations.

How did Dreiser paint his pictures and build his structures? By writing superb English prose. … Dreiser wrote badly? An awkward sentence here and there, perhaps; Dreiser might have nodded, along with Homer. Much more striking is page after page of durable English in the plainspoken tradition of the King James Bible and Daniel Defoe, simple words in supple sentences.

— Michael Lydon, The Atlantic, August 1993

 

 

 

Dreiser and Norris are in crucial ways simply embarrassing. Dreiser’s sloppiness as a writer and sentimentality as a thinker and Norris’s crude biases and philosophizing disqualify them for inclusion in the great white male writers’ tradition, even if only because they expose too nakedly certain attitudes and values more subtly veiled in the work of their artistic superiors.

— Elizabeth Ammons, in American Realism and the Canon, ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, 1994

 

 

 

Theodore Dreiser was and is the great grizzly bear of American literature – wild and coarse and powerful, definitely commanding respect, if grudgingly. Smooth prose composition eluded him forever. His style was raw, his sentences often bewildering, and he organized poorly. Dreiser’s major novels are structurally chaotic, causing one to wonder if he outlined his material before commencing a project. To summarize his plots is to enumerate banalities.

— Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 31, 1994

 

 

 

More than 100 years ago Dreiser understood exactly what the rootlessness and superficiality of the modern world would do to our souls, and in ‘Sister Carrie’ he presents it all unflinchingly. Critics say Dreiser is a terrible prose writer. Maybe so. But he’s a great storyteller.

— Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times, June 24, 2002

 

 

 

Dreiser was the biggest literary cudgel that Mencken could wield in his prime against American Puritanism. … In the cold light of day nearly a century after the Dreiser Wars, you could even argue that ‘Theodore Dreiser, novelist,’ has become a literary subcategory of ‘H.L. Mencken, critic’ in the great procession of American letters.

— “Editor’s Choice,” Buffalo News, December 15, 2002

 

 

There’s something moving about the sheer strength of Dreiser. He’s overwhelming.

— Joan Didion, interview, Publishers Weekly, 2003

 

 

 

Dreiser exults in the energy of cities like Cleveland and Chicago, but depicts them as grinding down the wills of weak characters and strengthening the ruthless; Dreiser may create hidden refuges of pastoral delight within the heart of this urban wasteland, but the pastoral is squeezed into insignificance by the city’s irrepressible growth.

— Bev Hogue, in A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America, ed. Charles L. Crow, 2003

 

 

To read Dreiser is to become aware of a flat declamatory tone apparently unconcerned with niceties of style. He has been described as the kind of writer who triumphs over his own deficiencies of style, and as a writer who rummages through his characters’ thoughts with the impatient thoroughness of a child left alone to explore the contents of an attic.

— Geoffrey O’Brien, Bookforum, 2003

 

 

[His] tales of the rise and fall of ordinary people in the Gilded Age retained their power despite slovenly diction, bad grammar, and the author’s penchant for surges of bombastic prose-poetry.

— Scott McLemee, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2004

 

 

Dreiser was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did (cf. Harry Stack Sullivan’s oft quoted definition of absolute love). A corollary was that he could never freely accept love or kindness nor trust anyone’s good intentions towards him.

— Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 4, 2016

 

 

 

It has occurred to me that Dreiser was incapable of self-censorship. He was completely sincere and not at all concerned, it would seem, with what others might or would think about the things he revealed about himself. It was as if he were incapable of being embarrassed. Perhaps this had something to do with circumstances of his upbringing.

His sincerity is one of his most appealing traits as a writer, I believe. His frankness is notable, in an era where topics were handled so much more gingerly than now.

— Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 20, 2016

 

 

 

“It’s remarkable that somebody who is as terrible a writer as he is sentence by sentence can be arguably the great powerful American novelist of just portraying the reality of American life in its aspirations and its humiliations and its pathos.”

— James Fallows (2018)

Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy”

 

 

Thomas Kranidas, ‘The Materials of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy’

 

 

A while ago, I was contemplating writing an article on the sources of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. In my research, I came across a master’s thesis which was listed in Pizer, Dowell, and Rusch’s Dreiser bibliography.

I decided to look the thesis up because it was at Columbia University (accessible to me, since I live in New York City) and because the title intrigued me. It was by Thomas Kranidas and is entitled “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” (Master’s thesis, Columbia University, 1953, 94 pp.).

I read the thesis at Columbia. It wasn’t really an investigation of the sources of An American Tragedy, but it was mainly focused on that novel. It included consideration to a limited extent of other works of Dreiser — e.g., his poetry and essays — that pertained to the author’s argument.

This thesis is, in my opinion, excellent — very penetrating. It is one of the best analyses I have ever read of Dreiser as a writer and muddled thinker, and someone with pretensions to intellectual and social stature that can be detected in his writings. It is for the most part critical of Dreiser, but I think it is one of the best analyses of him I have ever read. It gets under Dreiser’s skin and “nails” him.  Nonetheless, the author, Thomas Kranidas, is appreciative of the strengths of An American Tragedy.

The thesis is here made available for the first time. It is posted above as a downloadable PDF file.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 

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email from Roger W. Smith to Thomas Kranidas, April 25, 2017

 

 

Dear Professor Kranidas,

Following up on our conversation today, a few thoughts about your master’s thesis.

I read it at Butler Library. It is available nowhere else, I believe. (It was not available and was irretrievable until I copied and scanned it and posted in on my Dreiser site.)

My basic reaction, gut feeling was that (1) it was an M.A. thesis, not a dissertation; (2) it was not based on exhaustive research into the sources of An American Tragedy (which was not your objective).

Neverthless, I felt that it was one of the best statements I have read about Dreiser qua writer; Dreiser the self-styled “philosopher”; and Dreiser the social climber who yearned for what he professed to disdain.

You “nailed” him … got under his skin. Analyzed, penetratingly, his weaknesses as a writer and the shortcomings of his worldview … his pretensions, his myopia when it came to writing about the privileged classes.

While at the same time appreciating his strengths, and steering clear of a hatchet job.

Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy'”

 

 

(A downloadable Word document — slightly modified, and fully documented — of this post is available below.)

 

 

In Book Two, Chapter XLII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, letters from Sondra Finchley and Roberta Alden to Clyde Griffiths, which Clyde receives on the same day, are paired and quoted in full.

The simultaneous reception of the two letters and the contrast between them, as Clyde perceives it, have a decisive impact on his motives.

This is one of the key points in a novel which appears to some readers to be shapeless. The pairing of these letters by Dreiser was a brilliant stroke. They are a focal point of the novel, illustrating the choice between Roberta and Sondra upon which Clyde is impaled. (It is ironic that Boni and Liveright editor T. R. Smith felt the real life letters of murder victim Grace Brown, which Roberta Alden’s letters are either closely or loosely based upon, depending upon the letter, should be excised from the novel.)

 

 

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Sondra Finchley’s letter:

Pine Point Landing, June 10th

Clyde Mydie:

How is my pheet phing. All whytie? It’s just glorious up here. Lots of people already here and more coming every day. The Casino and golf course over at Pine Point are open and lots of people about. I can hear Stuart and Grant with their launches going up toward Gray’s Inlet now. You must hurry and come up, dear. It’s too nice for words. Green roads to gallop through, and swimming and dancing at the Casino every afternoon until four. Just back from a wonderful gallop on Dickey and going again after luncheon to mail these letters. Bertine says she’ll write you a letter to-day or to-morrow good for any week-end or any old time, so when Sonda says come, you come, you hear, else Sonda whip hard. You baddie, good boy.

Is he working hard in the baddie old factory? Sonda wishes he was here wiss her instead. We’d ride and drive and swim and dance. Don’t forget your tennis racquet and golf clubs. There’s a dandy course on the Casino grounds.

This morning when I was riding a bird flew right up under Dickey’s heels. It scared him so that he bolted and Sonda got all switched and scwatched. Isn’t Clydie sorry for his Sonda?

She is writing lots of notes to-day. After lunch and the ride to catch the down mail, Sonda and Bertine and Nina going to the Casino. Don’t you wish you were going to be there? We could dance to “Tandy.” Sonda just loves that song. But she has to dress now. More to-morrow, baddie boy. And when Bertine writes, answer right away. See all ‘ose dots? Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy. And wite Sonda every day and she’ll write ‘oo.

More Kisses.

 

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Roberta Alden’s letter:

(I have italicized the interpolated authorial comments representing Clyde’s thoughts; Dreiser MUST have intended them to be taken ironically.)

Biltz, June 10th.

Dear Clyde:

I am nearly ready for bed, but I will write you a few lines. I had such a tiresome journey coming up that I was nearly sick. In the first place I don’t want to come much (alone) as you know. I feel too upset and uncertain about everything, although I try not to feel so now that we have our plan and you are going to come for me as you said.

(At this point, while nearly sickened by the thought of the wretched country world in which she lived, still, because of Roberta’s unfortunate and unavoidable relation to it, he now experienced one of his old time twinges of remorse and pity in regard to her. For after all, this was not her fault. She had so little to look forward to — nothing but her work or a commonplace marriage. For the first time in many days, really, and in the absence of both, he was able to think clearly — and to sympathize deeply, if gloomily. For the remainder of the letter read:)

But it’s very nice here now. The trees are so beautifully green and the flowers in bloom. I can hear the bees in the orchard whenever I go to the south windows. On the way up instead of coming straight home, I decided to stop at Homer to see my sister and brother-in-law, since I am not so sure when I shall see them again, if ever, for I am resolved that they shall see me respectable, or never at all any more. You mustn’t think I mean anything hard or mean by this. I am just sad. They have such a cute little home there, Clyde — pretty furniture, a victrola and all, and Agnes is so very happy with Fred. I hope she always will be. I couldn’t help thinking of what a dear place we might have had, if only my dreams had come true. And nearly all the time I was there Fred kept teasing me as to why I don’t get married, until I said, “Oh, well, Fred, you mustn’t be too sure that I won’t one of these days. All good things come to him who waits, you know.” “Yes, unless you just turn out to be a waiter,” was the way he hit me back.

But I was truly glad to see mother again, Clyde. She’s so loving and patient and helpful. The sweetest, dearest mother that ever, ever was. And I just hate to hurt her in any way. And Tom and Emily, too. They have had friends here every evening since I’ve been here — and they want me to join in, but I hardly feel well enough now to do all the things they want me to do — play cards and games — dance.

(At this point Clyde could not help emphasizing in his own mind the shabby home world of which she was a part and which so recently he had seen — and that rickety house! those toppling chimneys! Her uncouth father. And that in contrast to such letter as this other from Sondra.)

Father and mother and Tom and Emily just seem to hang around and try to do things for me. And I feel remorseful when I think how they would feel if they knew, for, of course, I have to pretend that it is work that makes me feel so tired and depressed as I am sometimes. Mothers keeps saying that I must stay a long time or quit entirely and rest and get well again, but she just don’t know, of course — poor dear. If she did! I can’t tell you how that makes me feel sometimes, Clyde. Oh, dear!

But there, I mustn’t put my sad feelings over on you either. I don’t want to, as I told you, if you will only come and get me as we’ve agreed. And I won’t be like that either, Clyde. I’m not that way all the time now. I’ve started to get ready and do all the things it’ll take to do in the three weeks and that’s enough to keep my mind off everything but work. But you will come for me, won’t you, dear? You won’t disappoint me any more and make me suffer this time like you have so far, for, oh, how long it has been now — ever since I was here before at Christmas time, really. But you were truly nice to me. I promise not to be a burden on you, for I know you don’t really care for me any more and so I don’t care much what happens now, so long as I get out of this. But I truly promise not to be a burden on you.

Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem to be able to control myself these days like I once could.

But as for what I came for. The family think they are clothes for a party down in Lycurgus and that I must be having a wonderful time. Well, it’s better that way than the other. I may have to come as far as Fonda to get some things, if I don’t send Mrs. Anse, the dressmaker, and if so, and if you wanted to see me again before you come, although I don’t suppose you do, you could. I’d like to see you and talk to you again if you care to, before we start. It all seems so funny to me, Clyde, having these clothes made and wishing to see you so much and yet knowing that you would rather not do this. And yet I hope you are satisfied now that you have succeeded in making me leave Lycurgus and come up here and are having what you call a good time. Are they so much better than the ones we used to have last summer when we went about to the lakes and everywhere? But whatever they are, Clyde, surely you can afford to do this for me without feeling too bad. I know it seems hard to you now, but you don’t want to forget either that if I was the like some that I know, I might and would ask more. But as I told you I’m not like that and never could be. If you don’t really want me after you have helped me out like I said, you can go.

Please write me, Clyde, a long, cheery letter, even though you don’t want to, and tell me all about how you have not thought of me once since I’ve been away or missed me at all — you used to, you know, and how you don’t want me to come back and you can’t possibly come up before two weeks from Saturday if then.

Oh, dear, I don’t mean the horrid things I write, but I’m so blue and tired and lonely that I can’t help it at times. I need some one to talk to — not just any one here, because they don’t understand and I can’t tell anybody.

But there, I said I wouldn’t be blue or gloomy or cross and yet I haven’t done so very well this time, have I? But I promise to do better next time — to-morrow or next day, because it relieves me to write to you, Clyde. And won’t you please write me just a few words to cheer me up while I’m waiting, whether you mean it or not, I need it so. And you will come, of course. I’ll be so happy and grateful and try not to bother you too much in any way.

Your lonely

Bert

 

 

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Critical Response

For this writer — reading An American Tragedy for the first time (it was my introduction to Dreiser) — it was a gut-wrenching experience to read Roberta’s letter, to realize how oblivious Clyde is to her claims to superiority over Sondra in practically every respect (excluding wealth and social status).

These two letters — superimposed one upon the other, as it were — have, of course, the opposite effect on Clyde:

[I]t was the contrast presented by these two scenes which finally determined for him the fact that he would never marry Roberta … or let her come back to him here, if he could avoid that.

Almost immediately afterward, Clyde sees the newspaper headline “Double Tragedy At Pass Lake” and the plot to murder Roberta begins to take shape in his mind.

Dreiser is able in this novel, his masterpiece, both to identify with Clyde’s twisted point of view and to see its limitations, which is to say that he wants to make plausible the kind of feelings that could cause Clyde to want to forsake Roberta for Sondra (similar to yearnings for wealth and status that Dreiser himself had) and, at the same time, intends for the reader to see the sadness, the pathos in all of this: the ironic contrast between the outlook of the totally vapid, self-centered flapper Sondra and the farm girl now factory worker Roberta, who, while less sophisticated, socially speaking, is clearly Sondra’s moral superior (and, actually, though Clyde doesn’t realize it, the better woman for him).

Roberta is wholesome, honest, and sincere; she really loves Clyde. She is considerate of Clyde’s feelings and those of others. She has a wholesome family life. This is precisely what Clyde needs, not the imagined glories of Sondra’s world.

Sondra comes across as narcissistic and shallow, and as so self-centered it is almost beyond belief. Yet somehow Dreiser makes Clyde’s incomprehension plausible — his adoration of Sondra and detestation of Roberta. And this makes Clyde’s crime believable and understandable in terms of his and its perverse logic.

 

 

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The Analysis of James L. McDonald

I was surprised to read James L. McDonald’s article “Dreiser’s Artistry: Two Letters from An American Tragedy” in a past issue of the Dreiser Newsletter (7 [1976]:2–6), in which he expresses an entirely opposite point of view.

Professor McDonald states:

 [T]he letters … show Dreiser’s finely wrought presentation and dramatization of the characters of Roberta and Sondra. Further, they reveal his subtle use of irony to reverse the readers’ [sic] previous judgments of the two women and to indicate the dimensions of the worlds they inhabit, thus deepening our awareness of Clyde’s callowness and naiveté and complicating the whole problem of his guilt.

What does McDonald mean by “subtle use of irony” and “reverse the readers’ previous judgments of the two women”? He goes on to explain:

A hasty reading of the letters seems to confirm what readers have been led to believe about Sondra and Roberta. On the surface, Dreiser has been manipulating two stock characters: the beautiful but hollow and demanding rich girl … and the rather plain but loving and fertile girl-next-door. … Thus one can note an apparent contrast between the superficiality and frivolity of Sondra and the love and devotion of Roberta. Sondra, the wealthy golden girl of Clyde’s dreams, writes–in a language characterized by babytalk and imperious commands–of her carefree, trivial activities…. in the world of wealth Clyde yearns to enter. Roberta, the poor battered girl who has become a handicap to Clyde’s ambitions. writes simply and naturally about her loneliness, the discomforts of her pregnancy, and the virtues of the lower-class domestic world which he is trying to escape.

The sympathies of Dreiser’s readers–formed in a respectable middle-class environment which views the pleasure-loving rich as decadent and immoral and sees the ordinary, average citizen as the salt of the earth–incline toward Roberta. So these readers are prone to interpret Clyde’s preference for Sondra as a sign of his vanity, conceit, and ultimate folly. This view of Clyde is not incorrect. Yet Dreiser is also working to reverse these sympathies; and this irony makes possible a deeper understanding of the characters and the moral problems in the novel.

Can this be true? Can this really be what Dreiser had in mind?

Dreiser may have had such intentions, but if he did, I for one would never have suspected, on a first reading, that this was the case.

McDonald’s analysis continues:

Dreiser juxtaposes two worlds. Sondra’s letters come from and dramatize the world of wealth. … It is an active, competitive society where golfing, boating, horseback-riding, swimming, and dancing are the privileges of charming, polished, carefree young people–a social climate which she thoroughly enjoys and wants to share with Clyde. Roberta’s letters come from and present the world of the lower-class, “Blitz” [sic] and “Homer,” ‘where her sister and brother-in-law have “such a cute little home” with “pretty furniture, a victrola and all . . .”: a passive, drearily domestic existence whose pleasures are dim and routine (playing cards and games) — a life which she does not enjoy, which makes her bored and lonely, but which she wishes to drag Clyde into.

Dreiser makes these worlds explicit in the styles of the writers: through contrasting diction, rhythm, emphasis, and tone, he specifies the essential qualities which mark the gap between Sondra and Roberta, and the worlds they represent. One is struck by the stylishness and dynamism of Sondra” from the speed and intensity of the opening lines. As her diction and rhythms indicate, Sondra is more than just a social butterfly. … The sharp, arresting address, the playful banter which follows, and the abrupt, frank, natural summation of the situation reveal Sondra as a singularly dashing and vibrant young lady.

“There is nothing striking about the beginning of Roberta’s letter,” McDonald goes on to say. “It is utterly drab and lifeless. … Roberta may be fertile, but her diction and rhythm are remarkably dingy, plodding, and labored.”

McDonald proceeds to make the following points about Sondra’s correspondence vis-à-vis Roberta’s:

Roberta’s letter drags on, detailing her miseries, with a characteristic stress on “I,” a word she uses 71 times in all.

Throughout Sondra’s letter, one is aware of her serene self-assurance, typified by her personification of herself as “Sonda” and her use of babytalk. … The babytalk reflects a surface immaturity. But it also shows her social position; the babytalk about the [horseback riding] accident directs Clyde’s attention away from a possibly battered and disheveled Sondra to a desirable, commanding “Sonda” who, provocatively, “has to dress now,” and can promise “Kisses. Big and little ones. All for baddie boy.”

Roberta …. has no such self-awareness, much less self-assurance. … Trapped within her own wounded ego and unable to cope with her physical predicament, she cannot see the image she presents to Clyde. Though “nearly ready for bed,” she is anything but enticing.

She cannot present herself as anything more than a self- centered, self-pitying, whining problem-child.

In the abstract, and given the readers’ predispositions, it would be easy and natural to sympathize with Roberta, her condition and the world she represents. But, juxtaposed to Sondra, Roberta comes off very badly. Her dullness, egotism, self-pity, her inability to cope with her situation (“Oh, dear, don’t mind this blot. I just don’t seem able to control myself these days like I once could.”) are the results of serious weaknesses of character and the moral, as well as material, poverty of the class she comes from. Her condition is not advanced enough to be noticed; but Roberta has degenerated into a pregnant lump. In Sondra’s letter, a calculated artificiality is evident, in keeping with her self-styled role as fashionable darling among the wealthy elite. But before she can begin to behave and write so successfully, before she can offer such an image, Sondra has to know herself and her capabilities very well and has to appreciate the motives and predispositions of others. The fact is that she does not lack substance. And the world that she comes from–with its allure, power, and almost unlimited opportunities–has helped provide that substance and has a richness and depth that Dreiser recognizes and communicates to the reader.

The point about Roberta’s essence — she is referred to by McDonald as “a pregnant lump” — is a crucial one. If Dreiser intended us to see her this way (Clyde, admittedly, does), it is regrettable. (Yet, in the film A Place in the Sun, Alice Tripp, the Roberta character, is portrayed this way by Shelley Winters.)

I think that Professor McDonald gets it entirely wrong, backwards. I can’t believe that Dreiser intends us to view Sondra as Roberta’s superior — morally speaking, that is, as a person.

But there is indeed ambiguity in the novel — there was undoubtedly ambiguity in Dreiser’s (and Clyde’s) mind. The reader experiences this.

 

 

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Another Point of View

 

A thesis by Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy” (Columbia University, 1953), provides the best analysis that I am aware of. It clears up some of the confusion that the novel seems to create. The “confusion,” so to speak, seems to be inherent. Dreiser himself experienced it, he makes us experience it, he makes his principal characters experience it.

The following is the analysis of Kranidas:

One of the keys to Dreiser’s social thinking and to the feelings directing his writing, is his conception of the High-class Woman. The phrase is, I think, appropriate; it implies a vulgar conception of a woman with certain qualities that set her above other women, a woman who is desirable to men as a class distinction, a woman of good family, good education, money (generally) and of a certain kind of rarefied prettiness. Rarefied is perhaps the best word for her; she is fragile and needs special care by nature, yet she is independent and selfish. …

Dreiser’s ideal woman is … a figure to be set among and complimented with the conventional symbols of luxury — jewels, fountains, silks, satins. …

… in An American Tragedy, the low-class women are called Hortense Briggs, Doris Trine, and Lura Sipe. The names of Dreiser’s upper-class women point to the shallowness and naiveté of his conception. … The names are if not downright fanciful, hyphenated, exotic, at least cool and distinctive. The climax of “distinctive” names comes in An American Tragedy. Sondra is like a childish drawling of the exotic name Sandra; and children drawl when they talk like rich people. Sondra’s friends are called Bertine Cranstan, Arabella Stark, Bella Griffiths and Constance Wynant. And these names are not used as part of a Dickensian caricature but as part of what Dreiser considered “class.”

The upper-class women of Dreiser’s novels are not sexy, they have even a slight touch of frigidity like the photos of Vogue models. Aloof rather than interested, they put a social rather than sexual gauge on their young men. These women are not portrayed deeply enough to give us any feeling of real superiority. There is no real delicacy or insight that reflects careful training. There is rather a shallow stereotype of a pretty, vain, well-dressed young woman. Dreiser never once did justice to a young woman of the upper classes. … the rude love of Roberta Alden is convincing while the baby talk of Sondra Finchley is not.

Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the “great world.” … And all this time Dreiser knew and felt and wrote that class was unimportant, that wealth was an evil thing, that the rich were not so very much after all. Through his work rages his own private battle between hate and resentment of the upper class and abject admiration and envy, and an attempt to identify with them. Wherever Dreiser’s class consciousness touches his writing, the effect is false. Wherever he attempts to identify through knowingness or annihilate with scorn, he is unrealistic.

Whenever he sees his character as apart from his social yearnings, as united to him, not in education and money, but in love, hate, hunger, fear, he is realistic. So Roberta is true and Sondra is not.  (Thomas Kranidas, “The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” pp. 35-40)

This brilliant thesis was for years unavailable and has been overlooked.  The thesis is posted here at

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/thomas-kranidas-the-materials-of-theodore-dreisers-an-american-tragedy/

 

 

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Conclusion

In the final analysis, one can say with confidence that:

Dreiser did not intend Roberta Alden to be less admirable or desirable than Sondra Finchley. Clyde is wrong to feel that way.

Roberta writes beautifully, showing her inner beauty. Sondra’s prose is insipid, as befits her personality.

Roger W. Smith, ‘Two Letters from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (SAN)

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017

 

 

 

Continue reading Roger W. Smith,“Two Letters from ‘An American Tragedy’”