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Hard Times

Dreiser

by W.A. Swanberg
Scribner’s, 576 pp., $10.00

Fate gave Dreiser a great subject which we now call juvenile delinquency. A less efficient propagandist than is generally realized, Dreiser called the problem a Tragedy, and merely an American tragedy—for, under the bluster, he was a modest artist. His sexually delinquent girls and criminally delinquent boys are his heroes and heroines, the central self, the “I” of his novels. They are also the repository of social concern, a scandal to the respectable, a responsibility to the teacher, an enemy to the policeman, a trial to the judge; the “they” of fiction as well as of sociology. Finally, they are the children of their parents and the sisters and brothers of their brothers and sisters, the you-we of the human family.

To the genius of the writer we can of course pay tribute for this extraordinary complexity of viewpoint, but we must also give thanks to whatever divinity presides over the destiny of novelists. None has been more richly endowed than Dreiser with the hereditary and environmental materials of fiction. The first twenty-five years of his life were hell to live through, and guaranteed him a lonely bitterness through most of his maturity, deepening to something very like madness in his lengthy old age. But they were marvelously designed to produce just the sort of novels that Dreiser, and no one else, produced.

He was born in 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, into as good-for-nothing a family as there was in middlewestern America. His sickly and cranky father was almost unemployable and worse than poor, for he had been just skilled and conscientious enough as a young man to rise to the point where he could contract sizeable debts. Still worse, from a social point of view, he was an immigrant, always more at home in German than in English, and a Catholic. Dreiser’s mother was in her way worse than an immigrant, for, born into a Mennonite farming family, she was brought up illiterate. Theodore, not the youngest, was the twelfth child, Crammed into a shanty near the railroad tracks, the young Dreisers made themselves useful by stealing coal from the railroad, carrying the washing to their mother’s clients, hanging around the principal downtown hotel and, eventually, working as maids, factory girls, peanut vendors, kept women, and medicine-show minstrels. Barely reared or trained, intermittently educated in the worst kind of benighted parochial schools (Dreiser himself probably had about seven years of school in all, including an improbably year of college), most of them started out in life by running away from home.

Dreiser went off suddenly to Chicago, when he was fifteen. During the following ten years he held about a dozen different jobs in half-a-dozen different cities. Though he moved from dishwasher to feature reporter in that period, thus from lower class to middle, his way was nothing like an earnest, steady progression upwards, but rather a series of vague blunderings, false starts, setbacks, failures, and dismissals (once, for stealing money). Thus he learned at first hand what it was to live through the central problem of his fiction, and our society: how a youngster without mental or moral training, without personal, social, or even national identity, is to make his way through the labyrinth of modern city life without doing a great deal of harm to his society, to say nothing of himself. Carrie “pounding the pavements” of downtown Chicago, Clyde buzzing around the red-light district, Hurstwood feeling the pull of his employer’s money are Dreiser himself.

His sisters and brothers ran into more serious difficulties: jail, illegitimate births, scandalous liaisons, drunken vagabondage. Esta Griffiths going through a clandestine accouchement, Clyde running out of town and trouble, Jennie Gerhardt using her lover’s influence to get her brother out of jail, Carrie changing names with an embezzler, are all in fact Dreiser’s brothers and sisters. Dreiser long remembered (we know from his autobiography) the agony of his mother, the wrath of his father, and the shame in himself from all these scandals: the adventures of his sister Emma (the “Carrie” sister) even made the Chicago papers. And these family emotions, perhaps more than his over-advertised pity and understanding, underscore the squirmingly uncomfortable “realism” of Dreiser’s American tragedies.

If Dreiser’s fiction was to an unusual degree autobiographical, his autobiographies were similarly novelistic. He finished two, A Book About Myself (more properly, Newspaper Days), the first to appear, covering his career as a young reporter in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and New York, between 1890 and 1895; the second, Dawn, setting out his childhood and adolescence with a good deal of material about the extraordinary Dreiser clan. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the low state of Dreiser’s literary reputation after his death, the capital labor of continuing and correcting his reminiscences, of relating his life to his almost half-century-long career in letters, was carried out in an unusually capable fashion. The first scholarly study, and still the basis of all Dreiser scholarship, was done as early as 1948 by Robert Elias, the last to benefit by interviews and correspondence with Dreiser himself, and the first to trace Dreiser’s literary and intellectual development through the fabulously rich collection of papers, now at the University of Pennsylvania, that Dreiser left behind him. From these Professor Elias more recently put together an invaluable but necessarily very partial selection (filling a mere three volumes) of Dreiser letters. The best extended critical analysis of Dreiser’s fiction was the last, unfinished work of the late F. O. Matthiessen, written in the form of a literary biography of the American Men of Letters series. By 1955 enough shorter studies had been written by such distinguished figures as Sherwood Anderson, Randolph Bourne, John Chamberlain, Lionel Trilling, H. L. Mencken, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin (and many others) to make up a volume called The Stature of Theodore Dreiser, which has just been reprinted in paper by the Indiana University Press.

Dreiser has also been fortunate in his first popular biographer, W. A. Swanberg, whose detailed and scrupulously documented Dreiser carries a straightforward message: here was a giant of a man, well worth knowing, but undoubtedly less painful to know in print than in the flesh. Mr. Swanberg has not written a life-and-times biography, but his own background in the world of turn-of-the-century journalism (Hearst was his last biographical subject) provides the best possible historical viewpoint for a life of Dreiser, and will go far to place him in his own time, rather than among the succeeding generations of the Twenties and Thirties, who have too long disputed their claims to revere or revile him. Nor has Mr. Swanberg written a novelist’s literary life, that often wearisome genre, with its dutiful summaries of plot and character and neat packets of themes and symbols tossed in to give the whole a savor of textbook serviceability. But by concentrating on biographical data, Mr. Swanberg has done much to elucidate the art of the man who wrote Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. It was worth doing.

Mr. Swanberg tells us, for example, some fascinating things about those living creatures of Dreiser’s imagination, the sisters, brothers, friends, employers, and mistresses who seem to have existed solely for the needs of Dreiser’s literary production. We learn that Thelma Cudlipp, whose youthful fascination ended Dreiser’s career as an editor, but also embellished the portrait of Cowperwood’s mistress in The Titan, married extremely well, and years later took up a decorous friendship with Dreiser after her mother had committed suicide. (Dreiser had portrayed Mrs. Cudlipp, who had broken up the affair, as a high-class madam.) The Sylvia Dreiser, whose illegitimate baby Dreiser as a boy was sometimes asked to care for (he used the child in Jennie Gerhardt and An American Tragedy), did not settle down to the noble domesticity of Jennie, but, exhibiting the artistic flair of all the Dreisers, dabbled in songwriting and married a Japanese photographer. One of the most amusing new episodes in the biography is the reception by Dreiser’s relations of Dawn, when it was finally published in 1931. Emma and Sylvia Dreiser, whose sins and flounderings had been embalmed in Dawn with that novelistic finality that Dreiser imparted to autobiographical writings, were very much alive in New York, and furious at being described as virtual prostitutes. Mame Dreiser, whose sexual adventures (including another illegitimate child) had also served her brother’s purposes, had long since married respectably and was living, now widowed, at Iroki, the Westchester home Dreiser had built during his one period of prosperity. She screamed threats and insults at him from a window, and claimed, perhaps with justice, that he had made up “all these fantastic stories.” Perhaps most put out was Rome (for Marcus Romanus), the blackest sheep of the family, whose early adventures—or rather young Theodore’s highly emotional imaginings of those adventures—went into the making of Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy. Rome had literally passed away in the pages of Dawn, dying a suitably alcoholic death in a Chicago hotel. Only Rome happened to be very much alive, living, in fact, with Mame and Dreiser at Iroki.

The relationship between recollection and creation lies at the heart of Dreiser’s realism. He wrote of nothing that was fresh in his mind. He began with a situation that went back ten or twenty years in his own past (or that of the newspaper files), and would ordinarily take ten to twenty years of brooding rumination before he was ready to begin to write in earnest. Those who watched him compose were struck by the astonishingly automatic quality of the operation, as page after page was covered with what certainly appeared to be a simple transcription of remembered experience. “His method of work was not unlike that of a man in a dream,” Mencken commented. “He would sit down to his desk…and bang away with pen and ink for four or five hours. The stuff poured out of him almost automatically; it was, as I have said, mainly reminiscence.” And Mencken, to whom all things, including literary creation, were simple, gave as an example the character of Asa Griffiths, Clyde’s disastrously ineffectual father, whose religious mission to the poor provides the hauntingly distressing framework for the opening Kansas City section of An American Tragedy. The character was a mere transcription, according to Mencken, of Dreiser’s convenient remembrance of a man he had actually known in Kansas City in the early 1890s. Dreiser had told Mencken so himself, around 1910, when describing the plot of what would be, oddly enough, a very different novel, The Bulwark.

The story of the creation of this one character, Asa Griffiths, winds through the half-century of Dreiser’s writing life, and involves turnings and twistings through Dreiser’s memories that might have puzzled even the imperturbable Mencken. Asa draws on something from Dreiser’s father and from Dreiser himself; something from a real estate man he worked for in Chicago in the 1890s, and the landlord in whose Glendale, California house he lived in the 1920s, while beginning the Tragedy; something from the reminiscences of a young Wellesley graduate, who in 1912 urged Dreiser to write a novel about her Quaker father, and something from his wife’s father; something from an eccentric he knew in Connecticut in 1900, and something from Tolstoy; something from the records of the 1907 trial of Chester Gillette, from which, according to hostile critics of the 1920s, Dreiser copied with unimaginative stolidity all the meat of An American Tragedy. As for the wonderfully “remembered” Kansas City setting of Asa Griffiths and the first part of the Tragedy, Dreiser, pace H. L. Mencken, had never been there.

The tenacity with which Dreiser held on to archetypal ideas for his fiction, and the oddly circuitous manner in which he wrote his major novels make it difficult for us to place his work or his thought. He drew his plots directly from personal experience or from newspaper files, yet all reality seems to have been transformed and heightened by his dreaming mind well before he turned it into fiction. He was a naturalist by formation and by program, yet his best characters are disembodied spiritual essences, his geographical and historical reconstructions curiously vague. It would be a bold reader who could say exactly when An American Tragedy is supposed to take place, and of its Kansas City Dreiser might have written as he did of Chicago in Dawn: “the city of which I am now about to write never was on land or sea.” He rebelled against his Catholic upbringing, argued offensively against religion, and championed a mechanistic materialism. Yet the Asa Griffiths characters—primitive Christians, Samaritans, and missionaries to the poor—are an obsessive feature of his fiction, and a work like the Tragedy, which even Dreiser said was designed to demonstrate man’s freedom from responsibility for sin, reads like a moral tract.

Dreiser was a militantly outspoken leftist, his political views moving relentlessly in the direction of a subservient Stalinism, and in fact he joined the Communist Party just before his death. But many of those same views were enunciated by Dreiser well before his death. (Mr. Swanberg learned from Earl Browder that Dreiser’s first application for Party membership, early in the 1930s, had been turned down on the perceptive grounds that his policies owed less to orthodox Marxism than to “a jumble of outworn political concepts dating back to populism.”) At his death in 1945 Dreiser left not only a Party card but a gently elegiac novel about a devout Quaker, which was received with relief or distaste as a sign of something like a deathbed conversion. But The Bulwark had been planned over thirty years before, and had indeed advanced far enough in the writing to be announced for publication in 1916.

Mr. Swanberg has had the good grace to tidy up the record as little as possible. He has produced a mass of new material from the Dreiser papers and from the recollections of Dreiser’s contemporaries (substantiated, in large part, by diaries or letters). And he has left it all where it falls, not seeking to organize it into a political or moral sermon, or even a literary analysis. The method works exceptionally well in the first and last sections of his biography, less well in the middle years, when the exciting story is Dreiser’s subterranean method of book planning and writing, not the parties Dreiser’s subterranean method of book planning and writing, not the parties Dreiser attended, his quarrels with publishers, or his fights with censors. Mr. Swanberg has made too little biographical use of Dreiser’s fiction, almost none of the revealing manuscripts of his novels, and his few serious errors derive from a hasty misreading of Dreiser’s published works. A Gallery of Women, for example, is not by any stretch of the imagination a collection of “15 of his kiss-and-tell stories”; but it is a mine of biographical information which might have brightened up some of the duller sections of the book.

The reader should not, however, give up before Mr. Swanberg’s final chapters are told. Dreiser’s fifties, sixties, and seventies might have made the most tedious section of the biography. The great books had all been written, and the well-known political and sexual scandals could be repetitious and embarrassing. Biographers too often bore us with their warped pleasure in picking over the bones of a decaying writer. In this case, however, thanks to the care and forbearance of Mr. Swanberg, the merely sordid soon passes over into the astonishingly grotesque.

In the sexual adventures of his last years, Dreiser appears to have been, like the Wilcher in Joyce Cary’s To Be a Pilgrim, what might be called a dirty old man. He greedily sought after every young pretty and talented girl be met and then could not resist putting his hands on her, even in public, or in the most embarrassing of circumstances, to a point which terrified not only his friends and his mistress of years, but the man himself. In his political adventures, Dreiser acted out the part of the aging religious megalomaniac. It would be an understatement to say that he hewed faithfully to the Party line, for, as the years passed, Dreiser stepped over the line to the other side of madness. Russia was the holy land of which as a young man he had read in the pages of Dostoevsky, one of his favorite authors, and Stalin was the White Christ. Germany was, in the 1940s, the same nation he had championed against England in the 1910s. When his own books were banned by the Hitler regime, it was just because, Dreiser thought, the Germans took him for a Jew. Finishing off The Bulwark, his study of a Quaker banker, he applied for membership in the Communist Party with a letter explaining that he had always tried to clothe his faith in the workers “in words and symbols.” The letter, Mr. Swanberg interestingly proves, was not written by Dreiser.

To the bitter, pathetic, and ridiculous end, he was bigger than a crazy old man: he was Dreiser. And he behaved that way. Bypassing friends, parties, and governments, he would communicate directly with Stalin when something was on his mind. After Yalta, for example, he cabled his concern about “MOST UNFORTUNATE MISUNDERSTANDING. OUR TWO GREAT NATIONS SHOULD GROW IN FRIENDSHIP. PLEASE DEAL WITH OUR AMERICANS GENTLY. JUST NOW IT IS SO IMPORTANT.” The finale to this absurdity was, however, eminently practical—and Dreiserian. To a further communication, again addressed directly to Stalin, about royalties owed him for the large sales of his books in Russia, Dreiser received an immediate answer in the form of $34,600 deposited to his California bank account. The sum carried Dreiser through his last few years, with enough left over to pay for an expensive interment at Forest Lawn. There, of all appallingly suitable places, lies the naive, vulgar, stupid, crude, and exasperating man who was also author of two miracles of the creative imagination, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.

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