Tag Archives: Thomas P. Riggio

more on Dreiser’s style

 

I often find myself bashing Dreiser as a stylist. This post is a sort of addendum or coda to my recent post: “Some Thoughts About Dreiser; What a Close Acquaintance With His Life and Works Reveals.”

Here is an excerpt from Dreiser’s sketch ”Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher,” from his Twelve Men:

Sometimes a single life will clearly and effectively illustrate a period. Hence, to me, the importance of this one.

I first met X____ at a time when American financial methods and American finances were at their apex of daring and splendor, and when the world was in a more or less tolerant mood toward their grandiose manners and achievements. It was the golden day of Mr. Morgan, Senior, Mr. Belmont, Mr. Harriman, Mr. Sage, Mr. Gates, Mr. Brady, and many, many others who were still extant and ruling distinctly and drastically, as was proved by the panic of 1907. In opposition to them and yet imitating their methods, now an old story to those who have read Frenzied Finance, Lawless Wealth, and other such exposures of the methods which produced our enormous American fortunes, were such younger men as Charles W. Morse (the victim of the 1907 panic), F. Augustus Heinze (another if less conspicuous victim of the same “panic”), E. R. Thomas, an ambitious young millionaire, himself born to money, David A. Sullivan, and X____. I refuse to mention his name because he is still alive although no longer conspicuous, and conscious perhaps to avoid the uncomfortable glare of publicity when all the honors and comforts which made it endurable in the first place are absent.

The person who made X____ essentially interesting to me long before I met him was one Lucien de Shay, a ne’er-do-well pianist and voice culturist, who was also a connoisseur in the matters of rugs, hangings, paintings and furniture, things in which X____ was just then most intensely interested, erecting, as he was, a great house on Long Island* and but newly blossoming into the world of art or fashion or culture or show—those various things which the American multi-millionaire always wants to blossom or bloom into and which he does not always succeed in doing. De Shay was one of those odd natures so common to the metropolis-half artist and half man of fashion who attach themselves so readily to men of strength and wealth, often as advisors and counselors in all matters of taste, social form and social progress. How this particular person was rewarded I never quite knew, whether in cash or something else. He was also a semi-confidant of mine, furnishing me “tips” and material of one sort and another in connection with the various publications I was then managing. As it turned out later, X____ was not exactly a multi-millionaire as yet, merely a fledgling, although the possibilities were there and his aims and ambitions were fast nearing a practical tri­umph the end of which of course was to be, as in the case of nearly all American multi-millionaires of the newer and quicker order, bohemian or exotic and fleshly rather than cultural or æsthetic pleasure, although the latter were never really exactly ignored.

But even so. He was a typical multi-millionaire in the showy and even gaudy sense of the time. For if the staid and conservative and socially well-placed rich have the great houses and the ease and the luxury of paraphernalia, the bohemian rich of the X____ type have the flare, recklessness and imagination which lend to their spendings and flutterings a sparkle and a shine which the others can never hope to match.

Said this friend of mine to me one day: “Listen, I want you to meet this man X____. You will like him. He is fine. You haven’t any idea what a fascinating person he really is. He looks like a Russian Grand Duke. He has the manners and the tastes of a Medici or a Borgia. He is building a great house down on Long Island that once it is done will have cost him five or six hundred thousand. It’s worth seeing already. His studio here in the C____ studio building is a dream. It’s thick with the loveliest kinds of things. I’ve helped buy them myself. And he isn’t dull. He wrote a book at twenty, Icarus, which is not bad either and which he says is some­thing like himself. He has read your book (Sister Carrie) and he sympathizes with that man Hurstwood. Says parts of it remind him of his own struggles. That’s why he wants to meet you. He once worked on the newspapers too. God knows how he is making his money, but I know how he is spending it. He’s decided to live, and he’s doing it splendidly. It’s wonderful.”

I took notice, although I had never even heard of the man. There were so very, very many rich men in America. Later I heard much more concerning him from this same de Shay. Once he had been so far down in the scale that he had to shine shoes for a living. Once he had walked the streets of New York in the snow, his shoes cracked and broken, no over­coat, not even a warm suit. He had come here a penniless. emigrant from Russia. Now he controlled four banks, one trust company, an insurance company, a fire insurance com­pany, a great real estate venture somewhere, and what not. Naturally all of this interested me greatly. When are we indifferent to a rise from nothing to something?

At de Shay’s invitation I journeyed up to X____’s studio one Wednesday afternoon at four, my friend having telephoned me that if I could I must come at once, that there was an especially interesting crowd already assembled in the rooms, that I would meet a long list of celebrities. Two or three opera singers of repute were already there, among them an Italian singer and sorceress of great beauty, a veritable queen of the genus adventuress, who was setting the town by the ears not only by her loveliness but her voice. Her beauty was so remarkable that the Sunday papers were giving full pages to her face and torso alone. There were to be several light opera and stage beauties there also, a basso profundo to sing, writers, artists, poets.

I went. The place and the crowd literally enthralled me. It was so gay, colorful, thrillful.

Note the use of thrillful. Not the ordinary way to say it, but the word works here; gets the reader’s attention, so to speak. Dreiser can get away with such things.

 

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According to Thomas P. Riggio:

Twelve Men has long been recognized as Theodore Dreiser’s finest work apart from his novels. …

These twelve biographical portraits belong to a distinct species of writing in Dreiser’s oeuvre, a form born of his reluctance to make sharp distinctions between the art of the chronicler and that of the novelist. These essays, which he called “narratives,” combine the character sketch and autobiography within the framework of the short story. Written in the clear, unobtrusive manner of the reporter, they show Dreiser’s command of dialogue and his novelist’s eye for the details of scene and setting. The structure of each narrative—the presentation of selected fragments of a life with the counterpoint of Dreiser’s presence and reaction to the personality—gives the collection a dual direction: outward to objective portraiture of character and place and inward to a portrait of Dreiser himself. … The stories are among the best examples of the imaginative possibilities of autobiographical literature as Dreiser practiced it.

— Thomas P. Riggio, Preface, Theodore Dreiser, Twelve Men ,  edited by Robert Coltrane, Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992

Very true. The writing here is powerful and focused. It could be said that much of Dreiser’s strengths as a writer came from his experience in journalism and his eye for the telling detail. This does not say it all, but I think it accounts for a lot.

*Robin’s Long Island home was known as Driftwood and was in the town of Riverhead.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2021

could Dreiser ever truly love anyone?

 

The answer is NO.

 

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

Dreiser (who was not a good husband and never became a parent) was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did. (See 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.

As Sullivan wrote: “When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as is one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. … under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the word.” ( Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry: The First William Alanson White Memorial Lectures. New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. pp. 42-43)

Dreiser NEVER attained this.

 

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

The issue I thought we were discussing was Dreiser’s relationship with women. As to his ability to love another person, that’s another matter — one too complicated, for me at least, to make any judgments about.

It’s tough enough dealing with that topic in regard to people we know well in our own lives, never mind someone long dead whom we’ve never met. And then there are so many different criteria that people use to determine what it means to love. For instance, you mention only two, not being a husband and not having children, but that could be applied to Christ as well! Philandering husbands might still love their wives: Bill Clinton seems to “love” Hillary, for instance. As I said, it’s too complex for my simple mind to understand, so you may well be correct.

 

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The issue is not too complex! Biographers and psychobiographers make such judgments all the time.

Dreiser scholars don’t want to go to deeply into his psyche because of what they might find.

The Dreiser archives are massive. He saved practically every letter, telegram, and scrap of paper that ever came into his hands. His love affairs and romantic entanglements have been well documented.

There is much, also, in Dreiser’s own autobiographical writings that reveals how he habitually dealt with other people, his family, relatives, and his spouses. What is notable is that he was constantly worried that someone would be unfaithful to him — or, in the case of non-intimate acquaintances, such as people he had business dealings with — that someone would cheat him. He had many acquaintances, but hardly any in the category of what you would call a best friend. He just plain could not trust or give himself to anyone. In the case of intimate relationships with women, he demanded that they pledge and observe absolute fidelity to him, but would not pledge it to them. See my essay

“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain”

on this site at

https://dreiseronlinecom.wordpress.com/?s=pergain

for just one example — a very telling one –of how this played out in real life.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  September 2017

“An American Revival” (Thomas P. Riggio on Dreiser)

 

Posted here is the text of a New York Times article: “An American Revival” by Alan Bisbort, The New York Times, January 4, 2004.

The article seems to have attracted little notice and probably not much readership, since it appeared in a regional Sunday supplement. It is highly interesting and informative. It is based upon an interview with Professor Thomas P. Riggio, an eminent Dreiserian, and delves into attempts to reappraise Dreiser and his works, to reinvigorate Dreiser scholarship, and to publish authoritative editions of his works.

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2017

 

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An American Revival

by Alan Bisbort

The New York Times

January 4, 2004

 

YOU can’t keep a good writer down. Just look at Samuel Johnson or Herman Melville, both of whom fell into obscurity and neglect after their deaths before being resuscitated by latter-day scholars and readers.

Or just ask Thomas P. Riggio, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut in Storrs since 1972. He will gladly talk a blue streak about Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), the novelist whose “An American Tragedy” (1925) placed him on the Mount Rushmore of American letters only to be evicted soon after he died.

Since 1986, when Dr. Riggio took over a project called the Dreiser Edition, he has been administering the academic equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver to Dreiser’s reputation. The Dreiser Edition, published by the University of Illinois Press and co-sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the University of Pennsylvania, has produced 16 scholarly editions of the writer’s work, and Dr. Riggio has plans to bring the total to 40. Two new editions will be published in 2004, with two more in 2005.

“This project is opening up an entire new canon,” Dr. Riggio said. “With Dreiser, the amount of unpublished and improperly published material is nearly staggering, especially from a writer who at one time dominated the American literary scene. Because he was so censored, his books very often didn’t appear in their original form during his lifetime. There is so much that nobody has ever seen.”

Dr. Riggio cites the case of “A Traveler at Forty,” one of the Dreiser Editions he is spiriting into print next fall. “That book was, literally, cut in half by the publisher when it appeared in 1913,” he said. “Can you imagine this happening to any other major writer?”

Dr. Riggio’s efforts are riding a Dreiserian wave. Earlier this year, the Library of America published a 972-page “An American Tragedy” with notes by Dr. Riggio, and the Greenwood Press in Westport published “The Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia,” an authoritative — and expensive ($99) — reference guide. Future attention will also keep the author — called the “greatest living writer in America” by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1918 — on the front burner. The Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an opera based on “An American Tragedy” that is scheduled for the 2005-06 season. A documentary film, “At the Gates of the Walled City: The Life and Work of Theodore Dreiser,” is in the works.

None of this comes as a surprise to Richard Lingeman, whose two-volume biography of Dreiser coincided with Dr. Riggio’s singular mission.

“Great literature endures,” said Mr. Lingeman, who has been on the Dreiser Edition advisory board since 1980. “Reputations go up and down, and I don’t pretend to understand how that happens. Dreiser endures because he wasn’t sheltered from life. He fought obstacles and that gave him a thick skin and an ability to continue on despite the barrage of criticism. He was one of those unusual writers of great talents who had a sense of mission to tell the truth.”

Born in Terre Haute, Ind., a poor German immigrant family, Dreiser began writing for newspapers in 1892 in Chicago, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in 1894 and worked as an editor and writer for magazines.

His first novel, “Sister Carrie,” was published in 1900 and hit like a Hoosier tornado. Nothing quite like it for warts-and-all depiction of life had been published in America. Even as it made a name for the author, the book ran afoul of arbiters of morals. Copies were taken off shelves; some were burned.

Similar reactions greeted his subsequent novels, sprawling sagas of broken dreams and raw deals, such as “Jenny Gerhardt” (1911), “The Financier” (1912), “The Titan” (1914) and “The ‘Genius”’ (1915). His greatest champion through these tough years was H.L. Mencken. Though they were worlds apart in upbringing — and often battled over Dreiser’s leftist leanings — the pair forged a bond. Of Dreiser, Mr. Mencken said, “American writing, before and after his time, differed almost as much as biology before and after Darwin.”

Dr. Riggio, who has also edited two volumes of Dreiser-Mencken letters, said: “He was the first major American writer to grow up in a non-English-speaking home. He grew up with three strikes against him: poor, German and Catholic. He didn’t have the American impulse to give a happy ending, or a way out.”

Dr. Riggio, who is halfway through a 10-year effort to write his own Dreiser biography, is constantly amazed by his subject’s breadth.

“What is often forgotten is that he was fully engaged in his time,” he said. “He took up the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, the Harlan County coal miners, the Hollywood 10, Tom Mooney. He went to Spain to seek relief for the victims of the fascists. Dreiser wanted a sense of equity for all Americans and he understood what brought on the Great Depression.

“And he wasn’t wrong. But he paid the price for all that in the precipitous decline of his reputation after his death.”

Dr. Riggio is particularly proud of the Dreiser Edition he culled from the author’s correspondence with women, part of a huge cache of unpublished material at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Library. The depiction of Dreiser’s relations with women has, like his politics, been superseded by myth.

“I hate the word ‘womanizer,’ but it’s used to describe Dreiser,” Dr. Riggio said. “He was married twice. His first wife died and he was married to his second wife 25 years. And Dreiser’s most vivid characters are those of strong, empathetic women.”

Mr. Lingeman shares Dr. Riggio’s sense of Dreiser’s vastness. “Something about Dreiser keeps yielding more,” said Mr. Lingeman, executive editor of The Nation. “He was such a great documenter of facts and his books have a cumulative power. There’s so much to study and learn. I can understand how a scholar would spend 30 years on him.”

Mr. Riggio, 60, said his attachment to Dreiser was “partly accidental.” Before embarking on an academic career and after graduating from Fordham University, the Manhattan native pursued two careers, one as a member of Mayor John Lindsay’s staff, the other as a wholesaler.

“After working 18-hour days seven days a week for two years, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.”’

Dr. Riggio went to Harvard on a scholarship and earned a master’s and a doctorate there, moving on to teach literature in Storrs.

He said: “I always liked Dreiser but when I began looking at the material in the archive in Pennsylvania, just to be able to handle it, with its coffee stains, scribbled marginalia, to see the decisions of the writer. This was exciting stuff.”

Nonetheless, Dreiser’s “image problem” seems to have a life of its own.

“It’s hard to overcome this, but I hope with the Dreiser Edition and other upsurge in interest there’s a chance that we can at least get the facts straight,” Dr. Riggio said. “This is what brings a great writer back.”

 

Photo captions: Theodore Dreiser in a photograph taken in 1931. There is a new wave of interest in the writer’s works.; Thomas P. Riggio, who is working on a project called the Dreiser Edition, at his home office in Manchester.; A bamboo rocking chair that was once owned by Theodore Dreiser is now the property of Dr. Riggio, an English professor at UConn.